The Lonely Londoners

by Samuel Selvon

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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 is 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. Moses greets him at the train station and is surprised to find that Galahad has not brought any luggage with him. Initially, Galahad wants to get a feel for London himself without Moses’s advice, but soon changes his mind to accept assistance from someone more versed in the experience. Younger and more idealistic than Moses, he's also interested in dating English women. It is 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, questioning why the white English people are so reluctant to allow immigrants basic necessities like food, shelter, and job opportunities. He wonders why they must struggle to live when they are not asking for excess.

Tolroy, a Jamaican factory worker, is also interested in white women and is chided by his aunt, the colorful Tanty Bessy, for it. He's responsible nonetheless, sending much of his earnings home to his mother. He saves enough money to bring his mother to London with him, but is surprised at the train station when she has brought several other relatives along with her. He raises concerns about having enough money or space for this number of people. When he protests, his mother and Tanty Bessy reprimand him for his lack of enthusiasm upon receiving family.

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.

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