Home > 1950, Selvon Sam, Translation Tragedy, Trinidadian Literature > The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon

The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon

September 30, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon. 1956 I don’t think it’s been translated into French.

London is a place like that. It divide up in little worlds, and you stay in the world you belong to and you don’t know anything about what happening in the other ones except what you read in the papers.

It’s quite rare that I write a billet about a book more than a month after finishing it. It’s interesting to see what remains of it after several weeks.

Sam SelvonSam Selvon was from Trinidad and lived in London in the 1950s. The Lonely Londoners describes the life of immigrants from the West Indies. It starts with Moses who goes to Waterloo Station to welcome a fellow Trinidadian who’s arriving to London. His name is Henry Oliver and Moses quickly renames him Sir Galahad. The same day, Tolroy is also at the station, waiting for his mother’s arrival from Jamaica and he’s filled with dismay when he realises she didn’t come alone, but also took FIVE other family members along with her. Follows a funny scene at the station where the mother plays on the guilt chord, is interviewed by a journalist while Tolroy wonders how everybody will fit in his lodgings.

Henry’s arrival is the opportunity for Selvon to introduce us to the life of the Trinidadian immigrant. He mentions the difficulty to adjust to the cold, the lurking racism and the constant articles about the flow of immigrants from the West Indies in the papers. Moses regrets that so many of them arrive in London, building up a community visible enough to catch attention from the media. I loved the part where he describes how easier it  becomes to find food from his home country in London, as Jamaicans gather in a neighbourhood. Shopkeepers adjust, they have in store what they customers want.

Selvon depicts a vivid picture of the daily lives of immigrants in Notting Hill. Moses stays away from trouble but his life never really moves on. He doesn’t spare any money and doesn’t manage to climb any social ladder. He lives in a shabby room, cooks there, sleeps there and shares it with fellow countrymen until they can live on their own. He’s a stable figure of his community. He explains British social rules to Galahad and guides him in through paperwork at the labour office to find a job. Here’s Moses mentioning how job agencies classify unemployed people according to their origin and colour of skin:

‘Now, on all the records of the boys, you will see a mark on the top in red ink. J-A Col. That mean you from Jamaica and you black. So that put clerks in the know right away, you see. Suppose a vacancy come and they want to send a fellar, first they will find out if the firm want coloured fellars before they send you. That save a lot of time and bother, you see. 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 they don’t want coloured fellars, they just say sorry the vacancy get filled.’

Selvon portrays several colourful characters, fete among immigrants (I didn’t know that this French word had migrated into English). Moses and the others barely survive. Some never really work but float on the surface living off other people’s help. Selvon also describes Sundays in Hyde Park, men dressing up to chat up women, nights at the theatre. The lingering feeling is that they all fight against loneliness and homesickness as best they can.

Moses belongs to early immigrants. He’s been in London for ten years when Galahad arrives. He knows he will probably never go back to Trinidad but still entertains the fantasy. He likes to evoke his old life and to hear from people he knew there. He reminded me of Maghrebi workers in France in the 1960s. They lived in dreadful conditions and had the toughest jobs. Some are retired now and still live in their old and decrepit “foyers Sonacotra”, in other words, special council flats built for migrants.

The Lonely Londoners is also an ode to London, the city of the immigrants’ dreams:

The changing of the seasons, the cold slicing winds, the falling leaves, snow on the land, London particular. Oh what it is and where it is and why it is, no one knows but to have said: ‘I walked on Waterloo Bridge,’ ‘I rendezvoused at Charing Cross,’ ‘Picadilly Circus is my play-ground,’ to say these things, to have lived these things, to have lived in the great city of London, centre of the world.

Living there is still a dream, no matter how tough their circumstances are. Selvon describes streets, parks, shops and places. It seems that belonging to this place is a privilege that overcomes any hardship. They don’t have an American dream, they have a London dream. Galahad is happy to be in places he had only heard of before. In a way, NW by Zadie Smith is a child of Selvon’s Lonely Londoners. They make you feel the city.

Selvon’s tenderness for London doesn’t prevent him from being realistic. He mentions that the environment is sometimes hostile. He also doesn’t give a rosy picture of his people. Some are on survival mode which means that honesty isn’t as crucial as it should be. That’s something Hamsun describes very well in Hunger. When life gets too hard, honesty and moral principles cost too much to be followed.

The Lonely Londoners is written in vernacular English (is it the right adjective?) and it wasn’t always easy for me to read it. See: ‘Yes, yes,’ Galahad say, so relieved to see Moses that he putting his hands in his shoulders like they is old pals. Phew! I needed more attention than usual to keep on reading. It gave an authenticity to the text though; how could have Moses spoken perfect Oxford English? He would have sounded all wrong. I also had trouble with a ten-page passage where there was no punctuation at all. (p92, if someone has the same edition as me). It’s nice stream of consciousness but it’s hard to follow, at least for me.

Anyway, I recommend this book for its style, its picture of these immigrants’ way-of-life and of working class London in the 1950s. Selvon shows their neighbourhood from the inside and gives a voice and a face to people we hardly hear of. I don’t know if a Moroccan or Tunisian writer has written such a book about North African immigrants in France. I hope so, it could be worth reading.

Thank you Max for recommending this book when I mentioned I wanted to read something set in London.

  1. October 1, 2013 at 3:57 am

    Did this seem dated at all?
    Vernacular is used to describe native/indigenous dialect (so I’m thinking a good example would be cockney), and I get the impression that this speech from Moses is more English-based creole.

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    • October 1, 2013 at 9:53 pm

      No it doesn’t sound dated, not to me, at least.
      Thanks for the help on the vocabulary. I checked it in the dictionary but it wasn’t clear.

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      • October 2, 2013 at 7:11 pm

        What is it about Notting Hill that makes for good fiction? Any ideas? Max? Emma?

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        • October 2, 2013 at 7:17 pm

          For a long time it was an incredibly mixed area. We had some very wealthy people mixing with some very poor, there was a large immigrant population but also a large hippy/ex-hippy population. They all rubbed against each other and the result was a huge amount of creativity. It was a very exciting area to grow up in.

          That’s largely changed now – rising house prices in the ’90s led to redevelopment. The squats got closed mostly through the ’80s. There were urban redevelopments, and the bohemian types simply got priced out. It’s not what it was, though there are echoes still.

          I grew up in part in a squatter commune in Notting Hill, created (before my time) as an attempt at establishing an alternative way of life. It broke down in drugs and police raids, as these experiments tend to, but it was utopian and in its way heroic (though equally absurd, petty and farcical, in other words it was human).

          There were the political squatters when I was a kid, and those who squatted through poverty, and at least one row of houses squatted in by trustafarians who were all extremely well off but fancied themselves alternative. There was a huge Afro-Caribbean population (still is) who changed the area profoundly (which is partly what this novel captures) and in my view for the better. Along the way though there were race riots, one street near where I grew up was called the front line by locals, because that’s where the riots supposedly kicked off. Reputation was if you were white you couldn’t go there, though reputation was wrong as I did and naturally nobody cared.

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          • October 6, 2013 at 7:29 pm

            Thanks for the explanation. So it’s a place that reflects the shifting times in a very rubbery way from the sounds of it. Some places are static–but not so notting hill.

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        • October 2, 2013 at 11:05 pm

          No idea.
          The location is good but isn’t enough to make a good book, if I think of the spot-on named Notting Hell.

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  2. October 2, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    I think I referred to it as vernacular, if that helps.

    I’m glad you enjoyed it. I loved the book, but it has a personal connection since I grew up in the Ladbroke Grove/Notting Hill area (though much later). I loved the humour in it, and the use of language.

    It’s part of a trilogy, though I’ve yet to read the third. The second takes them forward into the 1970s and is good, but flawed by tremendous sexism. Here because it’s about the “boys” as they call themselves there isn’t an issue regarding depiction of women, in the second book Selvon tries to grapple with the rise of feminism among other things and it’s fair to say he doesn’t grapple with it as well as he might.

    With that caveat though it’s still worth reading. It’s just useful I think to be forewarned about the gender issues in the second book. There’s a review of that as well as this at mine.

    For me this is a wonderful song of praise to what I consider my London – vibrant and alive and full of different tongues and customs and clothes. Filled with rude vitality. London, my London anyway, wouldn’t exist without this particular wave of immigrants who did so much to shape the city around them. Their history is part now of our history, something I wish was better recognised.

    Last year my firm chose to celebrate Black History month. They did so by showing videos and pictures of the US civil rights struggle. That’s an inspiring struggle and great people took part in it, but it’s not part of UK history. I would far rather we’d done something to celebrate Windrush and all that it brought us. Celebrated our own history, rather than that of foreigners (which somehow makes a mockery of the very concept of Black History month, since for it we effectively pretended we didn’t have Black history of our own).

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    • October 2, 2013 at 10:54 pm

      I enjoyed the vivid descriptions of people and places. I don’t know London well and what I’ve seen of Notting Hill doesn’t look like anything described in this book. The picture in this post was made there, though. I’ve carried the book around with me when I was visiting. I’ve read it on trains and tubes and in parks, so it’s linked to nice memories.

      When I talk about Paris with people, some mention how they don’t like Barbès. I do. I like this neighbourhood and I feel at ease in the 19th arrondissement as well. I enjoy being in a mixed crowd, seeing shops that sell products I don’t even know or food I wouldn’t know how to cook. It’s full of life there. So I understand what you mean about “your” London.

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    • October 2, 2013 at 10:58 pm

      PS: celebrating Black History month at work. I can’t imagine doing that in a French company. Everybody would just roll their eyes and wonder what got into management team to imagine such a thing. It’s not because it’s about Black History but mostly because that kind of celebration has nothing to do at the workplace, which is supposed to be a neutral place.

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  3. October 2, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    Love this book first real Caribbean voice from london ,I do wonder what has changed since that time and what has stayed the same ,strange I used this and other windrush books as I feel there is a similar lit movement from the polish writers living in the uk at the moment ,all the best stu

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    • October 2, 2013 at 11:10 pm

      Congratulations to the UK publishing world to allow Selvon’s voice to be heard.
      It’s interesting, what you say about Polish immigrants.
      Here, I don’t remember reading or hearing about books written by immigrants or their children. Apart from Les ritals (about Italians) or Le Gone du Chaaba. Perhaps Caroline knows writers like Selvon.

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  4. October 8, 2013 at 11:02 am

    Nice review, Emma. This looks like an interesting book. This book must have led to a lot of discussion and conversations when it first came out, because it was probably the first of its kind. Interesting to know about the vernacular English that the characters speak in.

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    • October 8, 2013 at 11:12 pm

      I think it was early for such a book to be published and that’s very commendable that it went out. It’s worth reading. It’s full of humour and at the same time full of insight about the British society. Very interesting.

      Guy is right to call their language creole. That’s what people speak in the West Indies and in French isles like La Martinique.

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  5. October 9, 2013 at 9:44 am

    This sounds like something I’d like a lot. I know reading vernacular can tire me after a while because it often sounds artificial but in this case it sounds authentic.
    I’m very glad you reviewed it. I’ll ry to get it right away.

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    • October 9, 2013 at 5:54 pm

      I’m sure this one is for you; it’s close to your centre of interests, isn’t it?
      I’m interested in reading what you think about it. If you read it but don’t review it, can you leave a comment here instead?

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  6. October 11, 2013 at 5:12 pm

    One of my favourite London books – glad you enjoyed it, Emma! I can imagine that the West Indian vernacular was a little difficult. I think Vishy’s right, it was quite controversial at the time to write in a Caribbean rather than an English voice, even though it seems natural now.

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    • October 11, 2013 at 9:25 pm

      It’s a great book and an interesting picture of London. I like book who depict simple folks without pathos or contempt. Selvon was one of them -although he was educated and a journalist- and that’s why his novel sounds true.
      I’m sure it was controversial in the 1950s to disregard grammar and write in a spoken language. It went against traditional rules of writing and what was seen as “proper” language.

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  1. May 25, 2017 at 11:55 am

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