In The Lonely Londoners, Selvon brings to light the emotional toll the process of immigration can take on a person. In particular, he examines the vulnerabilities characters like Moses experience even after they’ve lived in England for many years. Although Moses has acclimated to life in London, he remains deeply affected by memories of Trinidad, even fantasizing about returning one day. And even though Moses often avoids reminiscing about Trinidad with his friends—a defensive tactic he employs so that he can better focus on the present—he still allows a small community of expatriates to gather in his apartment every Sunday “for a oldtalk.” In this way, Selvon emphasizes the sustaining qualities of tight-knit immigrant communities, advocating for the necessity of cohesive groups in otherwise isolating environments like London in the 1950s.
At the beginning of the book, a strong and disarming sense of nostalgia comes over Moses when he visits Waterloo Station to meet Galahad for the first time and is overwhelmed by memories of his own arrival in the very same station. In this moment, Waterloo’s embodiment of “arrival and departure” causes him to experience a swell of emotion so intense that he has to sit down. Spotlighting the extent to which Moses is deeply affected by watching “people crying goodbye and kissing welcome,” Selvon shows that the idea of transition invites strong emotions for even the most seasoned immigrant, emotions that Moses has clearly repressed until this moment. To get by in London, it seems, he has ignored—or has tried to forget—the memory of home, and of what it felt like to first come to England.
Unlike many of his fellow immigrants, Moses often tries to fight off the nostalgia he feels for his home country and its way of life. He seems to think that full integration into English life means rejecting nostalgia, instead concentrating on the present circumstances even if doing so means acknowledging the harsh realities of immigrant life in London. The narrator takes note of this mentality during a conversation between Moses and Galahad in which, having eaten a good meal of pigeon and rice, the two men speak nostalgically about Trinidad, sharing funny stories about people they both know. After some time, while Galahad is in the middle of a hearty laugh, Moses suddenly becomes sober, feeling guilty and thinking “it not right” to be enjoying himself so much “in these hard times.” In this moment, Moses becomes hyperaware of the juxtaposition between his happy memories and his currently dismal circumstances. To go on laughing with Galahad about stories from their old lives in Trinidad would be to irresponsibly ignore the dire and depressing situation they’re both in. After all, they’ve just cooked a pigeon Galahad caught in the park because they’re so hungry. The fact that Moses feels “guilty” about indulging fond memories indicates that he feels a responsibility to be fully present in his life and striving to make it better.
Despite Moses’ aversion to nostalgia, he ultimately allows himself to accept that sometimes nostalgia—especially when it’s shared with others—has the power to help him thrive in London. In a conversation with Galahad, he remarks, “This is a lonely miserable city, if it was that we didn’t get together now and then to talk about things back home, we would suffer like hell.” Sharing good memories with friends, then, can make London feel less lonely and make its brutal realities easier to bear. Although Moses is often hesitant to speak “oldtalk” with his friends because he feels that nostalgia doesn’t do anything to make his life better, he also relies on the camaraderie these conversations provide, as made clear by his assertion that he would “suffer like hell” if he didn’t “get together now and then to talk about things back home” with his friends. In this way, Selvon underlines the value of maintaining tight-knit immigrant communities, groups of fellow countrymen who can help sustain each other in a country that otherwise lacks a sense of community and support. Indeed, in response to the lonely isolation of immigrant life, Moses comes together with his friends and listens to their stories, “and he feel[s] a great compassion for every one of them, as if he[has] live[d] each of their lives.”
Immigration and Community ThemeTracker
Immigration and Community Quotes in The Lonely Londoners
And this sort of thing was happening at a time when the English people starting to make rab about how too much West Indians coming to the country: this was a time, when any corner you turn, is ten to one you bound to bounce up a spade. In fact, the boys all over London, it ain’t have a place where you wouldn’t find them, and big discussion going on in Parliament about the situation, though the old Brit’n too diplomatic to clamp down on the boys or to do anything drastic like stop them from coming to the Mother Country. But big headlines in the papers every day, and whatever the newspaper and the radio say in this country, that is the people Bible. Like one time when newspapers say that the West Indians think that the streets of London paved with gold a Jamaican fellar went to the income tax office to find out something and first thing the clerk tell him is, “You people think the streets of London are paved with gold?”
For the old Waterloo is a place of arrival and departure, is a place where you see people crying goodbye and kissing welcome, and he hardly have time to sit down on a bench before this feeling of nostalgia hit him and he was surprise. It have some fellars who in Brit’n long, and yet they can’t get away from the habit of going Waterloo whenever a boat-train coming in with passengers from the West Indies. They like to see the familiar faces, they like to watch their countrymen coming off the train, and sometimes they might spot somebody they know[…].
But Moses, he never in this sort of slackness: the thought never occur to him to go to Waterloo just to see who coming up from the West Indies. Still, the station is that sort of place where you have a soft feeling. It was here that Moses did land when he come to London[…]. Perhaps he was thinking is time to go back to the tropics, that’s why he feeling sort of lonely and miserable.
It ain’t have no s— over here like “both of we is Trinidadians and we must help out one another.” You going to meet a lot of fellars from home who don’t even want to talk to you, because they have matters on the mind. So the sooner you get settled the better for you. London not like Port of Spain. Don’t ask plenty questions, and you will find out a lot. I don’t usually talk to fellars like this, but I take a fancy for you, my blood take you.
It have a kind of fellar who does never like people to think that they unaccustomed to anything, or that they are strangers in a place, or that they don’t know where they going. They would never ask you how to get to Linden Gardens or if number 49 does go down High Street Ken. From the very beginning they out to give you the impression that they hep, that they on the ball, that nobody could tie them up.
It have some men in this world, they don’t do nothing at all, and you feel that they would dead from starvation, but day after day you meeting them and they looking hale, they laughing and they talking as if they have a million dollars, and in truth it look as if they would not only live longer than you but they would dead happier.
When Bart leave the hostel he get a clerical job and he hold on to it like if is gold, for he frighten if he have to go and work in factory—that is not for him at all. Many nights he think about how so many West Indians coming, and it give him more fear than it give the Englishman, for Bart frighten if they make things hard in Brit’n. If a fellar too black, Bart not companying him much, and he don’t like to be found in the company of the boys, he always have an embarrass air when he with them in public, he does look around as much as to say: “I here with these boys, but I not one of them, look at the colour of my skin.”
But a few door slam in Bart face, a few English people give him the old diplomacy, and Bart boil down and come like one of the boys.
It have people living in London who don’t know what happening in the room next to them, far more the street, or how other people living. London is a place like that. It divide up in little worlds, and you stay in the world you belong to and you don’t know anything about what happening in the other ones except what you read in the papers. Them rich people who does live in Belgravia and Knightsbridge and up in Hampstead and them other plush places, they would never believe what it like in a grim place like Harrow Road or Notting Hill. Them people who have car, who going to theatre and ballet in the West End, who attending premiere with the royal family, they don’t know nothing about hustling two pound of brussel sprout and half-pound potato, or queuing up for fish and chips in the smog. People don’t talk about things like that again, they come to kind of accept that is so the world is, that it bound to have rich and poor.
Jesus Christ, when he say “Charing Cross,” when he realize that is he, Sir Galahad, who going there, near that place that everybody in the world know about (it even have the name in the dictionary) he feel like a new man. It didn’t matter about the woman he going to meet, just to say he was going there made him feel big and important, and even if he was just going to coast a lime, to stand up and watch the white people, still, it would have been something.
Sometimes I look back on all the years I spend in Brit’n, […] and I surprise that so many years gone by. Looking at things in general life really hard for the boys in London. This is a lonely miserable city, if it was that we didn’t get together now and then to talk about things back home, we would suffer like hell. Here is not like home where you have friends all about. In the beginning you would think that is a good thing, that nobody minding your business, but after a while you want to get in company, you want to go to somebody house and eat a meal, you want to go on excursion to the sea, you want to go and play football and cricket. Nobody in London does really accept you. They tolerate you, yes, but you can’t go in their house and eat or sit down and talk. It ain’t have no sort of family life for us here.
In the grimness of the winter, with your hand plying space like a blind man’s stick in the yellow fog, with ice on the ground and a coldness defying all effort to keep warm, the boys coming and going, working, eating, sleeping, going about the vast metropolis like veteran Londoners.