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The Lonely Londoners: a new way of reading and writing the city

The Lonely Londoners is an iconic chronicle of post-war Caribbean migration to Britain. Susheila Nasta explores how Samuel Selvon created a new means of describing the city by giving voice to the early migrant experience and capturing the romance and disenchantment of London for its new citizens.

‘One grim winter evening’, Moses Aloetta jumps on ‘a number 46 bus at the corner of Chepstow Road and Westbourne Grove to go to Waterloo to meet a fellar who was coming from Trinidad on the boat-train’. As we accompany Moses, veteran black Londoner on his routine journey to welcome yet another newcomer into the fold, Selvon swiftly transports us into the tragicomic urban theatre of his fictional world. It is a labyrinthine city that his cast of rootless, unlettered characters soon learn to survive in and reinvent. As an iconic chronicle of post-war Caribbean migration to Britain, The Lonely Londoners encapsulates the romance and disenchantment of an imagined city that was both magnet and nightmare for its new colonial citizens, a promised land that despite its glittering lure turns out to be an illusion. Without doubt Selvon’s ironic reversal of the El Dorado myth – his colonisation of England in reverse – has important socio-political implications. First and foremost, however, it remains a powerful imaginative work, timeless in its bitter sweet love affair with the city and ground-breaking in its creation of an inclusive narrative voice that creates a new means of describing it.

The Lonely Londoners by Samuel Selvon

The Lonely Londoners by Samuel Selvon

Dust jacket to the first edition of The Lonely Londoners, published in London, 1956 by Allen Wingate.

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Usage terms Samuel Selvon (front cover and text): © By permission of the Estate of Sam Selvon. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence. Photograph of Samuel Selvon by Robin Adler: © Robin Adler. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.

Exploring London as a black city: Language and the creolised voice

In The Lonely Londoners, Selvon faced the challenge of both exploring London as a black city and creating a suitable literary frame to inscribe it. In using a creolised voice for the language of the narration and the dialogue, a voice which transports the calypsonian ‘ballads’ of his errant island ‘boys’ to the diamond pavements of Caribbean London, Selvon not only envisioned a new way of reading and writing the city but also exploded some of the narrow and hyphenated categories by which black working-class voices had hitherto been defined. Closing the sometimes awkward gap between the teller of the tale and the tale itself, Selvon thus finds a means to not only reinvent London but to reshape its spaces, giving his previously voiceless characters a place to live in it. During the first six months of the novel’s composition, Selvon tried in fact to write the book in Standard English, but later admitted it ‘just would not work’. The language was not sufficiently pliable and could not convey the feelings, the moods and the – as yet – ‘unarticulated’ desires of his characters. At the same time there were certain ‘physical and emotional scenes’ where the oral vernacular simply ‘couldn’t carry the essence of what I wanted to say’. Once Selvon switched to what he calls the ‘idiom’ of the people and shifted his register to fuse Standard English with the full range of a broad and hybrid linguistic continuum, he was able to bring new life and rhythms to the book. As Caryl Phillips once commented: 

If I were to point to a writer who captures the tone … and texture of London as the austere fifties … give way to the swinging sixties, I would not cite the plays of John Osborne or Arnold Wesker, or the prose of David Storey or John Braine. For acuity of vision, intellectual rigour and sheer beauty… it would have to be the works of Sam Selvon which would figure pre-eminently. He did not only know the Caribbean but the pages of London’s A to Z, and was able to capture these with a haunting lyricism which remains … imprinted on the imagination. 

Now heralded as an ingenious alchemist of style or the ‘father of black writing’ in Britain, Selvon’s work has influenced several generations of writers. Notably Phillips, a well-known writer in his own right, locates Selvon not only in terms of a tradition of black writing – a precursor of a later generation of contemporary figures such as David Dabydeen, Zadie Smith or Andrea Levy – but more significantly as a key figure in the literary reimaging of Britain during the post-war years. Selvon’s improvisations in this his first London novel forged a shift in perspective which would not only change the way the city was seen, but ‘Englishness’ itself. It was akin, as Selvon once put it, to experimenting with ‘music… I sat like a passenger in a bus and let the language do the writing’. 

Early on in the novel the atmosphere of Selvon’s city is described: ‘it had a kind of unrealness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in a blur as if is not London at all but some strange place on another planet’. Mimicking the oral rhythms of a modified Caribbean vernacular, Selvon immediately takes us inside the world of his immigrant characters creating an intimacy between storyteller and reader and distancing us from the bleak landscape of the alien city outside. Although earlier inscriptions of the city reverberate (we feel the shrouding fog of Dickens’s Bleak House and hear the morbid echoes of T S Eliot’s ‘unreal city’ in The Waste Land), the narrator’s voice distinguishes itself from such earlier models, carrying with it the weight of a differently formed historical and cultural experience.

Charles Dickens's Bleak House in its original parts

‘Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time – as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look’: Charles Dickens’s description of London choked by fog from the opening scene of Bleak House (1853).

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The Lonely Londoners by Samuel Selvon

The Lonely Londoners by Samuel Selvon

‘One grim winter evening, when it had a kind of unrealness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in the blur as if is not London at all but some strange place on another planet…’: the opening scene from The Lonely Londoners (1956).

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Usage terms Samuel Selvon (front cover and text): © By permission of the Estate of Sam Selvon. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence. Photograph of Samuel Selvon by Robin Adler: © Robin Adler. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.

‘When Moses sit down and pay his fare he take out a handkerchief and blow his nose. The handkerchief turn black…’ The fear of racist contamination objectified in the black handkerchief which stares Moses in the face is not improved at the unemployment office: ‘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 your enemy and your friend’ (p. 22). Moreover the heart of this metropolis is elusive; its romance one of pathos and misery. It is a place divided up into ‘little worlds, and you stay in the world you belong to and you don't know anything about what happening in the other ones’. It is an unforgiving world where ‘men know what it is to hustle a pound to pay the rent when Friday come’, a threatening, fractured landscape which Cap, the Nigerian (soon to be black Londoner), describes as ‘hell’ (p. 36). For Selvon’s characters inhabit a hidden world of derelict spaces that other ‘people …don’t really know’; they exist in a twilight subterranean enclave of cramped rooms situated somewhere between Notting Hill and the Harrow Road.

BBC pamphlet, Going To Britain?

BBC pamphlet, Going To Britain?

Photograph of people outside a labour exchange, where they hope to find jobs (c. late 1950s). Samuel Selvon authored four sections of this BBC booklet, which was aimed at ‘West Indians who are considering “Going to Britain” to look for employment’ (p. 5).

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Giving voice to the migrant experience

Like many other Caribbean writers of his generation Selvon migrated to London in the 1950s to escape the parochialism of the West Indian middle-classes and to establish an international audience. As an East Indian Trinidadian with a half-Scottish mother, Selvon grew up, like his contemporary, V S Naipaul, in a multicultural world that carried the sediments of a mixed colonial history situated at the dynamic crossroads of different and sometimes jangling cultural traditions. Selvon’s long period of residence in Britain, from 1950 to 1978, when he left for Canada, was to act as a crucial catalyst in the development of his art. Through his encounter with London, it became possible to move towards a more fully realised picture of the world back home whilst defining a Caribbean consciousness within a British context. It was only in ‘London’ that ‘my life found its purpose’.

The Lonely Londoners by Samuel Selvon

The Lonely Londoners by Samuel Selvon

Photograph and short biography of Samuel Selvon from the first edition.

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Usage terms Samuel Selvon (front cover and text): © By permission of the Estate of Sam Selvon. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence. Photograph of Samuel Selvon by Robin Adler: © Robin Adler. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.

Typescript by Shiva Naipaul on the ritual of 'going away' and his earliest impressions of England

Shiva Naipaul typescript

In this essay novelist and travel writer Shiva Naipaul, who like Selvon was a Trinidadian of Indian descent, describes ‘the familiar Trinidad ritual of “going away”. The only true going away was the going away to England’.

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Held by © The Estate of Shiva Naipaul

First published in 1956, The Lonely Londoners brings to fiction some of Selvon’s early experiences with a group of black ‘immigrants … among whom I lived for a few years when I first arrived in London’. Commonly referred to now as the period of the ‘Windrush generation’, it was an era (poignantly satirised in Tolroy’s surprise reunion with virtually his entire family at Waterloo) when West Indian migrants, all wrongly christened ‘Jamaican’ by the neologisms of the British media, were oft reported to be ‘flooding’ London’s streets, streets which they soon discover were not ‘paved with gold’. Basing his character Moses, on a real ‘live’ man from the Caribbean with whom he ‘limed’ in the early days, Selvon’s initial aim was to give voice to this early migrant experience, distilling the ordinary language of the people and making it accessible to a wide readership. For Waterloo (rather like Ellis Island in New York) comes to symbolise more than a place of ‘arrivals’ and ‘departures’; it is a migrant gateway to the city, a rite of passage, which homesick 'fellars' like Moses, who has already been in Britain for ten long years, ‘can’t get away from the habit of going to’.

BBC newscript reports on the arrival of the Empire Windrush, 22 June 1948

News scripts prepared for BBC Radio, June 1948

Passengers from the Empire Windrush are all mistakenly described as Jamaican in this BBC news bulletin for 6pm, 22 June 1948. A line about people volunteering for work has been deleted, leaving the focus on unemployment and stowaways.

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Held by © BBC copyright content reproduced courtesy of the British Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.

The Emigrants by George Lamming

Dust jacket of The Emigrants by George Lamming

By chance, Samuel Selvon traveled to England on the same boat as the Barbadian novelist, George Lamming. Lamming’s The Emigrants (1954) focusses on a group journeying to England and the new lives they forge in London.

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Although the majority of colonial citizens held British passports and equal rights of residence, by 1958 racial disturbances had begun to erupt. And with the passing of a further Immigration Act in 1962, an explicitly exclusionist government policy emerged, designed to keep ‘coloured’ citizens out. Selvon frequently draws our attention to this volatile atmosphere, as the room-based existence which his characters lead becomes a powerful metaphor for their in-between existence both inside and outside English culture. Never hectoring the reader, but nevertheless making us fully aware of the absurdity and potential seriousness of the situation, Selvon is keen to point both to the excitement the city offers – the hope inspired by the grandeur of its monuments – as well as its grim realities: ‘… you know the most hurtful part of it’, Moses warns Galahad, who is still hopeful that he will find a job, ‘The Pole who have that restaurant, he ain’t have no more right in this country than we. In fact we is British subjects, and he is a foreigner … is we who bleed to make this country prosperous’.

Moses and Sir Galahad: Presenting two sides to the city

The London Selvon’s ‘boys’ survive in constantly changes its face as he evokes a variety of moods ranging from desire to exhilaration, despair and frustration. Sir Galahad is the prime vehicle for Selvon’s love of the city, and it is he who presents the other side of the coin from that of the world-weary Moses. As a form of alter ego to Moses, it is Galahad’s voice that constantly expresses the optimism of the ‘summer is hearts’ lyricism, and it is Galahad too, as cocky mock-epic hero, who is able to confidently walk the streets of the city, with a wardrobe to impress, feeling ‘like a king’. In spite of dire warnings from Moses, who ‘Lock up in that small room, with London and life on the outside’, Galahad’s sometimes naïve exuberance nevertheless allows a different kind of London to emerge. Whereas Moses lives in a dark world of bleak interiors with ‘thoughts so heavy he unable to move his body’, Galahad’s ambitious perambulations in the wider world outside – ‘the centre of the world’ – reflect an element of utopianism, a faith that things will work out: ‘Always from the first time he went … to see Eros and the lights, that circus [Piccadilly] have a magnet for him, that circus represent life … is the beginning and ending of the world’. It is Galahad too, in his humorous ‘ballad’ with the pigeon, who has the resources for constant renewal as he adapts to finding cheap food on the London streets.

In fact, one of the most uplifting moments in the book can be found in Selvon’s long prose poem to London (pp. 84–94). A bitter-sweet but lyrical love song, similar in tone to his famous short story ‘My Girl and the City’, it is dedicated to ‘liming’ in Hyde Park and delicately counter points the déjà vu prophet voice of Moses alongside Galahad’s more youthful and innocent zest. Polyphonic like jazz, or the blues, its mood of a modernist epiphany sings out as a more regenerative vision of the city struggles to the surface. Here Selvon the black modernist not only generates new and fresh perceptions of the city but its previously awesome spaces are also transformed and creolised:

all these thing happen in the blazing summer under the trees in the park on the grass with the daffodils and tulips in full bloom and a sky so blue oh it does really be beautiful to hear the birds … and see the green leaves come back on the trees and in the night the world turn upside down and everyone hustling that is London oh Lord Galahad say when the sweetness of London get in him … and 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.

This almost choric voice surfaces again towards the end of the novel as the ‘boys’ gather in Moses’ room ‘like if is confession’: ‘The changing of the seasons, the cold slicing winds…sunlight on green grass, snow on the land, London particular … in the grimness of winter, with your hand plying space like a blind man’s stick … the boys coming and going, working, eating, sleeping, going about the vast metropolis like veteran Londoners’.

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

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. 

There is no beginning or end to the experiences of the 'boys' in The Lonely Londoners. As Cap puts it at one point, voicing the seriousness of a philosophical coda that underpins the entire novel: ‘… is so things does happen in life. You work things out on your own mind to a kind of pattern, in a sort of sequence, and one day bam! something happen to throw everything out of gear…’ The surface fragmentation or conscious disorganization of the novel’s structure is thus part of its main direction, that, ‘Under the kiff kiff laughter, behind the ballad and the episode, the what-happening, the summer is hearts … is a great aimlessness, a great restless, swaying movement that leaving you standing in the same spot’. Only Moses, who has almost merged in consciousness by the close with the narrating voice, and regularly descends like Orpheus into the Underworld, seems to perceive the need to forge a new language for existence. As the ‘boys’ congregate every Sunday morning, breathlessly swapping well worn anecdotes, we witness Moses’ increasing detachment from the group. We leave Moses on a warm summer’s night, pensively looking down into the void of the River Thames, attempting to find words to express some meaning in his life: ‘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’. As Selvon ironically forewarns us, perhaps hinting at how his black Londoners might one day become immortalised by his art:

Daniel was telling him how over in France all kinds of fellars writing books what turn out to be best-sellers. Taxi-driver, porter, road-sweeper-it didn’t matter. One day you sweating in the factory and the next day all the newspapers have your name and photo, saying you… a new literary giant.

He watch tugboat on the Thames, wondering if he could ever write a book like that, what everybody would buy.


A longer version of this piece is available in the Penguin Classics edition of the book (2006). All page references are to this edition.

© Susheila Nasta

This article also appears on Discovering Literature: 20th Century.

  • Susheila Nasta
  • Emeritus Professor of Modern Literature at The Open University and Founding Editor of Wasafiri, the magazine of international contemporary writing. She has published several books and essays, including Home Truths: Fictions of the South Asian Diaspora in Britain (2002), Writing Across Worlds: Contemporary Writers Talk (2004) and Asian Britain: A Photographic History (2013). She was Principal Investigator of the AHRC-funded research project ‘Making Britain: South Asian Visions of Home and Abroad, 1870–1950’ (2007–10) and directed the follow-on project, ‘Beyond the Frame: Indian British Connections’ (2011–12), partnered by the British Library and British Council. In 2011, she was awarded an MBE for services to black and Asian literature. From September 2017, she will join the Department of English and Drama, Queen Mary College, University of London.