“Wakey, wakey, wakey – let go of your cocks and grab your socks”. I’ll never forget the first time hearing this line being read out by Andrea Levy herself, at her reading for Small Island.
It wasn’t just the line, and rhyming of cocks with socks, it was the way she read it, completely capturing the character of Flight Sergeant Thwaites as he woke up the West Indian RAF volunteers from their slumber. From that moment on, I was captivated by the story and Andrea Levy’s style of writing. Such was the power of her reading, that I felt like I was there in the book with her. I knew right then, before the end of the reading that I was going to drop the £15 that I didn’t have on a hardback copy of the book, which I also got signed.
I didn’t know then, and I suspect possibly Andrea Levy herself didn’t know, how Small Island would not only launch her career into the big leagues – she won the Orange Prize, the Whitbread prize and the Commonwealth prize that year in 2004 – but also cement itself in the British consciousness as the go to account of the lives of the Windrush generation settling in Britain in the late 40s and early 50s.
I can’t remember if Small Island was the first book of Andrea Levy’s that I read. I don’t think it was, I think I’d read Never Far From Nowhere first, which told the story of two sisters born to Jamaican parents who grow up on a London council estate. The novel addressed the issues surrounding class, race and colorism, as one sister is a shade lighter than the other, and can and does in some respects ‘pass’ for white (or anything other than Black/Caribbean) thus her experience growing up is very different to her darker skinned sister who does not have that choice. A novel that is as pertinent today as it was back when it was first published, perhaps even more so.
What I loved about this book, and other books by Andrea Levy, was the fact that you always came away feeling like you had learned something, a key piece of Black history. That and also her very personal style of writing. More often than not, she wrote from her own experience and background, telling her story as well as those of her parents. And at times it wasn’t pretty, especially in Never Far From Nowhere, where the shame of being of Jamaican parentage becomes apparent in the case of the light-skinned character Vivien. I had the stark realisation that Levy was talking about herself and her experience growing up as light-skinned Black person and how she was even afraid to call herself Black. It was a creative writing course she took in her 30s that enabled her to explore her identity and her heritage and led to the amazing stories we have now.
It was only recently – I think when The Long Song was broadcast on television that I learned Andrea Levy had cancer. I was saddened but honestly thought we, well she, would have more time. So it was a shock when the news broke yesterday that she’d passed, and immediately I thought of that reading at the Barbican one Saturday afternoon, which I hadn’t thought about in years.
Andrea Levy’s candid honesty, humour and ability to interrogate her own motivations as well as those of others. In addition, her painstaking research into Black British history is what makes her one of the best writers of our generation and we’ve truly lost a giant in British literature.
Rest in peace wonderful lady!