‘Let Them Call it Jazz’
Jean Rhys and the Notting Hill Riots
by Lilian Pizzichini
‘In the train that evening I think myself lucky, for to walk about London on a Sunday with nowhere to go – that take the heart out of you,’ says Selina Davis, the narrator of Jean Rhys’s 1968 short story, ‘Let Them Call It Jazz’.
The story was published in 1968, the year of revolution in Paris, her spiritual home, but it was written in 1958, the year of race riots in Notting Hill. In 1999, Notting Hill became an offshoot of Hollywood when American actress Julia Roberts played a simulacrum of herself meeting a diffident English gentleman played by professionally diffident English actor Hugh Grant. When Rhys knew it, Notting Hill was home to Caribbean and Irish migrants and the descendants of market gardeners and artisans. When she writes about cities, she focuses on their essential ingredient: alienation. It’s still there, waiting to erupt. Even now, in semi-lockdown, one can feel the simmering tension on Notting Hill’s streets.
In a quote from Wide Sargasso Sea the narrator says, ‘I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why I was ever born at all.’ Rhys struggled with feelings of exile and isolation. She was born in 1896 in Dominica, a British dependency in the Caribbean. As a ‘White’ Creole and critic of colonialism, she felt detached from her ‘motherland’ of England. Equally, she felt excluded from the ‘Black’ Creole population in her birth country of Dominica. At sixteen she came to England, where she found herself dismissed for being a colonial and a female, thus beginning a lifetime of functioning as an outsider.
‘Let Them Call it Jazz’ and her experience in Notting Hill is a snapshot of her response to this. Having had to endure Londoners’ cold attitude towards White Creoles, Rhys could not keep silent. She wrote about being black, though she was white, and she wrote about being a woman who was poor. She wrote about what she knew. She knew about injustice, she knew about racial hatred, she knew whites had money and blacks did not. She knew that the colonialists in the past had behaved with unspeakable cruelty. She knew that the British attitude towards their former colonies was still to assume their right to oppress economically and to maintain a legal system in their own interests. She knew about fear.
Rhys was not an intellectual who published discursive essays or critiques of other books. The language of her fiction and memoirs – and here she has much in common with other West Indian writers – is the vernacular. Like Sam Selvon, another London novelist, she writes in the voice of the disempowered. In ‘Let Them Call it Jazz’, Selina tells her story in patois. This was a radical act, declaring the unfitness of Standard English for this woman’s story. Rhys needs a language that incorporates protest and uprising and transforms the marginalized voice into a voice of authority.
So Selina is looking for a room of her own and she tells us ‘this man’ in a Notting Hill café offers her a room and she takes it. Of all the places in London Rhys knew – the bedsitting rooms of Bloomsbury, World’s End and Camden – she chose Notting Hill as a place where things
happen spontaneously, almost like they do back home. This spontaneity is important to Rhys. It signifies a culture that isn’t English. In Notting Hill, where she experiences spontaneity she finds a voice that she can work with. But such spontaneity can of course be unpredictable.
Against the backdrop of race riots, Selina plays out intimate moments of her life in cafés, bars, hotels and boarding houses. An extra layer of otherness is Selina’s femininity. The qualities associated with ‘coloured’ or ‘mulatto’ women, were ‘highly sexed and sensuous’. Placing her character in these public spaces allows Rhys to reflect the constraints placed on women living alone in the city. Selina is eventually seen as a threat to public order and is imprisoned in Holloway, just as her creator was in real life.
English culture is unfeeling, and driven by money. In her version of the Caribbean, women are always singing songs and telling stories. A reviewer of Rhys’s first novel, Voyage in the Dark, called it ‘our first negritude novel’. Négritude was a French term for the Parisian fascination with black music and dance. In 1920s Paris, where Josephine Baker was all the rage, Rhys was living in the Latin Quarter. She was deeply influenced by what she saw there. She was later to write, I ‘adore Negro music … It’s life according to my gospel’.
The text of ‘Let Them Call it Jazz’ is dictated by convention in that it has a beginning, a middle and an end. But her critics, readers and publishers could not control Rhys’s voice or her gestures – the way she goes against the popular, mainstream melodies and her peers’ experiments in modernism. Grammatical errors casually litter her text, turning it into a condemnation of the literary establishment. In talking and telling her story, Selina separates herself from her compatriots-fellow Creoles and blacks, and white Bohemian writers – reinforcing the barrier between herself and others. She dismantles the world she inhabits. She ends up in prison because she won’t stop singing and dancing and annoying her neighbours.
While in Holloway, she hears a song. She later whistles the tune at a party – she doesn’t sing any more because she has learnt it’s best not to be noticed. But a man hears her whistling. He takes the tune and jazzes it up on the piano. She says “No, it’s not jazz. It’s not like that” but everyone else is enjoying it so she shuts up. Later she receives a letter in the post with a five-pound note. He has sold the song and done well with it. This is her reward. She cries because it was all she had and it was a song of protest and like the trumpets of Jericho it brought down the walls of her prison.
At the same time, she knows songs can’t change a thing. Rhys’s writing is full of echoes. Just as the last lines of her bleakest novel Good Morning Midnight give a distorted echo of James Joyce’s Molly Bloom – who says ‘Yes’, Rhys’s heroine says, ‘No’. The last lines of ‘Let them call it jazz’ echo the final words of Hamlet in that there is nothing left but silence. But this is a short story, not a tragedy. The difference shows when Selina, with her five-pound note, is in a position to buy herself a new dress. A new dress equals a new story.