The Lonely Londoners (1956) overview
Published in 1956, Samuel Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners is an iconic work of 20th-century literature. Chronicling post-war Caribbean migration to Britain, the novel features a cast of migrants striving to establish their lives in London and has been hailed for its use of creolized language, social commentary and modernist style.
‘One grim winter evening’ Moses Aloetta hops 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.’ Thus begins The Lonely Londoners – the third novel by Trinidadian author Samuel Selvon. It is at once both semi-autobiographical in its account of London life, and an A–Z ‘guide’ to the city as experienced by the characters Moses, Sir Galahad, Tolroy, Cap, Big City, Five Past Twelve, Lewis, Harris and Daniel – or, as they are affectionately known, ‘the boys’.
Language and narrative voice
Selvon drew on his own experiences of living among a group of black migrants during his first few years in London. Basing Moses on a man from the Caribbean with whom he ‘limed’ in the early days, Selvon’s initial aim, as Susheila Nasta has noted, was to capture this mid-century migrant experience and distil the ordinary language of the people into an accessible form for a wide readership. The creolized language in the novel is not solely Jamaican, Barbadian or Trinidadian, but, in Selvon’s words, an amalgamation of ‘what I believed was thought of as a Caribbean dialect’:
When I wrote the novel that became The Lonely Londoners, I tried to recapture a certain quality in West Indian everyday life. I had in store a number of wonderful anecdotes and could put them into focus, but I had difficulty starting the novel in straight English. The people I wanted to describe were entertaining people indeed, but I could not really move. At that stage, I had written the narrative in English and most of the dialogues in dialect. Then I started both narrative and dialogue in dialect and the novel just shot along.
In using creolized language for the narrative voice, Selvon defined a Caribbean consciousness within a British context and introduced a new literary form to the English novel. The Lonely Londoners represents a major step in the process of linguistic and cultural decolonisation and has been praised for its modernist style. Narrated in close third-person with an anecdotal, non-linear structure, the voices of the narrator and Moses sometimes become one and the same, such as in one of the most uplifting passages in the book, ‘Oh what a time it is when summer come to the city…’.
Social realism and humour
The social realism of The Lonely Londoners fictionalises the hardship and hustle of black migrants in a city which saw them as both threat and exotic sexual thrill. It highlights, for example, the economic deprivation thrust on black migrants as a result of racist employment and housing practices.
Alongside this, the novel is also incredibly funny, with Selvon scoring humorous episodes with perfect timing (such as the arrival of Tolroy’s extended family). Writing of his characters, ‘they only laughing because they fraid to cry’, Selvon’s subversive humour presents their grim reality without hectoring the reader – a quality which would lead to the author being described as a ‘laughing philosopher’.