The 1956 Club inspired this The Lonely Londoners review, but although Sam Selvon vividly conveys ’50s London via a group of recently and not-so-recently arrived immigrants from the Caribbean, it is a timeless story that will resonate with anyone who has ever arrived in the big city from elsewhere. And while trying to find a shilling for the meter has been replaced by topping up the key at the corner shop, the murk and grimness of a London winter is unchanging.
The Lonely Londoners opens with old London hand Moses hopping on a bus in the fog from ‘The Water’ – Bayswater – down to Waterloo to meet a new arrival. Moses has been in London so long that he acts as a kind of ‘liaison officer’ for any friend of a friend making the trip from Trinidad after him. Waiting for the train allows him to reflect on homesickness and how he must have a ‘soft heart’ to be out on a cold night waiting for a stranger. Sir Galahad is the man who eventually appears, in light summer clothes and without baggage, both facts that strike world-weary Moses with horror and amusement. Also in the station is Tolroy, a friend of Moses, expecting to meet one family member but getting more than he bargained for.
Then, as now, the media was whipping up a storm against the immigrants, with a newspaper reporter hanging around looking for a story that was probably pre-written.
…whatever the newspaper and the radio say in this country, that is the people Bible. Like one time when the newspapers say that the West Indians think that the streets of London paved with gold a Jamaican fellar went to the income tax office to find out something and first thing the clerk tell him is, “You people think the streets of London are paved with gold?” Newspaper and radio rule this country.
As he welcomes Sir Galahad, Moses gives the reader a tour of West Indian London: the landlords who will rent to ‘the boys’ without difficulties, looking for work at the employment exchange, if the foreman will take them on, signing on for the gaps in between. Moses reminisces over people he has known, like Captain, who came from Nigeria with money from his father to study law, but blew it off and is now a ‘man of mystery,’ chasing girls and running out on the rent. Women, thinking about women, talking about women, and meeting up with women consumes a lot of time for all the boys.
Who can tell what was the vap that hit Cap and make him get married? A man like he, who ain’t have nothing, no clothes, no work, no house to live in, no place to go? Yet is so things does happen in life. You work things out in your own mind to a kind of pattern, in a sort of sequence, and one day bam! something happen to throw everything out of gear, what you expect to happen never happen, what you don’t expect to happen always happen, and you have to start thinking all over again.
Class and race collide in post-war London, where housing is still scarce or bad, comprising bedsitting rooms with leaks and draughts. The ‘Mother Country’ is far from nurturing, and the British refer to anyone from any island as ‘Jamaican.’ Their status as citizens gets constantly overlooked, as with a Polish owner of a café which won’t serve Black customers, ignoring that they have British passports, while he doesn’t. The city is dingy with smog and never welcoming, more so to those who stand out as Moses and his friends do. While they do meet with prejudice, there is also that pragmatic approach by London to new populations: so the local corner shop starts selling West Indian produce, or the old Jewish tailor measures them up for suits.
The language is vibrant and like having Moses talk to you over a pint or three. ‘Vex’ has long since crossed over into London slang, ‘fellar,’ is universal, but although I did not know ‘test,’ the cadences of the voices soon take over. The title comes from musing on the loneliness of London after where they have come from. I could not escape the feeling that it must have seemed so grey. The dark London clouds being almost an inch above your nose in winter is one of the reasons why I had to leave, and I feel for anyone more used to wide Caribbean blue skies having to struggle through the smog. Anyone who has moved to London from elsewhere will recognise Sir Galahad’s initial feeling at having to find somewhere to live, a job and a space to be in all the hustle. Regardless of how long they have been there, the melancholy of winter in England seeps into all their souls, used to warm sun and a warmer welcome than the colder Londoners are prepared to give. But when summer comes, everything changes, rooms can be near-deserted in favour of the parks, as the days get longer and there are girls to chase and ‘fetes’ to enjoy.
This is London, this is life oh lord, to walk like a king with money in your pocket, not a worry in the world. Is one of those summer evenings, when it look like night would never come, a magnificent evening, a powerful evening, rent finish paying, rations in the cupboard, twenty pounds in the bank, and a nice piece of skin waiting under the big clock in Piccadilly Tube Station. The sky blue, sun shining, the girls ain’t have on no coats to hide the legs.
Selvon’s writing is to be savoured, from the friends’ way of speaking among themselves to Sir Galahad arguing with the colour ‘Black’ as causing all the trouble for him, to longer, meditative, streams of consciousness that contemplate life in London.
Always, from the first time he went there to see Eros and the lights, that circus have a magnet for him, that circus represent life, that circus is the beginning and the ending of the world. Every time he go there, he have the same feeling like when he see it the first night, drink coca-cola, any time is guinness time, bovril and the fireworks, a million flashing lights, gay laughter, the wide doors of theatres, the huge posters, everready batteries, rich people going into tall hotels, people going to the theatre, people sitting and standing and walking and talking and laughing and buses and cars and Galahad Esquire, in all this, standing there in the big city, in London. Oh Lord.
Distractions are all around and more than once Moses laments that he cannot save money or get on: as later generations have also found. He has a factory job doing night shifts, a room to call his own, but every new person who comes his way reminds him that he is still in the same place. Should he go or stay? Home calls constantly, but London has a way of pulling people in and making it hard to leave. The restlessness of the city unsettles as well as inspiring, but Moses can tell it is a young man’s game. It is fun to imagine him leaving London for elsewhere, just as Barry and Carmel arrive from Antigua in Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman. The ebb and flow of arrivals and departures in London is constant. The Lonely Londoners is definitely one to add to any list of favourite books about London.
Author Photo: BBC UK Government, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons