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Andrea Levy HEADLINE
Praise for Small Island :
‘Small Island is an astonishing tour de force by Andrea Levy. Juggling four voices, she illuminates a
little known aspect of recent British history with wit and wisdom. A compassionate account of the
problems of post war immigration, it cannot fail to have a strong modern resonance’ Sandi Toksvig,
Orange Prize judge
‘What makes Levy’s writing so appealing is her even-handedness. All her characters can be weak,
hopeless, brave, good, bad – whatever their colour. The writing is rigorous and the bittersweet ending,
with its unexpected twist, touching . . . People can retain great dignity, however small their island’
Independent on Sunday
‘Moving, funny, honest’ Elle
‘A terrific book’ Alan Plater
‘An impressive break-through novel’ Publishing News
‘Soon you will be enchanted’ Jasper Gerard, News Review, Sunday Times
‘It conjures up so vividly the era of the 1940s and expresses so vividly through the lives of its four
protagonists the conflicts and racist attitudes that existed at that time. A wonderful insight into a little
understood period’ Joan Bakewell
‘An engrossing read – slyly funny, passionately angry and wholly involving’ Daily Mail
‘It is a work of great imaginative power which ranks alongside Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners,
George Lamming’s The Emigrants and Caryl Phillips’ The Final Passage in dealing with the
experience of migration’ Linton Kwesi Johnson
‘What a deserved winner she is. It was a very good shortlist but in my opinion Small Island stood out at
the longlist stage – for its writing, its wit and the impressively light touch she brought to the subject’
‘With this funny, tender, intelligent fourth novel Andrea Levy looks set to become as commercially
popular as she is critically acclaimed’ Sainsbury’s magazine
‘Levy’s story is a triumph in perspective . . . a triumph of poise, organisation and deep, deep character –
the sort of work that can only be achieved by an experienced novelist’ Age, Melbourne
‘Small Island . . . explores the Caribbean experience of immigration to Britain with great sensitivity’
Sue Baker, Independent
‘A brilliantly deft and humane account of two ordinary couples in post-war London’ Evening Standard
‘An involving saga about the changing face of Britain’ Mirror
‘Levy has written one of those rare fictions that tells you things you didn’t know but feel you should
have known . . . the writing is deft and striking, without being pretentious’ Sunday Herald ‘Here is the book I have been waiting for . . . a book in which the author, Andrea Levy, never once
forgets she is telling a story, delighting us, improbably, in this nasty tale of race, with the effervescent
style of Dickens’ Globe & Mail, Toronto
‘For thoughtfulness and wry humour [Small Island] cannot be faulted’ Daily Telegraph
‘A beautifully crafted, compassionate novel, well worth reading’ Bulletin with Newsweek
‘A thoroughly good read which will inevitably lead to discussion on the problems of multicultural
societies’ New Books magazine
‘Everything about the plot, characters and clever end twist of Small Island [is] beautifully drawn . . .
This is an epic book that brings the patois of Jamaicans alive, fills the world of war-torn London with
amazing detail and is a great history lesson about the era when England changed forever as migrants
braved bitter racism to flood her shores’ Herald Sun, Melbourne
‘Small Island chronicles an aspect of British history that literary fiction has not explored enough’
Christina Patterson, Independent
‘[Hortense] has guts and this portrait of her world is created with strong feeling that is subtly and
brilliantly, rendered’ Sydney Morning Herald
‘Funny, poignant and profoundly moving’ West Australian
‘She weaves a wonderfully detailed and vibrant story’ Red magazine Also by Andrea Levy
Every Light in the House Burnin’
Never Far from Nowhere
Fruit of the Lemon Copyright © 2004 Andrea Levy
The right of Andrea Levy to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by her in
accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
First published in Great Britain in 2004 by Review
First published in paperback in Great Britain in 2004 by Review
Apart from use permitted under UK copyright law, this publication may only be reproduced, stored, or
transmitted, in any form, or by any means, with prior permission in writing of the publishers or, in the
case of reprographic production, in accordance with the terms of licences issued by the Copyright
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is
Epub ISBN: 978 0 7553 5971 4
HEADLINE PUBLISHING GROUP
A division of Hachette Livre UK Ltd
338 Euston Road
London NW1 3BH
For Bill Prologue
I thought I’d been to Africa. Told all my class I had. Early Bird, our teacher,
stood me in front of the British flag – she would let no one call it the common
Union Jack: ‘It’s the flag of Empire not a musical turn.’ And I stood there as
bold as brass and said, ‘I went to Africa when it came to Wembley.’ It was
then that Early Bird informed me that Africa was a country. ‘You’re not
usually a silly girl, Queenie Buxton,’ she went on, ‘but you did not go to
Africa, you merely went to the British Empire Exhibition, as thousands of
It was a Butchers’ Association trip. Every year there was an outing
organised for the butchers, the butchers’ wives and children and even the
butchers’ favourite workers. A day out. Mother liked to go. ‘It’s like a
holiday,’ she would say to Father.
‘Bloody waste of time,’ he’d grumble. But he went all the same.
Some years nearly everyone from our farm went. The inside girls who
helped Mother with the pies. The outside girls who fed the pigs and poultry.
Even the stupid boys, who helped Father in the shed, changed out of their
splattered aprons and into their ill-fitting, fraying best suits for the trip. We
always got dressed in our best to paddle in the sea at Blackpool or ride a red
bus round Piccadilly Circus or laugh at the monkeys in the zoo. Then it was
time to go home again. The men would be dozing from too much beer and
the children would be snivelling after being whacked for dirtying their
clothes or getting a piece of rock stuck in their hair. As often as not one of the
farm girls would go missing with one of the farm boys only to turn up later,
looking sheepish and dishevelled.
The year we went to the Empire Exhibition, the Great War was not long
over but nearly forgotten. Even Father agreed that the Empire Exhibition
sounded like it was worth a look. The King had described it as ‘the whole
Empire in little’. Mother thought that meant it was a miniature, like a toy
railway or model village. Until someone told her that they’d seen the real lifesize Stephenson’s Rocket on display. ‘It must be as big as the whole
world,’ I said, which made everybody laugh.
We had to leave my brothers Billy, Harry and Jim behind. They were too
small and everyone agreed with Father when he told the grizzling boys that
they would get swallowed up by the crowd. ‘I’m not scared of being eaten,’
Billy whimpered. They sobbed and clung to Mother’s coat. So she had to
promise to bring each of them back something nice – a model engine or
soldiers. She left them with the inside girl Molly, who stood at the window
sulking, giving us all a look that could curdle milk.
I was dressed in a white organza frock with blue ribbons that trailed loose
down the front and my hair was set in pigtails adorned with big white bows.
All the way there on the train Mother and Father chatted with other butchers
and butchers’ wives about, of all things, the bother of humane killing over the
poleaxe. Which left me sitting between two of our farm helpers, Emily and
Graham, who spent the time giggling and flirting over my head.
Emily had been our outside girl for two months. She had a kindly fostermother, who lived in Kent and made pictures from spring flowers, and a
father and two uncles in London, who drank so much that they had not been
awake long enough to take part in the war. Graham helped Father in the shed.
He looked after the fire under the copper of pig swill, took the pork pies to
the bakehouse when needed and generally ran round doing everything Father
asked, only not quite quick enough. Father called Graham Jim. On Graham’s
first day he had said his name to Father who looked him up and down and
said, ‘I can’t be bothered with a fancy name like that – I’ll call you Jim.’
Consequently some people called him Jim and others Graham – he’d learned
to answer to both. But Graham’s only ambition, as far as I could tell, was to
get a feel of Emily’s bust.
Hundreds and hundreds of people were tramping in through the gates of
the exhibition, past the gardens and the lakes. Or milling about, chatting.
Little kids being dragged to walk faster. Women pointing, old men wanting a
seat. ‘Over here! No, over here . . . Over here’s better.’ The Empire in little.
The palace of engineering, the palace of industry, and building after building
that housed every country we British owned. Some of them were grand like
castles, some had funny pointed roofs and one, I was sure, had half an onion
on the top. Practically the whole world there to be looked at.
‘Makes you proud,’ Graham said to Father. At which Father looked his butcher’s boy up and down for a minute and
said, ‘Will you listen to him?’
There was a lot of discussion about what we should see – the whole world
and only one day to see it. Mother was not interested in the different woods
of Burma or the big-game trophies of Malaya. She said, ‘Maybe later,’ to the
coffee of Jamaica. ‘Ooh, no,’ to the sugar of Barbados. ‘What for?’ to the
chocolate of Grenada. And ‘Where in heaven’s name is that?’ to Sarawak. In
Canada there was a lifesize model of the Prince of Wales made in yellow
butter. I had to struggle to the front to get a good look. I pressed my face
close to the glass and Mother came and dragged me back. ‘You hold Emily’s
hand,’ she told me. ‘I don’t want you getting lost.’ Then she moaned at Emily
in front of the crowd, who strained to look past my mother and her blushing
outside girl, everyone muttering, ‘Butter really? Butter? Never.’ Mother told
Emily that she had only been brought along to look after me and that if she
lost me then she would be in trouble – very big trouble indeed. So Emily
attached herself to me like soot to a miner. And where Emily went Graham
Australia smelt of apples. Ripe, green, crisp apples. A smell so sharp and
sweet it made my teeth tingle. ‘We’ll have some of them,’ Father said, as he
joined the queue to buy a small brown bag of the fruit. Mother saved hers
until later, but I ate mine and gave the core to Emily. Graham then told us all
that he was going to live in Australia. ‘Australia – you? You daft beggar,’
I was promised that I would see a sheep being sheared in New Zealand
but we only arrived in time to see the skinny shorn animal trotting round a
pen with the fleece at the side. Hong Kong smelt of drains, and India was full
of women brightly dressed in strange long colourful fabrics. And all these
women had red dots in the middle of their forehead. No one could tell me
what the dots were for. ‘Go and ask one of them,’ Emily said to me. But
Mother said I shouldn’t in case the dots meant they were ill – in case they
The smell of tea in Ceylon had Mother swallowing hard and saying, ‘I’m
dying for a cuppa and a sit-down. My feet!’ At which Father began
grumbling that he hadn’t seen the biscuit-making or cigarette-packing
machines yet. I cried because I wanted to see more countries. Emily called
me a little madam and Mother told her to watch her mouth. So Father gave instructions to Graham – which he had to repeat twice to make sure he was
understood – to meet him and Mother later in the rest lounge of the gas
exhibit. Mother and Father then went off to find modern machinery and
refrigeration, while me, Emily and, of course, the soppy Graham carried on
travelling the world alone.
That’s when we got lost in Africa. We wandered in, following the syrupybrown smell of chocolate. Emily trailed behind Graham only looking at me
every so often to shout, ‘Come on – hurry up.’ I wanted one of the cups of
cocoa that everyone was sipping but instead Emily pulled me by one of my
pigtails and told me to keep up. Then we found ourselves in an African
village with Graham looking around himself, scratching his head and telling
Emily he was wanting the toilet.
We were in the jungle. Huts made out of mud with pointy stick roofs all
around us. And in a hut sitting on a dirt floor was a woman with skin as black
as the ink that filled the inkwell in my school desk. A shadow come to life.
Sitting cross-legged, her hands weaving bright patterned cloth on a loom.
‘We’ve got machines that do all that now,’ Graham said, as Emily nudged
him to be quiet. ‘She can’t understand what I’m saying,’ Graham explained.
‘They’re not civilised. They only understand drums.’ The woman just carried
on like she’d heard no one speak – pushing her stick through the tangle of
‘Have you seen the toilet?’ Graham asked her, but she didn’t understand
‘I want to go,’ I said, because there was nothing interesting to look at. But
then suddenly there was a man. An African man. A black man who looked to
be carved from melting chocolate. I clung to Emily but she shooed me off.
He was right next to me, close enough so I could see him breathing. A
monkey man sweating a smell of mothballs. Blacker than when you smudge
your face with a sooty cork. The droplets of sweat on his forehead glistened
and shone like jewels. His lips were brown, not pink like they should be, and
they bulged with air like bicycle tyres. His hair was woolly as a black shorn
sheep. His nose, squashed flat, had two nostrils big as train tunnels. And he
was looking down at me.
‘Would you like to kiss him?’ Graham said. He nudged me, teasing, and
pushed me forward – closer to this black man.
And Emily giggled. ‘Go on Queenie, kiss him, kiss him.’ This man was still looking down at me. I could feel the blood rising in my
face, turning me crimson, as he smiled a perfect set of pure blinding white
teeth. The inside of his mouth was pink and his face was coming closer and
closer to mine. He could have swallowed me up, this big nigger man. But
instead he said, in clear English, ‘Perhaps we could shake hands instead?’
Graham’s smile fell off his face. And I shook an African man’s hand. It
was warm and slightly sweaty like anyone else’s. I shook his hand up and
down for several seconds. And he bowed his head to me and said, ‘It’s nice to
meet you.’ Then he let my hand go and stepped out of our way so we could
pass. Emily was still giggling, looking at Graham and rolling her eyes. She
grabbed my arm and pulled me away while Graham mumbled again that he
needed the toilet. And the African man must have understood because he
pointed and said, ‘Over there by the tree is a rest room where I think you will
find what you need.’
But Graham never found the toilet. He had to wee behind some bins
while me and Emily kept a look-out.
Father said later that this African man I was made to shake hands with
would have been a chief or a prince in Africa. Evidently, when they speak
English you know that they have learned to be civilised – taught English by
the white man, missionaries probably. So Father told me not to worry about
having shaken his hand because the African man was most likely a potentate.
To take my mind off the encounter Father promised me a trip on the
scenic railway. ‘Come on, we’ll be able to see for miles up there,’ he
persuaded Mother. She was reluctant, worried I might be sick over everyone
on the ground. Father called her a daft ’aporth, then promised her the most
wonderful view she’d ever see. I waved to Emily and Graham as our little
carriage slowly nudged further and further up. They’d stayed behind – Emily
chewing toffee and Graham smoking a cigarette. But then they disappeared.
‘They’ll turn up later,’ Mother sighed.
We went up and up into the heavens until people were just dots below us.
As we hung right at the top – the twinkling electric lights below mingling
with the stars – Father said something I will never forget. He said, ‘See here,
Queenie. Look around. You’ve got the whole world at your feet, lass.’ 1948 One
It brought it all back to me. Celia Langley. Celia Langley standing in front of
me, her hands on her hips and her head in a cloud. And she is saying: ‘Oh,
Hortense, when I am older . . .’ all her dreaming began with ‘when I am
older’ ‘. . . when I am older, Hortense, I will be leaving Jamaica and I will be
going to live in England.’ This is when her voice became high-class and her
nose point into the air – well, as far as her round flat nose could – and she
swayed as she brought the picture to her mind’s eye. ‘Hortense, in England I
will have a big house with a bell at the front door and I will ring the bell.’
And she made the sound, ding-a-ling, ding-a-ling. ‘I will ring the bell in this
house when I am in England. That is what will happen to me when I am
I said nothing at the time. I just nodded and said, ‘You surely will, Celia
Langley, you surely will.’ I did not dare to dream that it would one day be I
who would go to England. It would one day be I who would sail on a ship as
big as a world and feel the sun’s heat on my face gradually change from
roasting to caressing. But there was I! Standing at the door of a house in
London and ringing the bell. Pushing my finger to hear the ding-a-ling, dinga-ling. Oh, Celia Langley, where were you then with your big ideas and your
nose in the air? Could you see me? Could you see me there in London?
Hortense Roberts married with a gold ring and a wedding dress in a trunk.
Mrs Joseph. Mrs Gilbert Joseph. What you think of that, Celia Langley?
There was I in England ringing the doorbell on one of the tallest houses I had
But when I pressed this doorbell I did not hear a ring. No ding-a-ling,
ding-a-ling. I pressed once more in case the bell was not operational. The
house, I could see, was shabby. Mark you, shabby in a grand sort of a way. I
was sure this house could once have been home to a doctor or a lawyer or
perhaps a friend of a friend of the King. Only the house of someone highclass would have pillars at the doorway. Ornate pillars that twisted with elaborate design. The glass stained with coloured pictures as a church would
have. It was true that some were missing, replaced by cardboard and strips of
white tape. But who knows what devilish deeds Mr Hitler’s bombs had
carried out during the war? I pushed the doorbell again when it was obvious
no one was answering my call. I held my thumb against it and pressed my ear
to the window. A light came on now and a woman’s voice started calling,
‘All right, all right, I’m coming! Give us a minute.’
I stepped back down two steps avoiding a small lump of dog’s business
that rested in some litter and leaves. I straightened my coat, pulling it closed
where I had unfortunately lost a button. I adjusted my hat in case it had
sagged in the damp air and left me looking comical. I pulled my back up
The door was answered by an Englishwoman. A blonde-haired, pinkcheeked Englishwoman with eyes so blue they were the brightest thing in the
street. She looked on my face, parted her slender lips and said, ‘Yes?’
‘Is this the household of Mr Gilbert Joseph?’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Gilbert Joseph?’ I said, a little slower.
‘Oh, Gilbert. Who are you?’ She pronounced Gilbert so strangely that for
a moment I was anxious that I would be delivered to the wrong man.
‘Mr Gilbert Joseph is my husband – I am his wife.’
The woman’s face looked puzzled and pleased all at one time. She looked
back into the...
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- Fall '19
- English-language films, 2002 albums, 2006 albums, Debut albums, Walk This Way, Hortense Roberts