“I think I can say without a trace of modesty that I was the first Caribbean writer to explore and employ dialect in a full-length novel where it was used in both narrative and dialogue” – Sam Selvon

The Lonely Londoners, Sam Selvon’s most famous novel, was published in 1956, and was probably the first novel to be inspired by the immigrant experience of the so-called Windrush generation. Given the Windrush scandal of 2018 in the UK, this book seemed a timely and pertinent read.

Selvon was born into a middle-class family in Trinidad and Tobago to an Indian father and an Indian-Scottish mother. He served in the Trinidadian Navy and then worked in publishing, before moving to England in 1950, out of a sense of adventure. He stayed in England until the late 1970s, before moving to Canada, and finally returning to Trinidad, where he died.

On his arrival in England, according to the writer Sukhdev Sandhu, Selvon became more “aware of the richness and diversity of Caribbean speech”. The Lonely Londoners is written in Caribbean dialect, which led contemporaneous critics to dismiss it as “an amusing social documentary of West Indian manners”, according to the writer Susheila Nasta. Now it has safely achieved the status of a classic, and is viewed as a groundbreaking exemplar of Caribbean immigrant writing.

The Lonely Londoners’ distinctive narrative voice is closely entwined with the voices of the Caribbean characters who are making their way in London, which, however familiar it might be (and I have lived in London for nearly 30 years), is made strange to the reader, like “another planet”.

The book’s main characters are overwhelmingly male, and their attitude to women can seem somewhat challenging in the post-#metoo era. However, since the majority of West Indian immigrants in the 1950s were male (husbands might bring their family over later, once they were more settled), it makes sense that the book is written from an overwhelmingly male perspective, and that is reflects the mores of the time.

The varied and diverse characters – from, for example, Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados and Nigeria – are related in a series of vignettes, bound together by their common experiences and their connection to the central figure, Moses. Moses is an established member of the migrant community, and an – albeit rather reluctant – source of support and advice for new arrivals.

Overall, this is a short, lyrical, often moving book about the disillusionment of the 1950s Caribbean migrant experience, encounters with endemic racism, a pervasive sense of displacement, and nostalgia for a lost past, shot through with humour.

“Under the kiff-kiff laughter, behind the ballad and the episode, the what-happening, the summer-is-hearts, he could see a great aimlessness, a great restless, swaying movement that leaving you standing in the same spot. As if a forlorn shadow of doom fall on all the spades in the country.”

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