Primary source material reproduced from Kole Omotoso, The Edifice, (London, 1971), pp.8-9; 27-29; 32-33; 42-43.
A year before graduating with a PhD in Arabic literature, Edinburgh-based Kole Omotoso published a semi-autobiographical novel, The Edifice, about a Nigerian literature PhD student, living in a British university town. Dating British women, walking across ‘the Meadows’, down ‘Loth [Leith?] Road’ and clubbing at ‘Abule’, the novel’s protagonists give a unique insight into 1970s social history.
Anytime I went to this particular newsagent I usually gambled who would be there and who wouldn’t. I got my weekly copy of West Africa through them. When the wife was there I could always pay the recommended price which was only two bob. But when it was the husband, he insisted on my paying half-a-crown. I collected the peoples and went back to the house. Moses, the shorter of my two flat-mates, was just slotting in the coin for his bath. I said ‘Hi’ and opened the door of my room. He asked in our language:
‘Is your asewo gone yet?’
I said no and entered the room. Jean was still lying in bed reading something. I opened the bottle of lemonade and gave it to her. She wouldn’t use a cup, preferring to drink ‘from the fountainhead’ as she put it.
‘Got a fag?’
I fished in her bag for her packet of No. 6. I lit it for her and got myself one too. She placed the bottle on the table and picked up the papers. She rustled through them quickly and then shouted:
It was a cartoon of two n****rs in the dark. But really it was just a blank black square in a corner of the page and some words under the square. I laughed. It seemed as if the only things that interested her were the cartoons. She would call out suddenly and show me another one. Some of them I didn’t understand and I’d just grin and go on with whatever I was doing. I was becoming hungry. I boiled an egg and made coffee. I got some bread and butter and the bottle of jam. They call it a ‘jar’ here but it’s really a bottle.
‘What’s that for?
‘Along with egg?’
‘They don’t go together.’
I didn’t understand why and asked her, but she wouldn’t say anymore. We drank coffee and ate in silence. Then she smiled. For a European, Jean really had a good set of teeth. Most people’s teeth here seem to be artificial, but hers were natural and almost as white as those of n****rs. I asked her what she was smiling about.
‘When I was small my mother would urge me to eat or else the children in Africa would starve.’
I said ‘I see’ but really I didn’t see the point […]
‘Those girls … they are not human beings. They are dregs. They don’t work. They live on Papa Britain’s weekly allowance. All they do is spend honest men’s money.’
‘Well, that’s the thing in a Welfare State.’
‘It is a very bad thing. Those girls are worse than harlots. Most of them steal the clothes they wear. Shop-lifting. It is terrible that one has to associate with them.’
‘Do we have to?’
‘Yes. You’re a damned black fellow. There aren’t enough black girls around. Just one look and it’s enough to send them walking into the clouds thinking you’re after them.’
‘Anyway most of them are married.’
’So you either go to Abule or get involved with a white girl and who knows where that will end?’
There was a knock on the floor above us. The man there thought we were making enough noise for both flats, I suppose, and warned us to let him have his share. We ignored the knocking.
‘Let’s change the channel.’
Leke leaned forward and turned the knob. It was the middle of a Western. Two people were shooting it out and it wasn’t easy to know on whose side one was supposed to be. I finished my food and took the plate out to the kitchen. As I was going back to the sitting room the door-bell sounded. I opened the door and it was our upstairs neighbour apparently wanting his share of the noise.
‘What is it?’
‘Do you mind cutting down the volume. We can’t sleep and please don’t bang the door.’
I banged the door and went back to the sitting-room.
‘What was that?’
I told Leke.
‘As if it’s my fault he’s a bus conductor and has to be up at five in the morning. If he’s not careful I’ll phone the Race Relations Board.’
We’d made this joke so often it didn’t register at all with Leke […]
On Saturday night I went to Abule. I had walked past the Meadows, down Loth[ian] Road and then past the cinema and into Abule. I went down the steps, past the red, painted bikini-girl in front of the door, opened it and went in. It was steaming inside, spilling its contents down the steps to the lavatories. I took a general look around and went to the bar for something to drink. There was so much noise I had to shout for what I wanted. The jukebox was screeching out one of the latest records. I took my whisky and a packet of cigarettes and went back to the area around the dance floor. Light your cigarette, sip your drink, keep an eye on the door for Jean, watch the people dancing […] The dancing floor was jammed with girls mostly. The dim ultra-violet lights had a super-white effect on the clothes of those wearing white. The men looked around for one girl to take home. The floor of the night club was divided into two halves. Not that there was a line – just imaginary – like the Equator. It was there. On one side there were more coloured people and there were more girls too. On the other side there were only white men and white girls. Once I saw a black head sticking out on that side and found it was only a coloured man going to the men’s lavatory. So only the call of nature made the crossing of the line possible.