‘but set down/This set down/This’: memory and identity in The Lonely Londoners and The Handmaid’s Tale

It’s nearly Christmas but I never need that excuse for ‘The Journey of the Magi’ to be in my head and I’m always drawn to the versification of the quotation above. I love the emphatic, almost excited repetition of the old man making his testimony, enhanced by the lack of punctuation between the two imperatives, and the placement of ‘This’ twice at the beginning of consecutive lines: ‘This’ is it; ‘This’ is what he has to say. I tend to imagine my maternal grandfather in the role, but that’s a digression for another day, perhaps. I’ve been thinking about it recently in the context of the last two books that I’ve read – Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – both bought for me by my son as birthday presents (and yes, I am slightly ashamed that I had not read the Atwood before now). Both use memory-narratives in order to preserve and to create a sense of identity and in both, that narrative is marked out, more or less explicitly, as something self-conscious and therefore (for me) interesting. I know that memory in the Atwood has been written about ad absurdum but in the words of another son, ‘You don’t need to reinvent the blues; you just need to play them with conviction’, so that’s what I’ll try to do.

In both The Lonely Londoners – a novella about the Windrush generation of the early 1950s – and The Handmaid’s Tale, there are dual memory-narratives in operation. In The Handmaid’s Tale, these operate on the levels of public and private. One the one hand, the handmaid’s narrative, spoken into cassette tapes and hidden to preserve it for the future, serves a political function; it is a public testimony to life under the regime in Gilead and it is used in the lecture at the end, as a means by which to (attempt to) reconstruct the identities of those involved and thereby, to study that political regime at a distant future date. On the other, it is spoken in the present tense and seems, therefore, to suggest something more immediate for the speaker: she is testifying so as to preserve her own identity through memories of a past which has been erased by the regime, memories of her mother, her friend, Moira, her partner and her daughter, memories which she already feels to be slipping away. The dual memory-narratives of The Lonely Londoners are also connected to identity and to politics but in a different way. Through the characters of Moses and ‘the boys’, Selvon explores the ways in which memory serves to preserve the men’s (and a very few women’s) identities as West Indians with ‘oldtalk’ of life before, but also serves to create and establish their new identity as Londoners through its ‘ballads’ about, for example, the lives of personalities such as Cap, Five Past Twelve and Big City.

It would be impossible to cover the theme of memory fully here so for the purposes of this post, I will focus on some details which mark out the ways in which both authors link memory narratives with identity, and on some of the self-conscious ways in which memory is evoked in each. The narrative of The Handmaid’s Tale, as a whole, is fragmentary and non-linear and it frequently returns to the same places or incidents; we later learn that it has supposedly been pieced together by two (male) academics working with the tape recordings left by the handmaid, but whatever the chronology, in these facets, it is not untypical of testimonies to trauma, where the testifiers are struggling to process the events of their pasts. For me, the first point of real interest comes in Chapter 7, when the narrator is alone at night and feels that now, she can ‘step sideways out of [her] own time’ and go out, into her memories. Here, she self-consciously evokes a memory of happier times and allows her memory to wander from there.

The memory she visits first picks up on this directly as it is literally a memory of ‘going out’ and of what that meant in her life before the regime. In it, her friend, Moira calls on her in her college dorm room and it evokes a life of study, makeup, alcohol, cigarettes and of freedom, in a time when all of those things were banned for women and their ‘going out’ was tightly regulated. Even here, the narrator’s memory is starting to erode as she questions what kind of paper she had due the next day, ‘Psychology, English, Economics’. This partial nature of memory is something which the narrator gestures to at many points; she mentions, for example, that she sometimes sings to herself in her head but says, ‘I don’t know if the words are right. I can’t remember’, because the songs are no longer heard. The details of that memory, then, are lost but the essence of the memory, the feeling of freedom taken for granted, is retained.

In spite of the intentional nature of this venture into memory, the next destination for the narrator is one which is not so uncompromisingly happy. It seems to be triggered by her previous memory of the books that littered her room, as this one is about her mother and friends burning ‘books’ in the park, but ‘the books were magazines’, pornographic magazines by her description, and we sense, together with her childish innocence as she watched the fire burning through ‘parts of women’s bodies’, the narrator’s adult horror at the way in which women’s bodies and lives have been literally and figuratively destroyed by the regime.

And this takes her to her third memory, an involuntary memory, which bubbles up unwanted, destabilising her, a memory of having been drugged as her child was taken away from her. She talks of being shown a photograph of her daughter with ‘a woman [she] did not know’, ‘wearing a dress [she]’d never seen’ and in this way, she shows that her child is already becoming alien to her; she has been removed from her familiar frame of reference. The narrator returns to memories of her daughter at various points in her story, but there are two which stand out for me. The first is when she has been remembering her daughter’s attempted abduction from a supermarket trolley. Here, she says, ‘She fades, I can’t keep her here with me’ and thinks about the material items that would have helped to preserve her daughter’s memory for her – her old baby clothes and a lock of hair – but these things are gone, ‘Looted, dumped out, carried away. Confiscated’, taken away, like her daughter. The second is when Serena Joy shows the narrator a picture of her daughter who is now ‘So tall and changed’ and she feels that she has ‘been obliterated’ for her daughter, that she is no longer a part of her daughter’s consciousness, that she has ‘been erased’.

It is after the memory of her daughter being taken, in Chapter 7, that the narrator explains the purpose of her narrative, that it is an attempt to gain ‘control’ of her story, and particularly over its ending, as ‘there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it.’ However, it’s also important to her that this story is addressed to a ‘you’, even if this you is unnamed and imaginary. She does not explain why but we might speculate that conjuring a real recipient for her memories helps her to feel more connected to her own identity: if there is a ‘you’, there must, therefore, be an ‘I’. At various points in her story she says that she needs to believe that her daughter is alive, but after being shown the photograph by Serena Joy, it’s her own erasure that she cannot bear and it is against this that her narrative battles. Though we do not ever find out her name – she is known only as Offred, because the Commander who owns her is named Fred – we know that her name is important to her. She repeats her name to herself as she lies in bed after the ‘ceremony’, desperate to be ‘valued’ as more than a reproductive commodity, as she ‘remind[s] [her]self of what [she] could once do, how others saw [her]’. She tells Nick her ‘real name and feel[s] that therefore [she] is known’ and this is the name by which he calls her when he alerts her to the arrival of her rescuers. Though she says that neither of them uses the word ‘love’ and that she does not know, even at this point, whether she can trust him, there is the suggestion here that he both knows her and sees her as a person and that this rescue, arranged by him, allows her to preserve a sense of her identity for long enough, at least, to record her story and set it down for posterity, even if we do not know whether she survived beyond this point.

The other notable way in which the narrator self-consciously marks out her memory-narrative as such, is in her insistence from Chapter 23, that ‘This is a reconstruction’. What she means by this, as she explains, is that ‘what you say can never be exact… there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances’. And what is left out depends on the context of remembering, the physical and emotional circumstances of the rememberer. Each time the memory is re-constructed, re-membered in the moment of telling. When she recounts her first visit to Nick’s room, she tells two versions of the encounter and after each says, ‘It didn’t happen that way’, yet there is a sense in which it happened both ways. The first rendition emphasises the passion of the encounter, her sense that she is ‘alive in [her] skin’ and that the couple’s need for this is overwhelming and she uses the word ‘love’ to describe what is happening; in the second, her feelings of discomfort and shame in the situation dominate; Nick has, after all, just driven the Commander and her to Jezebel’s and she is confused too by her remaining loyalty to Luke, her husband in former days, and by how Serena Joy must be thinking about her as ‘cheap’. Finally, she says that she isn’t ‘sure how it happened, not exactly’, that at best it can only be a ‘reconstruction’ because ‘the way love feels is always only approximate’; aside from the confusion of feelings of love, lust, guilt and shame that she felt in the moment and afterwards in the recollection, she acknowledges that love itself is unquantifiable, indescribable, hence the myriad of metaphors used by poets through time to attempt to pin it down.

While the Chaucerian resonance of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is conferred on it afterwards, in the title given to it by its so called editor, Professor Wade, the literary memory of The Lonely Londoners is inbuilt. Through its foggy opening, it remembers other Londons, the Dickensian London of Bleak House, in which the fog figuratively reflects the obscure operations of the law at Temple Bar, and Eliot’s ‘Unreal City’ of The Waste Land, made so by the ‘brown fog’ but also by the sense of disconnection and estrangement from the world brought about by the First World War. In this way, Selvon claims a place for The Lonely Londoners in the literary tradition of the city. Selvon’s fog, like Dickens’ and Eliot’s also has an obscuring, alienating effect. He describes it ‘sleeping restlessly over the city… as if it is not London at all but some strange place on another planet’ and the London to which he introduces the reader is indeed ‘some strange place’, seen as it is through the eyes of Selvon’s Windrush immigrant population. It is not merely that the city is new to them – the main character, Moses, has been there for some years already – but that seeing the city through their eyes and their lives, makes us see it anew. Interestingly, by the end of the novella, the fog has taken on a different characteristic: in spite of ‘your hand plying space like a blind man’s stick in the yellow fog’ and the cold of winter, ‘the boys coming and going, working, eating, sleeping, going about the vast metropolis like veteran Londoners’. It is still alienating and difficult but ‘the boys’ have made lives for themselves nonetheless.

Like the narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale, the characters of The Lonely Londoners are a transitional generation, remembering a time before but living a new reality. Linguistically the new life in The Handmaid’s Tale is marked out by a new way of speaking, such as the ritual greeting of ‘Blessed be the fruit’ and its reply, ‘May the Lord open’ while the narrator’s memory-narratives help her to retain and assert her identity. Memory in The Lonely Londoners serves a double purpose though: like the narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale, it helps the men to preserve a sense of their old identities but it also helps to create their group identity as a new type of Londoner. The first of these is achieved through the characters’ use of ‘oldtalk’, their reminiscences of life back in Trinidad. When Moses and Galahad ‘oldtalk’ about a man they knew, Brackley, from Charlotte Street, it provides a moment of light in a time which is dark for both of them, especially for Galahad who is out of work due to the British ‘clamping down on the boys hard’, and they are only feeling happy and content right now because they have feasted on a pigeon which Galahad caught and killed in the park. For Moses, at that time, the ‘oldtalk’ leads to a yearning for home, for the village called ‘Paradise’ with its rum shop, sand and sunshine. Throughout the novella too, English customs and celebrations are compared unfavourably to those back home – Christmas, where people here ‘in the house eating Christmas pudding’ while back home, ‘Fete like stupidness’ – and the sense of nostalgia created by these shared memories creates a feeling of community amongst Moses and ‘the boys’. They gather every Sunday at Moses rented flat in Bayswater, get-togethers which come to be known as ‘church’ because of the ritual and the sense of belonging that this confers, with them on the inside and ‘London and life on the outside’.

However, shared memories, in the form of ‘ballads’, also help to create a sense of the men’s new identity as Londoners. This name for anecdotes that are passed around the community is an interesting one: on the one hand it suggests tradition, even though these are new stories, and in this way gives not only the feeling of a history to this community but also a sense that these stories will be ‘sung’ in times to come too; on the other hand it suggests the romance that infuses the stories and the men’s relationship with London itself. Through the character of ‘Sir Galahad’, his own nickname also redolent of romance, we know that the place names of London are imbued with romance because of their fame and their place in the cultural memory associated with the city. The narration, focalising on Galahad before a date, states that ‘he make a big point of saying he was meeting she by Charing Cross, because just to say “Charing Cross” have a lot of romance in it’ because of a song he remembers called “Roseann of Charing Cross”. The boys’ romanticising of life in London is something that Moses sees and it fills him with sadness. In an epiphany at the end of the novella, he realises that ‘Under the kiff-kiff laughter, behind the ballad and the episode, the what-happening, the summer-is-hearts, he could see a great aimlessness, a great restless, swaying movement… As if the boys laughing, but they only laughing because they fraid to cry’. The ballads are part of what gives them a sense of belonging as Londoners but this identity is still so fragile, possibly even illusory, as he imagines ‘the black faces bobbing up and down in the millions of white, strained faces’ with a kind of hopelessness.

There is also a kind of self-consciousness to the memory-narrative of The Lonely Londoners, but whereas in The Handmaid’s Tale, this self-consciousness is connected to the reconstructive nature of memory itself, in The Lonely Londoners, it is in the language through which Selvon tells the story. Though the memory-words ‘oldtalk’ and ‘ballad’ both convey history and tradition, the language in which Selvon has written his memory-narrative of life in 1950s London, is his own invention, a new language which mixes Standard English and dialect. According to Susheila Nasta, in the introduction to the Penguin edition, Selvon had set out to write the book in Standard English but it “just would not work” because it could not convey the feelings and desires of his characters. However, the West Indian dialect could not in itself convey his literary vision for the novella. The use of the idiomatic English gives a strong voice and identity to the characters but it also allows the reader to imagine London anew, populated by ‘tests’ who ‘lime’ on the Embankment, on Oxford Street, in Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square, ‘hustling’ to make ends meet. Meanwhile, the standard English allows for a poetic articulation which might not otherwise be possible, for example in Moses’ ‘cogitations’ about ‘the greatness and vastness in the way he was feeling’ on this night when ‘laughter fell softly’.

Paradoxically perhaps, in addition to giving an authenticity to the narrative voice, the blending of Standard English and the vernacular, also makes the narration a self-consciously literary kind of testimony. ‘Galahad’ and the ‘ballads’ I have touched on above, as also the evocation of Dickens and Eliot to ground the novella in a tradition of London-literature, but there are other resonances too: the stream-of-consciousness ‘summer-is-hearts’ passage, recalls Joyce’s Ulysses. Moses, with his nostalgia, his talent for storytelling and his care for a displaced people, bears more than a passing similarity to an older Ulysses; in the Odyssey, while Odysseus – the ‘shepherd of the people’ – must care for his men and navigate their way home, something he fails to do, Moses cares for ‘the boys’, helping them to find work and places to stay and guiding their early days in London, assisting them to find a home here, something in which he ultimately feels that he or they have collectively failed in too.

Ultimately, in considering memory and identity in both novels, the element of hindsight (memory?) on the part of those reading and interpreting the text is also important. In the world of the novel, The Handmaid’s Tale stands as evidence of the early part of the Gileadean regime and the handmaid’s identity is only significant in that it sheds light on the important historical figures around her. As readers, I think we must feel that although she is nameless, her identity comes through strongly, her will to survive, her love for her daughter and for her friend, the way that she feels shocked by things that she took for granted in her old life – the transgressive joy of Scrabble, the wearing of make-up – much like many of us feel a moment of anxiety when characters on television walk into shops without being masked! In the world of the novel, this identity is fragile: we don’t know whether she managed to escape or whether she was caught in the process, and we know that the regime persisted for many more years, meaning that generations more handmaids – those that will not have known a time before – have gone through the system, and her tale is subsumed by the roll of history.

In The Lonely Londoners, this sense, for the reader, of the generations that came afterwards alters the way in which we read the ending. While Moses despairs of ‘the boys’ ever making progress in London, we know now that though racism in Britain persists, that generation of West Indian immigrants did plant roots and their descendants are an integral part of London’s diverse communities. Though the novella ends on a moment of relatively bleakness, focalised as it is through Moses, earlier, we see the characters not only adapting to London, but making London adapt to them through, for example, the Jewish tailors learning to cater for their taste in suits and the grocery shop owners who start stocking ‘blackeye peas and red beans and pepper sauce, and tinned breadfruit and ochro and smoke herring’ and allowing the women to shop on weekly credit. In this way, The Lonely Londoners operates as the beginning of a cultural memory narrative, one which starts with Moses coming in on the Windrush and continues through our own (my own) lifetimes.

Published by sophieraudnitz

English teacher, Classics PhD, teenaged boys and dogs

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