The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon was written in 1956 and tells of the experiences of West Indian men moving to London for work. It has been described as the definitive novel about the experiences of the Windrush settlers. The narrative centres on a man named Moses who was one of the first to come to London and finds himself the first port of call for many subsequent immigrants:
It look to old Moses that he hardly have time to settle in the old Brit’n before all sorts of fellars start coming straight to his room in the Water when they land up in London from the West Indies, saying that so and so tell them that Moses is a good fellar to contact, that he would help them get place to stay and work to do.
The story is written to imitate the speech and linguistic form of the West Indian subculture and this provides immediate immersion in the story. From an outsider’s standpoint you gradually learn that a “test” is a man, to “rab” is to moan about something and so on. There are no chapters, just sections that describe a new person that Moses knows or meets for the first time. Among these are Sir Galahad, the guy who rocks up to London in just his coat with twenty pounds in his pocket and feels warm in winter but cold in summer; Cap, the feckless Nigerian guy who swindles everyone out of their money; Harris, who dresses in a suit and speaks the Queen’s English, desperately trying to impress white people and fit in.
The story then is a series of anecdotes about these West Indian guys in a London past that is bathed in smog and still adjusting to the influx of people from around the world after the war. Moses has a Polish landlord and there are many mentions of how black people are refused housing and work on account of their skin colour. Reading today (even with problems of racism still in the news) the descriptions of race relations seem strange, a completely different world even though it was just sixty years ago. However, this aspect of the story is underplayed as the anecdotes are mostly set entirely within the West Indian community while the social history is played out in the background. The social tensions are an important part of the story but it underpins the action in subtle ways.
Towards the end of the book there is a wonderful freeform section about London in the summertime, mostly concerning picking up women in the park for sex, in which all the sentences are merged into one long phrase over ten pages in order to capture the giddy rush of summer time.
There is only one strong female character in the novel. One guy, Tolroy, has sent for his whole family from Trinidad and his aunt has accompanied his mother, much to Tolroy’s disgust. Tanty is one of those old women who knows everyone from when they were a child and is very scornful of those guys who pretend not to remember who she is. Despite being the object of scorn from some of the guys, she does get a section showing how the West Indians have started setting up shops so they can buy things from home. Unfortunately other female characters in the book are simply mute partners or ciphers for sex partners. Mention is made of the fetishisation of black men by white girls (and the occasional “sissy”) including one that Moses is convinced he is killing and gets quite disturbed by.
While many of the anecdotes are quite funny (I laughed out loud at one in which Cap lures a seagull into his flat in an attempt to kill it and eat it), in general there is a pathos to many of the tales. In some, people act out of character because of the strangeness of their situations and in others because life is not quite what has been promised to them. Towards the end of the book Moses is quite depressed about how little he has to show for his time in London and whether he should just go home. I think this is a feeling that many people experience in London, I was certainly able to empathise with some of Moses’ feelings despite the many different circumstances.
I really enjoyed The Lonely Londoners, it is a short quick read and really engaging and immediate — quite a nice change after the surreal inventiveness and weird plots of Murakami in 1Q84. I’m going to do something naughty and type out the last lines of the book because they are bittersweet and sad and pretty, so if you don’t want to know the result look away now:
It was a summer night: laughter fell softly: it was the sort of night that if you wasn’t making love to a woman you feel you was the only person in the world like that.
Update: if you’re thinking of using this post as the basis of a homework essay, make sure you include some of your own ideas about the book too!