The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon, published in 1956, is a story of West Indian immigrants arriving and settling in Britain. It focuses specifically on West Indian immigrants in London and presents the reader with insight into the realities of a subculture which mainstream society does not know very well, a society which, for obvious reasons, is almost totally ignored. Selvon has brilliantly captured the mood and intense experience of the Windrush Generation who arrived in Britain after the Second World War.
Set in early 1950s London, it records the lives of Moses Aloetta, one of the earliest to come, and the group of male friends that surround him, involving the search for dignified work and reasonable housing, amidst the tribulations of finding their footing in the great city of London. In this essay I am going to examine to what extent The Lonely Londoners is a realistic depiction of life in post World War II Britain.
As Britain was struggling to cope after the end of the Second World War, in certain sectors of the economy there were plenty of jobs to be had, and as Sir Winston Churchill told people in the Caribbean, “The Mother Country needs you. Come and help rebuild her. Think British. Be British. You are British”,1 many of the working class came to find work, while the elite and educated came to study. There were no restrictions on their entry into Britain and according to an official estimate, there were about 210,000 black immigrants that came to Britain in the 1950s, less than half of one per cent of the total British population.. However, by 1965, numbers in the UK had jumped to 850,000, or 2% of the total population.
Sam Selvon was one of many that came to Britain to find work and establish himself in London. Due to this, he has had numerous revelations and vast experience of post World War II life, therefore, one could say that this exposure can be seen thoroughly throughout his novel. The Lonely Londoners, reflects the economic and social reality in Britain, rooted in a lifestyle and a culture that go largely unknown and unsuspected. The novel begins with the arrival of a new immigrant at Waterloo on the boat train. The newcomer, Henry Oliver, later known as Sir Galahad, is met by a total stranger, Moses, who has been asked to pick him up:
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 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.
The methods of transport and the weather conditions tell us that life in London is not one of luxury and comfort, and with intensity, Selvon manages to show the implicit worry of contamination, ‘When Moses sit down and pay his fare he take out a white hankerchief and blow his nose. The handkerchief turn black…’4 This is very true to how many migrants viewed Britain as a whole, and as Ramdin quotes:
West Indian newcomers to London initially tended to spend one night at least with a friend or relative….Fortunately, the newcomers were not only able to draw on the help of recent migrants, but also from those who had earlier established themselves in London. In effect, their houses became ‘hostels’ for newcomers. This support can clearly be seen in The Lonely Londoners, when Moses allows Galahad to stay a few nights at his place and offers to help him out, giving him information on where to go and help on finding a job. Thus, showing that Selvon’s novel is an accurate portrayal of life in Britain after the Second World War.
Written as a continuous narrative, without chapters, it is rather more a rolling, flowing representation of the immigrants’ lives and lifestyles, and as such is an almost seamless account. For the 1956 immigrants, London is a cold, hard place. The fog which covers and blurs the capital turns it into a nightmare world, where Waterloo station inspires feelings of nostalgia for home, especially when new arrivals disembark. Of course the difference in climate is particularly hard and the desolation of winter makes the capital even more unbearable: It have some snow on the ground and the old fog at home as usual. It look like hell.
The “beast winter”7 brings mornings when the sun shines without heat and “the colour of the sky so desolate it make him more frighten”.8 Trying to get settled in London depends on a certain number of basic factors: a job, lodgings and someone to guide you round and help you out. Moses is the veteran immigrant who takes in Galahad, and shows him the ropes. The Labour Exchange, “where hate and disgust and avarice and malice and sympathy and sorrow and pity all mix up”9 is the first place where colour prejudice is shown, as the record cards are marked to indicate whether you are black or not. As for accommodation, the severe discipline of the temporary hostel is the only alternative to sharing cramped rooms in Brixton, exploiting landlords and where “the heat make water on the glass”.10 Earning wages of ï¿½5 a week and obliged to pay between 11 in rent, life is hard, and things become even more unstable when there is no work.11
According to Ramdin, ‘The grim reality of poverty pushed many to desperation’.12 This can also be depicted in The Lonely Londoners, when starving Galahad walks round London in the depths of winter in inadequate clothing, and there are scenes where he and then Cap, hunt and trap seagulls and pigeons in order to eat them. This proves that there were times when people became desperate.
There are very few female characters portrayed in The Lonely Londoners, yet whether they are young or older, they all seem to be fairly spirited and independent-minded people. The most colourful is Tanty, an elderly immigrant who decides to come to England to settle with her nephew Tolroy. Tanty is a resourceful and enterprising person: knowing nothing of London but only what she has heard from the others who have jobs. Which is what some immigrants did, as many were quite scared to go out on their own on to the busy streets of London, so instead, they assumed that whatever other people told them about London, was true.
She also sets about reforming business practices around Harrow Road (credit, selecting own produce, wrapping of goods). Another of the black women include Ma, who washes dishes at a Lyons corner House, “Only from the washing up Ma form an idea of the population of London”.13 She represents many women from the time, as this was one of the typical types of job a black female could get in Britain at the time, especially around the mid-1950s when there was a severe shortage of labour in the transport and catering industries.14
It is Galahad the romantic who finds the most pleasure in actually being in London: …when he say ‘Charing Cross,’ when he realise that is he, Sir Galahad, that is going there near that place everybody in the world know about (it even have the name in the dictionary) he feel like a new man. He is touching in his attempts to dress and to pass as an Englishman, as is Harris with his exaggerated British accent.
The Lonely Londoners evokes the problems of integration and racism, and the efforts by Galahad and Harris to dress and behave like Englishmen and to imitate English speech are quite humourous yet pitiful, and Bart, who is light-skinned, tries in vain to pass himself off as South American, in order to divert racist antagonism. Nevertheless, this is true to how many immigrants felt they needed to be in order to ‘fit in’ to British society.
In conclusion, Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners is a very realistic depiction of life in post World War II Britain. He manages to capture the intense atmosphere of the city life shown in incidents and through conversations, and not only gives an accurate account of London itself during the 1950s, but it also shows the force of race and colour against the immigrants, and their feelings towards this predjudice. For example, when Galahad talks to his hand, trying to understand why he is treated so badly because of the colour of his skin: Colour, is you that causing all this, you know. Why the hell you can’t be blue, or red or green, if you can’t be white? You know is you that cause a lot of misery in this world…So Galahd talking to the colour Black, as if is a person…