Plot Summary and Analysis of The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon
The Lonely Londoners tells the story of black immigrants arriving in Great Britain after World War II, mainly from the West Indies. Throughout the novel, they are referred to as ‘boys’ or ‘spades’.
List of Characters
Moses – an old veteran in London. He helps new immigrants out.
Henry Oliver (Sir Galahad) – he is a new immigrant in Great Britain. He is picked up by Moses from Waterloo.
Tolroy – Moses’s friend from Jamaica. Moses helped him get his first job.
Tanty Bessy – Tolroy’s aunt who arrives unexpectedly in Britain.
Agnes – Lewis’s wife, part of Tolroy’s family.
Lewis – Agnes’s husband.
Ma – Tolroy’s mother.
Captain (Cap) – a Nigerian immigrant, who spends money on women instead of on studies.
Daniel – one of the boys, he always buy women drinks.
Bartholomew (Bart) – one of the boys, he spends his time looking for his lost girlfriend.
Beatrice – Bart’s ex-girlfriend.
Daisy – Galahad’s first date.
Big City – one of the boys, he comes from an orphanage in Trinidad.
Five Past Twelve – one of the boys, comes from Barbados.
Harris – a black guy who mimics the English.
Sir Galahad Arrives
One winter evening, Moses goes to Waterloo station to pick up a fellow countryman, who is just arriving in Great Britain. Moses thinks about how West Indians always send newcomers to him for help with jobs and accommodation.
When Moses arrives at Waterloo, he spots his Jamaican friend, Tolroy. Tolroy is waiting to pick up his mother. The two talk until the boat-train arrives.
A Jamaican who owns a street of houses in Brixton often comes to Waterloo to offer rooms at extortionate prices to his fellow expats. Moses watches as he is recruiting new immigrants.
Moses, a Trinidadian, is asked about the situation in Jamaica by a reporter. Moses doesn’t know anything about Jamaica, but makes up a story about a disastrous hurricane. The reporter rushes off when Moses starts telling him why the situation in Britain is bad for black immigrants.
Contrary to Tolroy’s expectations (he was just waiting for his mother), his entire family arrive: Tanty Bessy, Ma, Lewis, Agnes, and two children. Tolroy starts arguing with them. The same reporter who approached Moses comes up to them and interviews Tanty. He asks for a photo of Tanty, but she insists that the reporter has to photograph the entire family. The next day, the picture appears in the papers with the following caption: ‘Now, Jamaican Families Come to Britain’.
Meanwhile, Moses still waits for Henry Oliver. Henry is the last to get off the train, as he fell asleep during the journey. Henry Oliver is wearing clothes that are too light for English weather. Moses is surprised that Henry isn’t cold and doesn’t have any luggage. Moses dubs him Sir Galahad; this name will stick with him for the rest of the novel.
Moses takes Galahad to his tiny room in Bayswater. Moses prepares some food and tells Galahad that he should quickly find a job and his own place. Moses warns Galahad that everyone is on their own in London – there is little solidarity between West Indians. Then, Galahad tells anecdotes from back home.
In the morning, Moses offers his help with finding a job for Galahad, but the latter refuses. Moses tells Galahad that it is difficult for black immigrants to find work and that if one ‘spade’ does something wrong, it reflects badly on the whole community.
Galahad leaves Moses’s flat to look for a job. When he watches people going about their business, he suddenly becomes terrified, as he realises that he has no safety net here. A policeman instructs Galahad how to get to the employment exchange office. Galahad is still in a panic when he sees Moses coming towards him to help him.
Moses and Galahad arrive at the Ministry of Labour. Galahad tells the clerk that he is an electrician. The clerk says that they have no electrician jobs at the moment and that Galahad should register for his insurance card in the next building. Galahad gets his unemployment card.
When Moses first arrived in London he stayed at a cheap hostel with other ‘boys’. There was one Nigerian, Captain (Cap), who wasted all the money that his parents had given him for studying. Cap has only one outfit, which he washes daily. Cap uses his gentlemanly manners and an air of innocence to wangle food, accommodation, and money out of people. Cap never stays long in any job he can get. If he ever has any money, it passes through his hands extremely quickly (mainly on women).
Cap is thrown out of the hostel, as he doesn’t pay for his accommodation. He goes to a different hostel, lying that his student allowance should arrive any day. After two weeks, Cap needs to vacate the room again. Cap has done the same thing over and over again in virtually every hotel in the Water (Bayswater) and even beyond.
Cap goes out with an Austrian girl, who tries to convince him to find a stable job. One day, Cap wants to take up storekeeping work at a railway station. But when he arrives, it turns out that the pay is lower than promised, and the job consists in heavy physical work. Cap doesn’t take it.
The Austrian girl suggests that Cap work at the same factory as Moses. Cap lies that he got the job, but instead he has affairs with other women. After some time, Cap tells the Austrian that he quit the job, because it was too hard. Although Cap treats the Austrian girl badly, she stays with him, even pawning her personal belongings to get some money when things are tight.
One time, Cap is with two women at once. He borrows eight pounds from the German one and disappears. She sends the police after Cap, and since then, Cap is terrified of law enforcement. Cap pawns the wristwatch of the other woman (English) to pay off his debts with the first woman. The English woman starts going out with Daniel and tells him all about the wristwatch. Daniel manages to catch Cap, but the latter somehow weasels out of paying for the watch.
Although Moses doesn’t approve of Cap’s way of life, he is nevertheless the one who helps Cap the most when things get tough.
Cap marries a French girl. He tells her that he is going to get a position in the Nigerian government. The girl agrees to marry Cap, convinced that they are about to go to Nigeria. After the wedding ceremony, Cap gives his wife Daniel’s address and disappears. The French girl comes to Daniel’s house. Daniel leaves her to find Cap, who is sitting in a cafe he visits regularly. Cap goes back with Daniel to his. Cap borrows some money from Daniel, giving him to understand that he could have the French girl from time to time. Then, Cap takes the French girl to an expensive hotel room. They live on money that the French girl is getting from France. Cap goes on living as if he was still a bachelor has affairs with other women.
Bart is one of the ‘boys’ at the hostel. He has light skin, and so he sometimes says that he is from South America. Bart hates lending money and he always says upfront that he is broke. No-one ever tries to borrow money from him apart from Cap in the early days. This is the first and last time that Bart has even lent money to anyone.
Bart gets a clerical job, which is extremely rare for black immigrants. Bart doesn’t want to be associated with the boys in public, as he’s afraid of losing his job. He lives between the white and black world; although he has a better position than his countrymen, he also meets with racism.
When things get tough, Bart trains himself to live on tea for weeks and eats Moses’s food. Like Cap, Bart constantly moves from place to place although he does pay rent.
One time, Bart falls seriously ill. Moses visits him. But although Bart is convinced that he is dying, he recovers in a short time.
Bart has an English girlfriend, Beatrice. The girl invites him over to her house to meet her parents. And although the mother is friendly, the father shows him the door, as he doesn’t want to have mixed race grandchildren. Despite that, Bart keeps going out with Beatrice, as he’s unable to find a different girl.
One day, Bart sees Beatrice talk to some guy in the queue. Later on, Bart asks her is she was talking to this guy, and the girl says no. Now Bart becomes paranoid that Beatrice regularly cheats on him. Beatrice disappears, and Bart spends most of his time looking for her all over London.
Tolroy’s family finally settle down. Lewis starts working at the same factory as Tolroy and Moses. Lewis is very gullible. He asks Moses a lot of silly questions, such as if guys come round to his house to have sex with his wife. Moses jokingly says that it is a regular thing in London, and Lewis becomes obsessively jealous about Agnes. He starts beating her up for no apparent reason.
Agnes keeps escaping to the Ma and Tanty’s house because of the beatings. Tanty tries to convince Agnes to leave Lewis for good. In the end, Agnes follows her advice.
Lewis can’t find his wife anywhere, so he reports her as missing to the police. Agnes charges him with assault. Lewis writes a letter to her, but Agnes never replies. In the end, nothing comes out of the lawsuit. Lewis learns from Moses how to live like a bachelor again.
Tanty doesn’t work; she takes care of the house instead. Tolroy frequently reproaches Tanty for coming over to Britain.
Tolroy’s family live near the Harrow Road, which is a working class area. This label usually means that it is full of immigrants. The houses are old and without hot water. London is divided into little impenetrable worlds for the rich and the poor. The Harrow Road is a tightly-knit community.
The grocery shop has many West Indian supplies. London has changed over the past few years to accommodate black immigrants. Tanty gets to know virtually everybody in the district. She forces the shopkeeper of the grocery shop to start selling on credit, which he’s never done before. Tanty lectures the shopkeeper on the importance of trust, and, indeed, everyone pays off their debts on Friday.
Tanty’s never ventured beyond her district, but she plans secretly to use public transport when the right opportunity arises.
Ma works as a kitchen porter. One day, Ma accidentally takes the key to the cupboard with food provisions with her. Tanty decides that this is a good excuse to venture out of the Harrow Road area. Tanty leaves the house and asks a policeman how to get to where Ma works. Tanty gets to Ma’s workplace by tube and comes back by bus.
Sir Galahad’s Ballad
When summer arrives in London, Galahad for the first time is cold in Britain. Galahad thinks that London is the centre of the world and uses the names of its landmarks with gusto.
Since Galahad got a job, he has bought a lot of posh clothes. One summer evening, when he walks around London, a little child points at Galahad and says that he’s a black man. Galahad stops and pats the child on the cheek, and the child bursts into tears. The mother quickly drags the child away.
Now Galahad is used to similar experiences, although he has spent some sleepless nights wondering why white people hate black people. Galahad speaks directly to his hand, blaming the colour black for all his problems.
Galahad walks to the Circus to meet his first date in London, Daisy. She is already waiting for him. Galahad takes Daisy to the cinema and restaurant. Then, he takes her back to his basement apartment in Bayswater. They drink tea and have sex.
Big City’s Ballad
Big City comes from an orphanage in Trinidad. He went to the army in Trinidad. He was dubbed ‘Big City’ because he is always talking about big cities. Big City is usually grumpy and rude until payday.
One day, Big City gets a car although no-one knows how. He cannot deal with English bureaucracy – he always comes to Moses for help with filling in forms. Moses also helps him with football pools, which Big City never learns to do on his own even after weeks and months. Big City talks with Moses about winning a lot of money; whereas Big City believes that one day he will become rich this way, Moses is more sceptical.
Big City never has a job but he has a lot of money. The boys suspect him of shady activities.
The boys like to come to Marble Arch to the Orator’s Corner to listen to speeches about the colour problem. One day, Big City and Moses egg Galahad on until Galahad agrees to say something in public to save his face. As Big City teases Galahad throughout, the latter becomes bashful and is unable to say anything coherent. From then on, Galahad swears revenge on Big City but in reality Galahad wouldn’t stand a chance in physical confrontation.
This bit is written in stream of consciousness style without any punctuation for several pages.
The world seems different in the summer; English people smile more and spend time in the park. The boys go to the park to have sex with women (most of them are prostitutes).
One summer evening, Moses takes a woman for a drink and then back to his. During sex, Moses gets scared, because the woman starts to moan and gasp as if something was wrong with her. Moses tries to make her feel better. Daniel comes round, and Moses tells him all about the woman. By the time Daniel comes into the room, the woman is fine. Moses gets rid of her.
There are all sorts of people in the park in the summer: rich and poor, black and white. One day, a car pulls over, and the driver invites Moses to his house. Then, the guy pretends to be asleep to give Moses a free hand with his girlfriend or wife. But Moses doesn’t do anything even when the guy offers him money.
Moses introduces Galahad to the park at night. Moses once picks up another girl. When he gets bored of her, he offers her to Cap. Moses tells the girl that Cap is the son of the Nigerian king and that they are going to be rich. But Cap leaves the girl in the street on some pretext and never comes back.
One night, a guy approaches Moses in the park and pays Moses to have sex with prostitutes, while he watches. This arrangement goes on for about a week until Moses gets tired.
Another night, Moses is picked up by an upper-class woman and taken to a fancy club in Knightsbridge. At the end, the people pay Moses five pounds.
One Jamaican guy is taken to a fancy flat full of art. The Jamaican asks questions about art, but the woman only wants sex. The woman calls the Jamaican a black bastard during sex (meaning it as a compliment), but he gets offended, smacks her, and leaves.
There is a guy from Barbados called Five Past Twelve. Someone tells him once that he’s ‘black like midnight’. Then, he adds: ‘No, you more like Five Past Twelve’. After the war, Five comes to England to find a job. He first works for RAF and then as a truck driver. Five always asks for money, likes fetes and women.
Harris is a black guy who speaks and behaves like a proper gentleman. Harris’s job is to organise little fetes in London. He throws one in St Pancras Halls. Harris stands in the door to exchange polite greetings with English guests and urge the boys to behave well. Harris lets the boys in without payment. He is on the lookout for Five, who is known to cause disturbance. Five indeed turns up with four of five white women.
Tolroy with his family also turn up. Tanty talks to Harris, reminiscing about the times when Harris used to be small boy in Jamaica. Tanty insists on having the first dance with Harris.
All the boys come to the fete: Big City, Galahad, Daniel, Cap, Bart, Moses. They talk, whereas Harris walks about, exchanging pleasantries with people. Harris asks one of his personal guests to dance. But when they start to dance, Tanty spots Harris and snatches him away from the girl. Tanty swings Harris about to a calypso song.
Meanwhile, Five is high on weed. He approaches Harris’s abandoned guest and asks her to dance. Galahad and Moses egg Big City on to approach another white woman. Big City accepts the challenge and wins the woman over. Moses tells Galahad that he’s never seen similar things (speaking about the boys dancing with white women). Moses and Galahad talks about weed. Moses says that white people always ask black people for weed, as if being black meant that they are drug dealers.
There is one winter that is particularly harsh for the boys. Galahad loses his work. Things are so bad that Galahad plans to catch a pigeon to eat it.
One morning, Galahad makes sure that there’s nobody in the park and makes a snatch at a pigeon. He starts to swing it in order to kill it swiftly. However, a woman walking her dog spots Galahad and threatens to call the police. Galahad puts the pigeon in his pocket and runs away.
Later on, Galahad brings the bird to Moses. Moses says that Galahad may get in trouble for catching pigeons, but they decide to eat it anyway.
After the meal, Galahad and Moses talk about getting work for Galahad, but things look rather grim. They also talk about home and poor working conditions in Britain. Moses says that his quality of life hasn’t improved since he first arrived in Britain ten years ago. Moses advises Galahad to save up money for a journey back to Trinidad, as life in London isn’t good for black immigrants.
Cap once stays in a top room in Dawson Place. There are lots of seagulls resting on a ledge by the roof. When Cap feels giddy from hunger, he decides to catch a seagull. He lures one of them with bread and, after a few abortive attempts, manages to get one bird inside the room. Cap continues to eat seagulls for as long as he lives in this room.
Nearly every Sunday morning, the boys come to Moses’s to talk. Every year Moses promises himself to go back to Trinidad but he never does. Moses realises that he is so accustomed to life in London that he’s probably never going to leave. Moses wonders if he could ever write a book and what it would be about.
Sam Selvon was an East Indian Trinidadian with a half-Scottish mother. He grew up in a multicultural world, learning about both Standard English classics and Trinidadian culture. Selvon based his novel partly on his own experiences in London; he lived in the city from 1950 to 1978. This period that was crucial for developing his own Caribbean voice in a British context. Selvon belongs to the Windrush generation, which marks the beginning of today’s multicultural society. After World War Two, Commonwealth subjects were invited to come to Britain to fill labour shortages.
Thanks to the 1948 Nationality Act, Commonwealth subjects were granted British passports and equal rights of residence. However, the reality of living in London as a black person was far from perfect. In 1958, racial disturbances were starting to erupt. The 1962 Immigration Act introduced a more hostile immigration policy.
The novel is written in the third person. The narration flows uninterruptedly in a series of loosely connected anecdotes. There are no chapters.
The Lonely Londoners fuses Standard English with the Caribbean vernacular. This results in a creolised voice narrating divergent migrant experiences.
A language which developed as a result of the fusion of two distinct languages.
The language is influenced by Trinidadian calypso – folk music known for its wit, political satire, and licentiousness.
Sam Selvon also uses Western literary traditions, such as stream of consciousness.
Stream of Consciousness
A literary device that purports to reflect the protagonist’s chain of thoughts without the mediation of the narrator. Most famously used by modernist writers.
There are some allusions to the English literary tradition; for instance, Sir Galahad comes from Arthurian legends.
The narrative, then, draws on both English and Caribbean cultures.
An example of calypso
The novel focuses heavily on both institutional and everyday racism in post-war Britain. There is a general sense that white people shouldn’t mingle with black immigrants. The only exception is sexual encounters between different races in the summer, but the sexualisation of black bodies is also a manifestation of racism.
According to Moses, although people in Britain are welcoming on the surface of it, they never really accept black immigrants. Whereas in America racism is obvious, in Britain it is hidden but no less harmful.
In the employment office, records of West Indian immigrants are stamped with J-A, Col., which means that the person in question comes from Jamaica and is coloured. In this way, employers can choose not to employ someone based on the colour of their skin. This is an example of institutional racism.
Black people cannot get any better paid jobs, even though they are qualified. A prime example is Galahad, who is unable to work as an electrician, which he used to in Trinidad.
© 2018 Virginia Matteo