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 to speak of, 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 it 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 kind of 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.