The Lonely Londoners 
by Sam Selvon.
Penguin, 138 pp., £16.99, June 2021, 978 0 241 50412 3
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SamSelvon’s The Lonely Londoners (1956) was one of the first British novels to be written in creolised English. It turned London, as the critic Susheila Nasta has said, into a ‘Black city of words’. The protagonist, Moses Aloetta, is an Afro-Trinidadian who arrived early in the Windrush era. After almost a decade in the city, he has become a reluctant welfare officer for newcomers: ‘All sorts of fellars start coming straight to his room … when they land up in London from the West Indies, saying that so and so tell them that Moses is a good fellar to contact, that he would help them get place to stay and work to do.’ The novel opens on a ‘grim winter evening’ as the SS Hildebrand, a ship transporting Caribbean migrants, docks at Southampton. Moses is travelling on the 46 bus from Westbourne Park to Waterloo to meet his latest ward, ‘vex with himself that his heart so soft that he always doing something for somebody and nobody ever doing anything for him’.

Moses has begun to internalise the racism he has suffered. On the 46, when he ‘sit down and pay his fare he take out a white handkerchief and blow his nose. The handkerchief turn black and Moses watch it and curse the fog.’ He feels as responsible for tainting the handkerchief – which could stand for Britain itself – as the fog is, or the coal dust that blackens London’s buildings. (The ‘Great London Smog’ struck during Selvon’s third winter in the city.) At Waterloo he runs into Tolroy, a Jamaican friend who is waiting for his mother to arrive. When she does, Tolroy is shocked to see the rest of his family accompanying her, including his grandmother Tanty, who quickly makes her mark by convincing a grocer stocking Caribbean goods that he should offer credit, as is customary in the Caribbean.

Henry Oliver, the man Moses is expecting, eventually arrives without cigarettes, rum or money, having gambled most of it away on the ship; he is wearing only a light suit and a pair of watchekongs to greet the ‘beast winter’. A white woman from Ladbroke Grove gives birth to Oliver’s child eight and a half months after his arrival (this is never mentioned again), and his maverick ways earn him the name Sir Galahad. Other characters include Big City (who suffers from a speech disorder) and Five Past Twelve (whose skin is a shade darker than midnight). According to Selvon’s friend, the Barbadian novelist George Lamming (who died last month), Selvon was ‘a master at the contracted phrase “niggergram”, meaning the circulation of rumour at top speed. There can hardly be another writer who has contributed in this way to the vocabulary of West Indian conversation.’

Once he has picked up his new arrivals, Moses focuses on ‘scattering the boys around London, for he don’t want no concentrated area … things bad enough already … Moses know which part they will slam door in your face and which part they will take in spades.’ He lives in a basement flat in Bayswater – the Water, for short – within walking distance of Notting Hill. In the 1950s, the area was the domain of Peter Rachman, the Polish-born refugee turned slum landlord who exploited the hostility of the housing market towards Black immigrants, buying up run-down houses in Paddington and North Kensington and renting them to desperate people at extortionate rates. Overcrowding and unsanitary conditions were common. Selvon’s characters experience grinding poverty. After Galahad loses his job he finds himself trying to catch a pigeon in a park; Cap, a manipulative and womanising Nigerian who has drifted from his studies, lays bait for a seagull on his windowsill.

There is no suggestion in the novel of violence on the horizon. Two years after the book was published, however, the racial divisions that plagued West London culminated in the Notting Hill riots. The fighting began in August 1958 when a group of Teddy Boys saw a white Swedish woman, Majbritt Morrison, arguing with her Jamaican husband, Raymond, outside a tube station. The following night they attacked her with a bar, calling her a ‘Black man’s trollop’. The Morrisons could have come straight from the pages of The Lonely Londoners. As one character tells Galahad: ‘Boy it have bags of white pussy in London, and you will eat till you tired.’

‘White girls,’ Tanty grumble as she put the kettle on the fireplace fire, ‘is that what sweeten up so many of you to come to London. Your own kind of girls not good enough now, is only white girls … Go on! They will catch up with you in this country!’

The women the men chase are referred to variously as ‘thing’, ‘piece of skin’ and ‘sharp craft’. Often they’re victims of male violence; Tolroy’s brother-in-law, Lewis, beats his wife, Agnes, until she leaves him. Selvon attracted criticism for his depiction of women, but as Lamming observed, ‘Selvon never sneers at his characters. He is always with them in what they are doing, the foolish things as well as the beautiful things.’

The novel is structured around gossip, and by a series of ‘ballads’ about the experiences of a group of men; they’re not necessarily friends, but have been brought together by their minority status. Bart is light-skinned, which might have earned him privileges in the shadeocracies of the Caribbean, but he soon learns to his bitter disappointment that in Britain he is simply Black. Harris goes around in a three-piece suit and bowler hat, with a copy of the Times rolled under his arm, but his respectable demeanour is sabotaged when Five Past Twelve smokes weed at a party and the smell lingers on Harris’s clothes.

It is only towards the end of the novel that we learn anything about Moses himself, and it comes in the form of a torrid, airless confession now known as the ‘summer is hearts’ episode. It’s as if Moses has spent so much time being selfless and looking out for others that, when he finally gets a moment to speak, it pours out of him like a climactic jazz solo. When summer arrives, the psychological permafrost under which Britain lies for nine months of the year thaws. Suddenly, ‘everywhere you turn the English people smiling isn’t it a lovely day as if the sun burn away the tightness and strain that was in their face for the winter.’ For Moses summer also brings a yearning for home. ‘When is winter a kind of grey nasty colour does come to the sky and it stay there and you forget what it like to see blue skies like back home where blue sky so common people don’t even look up in the air.’

It is the decade before the sexual revolution, and everybody in London seems to stalk the shadows in the city’s parks on balmy nights. Moses picks up one woman and takes her back to his flat, where she suffers what appears to be an epileptic fit. He worries that she’ll die and the police will find him with a dead white woman – ‘he wouldn’t stand a chance the way how things against the boys’ – but she recovers. Next, he is approached by a middle-aged couple who invite him home for a cup of coffee, and ‘the fellar play as if he fall asleep and give Moses a free hand because it have fellars who does get big thrills that way.’ He gets picked up by another Englishman on behalf of a blonde female friend, with whom Moses briefly enters into a covert arrangement. Later, he is cruised by a ‘pansy’ outside Marble Arch Station. Comfortable with sexual advances from men as well as women, Moses plays along: ‘I like you the pansy say I like you too Moses say and all this time he want to dead with laugh.’

The Lonely Londoners is sometimes mentioned in the context of queer literature, but this episode, and one in which Cap – at first unwittingly – sleeps with a transvestite, are the only moments where queer sexuality comes into focus. Work by Selvon’s contemporaries, such as Andrew Salkey’s Escape to an Autumn Pavement (1960), Edgar Mittelholzer’s A Morning at the Office (1950) and Harold Sonny Ladoo’s Yesterdays (1974), deal more explicitly and sympathetically with queer themes and characters in the Caribbean diaspora. But Selvon does recognise that sex can be an immigrant’s passport to provisional acceptance within the majority culture – a means of transcending racial and class barriers. His male characters enter ritzy Knightsbridge clubs on the arm of well-to-do white women. But there are still pitfalls: one of Moses’s Jamaican friends is treated like a possession by a wealthy Chelsea resident whose house has ‘all sorts of surrealistic painting on the walls and contemporary furniture’: ‘The number not interested in passing on any knowledge she only interested in one thing and in the heat of emotion she call the Jamaican a Black bastard … the Jamaican fellar get vex … and he thump the woman and went away.’ At the end of the ‘summer is hearts’ section – one long, unpunctuated sentence – ‘Moses sigh a long sigh like a man who live life and see nothing at all in it and who frighten as the years go by wondering what it is all about.’

Lamming met Selvon by chance in 1950, on a ship that had left the Caribbean one morning in mid-March. In his essay collection The Pleasures of Exile (1960), Lamming wrote:

England lay before us, not a place, or a people but as a promise and an expectation. Sam and I had left for the same reasons. We had come to England to be writers. And now we were about to be anchored at Southampton, we realised that we had no return ticket. We had no experience in crime. Moreover, our colonial status condemned us fortunately to the rights of full citizenship. In no circumstances could we qualify for deportation. There was no going back. All the gaiety of reprieve which we felt on our departure had now turned into apprehension. Like one of the many characters which he has since created, Sam said on the deck: ‘Is who send we up in this place?’

Lammy’s certainty – ‘in no circumstances could we qualify for deportation’ – has a bitter irony in light of Britain’s Windrush scandal. The twin-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago became independent in August 1962, three weeks after Jamaica. That same year, Britain passed the first of a series of immigration acts to redress its ‘error’ in opening its borders to all citizens of the Commonwealth in 1948. In his documentary The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files, David Olusoga observed that the 1948 British Nationality Act was intended to attract Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders, who would be easily absorbed into the majority population, restoring Britain’s manpower after the war, while keeping it white. Panicked memos were shuttling through the corridors at Westminster as the SS Empire Windrush, carrying 492 passengers from across the Caribbean archipelago, approached Tilbury Docks on 22 June. The newcomers soon became aware of the political cloud above their heads. Selvon writes in The Lonely Londoners: ‘The boys all over London, it ain’t have a place where you wouldn’t find them, and big discussion going on in Parliament about the situation, though the old Brit’n too diplomatic to clamp down on the boys or to do anything drastic like stop them coming to the Mother Country.’

Changing the wording of the act to preclude people of colour would have damaged Britain’s non-discriminatory reputation on the world stage after the country’s victory over the Nazis. Instead, the government relied on an underhand hostile environment policy to make it difficult for Caribbean, West African and Asian nationals to settle in the UK, and, at first, declined to stand in the way of grassroots anti-immigration campaigns led by the likes of Oswald Mosley and the Conservative Monday Club. Selvon continued:

But big headlines in the papers every day, and whatever the newspaper and the radio say in this country, that is the people Bible. Like one time when 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 about 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.

And:

English people don’t like the boys coming to England to work and live … as far as I could figure, they frighten that we get job in front of them, though that does never happen.

Small numbers of Caribbean nationals already called Britain home before 1948: those who served in the RAF, for instance, and highly educated figures such as Harold Moody, the Jamaican physician and founder of the League of Coloured Peoples, a British civil rights organisation; C.L.R. James, the Trinidadian author of The Black Jacobins; and Una Marson, another Jamaican, the founding producer of the BBC’s Caribbean Voices and the first Black woman to have a play staged in the West End. The Windrush carried a new sort of immigrant, however – the West Indian labourer.

These proletarian figures are the subjects of Selvon’s fiction; he captured the natural rhythm of their speech. At first it feels necessary to keep translating ‘it have’ to yourself as ‘there is’, ‘it had’ as ‘there was’, ‘had was’ simply as ‘had’. But the pay-off for hearing the language they use is a deep intimacy with the characters, and the culture they have brought with them to this cold, dark, alien place. ‘Writers like Selvon,’ Lamming wrote,

are essentially peasant … they never left the land that once claimed their ancestors like trees … Peasants simply don’t respond and see like middle-class people. The peasant tongue has its own rhythms, which are Selvon’s … and no artifice of technique, no sophisticated gimmicks leading to the mutilation of form, can achieve the specific taste and sound of Selvon’s prose.

For this prose is, really, the people’s speech, the organic music of the earth.

At the end of The Lonely Londoners, Moses stands beside the Thames watching a tugboat, wondering if he could ever write a book like the French working-class authors who one day are ‘sweating in the factory and the next day all the newspapers have your name and photo, saying how you are a new literary giant’.

It’s tempting to view Selvon’s next London book, The Housing Lark (1965), as the novel Moses might have written. Though it is set ten years after The Lonely Londoners, the immigrant characters are not yet integrated. Reference is made to the Conservative MP Peter Griffiths, who in the 1964 general election won 48 per cent of the vote in Smethwick with the slogan: ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.’ (A British branch of the Ku Klux Klan formed following the results.)

Battersby (‘Bat’), the de facto protagonist, is a Trinidadian living in a basement flat in Brixton, staring at the lamp pattern on his wallpaper, wishing a genie would grant him riches and ‘the nicest woman in the world’. Not much is said about his job, but ‘he so accustom to jumping up five o’clock in the morning, that he could never sleep late, even on a Sunday.’ Bat is behind with his payments, so a promising Jamaican musician called Harry Banjo is hoodwinked by the landlord – an unscrupulous Trinidadian – into moving in with Bat and covering all the rent. The two men and some other friends pool their money together to buy a house, but it soon becomes clear that neither Bat nor any of the others can be trusted with the savings. They put their faith in Banjo, who hopes to record his calypso songs and become a star, to buy the house for them, but he is arrested for possession of marijuana.

The strongest characters in the novel are women: Jean, Bat’s sister, is a ‘sharp craft’ who enjoys her job as a hustler in Hyde Park. It gives her freedom and agency; she’s on-trend at the height of Swinging London and laughs derisively at a dress sent to her by a relative in Trinidad. When a religious zealot approaches her on her strip to ask what part of the world she’s from, ‘“The jungle,” Jean say, blowing smoke in her face.’ Fitz, who ‘knocked the word clean out’ of a white girlfriend’s head for asking if they should get married, is taken in hand by the formidable Teena, a friend’s cousin, who soon has him ‘washing pot and pan in the sink’.

The men in The Housing Lark are more hapless and disenfranchised than those in The Lonely Londoners, and at times it’s difficult to root for them. One character, Gallows, was working as a stevedore in Port of Spain when a crate crashed down, spilling rum everywhere. He filled a bucket and woke up the next day to the boom of the ship’s engines. At Plymouth he was charged as a stowaway, spent a month in prison, and ‘afterwards drift up to Londontown, hungry and destitute’. He spends most of the novel searching the city for a lost five-pound note. This is the equivalent of £90 today, a sum anyone would be upset to lose, but it’s as if Gallows expects the note to be handed in as lost property. His delusions grow. He stops at an estate agent to inquire about mansions in Hampstead and Mayfair. When Teena pleads with the men to face reality and quit gambling, drinking and smoking if they’re serious about buying a house, ‘Gallows make the sign of the cross with his forefingers and kiss it. “Tomorrow self please God I going to look for a work, whatever it is, if is not executiving I won’t mind directing a bank or something. I will give up the search for that fiver that I lost one day and concentrate on reality.”’

They plan to raise money by organising a community coach trip to ‘Hamdon Court’, which goes as farcically as you might expect. But the attitude of the men reveals a sense of entitlement – to riches, food, women and booze – that Henry VIII would have applauded:

‘You know, old Henry just used to lick stroke, and when he tired, throw them in the Tower and say “Off with the head!”’

‘I must say you boys surprise me with your historical knowledge. It’s a bit mixed up, I think, but it’s English history.’

‘We don’t know any other kind. That’s all they used to teach we in school.’

‘That’s because OUR PEOPLE ain’t have no history. But what I wonder is, when we have, you think they going to learn the children that in the English schools?’

‘Who say we ain’t have history? What about the Carib Indians and Abercomby and Sir Walter Raleigh?’

Selvon’s third and fourth London novels, Moses Ascending (1975) and Moses Migrating (1983) return to the protagonist of The Lonely Londoners, who has now become a landlord. In Ascending, Moses hires a white Man Friday from the Black Country to attend to him in his tumbledown Shepherd’s Bush ‘mansion’, where he has retired to write his memoirs. Moses is in conflict with the Black Power group – representing the new radicalised generation – that has set up an office in his basement. Galahad (the only other character to resurface from The Lonely Londoners) is a prominent member. Galahad’s Black consciousness began to develop in the earlier novel, after he experienced a series of racial microaggressions:

And Galahad watch the colour of his hand, and talk to it, saying, ‘Colour, is you that causing all this, you know. Why the hell you can’t be blue, or red, or green if you can’t be white? You know is you that cause a lot of misery in the world. Is not me, you know, is you! I ain’t do anything to infuriate people and them, is you! Look at you, you so Black and innocent, and this time so you causing misery all over the world!’

Moses, by contrast, refuses to let his skin colour obstruct his rise through the British class system. In Moses Migrating, he returns to Trinidad for Carnival, and while entertaining the idea of moving back for good, writes an unlikely letter:

Dear Mr Powell, though Black I am writing you to express my support for your campaigns to keep Brit’n White, as I have been living here for more than twenty years and I have more Black enemies than white and I have always tried to integrate successfully in spite of discriminations and prejudices according to race. Though I am deciding to return to Trinidad it is grieving me no whit and it is only your kind offer to subsidise such Black immigrants as desire to return to their homelands that will make it possible for me. I will therefore be grateful to receive my assisted package money, and the £2000 capital which will start me off when I go. As a proof that I have no ill-feelings or animosity for your sentiments re Blacks, and in gratitude for your assistance, if I open a business when I go home I will now call it Enoch-aided Enterprises, or some such title that will show what your true feelings are, and not like the newspapers and television that try to defame you, though I would not bother so much with that if I were you, as they do the same thing to Black people.

Fortunately, Galahad prevents Moses from sending the letter (not that he has Enoch Powell’s address).

The preface to Moses Migrating is signed by Moses and Selvon, suggesting a final merging of author and narrator. Selvon emigrated to Canada in 1978, his critical reputation overshadowed by hostile feminist readings. The Moses novels could have been narrated in the first person, but Selvon created the problematic and unreliable Moses to enable him to critique, as well as document, the sometimes unsavoury realities of the Caribbean migrant experience. The 1971 Immigration Act further restricted primary immigration to the UK, diminishing the presence of new Caribbean authors, although the baton was ultimately passed to Black and Asian women in the art, poetry and theatre worlds. In 1994, Selvon died of a heart attack at Piarco International Airport, on a trip back to Trinidad.

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