‘The definitive novel about London’s West Indians’? ‘The Lonely Londoners’ by Sam Selvon (1956)

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As far as titles go, ‘The Lonely Londoners’ could have been written for me.  I’m a sucker for books with city names in the title and (biased resident that I am) I like to think of London as one of the greatest cities on earth.  Just seeing the landmarks on the cover of the Longman edition of Selvon’s novella made me happy and then there was the promising quote above the image – according to the Financial Times I was about to read ‘The definitive novel about London’s West Indians.’  Wow.

Set in the 1950s Selvon’s book tells a story of fog, cold and isolation, but it is also a powerful evocation of community and culture. The book begins with the nominal protagonist, Moses Aloetta, setting into the night: he ‘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.’ Moses has accepted, with some grumbling, the role of host, welcoming, assisting and distributing men who know someone who knows someone who knew him from when he lived in Trinidad.  Moses himself has been in London for years, and so is protective of but also anxious about the continuing influx of immigrants.  Nearly all of them are men who have come seeking work, and they are going to need guidance if they are to negotiate the cold, the conventions and the barely veiled racism of the city which has reluctantly accepted them.

More a sketchbook than a novel, ‘The Lonely Londoners’ tells us about these men though what feels like a collection of loosely connected short stories.  The ambitious and the lazy, the careful and the careless, one of the first lessons they all learn is that to most of British society they are perceived as representatives of alien culture, rather than individuals in their own right.  From the funny to the poignant, the vignettes that make up the novel present real people who emerge fully formed from the faceless mob.

I fully understand how ‘The Lonely Londoners’ has acquired classic status, but I’m also pleased that it now feels dated.  Although immigration is still a major news item and inequality a continuing and serious problem, 21st century London is a cosmopolitan city in which the overt racism (or ‘diplomacy‘ as Moses calls it) that prevents the book’s characters from ever getting decent jobs or living in certain boarding houses is now illegal.  What concerned me is the suggestion that a community could be defined in a single short work of fiction.  I don’t like the idea that there could ever be a ‘definitive novel about London’s West Indians‘ because London, and the London West Indian community, is always changing.  I’d be much happier enjoying Selvon’s book as a great novel about Londoners in the 1950s – now I need to seek out more novels that will chart the community’s and the city’s changes in the sixty years that have passed since then.  My half of the deal is to recommend that everyone reads ‘The Lonely Londoners’ as an important novel of London’s heritage – in return, I’d really like recommendations for books that take the contemporary West Indian community as their focus.  Please get in touch to let me know authors and titles to look out for!

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16 Responses to ‘The definitive novel about London’s West Indians’? ‘The Lonely Londoners’ by Sam Selvon (1956)

  1. Pingback: Inspired by Diverse December: an A-Z of BAEM authors for 2016 | Shoshi's Book Blog

  2. pigeonel15 says:

    What about Zadie Smith’s White Teeth?

  3. aseachange says:

    I remember reading The Lonely Londoners at undergrad. I really enjoyed it but it is, as you say, very much a novel of it’s time! I have got a reading suggestion for you, it’s two short poetry collections – Chick and Chan by Hannah Lowe. They’ve got a really strong sense of narrative, as the poems revolve around her relationship to her mixed heritage through her card-sharp father ‘Chick’. It strongly reminded me of Londoners when I read it, but with a bit more distance to reflect.

  4. Elle says:

    Have you read Andrea Levy’s ‘Small Island’? Written in the 21st century but set in the 1950s, and wonderful. There’s also ‘The Year of the Runaways’ by Sunjeev Sahota, which is contemporarily set (in Sheffield, though, not London) and focuses on the experiences of Indian immigrants.

    • I do love ‘Small Island’ and you’re absolutely right, it stands right alongside ‘The Lonely Londoners’ as a great book about the West Indian British experience. To my shame ‘The Year of the Runaways’ is the one left of the 2015 shortlist that I haven’t read; I am really looking forward to it – it’s come very highly recommended.

      • Elle says:

        I think you’ll probably really enjoy it, if you liked Small Island – it’s very interesting to read it with the historical background from Small Island in mind.

  5. Jonathan says:

    I read Lonely Londoners back in the late ’80s/early ’90s and enjoyed it. I think it captured the mood of the city in the ’50s really well. Not long after I read a book called Another Lonely Londoner which was written at that time and I think it was about some immigrants from Nigeria (I believe)—I may still have my copy somewhere. But I remember it as being just as good as Selvon’s book.

  6. Izzy says:

    Thank you for bringing this one to my attention. The only Caribbean novel I can think of off the top of my head, is Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas, but you’ve probably already read it ?

    P.S. I’m off topic, but I am now sure that Soseki is Natsume Soseki’s surname. So, you’ve been unduly familar with him I’m afraid 🙂

    • ‘A House for Mr Biswas’ is actually the only Naipaul novel that I’ve read! I do plan on reading some of his shorter works next year though …

      Confusingly, Natsume is the surname (according to Wikipedia and, more convincingly, the University of London library and the British Library which file his books under ‘N’). On the other hand, all the scholarly articles I’ve seen about him agree with you that he should be called Sōseki. The upshot is that I’m going back to edit my blog post and curse my automatically Eurocentric attitude to naming!

  7. Izzy says:

    Oh, and In the Castle of my skin, by George Lamming, and Olive Senior’s stories (Summer lightning and other stories, Arrival of the Snake woman and other stories) !

  8. Izzy says:

    Silly me. I’ve only just realized that you meant books about the West Indian community living in London, not just Caribbean books.

    • Book recommendations are always welcome!
      Thank you for all of your suggestions – with winter starting up I may well feel in need of some more Caribbean-set literature to see me through the dark days!

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