Monday, February 22, 2016

Adrift in the City

The Lonely LondonersThe Lonely Londoners 
by Sam Selvon

"But Galahad feel like a king living in London." (p 85)

The immigrant experience was never so well told as it is in this short novel. Furthermore the ability of the author to demonstrate that experience through his prose was so successful that I was reminded why I love reading. Set in London in the early nineteen fifties it provides an entry into a world that is both far away and familiar at the same time.

Covering a period of roughly three years, it has no plot but is picaresque or episodic as it follows a limited number of characters of the "Windrush generation", all of them "coloureds", through their daily lives in the capital. The various threads of action form a whole through the unifying central character of Trinidadian Moses Aloetta, a veteran emigré who, after more than ten years in London, has still not achieved anything of note and whose homesickness increases as he gets older. Every Sunday morning "the boys", many a recent arrival among them, come together in his rented room to trade stories and inquire after those whom they have not seen for a while. 

The immigrants in this story are treated poorly with low-level jobs that are insufficient to provide for more than the most basic necessities. They live on the fringe of the host society that regards them with indifference or hostility. Throughout the force of race and color prejudice is shown in incidents and through conversations but always with a sense of the human comedy that buoys most of the Caribbean natives that populate the story. Moses who has been in London a while shares his experience with newcomers or tries to if they will listen to him.

Early in the story Moses meets a newcomer named Henry Oliver (nicknamed Galahad) who is just "off the boat".
"From the very beginning they out to give you the impression that they hep, that they on the ball, that nobody could tie them up.
Sir Galahad was a fellar like that, and he was trying hard to give Moses the feeling that everything all right, that he could take care of himself, that he don't want help for anything. So that same morning when they finish eating Moses tell him that he would go with him to help him find a work, but Galahad say: 'Don't worry man, I will make out for myself.'"

Galahad goes out and immediately gets lost, but Moses follows him and persuades Galahad to take his advice and get a job, but be sure to find a place to live close to where you work. The patois of the immigrants has an almost musical quality in its simplicity and lack of tense.  As the story continues more characters are introduced, in episodic fashion, each with their own idiosyncrasies. Despite their differences, their newness and unfamiliarity with the surroundings they are able to make a home within the larger urban environment provided by the city of London. Near the end of the story they come together for a "fete", a celebration and dance. They are enjoying themselves and for a moment forget about the life they left in the Caribbean, the daily difficulties they face in London, and the loneliness that remains a part of their lives.

"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,' "Picadilly 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."

View all my reviews


Brian Joseph said...

Superb commentary as always James.

I have come to appreciate character studies that are not plot heavy more and more. Galahad sounds like a really engaging character to read about.

James said...


Thanks for your comment. This was an entertaining and enlightening short novel that provided insights into another time and place and culture.