Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon

Edition: The Lonely Londoners (Longman Caribbean Writer Series)
The Lonely Londoners was published in 1956, a time when Britain was beginning to close the door to Commonwealth citizens. Prior to the mid-1950s and after WWII, the British government encouraged immigration to help fill in labor gaps created during war; the mass immigrations during this period from Afro-Caribbean areas became known collectively as the "windrush generation." Selvon's text thus registers the disheartening arrival and subsequent experiences of immigrants coming after Britain was closing its doors. Selvon's characters are of working-class background.

The sequel to The Lonely Londoners is Moses Ascending.

The novel is narrated in third person, in a West-Indian inflected dialect of English. Though the third person narration enables focalizations of different characters throughout, it most closely follows Moses Aloetta, a rather jaded older man who has lived in London longer than any of the others. At the start of the novel, Moses goes to meet "a fellar named Henry Oliver" at Waterloo station who has just arrived from Trinidad. At the same time, Moses's friend Tolroy is at the station meeting his family who have just arrived from Jamaica (it turns out that more of them have arrived than he has bargained for). Tanty, Tolroy's mother, is an outspoken woman who from the moment of arriving, gets her way in having a reporter take a picture of her whole family when he had planned to just take one of her.

Upon his arrival, Henry Oliver seems overly confident about his prospects, and Moses thinks he is naive.  Moses gives him the epithet "Sir Galahad" and offers him a place to stay for the night. Moses offers to help him find work, but Galahad, wanting to give off the impression that "everything all right," decides to go find work for himself. Once he sets off to the employment exchange, Galahad begins to feel out of place and confused: "Everybody doing something or going somewhere, is only he who walking stupid." He doesn't get far before he runs into Moses again and so Moses ends up going with him to the exchange, where Galahad obtains an unemployment card.

The next section of the novel introduces Cap, a Nigerian who came to London to study law but who ended up instead spending money on cigarettes and women. Cap manages to get along in London on his charm, at times getting into trouble and needing Moses to bail him out. Cap is dating an Austrian girl, who tells him he should try harder to get a job. Cap pretends that he gets a job at night, but instead he "went off to hustle woman as usual" and lies to her. At another point, he steals a watch from an English girl to finance a relationship with a German girl. He also ends up marrying a French girl, and borrowing money from his friend Daniel in order to take her out until fortuitously, she gets a job at a store. Sometimes, Cap gets himself into comical situations. In a particularly humorous episode, once Cap and Moses went out on Bayswater Road between the Arch and the Gate, and Cap accidentally takes home a "woman" who was actually a man. In short, Cap gets in all sorts of trouble, but "still Moses have compassion on him."

The following section tells about another character, Bart, in a similarly episodic manner. Bart, lighter skinned than the others, seems to have an easier time assimilating. He jealously guards his own money, and rarely lends it out. Bart gets into a relationship with a white girl and he is invited to meet her parents. Before Bart can tell the lie that he is Latin-American, the girl's father kicks him out because he "don't want no curly-hair children."

Meanwhile, in Tolroy's family, Lewis (Tolroy's sister's husband) finds work alongside Moses at a factory and imagines that his wife, Agnes, is unfaithful to him while he is away. When he returns home every night, he beat her and so eventually she left him. Tanty, shunned by her family for her naivete about London, actually scores some successes of her own: at a local store, she manages to get her way, insisting on paying on credit, and then later even setting up a system for other visitors to the store to do so as well. In another successful episode, Tanty rides the tube to retrieve a key from Agnes at her work.

Galahad is getting on better than might have been expected, and Moses looks on knowingly as Galahad revels in the dropping the names of landmarks in London (like "Charing Cross") to signal a sort of ownership over the city. Galahad manages to get a night job, and even take a white girl, Daisy, on a date to a movie and dinner. Afterwards, he has her over and though she's a bit prejudiced against his way of making tea and his West Indian English, Galahad tells Moses that the date has gone swimmingly.

Big City, also from Trinidad, likes to cuss a lot and to tell people that he is no small town fellow (hence his nickname). Big City has trouble with English forms after he gets into a car accident involving himself and a bus and needs help from Moses to "full" them up.

After this particular episodic character sketch, the narration switches into a lengthy passage in stream of consciousness without punctuation. This passage gives impressions of London nightlife in the summer, and tells of various adventures the men have (usually with women), including one in which Moses takes a girl home and is terrified of what the police will do to him when she seems to be getting sick under his watch. The narration's blurring and accelerated effects might be encapsulated in these final lines: "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."

The narrative then snaps back into character sketches, introducing a character from Barbados called "Five Past Twelve" because he is blacker than midnight itself. In this section, Harris who likes to think he is in the know as far as English customs go, throws a party at St. Pancras. At the party, Harris is embarrassed by his fellow immigrants, afraid that they will "make rab and turn the dance into a brawl." Tolroy brings his whole family including Tanty, and once again, Tanty is her outspoken self when she puts Harris in his place about his shame.

In a particularly bad season for work, Galahad's hunger reduces him to catching a pigeon in the park to roast. A white woman is horrified, and insensitively calls him a monster and calls the police. Moses and Galahad talk about their difficult lives in London, yet oddly once they've been there for a while, they don't want to go back to their home countries. They wonder if it has to do in part with the mistaken notion of London as a place of opportunity. In a "p.s. episode," Cap also catches seagulls from his windowsill for food.

The final scene is slightly more uplifting; the boys go to Moses's place every Sunday as if it were a kind of church, showing that in their talking over girls, the difficulty of getting work, and feelings of alienation, there is a kind of valuable community that coheres. The novel closes with Moses looking out upon the Thames and sensing a kind of sublimity while thinking about the vastness of London life: "it had a greatness and a vastness in the way he was feeling tonight, like it was something solid after feeling everything else give way." He even imagines whether he might ever write a book.  

CRITICAL APPROACH/ANALYSIS: (A previous essay I wrote on print culture in The Lonely Londoners and its sequel, Moses Ascending)

As noted by James Procter in Dwelling Places, the characters in Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners use the discursive power of naming (and re-naming) places in London to derive a sense of belonging. For characters like Galahad who are new to London, to be an Englishman in London is a matter of recognizing and using a number of sign systems in relation to categories such as “music and song, film, literature, conversation.”[1] In this essay I wish to highlight the importance of one particular sign system in Selvon’s fiction, namely, the sign system of newspapers and print-journalism. With Benedict Anderson’s idea of print-culture’s power in the facilitation of imagined communities in mind, I suggest that Moses Aloetta’s eventual displacement within the house that he owns in Moses Ascending is paralleled by his resistance to newspapers and print-journalism and consequent resistance to imagined communities that are made available to him.

London’s vastness as a metropolis necessitates an imagined community; in The Lonely Londoners, West Indians with memories of tight-knit communities in their home nations are acutely aware of this necessity. To the new, West Indian Londoner, the metropolis “divide up in little worlds, and you stay in the world you belong to and you don’t know anything about what happening in the other ones except what you read in the papers.”[2] Selvon’s boys recognize that newspapers allow strangers in the metropolis to form links with one another by way of a shared readership.

For the most part, Selvon’s characters in Lonely Londoners believe in the power of shared-readership as a means for gaining at least partial acceptance into the larger community. Big City tells his friends that he attended a party with “bigshots” that one would read about in the Evening Standard, thereby legitimating the very imagined community that would never print his name.[3] Though Big City is aware of his own exclusion, he suggests that his involvement with a print-worthy event signifies at least partial belonging. The narrator’s description of how Harris, meticulous about significations of Englishness, dresses, with “bowler hat and umbrella, and briefcase tuck under the arm with The Times fold up in the pocket so the name would show” demonstrates newcomer complicity in legitimizing the power of print-culture’s signage in representing the dominant, white, literate, imagined community.

In Moses Ascending, however, Selvon’s boys become more critical of the white monopoly over print-culture and the imagined community which it produces. Galahad, more confident now in his place in the metropolis, has joined the Black Power movement, whose members aspire to produce their own newspaper to counter the “untruths” borne from the traditionally accepted, white newspapers. “You know these English papers does only have contorted views of the scene. If we get our own, we can tell people the truth.”[4] What Galahad does not realize is that in supporting the new paper, he is merely complying in the creation of another imagined community, whose print-narrative may be as “contorted” as that of the white newspapers.

Moses demonstrates that he is critical of both representation white-London print and Black Power print. Of newspapers written by whites, Moses remarks, “The first crocus in the spring is seen by a black man, and he harks to the cuckoo long before all them other people what write to newspapers to say they was the first.”[5] On the other hand, Moses wants nothing to do with Brenda’s Black Power newspaper either, preferring that his white man-servant appear on the front page instead of himself. Galahad tells Moses that in writing a memoir, he must report on “what’s happening” socially and politically, but Moses resists because he wants to write something “personal and intimate” which does not cling to the imagined communities of social and political happenings, the stuff of print-culture.[6] To be sure, Moses is ambivalent—he proudly boasts about reading the Times, News of the World, and the Observer while his white man-servant reads comics and he also gives Galahad’s suggestion a try by taking his reporter’s pad to the Paki’s sheep slaughter and the Black Power rally. However, his ambivalence renders him unable to whole-heartedly embrace either the imagined community of white-London or that of Black Power.

Unfortunately, because he resists both imagined communities that are available to him, Moses ends up without a comfortable place in his own house. Brenda’s success in creating a new imagined community in opposition to the one of white-London by printing a newspaper for Black Power is followed upon by her ascension to a more desirable place in the house. Bob, who has gained acceptance into this newly minted imagined community by getting his picture onto the front page of the first issue, has also ascended in the house. Moses, who resists accepting the imagined communities made available (or partially available) to him, is “displaced” into the basement of his own home.

[1] James Procter, “Dwelling Places,” in Dwelling Places, Postwar Black British Writing (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), 52.
[2] Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners (New York: Longman Publishing Group, 1985), 74.
[3] Ibid., 101.
[4] Sam Selvon, Moses Ascending (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1984), 13.
[5] Ibid., 7.
[6] Ibid., 42.


이승호 said...

It is so interesting to read your analysis! I am a graduate student from South Korea, working on the Lonely Londoners and some more Caribbean writings. I was searching for some information and found your blog. Wow!! Once I planned to make my own blog like yours, but wasn't hard-working enough. Now your blog makes me once more passionate. I think I will visit here often. So good to meet you. See you later.

Paul Benz said...

I was looking for something to help me with an essay question on the Lonely Londoners - I won't be using the material on this site.

Andrea Valencia said...

Tou have done a good job here. Only one thing to say and Sorry if I bother you. but Tanty is not tolroy's mother.

Thank you

Lauri 2014 said...

Tanty is like a second mother to Tolroy...but yes, otherwise great job with the summary.