Rereading: Mar 17

The Lonely Londoners was the first novel to portray the chilly welcome given to the early Caribbean immigrants to the city. Helon Habila discovers surprising warmth in a story of race, exile and survival

The secret of a successful book, it has often been said, is a beautiful girl and a happy ending. Well, there aren't many beautiful girls in Samuel Selvon's The Lonely Londoners, which I first read at university in the 1990s, as a recommended text in my Caribbean fiction class. Tanty, the most prominent female character in the book, is a nosy old matron whose favourite pastime is discussing other people's business at the top of her voice in shops, as if she is "in the market-place back home". And the ending - well, there isn't really an ending; instead of a definite closure, the reader is left with a sense of a vague and gloomy continuum, as the protagonist Moses Aloetta stands before the Thames contemplating his future, staring into the signature London fog that is the novel's dominant motif.

The novel, published in 1956, is set in 1950s London and concerns the group of Caribbean immigrants known as the "Windrush" generation, who arrived on the SS Windrush in 1948. A lot of them had fought for Britain in the second world war and, having found that they couldn't settle back into their small island communities, decided to seek better opportunities in the "mother country". Welcomed at first by the British as a source of cheap labour, by the late 50s, as their numbers grew, they became a target of racial hatred and xenophobia, and even hasty anti-immigration legislation in parliament.

The gloom hits you from the very first sentence: "One grim winter evening, when it had a kind of un-realness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in the blur as if not London at all but some strange place on another planet ..." For the Caribbean immigrants whom Moses goes to Waterloo station to meet, London may well be another planet. They are welcomed by the cold weather, and a reporter asking them why they can't stay in their home country. Their disorientation is best represented by Henry Oliver, aka Sir Galahad, who, in this harsh winter, descends from the train in a light summer suit and appears surprised when asked if he isn't cold. As it turns out, he only feels cold in summer, and hot in winter. With this deft move, the author immediately establishes the "otherness" of these immigrants, showing you how unprepared they are for the chilly English welcome. The reader knows that sooner or later a character like Sir Galahad is going to have his illusions shattered.

The Lonely Londoners was the first novel to take on the task of representing this unrepresented group. Because the immigrants lived on society's fringes, not many people knew of their existence, and those who did, such as workplace foremen or employment office clerks, pretended they did not exist. At the employment office, the veteran Moses explains the ways of this new society to Galahad: "Suppose a vacancy come and they want to send a fellar, first they find out if they want coloured fellars before they send you. That save a lot of time and bother, you see. In the beginning it cause a lot of trouble when fellars went and said they came from the labour office and the people send them away saying it ain't have no vacancy. They don't tell you outright that they don't want coloured fellars, they just say sorry the vacancy get filled."

It is this shadow group of people that Selvon's novel forcefully thrusts into the daylight. Other writers soon followed in his footsteps, most notably Colin MacInnes, with City of Spades and Absolute Beginners. MacInnes showed how under- represented this class of people was, especially in the media: "As one skips through contemporary novels or scans over acreage of fish-and-chips dailies and the very square footage of the very predictable weeklies ... it is amazing - it really is - how very little one can learn about life in England here and now."

One of the ways in which The Lonely Londoners brought the fringe into the centre was through the conscious use of an episodic plot structure that has been described as "calypsonian" and "balladic". Such oral narrative devices go hand in hand with the book's use of non-standard English, the island dialect used in both dialogue and narrative passages. Once in a while, the reader is taken unawares by the author's reverting to standard English, especially in the lyrical "stream of consciousness" passages that describe the coming of summer and its sensual and sensory beauties.

Selvon in fact began writing the book in conventional English. How fortunate that he changed his mind, for no standard English can capture the characters' earthiness, folksiness or conviction. Indeed, the book's major strength is its depiction of character. Selvon knew these immigrants intimately: he was one of them as a member of a group of Caribbean writers - including VS Naipaul, George Lamming, Andrew Salkey, Derek Walcott - who came to London in the 50s.

But Selvon, more than the others, specialised in telling the stories of working-class black characters and their experience of discrimination in the big city. Some critics have described The Lonely Londoners as really nothing more than a collection of mini biographies, a group of lives interacting with each other. But what makes this collection stand out is how painstakingly the author has drawn them; Selvon has a way of investing the most tiny, insignificant detail with a universe of meaning.

His characters are not saints; they are wife-beaters, cheats, weed-smokers, skirt-chasers. But by boldly using the stereotypes that white society creates around black society, he transcends them to create real, multi-dimensional characters. We soon forget their vices because essentially they are ordinary folks trying to survive in a harsh, foreign society that is intent on suppressing them. We share their anguish, their anxieties, their frustrations and their joys. Above all, we admire their courage as they negotiate streets whose windows carry signs that say "Keep the Water White".

Each character adds to the communal portrait: there is the irrepressible, voluble Tanty, who finally forces the neighbourhood grocers to start extending credit to their Caribbean customers; there is the parsimonious Bart who, if "he see a friend who broken, and the friend beg him for a meal, and Bart do without eating himself so he wouldn't have to change the pound and ease up the friend"; and there's the uneducable Big City, whose life is ruled by two dreams - to win big on the Pools and to visit all the big cities of the world. If he wins big, his ambition is to "buy out a whole street and give it to the boys and ... I would put a notice on all the boards: 'Keep the Water Coloured, No Room for Whites'." Then there's the shiftless, elusive Cap, whose aversion to working is matched only by his strange attractiveness to women.

But this is not only a novel about race and survival; it is also a novel about the city. Selvon's descriptions of post-war London are so powerful and evocative that one fancies oneself alive and present on these same streets. He brings to life the grubby, working-class backstreets of the Harrow Road and Notting Hill, and the seemingly unbreachable divide between them and the rich neighbourhoods of Belgravia, Knightsbridge and Hampstead. He shows how London is not one city, but a compendium of many little cities: "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 to the other ones except what you read in the papers."

One imagines immediately the loneliness that must have gnawed at these immigrants whose memory of their sunny, convivial island communities was their only refuge at such moments. But although this is a book about exile and alienation, it is not a sad book. Even when his characters are under-going the direst of tribulations, Selvon has a way of capturing the humour in the situation. When Galahad, out of a job, racked by hunger and winter cold, decides to catch a pigeon from Kensington Gardens and eat it, he is chased away by an old woman who threatens to get the police. But like all good humorists, Selvon employs comedy to make serious statements. With the pigeon incident we are shown two opposed world-views: one that sees pigeons as food, and another that would rather see a man starve than let him use pigeons as food. This difference is underlined by Moses's remonstrance to Galahad: "Boy, you take a big chance ... You think this is Trinidad? Them pigeons there to beautify the park, not to eat. The people over here will kill you if you touch a fly."

The message of The Lonely Londoners is even more vital today than in 50s Britain: that, although we live in societies increasingly divided along racial, ideological and religious lines, we must remember what we still have in common - our humanity. As the novel says: "Everybody living to dead, no matter what they doing while they living, in the end everybody dead."

· Measuring Time by Helon Habila is published by WW Norton this month


Helon Habila

The GuardianTramp

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