Leaving the ghetto

Short of money and short of food, V S Naipaul found his early life as a writer in Fifties London har

When V S Naipaul published his slim, grumpy memoir A Writer's People late last year, assorted reviewers took the chance to denounce him. It was a familiar spectacle, the lion in winter having chunks torn from him by writers who would not have attacked him in his prime. In Naipaul's case, his determined self-construction during five decades in print was a provocation in itself: who was this Trinidadian man who lived as a knight of the shires and denounced multiculturalism as "multi-culti"? He said, or was said to have said, that Africa had no future, Islam was a calamity, France was fraudulent and interviewers were monkeys. How dare he support Hindu nationalism? If Zadie Smith - optimistic and presentable - was a white liberal's dream, Naipaul was the nightmare. For a successful immigrant writer to take the positions he did was seen as a special kind of treason, a betrayal of what should be a purely literary genius. "Great art, dreadful politics," complained Terry Eagleton.

Naipaul's public persona is so well formed that it is all too easy not to look behind it, and to imagine he had an easy start, being taken up quickly by a London publisher and bypassing the racial prejudices of 1950s England. But post-colonial writing had not yet been invented, and he lived in something close to penury until the 1970s. He made a career as a writer in Britain only through uncompromising ambition.

During Naipaul's schooldays in Port of Spain, his friends were all, in the language of the time, negroes or mulattos. When he left Oxford he struggled to find a bedsit or a job. At an interview with the Advertising Appointments Bureau, he was informed that he had the wrong sort of face. Once, when he visited the Colonial Office, an official told him to stop feeling sorry for himself and go back home. As he wrote bitterly to his future wife, Pat Hale: "It is my own fault. Why don't I go back where I came from, and not be a nuisance to anyone? Niggers ought to know their place." At times, he did not have enough money for food. "I do not wish to alarm you," he wrote to Pat, "but it will be an act of great charity if you can send me a small amount of money: this will enable me to eat a bit for two or three days . . . I am literally starving these days, and have lost nearly 12 pounds." His breakthrough came when he was made a presenter on the BBC radio show Caribbean Voices in 1954, working with other aspiring West Indian writers, some of whom had fought in the army or the RAF during the war.

Caribbean Voices had a catalytic effect, linking writers from across the English-speaking Caribbean, from British Honduras to British Guyana. It had grown from a morale-boosting wartime radio show produced by the Jamaican poet Una Marson, the first black woman to make programmes at the BBC. Contributors would send a story or poem to a BBC agent in Jamaica, who would sift the material and send it by boat to London for consideration. Back in the West Indies, people would cluster around a wireless or Rediffusion set and listen for the legendary opening: "This is London calling the Caribbean." Under a new editor, Henry Swanzy, a plump, musical man of Irish origin, Caribbean Voices became a weekly display case for new writing.

Outwardly, the programme was a classic assertion of imperial authority: colonial subjects would produce writing which, after scrutiny by their masters in London, was broadcast back to them. In practice, the process was highly collaborative and creative, as writers and manuscripts travelled back and forth across the Atlantic in the early 1950s, leading to the flowering of postwar talents such as Edgar Mittelholzer, Andrew Sal key, Samuel Selvon, George Lamming, Edward Brathwaite, Derek Walcott, V S Naipaul and his father, Seepersad Naipaul.

For four years, Vidia Naipaul had an insecure billet as a stalwart of the BBC Colonial Service. It gave him an opportunity to find his feet as a writer, to widen and extend his talents and to feel an integral part of a circle of intelligent men, and a few women, of roughly his own age and background. Gone was the cliquey white world of Oxford University; he was again among people who reminded him of home. Swanzy left him and his colleagues in no doubt that their material was real material. The Caribbean Voices "boys" would chat in the freelances' room at the old Langham Hotel, a grand Victorian edifice opposite Broadcasting House. Naipaul ate lunch each day in the BBC canteen, finishing with heavy English puddings topped with custard.

The other contributors, actors and presenters were older than the precocious Naipaul, and with the exception of the creolised Sam Selvon - a Trinidadian novelist who was having an intermittent affair with Vidia's beloved elder sister Kamla - none was an East Indian West Indian. To Naipaul, they seemed more experienced, adept and socially confident. Despite his subsequent barbs and snubs, he was a wholehearted member of this group. The Guyanese writer Jan Carew remembered:

"Vidia was a very good companion, very witty. Cruel wit. Some West Indians used to work at the back of the kitchen at the BBC cafeteria. He called them 'the blackroom boys'. He had an underlying sense of compassion for the less well-off West Indians in London, which later he was accused of not having. People of my generation spoke about race in a way that was full of jokes; there was no animus, we would joke about each other's background - race and class. Vidia didn't hold himself apart."

At the BBC, Naipaul reviewed novels, interviewed writers and chaired discussions with scripted informality. He contributed to a series on "Contemporary Negro Poetry", and exchanged staged banter on trends in Caribbean writing with Kenneth Ablack (who was not black, but Indian, or half-Indian; his father Mr Rampra sad had changed his name to something less classifiable): "Thank you, Vidia Naipaul. Now that you have given news of Samuel Selvon, ought I to mention that you are in the course of writing your own first novel?" Collecting a guinea here and there, he read the part of Hounakin in a performance of Derek Walcott's one-act play The Sea at Dauphin and narrated a short story by the Tobagonian poet E M Roach, earning another two guineas reading a poem on a sister programme, Calling West Africa. Naipaul's subsequent claim to have had no literary influences bar his father was a deliberate blanking of the role of colleagues at Caribbean Voices, who were crucial in forming his idea of what did and did not work on the page.

In the early summer of 1955, in the freelances' room at the Langham with its ochre walls and pea-green dado, Naipaul wound a piece of "nonrustle" BBC studio paper into a standard typewriter and adopted a singular posture, his shoulders thrown back, his knees drawn up, his shoes resting on the struts on either side of the chair in a "monkey crouch". Setting the typewriter to single space, he wrote: "Every morning when he got up Hat would sit on the banister of his back verandah and shout across, 'What happening there, Bogart?'" He had a sentence, a start. He tried to go on. "The man addressed in this way would turn in his bed . . ." He crossed it out and began again. "Bogart would turn in his bed and mumble softly, so that no one heard, 'What happening there, Hat?'" Naipaul had the opening of his first publishable book, Miguel Street. Before long, he had written and published two more comic novels.

As his literary reputation developed, his relationship with the BBC frayed; Caribbean Voices had been a place of opportunity, but it was also an ethnic ghetto. When he applied to become a BBC general trainee, the interview panel was not receptive: "They were sniggering as I entered; all of them were sniggering. There was a man there called Laurence Gilliam, famous as a so-called features writer, producer. He asked what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to do some features and they roared with laughter, as though I had said I wanted to write the Bible . . . It was the historical moment. You couldn't be a victim in the 1950s. There wasn't the market."

Only in 1960 did his star begin to rise. The BBC Home Service - he was out of the ghetto now - wanted him to give a talk, but he demanded double the standard rate. "If he could be shown to have a stature above that of the general run of literary contributors to the quality press and journals, we would certainly consider putting his rate up," the talks booking manager noted in a memo. What was his status now? Did Naipaul deserve more than the oenophile Cyril Ray, who was paid 30 guineas for 1,000 words? The Third Programme asked him to write a script about his ancestral land, India, and offered the sum of 80 guineas, ten times what he had been paid for his early short stories. A letter came back from his agent stating that Mr Naipaul "has asked me to inform you that he considers this offer an insult", with a PS: "Sorry about this!" A BBC memo concluded that "in view of his outside reputation" the price should be raised to 120 guineas. He accepted, and with his renown both as a writer and as a tricky customer well established, Naipaul was on his way.

By 1962, he was aware that his identity had been compromised by external events. East Indians in independent Trinidad appeared to be facing black majority rule, and many were trying to emigrate. Under a new law, however, Commonwealth citizens would be denied the right to move to the UK. Naipaul regarded the Commonwealth Immigrants Act as a betrayal. In a copy of A House for Mr Biswas, he wrote his signature and, "For Andrew Salkey, in London, from which one may in future be banned." The mother country had abandoned a generation of orphaned children.

Ambitious, protean, deracinated by the accelerated politics of the end of empire, Naipaul made a conscious choice to refashion himself. The publishing vogue for West Indian writing was over and, uniquely among his contem poraries, he saw the implications of this early enough to do something about it. Jan Carew remembered:

The last time we met was in a café in the Tottenham Court Road. By then, there were rumours that Vidia was living in some part of London where West Indians were not welcome, and was taking up with different people. He told me he was going to become English, and I thought he was pulling my leg. The English are very strict about letting you in, particularly if you are a different colour. I thought it was one of his jokes, but he was quite serious about it. He meant he was giving up his West Indian imprimatur and taking on an English one.

Naipaul refused to be classified as a Caribbean novelist any longer. He would try to make himself into a new type of writer, a world writer. Only very occasionally would he lift the mask. In Trinidad in the late 1980s, he bumped into Sam Selvon at his sister's house and accepted an invitation to go boating near Soldado Rock. In the words of an eyewitness: "Sam said he wanted to swim. It was a real hot day. Vidia says, 'I would love to, but I don't have my bathing things.' Sam says, 'I swimmin' in my jockey shorts.' Vidia says, "I can't do that.' We were in the sea, then kerplunk, V S Naipaul was in the water, swimming around the boat in his jockey shorts."

"The World Is What It Is: the Authorised Biography of V S Naipaul" by Patrick French is published by Picador (£20). "The Strange Luck of V S Naipaul" will be shown on BBC4 on 10 April

This article first appeared in the 07 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British jihad