Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The Lonely Londoners is about the ambivalence and isolation that West Indian immigrants feel in London in the years after World War II. The book begins with a character named Moses going to fetch a new immigrant named Henry (nicknamed "Galahad"), who has just arrived in London. As he sees Galahad try to adapt to life in London, Moses reflects on his own alienation. Galahad brings an optimism and excitement that Moses reads as naivete. As Galahad comes to understand what his life is like in London, he understands that his color literally colors his experience. He thinks that his skin is separate from him—it is the shade itself that causes “a lot of misery in the world.” Galahad realizes that his color will distance him from the world around him, and he feels alienated even by his own racial identity.
As a result of their color, the immigrants Moses comes to know in London are distanced from the life of typical Englanders. Their connection to the city comes mainly from trying to date white women and from a connection they feel to the history of the place, mainly due to recognizing the names of neighborhoods and streets. For example, Galahad thinks that Charing Cross emits the same fabled excitement as the times of kings and knights—he feels like “Sir Galahad” undertaking something both historic and important by merely being in London. Galahad's connection to the world around him is superficial, but he feels the immigrant's awe of the great place names he has heard in the past. He feels that he is living like a king simply by passing through famous streets, but he has no true entry into the real heart of London.
In the end, characters like Moses and Galahad remain ambivalent about their surroundings. Moses considers returning home but knows he can not make a living in the West Indies. He is forever suspended between worlds, a victim of colonialism. Moses’s longing for home and general dissatisfaction with his life in London illustrates his occupation in the colonial space. Due to circumstances beyond his control, he (and many other characters) feel like they have one foot in their home country and another in England. Colonialism has propelled Moses forward, yet England has not accepted him with open arms.
The Lonely Londoners presents the paradox of a society characterized by alienation that seems to depend on race and nationality but instead is an inevitable outcome of modernity. While the West Indian immigrants must navigate their adopted country within omnipresent racism and classism, they create a community based on their difference from the dominant majority. Samuel Selvon structures the novel to support the idea of community as he refrains from identifying a single protagonist and instead presents numerous, intersecting stories. The Lonely Londoners could be considered a collectivist narrative: in other words, it is a story about the few that ends up representing the many. Readers are left with a mosaic of the immigrant experience in London after World War II. Many characters struggle with their identities, romantic endeavors, money and jobs, family, and self-fulfillment. There is no clearly defined route that each must take. This emphasizes the variety of experiences and recognizes that there is not a cookie-cutter immigrant experience just as there is no single, pre-set path for life.
Each character faces such challenges in making their way in British society—challenges which vary by the length of time they have resided there—but they understand the reasons for their exclusion. The white, usually native-born Londoners and other Britons they encounter, in contrast, find it more challenging to diagnose their displacement and angst. The more they interact with the white people they had hoped to emulate, the more the Trinidadians understand the need for solidarity and mutual support. These values are embodied in Moses, guide of the newcomers, and Tanty Bessy, the mother figure of the group. Those who do not band together, however, are left to conform to the norm of loneliness.