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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 457

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...

(The entire section contains 1292 words.)

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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.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 835

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 life, fuels The Lonely Londoners, making it more a fascinating document with strong ethnographic tendencies than a well-made novel in the conventional mode.

Despite the author’s clear understanding of the economic, racial, and political components of his characters’ social existence, the sense of the social that emerges is that which derives from leisure activities and the pursuit of happiness, particularly the variety that, it is believed, the female form embodies. This emphasis does not overlook other, more pressing, areas of immigrant experience. Subjection to prejudice by employers, labor unions, landlords, and various other social structures is deftly but inescapably sketched. The immigrants’ bemused incomprehension of England and the English is constantly close to the surface of their experiences. Even the English climate seems prejudicial. As the novel’s title suggests, the immigrants’ lives embody an economic and social dead end. Nevertheless, despite their less than modest status, options, and future, and despite a variety of attitudes on the part of individuals, they are seldom demoralized and dwell only fleetingly on the vicissitudes of their situation.

Their faith in life, their articulation of liberty, and their pursuit of happiness, or at any rate, a good time, is relentless, spirited, and essentially optimistic. Such orientations are expressed through a fondness for fashionable and, relative to the wearers’ economic wherewithal, expensive clothing; trips to the cinema and restaurants in the West End, preferably with white girls on their arms; and organizing a fete, a dance featuring traditional music provided by a traditional steel band.

Much of the time, however, the characters are found with time on their hands. This too is expressive of the quality of life of the immigrants, as opposed to being a documentary record of a given set of actual immigrants’ lives. The amount of time spent “coasting a lime,” the American equivalent to which is “hanging out,” forms a sober contrast to the images of themselves as lovers and fashion models that constitute their conception of successful participation in the society of what they call, with ambivalent affection, “the old Brit’n.” The novel’s episodic structure reflects the lack of structure in the characters’ social existence, a lack underlined by their working the night shift, this being the form of employment they can obtain with any degree of regularity and ease. Even the episodes that occur outside their single rooms and hostels, episodes in such well-known London venues as Piccadilly Circus and Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, show the immigrants to be marginal, detached, and engaged in activities that, though very human, are essentially inconclusive.

The manner in which the immigrants abbreviate the names of the West London locales in which they settle—“the Water” for Bayswater, “the Gate” for Notting Hill Gate, “the Grove” for Ladbroke Grove—represents their desire to familiarize themselves with their surroundings. This desire, also expressed in reference to “the Circus” and “the Arch,” the latter referring to Marble Arch, remains at the level of intention. Nothing in The Lonely Londoners indicates that the immigrants will be able to relieve the loneliness or become Londoners in the fully accepted sense of the term. This state of affairs makes all the more noteworthy the spiritedness that the characters bring, naïvely perhaps, to their various adventures, amatory and other. Were it not naïve, that spirit might not be so persistent. The author’s identification and recapitulation of his characters’ energies by means of their patois is an act of loyalty and fond, if slightly ironic, homage that lends them a viability and distinctiveness not otherwise accorded to their presence or to the social status upon which that presence is based.

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