Today marks what would have been Sam Selvon’s 95th birthday. If you don’t know who Sam Selvon is, let me enlighten you. He was a Trinidadian writer who wrote The Lonely Londoners, one of the first novels about black, working class immigrants in London, and in my humble opinion, one of the best.
Why is he important?
Well, The Lonely Londoners was written in 1956, after the second World War, and around the time that Caribbean immigrants later known as the Windrush generation began settling into life in England. Selvon’s novel gave a much-needed voice to describe their experiences, as they arrived in England full of hope and dreams of prosperity in the ‘Mother Country’. After all it’s what they had been promised as British citizens.
However, when they arrived, it was not as they expected. The harsh realities of racism, poverty, lack of prospects and of course the British weather, led to an isolated existence for the many of new Londoners, of which Selvon was one. In The Lonely Londoners, he describes how friendships flourish, and how through characters like Moses, Tolroy, Galahad, and the Nigerian, Captain, communities were formed, which provided support and ultimately enabled people to survive their situations.
Another key element to Selvon’s importance and relevance to literary history was his writing style. He was the first to use Caribbean Creole in his narrative, ultimately freeing Black British writing from the traditions of writing in standard English. Now it was possible to read stories about a people in their own voices and words, which obviously gave authenticity to the stories being told. We see this even now in Black British writing, and recently I cited The Scholar by Courttia Newland, as a contemporary example.
Selvon’s creolised narrative or ‘nation writing’ as it came to be known, is seen is this passage describing a scene in Waterloo Station as people arrived in London for the first time:
‘A old woman who look like she would dead any minute come out of a carriage, carrying a cardboard box and a paperbag. When she get out the train she stand up there on the platform as if she confuse. Then after she a young girl come, carrying a flourbag filled up with things. Then a young man wearing a widebrim hat and a jacket falling below the knees. Then a little boy and a little girl, then another old woman, tottering so much a guard had was to help she get out of the train.’
Passages like this brought a level of realism to Selvon’s writing, as well as humour and pathos. As a child of parents that immigrated from Ghana to the UK in the 60s, I understood and related to The Lonely Londoners, through the anecdotes my parents shared with me growing up, as they went through similar experiences. For me the novel was so rich and the stories came alive for me in a way that I had not experienced in literature before. I would say that this book was perhaps instrumental in my wanting to start this blog, and focus on books written by people of colour.
I think it’s poignant that given the recent Windrush scandal, where several people were being deported back to the West Indies, Google has chosen to honour and celebrate Sam Selvon’s birthday. Maybe to remind literary buffs of what an awesome writer he was. Or, perhaps to remind people of the immigrant experience and our rightfully place in British history, lest we, or others, ever forget.
If you’ve not read The Lonely Londoners before and would like to, you can purchase a copy by clicking the button below, and full disclaimer, I will get a little commission which will go towards funding this blog. Thanks in advance!