Tuesday, November 07, 2023

Small Worlds - Caleb Azumah Nelson

Like his previous novel 'Open Water', 'Small Worlds' by Caleb Azumah Nelson is a beautifully written slice of young London African life, set in South London. In this instance the story of the unfolding family and intimate relationships of a young jazz musician living in Peckham - and visiting Ghana - is set between 2010 and 2012.

Narrator Stephen's parents have come to London in the 1980s in hard times: 'Mum says, when she arrived in winter she was so sure that in London, everything would be possible for her. What Mum didn't realize was that she was moving to a city in the wake of the Brixton riots and New Cross fires, a London living in the wake of explicit violence, a London in which there were people who might explicitly wish death upon her. Still, her older brother was already living here, so she quickly found accommodation halfway between New Cross and Lewisham, and work as a cleaner in Brix-to. To get to work, she would walk to Lewisham bus station, riding the P4 until the last stop, her hands thrust deep in her pockets to protect from the cold'.

Now Stephen has grown to be a young adult in the city. There are nights out in Deptford and Peckham, including at what was then peak period Bussey building and Peckhamplex cinema (not to mention Camberwell Nando's). One of the more evocative scenes for me though take place in one of my favourite places with Stephen jamming with some of his fellow jazz musicians:

'One time, we crammed into two cars and drove a little further south, to Beckenham Place Park, with its grounds which sprawl endlessly. It was spring and new life seemed to be blossoming, everywhere. Everything was possible. We dragged our instruments, deep into the wooded area, and formed a circle, sending sounds into the trees. Just before we started playing, someone placed a recorder in the middle of our small gathering, not because we didn't think we would remember, but because we didn't want to forget. As we were playing, my fingers slipped, an odd note coming from my horn. The mistake didn't go unnoticed, but we continued on. It made me grateful for the freedom to be in that space, to make a mistake; and how that mistake might be beautiful to the right ear; how Del heard that odd note and followed with her own, adjusting her thrum; how the rest of us followed that twist and shift, surrendering to whatever unknown we were going towards. It was there that I noticed I only really knew myself in song. In the quiet, in the freedom, in the surrender. Afterwards, as we trailed back to the cars, spent and yet still so full, we said things like 'I didn't know I needed that' and 'that was a spiritual experience.''

Put me in mind of those sweet jazz sessions you would stumble upon during Covid lockdown, in Peckham Rye or Hilly Fields or wherever.

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