The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon

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First published in 1956, The Lonely Londoners is about the burgeoning Caribbean population in London. Post-Windrush, we follow Trinidadian immigrant Moses and his friends and acquaintances as they adjust to life in a new country that alternately loves and despises them. Now part of London’s rich history, this is a period that is cemented firmly in the past, with its references to Lyons Corner House and the sort of dapper fashions that would look out of place anywhere but Dalston these days, but it is a tale that could be retold today just as easily in post-Brexit Britain.

This is a slim volume of 139 pages, really a series of vignettes taking in various events that take place over a number of years. We begin with Moses. After being in London for several years, homesick but without the means to travel back to Trinidad, he has become the go-to man for those needing assistance in their first few days. We travel with him to Waterloo Station to meet the boat-train and a young man named Henry Oliver, quickly nicknamed Sir Galahad. He helps him find a place to stay, takes him to the employment exchange the next day.

Moses take him round the block to the next building. When they enter a kind of atmosphere hit Galahad hard so that he had to stand up against the wall for a minute. It ain’t have no place in the world that exactly like a place where a lot of men get together to look for work and draw money from the Welfare State while they ain’t working. Is a kind of place where hate and disgust and avarice and malice and sympathy and sorrow and pity all mix up. Is a place where everyone is your enemy and your friend. Even when you go to draw a little national assistance it don’t be so bad, because when you reach that stage is because you touch bottom. But in the world today, a job is all the security a man have.

We meet men from Trinidad, Jamaica, Nigeria, all treated the same to the citizens of their new country who can’t tell the difference. Along the way the men, and their families for those who have them, learn to live in London, and begin to shape out little enclaves for themselves, find places to buy familiar food and halls to throw dances with calypso bands. At various times all of the men find themselves out of work, pushed out when white men refuse to work with them, offered only the worst of the jobs, the heavy labour or dirty jobs that no one else wants. There is a hilarious episode when Galahad becomes so desperate for food that he takes it upon himself to catch a pigeon in the park. Having eventually caught the bird, he then has to run from an old woman who threatens to call the police.

Of course, black immigration goes back centuries, but this post-Windrush era novel is a brilliant snapshot of what life was like during this first large scale immigration of Caribbean settlers to the UK, traversing the second side of the infamous triangle route that first took Africans from their homelands to the Caribbean.

 

 

 

 

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