Stan-The-Man we called him. He was living in a house across the street when we moved to the Dalston/Stoke Newington area of London. He shared it with three other Jamaican men. Our St Lucian neighbour introduced us and we soon understood that he looked out for her, a single parent. When we wanted our house painted he did it at mates’ rates. He was unfailingly courteous, friendly, and cheerful.
We became aware that not all was well in his house when we heard loud arguing one day. Soon after their front window was broken by something heavy thrown from the outside. Our neighbour told us that Stan had taken in a troubled youth, but it hadn’t worked out. Corrugated sheet over the window stayed until the danger was passed. Then Stan told us he had made enough money over the decades in London and was returning to Jamaica to retire. Soon after his house was bought by an upwardly mobile white couple. We missed Stan.
I was reminded of Stan and his companions when I read Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo. The axis of the action is Kingsland Road. It runs across the top of my street. Turkish cafes are mentioned, even I get a mention in a potted history of population movement of Stoke Newington.
The socialists, feminists and workers revolutionists descended on Stoke Newington over time. … women with short hair, men with long hair, our people with balloon hair; donkey jackets, dungarees, dashikis, bovver boots of many hues; and so forthly. (p120-1)
Reading Mr Loverman I feel aching nostalgia for London, for the metropolitan rich variety of Hackney, including the dandified appearance of some of the older male black residents.
There are more important reasons to enjoy Mr Loverman. Barrington Jedidiah Walker is a very attractive character, a charmer and a bit of a dandy. I wanted him and his life to come good, especially as he has reached his seventies. He is soft as anything as regards his lover and his daughter, Maxine. He treated his wife Carmel very badly. Here’s how he describes himself.
I am still a Saga boy. Still here, thanks be to God. Still spruced up and sharp-suited with a rather manly swagger. Still six foot something with no sign of shrinkage yet. Still working a certain je ne sais whatsit. I might have lost the hair on my head, but I still got a finely clipped moustache in the style of old Hollywood romancers. Folk used to tell me I looked like a young Sidney Poitier. Now they say I resemble a (slightly) older Denzel Washington. Who am I to argue? The facts is the facts. Some of us have it, some of us do not. Bring it on, Barry, bring it on . . . (p6)
The characters in this story suffer, from the poverty of opportunity in Antigua, which brought so many from the West Indies to a new life in Britain. Barry invests successfully in property so that by the end of the novel he is a rich man, able to support himself and to be generous to those he cares about. His wife Carmel suffers from the humiliations of a loveless marriage, and the betrayal of her hopes for their marriage and life in Britain.
Barry may be an attractive character, but he is weak, fearful and secretive about his strongest attachments and concerned for his own comforts and ease. He is gay and has been in a constant if not monogamous relationship with Morris since they both lived in Antigua. Being gay in Antiguan society was not acceptable. Nor was it in Britain, and especially in the Black community. In a vivid scenes Barry recalls the murder of another black guy known to be gay and was himself beaten up and taunted with being a ‘batty boy’. He is still fearful, and it takes connecting with much younger gay men to enable him and Morris to be more open.
But more then anything, Barry is afraid of revealing the truth to his wife Carmel, who believes he goes with other women. He has deceived her about his sexuality since they married, and it creates different hells for them both. He wants to end the lie, but fears her reaction and those of her friends. Here Carmel and her friends are discussing what will happen if Daniel (Barry’s grandson) turns out to be gay. Daniel storms out of the room.
A voice wades into the conversation. ‘Look how you upset this young boy.’
Is this me talking?
‘You should be ashamed . . . insinuating things. How you think that make him feel? And my daughter don’t need to justify herself to anyone in this room.’
Merty blinks and swivels her head away from me, as though her head is set on ball bearings and can do 360-degree turn. …
The two Gorgons sit there.
Pumped up. Victorious. Primed.
Candaisy, who rarely says peep anyway, keeps her eyes averted from everyone.
Asselietha’s wearing that screwed-up expression she favours, like her lips are tied into a bunch with invisible string.
The whole lotta them should clear out of my house.
Carmel starts to rattle up the plates.
After such melodramatics, is time for everybody to calm down.
This is when Asselietha decides to pitch in. Why Carmel keeps company with such a nut job is beyond my reasoning.
‘Those homos are rightly suffering,’ she says. ‘God saved us to make us holy Mr Walker, not happy.’
This is what I truly believe happened to Asselietha. Someone sliced off the top of her head , scooped out her brains, put them in a blender and turned on the switch. Once it was all mash-up, they poured the mixture back in through her scalp and stitched it all up.
Maybe that’s why she never takes off that narsy ole beret. (p61-2)
So Barry and Morris have been living a lie for fifty years. The story takes off in the summer of 2010. Carmel goes home to Antigua to attend the funeral of her dreadful father. While she is absent Barry comes out to his grandson, Daniel, and one of his daughters, Maxine. Neither of them respond as he might have expected. Barry, for all his sharp observations, knows no one very well. The lie unravels as Carmel’s return approaches and he faces telling her the truth.
The only weak aspect of the novel for me was the sorry figure of Carmel, who had achieved a great deal since she came to Britain – a degree, a career in local government including head of department status, a lover of her own, a strong friendship group. But as we see her, through Barry’s eyes, she is an irrational and rather pathetic creature, influenced by her monstrous friends. In the chapters that she recounts (songs) we see her with more vigour. But Barry’s description remains dominant.
I liked the inversion of the father coming out to his kids, and their different attitudes. And I loved the rhythms of the narrative, both in Barry’s voice, and in Carmel’s songs. And I liked the rare depiction of older people and their predicaments.
Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo published by Hamish Hamilton in 2013 and included in the Fiction Uncovered list for 2014.
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