The Lonely Londoners, Sam Selvon
I’m pretty sure everyone feels lonely in a city at some point, despite (or because of?) the crush of life all around them. But cities are always loneliest when you’re new to them, and this story of a 1950s Trinidadian immigrant in London begins with a new arrival. The advent of the ‘Windrush generation’ in the UK stemmed from the British colonial presence in the Caribbean, but those who migrated were targets of not only societal racism but also exclusionary immigration policies that had set in by 1962 (and continued in 2018—a friendly reminder that migration remains bound by race and class). London demands that you seek and carve out your spot in it, but not everyone starts out with the same tools. Selvon captures an immigrant’s experience of the city through main character Moses’ eyes: bigotry at the job office and stereotypes on the street, as well as humor at the boarding house, going out on a Saturday night, and the elation of making a city your own. His evocative descriptions of the city and its divisions, and how strongly they are seen and felt in compressed urban spaces, make you feel like you’re walking the pavements too.
“It have people living in London who don’t know what happening in the room next to them, far more the street, or how other people living. London is a place like that. It divide you up in little worlds, and you stay in the world you belong to and you don’t know anything about what happening in the other ones except what you read in the papers…Them people who have car, who going to theatre and ballet in the West End…they don’t know nothing about hustling two pound of brussel sprout and half-pound potato, or queuing up for fish and chips in the smog.”
What’s most impressive about The Lonely Londoners is how it captures the variety and ambivalence of immigration—how a land of promise can turn out to have a much grimmer reality, and how its pros and cons can (and continue to) shift. Moses and new arrival Galahad embody these shifting perspectives, trying to balance ‘how things are’ while also being part of a generation that was changing them, with varying degrees of success. Despite the hardships and frustrations, they also get the momentary joy of walking down the street feeling, “This is London, this is life oh lord, to walk like a king with money in your pocket, not a worry in the world.” Many writers have tried to define London’s allure, but Selvon—in far fewer words—shows the ambiguity, complexity, and desire for something more that keep people tied to its orbit.
Listen: Lord Kitchener’s song London Is the Place for Me, dating from the same era, combines its sunny sound with tongue-in-cheek lyrics to create a similar tone to the book.
If you like it
Try Brick Lane, by Monica Ali, about a Bangladeshi woman who moves to London for an arranged marriage and finds her own footing in a new place and life.
If you don’t
For more lighthearted reads that evoke the same ineffable London atmosphere, try Muriel Spark’s satirical send-up The Ballad of Peckham Rye or G.K. Chesterton’s ludicrous and enjoyable The Napoleon of Notting Hill.
Things I’ve written lately: