Many of the immigrants in The Lonely Londoners are eager to climb London’s socioeconomic ladder. However, they’re rarely given the chance to do so, since the best job opportunities go to white Londoners rather than to West Indian workers. Moses points out that all of the city’s “soft clerical jobs” are given to white people, leaving only blue-collar jobs for black people. This harsh reality creates little incentive for black immigrants to look for work, since it’s just as easy to subsist solely on welfare checks, abusing the government’s assistance and, as Moses puts it, “muddy[ing] the water” for fellow immigrants who are otherwise working hard to establish themselves in England as respectable workers. Perhaps most disheartening is the fact that toiling as an honest laborer doesn’t seem to guarantee that an immigrant will become upwardly mobile. Indeed, after ten years of hard work, Moses has little to show for his time in England, whereas others (including those who draw their entire income from government assistance) have saved up large amounts of money. In this way, British society underhandedly communicates to immigrants that the only way they can survive in London is by accepting aid, essentially suggesting that genuine socioeconomic advancement is impossible and thus not even worth pursuing.
Moses and Galahad are determined to earn money by committing themselves to whatever jobs they can secure—not by accepting government handouts. This is because they’re afraid, as black people and as immigrants, to be tarnished by racist stereotypes about lazy immigrants and people of color. When Galahad first arrives in London, he remarks to Moses that he’s heard several other immigrants talking about the possibility of living solely off of government assistance. When Moses asks if Galahad plans to do this himself, the young man replies, “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.” By saying this, Galahad indicates that he wants to establish himself in this foreign environment as a respectable worker with integrity, not as somebody who will immediately “ant[s] on the State” just because it’s an option. In other words, he wants to prove that he belongs in England, that he’s a hard worker and not somebody hoping to scam white society into supporting him financially—a fear white Britons are known to harbor, and one that leads them to dismiss or undermine black immigrants for even the smallest perceived failing. Moses is glad to hear that Galahad feels this way, saying, “I wish it had plenty other fellars like you, […] but a lot of parasites muddy the water for the boys, and these days when one [black man] do something wrong, they crying down the lot.” Although this statement correctly acknowledges the unfortunate fact that white Britons make broad generalizations about the entire immigrant community based on a handful of people setting bad examples, Moses’s comments also seem to indicate a belief that an immigrant can move up in society by working hard and beating other people’s low expectations—a sentiment that is, depressingly, not often true.
Despite Moses’s dignity in his resolve to work instead of “liv[ing] on the dole,” he finds himself discouraged by London’s bleak economic prospects. After a decade of working hard, he hasn’t attained anything close to upward mobility, and yet he can’t bring himself to leave London to return to Trinidad, where life is easier but there are even fewer economic opportunities. “But it reach a stage,” the narrator remarks, “and [Moses] know it reach that stage, where he get so accustom to the pattern that he can’t do anything about it. Sure, I could do something about it, he tell himself, but he never do anything.” What’s keeping Moses from going back to Trinidad, then, is the mere idea of upward mobility, even as it continually proves unattainable. Although he’s not having any success in London, to leave England would be to admit defeat, forever giving up the promise of advancement. As such, Moses’s belief in the promise of upward mobility, paradoxically, leads to stasis, as Moses finds himself trapped in a perpetual cycle of hope and disappointment.
Despite not following this path himself, Moses advises the young Galahad to return to Trinidad immediately upon his arrival in London, since he knows the truth that upward mobility is bound to remain a dream for the vast majority of West Indian immigrants. Looking back at his own experience, Moses feels confident that it would have been better to have simply stayed in Trinidad rather than trying futilely for years to succeed in London. Of course, he notes that Galahad will never heed this advice, and he’s right—especially considering the fact that Galahad is named after Sir Galahad, a figure in Arthurian legend whose life was defined by a long quest to find the Holy Grail. In this way, Selvon implies that Galahad is a man determined to find something elusive that will provide happiness and sustenance (two things the Holy Grail represents in Arthurian literature). Of course, the jaded Moses knows that this eager mentality won’t help his friend succeed, a notion made depressingly clear by the fact that even people living on welfare seem to lead more prosperous lives than people trying to make an honest living, about which the narrator writes: “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.” Thus, the great irony of the life of Galahad—and even the more jaded Moses—is that their optimism as seekers of a better lot keeps them trapped in a contest for upward mobility that they are likely never to achieve.
Upward Mobility ThemeTracker
Upward Mobility Quotes in The Lonely Londoners
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 ain’t have no place in the world that exactly like 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. Is a kind of place where hate and disgust and avarice and malice and sympathy and sorrow and pity all mix up. Is a place where everyone is your enemy and your friend. Even when you go to draw a little national assistance it don’t be so bad, because when you reach that stage is because you touch bottom. But in the world today, a job is all the security a man have. A job mean place to sleep, food to eat, cigarette to smoke. And even though it have the Welfare State in the background, when a man out of work he like a fish out of water gasping for breath. It have some men, if they lose their job it like the world end, and when two-three weeks go by and they still ain’t working, they get so desperate they would do anything.
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.
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.
The cruder you are the more the girls like you you can’t put on any English accent for them or play ladeda or tell them you studying medicine in Oxford or try to be polite and civilize they don’t want that sort of thing at all they want you to live up to the films and stories they hear about black people living primitive in the jungles of the world that is why you will see so many of them African fellars in the city with their hair high up on the head like they ain’t had a trim for years and with scar on their face and a ferocious expression going about with some real sharp chicks the cruder you are the more they like you[…].
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.