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!