Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Enid Blyton’s Mature Lover’s Book. Sitting in a basket on the floor in the second-hand section. The man next to me was telling two chattery ladies about the value of second-hand books, and I found myself glancing with them. I’ve got to buy that. That was what I thought. And then the talk began.
Iain Sinclair introducing Rachel Lichtenstein, who has written what sounds like a fascinating work On Brick Lane. Forget your Monica Alis and your Tarquin Halls, Lichtenstein spent ten years researching this and another five writing it. Perhaps that’s why I immediately liked her: I’ve got another thirteen years to go. The best work is not set to a timetable. The story is inspired by her Jewish family, her grandparents, who lived and worked around Brick Lane. Lichtenstein goes back, to discover this past and to trace its present. The gentrification, sure, but not so simple, she says. I’ve not read the book so I can’t comment further, but it is one I will read. And would advise you to too, absurdly in my ignorance.
Strange moments arose from this gathering at the lovely Broadway Bookstore. I raised the contradictory and hypocritical fact of us, this group of middle class, almost entirely white middle-aged people sitting around the lovely table of books in Broadway Market discussing, with liberal doses of regret, the gentrification of London. ‘We wouldn’t be here, in this book shop, which would not exist, were it not for that very influx of wealthier people who like to read books.’ That was ok. Then I added. ‘And I, and this lady to my left, couldn’t help but notice the copy of Little Black Sambo in the children’s corner behind us,’ I pointed over my left shoulder, ‘and wondered whether you would put this book up if the shop was frequented by many black people.’ This caused something of a stir. ‘But lots of black people do come here.’ Apparently some have complained that there’s not a black section (missing the point in my opinion). But the lady next to me said she was aghast that Little Black Sambo should be sold in a children’s section in 2007. ‘Fine in the adults’ section, for education or historical reasons, but not the kids.’ I think I agree. A lady who might have been of Chinese origin chipped in: ‘I was given the Gollywog books as a child. I didn’t realise there was anything wrong with them, but now I see that and would never give them to my child.’ Nor I. Another woman said, ‘But black is not offensive any more. We can say that word can’t we?’
It is not the black in LBS that matters, surely? It’s the little and the sambo that really rub. That nice head-patting image; the sweet little harmless black boy, called Sambo. That is what matters. But yes, since you ask, why does he have to be called black? Little White Jonny. I don’t think so.
Later, I went back to find Enid Blyton’s guide for mature lovers. I would buy it, a present for my own mature lover. But, alas, my imagination had deceived me as it so often does these days: Blyton was never interested in mature lovers. It was nature that got her juices flowing.