The Lonely Londoners
Cover of the 2006 Penguin edition
|Cover artist||Felix H. Man (photographer)|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|ISBN||ISBN 978-0-14-118841-6 (2006 edition)|
The Lonely Londoners is a 1956 novel by Trinidadian author Samuel Selvon. Its publication marked the first literary work focusing on poor, working-class blacks in the beat writer tradition following the enactment of the British Nationality Act 1948.
The book details the life of West Indians in post-World War II London, a city the immigrants consider the "centre of the world."  Covering a period of roughly three years, it has no plot in the usual sense of the term. Rather, the novel 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. Not surprisingly, their lives mainly consist of work (or looking for a job) and various petty pleasures. Dating young white women is at the top of the list, as is hanging around prostitutes (street prostitution was legal in London until 1959).
A recurring theme in Selvon's character development addresses upward social mobility. This mobility, however, is clouded by the character's designation as the "other". Their accents and skin colour mark them as outsiders and force them to form a group identity based on the principle of congregation via segregation. This analysis allows the reader to better understand the self-hate, disappointment, and struggle that haunts Selvon's characters. The protagonist, Moses, describes London as a lonely city that "divide[s] up in little worlds, and you stay in the world where you belong to and you don't know anything about what happening in the other ones except what you read in the papers." Against a backdrop of invisibility, many of the characters struggle with a sense of failed promise. By looking at the various coping mechanisms: sex, lavish spending, drinking, hard work, appeasing white women, etc., the author ultimately conveys the unity in their experience. Regardless of their actions, a certain sense of stagnancy prevails. Moses says: "...I just lay there on the bed thinking about my life, how after all these years I ain't get no place at all, I still the same way, neither forward nor backward."
Narrative technique, language and style
The most striking feature of The Lonely Londoners is its narrative voice. Selvon started writing the novel in standard English but soon found out that such language would not aptly convey the experiences and the unarticulated thoughts and desires of his characters. In creating a third person narrator who uses the same creolized form of English as the characters of the novel, Selvon added a new, multiculturalist dimension to the traditional London novel and enhanced the awareness in both readers and writers of a changing London society which could no longer be ignored. Thus, in style and context, The Lonely Londoners "represented a major step forward in the process of linguistic and cultural decolonization." 
The language used by Selvon's characters and by the narrator contains a multitude of slang expressions. For example, when "the boys" talk about "the Water" or "the Gate", they are referring to Bayswater and Notting Hill respectively. (Unlike today, the Notting Hill area evoked a down-at-heel area of cheap lodgings where Caribbean immigrants could more easily find accommodation than elsewhere in London, but be victims of practices like Rachmanism.) Sometimes referring to themselves and each other as "spades", in their spare time they can be found "liming"—the Caribbean pastime of hanging around with friends eating, talking and drinking—, and some of their talk will be "oldtalk"—reminiscences of their previous lives in the West Indies and the exchange of news from home. Finally, a white English girl can be a "skin" ("a sharp piece of skin"), a "frauline" [sic], a "cat", a "number", or of course a "chick" or "white pussy".
- Susheila Nasta: "Introduction". Sam Selvon: The Lonely Londoners (Penguin Books: London, 2006), v-xvii.
- Helon Habila: "Out of the Shadows", The Guardian (March 17, 2007). Retrieved 7/8/07.
- Moya Jones Petithomme: "The Immigrant's Urban Tale ... 40 years On", Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines (1993). Retrieved 7/8/07.
Other novels with the theme of the immigrant experience among Caribbeans in London:
- Warwick Collins: Gents (1997)
- Victor Headley: Yardie (1992)
- George Lamming: The Emigrants (1954)
- Andrea Levy: Small Island (2004)
- Colin MacInnes: City of Spades (1957) and Absolute Beginners (1959)
- V. S. Naipaul: The Mimic Men (1967)
- Caryl Phillips: The Final Passage (1985)
- Zadie Smith: White Teeth (2000)
All page references are to the 2006 Penguin "Modern Classics" edition.
- Samuel Selvon: The Lonely Londoners, p. 134.
- Samuel Selvon: The Lonely Londoners, p. 60.
- Samuel Selvon: The Lonely Londoners, p. 113.
- Susheila Nasta: "Introduction". Sam Selvon: The Lonely Londoners (Penguin Books: London, 2006), p. vi.
- Susheila Nasta: "Introduction". Sam Selvon: The Lonely Londoners (Penguin Books: London, 2006), p. x.
- Samuel Selvon: The Lonely Londoners, pp. 92-102.