The Lonely Londoners

by

Sam Selvon

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The Lonely Londoners: Section 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
On the underground train, Galahad pesters Moses with questions about London. “Take it easy,” Moses says. “You can’t learn everything the first day you land.” When they reach Moses’s apartment, Galahad comments on its small size and suggests that, instead of putting a shilling into the gas stove for heat, Moses should put a piece of lead into the little slot—a trick he learned from a friend who used to live in London. “Take it easy,” Moses says again, “all these questions you asking is good questions, but you will find out for yourself before long.” He then speaks straightforwardly to Galahad, telling him that the next day he’ll have to find his own place to live and also secure a steady job. He makes it clear that Galahad won’t be able to rely on other Trinidadians just because they’re from the same country.
Moses’s assertion that Galahad can’t rely on other Trinidadians for help recalls the story of the Jamaican landlord who rents rooms to fellow expatriates but charges them the full price. It seems, then, that immigrants in London not only have to advocate for themselves in the face of racism and bigotry, but also have to compete with one another. At the same time, there’s no denying that Moses has already gone out of his way to help Galahad, which suggests that the immigrant community does indeed help itself by way of mutual support and camaraderie.
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“I don’t usually talk to fellars like this,” Moses says, “but I take a fancy for you.” Before going to bed, Moses finally lets himself speak nostalgically, reminiscing with Galahad about people they both know in Trinidad. When Galahad falls asleep in the chair, Moses places a blanket over him, but the young man quickly throws it off, saying it’s too hot to sleep with a blanket. Once again, Moses can’t fathom how Galahad isn’t cold, but before long Galahad is loudly snoring, comfortable in the chilled room. The next morning, Moses finds him still asleep with a smile on his face. Shaking him awake, he tells him it’s time to go look for work. As Moses stands by the fire, Galahad says, “What you bending down so near the fire for and shivering like that?”
Galahad’s strange relationship to cold temperature seems at first like a ruse, an act he’s staging in order to convince Moses that he’s tough. However, when he throws the blanket off and goes happily to sleep, it becomes clear that he truly doesn’t get cold. This kind of relaxed attitude regarding London’s intense winter denotes Galahad’s unflinching optimism and serves as an indication that—unlike Moses, who after many years is still not used to England’s frigid winters—he is perhaps well-suited to life in London.
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Galahad gets ready for the day, combing his hair in the mirror and stretching his limbs. There is “a kind of fellar who does never like people to think that they unaccustomed to anything,” the narrator writes, “or that they are strangers in a place, or that they don’t know where they are going.” Galahad, the narrator continues, is like this—somebody who wants to give the impression that he can “take care of himself, that he don’t want help for anything.” As such, when Moses offers to go to the employment office with him that morning, he declines, saying he’ll go by himself. Nonetheless, Moses tries to give him some advice, until Galahad finally relents and asks what Moses would do in his shoes. “I would advice you to hustle a passage back home to Trinidad today,” Moses says.
In this moment, Moses’s pessimism comes to the forefront of the novel. When he advises Galahad to return immediately to Trinidad, he reveals his belief that his years in London have been wasted. Because he himself has invested so much time into living in England, though, it’s harder for him to “hustle a passage back home.” Galahad, on the other hand, has very little to lose, since he hasn’t yet truly begun to build his life in the city. As such, Moses thinks it would be best if the young man turned around, for he himself knows that the prospects London offers aren’t as lucrative as one might hope, and he also understands that the longer a person stays in the city, the more difficult it is to leave.
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Moses knows Galahad will never heed his advice to return to Trinidad, so he gives him practical suggestions about securing a job, explaining that white Londoners are weary of black workers, frightened that they’ll lose their jobs to immigrants. Hearing this, Galahad asks if London is as racist as America. “The thing is,” Moses says, “in America they don’t like you, and they tell you so straight, so that you know how you stand. Over here is the old English diplomacy: ‘thank you sir,’ and ‘how do you do’ and that sort of thing.”
Once again, the word “diplomacy” surfaces in a conversation about British racism. The word bears connotations not only of politeness, but of deftness in handling international relations. Taking these definitions into account, readers begin to understand that white Britons mask their bigotry in a guise of generosity and good will, as if by saying “Thank you sir” and “How do you do” they can erase the fact that they don’t actually want to welcome black immigrants into their country. While understated bigotry may seem preferable to America’s outright racism, Moses indicates to Galahad that entrenched malice is perhaps equally as harmful as undisguised hatred.
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Before Galahad makes his way to the employment office, he mentions that he heard some men talking the day before about welfare—“about how you could go on the dole if you ain’t working.” Moses confirms that this is indeed the case, asking Galahad if he wants to “be like that.” Galahad says no, but Moses pushes him in order to discern the nature of his integrity, emphasizing the fact that the government will pay people even when they’re not working. After a short back-and-forth, Galahad says, “Boy, I don’t know about you, but I new in this country and I don’t want to start antsing on the State unless I have to. Me, I am a born hustler.”
When Galahad declares that he doesn’t want to “start antsing on the State unless” he has to, he effectively acknowledges the fact that, as a black immigrant, he has a very small margin for error. Stating that he’s a “born hustler,” he essentially announces his determination to work hard as a way of proving himself in a context in which he’s already put at a disadvantage, since white Britons are eager to discredit black immigrants based on even the smallest perceived failures. What this attitude incorrectly assumes, though, is that hard work necessarily leads to upward mobility. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case, as is made clear by the fact that Moses has been diligently laboring for ten years and still can’t seem to save any money.
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Moses tells Galahad he’s happy to hear that the young man won’t “ants on the State,” saying, “I wish it had plenty other fellars like you, but a lot of parasites muddy the water for the boys.” He says these days “when one [black person] do something wrong,” people pass judgement on all black people for it. Galahad tells Moses, “I know you mean well telling me all these things, but papa, I want to find out for myself.” Acquiescing, Moses agrees and says they’ll see one another that evening before he (Moses) goes to his nightshift. When Galahad finally leaves, he stands in the road and watches people frantically passing him in all directions.
Moses’s notion that immigrants who draw money from the government “muddy the water for the boys” supports the idea that white Londoners are quick to make broad generalizations about the immigrant community based on only one or two negative examples. And although Galahad would be wise to listen to Moses’s theories and learn from his wisdom as a fellow immigrant, he decides to forge onward independently, wanting to “find out for [him]self” how to survive in London. This is an unfortunate mindset, considering that London is so clearly unaccommodating of black immigrants. Galahad would be wise to band together with the immigrant community, leveraging whatever knowledge he can glean as a way of counteracting the disadvantages he already faces.
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Slowly making his way through the mayhem, Galahad feels a burst of loneliness and fear, forgetting “all the brave words” he uttered to Moses. He suddenly realizes that he’s in a foreign city with no money, job, or friends. Before long, he realizes he may not be able to find his way back to Moses’s apartment, worrying that he’s wandered too far. Just as he begins to panic, a police officer puts his hand on his shoulder and says, “Move along now, don’t block the pavement.” Luckily, Moses has been following, and Galahad rejoices upon seeing him, finally confessing that he needs help navigating through London. After Moses gets Galahad to agree to stop acting like he knows everything, the two men make their way to the employment office.
It’s no surprise that Galahad immediately feels remorse at having turned down Moses’s offer of help. When the police officer tells him to “move along,” readers witness a tangible example of the government being unwilling to help black immigrants. Indeed, whereas a police officer might offer to help a confused person standing in the middle of the street, this officer orders Galahad to keep moving. This interaction provides a glimpse at the “diplomatic” guise bigotry takes in London, because although the officer gently urges Galahad onward by kindly placing his hand on his shoulder, he sends a different kind of message, suggesting that Galahad is nothing but a nuisance that ought to be removed.
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At the employment office, Galahad is struck by the number of available jobs, but he’s also immediately taken aback by the vast amount of people waiting to either fill a vacant position or receive welfare checks. This is “a place where a lot of men get together to look for work and draw money from the Welfare State while they ain’t working,” the narrator notes—“a kind of place where hate and disgust and avarice and malice and sympathy and sorrow and pity all mix up […] a place where everyone is your enemy and your friend.” Standing in line, Moses points out a man who comes to the employment offices to collect welfare checks on a regular basis.
In this scene, Galahad—along with readers—sees a miniature representation of immigrant life in London. The welfare office is representative of the wide-ranging and dynamic makeup of the immigrant community, a community plagued by “hate and disgust and avarice and malice” but also touched by “sympathy and sorrow and pity.” When the narrator notes that this is a place “where everyone is your enemy and your friend,” he recalls the competitive nature of the immigrant community while also evoking the beautiful support that people like Moses lend to their fellow expatriates.
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Related Quotes
Moses teaches Galahad how to fill out the necessary forms, explaining that the top of his paper will read “J—A, Col.” “That mean you from Jamaica and you black,” Moses says. It’s important, he says, that the employment officers know a person is black. Apparently, the employment office used to send black workers to jobsites without informing employers of a candidate’s race. Then, not wanting to hire a black person, the employer would often lie to the worker, saying that the job had suddenly been filled. “They don’t tell you outright that they don’t want coloured fellars, they just say sorry the vacancy get filled,” Moses says.
That the employment forms assume a worker is Jamaican if he’s black is evidence of the fact that white Britons have no problem making broad generalizations about black people. This, it’s worth noting, is how bigoted stereotypes are often born: people embrace ignorance as a way of avoiding the mental work empathy requires. It is exactly this kind of avoidance that white Britons are seemingly all too willing to adopt, as they cling to the idea of “diplomacy,” lying about their “vacanc[ies]” instead of being forthright about their racism. After all, to admit their own bigotry would require a certain kind of self-awareness that would, in turn, force them to actually think about the implications of their biases.
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