Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners, (Alan Wingate, 1956; Penguin Modern Classics, 2006), $14.00, 160 pp.
The field of postcolonial studies ostensibly tells the story of European imperialism from the viewpoint of the colonized. While this is a perfectly valid area of study, it is used in Western academic circles to advance a radically egalitarian agenda. The literature serves to embolden and cultivate revanchism among the descendants of former colonial subjects and to burden white students with a sense of collective guilt for the evils of empire.
This has multiple benefits for the Left: It facilitates the colonization of Western countries by colored settlers from the former colonies; it politicizes these settlers, encouraging them not to recognize the indigenous authority and to press for accommodation; and it lowers moral resistance to these processes among the whites.
But it does not have to be this way. We, too, can—and indeed should—provide our own perspectives on this literature. Otherwise, for lack of opposition, the Leftist argument wins by default. As this review will show, even a book written by an “other,” from his perspective, offers much that is helpful to us.
Sam Selvon was a Trinidadian author, best known for his novel, The Lonely Londoners. Born in San Fernando in 1923, he was the son of Indian immigrants from Madras, though his paternal grandmother was Anglo-Scottish. In the 1950s, at the age of 15, he moved to London, where he lived for 20 or so years, before moving to Canada and, finally, returning to Trinidad.
Published in 1956, The Lonely Londoners was the first novel to tell the story of the daily lives of the West Indian (Afro-Caribbean) immigrants of the “Windrush generation,” so named after the British troopship, MV Empire Windrush, which in June 1948 brought nearly 500 Jamaicans to the United Kingdom. This migration was made possible by the British Nationality Act of 1948, passed during Clement Attlee’s Labour government, which granted British citizenship and full rights of entry to all people living in Commonwealth countries. At that time the British government was encouraging mass migration to fill shortages in the labor market arising from the losses of World War II. The Lonely Londoners is an important book in the field of postcolonial studies.
It is not, however, a diatribe of post-colonial ressentiment. It is an amusing novel, written in creolised English, about the often comical adventures of a handful of Afro-Caribbean characters.
The story begins on a foggy, winter evening, with the Trinidadian Moses Aloetta. A veteran settler, he had been asked to meet an immigrant from Trinidad arriving that day at Waterloo Station, about whom he knows nothing, except his name: Henry Oliver. At the station, he meets Tolroy, another Jamaican settler, who is there to greet his mother, also arriving that evening. As Tolroy scans the passengers getting off the train, he is in for a surprise:
A old woman who look like she would dead any minute come out of carriage, carrying a cardboard box and a paper bag. When she get out the train she stand up there on the platform as if she confuse. Then after she stand a young girl come, carrying a flour bag filled up with things. Then a young man wearing a widebrim hat and a jacket falling below the knees. Then a little boy and a little girl, then another old woman, tottering so much a guard had was to help she get out the train. (p. 8)
Tolroy is livid.
‘Oh Jesus Christ,’ Tolroy say, ‘what is this at all?’
‘Tolroy,’ the first woman say, ‘you don’t know your own mother?’
Tolroy hug his mother like a man in a daze, then he say: ‘But what Tanty Bessy doing here, ma? and Agnes and Lewis and the two children?’
‘All of we come, Tolroy,’ Ma say. ‘This is how it happen: when you write home to say you getting five pounds a week Lewis say, “Oh God, I going England tomorrow.” Well Agnes say she not staying at home alone with children, so all of we come.’
‘And what about Tanty?’
‘Well you know how old your Tanty getting, Tolroy, is a shame to leave she alone to dead in Kingston with nobody to look after she.’
‘Ah, you see what I tell you?’ Tanty say to the mother, ‘you see how ungrateful he is? I would go back to Jamaica right now,’ and she make as if she going back inside the train. (p. 9)
Tanty, of course, is staying, as are all the others, and Tolroy, staggering in dismay and disbelief, now has a troop of relatives in London with nowhere to stay.
Soon Moses’ charge arrives:
Moses watch Henry coming up the platform, and he have a feeling that this couldn’t be the fellar that he come to meet, for the test [guy] have on a old grey tropical suit and a pair of watchekong [canvas-soled tennis shoes] and no overcoat or muffler or gloves or anything for the cold, so Moses sure is some test who living in London a long, long time and accustom to the beast winter. Even so, he really had to feel the fellar, for as the evening advancing it getting colder and colder and Moses stamping he foot as he stand up there.
The fellar, as soon as he see Moses, walk straight up to him and say, ‘Ah, I bet you is Moses!’
Moses say, ‘Yes.’
‘Ah,’ Henry say, looking about the desolate station as if he in an exhibition hall on a pleasant summer evening, Frank did say you would come to meet me in Waterloo. My name Henry Oliver.’
‘You not feeling cold, old man?’ Moses say, eyeing the specimen with amazement, for he himself have on long wool underwear and a heavy fireman coat that he pick up in Portobello Road.
‘No,’ Henry say, looking surprise. ‘This is the way the weather does be in the winter? It not so bad, man. In fact I feeling little warm.’
‘Jesus Christ,’ Moses say. ‘What happen to you, you sick or something?’
‘Who, me? Sick? Ha-ha, you making joke!’
Moses watch the specimen again suspiciously.
‘You must be have on bags of wool under that suit,’ he say. ‘You can’t fool a old test like me.’
‘What you making so much fuss about?’ Henry say, opening his shirt to show bare skin underneath. ‘This is a nice climate, boy. You feeling cold?’
‘Take it easy,’ Moses say, deciding to wait and see how things would develop with this strange character. ‘Get your luggage and we will go. Tonight you could stay by me, but tomorrow I might shift from my room and go upstairs, and I will see if I could fix up with the landlord for you to take my room.’
‘Whenever you ready,’ Henry say.
‘Where your luggage?’
‘What luggage? I ain’t have any. I figure is no sense to load up myself with a set of things. When I start work I will buy some things.’
Now Moses is a veteran, who living in this country for a long time, and he met all sorts of people and do all sorts of things, but he never thought the day would come when a fellar would land up from the sunny tropics on a powerful winter evening wearing a tropical suit and saying that he ain’t have no luggage.
‘You mean you come from Trinidad with nothing?’
‘Well the old toothbrush always in the pocket,’ Henry pat the jacket pocket, ‘and I have on a pair of pyjamas. Don’t worry, I will get fix up as soon as I start work.’ (pp. 12-14).
Moses’ astonishment only grows when he finds that Henry has arrived with only £3 in his pocket, having gambled away £2 on the train:
‘All right Sir Galahad,’ Moses say, ‘Take it easy. London will do for you before long. Come, we will catch the tube as you ain’t have any luggage.’
Thus it was that Henry Oliver Esquire, alias Sir Galahad, descend on London to swell the population by one, and eight and a half months later it had a Galahad junior in Ladbroke Grove and all them English people stopping in the road and admiring the baby curly hair when the mother pushing it in the pram as she go shopping for rations. (p. 15)
That sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Sir Galahad is shown the ropes, and Moses remains the axis around which revolves a small constellation of amiable hustlers. One is Lewis, who gets a job in a factory. Told that his wife is “giving him the horn” while he is at work, he beats her regularly until she files for divorce. Tanty proves the archetypal big black mamma—bossy, loud, proud, nagging, and funny—she eventually persuades—or bullies—the local grocer into extending credit to the entire neighborhood. There is Captain, or Cap, a Nigerian who refuses to work. He swindles landlords out of their rent and his endless white girlfriends fund his food, drink, and cigarettes. And there is the weed-smoking fellow from Barbados, Five Past Twelve, so called because he was darker than midnight. And there is, inevitably, the self-important Harris, who speaks in polished Standard English and tries to be more English than the English:
. . . when he dress, you think is some Englishman going to work in the city, bowler and umbrella, and briefcase tuck under the arm, with The Times fold up in the pocket so the name would show, and he walking upright like if is he alone who alive in the world. Only thing, Harris face black. (p. 103)
Harris, who is status-conscious in an English, middle-class way, worries about how his easy-going, roguish, and nearly uncontrollable peers could reflect badly on him or on the West Indian community as a whole. This they do in short order: At a “fête” Harris organizes, where he stresses to the others the importance of being well-behaved on account of his having “distinguished” guests, the others smoke weed, get boisterously drunk, and get into a brawl.
In all cases, the motivation for settling in Britain is economic. Yet, the glamour of life in the Imperial capital is also part of the allure. Once Sir Galahad has found work and has suits in his wardrobe and a white girlfriend, he delights in telling Moses that he is meeting his girl in Piccadilly Circus, or some other iconic, world-renowned location.
Nevertheless, the lives of these “fellars” are grim. They live in dismal, smelly, cramped bedsits, hostels, or small hotels. When they work, they have factory jobs. When they are unemployed, they either hustle, sponge off friends and girlfriends, or go hungry. At one point, Sir Galahad is forced to snatch a pigeon in Kensington Gardens, and Cap survives for a time on the seagull population on the roof above his bedsit.
Most importantly, they are collectively an island, socially cut off from the rest of the metropolis, which is itself a compendium of social islands.
It have people living in London who don’t know what happening in the room next to them, far more the street, or how other people living. London is a place like that. It divide up in little worlds, and you stay in the world you belong to and you don’t know anything about what happening to the other ones except what you read in the papers.
They find the English cold, suspicious, and fearful, and the urban experience of being alone among multitudes is strange to them. So are the subterfuges of employers, landlords, and hoteliers who pretend the job or room they had advertised has already been filled the moment they see a black face. The “fellars” would almost prefer open discrimination, 1950s American style, for at least everyone knows where he stands.
“We only want to get by, we don’t even want to get [along],” says Sir Galahad (p. 77). (The United States, incidentally, is spoken of with fearful awe, as a terrible place where blacks have it extraordinarily bad.) Strangest of all, of course, is the British climate: freezing cold winters, with dark days, long nights, fog, rain, and grey misery, which only aggravates the settlers’ loneliness.
The settlers are baffled by British civism: at the Underground stations, commuters pick up their copies of the Evening Standard and leave payment on the table, even though it is unattended, and stealing would go unpunished. Women have rights, and can take wife-beaters to court. And the British state even provides a safety net for the unemployed—though the incredulous West Indians see this as an invitation to get by without working.
The settlers are also baffled by British democracy: It astonishes them that the public can criticize the government and publicly express all manner of opinions. As they settle in, they soon learn to support Labour and in some cases the Socialist Worker’s Party, but it is clear that British politics are very remote and disconnected from their lives.
The Labour movement, which at the time focused on the working class, seems almost irrelevant to the black settlers. They think in racial terms, and feel that the Marxist class struggle is the white man’s business. Black settlers would say that race was the more important issue.
Though mere shadows, politically, the settlers are well aware of the rising disquiet in British society over their rapidly growing presence:
the English people starting to make rab about how much West Indians coming to the country: this was a time, when any corner you turn, is ten to one you bound to bounce up a spade. In fact, the boys all over London, it ain’t have a place where you wouldn’t find them, and big discussion going on in Parliament about the situation, though the old Brit’n too diplomatic to clamp down on the boys or to do anything drastic like stop them coming to the Mother Country. But big headlines in the papers every day . . . (p. 2)
Not so worried are the Jewish tailors, who are portrayed as eager for business, though some are also described as unscrupulous predators. As in all large, multicultural cities, there is rapacity between ethnic groups.
Thus, the settlers develop a collective identity based on their race and the fact that they are far from home. Every Sunday morning they visit Moses, ask him questions, share a meal, borrow money, smoke, swap stories, keep track of each other, and engage in ‘oldtalk’ about their native islands. Theirs is a tight, racially-based community and support network that transcends nationality.
Perhaps the only point of intersection with British society, besides jobs and money, are the white girls, of which there seem to be plenty for all, a fact spoken about with wonder even in the far-flung tropical islands. We learn that back in Trinidad, Sir Galahad was told, “Boy, it have bags of white pussy in London, and you will eat until you tired” (p. 79). Yet, these girls are treated merely as objects of sex and conquest, or else, as wallets. They—or rather, their legs, which for part of the year are concealed by the winter coats—are mostly spoken about as something that is ogled and coveted from a distance.
Even when white women appear as dates or girlfriends, they are always at one remove—always ‘other,’ something exotic, remote. We learn nothing about their feelings, aspirations, or opinions—not even what they look like, except in one case; we only learn that they are white and English, or French, or German. A white girl may, indeed, be referred to merely as “skin.” They are, essentially, trophies for the black men—they are simple sources of status. Neither do we learn why these white women are so plentifully available; we do learn, however, that the black men were seen as a threat by the natives, and that when a relationship results in inter-racial children, these attract curiosity in the street and taunts in the playground.
Much of this low-intensity native hostility is accepted by the West Indians as a matter of course, but it occasionally perplexes them. At one point, Sir Galahad wonders what it is that West Indians want that whites find it so hard to give; from his perspective, he only wants some upward mobility—not much, but enough to have a roof over his head, food in his cupboard, money in his bank account, and a “frauline” on his arm. Yet, it seems the British would rather see a black man starve than let a pigeon go hungry.
Sir Galahad decides the problem is not him, but the color black. It would seem, then, that this is the first stage in a process that leads to the formation of a Harris: once a black man sees his negritude as a barrier to money and status, he is split, unable physically to escape his negritude, but yearning to become as white as possible in every other way. But Harris tries too hard, has only a superficial understanding of whiteness, and becomes only a very style-conscious dandy with semi-archaic mannerisms and an acute consciousness of how other blacks may expose the lie through stereotypical black behavior.
The long-term prospects for the West Indians are ambiguous. In some cases, despite all the petty miseries they endure, they end up not wanting to go home. In other cases, they neither plan nor want to stay, but find themselves trapped, working dead-end jobs, unable to save enough money to buy return tickets. Time passes and they become accustomed to the strange pattern of life in London, and continue to postpone the decision to go home.
The end of the novel finds Moses reflecting on the decade he has spent in London, nostalgic for his native Trinidad. He knows he must one day return, and fears the prospect of getting old in London, as others have, only to end up alone and destitute, picking up cigarette butts on the platforms of Underground stations. For the unassimilable outsider, immigration ends in disillusionment.
What is perhaps most interesting about The Lonely Londoners is that it offers white readers a good-natured but refreshingly frank account that confirms many of the perceptions whites have of African and West Indian settlers. However, using this merely to point out the truth behind certain stereotypes would be trite.
What is most valuable are the insights Selvon provides into the settler experience in the period after the war. This may be a novel, but it is also a historical document.
First, it is clear that the black settlers of the Windrush generation saw Britain fundamentally as a resource: a wallet, a source of status, and a harem of white girls ready to be conquered. And who could argue with that? The white man had given them the go ahead, and enshrined it in law.
Second, it is clear that white Britons were increasingly alarmed by the influx of Afro-Caribbean settlers. The politicians in the novel are locked in ineffectual parliamentary debate, but many ordinary Britons improvised subtle strategies to keep blacks out of their own local environment. Casual racism, however, was clearly not enough to deter further immigration, let alone encourage emigration.
Third, it is clear that Moses’s disillusionment stems from an inability to fit into a society that, even after a decade of residence, remains strange and unnatural for a black settler. At best he either gets used to it, developing survival strategies, or learns to imitate superficial aspects of it. British men remains remote, inaccessible, incomprehensible, like a creature from another world—an obstacle to be avoided. White women, though seemingly available, are almost completely dehumanized—they remain psychologically at a distance, even while in a relationship.
Finally—and this we can deduce from historical developments after the novel—it is clear that the only long-term solution has been to fundamentally change British society. Once white Leftists realized race opened a new front in their struggle for ever greater equality, and once black settlers realized they had political support among white Leftists, the settlers welcomed the initial concessions and pressed for more, eventually becoming Leftist theorists, campaigners, and legislators in their own right. We have seen across the West how quickly settlers of color master the language of radical egalitarianism, clearly emboldened by the fact that even conservatives dare not speak against it.
None of the above are original conclusions, of course. We have known this for decades. But the fact that our conclusions can all be derived from the recorded experience of black settlers rather than from ‘racist’ speeches by Enoch Powell shows that the arguments of whites who value their own societies are not delusions. Dispossession is unpleasant, and the push for ever more intrusive polices shows the degree to which no one is really happy.
This leads to the ethics of egalitarianism, which is what justifies current race-related policies and also makes it hard to argue against them. Through egalitarianism, we both fail to value our uniqueness and to recognize difference in the Other. The Other is well aware of this difference, but has learned that paying lip service to egalitarianism in our part of the world is a good survival strategy while they are here, since it leads to concessions. These, of course, never end, since, from the Other’s perspective, there is no reason to stop at equality when more is available. Egalitarianism thus perpetuates an exploitative relationship, and transfers privilege from one group onto another. The path to mutual respect and dignity is the recognition of difference, not the pretense of equality.