1001 books, 1001 Books to read before you die, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Penguin Modern Classics, Reading Projects, Sam Selvon, Setting

‘The Lonely Londoners’ by Sam Selvon

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 160 pages; 2006.

One grim winter evening, when it had a kind of unrealness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in the blur as if it is not London at all but some strange place on another planet, Moses Aloetta hop on a number 46 bus at the corner of Chepstow Road and Westbourne Grove to go to Waterloo to meet a fellar who was coming from Trinidad on the boat-train.

So begins Sam Selvon’s bittersweet story about a group of West Indian immigrants living in 1950s London. It’s a truly evocative look at a city through the jaded eyes of a black man, Moses Aloetta, a veteran Londoner who somewhat reluctantly welcomes newcomers from his homeland and shows them the ropes. (“I don’t know these people at all,” he tells one of his friends, “yet they coming to me as if I is some liaison officer, and I catching my arse as it is, how could I help them out?”)

But having earned a reputation as a “good fellar to contact, that he would help them get place to stay and work to do”, Moses finds himself taking Henry “Sir Galahad” Oliver under his wing. Galahad is irrepressibly upbeat and optimistic; he’s also thick-skinned, turning up in the dead of a London winter wearing nothing but “an old grey tropical suit and a pair of watchekong” (crepe-soled shoes). He doesn’t even have any luggage with him.

The Lonely Londoners follows the ups and downs of Galahad, and others like him, who arrive in London, thinking the roads are paved with gold, but then find that life is tough, that everything is expensive and that the white population is wary of black faces (or “spades” as they are called throughout this book) despite the “open door” policy of letting citizens from the colonies settle in Britain.

There’s no real plot because this is essentially a collection of vignettes about various immigrants and the different ways in which they adapt and change to suit their new environment. It’s quite dark and depressing in places, as you come to experience each character’s slow dawning that London is not the place they thought it would be, that it’s a bleak, alien town, far removed from the sunnier climes from which they came.

There’s a wonderful scene near the beginning of the novel which captures this sudden sense of alienation perfectly. Galahad is braving the morning rush hour for the first time and when he sees so many people bustling about the tube station “a feeling of fright and loneliness come on him all of a sudden”.

The sun shining, but Galahad never see the sun look like how it looking now. No heat from it, it just there in the sky like a force-ripe orange. When he look up the colour of the sky so chocolate it make him more frighten. It have a kind of melancholy aspect about the morning that making him shiver. He have a feeling is about seven o’clock in the evening: when he look at clock on top of a building he see it only half-past ten in the morning.

Anyone who has experienced a London winter for the first time will know this feeling well; the nights stretch into 17-hour extravaganzas and you’re lucky if you see any daylight at all if you work in an office. This feels alien enough without having to worry about where you’re going to live and work and whether you’ve got enough money for the bus fare!

Selvon describes this netherworld existence, including the cramped bedsits, visits to the dole queue (“a kind of place where hate and disgust and avarice and malice and sympathy and sorrow and pity all mix up”) and the liming (a Caribbean expression for “hanging out”), so beautifully it’s easy to get caught up in the lives depicted here.

But the best part is seeing how the city eventually works its charms on them so that, in the end, they find themselves feeling at home, or, as Galahad puts it, “when the sweetness of summer get in him he say he would never leave the old Brit’n as long as he live”.

As you will have noticed from the quotations I’ve used, the book is written in a Jamaican patois, or, as Shusheila Nasta writes in the introduction, “a creolized voice” which lends it a lovely, intimate, Calypso rhythm, and a sense that you really are in the heads of these Caribbean immigrants.

The Lonely Londoners is part of a trilogy; I’m looking forward to reading the next two as soon as I am able.

‘The Lonely Londoners’ by Sam Selvon, first published in 1956, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as “one of the first attempts to narrate the life of black Caribbean men in London during the wave of mass migration to Britain during the 1950s”.

12 thoughts on “‘The Lonely Londoners’ by Sam Selvon”

  1. Great review of an excellent book. I’m delighted to see you commit yourself to the trilogy — too many people stop after this book and Selvon has much more to say. He spent his last few years in my city (Calgary, Alberta) but I never did meet him and in fact did not run into his fiction until earlier this year. I’m giving nothing away when I say that Selvon’s trilogy will by on my end-of-year top 10 list.


  2. What a wonderful sounding book this is, I was keen to hear fmore when you mentioned this at book group and it sounds like a gem of a novel and one thats quite different from anything I would normally read. I may very well have to check if the library has this one as at the moment buying books is a banned thing. Ha!


  3. Thanks, Kevin. I didn’t mention it in the review, but I found it fascinating that Moses and cohorts live in Notting Hill, which is described as a very rundown part of London, and yet, today, it’s a really exclusive and highly desirable/fashionable area in which to live.
    The third part of the trilogy is a little hard to track down, however. I’m slightly peeved that it’s not in the Penguin Modern Classics range; it seems they’ve only bothered to publish the first two.


  4. It’s not normally something I’d read either. I picked it up by chance when I was browsing in a bookstore and thought it sounded rather intriguing. I didn’t even realise it was written in Creolized English, which gave me a bit of a fright when I started reading it, but I really enjoyed the musicality of it.


  5. Moses Migrating is very hard to find but Lynne Reiner Publishing put out a new edition in the U.S. late last year. My guess is that Penguin probably has U.K. rights but doesn’t find the market big enough — it’s worth it to splurge on the shipping for this one.
    I know Notting Hill only from visits (and Julia Roberts movies) but I too found the contrast in Selvon amazing. It is a reminder that London is a city in constant transformation — not just in its neighborhoods but in the underclass (which performs so much of the work to keep it going) that are Selvon’s subject.


  6. The Lynne Reiner Publishing edition is available from The Book Depository for £14.45, so I may just have to splurge on it, or simply hold out to see whether Penguin might decide to bring it out in their livery.


  7. Aha, this is the one you mentioned at Book Group. Sounds really interesting, maybe not something I’ll read in the near future but I will keep my eyes peeled and pick up a copy methinks.


  8. Love the language. Have read some book before written in a similar style (Trinidadian) and loved it. Putting this on the wish list, thanks. I hope Penguin publishes the third installment in the near future.


  9. I wasn’t sure I could read an entire book written in this “language” so was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.
    By the way, I’ve often tried to comment on your blog Claire and it never works. It seems to disappear into a black hole!


  10. Yes, this is *the* one. I think it particularly resonated with me because I know what it’s like to rock up to a strange country by myself, not knowing a soul, and having to figure out how things work in a really alien system.


  11. Strong review of a fantastic book. I was casually tossed it the other day when I asked a friend for something to read on the tube from N11 to SE5. Hadn’t anticipated such quality! The tales told and exploration of language are supreme. Love the unpunctuated recollection of London summers.
    Contextualising the book, note two years after The LL was published the Notting Hill race riots occured. Extra speculative trivia, the party (or rather fete) that Harris organises is in the ilk of the first Notting Hill festivals/carnivals, which were held in Kings Cross/St Pancaras.
    Didn’t realise it was part of a trilogy; I’ll definately look out for the other parts.


  12. Thanks for your comment, Ben. It’s a damn fine book, isn’t it? Interesting about the Notting Hill race riots — I was aware of them, but hadn’t really connected them with this book. It’s always good to be able to put things into context. I just think it amazing that an area that was once so rundown is now so “posh”, but I’m told this is actually a rather recent change.


Comments are closed.