The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon
Moses Ascending, by Sam Selvon
We first meet Moses Aloetta on the platform of Waterloo Station, waiting for “a fellar who was coming from Trinidad on the boat train”. While there, a “Jamaican” friend named Tolroy comes up, also waiting for the boat train. Tolroy is waiting for his mother — who, when the boat train arrives, turns out to be accompanied by an aunt, two other relatives and their two children. Tolroy has a job that pays five pounds a week — so it would be wrong not to share the fortune.
And so we are introduced to The Lonely Londoners, a novel first published in 1956 that is every bit as relevant today. In a few pages, in “creole” dialect, we will be introduced to Harry “Sir Galahad” Oliver (that’s whom Moses is meeting), Big City, Five Past Twelve, Harris and a host of others. Welcome to the London of the mid-1950s. All written by the man who would become known as the “father of black writing” in Britain.
I was unaware of Sam Selvon and his novels until an on-line exchange some weeks ago with Max at Pechorin’s Journal. We had been talking about Damon Runyon and his current relevance and Max mentioned Selvon as a comparison.
Literally only minutes later, after some internet searching, I had discovered that the “father of black writing” in Britain had migrated to Calgary, Canada (where I live) in 1978 and lived there until his death while visiting his native Trinidad in 1994. I felt ashamed — for 16 years, I had lived in the same city as an internationally recognized author and known nothing at all about him. As you will find out, that is part of the sad story.
The Lonely Londoners is a truly wonderful book and I am not even going to try to summarize it. I will point visitors here to two excellent reviews that I cannot hope to improve on — Max here and Stewart at booklit. Please visit either or both, but I would like to add my own impressions (as opposed to a good review) of this book.
The first thing that impressed me about Selvon’s book is the way that he conveys a notion of the “underclass” and the life that it lives. Every metropolitan city has an underclass — in Athens and Rome, they were slaves, but the same is true today of Hispanics in Los Angeles, Haitians in Montreal, Tamils in Toronto and Vietnamese in Calgary. The Lonely Londoners takes us back more than half a century but it captures the fallout of what this underclass experiences — they wash the dishes, pick up the trash and direct the traffic in jobs that no one else wants. They also have dislocated their lives, based on optimism and hope, and things aren’t turning out quite as they hoped.
My second impression has to do with the “lonely” part of this novel’s title. In the conventional sense of “lonely”, it doesn’t apply at all — the book is full of the way they relate to each other. True, that comes down to cadging a place to sleep (because no one will rent them a room), borrowing money from anyone who has it (a job is a definite sign of status) or just bumming a meal. Whatever, there is a sense of community with these Jamaicans (at the time, everyone with an off-hue skin in London was a “Jamaican”) — the loneliness of the title is a collective identity, not an individual one.
And finally, and most importantly, this is a book that despite its pathos and sadness (go back to those reviews that I referenced earlier) conveys a sense of humor, hope and, ultimately, optimism. In the Penguin edition that I read, the first 92 pages set and build the story — and have a lot of that humor — but the best part starts only then. For 10 full pages, without so much as a comma, Selvon departs from the dialect and indulges in an impressionistic soliloquy about London that is truly amazing.
I will confess to being an advocate of the declarative sentence and impressionistic writing is not my forte but these 10 pages held me for every word — it captures a picture of the city that is most impressive. And Selvon moves into another gear after that. While the final pages of the book have much conventional action, the sub-text is a contemplation of community and the notion of “home” unlike anything I can remember reading for a long time. The Lonely Londoners was a very good read up to these pages — with them, it became a great book.
Moses Ascending did not appear until 19 years later and, for persons of color, much had changed. True, there had been legislation supposedly protecting rights, but it had been followed by the politics of Enoch Powell predicting that blacks “will have the whip hand over the white man.” Race riots had taken place and skinheads were a phenomenon. For people of color, such as Moses and Selvon (I should note here that Selvon is not “black” in the sense of contemporary terminology — like V.S Naipul, he is an Indian from Trinidad), the world had changed.
That history comes from an excellent introductory essay to the Penguin edition of Moses Ascending by novelist Hari Kunzru. He also offers the following relevant thoughts for this book:
In his introduction to a 1982 edition of The Lonely Londoners, Kenneth Ramchand warns against ‘loose talk about a Moses trilogy’, on the grounds that while the Moses of the earlier book is ‘seeking answers to profound questions with an intensity that suggests a closeness to the author…the latter books…suggest a disengagement by the author from his protagonist which at times…feels like cynicism or evasion.” Unfortunately for Ramchand, his attempt to preserve the purity of The Lonely Londoners was made difficult by Selvon himself, who peppers Moses Ascending with references to its predecessor. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that what discomforted Ramchand wasn’t so much ‘disengagement’ as the biliousness of an ageing writer who felt he’d been denied his critical and commercial due.
I quote that at length because it is a fair assessment in one sense, but wrong in another — this book is very much a fair follow-up to the previous volume. Britain has changed and Selvon has changed; as readers, we should try to understand that change.
In one sense, Moses has definitely moved up the social scale. He has bought a terrace house from Tolroy — it has already been condemned and is scheduled for demolition, but he has three years to make money off it. He will rent suites in this “mansion” to people of color who were lucky to find a basement room in the previous book. He himself has moved into the “penthouse” — if it had an attic, he would have moved higher still — and has started working on his memoirs.
He has also acquired a white footman/batboy/Man Friday, one Bob from the Black Midlands, who pretty much looks after the enterprise while Moses tends to his memoirs. There is no doubt that employing a Caucasian is a significant step. For potential readers who are feminists, this is also an appropriate time to warn that Selvon is not post-modern in his attitude towards women, whatever their color — he did get slapped at a 1980s meeting at the Commonwealth Insitute. In the interests of historical understanding, we may have to forgive him that for a moment or two.
Alas, reflecting the new Britain, he has some “difficult” tenants — the Black Power party has taken up the basement suite as an office and an Asian who is smuggling Pakistanis into the Mother Country is using another suite as a safe house (the underclass of the first volume is being replaced by a new one — that too is part of the overarching story). Moses, despite what we know from the previous book, is out of touch with this all — just as, we as readers must assume, Selvon, the “father of black writing” in Britain, is also finding himself passed by.
Like The Lonely Londoners, there is humor and hope in this book — unlike the previous volume, they definitely take the back seat. Moses has lost touch and so for that matter has Selvon. Hope has been replaced by resignation, humor is used as a source of coping — the world has not got better, it has go worse.
That sounds like a bad recommendation for a book and I utterly reject that — like The Lonely Londoners, Moses Ascending is a book that very much deserves to be read. Undoubtedly, in conventional terms, the former is a better novel — but if you are willing to accept that fiction writers can comment on social history, and I do, the second book is every bit as important as the first. The result is one of the saddest books that I can remember reading in a long, long time — and that is a positive comment, not a negative one.
Which then leaves the obvious question: Why is Kevin reviewing a trilogy when he has only read the first two books?
Good question. The first answer is prosaic: Selvon is an easy author to read (don’t let the idea of dialect put you off; the rhythm is easily established) but not so easy an author to buy. When I started this quest, I could find one volume in Canada, one in the UK and no sight of volume three, Moses Migrating, anywhere. That last volume showed up a few weeks ago with a new edition published in the U.S. which hasn’t arrived in the mailbox yet — given that Penguin didn’t publish Moses Ascending in the Modern Classics series until last year, optimistic readers can hope that it will appear in a Penguin version in the next year or two. If you want to read this trilogy (and you should), be prepared for a quest.
My other explanation is more personal. I’ve avoided reading anything about what Moses Migrating is about because I want to preserve a sense of anticipation. I know it wasn’t published until 1983, five years after Selvon left Britain for Calgary — that, plus the title, does convey some implications. I’ll admit, since I respect the first two-thirds of this trilogy, I can’t wait until it drops through the mail slot.
EDIT: I have now read Moses Migrating. The review is here.