The Lonely Londoners
By Sam Selvon
At Waterloo Station, hopeful new arrivals from the West Indies step off the boat train, ready to start afresh in 1950s London. There, homesick Moses Aloetta, who has already lived in the city for years, meets Henry ‘Sir Galahad’ Oliver and shows him the ropes. In this strange, cold and foggy city where the natives can be less than friendly at the sight of a black face, has Galahad met his Waterloo? But the irrepressible newcomer cannot be cast down. He and all the other lonely new Londoners – from shiftless Cap to Tolroy, whose family has descended on him from Jamaica – must try to create a new life for themselves. As pessimistic ‘old veteran’ Moses watches their attempts, they gradually learn to survive and come to love the heady excitements of London.Tweet
Resources for this book
Whitley Bay Book Group discussed The Lonely Londoners in February 2023
We chose this book from the 1950s section of the Big Jubilee Read – it was first published in 1956 - and it resulted in a good discussion, covering area such as the language, the misogyny, the immigrant experience, narrative structure, lack of plot and lack of punctuation.
Immigrants from the West Indies arrive in 1950s London and learn to find their way through work, housing, friendships and loneliness, relationships, in a deeply racist society. Some express the intention to return to the West Indies when they have made some money, but it’s clear they probably won’t, and would find themselves out of place there too.
The book is written in the dialect of his characters and is poetic in style, with some very humorous turns of phrase. We liked the depiction of London, which is a character in its own right, and of why the men are drawn to it, in spite of the weather and the racism they experience. The men’s attitudes to women are shocking, and some of us found this a barrier to appreciation of the book.
We were evenly split between awarding the book 4 stars or 2, resulting in an average of 3.
Initialy it felt unusual to read a book in Trini dialect throughout (i.e. not only for conversations), even though I understand and speak it well. I often wondered how difficult it must have been for readers who are not familiar with the dialect. This book felt like a collection of (somewhat personal) biographies and in some sense an autobiography of the author. It read as if Sam Selvon was describing the experiences of his friends and those of himself during that wave of migration of people from "the islands" to the UK. I like reading these types of (non-fiction) fiction books because as much as they are fiction, it does give some real and basic insight into the lives of real people such as those of the windrush generation when they first arrived. An interesting point to note that some of the scenes and thoughts described in the book, although written such a long time ago, can still be heard and seen so many decades later.
First published in1956 this novel tells of the early years of the West Indian so-called Windrush immigrants arriving in London. They are mostly men (in this book) and we hear their stories. The hostility from Londoners, their loneliness but also the camaraderie that got them through, there's pathos but also humour, and despite the despondency there's a definite warmth in the telling of these men's lives.
This is the edition used by the Open University in their 2nd level 'Reading & Studying Literature' course.
At a time funny, heartbreaking, strange & familiar, it moves at a fast pace - like Voltaire's 'Candide', also an A230 set text, and is equally philosophical, sad, hilarious & thought-provoking. Essential reading, set in the 1950s, regarding immigration/emigration, the Caribbean & race relations.