The Lonely Londoners

by Samuel Selvon

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Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

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Conditions in England in the immediate postwar period were conducive to substantial immigration from the colonies. The amount of rebuilding that needed to be carried out, the shortage of workers caused by the war, and various other complicated demographic and social factors led to the tapping of a large pool of black labor from the West Indies. Neither party to this arrangement was quite prepared for the effects that it would have. In particular, English society, proverbially private, insular, and elaborately stratified, was ill-equipped at both the structural and cultural levels to consider the new workers as equal partners in the rehabilitation of the social fabric.

Inevitably, the immigrants found themselves in a variety of economic, social, and cultural ghettos. These were all the more palpable since they did not have an explicit geographical equivalent. Although it is true that the Brixton section of South London became synonymous with West Indian immigrant families, The Lonely Londoners is a telling account of the first wave of immigrants, which consisted largely of single men. The single rooms in which they lived were to a considerable extent confined to the area of West London delimited in the novel. This area did not, however, constitute a ghetto in the sociological sense, with the result that there was continual problematic interaction between white and black residents. These conditions culminated in the first serious postwar English race riot, at Notting Hill in 1956. This context conditions the sense of conflict, alienation, foreignness, and taboo that forms the understated subtext of The Lonely Londoners and that gives a particularly complex set of connotations to the ordinary humanity of the term “lonely.”

Public recognition of this immigrant influx, in cultural terms, did not occur immediately. Because of this lack, authors such as Samuel Selvon performed an invaluable service both to their countrymen and to their hosts by considering immigrants’ conditions and experiences as subjects appropriate for literature. Despite the popular success of novels by white authors dealing with the immigrant situation such as Colin MacInnes’s City of Spades (1957), were it not for Selvon’s novels The Lonely Londoners and The Housing Lark (1965), and his collection of stories Ways of Sunlight (1957), the vivid lives and hard times of the first West Indian immigrants to England might not have been given their due, and one of the migrations symptomatic of postwar relations between the developed and developing worlds might well have had its human component go unrecorded.

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Critical Context (Critical Guide to British Fiction)