Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 9, 2019

The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon

It was when I was recently reading In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne that I came across the name Sam Selvon: in a nod to the antecedents of his novel, Gunaratne had named one of his characters after the author who was the first to tell the story of Black Caribbean men who came to London in the mass migrations of the postwar period. Sam Selvon’s most famous book The Lonely Londoners (1956) is included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, and as I have discovered from even a brief Google search, Selvon is the subject of a great deal of critical interest.

The Penguin Modern Classics edition includes an introduction by Susheila Nasta, but it’s not necessary to read it.  My advice is to plunge straight in and enjoy the distinctive voice that Selvon pioneered in this novella. Selvon (1923-1994), who came to London as a young man looking to advance his literary career, was born in Trinidad of Indian parents who had migrated from Madras, and his maternal grandfather was Scottish, but the voice that narrates the story is an invented Trinidad creole, partly like standard English, but also with non-standard grammar and distinctive Caribbean idioms such as ‘liming’ (which means to hang out).  For those not keen on reading ‘dialect’ it’s not difficult to understand at all, as you can see from this excerpt about Bart searching for his girl after her father sent him packing in a torrent of racist abuse:

He must be comb the whole of London, looking in the millions of white faces walking down Oxford Street, peering into buses, taking tube ride on the Inner Circle just in the hope that he might see she.  For weeks the old Bart hunt, until he become haggard and haunted.

Knowing that she like the night lights, at last Bart get a work at a club as a doorman, and night after night he would be standing up there, hoping that one night Beatrice might come to lime by the club and he would see her again. (p.51-2)

In an article called ‘Seeking Sam Selvon’ in the journal Transatlantica, Kathie Birat writes that

It is the narrator who sets the tone and rhythm of the narrative, gradually drawing the reader into his way of presenting the world, seducing him with the use of a dialect that goes almost unnoticed, that presents no obstacle to the reader’s understanding, but that determines his perception of the story being told.

The narrator initiates the reader into the world of Moses and friends, in the same way that Moses, an old hand who’s been in London for ten years and acts as a reluctant mentor to new arrivals, initiates his friends into his version of London life.   In the same article, Birat also explains the impact of a different language on the reader:

The reader “hears” the dialect spoken by Selvon’s characters because it clashes in significant ways with the system of standard English, thus producing a noise, a remainder, to use [the philosopher] Dolar’s term, which draws attention to language itself and to the ways in which it produces meaning. It is the gap, the discrepancy between standard English and dialect, that the reader hears and that leads him to search for the significance of this difference, to account for it in terms of meaning.

In other words, it’s the language that enables the reader to recognise that the London of the book is not the London that everyone is familiar with.

The characters, who are almost exclusively Black Caribbean men, speak a more economical version of the same language.  In this excerpt, Moses,  is amusing himself with the credulous Lewis:

‘Moses’, he say, ‘you think is true that it have fellars does go round by you when you out working and — your wife?

If you tell Lewis that the statue on top of Nelson column in Trafalgar Square is not Nelson at all but a fellar what name Napoleon, he would believe you, and if you tell him that it have lions and tigers in Oxford Circus, he would go to see them.  So Moses giving him basket for so.

‘How you mean,’ Moses say. ‘That is a regular thing in London. The wife leave the key under the milk bottle, and while you working out your tail in the factory, bags of fellars round by your house with the wife.’ (p.53)

Unfortunately for Lewis’s wife, Lewis believes Moses and what happens brings to the fore the way women are talked about and treated in the story.  What Selvon was showing was the dislocating effects of family disruption: huge numbers of single men yearning for female companionship and family life, and equally, the way that the emptiness of the life they created as a substitute failed for those few women who did manage to join their men.

The story structure is episodic: it is based around the everyday experiences of the men, living from day to day in chance encounters rather than in the kind of middle-class daily rituals of English life that they could not access.  The fragmented nature of the novel and its invented language symbolises the way these men have come in search of a fantasy, similar in some ways to the fantasies of Commonwealth citizens around the globe, perhaps like Australians in the 1950s who thought of Britain as ‘home’ although they had never been there and were certainly not treated like family when they turned up expecting to be made welcome.

Although I suspect that this novella is not widely known, I think it’s an important 20th century novel: it offers a world where Blackness is normalised, and the characters—Moses, Sir Galahad, Five Past Twelve, the irrepressible Cap and Aunty Tanty who takes no nonsense from anyone—are not just unforgettable, they represent a new kind of London, one which was changing not just in the colour of its citizens but also (as a consequence of WW2) in terms of class:

It have a kind of communal feeling with the Working Class and the spades [Black Caribbeans], because when you poor things does level out, it don’t have much up and down.  A lot of the men get kill in war and leave widow behind, and it have bags of these old geezers who does be pottering about the Harrow Road like if they lost, a look in their eye as if the war happen unexpected and they still can’t realise what happen to the old Brit’n.  All over London you would see them, going shopping with a basket, or taking the dog for a walk in the park, where they will sit down on the bench in winter and summer.  Or you might meet them hunch-up in a bus-queue, or waiting to get the fish and chips hot.  On Friday or a Saturday night, they go in the pub and buy a big glass of mild and bitter, and sit down by a table near the fire and stay here coasting lime [hanging out] till the pub close. (p.61)

That solidarity with the lonely widows, and the pathos of sad old men singing below the windows of the high and mighty because they don’t want to be seen begging, was a side of London not often recognised in mid-20th century fiction.

Highly recommended.

Update: Emma reviewed it some years ago at Book Around the Corner.

Citation source:

Kathie Birat, « Seeking Sam Selvon: Michel Fabre and the Fiction of the Caribbean », Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2009, mis en ligne le 23 juin 2009, consulté le 08 juin 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/4259

Author: Sam Selvon
Introduction by Susheila Nasta
Title: The Lonely Londoners
Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics, 2006, first published 1956, 139 pages
ISBN: 9780141188416
Source: Geelong Library via inter-library loan, with thanks to Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond: The Lonely Londoners (Penguin Modern Classics)


Responses

  1. Beautiful, Lisa. This is one of my favourite novels, one of the classics of migration literature.

    Like

    • Thank you! It’s nice to know that the book is not as neglected as I’d expected:)

      Like

  2. Just skimming your review for now as it’s a novel I’ve been meaning to read for ages, and I’d rather not know too much about it before diving in. Based on the quotes you’ve chosen, the narrative voice feels both authentic and distinctive. I’m glad to see you rating it so highly!

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    • It’s wonderful, Jacqui, I’d love to see your review of it:)

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  3. I really liked this novel when I read it, even if I struggled a bit with the dialect.
    It shows a side of London that you rarely see.

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    • Indeed, as I said in my post about Gunaratne’s book, the London I know is the places I knew as a child, and tourist London, neither of which are the ‘real’ London.

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  4. In the wake of the Windrush scandal, this book is more important than ever. Read it many years ago and loved it.

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  5. I remember reading this a few years ago and, like you, feeling that it was a really important English classic. It’s such a shame it’s so little known these days, but it does make it feel like finding it is a real discovery

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    • It’s curious, isn’t it, how some books live on and others quietly disappear…

      Like


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