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.
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.
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