It’s taken me many years to finally get around to Sam Selvon’s 1956 novel The Lonely Londoners. The problem was one of aesthetics; the only copy I’d ever seen was the nasty, cheap -looking Heinemann African Writers Series edition, which sported a horrendous illustration of men in zoot suits looking glum. Such minor reservations should not be enough to preclude one from picking up a book, but, with so much else to read, these small barriers are often more than enough to ignore a novel.
In fact, up until recently, I’d rather forgotten about The Lonely Londoners. It had become one of those books that I suspected was rather more taught than actually read: the token darkie in the ghost white face of post-war English fiction. It was only Hari Kunzru’s passionate championing of it at a recent event in Shoreditch that made me look at it differently. That and a handsome new edition from Penguin Modern Classics. For both, I am hugely grateful.
Written in an effortless patois, The Lonely Londoners is a collage of voices; a plotless, digressive, tangential novel that weaves between a series of West Indian immigrants, all linked in some way to Moses Aloetta: the wise owl of the book. Now an experienced Londoner, Moses sees the pitfalls the city has to offer, as well as its charms. As those fresh from the boat charge around town, it's Moses who spends a lot of time telling them to calm down; and perhaps with good reason.
London is as much a character in this novel as Sir Galahad, Five Past Midnight, Tolroy – even Moses himself. While it may be a partial picture, the London that Selvon describes feels wholly real. The slums and the flop houses of Bayswater, the blinding lights of Charing Cross and Piccadilly Circus, the corner shops of Brixton. Selvon highlights the city’s attractions and the temptations as well as its grim realities; the intoxicating nature of walking through the city – and the desperation of doing so without money in your pocket.
While Selvon has Orwell’s outsider eye for a telling detail and cultural tic – the way, for example, Tolroy dresses like an English gent with his copy of The Times prominently on show – he has a far sharper comic sensibility. In fact, The Lonely Londoners probably owes a significant debt to the Marx Brothers – especially Cap’s hilarious battles with London’s pigeons and seagulls. Orwell’s unremitting bleakness serves his political motivations, but his lack of humour has always suggested to me that we are being fed only some of the truth. Brit’n, after all, is a place where there is always humour, no matter how dark the situation.
And there is no doubt that the situation is bad for many of the characters who populate Selvon’s novel. It’s here that the novel is less successful as it struggles to shoehorn in some of the pressing realities of immigrant life. The newspaper reporter who asks why so many people are coming over from the West Indies at the beginning of the novel, for example, feels forced; as does some of the more overtly political conversations in which Moses exposes the truth behind the Welfare State or the recruitment of ethic workers. These clumsy episodes have the spice of polemic, but seem rather out of place in an otherwise naturalistic fictional world.
To me, The Lonely Londoners is one of the capital’s greatest literary creations; a novel of heart, humanity and understanding. It is resolutely not just about the Windrush generation’s experiences. It is about belonging and not belonging: about where one fits in the world and in society. It’s a testament to immigrant dreams, of casting off what’s gone before and reinventing oneself as a new and better person. And as such, it’s one of the most arresting and affecting pieces of fiction you’ll ever read – and one that deserves to be celebrated as a key novel of the twentieth century.