City of Spades - By Colin MacInnes


Johnny Fortune hits town


Pew tentatively takes the helm

‘It’s all yours, Pew, from now,’ he said, adding softly, ‘thank God,’ and waving round the office a mildly revolted hand.

‘Yes, but what do I do with it all, dear boy?’ I asked him. ‘Why am I here?’

‘Ah, as to that …’ He heaved an indifferent sigh. ‘You’ll have to find out for yourself as you go along.’

He picked up his furled umbrella, but I clung to him just a bit longer.

‘Couldn’t you explain, please, my duties to me in more detail? After all, I’m new, I’m taking over from you, and I’d be very glad to know exactly what …’

Trim, chill, compact, he eyed me with aloof imperial calm. Clearly he was of the stuff of which proconsuls can even now be made.

‘Oh, very well,’ he said, grounding his umbrella. ‘Not, I’m afraid, that anything I can tell you is likely to be of the slightest use …’

I thanked him and we sat. His eye a bored inquisitor’s, he said: You know, at any rate, what you’re supposed to be?’

Simply, I answered: ‘I am the newly appointed Assistant Welfare Officer of the Colonial Department.’

He closed his eyes. ‘I don’t know – forgive me – how you got the job. But may I enquire if you know anything about our colonial peoples?’

‘I once spent a most agreeable holiday in Malta …’

‘Quite so. A heroic spot. But I mean Negroes. Do you happen to know anything about them?’


‘Nothing whatever?’


He emitted a thin smile. ‘In that case, may I say I think you’re going to have quite a lot of fun?’

‘I sincerely hope so … I have certain vague impressions about Negroes, of course. I rather admire their sleek, loose-limbed appearance …’

‘Yes, yes. So very engaging.’

‘And their elegant, flamboyant style of dress is not without its charm …’

‘Ah, that far, personally, I cannot follow you.’

‘On the other hand, for their dismal spirituals and their idiotic calypso, I have the most marked distaste.’

‘I’m with you there, Pew, I’m glad to say. The European passion for these sad and silly songs has always baffled me. Though their jazz, in so far as it is theirs, is perhaps another matter.’

He had risen once again. I saw he had made up his mind I was beyond hope.

‘And what do I do with our coloured cousins?’ I asked him, rising too.

‘Yours is a wide assignment, limitless almost as the sea. You must be their unpaid lawyer, estate agent, wet-nurse and, in a word, their bloody guardian angel.’

The note of disdain, even though coming from a professional civil servant to an amateur, had become increasingly displeasing to me. I said with dignity: ‘Nothing, I suppose, could be more delightful and meritorious.’

He had now closed his eyes; and stood, at the door, a Whitehall Machiavelli.

‘Some might say,’ he told me softly, ‘that your duty is to help them to corrupt our country.’

Up went my brows.

‘So some might say … their irruption among us has not been an unmixed blessing. Thousands, you see, have come here in the last few years from Africa and the Caribbean, and given us what we never had before – a colour problem.’

His eyes opened slowly in a slit. ‘Could it not be,’ I said, ‘that we have given them just that in their own countries?’

‘My dear Pew! Could it be that I positively find myself in the presence of a liberal?’

‘My dear boy, of course you do! What else can one comfortably be in these monolithic days?’

He smiled with every tooth.

‘A liberal, Pew, in relation to the colour question, is a person who feels an irresponsible sympathy for what he calls oppressed peoples on whom, along with the staunchest Tory, he’s quite willing to go on being a parasite.’

Though I sensed it was a phrase he’d used before, I bowed my bleeding head.

‘I own,’ I told him mildly, ‘that I am one of those futile, persistent, middle-class Englishmen whom it takes a whole empire, albeit a declining one, to sustain … Remove the imperial shreds, and I’d be destitute as a coolie, I confess …’

This pleased him. ‘To use the vulgar phrase,’ he said, ‘you must learn to know which side your bread is buttered on.’

But this excursion from the concrete into the abstract seemed to me unhelpful in so far as learning my new job was concerned. I made my last desperate appeal. ‘You haven’t told me, though …’

‘Please study your dossiers Pew: the instructions are pasted inside each of their covers. Look:

Government Hostels;

Landlords taking non-Europeans;