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Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners was written in the 1950s in a climate of change for the West Indies and Britain. As the British Empire slowly lost grip of its ‘acquired’ colonies, the British population found themselves with the confronting prospect of their colonial subjects ‘invading’ their white spaces and homeland. The Lonely Londoners tells the story of immigrants coming from the West Indies and Jamaica to London. They are looking for a new start, for a promised land that never seems to live up to their expectations.
London, for many British colonies was and still is an idealised city. Even today, when I speak to many young Australians, they often have a dream of visiting the ‘Mother Country’ and spending time in the city of possibilities: London. (Although if you ask me, 365 days of dark, dank, and dreary weather is not something I call an exciting prospect!) For a city that is surrounded by so much hype it is often hard to not feel disappointed when you finally visit it. And for the characters in Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, it is often what they experience. They are “spades”, as Selvon calls them, in a sea of white faces. News reporters see them as all the same and these diverse peoples are all lumped into the one boat: they are black and will therefore never be good enough. The beauty though, of Selvon’s writing is that he challenges this monophonic stereotype and enriches the story with a mixture of polyphonic voices that span gender, ethnicity, and class. Selvon manages to tell these imperfect people and their imperfect stories in an honest and unapologetic way. These stories not only reveal racism and discrimination against non-whites in Britain, but also touches on discrimination against white Brits, in particular women.
“Boy, it have bags of white pussy in London, and you will eat till you get tired” (77).
This quote here shows the doubled edged sword of stereotypes: on the one hand, many of these West Indies men are treating white women as an easy prize, and on the other hand, most likely, many white women would be treating these men as a bit of exotic fun before they settle down with a good white husband like their families expect.
Selvon also exposes violence against women in the West Indies and also highlights some of the positive gains West Indies and Jamaican women received when they moved to England.
“Listen, women in this country not like Jamaica, you know. They have rights over here, and they always shouting for something” (54).
Lastly, Selvon touches upon something that feels extremely close to my own heart when he talks about missing home. Moses, the narrator and main protagonist says at the end of the book,
“I go and live in paradise […]” (125).
Home for Moses becomes an abstract, intangible place that can only be accessed through his memories and mind. In thinking of his home as a paradise, he has forgotten why he left and the troubles he tried to escape. Home becomes like a dead relative: memorialised and made divine. It only lives on through memories and nostalgic afternoons spent looking out into the grey fog.
If you want to read something out of your comfort zone from a linguistic and narrative perspective then I urge you to find a copy of Selvon’s book! ASAP.
Have you read The Lonely Londoners? What did you think? Remember to always share the reading love.