The Lonely Londoners by Samuel Selvon

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Summary

Samuel Selvon published The Lonely Londoners in 1956. Selvon himself was born in Trinidad and moved to London as a young man. The book is based, in part, on his own life—on the experience of West Indian immigrants in London in the postwar era of the 1950s.

The book doesn't have a structured plot or a particular storyline to follow. It's more like a series of observations and vignettes from the daily lives of several characters, all "coloureds" trying to make their way (both professionally and personally) in busy London.

One of the central characters is a factory worker named Moses Aloetta. Born in Trinidad, he's already been in London for a decade, though he hasn't found much in the way of success or prosperity. Still, he's a senior figure, especially to the boys who are fresh off the boat and looking for some guidance in their new lives in London. Once a week, in fact, Moses's room becomes a meeting place for a group of mostly West Indian immigrants.

The title of the book refers in part to Moses's homesickness—London hasn't turned out to be the land of opportunity he expected, and he feels lonely and isolated.

Another primary character is an electrician named Galahad. Younger and more idealistic than Moses, he's interested in dating English women. It's an inroad to local culture and a way to fit in, though Galahad's romantic misadventures only emphasize the cultural differences and the gap in social norms between English people (in this case, a young woman named Dolly) and West Indian immigrants like Galahad. In a memorable passage from The Lonely Londoners, he articulates the book's central premise:

What it is we want that the white people and them find it so hard to give? A little work, a little food, a little place to sleep. We not asking for the sun, or the moon. We only want to get by, we don’t even want to get on.

Tolroy, a Jamaican factory worker, is also interested in white women, and he's chided by his aunt, the colorful Tanty Bessy, for it. He's responsible nonetheless sending much of his earnings home to his mother.

Cap, another of the "boys" in the novel, embodies the archetype of the opportunistic immigrant. Formerly Moses's roommate, he's jobless but intent on getting ahead however he can, and his ambitions help him to keep loneliness and isolation at bay.

The title is apt, however, throughout the book's various episodes. Though the tone is light as the characters stumble through London trying to hold down jobs, win dates with white women, and even visit prostitutes (prostitution was legal in London at the time), the story is a still-timely portrait of the lonely immigrant experience.

Summary

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Although it depicts in realistic terms the lives of West Indian immigrants newly arrived in England, the terms in which it does so are so lyrical in language and lighthearted in attitude that The Lonely Londoners seems less a conventional novel than a cavalcade of humors and manners, a Mardi Gras of misadventure or, to use one of the novel’s own terms, a “fete.” Its structure is episodic, possibly a result of the author’s well-known ability as a short-story writer and radio dramatist. This structure has the effect of making the work’s sense of time seasonal rather than social. The characters do not have the space in which to develop. In addition, the novel is written for the most part in the English of the author’s native Trinidad, reverting to standard usage only at points when some conceptual dimension needs to be invoked in order to clarify a character’s state of mind.

Instead of limiting the work’s appeal, however, these features subtly convey the implications of the title. Even the unfamiliar constructions of the author’s English are rich in cultural undertones of various kinds, while remaining for the uninitiated reader quite easy to understand. The attempt to preserve the character of the uncertainty, vitality, and foreignness that the immigrants bring, along with the addictive attractions and possibilities of London...

(The entire section is 2,264 words.)