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on 17 September 2006
First published in 1956, Trinidadian born, Sam Selvon, began his London based fictions with a short novel called The Lonely Londoners. It's set during a time when many West Indians were emigrating from a life of sunshine to the British Isles, believing, like many emigrants, that the streets were paved with gold. Of course, this is London we're talking about; there's no gold.

The book, for the most part follows the fortunes of Moses Aloetta, a Trinidadian who has lived in London for years, as his life meets tangentially with others. His time is spent between his job, in which he is paid a meagre wage, and heading on down to Waterloo to meet the latest influx of West Indians.

There all manner of characters coming to London, and not only from the West Indies. Shiftless ladies' man Cap, for example, is Nigerian. But the majority are coming from Trinidad and Jamaica. Local prejudice tends to label all the black immigrants as being Jamaican, which rankles Moses. Other characters include Henry Oliver (nicknamed Sir Galahad), a young kid looking to start over in London; Tolroy, who on writing home to say he gets paid five pounds a week, wasn't intending the letter to be an invitation for his whole family to join him; Five Past Twelve, an ex-soldier always on the scrounge; Big City, who has always been captivated by urban living yet can't quite integrate; and Harris, a man who has found himself in London yet is still tied to the burgeoning black community.

The novel follows their fortunes as they come to Moses for help, as they crash in on each others' lives, and flirt with the white women who see them as a novelty; all the time wondering if they will ever return home. Through all this, though, there's a sense of unease. For the native Londoners there are too many black people coming for work; the immigrants also share this resentment, in that the other immigrants are seen as competition for what little jobs are available. Most jobs, when the person is discovered to be black, tend to offer lower wages too.

What makes The Lonely Londoners special is the narrative. Rather than a straightforward English narrative, Selvon has opted for the third person narrator to tell the tale in creolised English, which give the effect of bringing the reader into the immigrant community:

"When he get to Waterloo he hop off and went in the station, and right away in that big station he had a feeling of homesickness that he never felt in the nine-ten years he in this country. 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."

Selvon's characterisation works well with this creolised style but it's more than a tragi-comedy of the life in fifties London as immigrants try to find work and settle. Life is hard, the people reduced to living in small rooms. Jobs are scarce. And there is much racism coming from the local people and businesses, which Galahad struggles to understand when, still hoping for a job, he says:

"'The Pole who have that restaurant, he ain't have no more right in this country than we. In fact we is British subjects, and he is a foreigner.'"

Galahad takes this further when he addresses the colour Black itself:

"Why the hell you can't be blue, or red or gren, if you can't be white? You know is you that cause a lot of misery in the world. Is not me, you know, is you! I ain't do anything to infuriate the people and them, is you! Look at you, you so black and innocent, and this time you causing misery all over the world."

The Loneley Londoners doesn't follow a conventional storyline, opting instead to collect a bundle of stories about its characters adapting to life in London, using Moses as their backbone. This method actually gives the story more direction than one would expect and also blesses it, for its size, with an epic feel.

For all its sense of community, The Lonely Londoners, as you would expect from title, isn't a bunch of laughs. Sure, there's much comedy to be had, but an undercurrent of sadness runs throughout. Employment, racism, immigration, relationships, personal ambition, and nationality all come under Selvon's spotlight in a book that is anything but black and white.
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on 26 March 2012
The reading experience of this tragi-comedy book the lonely Londoner would be laughing with tears in grief. Set in 1956 Post war Britain, the booming economy draw many people from its former colonies come to Britain with dreams, fantasy that 'the street paved with Gold.' While present, distinct from the past, we see policies aiming at reducing flows of migrants etc and getting into UK esp for work is extremely hard. As a Chinese in Britain nowadays, I would say still I feel myself really attached to the book. Certainly, I'm quite different from the people in this book, mainly for that I'm a student not go to UK for work. But many people I know from Chinese community in the UK including myself also experience the same problem of integration, racism , loneliness, homesickness etc. The feelings stay the same across the race, across the time. During my reading, at certain points I could feel that it is exactly depicting our Chinese group!For example, people who are trying hard to mix with English people, but sometimes it is too hard so we give up and only end up sticking closely with our own people; people who takes pride in making boy/girl friends with white person; people who acts more English even than the native English people would do,and the certain type of 'resetaurant' jobs typically for us as the heavy manual work for West Indies etc.

For , I think the reason that isolate Chinese migrants from other groups of people is that language barrier and too reserved personality. People there don't really have an adequate sense of happiness mainly due to the loneliness, which is the main theme in the book.

But a lot of Chinese migrants too have been trapped in this very embarrassing situation that is 'neither forward or backward' . Because either way it won't lead to happiness if you think too hard about it, which just as Moses does.

Maybe in the end, you can't think too much, life is a trade-off ,you have already seen London, already seen so many different things and got prospects, so you must sacrifice other things for that. Those foreignness draw you here and those foreignness also make you suffer.
'....The boy only laughing because they afraid to cry, they only laughing because to think so much about everything would be a big calamity- like how he here now, the thoughts so heavy like he unable to move his body.

What a sombre sentence! I would think only people who really experience those kind of loneliness and sense of inferiority can be able to appreciate the book. But I don't think that are whom the book really addresses to, it brings the sufferings of ethnic ,working class groups into public view, hoping more could feel it .
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on 8 September 2010
As `The Lonely Londoners' opens we meet Moses Aloetta who is on his way to meeting a group of people who have newly arrived in the city from the West Indies. Moses having lived in London for quite some time is an initially rather begrudging welcoming committee. This is the 1950s a period after the war when many people from many countries came to the UK to find their fortune. While a small amount of them did (and these were very few and far between) most people however ended up working for anything they could get and Moses in his heart of heart is homesick. He is there to meet Henry `Sir Galahad' Oliver and through these two characters and people they know we get snippets of peoples lives.

Selvon does something for me with this book which I both loved and found rather difficult all at once and I am not talking about the fact its written in a creolized voice, that actually helped the book come more alive for me. No, the difficult things is there is no exact narrative be it first person, second or third. It flits from scene to scene and person to person which whilst creating an incredible sense of London and its atmosphere at the time is actually rather confusing and disorientating. I couldn't get a grip on the characters emotionally even though characters such as the gutsy Tanty (who is one of the only women in the book and doesn't get mentioned much, the book to me really lost something on not having one main female voice or outlook) and Moses himself made the book really interesting in parts. I never became attached to any of them though and so, and this might make me sound callous, I ended up not caring. I also hated the misogynistic attitude of some of the characters like Cap, who seemed to somehow sleep with every woman be they black or white and treat them like garbage.

However I don't believe characters you don't like should put you off a book and it was more the alienating movement from person to person. I do have to reiterate that I have read few books that evoke London and hardly any which give such a sense of time and place so simply - no over description at all. This I think really saved the book for me. Selvon builds the city at that time in such a way that it makes the book worth the read for that alone. He also writes a marvellous section of summertime London when the smog lifts in a stream of conscious one sentence long over five pages which isn't hard to read which he should be highly commended for. There is no question he is a great writer I just wish I had felt a little more involved rather than at a distance in a whirl of people and thoughts. Maybe that's the intention though?
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VINE VOICEon 13 October 2011
I lived in Bayswater for nearly seven years and I got to know the 'hood, so the characters bearings are my old bearings: Edgware Road, Westbourne Grove and Queensway. This book was recommended to me, and I found it enchanting. It describes the trials of West Indian (and other) immigrants as they try to 'stay alive' in the big cold, smoggy city. The characters are drawn beautifully with anecdotes. 'This is London, this is life oh lord, to walk like a king with money in your pocket, not a worry in the world' - the patois - a man is a 'test' - gives the narrative a relaxed and humorous feel. It reminds me of New York stories of the immigrants rising from nothing. It's surprising it's never been made into a film.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 31 October 2015
Any large city can be desperately lonely for someone whose roots are elsewhere and who is not part of a smaller community within the urban monster. My overriding impression from this book is not so much one of loneliness as immense spirit often in the face of poverty and prejudice. I enjoyed this book enormously and laughed aloud frequently at the antics and verve of Cap, Tanty and the others.

The writing, in an almost free association patois, brings us so much closer to the thoughts and feelings of the participants. I knew London when newsagents’ windows exhibited openly racist advertisements and it is hardly surprising that these new immigrants hovered in their attitudes between respect and emulation and fear and a resourcefulness born from their minority situation. Anyone unfamiliar with London will be much more aware after reading Sam Selvon’s account of the wanderings of his cast in this account. In some ways the tightly knit bonds between these newcomers seems to reduce the metropolis to a village. I find the introduction rather unnecessarily solemn. For me the book is far more of a celebration than a lament and like Cap and Galahad, whatever vicissitudes of fortune come their way, they bounce back with energetic resilience.
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on 24 March 2010
His books are written with a love for his motherland and describe the struggle it took for the boat trains of newcomers to adapt to their new lives in London where the sun never shines, the natives are rude and the Buckingham Palace style house he was hoping for wasn't exactly the ticket. They wonder why they ever left their colourful country for the city that was supposed to be paved in gold and that promised a beautiful future.

His writing style is lively and his descriptions could only come from a Caribbean tongue. His stories send you up and down in belly fits and other times raw notes of total despair. The character descriptions he builds are so completely original and fill you with a warm heartedness for your fellow beings.

He's up there in my top ten favourite writers! Read it!
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on 16 September 2011
This is a beautiful book - well worth reading no matter where you are from. As a Canadian living in London in 2011, I can really relate to so much in this book - it's one of the best books I have read, and I've read a few!
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on 28 July 2010
Bittersweet comedy about West Indian immigrants to 1950s London that perfectly captures the zeitgeist.

There are around 600,000 Afro-Caribbeans living in the UK, mostly in London and mostly descended from immigrants who arrived in the 1950s. This is an inspired account of what life was like for those immigrants and part of a chronicle of how much has changed in the UK over the past 60 years.

The story, which is very slight, is told as a series of anecdotes, many only a few sentences long, about Moses Aloetta and his fellow immigrants from the West Indies into 1950s London. Selvon marvellously realises the thought and speech patterns of his subjects conveying the excitement and strangeness of moving to a cold and potentially lonely city from a warm and neighbourly group of islands.

His cast of characters could be out of Dickens, the dissolute survivor Cap, Harris the proto Englishman, Sir Galahad, the newbie and Tanty and Grandma who have descended on Tolroy uninvited. Moses is the wise old bird who knows everyone and everything.

Although the lowest of the low, discriminated against in jobs and housing and having very little money, the immigrants pulse with life, energy and comradeship. London becomes their playground and they enjoy it like children - the great roundabout of Piccadilly Circus, and swinging through the glory of the parks in summer for example. London doesn't intimidate them or beat them down with it's size but rather they respond to it as if were a person, a relative such as a big sister to be loved and abused at the same time.

The book describes a variety of surprising interactions between the immigrants and fellow Londoners, including many and varied sexual encounters. These touch on but don't dwell on prejudice and instead relate more to strangeness and novelty so that the native white Londoners see the immigrants as a novelty to be explored and vice versa.

The work is loaded with comic episodes, or rather they are told in a comedic manner even when they relate to periods of difficulty and there is a real feel good sense to the novel. The sadness that is rippled through it and guides the title relates to the longing to be back in the West Indies and the good life coupled with the economic understanding that, like the London the immigrants have helped create, there is no going back.
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on 14 April 2016
Considering that this was written in the 1950s, the style of prose is surprisingly undated due, in part, to Selvon's use of dialect throughout the narrative. For this reason, it's an easy read once you get into the rhythm of the language. Each character is introduced through the use of an anecdote and Selvon weaves humour and pathos into each one. All in all, an unusual read and a subtle reflection of immigrant life.
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on 28 June 1999
The author puts into words, the feelings, lives and dreams of thousands of 1960's arrivals to the UK. This is one of the most amusing and satisfying books I have ever read.
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