Sam Selvon: Words of Welcome

Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners captured the lives and aspirations of West Indian immigrants in post-World War II Britain.

?

London in the post-war 1940s was a far cry from the “cool Britannia” of half a century later. Rationing was still in force, choking smogs were a commonplace occurrence, large areas of the city were still little more than bombsites, wrecked reminders of the recent Blitz. A capital city with little of the glamour of Paris or the mystique of Rome, it was a cold, harsh, unwelcoming place.

Yet London was also the mecca for hundreds of thousands of would-be migrants from the Caribbean in the late 1940s and 1950s. For in this ravaged city was something that was in desperately short supply in the islands: work. Jobs were to be had by the thousand in public services, in transport, in construction, and the British government was eager to fill them. Suddenly, those in the Caribbean colonies, employed or otherwise, were sought after as potential bus drivers and nurses in the “mother country”. It was an offer that many found hard to refuse. The Empire Windrush was the first ship to arrive bearing Caribbean migrants; it was followed by a fleet of others, carrying an estimated 300,000 West Indians to Britain between 1951 and 1961.

The Jamaican poet Louise Bennett memorably described the exodus from her island, a phenomenon that was repeated across the region:

By de hundred, by de t’ousan

From country and from town

By de ship-load, by the plane-

load

Jamaica is Englan boun.

The flood reached its climax in 1961, the year before the Commonwealth Immigrants Act came into force and abruptly shut the door in the face of any further job-seekers.

Among this tide of migrants was one Samuel Dickson Selvon, a 27-year-old Trinidadian of mixed Indian and Scottish parentage, who arrived in a cheerless London in 1950 after travelling on the same ship as the great Barbadian novelist George Lamming. Sam Selvon also wanted to be a novelist. He had already done some writing, mostly short stories and poems, and had worked as a journalist on Trinidad’s Guardian weekly magazine. His parents had been too poor to continue his education after high school, and so Selvon’s unusual childhood ambition of becoming a philosopher foundered. Instead, the Second World War gave him the opportunity to work as a wireless operator on minesweepers and, in his spare time, to read widely.

Arriving in London, Selvon headed for the Balmoral Hostel, the haunt of many recent newcomers from the Caribbean. There he discovered a rich array of characters, some of whom would later reappear in his fiction. He also discovered that jobs in journalism were thin on the ground and that he would need to look elsewhere in order to survive. With some difficulty, he managed to persuade the Indian Embassy to employ him as a clerk, doubtless stressing his Indo-Trinidadian credentials. The ploy worked and regular, if uninspiring, work gave Selvon the time to write. The result was A Brighter Sun (1952), a novel of rural life in Trinidad which gathered positive reviews and encouraging sales. After a lengthy spell in hospital with tuberculosis, he was able to resign from the Indian Embassy and devote himself to full-time writing.

By the mid-1950s Caribbean immigrants were arriving in Britain at a steady rate of about 25,000 a year. Their influence was beginning to be felt in music, dance and food as they settled the foundations of a multi-cultural society. But there were those who resented and feared the influx, and racism began to rear its head with physical attacks on migrants and “whites only” signs in boarding houses. In 1956 Selvon’s popular masterpiece, The Lonely Londoners, appeared, perfectly capturing the atmosphere of immigrant life in the capital. It was an instant success, won literary prizes and established Selvon as one of a rising group of Caribbean writers that included Lamming and V. S. Naipaul.

In comparison with the work of these contemporaries, The Lonely Londoners appears unashamedly accessible and popular. It has a seemingly simple narrative structure, a readily identifiable cast of characters and a central and unifying theme. In essence it tells of the mixed experiences of a group of West Indian immigrants in London, their struggle to make money and keep warm, their confrontation with British attitudes and the sense of companionship and solidarity that binds them together. The novel is part comic, part tragic; Selvon mixes humour and pathos in equal measure, seeking to evoke the bitter-sweet existence of a rootless community that is both excited and terrified by its new life and the leaving behind of the old. And Selvon’s characters, redrawn from the early days of the Balmoral Hostel, are an equally ambiguous blend of heroism and cowardice, generosity and dishonesty.

But such simplicity in fact conceals a highly sophisticated and inventive approach to the novel and its language. Around the central figure of Moses Aloetta, the veteran “Londoner”, Selvon weaves a series of secondary characters and sub-plots which cast light on differing responses to the experience of migration. We follow the naïve exuberance of Galahad, intoxicated by the possibilities of making money and sexual conquests; the inveterate scrounging of Cap, who changes addresses more often than trousers; the cultural schizophrenia of Harris, with his bowler hat and copy of the Times. Intrinsic to this picaresque gallery of comic types is Selvon’s use of language, a modified form of Trinidadian dialect, clearly Caribbean in intonation but also intelligible to the general reader. In a passage that reads like unbroken prose poetry, Selvon contrasts Galahad’s joie de vivre with the anxious yearning of Moses:

. . . oh lord Galahad say when the sweetness of summer get in him he say he would never leave the old Brit’n as long as he live 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.

For Sam Selvon himself, exile in London ended in 1978 when he moved to Canada. He died in 1994, much respected and much loved by those who knew him. The Lonely Londoners, perhaps his finest work, is enduring testimony both to his skill as a novelist and his essential humanity.

James Ferguson is the author of The Traveller’s Literary Companion to the Caribbean (In Print/Passport Books/Ian Randle Publishers).