Samuel Selvon’s, The Lonely Londoners, delves into the plight of the Carribean migrants who travelled to England with false hope of a fairy-tale lifestyle. It finds a voice for the articulation of the West Indian migrant experience. These migrants were yearning to escape their poverty-stricken birthplaces, and explore the opportunities in England, which they hoped would feed their families and provide financial stability. This novel explores the shattering of illusions of being accepted by the English natives and the deception about who the English are. There was a perception about the wealth of England, and the irresistible education opportunity and employment availability. Moreover, it addresses illusion about the generosity and friendliness of the English population. Through the use of diction and the depiction of independent struggles, Selvon reveals how widespread discrimination caused displacement, unemployment, and turmoil for the Caribbean migrants in London.
In 1948, the Empire Windrush delivered a substantial fleet of migrants from the Carribean to Tilbury Docks in England; moreover, well over 150,000 migrants arrived by 1961 (Alexander). The British Nationality Act granted free entry to Britain for all Commonwealth citizens, as an attempt by the government to recruit extra labour to accelerate national reconstruction after the Second World War. As a result, an upsurge in the population of Britain occurred, mostly from the Caribbean. The immigrants experienced segregation and found that regular employment and adequate housing was hard to come by. This poses the question of what was the appeal for the Caribbean people who uprooted their lives to journey thousands of miles to a foreign place that had a remarkably different social structure and cultural traditions.
Selvon’s narrative voice does not adopt the ‘Standard English’ mode of expression; rather, it is ‘a subtle blend of Trinidadian and other West Indian idioms and inflections with standard English’ (Innes 234). Selvon initially tried to write in proper English, but it did not have the desired effect. He decided that the two languages coming together present a hybrid culture, and by introducing the Caribbean dialect and grammar, he could give the immigrants a voice and character. At the start of the novel, the phrase ‘as if is not London at all’ shows the grammar issues, and this foreign dialect reinforces the sense of unfamiliarity in a place (Selvon 23). The London setting is somewhat eerie and hazy, created by the mention of the ‘fog’ and the ‘blur’, which makes the setting appear as foreign to the reader as it seems to the migrants. Reference to London as ‘another planet’ creates a version of a city that is somewhat ominous. A known city described with unfamiliar references evokes empathy with the narrator. The reader becomes one with the community that is described. This renders the London setting strange to those that even know it.
Selvon’s factual account showcases two differing perspectives of London. On one end, he reflects on the picture perfect London, and on the other end of the spectrum is the true and realistic version of London. From their homelands, the migrants had a false vision of the city; they perceived it as the perfect place – a haven. Quite the opposite, when the Caribbean immigrants arrived they were struck with the reality that London was far from ideal and appealing, and instead, a ‘lonely miserable city’ (Selvon 126).
By examining the objectives of Tanty and Galahad before their arrival to London will shed light on their resulting disillusionment. In an interview, Tanty explained she had heard there were more work opportunities and better wages in England (Selvon 11). Galahad arrived without luggage, as he did not have any but he was not concerned because he was confident ‘when he started a work he would buy some things’ (Selvon 29). He had a preconceived notion of what London life would be, in which ‘Galahad feel like a king living in London’ (Selvon 84-85). Both individuals went on this voyage with very high expectations. After only a few shorts days in London, however, Galahad’s hope dwindles away, and his frustration grows because he cannot secure a job, and Tanty realises her perfect version of London is a farce. Most immigrants took the plunge for their family and arrived in this city with a lack of clothing, no job or home, and they are distraught to learn the English do not care about them.
London was no longer the city of dreams, but rather an unreal place of promise that brought people to the reality of struggle. The following excerpt gives insight into the new psychology of the immigrants as Galahad questions the prejudiced treatment,
‘Lord, what it is we people do in this world that
we have to suffer so? What it is we want that the
white people and them find it so hard to give? A little
work, a little food, a little place to sleep. We not
asking for the sun, or the moon. We only want to get
by, we don’t even want to get on’. (Selvon 76)
Although the migrants did indeed have a false image of London, arriving with high hopes and dreams, in reality, they did not have exorbitant requests. They were pleading for the necessities. They fled their poverty-stricken homelands in the hope of finding shelter and protection in England. The Caribbean migrants were greeted with suffering, oppression and segregation rather than the city of contentment and tranquillity that they desperately desired. Galahad’s means of survival had become so critical that he tries to ‘catch a pigeon in the park to eat’ (Selvon 117). The London dream becomes nothing more than a fantasy, and all their hopes of an ideal life are replaced with not so glamorous realities.
Moses is the first character encountered in the novel. It is no coincidence he is named after a Biblical allusion; he functions as a senior mentor and a guide for the newly arrived immigrants (Selvon 25). He helps them find accommodations and jobs and introduces them to the local way of life like queuing for a bus and purchasing railway passes. Waterloo Station is the entrance of the city, and so it is the point of arrival for immigrants. At the start of the novel, Moses arrives there to greet Galahad. Although Moses is not one to get overwhelmed with nostalgia, he describes the station as a ‘sort of place where you have a soft feeling’ because there are ‘people crying goodbye and kissing welcome’ (Selvon 25-26). He watches the arriving migrants, and he notices their hope and expectations, and he becomes overcome with melancholy because he knows their dreams are about to be crushed.
Through Moses’ character, Selvon can clearly point out the issue of discrimination. Moses has lived in London for ten years, and it seems as if he had made no progress at all. He is one of many individuals who had emigrated from their familiar and comforting homes to a foreign place in hopes of opportunity and a better way of life, but they discover that London will not let them change their fortunes. Moses describes the kind of labour that is available for the black folk:
‘They send you for a storekeeper work and they want
to put you in the yard to lift heavy iron. They think
that is all we good for, and this time they keeping all
the clerical jobs for them white fellars’. (Selvon 35)
Many suffer and work tirelessly with little to no payback, while the English economy reaps a profit. Prejudice limited job opportunity, so people applied for any work that was available, which revolved around backbreaking labour. This environment reshaped people’s expectations. They were ducking and diving, surviving day by day since they had to start over and work their way back up the social ladder to make something of themselves.
There are also instances in which local English folks were less than approving of some behaviours exhibited by the immigrants. At the bus queue, Galahad pushes his way to the front. The conductor kindly advises him that ‘he can’t break the queue like that, mate’ (Selvon 25). However, an onlooker retorted to her friend ‘they’ll have to learn to do better, you know’. This shows that one action that was out of the ordinary or uncustomary immediately renders negative reactions from local Londoners. The women’s word choice, ‘they’ll’, not only radiates racist connotation, but also points out the exclusivity of the native London community. It immediately divides the local English people and the Caribbean immigrants into two separate, very distinctive categories.
Selvon also delved into the distressing issue of housing availability for black immigrants. This passage illustrates the practice of segregation and the poor accommodations that they are forced into:
‘The houses around here old and grey and weatherbeaten,
the walls cracking like the last days of
Pompeii, it ain’t have no hot water… none of the
houses have bath…Some of the houses still had gas
light, which is to tell you how old they was .’ (Selvon 59)
Many immigrants cannot afford to rent an apartment, and so many remain homeless and displaced. Those who can scramble up enough money to rent an apartment are subjected to decrepit buildings and appalling living conditions.
Despite the negative, Moses’ room becomes a place of sanctuary for many, and ”Nearly every Sunday morning,…the boys liming in Moses room, coming together for old talk…’ (Selvon 134). People came together and shared experiences, and while society clusters all the immigrants into one group, they are still individuals that come from different places of origin. The immigrants found that sharing their common experiences, and reminiscing about their happier moments from the past will maintain their spirits (Selvon 126). When they arrived, the characters are forced to become acutely aware of their limitations in their new home. They struggle to find their sense of belonging. Although it is difficult to accept their circumstances, the Caribbean migrants transform along their journey, but their memories and experiences will always be a part of them. They yearn to show the world their real identities and to prove they are by no means inferior to their white counterparts. Through their mutual experiences, the immigrants present a united front, and their determination and drive to trudge on despite their sad experiences, shows some positive aspects of living in London during this bleak period in history.
Despite depicting London as a devilish reality, Selvon also narrates it in such a way that produces a smidge of hope. He uses the phrase ‘the old Brit’n’, which reveals his optimism for a reformed country sans discrimination, but rather of equal rights and opportunity, acceptance and unity (Selvon 124). The Lonely Londoners recognises the need to challenge the segregation by providing an account of the difficulties of the migrants and how their common obstacles bring them together. Selvon’s diction is indirect yet clear-cut with the intention to conjure sympathy for the Caribbean population in London, and simultaneously, celebrate their strength and perseverance.