The Lonely Londoners
In the wake of recent protests spurred on by the death of George Floyd, societies round the world have been looking more closely at their own histories of racial discrimination, thinking about the role which racial structures have played in the development of Western nations. Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners is useful in this regard, looking at the UK’s own history of racial discrimination. It is also a humorous and entertaining read.
Selvon chronicles the experiences of the Windrush Generation, living and working in London in the 1950s. ‘The Windrush Generation’ is a term often used to describe the generation of Caribbean peoples who moved to the UK during those decades, after the Nationality Act of 1948, which granted citizenship to former British colonies. These peoples were so-named after HMT Windrush, one of the larger ships which brought them to London. This generation was the focus of a recent national scandal, when the 2018 government attempted to deport citizens, many of whom travelled here as children in the 1960s, resulting in the resignation of the Home Secretary.
Sam Selvon was a member of this generation. He came to the UK in 1950, from Trinidad and Tobago, where he had been working as a reporter and a wireless operator. He published The Lonely Londoners in 1956, giving voice to the experience of Caribbean migrants. The idea of ‘voice’ is important to this novel. Its narrative voice is highly distinctive, written in creolised English, closer to the everyday dialogue and conversation of migrant workers, rather than defaulting to formal Standard English. This idiom is dynamic, energetic, and agile, with a tendency to move from past perfect to present tense, or drop the auxiliary verb out altogether, giving the language a clear sense of immediacy.
Selvon’s novel digs deep into socio-political commentary, scrutinising the attitudes of the British public. In countries such as the USA, racial attitudes appeared overt. In countries such as Britain, Selvon suggests, these attitudes were more subtle, dressed up with the ‘old English Diplomacy’:
“The thing is, in America they don’t like you, and they tell you so straight, so that you know how you stand. Over here is the old English diplomacy: ‘thank you sir,’ and ‘how do you do’ and that sort of thing. In America you see a sign telling you to keep off, but over here you don’t see any, but when you go in the hotel or the restaurant they will politely tell you to haul”.
Nonetheless, Selvon shows us how these more subtle attitudes still manifested in concrete and practical barriers, such as when Caribbean migrants were looking for work, and came up against racial disadvantages:
“Now, on all the records of the boys you will see mark on the top in red ink. J-A, Col. That mean you from Jamaica and you black. So that put the clerks in the know right away… In the beginning it cause a lot of trouble when fellars went saying that they come from the labour office and the people send them away saying it ain’t have no vacancy. They don’t tell you outright that they don’t want coloured fellars, they just say sorry the vacancy get filled”.
However, despite the book’s more serious undertones, there is plenty of humour thrown into the mix. The novel opens with a scene of bittersweet humour, when the character Tolroy, having written to Jamaica for his mother, realises that his whole family has arrived at Waterloo, including his grandma Tanty, whom he must now care for. The novel is tail-ended by another humorous scene, in which the Windrush boys get exuberantly drunk, at a fete in St Pancras Hall, and get to dance with some of the white girls. However, this humorous scene is paired with a harrowing one, in which the fearless Sir Galahad, normally gifted with thick skin, is forced by desperation and hunger to steal a pigeon from Hyde Park, and run to his friend’s house, where he cooks and eats it. It is this careful balance, between comedy and tragedy, which makes The Lonely Londoners such a memorable read, alongside its dissection of racial politics.
The story is narrated by Moses Aloetta, an old-timer in London, who goes out of his way to help every arrival that comes to the city, but tries to pretend that he does not care. Selvon conjures up a medley of different characters, a menagerie of dynamic oddballs: Moses, Tolroy, Cap, Big City, Bart, Five, Harris, Sir Galahad. This multiplicity of characters diversifies this generation. It does away with any attempt to over-generalise. It shows them as a group of diverse, jostling people. It seeks to heterogenise instead of homogenise, to humanise instead of historicise.
And now, on 22 June, recognised as Windrush Day (marking 72 years since the ship docked at Tilbury), and with campaigns for civil rights underway across the globe, it is a novel which warrants returning to a second time.
Review published 22.06.20.