The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon

3 stars3/5

Well, this is probably the longest it has taken me to review a book. I read The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon for my book group back in August, and when I put it down I just wasn’t sure how I felt about it so decided that I should give it time to let it settle. Strangely it still hasn’t.

The Lonely Londoners, Penguin Modern Classics edition

Penguin Modern Classics, 2006 edition, 160 pages - Book group choice.

First published in 1956, The Lonely Londoners is a slim novel, but one that is packed with detail and filled with vivid descriptions of early 1950’s London seen through the eyes of Moses Aloetta, a migrant to the capital from Trinidad. At the beginning of the story, Moses is waiting at Waterloo Station. He is meeting another Trinidadian Henry ‘Sir Galahad’ Oliver who has just arrived in England. He doesn’t know him – all that connects them is the fact they are both West Indian. They are united by this fact alone and their sense of otherness, in a predominantly white city.

In The Lonely Londoners we are introduced to a variety of characters, all West Indian migrants and mostly young men. They get along however they can in the busy city, whether it be through hard graft or by hustling a living. Getting work is tough enough and the environment is hostile. Moses comments to Sir Galahad;

“English people don’t like the boys coming to England to work and live…they frighten we get job in front of them, though that does never happen. The other thing is that they just don’t like black people, and don’t ask me why, because that is a question that bigger brains than mine trying to find out from way back.”

Moses himself has been living in London for some time, and in some ways seems has now made himself at home. While he suggests that Sir Galahad “hustle a passage back home to Trinidad today”, he himself has almost become ingrained in the city. He marvels at how some people manage to save money from a measly three pounds per week wages to take back to their families, but he himself cannot, making the reader wonder if he is trapped or whether he really does ever want to return to the ‘mother country’. Selvon conveys the limbo that these migrants must have felt – never quite a part of London, but somehow divorced from their home country.

The book is written in vernacular which makes it at times a tough read. Many a moment I wondered what certain words (such as ‘test’) meant and muddled my way through with educated guesses. At the same time, the use of the vernacular added to the books authenticity and made me feel as if I was really hearing the voice of the narrator and the characters in the book.

And The Lonely Londoners has a cacophony of voices. Sometimes optimistic (Sir Galahad), sometimes contemplative (Moses) and also cocky (Cap). I had a mixed response to these characters. I kind of liked Moses who reminded me a bit of Eeyore in Winnie The Pooh (weird I know), really disliked Cap who seemed full of himself and chauvinistic but was quite enchanted by Big City with his tall stories and confusion of the word ‘music’ for ‘fusic’. I also loved the passage where one of the few female characters – Tanty, manages to convince a reluctant shopkeeper to give her a tab.

There were some tragi-comic moments, such as when Cap decides to catch a seagull for his dinner which I found genuinely funny, but I have to say The Lonely Londoners is quite hard work. The book switches from one character to another, and these snapshots of their lives are simultaneously fascinating and confusing. I liked some of the characters and found parts of the book beautifully described but for some reason it left me feeling at a distance from it. Perhaps it was the fact that the voices were mostly masculine, or because I didn’t really feel much emotion from the characters. This sense of distance is something that I think is exactly what Selvon intended, and adds to the theme of loneliness, but it didn’t quite work for me.

The Lonely Londoners is more of a portrait of an era than a ‘story’ and opened up my eyes to a part of British history that I had no previous knowledge of. While I didn’t enjoy this book enough to want to read more Sam Selvon in the near future, it does leave me wanting to read more about the experiences of migrants to England during this period of time. To hear another voice.

My rating:

6 out of 10

Can you recommend other novels which explore migrants to England in the 1950’s?

Interesting link I found from BBC History – Black British History Since Windrush

9 responses to “The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon

  1. I want read this at some point only other writer I know is George lamming ,his books from sinilar time to selvon ,all the best stu

  2. Hi,
    Thanks for reminding me of this! I read this when I was at university and chose it purely because it was short – big mistake! It is most definitely a tricky read. It’s a snapshot of 1950’s immigrant life in London and it stands out because there are so few of these types of novels around. It certainly conveys a feeling of isolation, Moses (I think!) says, “he could see a great aimlessness” which I quite liked.

    I’d recommend Colin MacInnes’s London Novels. He writes about black immigrants and youth culture in London in the 1950’s, City of Spades is especially good. The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi is brilliant too! It depicts British Asian youth culture in the 1970’s, really funny read.

    • Thanks for the recommendations. The Buddha of Suburbia sounds quite accessible from what you say. I’ll have to look up both MacInnes and Kureishi

  3. i am at present reading samuel selvon “the lonely londoners” it is a west indian literature that gives prominence and experience of exile. i see other characters through moses eyes. the choice of the protagonist name is symbolical to me. for it was moses that lead the children of God out of Egypt and in the novels moses stands as a chronicler of the fate of his people. most often than not it is not easy for one with a different culture to be part of another culture and this is an exile. in this novel there is many forms of exile such as exile from class like in the character of harris. he whitenizes himself and yet he is black, he is not proud to be black so he is not at easy in the group of his fellow country men.

  4. Pls help do a book review on “A BRIGHTER SUN”

  5. You should read Andrea Levy’s Small Island, the novel is amazing.

  6. Hey, Thanks for this personal review, i have to read the book for an exam but i can’t find it around so i will just rely on your resume, I’m studying London life from 1800’s to nowdays and atm reading many novels from the migrants of those past days, let me tell you i found interesting the story “Tell me who to kill” from Naipaul (the book’s name is “In a free state”), any story from Hanif Kureishi(more modern), like “My son the fanatic” and “We’re not Jews” (from the book Love in a Blue Time) or also in a late 90’s “Youth” from Coetzee, that talks about a South African boy that goes to London to find “his” job and gets whirpooled and trapped into London life…I found it very interesting after I’ve been living in London for 6 months myself 4 years ago… see ya and thanks again 🙂

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