Creating England/Inglan with Creole and Patois

 “England was the nearest thing we had to a mother country”
(James Berry, Windrush Songs 10)

“Stories are told, both with and without music.”
(Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic 200)

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I’d like to look at how Trinidadian Creole and Jamaican Patois have been used to create ‘England’ – or ‘Inglan’ – in three separate works, which I’ll present in the order of their setting rather than that of their creation. Firstly Miguel Street (1959), V.S. Naipaul’s collection of linked stories set in 1940s Trinidad; secondly The Lonely Londoners (1956), Sam Selvon’s episodic novel set in 1950s Britain; and thirdly Dread Beat an’ Blood (1978), a vinyl album of poetry set to reggae by Poet and the Roots, along with printed versions of the poems in Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Mi Revalueshanary Fren (2002). These works, of course, are nowhere near the whole corpus of each auteur. However, they do mark different historical stages in the relationship between people from the Caribbean and the ‘mother country’.

The main critics I’m drawing on are Professor Maria Grazia Sindoni of the University of Messina, and Professor Christian Mair of the University of Freiburg, so the three texts will be approached principally from the direction of sociolinguistics. Sindoni and Mair have applied that discipline to Naipaul and Selvon, but I shall extend its principles to Johnson. I’ll also cite Mervyn Morris and Homi K. Bhabha amongst others. I’m going to use the terms ‘Creole’ and ‘Patois’ rather than across-the-board ‘Nation Language’ – pace Edward Kamau Brathwaite, who introduced the term (282), and Robert McGill, who reminds us that Linton Kwesi Johnson has also used it to identify his own medium of expression (567) – in order to differentiate, for convenience only, between the use of lects from Trinidad and Jamaica. And beyond this point I will not use exceptional quotation marks around them or around ‘Inglan’. My suggestion is that the unifying principle in all three works is that of ownership, mainly of the English language and related variants, but also of England as a place.

Miguel Street is a series of anecdotes told retrospectively by a narrator of South Asian heritage who has left Trinidad. In that respect it mirrors V.S. Naipaul’s own career; however, Naipaul was educated at Trinidad’s prestigious Queen’s Royal College before winning a scholarship to University College, Oxford. By contrast, although the narrator does go to school, his ill-defined scholarship to England is “wangled” by his mother, due to her acquaintance with Ganesh Pundit, a politician (167-169). As a telos, therefore, England itself is ill-defined, made of picture-postcard images and vague notions about climate – “It mean going to London. It mean seeing snow and seeing the Thames and seeing the big Parliament” (168) – and gained by a West Indian only through an importuned patronage. The country itself is only mentioned a handful of times in the book, and each time it occurs within Creole conversation:

Hat said, ‘Edward, you talking as if Trinidad is England. You ever hear that people tell the truth in Trinidad and get away? In Trinidad the more you innocent, the more they throw you in jail, and the more bribe you got to hand out.’ (158)

article Miguel StreetHere England is a reverse image of Trinidad, and deemed incorruptible in contrast to the corruptness of its Caribbean crown colony. On the right side in the War, and warmly hospitable to West Indian servicemen (Winder 330), its location is imprecisely known to the Trinidadians – “If Europe could just sink for five minutes, all the Germans go drown.” “But England go drown too.” (Miguel Street 78). The Trinidadians are better acquainted directly with the American allies (26, 55, 143). England remains a remote source of education, from which a migrant might return “with all sort of certificate and paper” (169). Titus Hoyt’s shingle proclaims his qualifications as “London, External,” and Elias’s exam papers are sent to England to be marked (32). When they are sent back, there is a suspicion that he has been failed because he is Trinidadian: “What else you expect? Who correct the papers? Englishman, not so? You expect them to give Elias a pass?” (33). This supposition of a colonial bias jars with the idea of incorruptibility, and England is a place of contradictions.

Elias confesses he is beaten by “litritcher and poultry” (34). At this point, where the (mis)understanding of “literature and poetry” is lampooned, it is worth emphasising that Miguel Street is a comic work and these are comic utterances. Christian Mair makes the point that “as long as vernacular and non-standard forms of speech are only used in the domains traditionally assigned to them in literature – that is passages of speech (to add local colour), and in low comedy – the language attitudes conveyed in literature resemble those encountered in real life” (141). Mair goes on to say that it is significant that Trinidad Creole comes in not as the language of the “Indian writer writing in English,” but purely as the special kind of English used by his characters (145).

To writers like Barbadian George Lamming and Trinidadian Sam Selvon, England was the promised land where writers could be published (Sindoni 149), and it was to prove so for Naipaul as well. As a colonially- and British-educated person he would have encountered the “language of literature” which, whilst not a dialect in its own right (debate that if you like), is “firmly integrated into the chorus of real-life voices” (Mair 140). Mair further notes that it is not entirely up to individuals to decide in which voices they want to express themselves, implying that Naipaul’s language of literature had been bred into him due to his education and could not help but come out in his writing (ibid.):

Naipaul’s first-person narrator, wistfully looking back on an environment he has left behind for good […] uses standard English. In his attitudes and values, the narrator is clearly no longer part of the world he describes, and this is reflected in the sharp contrast between the Creole spoken by the characters, including the narrator’s own boyhood self, and the standard English narrative. (149)

His leaving it behind means that it is not so much Trinidadian Creole that Naipaul uses to create an England, as the standard English that surrounds it – standard English of great subtlety and force, in Mervyn Morris’s opinion (21). The danger in this strategy is the possible relegation of the Creole-speakers to the position of Captain Macmorris in Henry V or Joseph in Wuthering Heights, stereotyping them by language usage or eye-dialect.

Subverting that stereotyping, however, is Naipaul’s character known as Man-man. His affectation of the accent of “a good-class Englishman” without the precision of school-taught syntax (Miguel Street 39), and his sudden self-reinvention as an evangelist, leading to a staged crucifixion and stoning (41-44), have been suggested as an “almost but not quite” mimicry of the colonial power (Bhabha 86). This, however, is unconvincing. Man-man is one eccentric character out of a street-full of eccentric characters, and his mimicry borders on parody or absurdity rather than “almost” imitation. Naipaul appears to be satirising policies entrenched in colonialism, such as Charles Grant’s from 1792, who envisioned Christianity and the imitation of English manners as an “empty form” that would ensure social control (Bhabha 87). By contrast, Man-man and his adherents, in their religious enthusiasm, are out-of-control; the general opinion of Man-man was that he was mad (Miguel Street 38) and, despite that fact that he comes to his right mind and renounces the “arseness” of his behaviour, he is nonetheless taken away and “kept […] for good” (44) – and you can take “good” and “for good” several ways! Thus Naipaul dismisses the very idea that Englishness can or should be imitated by the ordinary Trinidadian – England is simultaneously powerless to force a convincing imitation, and powerful enough to give its colonial agency the authority to incarcerate a man, even though he has regained his sanity. It would be easier to style Naipaul himself as a “mimic man,” for his “coming to England as to some purely literary region” (Eva Peron 233) and for his use of literary English as a vehicle; but the facility with which he uses it, wields it, is more obviously a sign of the glocalisation – in sociolinguistics, the process by which a world-dominant language is adopted and adapted by local communities – of an English that has moved well beyond the implications of colonialism and is now a powerful tool in the hands of any fluent user who can be said to own it.

The ownership of the English language, implied in Naipaul’s work, is stated more directly in Selvon’s, alongside or in spite of the use of Creole:

     ‘You get that raise the foreman was promising you?’ Galahad ask, for something to say.

     ‘What did you say? You know it will take me some time to understand everything you say. The way you West Indians speak!’

     ‘What wrong with it?’ Galahad ask. ‘Is English we speaking.’
(Selvon 82)

“English is important to West Indians,” says Mervyn Morris, “and we to it,” citing Derek Walcott’s 1992 Nobel Prize, and giving honourable mentions to Naipaul, Selvon, and Johnson inter alia (19). In the light of that, a West Indian can claim ownership of the language, even though in the 1950s the intonation and grammar Galahad uses might puzzle an English person such as his girlfriend Daisy. Having set out to write The Lonely Londoners in standard English with Creole dialogue and failed to progress (Nazareth 421), Selvon decided to continue with the whole book written in a “modified dialect which could be understood by European readers” (Fabre 66). The Lonely Londoners is launched with the following words:

One grim winter evening, when it had a kind of unrealness about London, with a fog seeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in the blur as if is not London at all but some strange place on another planet […]

Relying only on a small number of syntactic and lexical clues (Mair 146), Selvon’s Creole brings the narration and the book’s characters close together in his chosen setting. There is none of the wistful, detached retrospection of Miguel Street, although the clues reveal the same lect. By the time Moses Aloetta opens his mouth the reader is attuned to the novel’s register. The opening lines have been likened to Dickens – they certainly place the novel in a fog-bound London – and if Selvon does not contain his dialogue in the language of literature as Naipaul does, the novel makes several such references to article Lonely Londonerscanonical texts and literary figures. Henry Oliver’s nickname of Galahad (Selvon 15) is from Arthurian legend; the sentiment “What is it that a city have, that any place in the world have, that you get so much to like it you wouldn’t leave it for anywhere else?” (134) recalls Dr. Johnson; the description of London as the “great city […] centre of the world” (134) has an echo of the Babylon of Revelation 14:8 (Bible, KJV); and the central, unpunctuated prose-poem about London in summer is in the stream-of-consciousness of high Modernism (92-102).

Having established England, specifically London, as a location for his Caribbean characters to operate in, and having staked a claim to its literary heritage, Selvon goes on to celebrate its beauty and its awfulness. The ten-page paean to summer is bracketed by descriptions of greenery, sunshine, skies of near-Caribbean blue that remind the lonely Londoners of their former home, and smiling people, but contains a breathless description of predatory sex. Women are objectified as “pretty pieces of skin” (92), “sharp thing[s]” (96), “real sharp chicks” and “cat[s]” (100). In winter however even Tanty, the resolute importer of Jamaican attitudes and the foil to both the narrator’s misogyny and the alienation of London as a strange place on another planet, is intimidated by the cold weather (57). The alienation and isolation is often severe, contrasting with Caribbean ideas of community identity:

It have people living in London who don’t know what happening in the room next to them, far more the street, or how other people living. London is a place like that. It divide up in little worlds, and you stay in the world you belong to and you don’t know anything about what happening in the other ones except what you read in the papers.

Selvon’s eponymous lonely Londoners include Harris, perhaps his equivalent of Naipaul’s Man-man; but in London it is not flipping between madness and sanity that is his undoing:

Harris is a fellar who like to play ladeda, and he like English custom and thing, he does be polite and say thank you and he does get up in the bus and the tube to let woman sit down, which is a thing even them Englishmen don’t do. And when he dress, you think is some Englishman going to work in the city, bowler and umbrella, and briefcase tuck under the arm […] walking upright if is he alone alive in the world. Only thing, Harris face black. (103)

Being black, rather than any misunderstanding of language or culture, is the real problem. Galahad, thinking about the ingenuous child remarking on his colour (76), and the covert prejudice of his workmates, addresses blackness as if it were sentient: “Why the hell you can’t change colour?” (77). In further Biblical intertextuality, the novel’s central, focalised figure is given the name Moses, after the reluctant prophet who led the Children of Israel to the Promised Land but never entered it himself; the implication here is that England is certainly not the Promised Land for the black characters, even if it was the place for the writers to find success in publication (Sindoni 149).

Does Selvon, by “reinventing” (Sindoni 152) the language of narration by eliminating the syntactic and morphological features of a broader kind of Creole (Mair 146), make a compromise with the culture that oppresses on the basis of colour, and a colonial structure that relies on strategies to maintain order and belittle the self-esteem of the colonised (Sindoni 103)? His deliberate choice to create a mesolect, bridging standard English and Creole, makes the text accessible to the “general reader” (Mair 146). Mair assumes that a general reader is a reader of a standard form of English, thus establishing a [white?] default position. Sindoni, on the other hand, reminds us that “every language is the result of a process of creolization […] of contamination, of successive contacts within linguistic families” (101). ‘Standard’ English itself can be described as a Creole, initially of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French but subsequently subjected to numerous other influences. Selvon’s experiment is one which he, as a user of English and of Creole, is entitled to carry out, by the very fact of the language ownership claimed in the novel.

Beyond the use of ‘fellar’ and ‘Brit’n’ throughout The Lonely Londoners, as with Naipaul’s ‘litritcher and poultry’, Selvon makes no effort to capture pronunciation features of Caribbean speech, though even ‘Brit’n’ may reflect nothing more than an English norm (Mair 145). For a deliberate decision to base a whole corpus of work on rendering Jamaican Patois phonetically, we must look at the Inglan of the next generation, and the work of Linton Kwesi Johnson. From the late 1960s and on to the early 1970s, when Johnson arrived at Goldsmiths, he would have found the college to be a mainly white, middle-class enclave in a working class area. New Cross had large Irish and Caribbean populations. Black British youths, integrated into local skinhead groups (see the photo – I article skinheadscan attest to this, as I was in one of these mixed-heritage groups back then), code-switched between London and Jamaican vernaculars, and white teenagers danced to Reggae in the dancehalls. Since the days depicted in The Lonely Londoners, when people would have had trouble understanding Caribbean accents, that register had become more familiar, even to the extent that in 1969 a song in Jamaican Patois, Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites,” reached No.1 in the UK Singles Chart. During the decade between Enoch Powell’s 1968 “Like the Roman” speech and Leader of the Opposition Margaret Thatcher’s 1978 use of the word “swamped” when referring in a television interview to immigration (Burns), the Students Union at Goldsmiths was a forum for diverse and competing left-wing political views. On the right, this decade was a period of growth for the National Front. A sociology student brought up in an area of London with a notable West Indian community, Johnson would have found his adherence to the American Black Panther movement confirmed by the racial and political milieu in which he moved. The vinyl album Dread Beat an Blood, released in 1978, was a product of his environment, his militancy, and his creativity.

Unlike Miguel Street and The Lonely Londoners, Dread Beat an Blood is much more than the words contained in it. Its cover, with artwork by Una Howe, depicting a girl and a little boy, seen from behind, confronting a line of riot police, recalls Sharpeville and Watts, leaving whomever views it in no doubt that Johnson intends to establish in England the front line in a stand against racism and oppression, rather than an impotent complaint against the colour Black such as Selvon puts in the mouth of Galahad. The rear cover has a photograph of Johnson addressing a crowd by megaphone in front of a police station, clearly evidencing his own activism. Its recorded contents borrow, for its musical accompaniment, from the portentous mood and ‘one-drop’ rhythm of the Rastafarian reggae of the early 1970s, which tell of retribution of Jah against the wicked. But although the poetry promises plenty of retribution, its agency will be those who “stan firm inna Inglan” (Johnson 25) rather than the Almighty.

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The Patois in which Johnson chooses to deliver his agitprop message borrows very little from the ‘Iyaric’ of Rastafari, however. That is limited to a reference to “babylonian tyrants” in “Five Nights of Bleeding,” (6) by which he means the police as the agents of oppression, and perhaps the likening of his Black Panther comrade Darcus Howe to “a mighty lion” in “Man Free” (Poet and the Roots, track 7) – a description Rastafarians would normally reserve for Emperor Haile Selassie. There is, of course, the inclusion of the word ‘Dread’ in the album title. The words of the title seem to have been chosen to have multiple meanings: ‘Dread’ can refer to Rastafari, to fear experienced in the face of oppression, or to the same fear turned upon one’s oppressors; ‘Beat’ can refer to physical violence experienced or meted out, to the foot patrol of a police constable, or to the rhythm of music; ‘Blood’ can refer to lifeblood, to a genetic relationship, or to the fraternal greeting of African-American gang members, though this last would be a tenuous association. Another Rastafarian element deliberately omitted is the aim of a black Exodus to Africa. Dread Beat an Blood has no affinity with the “Natty go deh” sentiment of Dr. Alimantado, Barrington Spence, or U-Roy, “deh” – ‘there’ – being the spiritual homeland of Ethiopia. Johnson’s message is quite to the contrary. Seemingly in direct response to what was perceived as an increase in Margaret Thatcher’s anti-immigration rhetoric (Burns), his message could not be clearer:

Maggi Tatcha on di go
wid a racist show
but a she haffi go
rite now,
West Indian
an Black British
stan firm inna Inglan
inna disya time yah
far noh mattah wat dey say
come wat may
we are here to stay
inna Inglan

(Johnson 25)

Johnson’s self-description as “Black British,” and his assuming spokesperson status for others who would identify as such, is uncompromising. Inglan is where he and they are planted and, in those few lines of Patois, Johnson has created an Inglan where they will stay, if still not the Promised Land then certainly a position to hold. If Selvon’s Galahad claimed ownership of the language, Johnson claims citizenship and the right to defend it. The message of “All Wi Doin is Defendin” (11) is transplanted directly to Inglan from that of his American comrades (Seale 93 et seq.)

The choice of Patois rendered phonetically in the transcribed poems fixes its place as a constructor of Inglan. It may be that “Is English we speaking,” as Galahad says, but Mervyn Morris wryly replies “Is not English we writing” (24). To a listener in the 1970s, a period in which reggae was widely heard in Britain, Johnson’s vocal delivery is accessible, coming across as a mesolect. By this strategy, Johnson not only reaches his own constituency, but also the language group from which their oppressors come. Someone used to a standard spelling might have heard “for no matter what they say / come what may / we are here to stay” (Poet and the Roots, track 5). To render it so in print, however, would have been a denial of Johnson’s self-identification; as Christian Mair says of a similar decision made by James Berry, using standard English had become “the equivalent of applying cosmetic straightening agents to one’s hair – a sign of racial and cultural self-hatred” (143). In the twenty-first century we may have become less familiar with the sound of Caribbean speech within our social milieux than we were in the 1970s, and someone coming fresh to the poetry may be obliged, as Mervyn Morris advised in the 1990s, “to sound syllable by syllable the words which look unfamiliar” (24) to make sense of them.

Also from a twenty-first century perspective we can reappraise the militant claims I have acknowledged above for Dread Beat an Blood. Robert McGill notes that dub poetry – a genre which Johnson could claim to have invented and dominated – is excluded from Euro-American literary canons, though he challenges the concept of a canon as imaginary in the same way as Benedict Anderson’s “nations” are “imagined communities” (McGill 561, 565). Exclusion from any such literary canon of the English language may imply exclusion from the ‘nation’ of Inglan therefore, a refusal to accommodate either Johnson’s poetry or Naipaul’s and Selvon’s fiction. Looking at it another way entirely, as five out of the seven poems from Dread Beat an Blood are included in a Penguin Classics collection of Johnson’s poetry (570) it could be said, with some irony, that Inglan now subsumes Johnson, as it also claims Selvon and Naipaul within a single, well-established, English-language publishing house. However, I have established that the fact of ownership, whether it be of English, of the paired lects of English/Creole and English/Patois, of the process of continuing creolisation of each pair, of England/Inglan as a place to “stan firm,” or of the right to imagine such things at all in their created works, confers independence upon these creators and upon their creations, from the aspiring Trinidadian writer (Selvon 139) to the ironically-modest voice of a “tap-natch poet” (Johnson 94). England/Inglan does not own these writers, whatever their having been published by Penguin seems to imply. Nor does the concept of ‘post-colonial writing’ straitjacket them, as though into a sub-genre of some kind. I haven’t attempted a comprehensive analysis of other Caribbean factors in Naipaul, Selvon, and Johnson here – the orality of Creole and Patois, their non-referring to a previous literary tradition or written code, and their storytelling strategies (Sindoni 151, 159) for example, or their non-iambic, calypso metre (Brathwaite 283). I have instead suggested that these three early works with their different levels engagement with Creole, Patois, and English, along with the creative corpus each writer went on to produce – and indeed the writers themselves – are now established in their own right, by the agency of glocalisation, as is the England/Inglan imagined in each work. Naipaul, Selvon, and Johnson, and their storytelling with or without music, are beholden neither to the academic label of the ‘post-colonial’ nor to any canonical literary conventions. And each in his own way is simply “tap-natch.”

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Works cited

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, & Helen Tiffin. The Post-Colonial

Studies Reader, 2nd edition. Routledge, 2006.

Berry, James. Windrush Songs. Bloodaxe, 2007.

Bhabha, Homi K. The location of culture. Routledge, 1994.

The Bible, King James Version. Thomas Nelson Publishers,


Brathwaite, Edward Kamau. “Nation Language.” The Post-

Colonial Studies Reader, 2nd edition. Edited by Bill

Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, & Helen Tiffin, Routledge,

2006, pp.281-284.

Burns, Gordon. “1978 Jan 27 TV Interview for

Granada World in Action (“rather swamped”).”

Margaret Thatcher Foundation, 2018.

Dekker, Desmond. “Israelites.” 7-inch vinyl single,

Pyramid, 1969.

Dr. Alimantado. “Go Deh Natty Go Deh”. 7-inch vinyl

single, Ital, 1976.

Dread Beat an Blood. Vinyl album, Front Line, 1978.

Fabre, Michel. “Samuel Selvon: Interviews and

Conversations.” Critical Perspectives on Sam Selvon,

edited by Susheila Nasta, Three Continents Press,

1988, pp.66-75.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double

Consciousness. Verso, 1993 (2002 reprint).

Johnson, Linton Kwesi. Mi Revalueshanary Fren: Selected

Poems. Penguin Classics, 2002.

Mair, Christian. “Naipaul’s Miguel Street and Selvon’s

Lonely Londoners – Two Approaches to the Use

of Caribbean Creole in Fiction.” The Journal of

Commonwealth Literature, vol.24 No.1, 1989.

McGill, Robert. “Goon poets of the black Atlantic:

Linton Kwesi Johnson’s imagined canon.”

Textual Practice, vol.17 No.3, 2003, pp.561-574.

Morris, Mervyn. “Is English we speaking.” English Today,

vol.9 No.4, 1993, pp.18-26.

Naipaul, V.S. Miguel Street. Penguin, 1999.

—. The Return of Eva Peron – with the Killings in Trinidad.

Knopf, 1974.

Nazareth, Peter. “Interview with Sam Selvon.” Journal

of Postcolonial Writing, vol.18 No.2, 1979, pp.420-437.

Poet and the Roots. Dread Beat an’ Blood. Vinyl album, Front

Line, 1978.

Seale, Bobby. Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther

Party. Arrow, 1970.

Selvon, Sam. The Lonely Londoners. Penguin Modern Classics,


Sindoni, Maria Grazia. Creolizing Culture: A Study on Sam

Selvon’s Work. Atlantic, 2006.

Spence, Barrington. “Go Deh Natty.” 7-inch vinyl single, TR, 1975.

U-Roy. “Go Deh Natty.” Natty Rebel. Vinyl album, Virgin, 1976.

Winder, Robert. Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration

to Britain. Little Brown, 2004.




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H is for Hopper

nighthawks_by_edward_hopper_1942 [2]
‘Nighthawks’ (1942), Edward Hopper, Art Institute of Chicago.

Edward Hopper was one of the USA’s foremost 20c realist artists. He worked in oils, watercolour, and etching. The painting above, Nighthawks from 1942, is a sparse study of late-night life in an American city. There is very little that fixes the place, although it is said to resemble Hopper’s neighbourhood of Greenwich Village in New York. The street is empty, there are no street signs, no parked cars with telltale license plates; there is nothing in the neighbouring shop windows and no names above their frontages, except for the faded gilt above the diner and the suggestion that cigars can be bought here for five cents. The only illumination thrown onto the outside environment comes from the yellow-white lighting inside the diner. Three customers seem motionless. One man has his back to us – he is a total enigma, though he seems to be in the process of raising a glass. Our eye is drawn to the second man, the woman, and the waiter; the latter seems to be the only figure that hints animation, as he bends to attend to something we can’t see, below the counter-top. “Can I get you folks anything else?”

nighthawks_by_edward_hopper_1942 [detail]
‘Nighthawks’, detail.

The urns sit there like Flash Gordon spaceships on a launching pad, as motionless as the couple – if they are a couple and not simply two people juxtaposed by chance. Their coffee is untouched. The man, with chiseled features and an aquiline nose beneath his fedora, holds but does not smoke a cigarette. The woman, her face taking on an Elizabethan white-lead hue under the lights, is staring at what might be a much-folded dollar bill, hinting that she might be a sex worker, though nothing in this painting can be taken at face value. If she is simply offering it to the waiter in payment for her coffee, she is doing so without making eye contact. Despite the brown of the woodwork, the deep blues, the yellow of the wall, and the scarlet of the woman’s dress, the painting evokes one word – Noir.

The atmosphere is one not so much of ennui but of tension and menace, which mood-creation and emotional content draw the principles of expressionism into Hopper’s realism. Who is going to move into shot (I use that term deliberately)? If anyone moves, will they shatter the immobility? Four years after this painting was produced, a movie adaptation of Ernest Hemmingway’s short story “The Killers” was released. A diner features prominently in that film, and although that particular eatery is in a small town, not a big city, and there are differences in the setting, I am always struck by the similarity of the angle in which two menacing figures approach it. Are viewers of the painting supposed to imagine themselves – coat collar turned up, fedora brim turned down – approaching the diner’s oasis of light with the soft tread of hired hit-men?

‘The Killers’ (1946), dir. Robert Siodmak, Universal Pictures.

I am not alone in drawing a comparison between the painting and the short story, as speculation has been made before that one influenced the other, and that the painting went on to influence the film. Hopper’s Nighthawks has often been emulated – I see an influence on some of Jack Vettriano’s work, in fact I consider Vettriano’s work to be largely derivative in any case – and sometimes parodied. Banksy added a drunken British football fan and a broken window, others have dropped the TARDIS into the scene, or Kirk and Spock from Star Trek. It is a painting as well-known and as iconic as the fedora hat itself.

the killers THE_KILLERS_46-0
‘The Killers’ (1946), dir. Robert Siodmak, Universal Pictures.

Something that strikes me about the painting that I had not realised before, until comparing it to movie techniques and technology of the time, is that the freedom Hopper had, by virtue of his artistic medium, to select a canvas with a width-to-height proportion of approximately 2:1, has produced something that almost adumbrates the invention of cinemascope. But that was at least a decade away. The fact remains that Nighthawks is instantly recognisable, and quintessentially 1940s American. Accept no substitutes.

Vettriano Weaving the Web
‘Weaving the Web’, Jack Vettriano.

These our actors were all spirits…

… and are melted into air.

It is the 1980s. Margaret Thatcher’s military adventure in the Falklands has just ended in disaster. In a snap election, Tony Benn becomes Prime Minister. His first act in office is to state that Parliament will take the United Kingdom out of the European Union; this will not be decided by referendum, because only tyrannies use the plebiscite as a tool, and that always ends in injustice. More importantly, Alan Turing is still alive, and is the UK’s foremost expert on artificial intelligence. When Charlie, a trained anthropologist with an interest in computing, buys one of the handful of entirely lifelike android artificial intelligences – Adam – and he and his girlfriend Miranda programme it to their specifications, they do not realise what effect that will have on their lives, and on the lives of others, or in what way Alan Turing will become involved.

Ian McEwan

This is the setting-up of Ian McEwan’s novel Machines Like Me. The reason I was drawn to it may have been because six months ago I was given the task of reading, amongst other novels, Murmur by Will Eaves, an experimental novel based loosely on the life of Alan Turing in the time-line that you and I recognise, for the James Tait Black Prize. It may also have been the fact that I have, in my time, read a lot of ‘speculative fiction’, based on historical alterations, and was intrigued by one that picked a time period less than four decades in the past. Although McEwan’s novel has a dig at our current political situation – the crack about plebiscites wasn’t all that subtle, probably the least subtle thing in the whole novel – it is actually a very rarified piece of fiction. Hence my implication that its characters “were all spirits.” It is not a dystopian adventure, it is not ‘sci-fi’, not ITpunk, not I Robot in any of its forms, Adam is not HAL. Machines Like Me is a novel of philosophical enquiry, each episode, each new step taken by Adam, from its disabling its off-switch and defending itself, to its ultimately deciding not to defend itself, produces a conundrum and a moral dilemma. The moral dilemma is a matter of choosing what is the ‘right’ thing to do; the conundrum is why Adam’s artificial intelligence sees things the way it does. Even a question as simple as can an AI own something, does it have a right to the fruits of its labour, stops the characters and the reader short of an absolute answer.

I don’t want to give spoilers, because I earnestly suggest you read it, but Adam’s original sense of “O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here… O brave new world that has such people in’t!” changes, according to the character Turing, into bewilderment, an inability to understand the humankind that it perceives. As in all AI stories, the reader has to decide whether the AI is ‘conscious’; that begs the question, of course, of what the hell is consciousness. Turing considers Adam is, but is he right? Will we take the fictionalised character’s word for it because we consider our Turing to have been a genius?

Among Adam’s startling developments is a sense of love for Miranda. Yes Asimov’s Satisfaction Guaranteed is referenced here, but the prime expression of that love is a wish for Miranda to achieve complete clarity. There is something very dark in her past, and Adam prizes truth above all things – how could a machine see anything to be gained from the use of false data? Miranda’s role is at one-hundred-and-eighty degrees from her Shakespearean namesake’s; she is the looked-upon in the brave new world, not the looker-upon.

I have posted about artificial intelligence here before. I have given the opinion that in order to be able to be conscious, such a assembly of parts must be given – though heaven knows how – an appreciation that it encounters phenomena, not data. If that is achieved, then an artificial intelligence may mimic more closely the human intelligence it is supposed to have as its reference point. Whether we are capable of constructing any such thing is another matter. This phenomenological view is an issue that McEwan misses, but he shouldn’t feel bad about that as just about every writer of speculative fiction has done the same. If anyone reading this knows different, please let me know and I’ll set the record straight.

Machines Like Me left me with one question in particular hanging. If Adam prized the truth so much, why was one of its last acts to encourage Charlie and Miranda to lie?

You’ll notice I have been referring to Adam as “it” throughout this post. There’s a good reason. It is because I want you, when you come to the novel, to come with a tabula rasa rather than taking away a preconception about the ‘consciousness’ and/or ‘personality’ of Adam. Facing that issue is part of the experience of reading the novel. As I said, Machines Like me is a rarified work, and though it is intriguing it is sometimes a little cautious.

[A 2019 novel may sit strangely in a blog that purports to be concerned with the 20c, by the way, but my excuse is its 1980s setting.]