I could say that I was in London, but—new to Europe, just arrived from my African river town—I didn’t really know where I was. I had no means of grasping the city. I knew only that I was in the Gloucester Road. My hotel was there, my friend Nazruddin’s flat was there. I traveled everywhere by underground train, popping down into the earth at one place, popping up at another, not able to relate one place to the other, and sometimes making complicated interchanges to travel short distances.
The only street I knew well was the Gloucester Road. If I walked in one direction I came to more buildings and avenues and got lost. If I walked in the other direction I went past a lot of tourist eating places, a couple of Arab restaurants, and came to the park. There was a wide, sloping avenue in the park with boys skate-boarding. At the top of the slope there was a big pond with a paved rim. It looked artificial, but it was full of real birds, swans and different kinds of ducks; and that always struck me as strange, that the birds didn’t mind being there. Artificial birds, like the lovely celluloid things of my childhood, wouldn’t have been out of place. Far away, all around, beyond the trees, were the buildings. There you really did have an idea of the city as something made by man, and not as something that had just grown by itself and was simply there. It was so easy for people like us to think of great cities as natural growths. It reconciled us to our own shanty cities. We slipped into thinking that one place was one thing, and another place another thing.
In the park on fine afternoons people flew kites, and sometimes Arabs from the embassies played football below the trees. There were always a lot of Arabs about, fair-skinned people, real Arabs, not the half-African Arabs of our East African coast; one of the newsstands outside the Gloucester Road station was full of Arabic papers and magazines. Not all of the Arabs were rich or clean. Sometimes I saw little groups of poor Arabs in dingy clothes squatting on the grass in the park or on the pavements of the streets nearby. I thought they were servants, and that seemed to me shameful enough. But then one day I saw an Arab lady with her slave.
I spotted the fellow at once. He had his little white cap on and his plain white gown, proclaiming his status to everybody, and he was carrying two shopping bags of groceries from the Waitrose supermarket on the Gloucester Road. He was walking the regulation ten paces ahead of his mistress, who was fat in the way Arab women like to be, with blue markings on her pale face below her gauzy black veil. She was pleased with herself; you could see that being in London and doing this modern shopping with other housewives at the Waitrose supermarket had excited her. For a moment she thought I was an Arab and she gave me a look, through her gauzy veil, which was meant to get back a look of approval and admiration from me.
As for the fellow carrying the groceries, he was a thin, fair-skinned young man, and I would have said that he had been born in the house. He had the vacant, doglike expression that house-born slaves, as I remembered, liked to put on when they were in public with their masters and performing some simple task. This fellow was pretending that the Waitrose groceries were a great burden, but this was just an act, to draw attention to himself and the lady he served. He, too, had mistaken me for an Arab, and when we crossed he had dropped the burdened-down expression and given me a look of wistful inquisitiveness, like a puppy that wanted to play but had just been made to understand that it wasn’t playtime.
I was going to the Waitrose place to get a gift of wine for Nazruddin. He was from East Africa, like me. Our community was old on the coast, cut off from India long ago, but now we had scattered. I lived in another part of Africa. Nazruddin, after some time in Canada, had recently settled in London. And I had come to London to propose marriage formally to his daughter—it was an old commitment, something from the settled days.
Nazruddin had always liked to live well and, in spite of his uprooting, he hadn’t lost his taste for wine and good food. He was happy to be my guide in these matters; and indeed, after years of that Portuguese stuff in Africa, white and meaningless or red and acrid, the range of wines in London was a small daily excitement for me. At dinner in his flat (and before television: he watched for a couple of hours every night) I told Nazruddin about the slave in white. He said he wasn’t surprised; it was a new feature of life in the Gloucester Road; for a couple of weeks he had been noticing a grubby fellow in brown.
Nazruddin said: “In the old days they made a lot of fuss if they caught you sending a couple of fellows to Arabia in a dhow. Today they have their passports and visas like everybody else, and walk past immigration like everybody else, and nobody gives a damn.
“I’m superstitious about the Arabs. They gave us and half the world our religion, but I can’t help feeling that when they leave Arabia terrible things are about to happen in the world. You just have to think of where we come from. Persia, India, Africa. Think of what happened there. Now Europe. They’re pumping the oil in and sucking the money out. Pumping the oil in to keep the system going, sucking the money out to send it crashing down. They need Europe. They want the goods and the properties, and at the same time they need a safe place for their money. Their own countries are so dreadful. But they’re destroying money. They’re killing the goose that lays the golden egg.
“And they aren’t the only ones. All over the world money is in flight. People have scraped the world clean, as clean as an African scrapes his yard, and now they want to run from the dreadful places where they’ve made their money and find some nice safe country. I was one of the crowd. Koreans, Filipinos, people from Hong Kong and Taiwan, South Africans, Italians, Greeks, South Americans, Argentines, Colombians, Venezuelans, Bolivians, a lot of black people who’ve cleaned out places you’ve never heard of, Chinese from everywhere. All of them are on the run. They are frightened of the fire. You mustn’t think it’s only Africa people are running from.
“Mostly nowadays, since Switzerland closed down, they are going to the United States and Canada. And they are waiting for them there, to take them to the cleaners. There they meet the experts. The South Americans are waiting for the South Americans, the Asians for the Asians, the Greeks for the Greeks. And they take them to the cleaners. In Toronto, Vancouver, California. As for Miami, that is one big cleaning establishment.
“I knew about this before I went to Canada. I didn’t let anybody sell me a million-dollar villa in California or an orange grove in Central America or a piece of swamp in Florida. You know what I bought instead? You wouldn’t believe it. I bought an oil well, part of one. The man was a geologist. Advani introduced him to me. They said they wanted ten of us to form a little private oil company. They wanted to raise a hundred thousand dollars, everybody putting up ten. The authorized capital, though, was to be more than that, and the arrangement was that if we struck oil the geologist was to buy the rest of the shares at nominal rates. That was fair. It was his stake, his work.
“The stake was in order, the land was there. In Canada you can just go and do your own drilling. You can hire the equipment, and it doesn’t cost all that much. Thirty thousand for a trial well, depending on where you want to drill. And they don’t have the fruits-of-the-earth legislation you have where you are. I checked it all out. It was a risk, but I thought it was only a geological risk. I put up my ten. And guess what. We struck oil. Overnight, then, my ten was worth two hundred—well, say a hundred. But since we were a private company the profit was only a paper profit. We could only sell to one another, and none of us had that kind of money.
“The geologist exercised his options and bought up the remaining shares of the company for virtually nothing. So he acquired control of our company—but all that was in the agreement. Then he bought a semi-bankrupt mining company. We wondered about this, but we didn’t question the wisdom of our man now. Then he disappeared to one of the black islands. He had linked the two companies in some way, borrowed a milion dollars for our company on the strength of our oil, and transferred the money on some pretext to his own company. He left us with the debt. The oldest trick in the book, and the nine of us stood and watched while it was happening as though we were watching a man dig a hole in the road. To add insult to injury, we found out that he hadn’t put up his ten. He had done it all with our money. Now I suppose he is moving heaven and earth to transfer his million to some safe place. Anyway, that was how I achieved the impossible, converting ten into a debt of a hundred.
“In time the debt will settle itself. The oil is there. I might even get my ten back. The trouble with people like us, running about the world with money to hide, is that we are good about business only in our own places. Still. The oil was only a sideline. What I was trying to do was to run a movie theater, an ethnic theater. You know the word? It means all the foreign groups in a place. It was very ethnic where I was, but I suppose I got the idea only because there was a theater for sale, and it seemed a nice downtown property to get.
“Everything was working when I looked at the place, but when I took over I found we couldn’t get a clear picture on the screen. At first I thought it just had to do with the lenses. Then I realized that the man who had sold me the place had changed the equipment. I went to him and said, ‘You can’t do this.’ He said, ‘Who are you? I don’t know you.’ So. Well, we straightened out the projectors in the end, we improved the seating and so on. Business wasn’t too good. An ethnic theater downtown wasn’t such a good idea. The thing about some of those ethnic groups over there is that they don’t like moving around too much. They just want to go home as fast as they can and stay there. The pictures that did well were the Indian pictures. We got a lot of Greeks then. The Greeks love Indian pictures. Did you know that? Anyway. We struggled through the summer. The cold weather came. I threw some switches for the heating. Nothing came on. There was no heating system. Or what was there had been taken away.
“I went to the man again. I said, ‘You sold me the theater as a going concern.’ He said, ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘My family have been traders and merchants in the Indian Ocean for centuries, under every kind of government. There is a reason why we have lasted so long. We bargain hard, but we stick to our bargain. All our contracts are oral, but we deliver what we promise. It isn’t because we are saints. It is because the whole thing breaks down otherwise.’ He said, ‘You should go back to the Indian Ocean.’
“When I left him I walked very fast. I stumbled on an unevenness in the pavement and turned my ankle. I took that as a sign. My luck had run out; I knew that it had to. I didn’t feel I could stay in that country. I felt the place was a hoax. They thought they were part of the West, but really they had become like the rest of us who had run to them for safety. They were like people far away, living on other people’s land and off other people’s brains, and that was all they thought they should do. That was why they were so bored and dull. I thought I would die if I stayed among them.
“When I came to England all my instincts were to go into light engineering. A small country, good roads and railways, power, every kind of industrial facility. I thought that if you identified some area, got in good equipment, and employed Asians, you couldn’t lose. Europeans are bored with machines and factories. Asian people love them; they secretly prefer factories to their family life. But after Canada I had lost my nerve. I thought I would play safe. I thought I would go into property. That was how I came to the Gloucester Road.
“It is one of the centers of the tourist trade in London, as you see. London is destroying itself for its tourist trade—you can see that here. Hundreds of houses, thousands of flats, have been emptied to provide hotels, hostels, and restaurants for the tourists. Private accommodation is getting scarcer. I thought I couldn’t lose. I bought six flats in a block. I bought at the height of the boom. Prices have now dropped 25 percent, and interest rates have risen from 12 percent to 20 and even 24 percent. Do you remember the scandal on the coast when it came out that Indar’s people were lending money at 10 and 12 percent? I feel I no longer understand money. And the Arabs are in the streets outside.
“I have to charge ridiculous rents to break even. And when you charge ridiculous rents you attract strange people. This is one of my souvenirs. It is a betting slip from one of the betting shops in the Gloucester Road. I keep it to remind myself of a simple girl who came down from the north. She got her Arabs mixed up. The Arab she became involved with was one of the poor ones, from Algeria. She used to dump her rubbish outside her flat door. The Algerian used to gamble on the horses. That was how they were going to make the big time.
“They won, and then they lost. They couldn’t pay the rent. I reduced it. They still couldn’t pay. There were complaints about the rubbish and the quarrels, and the Algerian was in the habit of pissing in the lift when he was locked out. I asked them to leave. They refused, and the law was on their side. I had a new lock put in one day when they were out. When they came back they simply called the police, and the police opened up for them. To prevent me getting in again, they put in another lock. By this time, on that door, keyholes and their metal surrounds were like buttons down a shirt front. I gave up.
“Every kind of bill was unpaid. I went up one morning and knocked. The flat was full of whispers, but no one opened. The lift was close to the flat door. I opened the door of the lift and closed it. They thought I had gone down, and sure enough they opened up to check. I put my foot in the door and went in. The little flat was full of poor Arabs in undershirts and horribly colored pants. There was bedding all over the floor. The girl wasn’t with them. They had sent her away, or she had left. So for two months, while I had been paying 20 percent interest and other charges, I had been giving free shelter to a whole tentful of poor Arabs. They are a strange people racially. One of them had bright red hair. What were they doing in London? What were they expecting to do? How are they going to survive? What place is there in the world for people like that? There are so many of them.
“Here is another girl who ran out on me. Seven hundred pounds went with her. She came from Eastern Europe. Refugee? But she was a woman. She must have spent quite a bit of money to get these photographic cards printed. Here she is, up to her neck in water; I don’t know why she thought she should put that on her card. And here she is, pretending to thumb a lift, in a kind of button-up overall open at the top, and showing a little breast. Here she is wearing a big black bowler hat and black leather trousers and sticking out her little bottom. ‘Erika. Model-Actress-Singer-Dancer. Hair: Red. Eyes: Grey-Green. Specialties: Fashion-Cosmetic-Footwear-Hands-Legs-Teeth-Hair. 5’9”. 32-25-33.’ All that, and nobody wants to buy. All that happened to her was that she became pregnant, ran up a telephone bill of £1200—twelve hundred pounds!—and ran away one night, leaving these picture cards of herself. A big pile. I couldn’t bear to throw them all away. I felt I should keep one, for her sake.
“What happens to these people? Where do they go? How do they live? Do they go back home? Do they have homes to go back to? You’ve talked a lot, Salim, about those girls from East Africa in the tobacco kiosks, selling cigarettes at all hours of the night. They’ve depressed you. You say they don’t have a future and that they don’t even know where they are. I wonder whether that isn’t their luck. They expect to be bored, to do what they do. The people I’ve been talking about have expectations and they know they’re lost in London. I suppose it must be dreadful for them, when they have to go back. This area is full of them, coming to the center because it is all they know about and because they think it’s smart, and trying to make something out of nothing. You can’t blame them. They’re doing what they see the big people doing.
“This place is so big and busy you take some time to see that very little is happening. It’s just keeping itself going. A lot of people have been quietly wiped out. There’s no new money, no real money, and this makes everybody more desperate. We’ve come here at the wrong time. But never mind. It’s the wrong time everywhere else too. When we were in Africa in the old days, consulting our catalogues and ordering our goods and watching the ships unload in the harbor, I don’t suppose we thought it would be like this in Europe, or that the British passports we took out as protection against the Africans would actually bring us here, and that the Arabs would be in the streets outside.”
May 3, 1979