Shiva Naipaul

Living in London – XII

I have had the dubious distinction of having lived in Earls Court twice: once (for which I should be excused) right at the beginning when I had only just arrived in England; then again right at the end (when I should have known better) just before I left for India. On both occasions departure was a cause for celebration. I was never happy in Earls Court. The account I shall give of it, therefore, cannot be free from the bias that unhappiness necessarily entails. I view Earls Court through the jaundiced eyes of an ingrained dislike; and where others might see a raffish charm I see only a kind of horror. However, my prejudice should not be interpreted as an implied distaste for London as a whole. That is not the case. I have also lived in Notting Hill Gate, Stockwell, Fulham and Ladbroke Grove. In none of these areas – including Earls Court – did I stay longer than a year. Thus the experiences derived from each tend to fuse into a single, indivisible history. On their own they are disjointed fragments. Earls Court is merely an episode – or rather, two episodes.


I was 19 years old when I left Trinidad to come as a student to England. Coming as I did from the far outside, it was natural that I should think of London as existing in the round. Discrimination did of course develop later on. Ladbroke Grove, Notting Hill Gate, Earls Court… I began to appreciate that they all harboured their own peculiar vibrations. But, at the time, London was simply London: the Big City of which I had always dreamt.

For a few days immediately after I arrived I stayed with my brother in a hotel in Blackheath. The hotel was inhabited chiefly by the middle-aged and solitary. Memories of Blackheath are tinged with the semi-magical quality which invests the week of my arrival: the impression of fantasy – of unreal things happening in an unreal world – was strong. There was a visit to the Observatory at Greenwich. A white line painted on the floor of a light-washed room: the meridian. I remember standing on a grassy hill and looking down at the silver sweep of the Thames knitted with a spidery fretwork of cranes and ships’ masts. In a restaurant I ate my first rum-baba.

But the magic soon faded. The polite rituals of the hotel functioned in a void. I began to feel isolated in Blackheath. It seemed an infinity away from what I fondly imagined to be the centre of things. Where that was I had no clear idea. Neither could I say with any certainty what I expected to find when I got there. The pink glow kindling the sky nightly promised adventure. I wished to draw closer to the fiery source producing it. The Big City was beckoning.

Finally I saw a room advertised at a price I could just about afford. I rang the number supplied. It turned out to be an Accommodation Agency. Was the room they had advertised still available? Unfortunately no. However – the lady’s voice tinkled encouragingly at the other end of the line – they had several like it on their books. Why did I not come to their office?

The office, a cramped cubicle approached up a tortuous flight of stairs, was on the Earls Court Road. A wiry woman in a luminously red cardigan was in charge. I introduced myself.

“Ah! So you are the foreign gentleman who rang earlier.” Her voice had shed its telephonic twinkle. But it was not unfriendly. “Come in and have a seat and we shall see what we can do for you. We have managed to fix up quite a few coloured people in our time.” She moved briskly to a paper-cluttered desk and sat down. “Now you say you can’t afford more than five pounds a week…”

“Maximum,” I said quickly.

“Quite, quite… mmm…” She thumbed through a box of index cards. “Student?” she enquired absently after a while.


“Studying what?”

I told her. The words sounded impossibly big and foolish.

“Really!” Extracting an index card she frowned thoughtfully at it. She reached for the telephone and dialled. “Some of these landladies are a bit fussy when it comes to…” She reverted to her telephonic twinkle. “Hello. Is that Mrs —? This is the —Accommodation Agency here. I’ve got a young foreign student who is looking fora room. He seems a nice quiet fellow. What’s that? Yes, I’m afraid he is. But… no, no. Not at all. Of course I understand.” The receiver clicked down. She considered me. “Next time I think we’ll say straight off that you come from India. It’s better not to beat around the bush, don’t you agree? Anyway some of them don’t mind Indians so much.”

“But I don’t come from India.”

“You don’t?” She stared at me. “But you look Indian.”

“Well, I am Indian. But I was born in the West Indies.”

“The West Indies!” She seemed vaguely aghast.

I understood. Sufficient unto any man the handicap of being straightforwardly Indian or straightforwardly West Indian. But to contrive somehow to combine the two was a challenge to reason. An Indian from the West Indies! I was guilty of a compound sin.

“We’ll say you are Indian,” she said firmly. “It’s better not to confuse the issue. Don’t you agree?” She beamed at me.

“Perhaps we’d better forget the whole thing,” I said.

“Don’t give up so easily. We have fixed up a lot of coloured people in our time. Why not you?” She gazed defiantly at the box of index cards.

This was my initiation in the sub-world of “racial prejudice”. I had read and heard about it at home: nearly everyone who had been to England had his own cautionary tale to tell. Now it was happening to me and I could not quite bring myself to believe in it. Of course I had noticed the slogans daubed on the walls of tube stations, and morbidly deciphered the illiteracies displayed in the windows of newsagents. “Room to Let: Regret No Kolored.” “Room to Let: Europeen Gent. Only” “Room to Let: Kolored Pipple Need Not Apply.” These signs depressed and amused. It seemed incredible that they should refer to me.

I was surprised to find myself categorized as “coloured”: in Trinidad the term is applied to people of mixed blood – usually black diluted with a dash of “Europeen”. I have always thought it a detestable euphemism. Nevertheless, since it was one of the basic words in the vocabulary of the boarding-house culture, I had (albeit under protest) to learn to live with it. It exposed a new area of vulnerability. “Prejudice” was something to which I never got inured. Each rebuff wounded me afresh. Fortunately, the problem has only ever arisen in the hunt for accommodation. Latterly I let my wife (who is English) do the dirty work. “Naypaul?” the shrill voice would query excitedly. “What kind of name is that?” That let the cat out of the bag. I would lurk behind her, the skeleton in the family cupboard. Occasionally, it could be more painful. One day she joined a gaggle of ladies who had fallen prey to a seductive advertisement. Having assembled her victims, the landlady announced: “All those with coloured husbands step forward.” (Presumably, to judge from the exclusively feminine character of the gathering, the husbands of the ladies so burdened had, like myself, adopted a low-profile posture.) The goats having been sorted from the sheep, she proceeded to explain her quota system. It transpired that she allowed a maximum of one Irishman and one “coloured” in each of her houses. The Irishman, once admitted, could live in any part of the house. With the “coloured”, discretion routed valour: he was invariably interned in the basement.

I am reluctant to make too much of all this. It is tragically easy to let simple racial hurt gain possession of the soul; to let the properly peripheral (I know many would not agree that it is) occupy a central position. The result of such possession is cramped and distorted vision. For a writer, this could be fatal. The world is a bigger place than the corrosive obsession with race would have us believe. To let one’s perceptions be moulded by the boarding-house culture is to be coerced by the lowest common denominator in the society; to corral the imagination. Yet, I would be dishonest if I denied its effects on me. To some extent, it has contributed to my wary aloofness from the city; aggravated that inability to sink myself promiscuously into its life and strike “roots”. Of late, since the elevation of the politics of race into respectable doctrine, this feeling of aloofness has intensified.

I waited while the lady dialled number after number. “…I’ve got a young Indian student here who is looking for a room…” Her eyes were clouding with exhaustion. I stopped listening. Then, out of the blue: “Yes. Yes. As I said, he seems a nice, quiet type. I shall send him around straight away. He’s right here with me in the office” She put the receiver down and regarded me with an air of triumph. “I told you we could fix you up. Didn’t I?”

The house to which I was directed was on one of those streets the lead off the Earls Court Road and blossom into the sudden respectability of a tree-shaded garden square. A roster of names, each with it attendant buzzer, festooned the door. This was bedsitter land with vengeance. The entrance hall smelled dismally of a mixture of disinfectant and polish. Keys jangling from a giant ring at her waist, the housekeeper led me up several curving flights of red-carpeted stairs towards the twilit region of the top floor. With jailer-like neutrality, she ushered me into a charmless cell, obviously the product of sub. division of what must once have been an average-sized room. An insubstantial hardboard partition, plastered over with a flowery wallpaper, rose with grim commercial finality to the ceiling. The furnishing was spartan: a narrow bed; a dresser with a mirror; a solitary, soiled armchair; a coffee table emblematically ringed with the marks of countless hot cups. The floor was covered by a strip of grey, threadbare carpet. Daylight filtered through a small sash window. A gas fire, inserted into a scorched recess, completed the desolation. This was not how I imagined it would be. The harshness of that room repelled me. Was this the romance of the city? What kind of adventure could spring from a cell such as this? At five guineas a week (without breakfast) it was more than I could really afford. But the prospect of starting from scratch (“…I’ve got a young Indian student here…”) was equally intimidating. Despairingly, I said I would take it. The Accommodation Agency duly extorted its tribute of a week’s rent, and I moved in.

It was an introduction – which could have been gentler – into a new mode of existence. Since then I have lost count of the number of rooms in which I have slept. In Trinidad my geography was stable: I can recall no more than two or three rooms in the course of my nineteen years there. That cell in Earls Court initiated a nomadism which has persisted into the present and which shows no signs of abating. It has become second nature to me. Today, my attachment to Trinidad is sentimental; a child’s attachment to the place where he grew up. It does not go beyond that because my real life lies elsewhere – though precisely where it is difficult to say. In London, the vestigial Trinidadian “roots” I had arrived with underwent a gradual petrification. But the city, while exacting its price, did not confer a new identity: I do not consider myself a Londoner. On a conventional assessment this must be counted as a loss. Yet, on the other hand, it ought to be added that I am not bothered by it. I have no desire either to fabricate new “roots” or rediscover old ones. Lack of acquaintance has diminished to vanishing point my knowledge of what it means and feels like to “belong” to a community. This is why I regard with nervous suspicion all those who proclaim its virtues in poetry, prose and politics.

The three weeks I spent in that room are among the unhappiest I can remember. A dreadful anonymity descended. In the mornings I went to the nearby Wimpy Bar where I drank several cups of coffee and pretended to be absorbed in the newspaper. At midday I went to a dark, dingy pub frequented by elderly charladies who drank bottled Guinness. I would buy a pint of bitter and a plate of cheese and tomato sandwiches. In the evening I went to a coffee bar manned by Italians, where I bought more sandwiches and drank more coffee. Through the plate glass windows I would watch the life of Earls Court stream past. Then I would return to my cell and crawl into my narrow bed. I hardly ever saw my fellow inmates whose names decorated the front door. Two girls shared the room across the corridor. They would come in late, creaking furtively up the stairs and laughing softly. As they prepared for bed I could hear the surreptitious sounds of pop music from their record player – the house forbade anything of the sort after eleven o’clock. Next door – behind the partition – was a man who coughed terribly. Some nights, when he was especially wracked, he would get up and pace the room, muttering to himself in between his spasms. Once I met the girls in the corridor but we passed without acknowledgement. Amazingly enough, I never set eyes on my cough-stricken neighbour.

The days slipped by in a haze of coffee, stale sandwiches and sickly beer. The visits I had planned – to palaces, museums, art galleries – were never made. I had become frightened of the city and my fright expressed itself in dulled curiosity and inertia. The glow lighting the sky nightly was transformed from a promise into a threat. I lost the desire to seek out its hidden source. My family to whom I had bid Goodbye not that long ago seemed to belong to another life which had been snatched away from me. Hourly, Trinidad receded. I was being emptied; reduced to nothing in that room. How easy it is to be swallowed by the city! The legacy left by that time has not entirely vanished. Even now, I occasionally experience a thrill of fear when I suddenly come upon one of those dizzying vistas of anonymous suburban housing and have to walk along streets that are like mirror reflections of each other. Though it was not what my innocence had envisaged, those three weeks were an adventure. But the adventure exists only in retrospect: at the time I was not even fully conscious of my misery.


Six years later – and under very different circumstances – I returned to Earls Court. Much had happened to me in the intervening period: I had completed an undistinguished four years at Oxford; I had acquired a wife; I had written my first novel. My boyhood was over. Something else had happened: my attitude to the city had altered. I had lost the desire to lay bare its secrets. Perhaps I had stopped believing there were any secrets to be laid bare. When I arrived in Earls Court for the second time it was my fourth change of address in two years. By then nomadism had become a habit. Shifting restlessly from one set of furnished rooms to another, I was living, in a sense, like a vagrant. The city was merely a convenient backdrop for my activities. While being in it I was not truly of it. No doubt writing and the private world it entails assisted in the process of withdrawal and detachment. I was leading an artificial and protected existence. Matters might have been different if I had been forced to earn my living in the ordinary way. As it was, I had little direct contact with the life lived around me. I observed it, as it were, through glass.

Whether by day or by night, Earls Court knows no stillness; no moments of tranquillity. The big lorries thunder ceaselessly. On the Earls Court Road noise acquires a demonic quality, endowing the constant flow with an autonomous, impersonal character. Step out of your front door and the reverberating thunder breaks loose like a dammed wall of water obtaining release. The air is a soup of diesel oil and petrol fumes, rank and acrid to the taste. Have a window cleaned and within hours a mildewed sediment will spread like mould across the glass. It is the industrial equivalent of the encroaching jungle. Puny men, trapped in this tide, can meet sudden death. The drama unfolds with the rigidity of a sacrificial ritual: a screech of brakes; the peculiar thud of unyielding metal on soft human flesh; a pool of blood staining the asphalt; the chorus wail of a police siren. Early the next morning a truck of the Royal Borough will arrive and wash away the lingering traces of the sacrifice into the gutter. The God has been appeased.

The tube station is the soul of the place made visible. Around and about it Earls Court anchors itself. Out of it is disgorged and into it is ingested a steady stream of humanity. A multi-hued, multi-lingual crowd is always gathered near its entrance. Earls Court is nothing if not cosmopolitan. Long-haired students from the Continent weighted under rucksacks studded with the flags of their countries pore over street maps. Bearded Australians study the poster that invites them to join the Zambesi Club – Rhodesians, South Africans, New Zealanders and Canadians also welcome. West Indians – lithe black bucks dressed in the height of fashion – parade aimlessly. A shrunken veteran of the First World War, a hat upturned at his feet, scrapes at a violin. Another ferrety old man, half-asleep on a box, clutches in his lap a stack of weeklies from the “underground” press. Waking with a start, he holds aloft The Red Mole; and then, just as abruptly, his hand falls and he relapses back into slumber. The flower sellers (who would buy flowers in Earls Court?) sprinkle water on their wilting exhibits. From the hamburger joint not many yards away throbs a delirium of pop music. Hippie-clad young men and women swagger in and out. Those of the tribe who congregate in Earls Court have a tough vacancy of expression: they represent the fag end of that particular dream of gentleness.

The elemental necessities are available in abundance. The Accommodation Agencies and the proliferating cheap hotels will always be able to provide you with a roof above your head; the gaudy constellation of cheap eating places will always provide you with food to fill your stomach; and, satisfying another need, the army of prostitutes – male as well as female – will always provide you with the cheap solace of their bodies. Watch the group of men, not all of whom are old and mackintoshed, assembled round the window of the newsagent and intently perusing the quaintly worded cards which are mixed in with blandishments to join overland trips to Australia and South Africa. “Grounded Air Hostess Seeks New Position”. “Chocolate Baby Teaches French. Very Strict”. “Handsome Young Man Willing to Walk Dog”. Numbers are hastily jotted down on scraps of paper and the prospective client slips discreetly away in search of a telephone booth. With a quiet shuffle those at the rear shoulder forward. These havens of sexual delight are usually on the Warwick Road. I have often wandered along that bleak strip where, behind the drawn curtains of dank basements, passion is so easily bought and expended.

At dusk, on certain evenings, a fresh performer joins the circus. The hoarse orator of the World Socialist Party exhorts his handful of listeners to overthrow the exploiters and establish the universal brotherhood of man. In Earls Court his message falls on stony ground. In that chaos there are no allegiances. A man leans against a lamppost being sick. No one pays him any attention. Two women stagger along the pavement in the middle of the afternoon. One of them lies on the pavement and, lifting up her skirt, kicks her legs up in the air. Her companion, laughing uproariously, picks her up. They drift on and repeat the exhibition further down the road. No one pays them any attention. Late one evening I see a drunk approach the display window of the shop downstairs. He is carrying a brick in each hand. Calmly, deliberately, he takes aim. There is an explosion of shattering glass. The passers-by, their faces averted, hurry on. Like the appeal to universal brotherhood, the act of violence falls on stony ground.

Earls Court offers to its denizens the life of the city at its rawest and purest. It is uncompromisingly urban; a conglomeration of solitary individuals. Relinquishing responsibility, it offers frenzy. Therein lies its attraction. Nothing is permanent in Earls Court. The restaurants come and go with bewildering rapidity; the bedsitter population is notoriously ephemeral. Yet, the transience is superficial: it is the transience of a purgatorial clearing-house. The actors change but the play, revolving on its febrile treadmill, remains much the same.


One lunch time I went to the pub where six years before I used to sit and look at the charladies sipping their bottled Guinness. It had undergone a metamorphosis. Carpeted steps led to an upper bar where girls in hot pants doled out the drinks. Sliding glass panels opened onto a terrace set out with tables shaded by colourful umbrellas. The charladies had disappeared tracelessly. I descended to the gloomy cavern of the lower bar. Strobe lights coruscated like demented fireflies in the interior recesses of the gloom. There was the heavy pound of rhythm and blues from scattered speakers. Groups of men, their faces indistinct, lowered their heads over glasses of beer. The garish designs of a watered-down op art decorated the walls. I bought my drink and settled in a corner. It was a weird, timeless world. The music stopped and the strobe lights were extinguished. Out of the hush drooled the West Indian voice of a disc jockey.

“And now specially for you cool cats out there something real hip. The beautiful Cheryl is gonna dance just for you.”

The groups of men surged forward into a solid phalanx and fenced in the wooden-floored circle where the beautiful Cheryl would perform. A spotlight was switched on. Then Cheryl herself appeared, a slight, pretty girl with protruding collar-bones. She was dressed in a shimmering bikini hung with silvery tassels and a pair of white boots that reached up above her knees. Moving awkwardly in her boots she came and stood limply, head bowed, in the middle of the circle: a drowned mermaid in the glare of the spotlight.

The voice of the disc jockey drooled again. ‘Ready, Cheryl baby? Then let’s swing it. Shake it up! Hey! Hey!”

An ear-splitting volley of music crashed forth and Cheryl, roused from her hibernatory stillness, pitched into her gyrations. She bobbed and weaved; she brandished her pale arms; she rotated her hips pulsatingly. The strobe lights flashed. A shine of sweat overspread her cheeks. She quivered orgasmically as the music climbed to a crescendo and, when it had passed, she rippled with the tremors of post-coital exhaustion and sank, eyes closed, on to the wooden boards of the arena. It had been a fine performance but she was not applauded. She rose to her feet and was once again a drowned mermaid in the glare of the spotlight. Ploughing a passage through her impassive masculine audience, she disappeared behind a door marked “Staff Only”.

“That was way out, Cheryl baby. Thank you. And now were gonna groove some more with the dynamic Shirley. She’s gonna go you cats out there real hot under the collar. Hey! Hey!”

I did not wait to see the dynamic Shirley. Outside a fine rain was falling. The big lorries roared, tyres squelching on the wet roadway. I breathed in the soupy air blowing in chill gusts. In its metamorphosis that pub had conformed to the underlying spirit of Earls Court. A further revolution of the febrile treadmill: it was no more than that. Beautiful Cheryl and dynamic Shirley were part of the quick, passionate flux; souls resting awhile in the clearing-house. Eventually, they too would be swept away as the charladies had been swept away, leaving no trace. That was the iron law of Earls Court.

The usual crowd was gathered outside the tube station. His un-filled hat dampening in the rain, the veteran of the First World War scraped undaunted at his violin. Behind him, the collar of his donkey-jacket raised protectively, the agent of the underground press slept fitfully on his box.


Some months later I too was swept away. I could not work in Earls Court. Already I had fled once to a cottage in Suffolk where I stayed for six months. There I finished my second novel. On my return I found Earls Court even more intolerable. There being little to keep me, my urge to vagrancy reasserted itself. I obeyed the iron law and left. I write this in an Indian hill station. From the balcony of the hotel I can see the snow peaks of the Himalayas on clear days. Then the mists descend and they vanish completely. It is as if they had never been there; as if I were the victim of an illusion. At this distance, Earls Court too seems illusory. It is as if I had never been there; as if it had never existed. Alas, I know that that is not so.



To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.