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The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon

September 30, 2013 25 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.

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