In Chapter I, Ricardo "Rick" Braithwaite rides on a double-decker bus with women who are returning from their shopping, and he smells fish.
...earthy charwomen...thick-armed, bovine women,...with heavy bodies irrevocably distorted by frequent childbearing. ...There was a look of indestructibility about them, from the tip of each tinted hed in its gaudy headscarf...to the solid legs and large feet which seemed rooted in the earth.
Clearly of London's lower-class, these women joke with the driver with lewdness despite Braithwaite's presence. He feels that they do not care if he hears them,
...these people who had lived too intimately with poverty and danger and death would not be easily embarrassed.
His romantic notions of the East End, about which Chaucer had written and where on the reach of the Thames, Captain John Smith had sailed for America where he founded the Virginia Colony, are shattered as Braithwaite views areas still shattered from World War II's bombings by the Germans and gaudy shops and noisy streets littered with debris. All sorts of smells arise from the shops and from the garbage.
Braithwaite soon learns, too, that although people such as he are allowed to move from the British colonies into England, they are not accepted as equals. When, for instance, he tries to rent a flat, the landlady turns him down after she sees that he is black. Yet, they are not hypocritical in their actions.
After Braithwaite takes a position at Greenslade Secondary School, located in an alleyway amid dirty structures and "dilapidated lodging houses." He is surprised by the appearances of his students, for the girls dress rather seductively; others are disheveled and poorly clothed; furthermore, these students are often insolent and uncouth. They smoke and use bad language and lack manners. Mr. Florian, the principal, explains to his new teacher that many of the students have no breakfast and have slept in a stuffy, overcrowded room all night. Some of their fathers do not even work; instead, they drink and roam the streets. Outside the school, prostitutes, pimps, perverts and "social vermin" roam, Florian says.