I first read The Street by Biyi Bandele a few years ago when I was studying English Lit, and back then I declared it my favourite book. Now having re-read it, I wouldn’t say it was my favourite read but it still charms mainly because it’s set in Brixton and it accurately, in my view, captures the vibe of the Brixton community.
The Street is a surreal, dreamy trip through the streets of Brixton into the intersecting lives of its extraordinary residents: Dada is a struggling writer and functional alcoholic who spends his spare time replaying classic movies in his head, owing to the fact that he does not own a TV. When not watching imaginary movies he is looking out for his eccentric cousin, known to all as The Heckler because he spends his time outside Brixton tube station, the Speaker’s Corner of the south-west, heckling the street preachers of various beliefs. Then there is Haifa Kampana, a man so obsessed with the checkout girl at his local 7-Eleven that he stalks her with intensity and professionalism of a News of the World hack. However, at the centre of the novel is the story of Nehushta, a painter and Dada’s onetime girlfriend, and her father Ossie, who after fifteen years wakes up from a coma with quite a story to tell. It’s this part of the novel that forms much of The Street’s surreal magic and wit, as Bandele explores everything from love and loss, death and life and the chemistry of cannabis.
For me two things stand out in this novel, one is Bandele’s use of language. I spent much time pausing to look up weird and wonderfully complex words such as pusillanimous, which apparently means to show a lack of courage or determination. Though it has to be said that at times this was a minor irritation, especially when reading on the bus with no dictionary to hand. Some might go as far to accuse Bandele of pretension but I think that would be unfair, I think he just happens to have a very extensive vocabulary range, albeit one which somewhat jars with the urbanisms usually heard on the street. Furthermore it is clear that Bandele is very well read as literary and cultural references are thrown left and right, some blatantly obvious like the Cool Killers play, a nod to Quentin Tarrantino’s Reservoir Dogs and some slightly less obvious ones unless you are familiar with Baudelaire’s concept of the flâneur, the character who strolls around the city observing and experiencing all things the city has to offer. In many ways, The Street is a tribute or re-imagining of the flâneur, from Haifa Kampana’s stalking missions, Nehushta’s artistic depictions of Brixton’s mentally ill (also known as the Undead) to the ‘humble narrator’s’ commentary on the lives of his characters.
The Street offers a different narrative about Brixton, which does not ignore the realities of inner city life but does not focus on the obvious topics such as gangs, violence, poverty and rioting, like a lot of similar novels would or would be expected to. For that I do love this book, because it looks at the everyday life and the everyday people of Brixton. And though at times, re-reading this it felt dated, walking past Brixton tube station the other day and seeing a street preacher in full throttle, I half expected to see The Heckler emerging from the crowd to dispense his witty asides. That alone made this worth the re-read and I’d encourage you to give it a go too.