Portrait of survivalists in Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners

By Chukwuma Ajakah

In his award-winning novel, The Lonely Londoners, Trinidadian novelist, Samuel Selvon narrates the captivating story of a crop of survivalists with uncanny abilities to adapt to harsh sociopolitical, economic and physical environments, thereby surviving against all odds even in the most gruelling setting. The novel published by Alan Wingate (1956) and Longman Drumbeat (1979) is set in the heyday of British colonialism, capturing the era of mass migration of people from the various colonies to London.

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The plot of the novel revolves around some spectacular characters-predominantly, West Indians who are inexorably trapped in the resultant rat race to the chagrin of the white settlers and discomfiture of other immigrants. The plot unfolds to reveal the protagonists’ ingenuity in dealing with racism, financial insecurity, hostility and a plethora of other seemingly intractable problems. Although the language is relatively simple, non-Caribbean readers may be encumbered by a complexity occasioned by Selvon’s unique narrative technique, which incorporates unconventionally naughty grammatical structures, slangs, patois, Caribbean Creole and Pidgin.

The Lonely Londoners feature diverse characters who are shocked out of their delusions to struggle for survival when confronted with the grim realities of living in a strange land.  Most of the protagonists end up as hustlers, recklessly abandoning the initial dreams that brought them to London. Samuel Selvon effectively deploys the omniscient-cum third person narrative technique in his panoramic presentation of divergent character traits, interpersonal relationships and each, character’s roles in the development of the plot structure.

One of the intriguing characters, Galahad causes a stir as he arrives from Trinidad in winter with neither luggage nor the appropriate raiment to mitigate the effects of the cold weather. ‘Sir Galahad’, determined to enjoy life in London defies the elements and socio-cultural barriers. He sees nothing wrong about London, not even the colour bar, which he readily attributes to his countrymen’s failure to understand “the whites”.  In his own words, the only reservation he has about the chilly weather is: “I find when I talk smoke coming out my mouth” Besides wearing simple shirts in winter and thick suits during summer, ‘Old Galahad’ would have the gas fire off when others need it to keep warm. On a particular occasion, he cleverly poaches a pigeon at Trafalgar Square and makes a sumptuous meal of it, wondering why the whites would feed pigeons fat while leaving people to starve. Galahad’s audacity overwhelms Moses, his fellow countryman, who had lived in London for ten years. Not even the most dominant character, Moses could rival the phenomenal dynamism of this odd fellow.

Moses observes that Galahad-despite his seeming pompous posture, has a great sense of responsibility: “I wish it had plenty other fellars like you …but a lot of parasites muddy the water for the boys, and these days when one spade does something wrong, they crying down the lot…black Jamaicans who coming down to London thinking that the streets paved with gold.” Galahad allays Moses’ fears that he might be a burden while searching for a job, Galahad boisterously remarks: “Boy, I don’t know about you, but I am new in this country and I don’t want to start anting on the State unless I have to. Me, I am a born hustler.”

In contrast to this dynamic character, flat characters like Captain, Big City, Lewis and Bartholomew are depicted as incurable daydreamers who remain untransformed like the proverbial leopard spot. Describing Captain as “The Nigerian wanderer,” the author ponders on his phenomenal survival strategy: “One day you would hear that he living in Caledonia, another time he moves to Clapham Common, next time you see him he living Shepherd’s Bush…It has some men in this world, they don’t do anything at all, and you feel that they would die from starvation, but day after day you meeting them and they looking hale, they laughing and they talking as if they have a million dollars, and in truth, it looks as if they would not only live longer than you but they would dead happier.’’

Captain’s father had sent him to study law, but he got distracted by the glamour of London life and an extravagant lifestyle fraught with flamboyance, deceit and sexual promiscuity-involving classy women of diverse nationalities. Although, he suffers the fate of the biblical prodigal son and would often “have no money in his pocket”, Captain strangely manages to maintain his high taste with neither a profession nor regular employment.



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