The Lonely Londoners


Sam Selvon

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The Lonely Londoners Summary

The Lonely Londoners doesn’t follow a straightforward plotline—instead, it describes the experiences of a group of West Indian immigrants living in London in the 1950s through a series of loosely connected vignettes. In an episodic style, the unnamed narrator focuses primarily on Moses, an immigrant from Trinidad who has lived in London for roughly six years. A night laborer, he goes to Waterloo Station to greet Galahad, a young Trinidadian man arriving in London for the first time. Although the two men have never met, a mutual friend has asked Moses to help Galahad get settled.

While Moses waits for Galahad to arrive, he runs into a Jamaican friend named Tolroy, who’s at the station to pick up his mother. Apparently, Tolroy has saved up enough money to bring her over from Jamaica, a fact that astounds Moses, who can’t fathom being able to save so much money from his meager paychecks. As they wait, a British reporter approaches and mistakenly assumes Moses is Jamaican, asking him why so many people from Jamaica come to England. As Moses answers, though, the reporter turns to interview Tolroy’s family, all of whom are suddenly barreling out of the train. This surprises Tolroy because he only expected his mother. Instead, though, Tanty—his aunt—has come too, along with his relatives Lewis and Agnes and their two children. He laments this fact, asking his mother why she brought so many people with her, but she and his aunt scold him for not embracing his family and they choose to ignore his protests that there isn’t enough money and lodging to accommodate the entire family.

When Galahad finally appears on the platform, Moses is shocked to see that he’s wearing nothing but “an old grey tropical suit.” What’s more, he doesn’t even have any luggage. When Moses asks if he’s cold, Galahad insists he doesn’t think the weather is particularly chilly, and adds that he decided to not bring any luggage because he’ll simply buy new belongings once he starts working. Because of Galahad’s optimism, Moses views the young man as headstrong and naïve, frequently intoning, “Take it easy” when Galahad asks eager questions about life in London. In this manner, the two men get to know one another on their way from Waterloo to Moses’s small apartment, where they have dinner and Moses finally relaxes, allowing himself to reminisce about life in Trinidad.

The next morning, Galahad tells Moses that, although he appreciates his advice, he’d prefer to discover things on his own. Galahad sets off into London on his own, determined to make his way to the employment office to secure a job. On his way, though, he becomes suddenly disoriented and begins to doubt himself, worrying that he won’t remember how to get back to Moses’s. Having predicted this outcome, though, Moses follows Galahad and appears just when the young man begins to fret. Thankful for his new friend’s guidance, Galahad admits to needing Moses’s assistance, and the men go together to the employment office, which the narrator describes as “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.” As Moses and Galahad wait in line, Moses explains that many immigrants choose to draw on government assistance as their only income—something he himself scorns because he believes it “mudd[ies] the water” for other immigrants who merely want to support themselves with honest jobs. Galahad agrees with this outlook, and decides to not subsist solely on welfare.

At this point, the narrator describes a Nigerian immigrant called Captain, a man Moses has known since his first days in London. Captain—known as Cap—originally came to England to study law, but soon became consumed by life in the city, spending all his father’s money on “woman and cigarette.” As a result, his father eventually stopped sending money, and so Cap started borrowing from his friends and lovers. When Cap doesn’t have anywhere to stay, he endears himself to white women, moves in with them, and spends their money—all the while courting other women. To illustrate Cap’s tendency to take advantage of people’s kindness, the narrator tells a story about a time when he simultaneously dated an Austrian woman and a German woman, both of whom helped him stay afloat financially. At one point, Cap borrowed eight pounds from the German woman, and when she finally came after him to recoup the money, he stole a watch from his English girlfriend, took it to the pawn shop, and sold it for money.

Having provided a brief character study of the wily Cap, the narrator explains that Galahad meets many interesting people during his first days in London. One such person is Bart, a light-skinned black immigrant who tries to convince people he’s Latino and avoids lending money to friends at all costs. Bart works in a “clerical job” and holds onto it as if it were gold, not wanting to have to work in a factory. He also worries about the fact that so many new immigrants are coming to London, fearing they’ll “make things hard in Brit’n” for him. In keeping with this fear, he also doesn’t like to be seen with people who look “too black.” When he falls in love with a white woman named Beatrice, he decides to ask for her hand in marriage, but is shouted out of the house upon meeting her father. Nonetheless, they keep dating until one day Beatrice disappears. Worried he’ll never be able to date a white woman again, Bart scours the city looking for her, always asking his friends if they’ve seen her, and even deciding to work as a doorman at a nightclub she frequents in the hopes of spotting her.

One night, while working with Lewis—Tolroy’s relative—Moses decides to have a little fun with him, telling him that women often sleep with other men while their husbands are off working the nightshift. Deeply worried, Lewis tells his boss he has a headache and rushes home, where he beats Agnes even though she’s alone. Unfortunately, this doesn’t settle the matter, and he continues to physically abuse her and accuse her of adultery until she finally leaves him, and even Tanty won’t tell him where she’s gone.

Continuing in this episodic, character-oriented manner of storytelling, the narrator considers the ways in which London has accommodated immigrants, noting that racism exists alongside a certain sense of entrepreneurship and tokenization, which is made evident by the white people who open businesses that cater directly to the immigrant population. One such establishment is a suit store that treats the black community with particular kindness, encouraging each customer to tell his friends to frequent the shop, where they’ll be offered complimentary cigars. Similarly, a certain grocer stocks his store with the staples of West Indian cuisine, which are otherwise impossible to find in London. Tanty greatly appreciates this and she visits the shop on a regular basis. Indeed, the grocery store falls within the small boundaries of the city in which Tanty feels comfortable. The narrator notes that the old woman lives a small-town life in the enormous city, never venturing beyond her immediate neighborhood. Nonetheless, she has learned the ins and outs of public transportation and speaks knowledgably with her visitors about which line they took to reach her home. One day, she finally journeys outside the small radius of her neighborhood when Tolory’s mother accidentally takes the cupboard key with her to work, forcing Tanty to take not only the underground train, but also a double-decker bus. “Now nobody could tell she that she ain’t travel by bus or tube in London,” the narrator remarks.

As Galahad spends more time in London, he becomes enamored of the city’s beauty and its intoxicating, addictive qualities. He loves going to Piccadilly Circus and looking at the lights. While walking the streets dressed in his finest clothes one day—enjoying the city and the feeling of existing within it—he says “good evening” to a white woman and her child, and the child yells, “Mummy, look at that black man!” The mother quickly replies, “You mustn’t say that, dear!” Nonetheless, Galahad stoops and gives the child a kindhearted pat on the cheek, but the child shrinks away and cries. “What a sweet child!” he continues. “What’s your name?” Uncomfortable with his closeness, the mother slowly backs away. The next day, Galahad looks at his own hand and reflects that the color of his skin causes all his troubles.

In the last third of the novel, Selvon explores further the ways in which black and white people interact in London. This dynamic often manifests itself in the romantic and sexual relationships the narrator describes. In a stream-of-consciousness sentence that runs for nine pages, the narrator gives an account of Hyde Park in the summertime, where white and black people alike congregate to find sexual partners. One summer day, Moses is approached by a white man in the park. “You are just the man I am looking for,” the stranger says, and takes Moses to a blonde woman and offers Moses money to “go with the woman” while he watches—a proposition to which Moses agrees. This kind of rendezvous often take place in the park during the summer, and it is perhaps for this reason that the narrator—along with Moses—romanticizes summertime in London. In fact, the summertime is so appealing, it seems, that people like Moses are willing to endure grueling winters with almost no heat and very little food, constantly questioning whether they should return to their home countries, where life is warmer and easier. The narrator concludes the text reflecting that people put up with the difficulties of life in London for its fleeting joys, and to be able to say that they lived at the center of the world.