Couldn't be absolutely certain that I haven't read this one a few decades back, but either way, it made for a thoroughly enjoyable read. Certainly not politically correct by today's standards but since when has satirical humour worried about such niceties as political correctness. It was a bit like watching some old episodes of 'Till Death Us Do Part' or 'Rising Damp'. Some highly dubious satire but funny and poignant in places nevertheless. There is no doubting Selvon's astuteness when it comes not only to the racial tensions of the London of the 1970's but of the human condition in general. So while we might conclude that his comic portrayal of those dark days is a little dated, we might equally conclude that there is a wonderful universality about this tale. Thwarted ambitions, petty prejudices and immigrant dilemmas never really go out of vogue, they simply mutate and change their form a little. Substitute, say Somalians and Romanians for West Indians and South Asians, and one quickly realises that London has not changed that much at all. All the personal and political aspirations on display in 'Moses Ascending' are still being played out in millions of households across dozens of global cities. In fact, wherever migrants are seeking to better their material circumstances you will find a Moses Aloetta.


Many of the characters in 'Moses Ascending' remind me of my days as a shop steward in the hospital sector of the now defunct, National Union of Public Employees. Did I say Shop Steward? I am being a little modest. I should have said, Convenor of Stewards at not just one hospital but a group of West London Hospitals, all of which were not a million miles away from Sam Selvon's Shepherds Bush. During those dogged trade union days in the decade following the Winter of Discontent, I had the privilege of getting' close to many West Indian workers eking out an existence in the low paid jobs of the NHS. And rubbing alongside was the English white working class; sometimes militant, invariably bolshie and invariable racist. On top of that there was the Heinz 57 variety of very earnest left wing communist activists of which I must confess to being a part of. It was a potent and volatile mix. From a sociological point of view, I remember the porter's night shift as the most interesting. Here was an exclusively West Indian workforce whose one uniting feature was their unremitting hatred of the British Trade Union Movement. And as I was to learn over many difficult night-time discussions, they had very sound reasons for that hatred. In short, to them, the British Trade Unions were a bunch of unreconstructed racists who had more in common with Enoch Powell than the West Indian workers they were meant to be representing and defending.

There were many interesting ironies that emerged during those late night discussions. Perhaps the most telling was that despite their unremitting distrust and hatred of British Trade Unions, there was a coherent, even militant anti-imperialism that I quickly warmed to. It was a world view that was totally lacking from nearly all the white English workers that I had come in contact with over the years. So it wasn't a sense of justice and equality that was lacking in these workers from the Caribbean, quite the opposite. In many ways their sense of solidarity and class consciousness was far in advance of their English counterparts. But the racist slights and abuse they have received from both their fellow workers and the official trade union movement had led them to shun any dealings with British trade unions, no matter how compelling the issue at hand.

When I pleaded with the night porters to overcome their distrust and legitimate hatred of the trade union racists they defiantly replied; not only will we not come out on strike, but we will come in and work a double shift. Here was Moses Aloetta in action once again, this time on the porter's night shift of the Charing Cross Hospital on the Fulham Palace Road. Look after number one and to hell with the rest.

But it wasn't quite as simple as that. When I somewhat sarcastically asked one of the night porters what he planned to do with his dirty strike busting money he replied that it would go towards his son's university expenses. Yes, I finally understood. Here was that defiant immigrant mentality that you can find all over the world. Do what you have to do to survive and get ahead. The very same mentality that Sam Sevlon portrayed so perfectly in his Moses Ascending. While the white English working class seemed content to accept their lot while kicking those below them on the pecking order, immigrant workers were and still are determined to get ahead no matter what the obstacles before them and no matter what the contradictions that may arise along the way. Sam Selvon's Moses may be a little dated in some respects but that immigrant determination to survive is alive and well wherever you care to look.

End JPK Copyright 30/7/15

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Last Updated ( Monday, 21 May 2018 05:53 )