The Lonely Londoners, a reading by Samuel Selvon



This is a recording of Samuel Selvon reading from towards the end of his novel, The Lonely Londoners  (1956).

Like his characters, Selvon – the author of Indian-Trinidadian descent – journeyed from Trinidad to England in the 1950s. Written in creolized English, The Lonely Londoners follows the life of world-weary but kind and intelligent Moses. He meets newly arrived Galahad at Waterloo station ‘one grim winter evening.’ They – The Lonely Londoners - navigate the often unfriendly streets of London, bumping into friends, lovers and foes, telling their tales of the city. Considered an exceptional example of late modernist literature, Selvon’s novel explores themes of work, leisure, racism, sex and diaspora.



[Samuel Selvon speaking]

Here is Moses as a black immigrant summing up his years in England at the end of the book and thinking about what he might have done or what he might not have done. Bringing out these elements of human experience.

The changing of the seasons, the cold slicing winds, the falling leaves, sunlight on green grass, snow on the land, London particular. Oh what it is and where it is and why it is, no one knows, but to have said: “I walked on Waterloo Bridge." “I rendezvoused at Charing Cross," “Piccadilly Circus is my playground," to say these things, to have lived these things, to have lived in the great city of London, centre of the world. To one day lean against the wind walking up the Bayswater Road (destination unknown), to see the leaves swirl and dance and spin on the pavement (sight unseeing), to write a casual letter home beginning : “Last night, in Trafalgar Square..."

What it is that a city have, that any place in the world have, that you get so much to like it you wouldn't leave it for anywhere else? What it is that would keep men although by and large, in truth and in fact, they catching their royal to make a living, staying in a cramp-up room where you have to do everything-sleep, eat, dress, wash, cook, live. Why it is, that although they grumble about it all the time, curse the people, curse the government, say all kind of thing about this and that, why it is, that in the end, everyone cagey about saying outright that if the chance come they will go back to them green islands in the sun?

In the grimness of the winter, with your hand plying space like a blind man's stick in the yellow fog, with ice on the ground and a coldness defying all effort to keep warm, the boys coming and going, working, eating, sleeping, going about the vast metropolis like veteran Londoners.

Nearly every Sunday morning, like if they going to church, the boys liming in Moses room, coming together for a oldtalk, to find out the latest gen, what happening, when is the next fete, Bart asking if anybody see his girl anywhere, Cap recounting a episode he had with a woman by the tube station the night before, Big City want to know why the arse he can't win a pool, Galahad recounting a clash with the colour problem in a restaurant in Piccadilly, Harris saying he hope the weather turns, Five saying he have to drive a truck to Glasgow tomorrow.

Always every Sunday morning they coming to Moses, like it is confession, sitting down on the bed, on the floor, on the chairs, everybody asking what happening but nobody like they know what happening laughing kiff-kiff [engine sound] at a joke, waiting to seen who would start to smoke first, asking Moses if he have anything to eat, the gas going low, why you don't put another shilling in, who have shilling, anybody have change? And everybody turning out their pockets for this shilling that would mean the difference between shivering and feeling warm, and nobody having any shilling, until conscious hit one of them and he say: “Aps! [laughter] Look I have a shilling, it was right down in the bottom of my trousers pocket, that’s why I didn't feel it."

Sometimes during the week, when he come home and he can't sleep, is as if he hearing the voices in the room, all the moaning and groaning and sighing and crying, and he open his eyes expecting to see the boys sitting around.

Sometimes, listening to them, he look in each face, and he feel a great compassion for every one of them, as if he live each of their lives, one by one, and all the strain and stress come to rest on his own shoulders.

Some Sunday mornings he hardly say a word, he only lay there on the bed listening to them talk about what happen last night, [engine sound] and Harris looking at his watch anxiously and saying that he has an important engagement, but all the same never getting up to go, and Bart saying that he sure one of the boys must have seen his girl Beatrice, but you all too nasty, you wouldn't tell me where, ease me up, man, I must find that girl again, and Cap smiling his innocent smile what trap so many people, and Galahad cocky and pushing his mouth in everything and Big City fiddling with the radio, and if Five in town he want to know who going to lime in the evening.

Sometimes, after they gone, he hear the voices ringing in his ear, and sometimes tears come to his eyes and he don't know why really, if is homesickness or if is just that life in general beginning to get too hard.

How many Sunday mornings gone like that? It look to him as if life composed of Sunday morning get-togethers in the room: he must make a joke of it during the week and say: “You coming to church Sunday?" Lock up in that small room, with London and life on the outside, he used to lay there on the bed, thinking how to stop all of this crap, how to put a spoke in the wheel, to make things different. Like how he tell Cap to get to hell out one night, so he should do one Sunday morning when he can't bear it any more: Get to hell out, why the arse are you telling me about how they call you a darkie, you think I am interested?

Every year he vowing to go back to Trinidad, but after the winter gone and birds sing and all the trees begin to put on leaves again, and flowers come and now and then the old sun shining, is as if life start all over again, as if it still have time, as if it still have another chance. I will wait until after the summer, the summer does really be hearts.

One night of any night, liming on the Embankment near to Chelsea, he stand up on the bank of the river, watching the lights of the buildings reflected in the water, thinking what he must do, if he should save up money and go back home, if he should try to make it by next year before he change his mind again.

The old Moses, standing on the banks of the Thames. Sometimes he think he see some sort of profound realisation in his life, as if all that happen to him was experience that make him a better man, as if now he could draw apart from any hustling and just sit down and watch other people fight to live. Under the kiff-kiff laughter, behind the ballad and the episode, the what happening, the summer-is-hearts, he could see a great aimlessness, a great restless, swaying movement that leaving you standing in the same spot. As if a forlorn shadow of doom fall on all the spades in the country. As if he could see the black faces bobbing up and down in the millions of white, strained faces, everybody hustling along the Strand, the spades jostling in the crowd, bewildered, hopeless. As if, on the surface, things don't look so bad, but when you go down a little, you bounce up a kind of misery and pathos and a frightening-what? He don't know the right word, but he have the right feeling in his heart.


The Lonely Londoners, a reading by Samuel Selvon
18 September 1982
Sound recording
Usage terms

Performance and works: © By permission of the Estate of Sam Selvon.

Recording: © The British Library Board.

Photograph of Samuel Selvon by Robin Adler: © Robin Adler. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.

You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. 

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