Come back by the two and six ear

The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon

The Lonely Londoners is probably the best book I have read in months, and given how much I read in the average month that is no small statement for me to make.

The Lonely Londoners is one of the earlier novels of Sam Selvon, and was first published in 1956. Sam Selvon was a Trinidadian writer by origin, who moved to London in 1950 at around the age of 27. It is a largely plotless novel about the characters and experiences of the West Indian and African diaspora as it came to London in the 1950s, the Windrush generation, a generation that found itself none too welcome among the host population.

The Lonely Londoners is in part a love letter to London, it is in part an exercise in the sheer joy of language (most particularly in the form of a single ten page long unpunctuated sentence celebrating life and the English summer and the pleasures and absurdities of London life), it is an examination of the lives of immigrant men dwelling in poverty with blighted prospects, it is a subtle examination of the effects of racism (without ever falling into didacticism) and it is also extremely funny.

The novel is written in a form of Trinidadian creole, essentially in the language of its characters. Apparently Selvon started to write it in conventional English, but found that the story he wanted to tell could not be told in that voice. By using the language of the characters, he brings them and their world to life, but also brings to life their way of viewing the world – we see through their eyes as we see through their words. By using creole as a term here incidentally I am not implying a crudeness of language, this is in fact a very sophisticated work in which each word is carefully chosen with a view to its precise effect. Great care is taken over the language in this novel, and in some senses more than anything else this is a novel of language, a novel one reads as much for the use of language as for the content that language carries.

The central character, and occasional narrative voice, is Moses Aloetta. Moses is a long established immigrant who acts as a first point of introduction for many men as they arrive in London, and who sits at the heart of the Caribbean expat social scene. Moses is a guide to London for them, and a guide to them for us, and the divide between authorial voice and Moses’s voice is frequently very thin indeed. Moses appears in two subsequent novels, making The Lonely Londoners part of a trilogy though it stands perfectly well alone and I suspect was originally envisaged as a stand alone novel.

Moses is patient, hard working, wrly humorous, aware of his own failings and of everyone else’s yet tolerant of them all. He helps new arrivals, though he sometimes has to wait some time for his thanks, and comments philosophically on London life and the English. The symbolism of his name, given his status as a guide to the promised Land of London, I think rather speaks for itself.

There is a large cast of other characters, and typically we spend some time with a character experiencing their story and then leave them to see another story. Characters recur as minor figures within each other’s tales, but essentially this book is close to a short story collection set in a single milieu with an overlapping cast. Many characters are known by nicknames, Galahad, Cap, Big City, Five past Midnight, and characters are frequently larger than life with comic failings.

So, we have Galahad, a new arrival to London, confident and boastful. He feels no cold in the winter, yet freezes in the Summer. He comes to Moses certain that he is need of no assistance to cope with London, but within minutes of leaving Moses’ flat he is so intimidated that he can barely function and is grateful when Moses who has anticipated this follows him and assists him with such basics as how to get a bus to the labour exchange.

We have Cap, a Nigerian by origin, a man with only one suit which he washes each night and wears again the next day. So charming he always has a woman or two in tow, and spends his life moving from hotel to hotel staying without charge by dint of his charm and moving on when the demands for payment become too great. Cap lives large, and seems to have a better life despite utter poverty than the more hard working characters. Certainly he has more women.

Tolroy, who goes to Waterloo to pick up his mother fresh from Jamaica, only to find she has brought the entire family with her. Tanty, an elderly relative of Tolroy’s who came with his mother and who dominates all around her in friendly but irresistible fashion.

Bart, a man so mean that if he leaves his flat hungry with a pound in his pocket but meets a penniless friend on the way to breakfast, he will go without rather than share with that friend. Harris, a man who has become Anglified and now throws social functions for the English, at which they have a chance to dance to calypso and have a taste of Caribbean entertainment. Dances at which the Caribbean diaspora routinely turn up and enter without paying, to Harris’s eternal anguish. He walks of course with a copy of the Times furled in his pocket, more English than the English themselves. Daniel, who always spends to impress. Lewis, a gullible man who destroys his marriage through senseless jealousy. Big City, who is rude throughout the week except shortly after payday. Five Past Midnight, who asks everyone for money so much that everyone now asks him for money immediately on meeting him, so as to suggest they are broke themselves.

As the above shows, there is a profusion of characters, and in this the novel reminds me more than anything else of the works of Damon Runyon. Characters are frequently identified by a relatively small set of traits, with the exception of Moses we see no inner lives, we see them as others do and so we do not see their subtleties. Characters are comic, their failings cause for comedy, yet also they are tragic and their lives sometimes desperate. Bart falls in love with a White girl (Beatrice), is rejected by her family and is abandoned by her for a man she meets at the bus stop. He then recurs throughout the novel seeking her among London’s millions, never finding her. A character moved from the comedy of his miserliness to the tragedy of his unrequited love. Characters speak bravely, in a larger than life fashion and with braggadocio, but their lives often fail to live up to their words. All of this is deeply Runyonesque, a cast of comic characters who fall into tragedy and where the language they speak is as much the point as what they actually choose to say.

The key difference to Runyon lies in how the characters come to this life. In Runyon, the characters are chancers and criminals. Grifters and con artists. Theirs is a life of trying to get by on the margins because they have chosen that life. In The Lonely Londoners, the characters have made no such choice, rather it has been chosen for them.

Early on in the novel we are in Waterloo as Moses waits for Galahad and observes with humour Tolroy’s bewilderment as the arriving train disgorges his entire family. As they wait a journalist speaks to the new arrivals, seeking a piece for his paper. To the English they are all Jamaican, the natives cannot (or will not) distinguish between the different Islanders and unwittingly turn that one nationality into a generic term for all the new arrivals. The reporter spots the family, talks to them without really listening to the replies and then seeks a photo. The family pose, Tanty making sure she has a smart hat on, proud to be spoken to politely by this gentleman. The headline the next day is “Now, Jamaican families come to Britain.”

The characters puzzle as to why the natives appear to fear them, Moses at one point saying “Well, as far as I could figure, they frighten that we get job in front of them, though that does never happen.” There is resentment that other immigrants are treated preferentially, even though the Islanders themselves are part of the Commonwealth and bled in the war for Britain. Big City plays the pools every week and dreams should he win of buying a street of houses for the boys (the term they use throughout the novel to describe themselves, of which more later) and erecting a notice in the street saying “Keep the Water Coloured, No Rooms for Whites.”

The characters pursue local women, but the women they get prefer the boys to be savages than civilised people. “…people wouldn’t believe you when you tell them the things that happen in the city but the cruder you are the more the girls like you you can’t put on any English accent for them or play ladeda or tell them you are studying medicine in Oxford or try to be polite and civilise they don’t want that sort of thing at all they want you to live up to the films and stories they hear about black people living primitive in the jungles of the world…” (that last excerpt is from the ten page prose poem that forms one of the most impressive parts of the book).

Perhaps saddest of all in that vein is Moses’ comment that sometimes when he goes out White people try to buy drugs off him, though he doesn’t himself use them. The assumption is that because he is Black, he can obtain them.

Racism is a constant companion in the book, unavoidably so as it shapes the characters lives in almost every respect. Their opportunities for work, their relationships, the accommodation they can find, there is even preference for overt racism as it saves wasting time applying for flats or jobs that will never be granted to them because of their colour. In one passage Galahad externalises his own colour, addressing Black as if it were a person and blaming it for his troubles, it is not him who is hated, rather it is Black itself.

Despite this, as noted above this is not a didactic novel. Racism is a fact of their lives, it is part of their world and so it is in the novel. But the tragedies of the novel tend to be human ones, and the triumphs similarly. The tale of how Tanty uses the tube and takes a bus ride is both hugely funny and quite celebratory, a matter of no consequence becomes a tale of heroic fortitude and bravery. Harris trying to maintain dignity at his dance while Five past Midnight does his best to wind him up is a great comic scene. The title of this blog entry comes from a piece of dialogue between Bart and Cap:

“Only feller who ever tap Bart was Cap, and that happen in the very early days. Cap broach Bart and ask him to lend him two and six.

‘Eh?’ Bart say, playing as if he can’t hear, and putting his hand on his ear and cocking it up.

‘I ask you to lend me two and six’ Cap say. (Cap would try to borrow from Mr Macmillan if he get the chance).

‘Eh? What you say?’ Bart turn the other ear to Cap and cock it up. ‘I can’t hear well.’

‘I ask you to lend me five shillings,’ Cap say loudly.

‘Come back by the two and six ear’, Bart say, turning his head again.”

And if you can’t see echoes of Runyon in that exchange, I suggest you go back and read Runyon some more (actually, I suggest that anyway, hugely underrated writer these days).

The characters of the diaspora are referred to generally as the boys, a term which captures the mixture of innocence and fecklesness which many of the characters exhibit (as well, presumably, as being an acceptable usage of the time within the community). They are also referred to as tests, or frequently simply as Spades (a term which interestingly does not appear to have racist connotations at this point, which if I recall correctly it certainly did by say the mid 1980s if not earlier). With the exception of Tanty, there are few female characters, the boys are not attached by and large to the girls they pick up and the diaspora is primarily male in nature.

Selvon’s characters are not strictly realistic, that is not to say they are unrealistic, rather that pure naturalism is not his goal. They are exaggerated, they are seen through their most salient characteristics rather than as rounded human beings. They are, in large part, comic. All that said, Selvon shows great affection for them, in all their failings, and there is a very real sense in which the characters are given a fundamental human dignity. A respect which the world they inhabit does not afford them. In this, although I agree with the foreword in the Penguin edition that this is not simply a work of social realism, Selvon does give a voice to those who otherwise would not have one and shows that in their absurdities and shortcomings they are indeed real human beings with ambitions and dreams and that though the particularities of those dreams may vary the essential humanity of them does not.

As is often the case with Penguin, there is an excellent foreword. Here it is by Susheila Nasta, and I felt it through useful light on the novel and the use of language within it. Forewords vary greatly in quality, I thought this one of the better ones I have read recently.

Looking above, I still have a feeling that I have missed the heart of the novel, that it slips away as I try to capture it. The heart of it is its language, the prose and the choice of words and the astonishing ten page poem which celebrates everything contained in the novel in one breathless outpouring of consciousness. The novel contains many serious elements, not all of which I have gone into in this blog entry (it speaks about how our lives do not reflect our plans and of how change comes to us whether we wish it or not, for example), and it contains large quantities of the comic and the absurd also (trapping seagulls for food, among many fine moments).

This is a novel with no real beginning, merely an arbitrary start point. It doesn’t really end, everyone gathers on a Sunday at Moses’ as they do every Sunday, a community ritual, and the novel ends at one such gathering. Nothing really happens. Characters do not have realisations about themselves, internal dilemmas are not faced and resolved, life simply is and continues in all its messy and humdrum glory. All we are left with is the voices of the boys echoing and a great restlessness of lives being lived and laughing because it’s preferable to crying.


Filed under London, Runyon, Damon, Selvon, Sam, Vernacular

12 responses to “Come back by the two and six ear

  1. John Self

    Very interesting, Max. Rather foolishly I picked up the sequel Moses Ascending in the new Penguin edition without having read (or even having possession of) The Lonely Londoners. Your review will change that.

    I am guessing Londonders must have been quite successful, hence the fairly speedy release of the sequel. The reason I say this is that I did read the intro to Moses Ascending, by Hari Kunzru, and he more or less says that it’s not that great a book! Which is an unusual stance for an introducer to take. (Then again Will Self did the intro to the new Vintage Classics edition of Zamyatin’s We and said that he only read the book so that he would be able to write the intro.)

  2. Stewart

    Just reading this has brought back so many memories of it. I’m loathe to read Moses Ascending because I probably won’t enjoy it. Part of the comedy was that the characters were a rung off down and out and how they interacted with what little they had. That Moses has now, to some extent, made it…well, I don’t know. I suppose I am going to have to read it.

    I’ve also got the Penguin Modern Classics of Damon Runyon’s Guys And Dolls and Other Stories, so will definitely have to push it up the pile a bit.

  3. Max Cairnduff

    I got Moses Ascending in a recent Amazon parcel, though I have several others to read before I get to it. The tone seems utterly different, perhaps reflecting Stewart’s comment about the changed fortunes of the characters.

    Interesting on the intros there, they definitely vary in quality. Will Self is great on Riddley Walker for example, but it’s plainly a novel which heavily influenced him. I’m not sure I’d have thought him an obvious choice for We, but equally I’m not sure which living author I would pick for that one. Quite fun, We, though.

    Stewart, I’ll get to Moses Ascending in a couple of months most likely, you can see what I think then if you wish. I have a great and abiding love of Runyon, but Selvon is ultimately a more serious writer – Runyon writes to a large extent for pure comic effect (though I think he is a more technically skilled writer than is sometimes recognised) and his less successful stories can lapse into sentimentality. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the similarities I picked up are pure coincidence, but they seemed to be there nonetheless.

    Guys and Dolls is about as good a place to start with Runyon as one can get. If you don’t take to that, you won’t take to anything else by him.

  4. Max: I read this book last night from cover to cover and have every intention of reading it a second time within the next week. My favorite 400 page book is reading a good 200 page book twice — and this one meets that criterion. Thank you ever so much for putting me on to it.

    I won’t be posting a review of it because I can add nothing to what you and Stewart have already said — and I fully agree with both your assessments. Amazon says that Moses Ascending will arrive before month end so I may post on that one when it arrives since you two seem to have backed off.

    I would like to share some personal comments on what Lonely Londoners did for me because, as well as being a wonderful read, it did produce some wonderful memories.

    I loved the way that the book became more introspective with that quite incredible 10 pages of stream of consciousness writing (and normally I don’t like that writing at all). For anyone who has ever been in London in the summertime, Selvon paints a word picture that rivals Monet and his water lilies in its impressionistic impressiveness (please note alliteration). And in the following pages, as Moses contemplates going home and then comes to realize that maybe where he is is now home, the book acquires a poignancy that underlines how good the previous stories have been. Which then introduces, at least for me, the ambiguity and irony of “lonely” in the title — because these tests were a pretty strong community in themselves, even if that community was a pretty isolated one.

    Which is what set me off on some personal thoughts. My first visit to London was in 1975 and I have been back every two or three years since — did spend four months there as a Commonwealth Press Union fellow in the summer of 1979. I’ll admit my “London” is not geographically large — High Street Kensington on one end, St. Paul’s on the other, Euston up top and Waterloo on the bottom.

    I’m also not poor as Selvon’s characters are, so Bloomsbury or Knightsbridge have been home base. Despite that, I have always been aware, at least peripherally, that the “underclass” whom Selvon’s blacks represent in the 1950s has been there on every visit I’ve made — and over the decades it changes. At the time of my first visit, I’d say the “Jamaicans” of Lonely Londoners had already been replaced by Commonwealth Asians. And in our last few visits, it would seem that immigrants from former Soviet Union satellites now supply the underclass. London may never have had streets paved with gold, but has always represented “opportunity” for someone, even if that too was bogus.

    Which is what provoked the second set of thoughts and memories. Just as the promise of streets of gold attracts one group of people, those who have gold, at least in the short term, are drawn like a magnet to London as well — Selvon didn’t write about this but his book certainly provoked the memory. On my first visits, it was the sight of petroleum-rich Arabs at all the high end stores and restaurants. Then came the ubiquitous Japanese with their tour leaders holding up an umbrella or clipboard to keep them in line. When Japan crashed (remember that Japanese department store just off Picadilly Circus that had the misfortune to open its doors just a few months before the crash) and the U.K. made its tentative steps towards the European Community all of a sudden rich Europeans from everywhere started showing up (my wife who is quite good at the Romance languages loved this phase). The last couple of visits the Russians appear to have been on top (they certainly were in the boutiquey Knightsbridge hotel we stayed at — all “learning English”). So I am willing to bet that just as Russian replaced Japanese as the mandatory second language for Harrods’ jewelery and perfume clerks, Mandarin will be the necessary second language in only a few years. And, at the other end of the spectrum, another ethnic group will be replacing the Eastern Europeans.

    Obviously, while Lonely Londoners is a short book, it is one that affected me. It has been less than 24 hours since I read it and I have already spent more time thinking about it than it took me to read. That’s about as high a compliment as I could ever pay any book — and I remain a very guilty person for having lived in the same city as Selvon for the last 16 years of his life and never once knowing that he was here.

    Thanks again.

  5. Kevin, I’m delighted you enjoyed it so much. It was definitely one of my books of the year for 2008, I thought it remarkable and beautifully written.

    That said, I would suggest you write a review anyway, even if only a brief one. Each blog has different readers, and you’ll bring it to the attention of people who might not otherwise encounter it.

    Sogo was the department store. They left a marvellous fountain with horses in Picadilly Circus and a good statue of people skydiving off a rooftop. They’re gone, but the sculptures happily remain.

    Absolutely on the Japanese, then Russian, and soon Mandarin by the way. The details change, the dynamics often remain much the same. People, ultimately, are people after all. The specific group may change, the experience I suspect not so much.

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  7. Thanks for remembering Sogo — and we do remember the sculptures. People skydiving off the rooftop seems an appropriate image in current times. And, as my wife points out, clerks at upscale jewelery counters probably have lots of time on their hands at the moment for learning Mandarin.

    I will post on Lonely Londoners, thanks for the thought. While considering that, I got the notice that Moses Ascending was on its way finally — I’ll wait until it arrives and then figure out whether to post on both or whatever.

    Good luck with Herodotus. Perhaps you can bring him into some of the “unreliable narrators” discussions that seem to have been popping up lately. Or, given the U.S. preoccupation with whether or not popular memoirs really are legitimate, a note that this is a question which has preoccupied people for some centuries and does not have much to do with final value of the product.

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  10. Jem

    Just thought you should know, Spades was a racist term. It began being used in the late 1920s. Spade previously referred to the playing card, but as the flow of Caribbean immigrants increased, the black colour of the spade became a racist term for the newly arriving Blacks.

  11. Jem, thanks, that’s very interesting.

    Here it’s West Indian characters (written by a West Indian author) using it of themselves, so clearly they don’t regard it as racist, even if factually it’s origins and wider use are. If I recall correctly, I think quite a few whites in the 1970s didn’t regard it as racist, but merely a slang descriptive term (I’m aware merely there is potentially problematic). That doesn’t mean that their use of it wasn’t in fact an issue, but where a word can potentially be used (even by someone white in certain cases in the presence of the person referred to) without anyone involved regarding that use as racist we get into tricky areas of intent.

    Of course quite a few whites in the 1970s didn’t regard vastly more offensive terms as racist, so we can’t simply take the perspective of the person using the term as dispositive. That said, that’s complicated when the person using the term is also the subject of it, as is the case here.

    Also interesting here is the use of boys. Used by a West Indian character of himself and his friends it’s obviously affectionate, and intended to capture a sense of fecklessness and fun. If it were used by a white character though, it would be hard to avoid importing the US connotations (which are otherwise absent, this being after all a British book outside of the US historical tradition). Accordingly, who uses a term can actually change what the term means, boys here is innocent but had Selvon wished could have been used in a way that wouldn’t have been at all so.

    Anyway, thanks for improving my knowledge of the term and therefore the period.

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