Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners
Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners

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Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners

Leaving home

The issue of finding a ‘voice’ for the articulation of West Indian migrant experience has preoccupied Caribbean writers in the post-war period, and, as you shall see, Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners was significant in this respect, though its use of dialect was also one of the factors that led British critics to dismiss its literary credentials when it was first published. As Susheila Nasta points out in her introduction to your edition of the novel, many early reviewers dismissed it as ‘an amusing social documentary of West Indian manners’ (p. xii). The reaction of contemporary reviewers is instructive in relation to the concept of ‘literatures’, demonstrating the enduring potency of traditional distinctions between literary and non-literary writing, based on subject matter and linguistic register.

In the ‘Introduction’ to Windrush Songs, the poet James Berry, born in Jamaica in 1924, describes the situation facing the people of the Caribbean in the late 1940s:

None of us wanted to grow up poverty stricken. We didn’t want to grow up without knowledge of the world. We certainly didn’t want to grow up like our fathers who were stuck there, with a few hills of yams, a banana field, and a few animals. That could not feed a family, let alone provide money for anything more. We were a generation without advanced education or training, anxious about our future. Some of us had shown great promise at school, but now we were stuck, most of our parents could not pay for our further education and there were no national projects to employ us. And here we were, hating the place we loved, because it was on the verge of choking us to death.

This was the state of the Caribbean at that time. The culture was suffering from its history. It was in a state of helplessness. In fact we had not emerged from slavery; the bonds were still around us.

(Berry, 2007, p. 9)

Berry alludes to a desire among young Caribbean men to widen their horizons, to see the world, and to gain educational opportunities unavailable at home. An ambivalent attitude towards the Caribbean on the part of this generation is also revealed, as the continuing impact of slavery left them ‘hating the place we loved’. The prospect of migration evoked conflicting and contradictory emotions in many of those who decided to undertake the journey to what was perceived as a land of opportunity.

Berry goes on to reveal equally ambivalent attitudes towards England:

Despite the aftermath of slavery there was still a respect for England and a sense of belonging. … We knew that in England you could continue education while you worked, you could go to evening school. But England was also the home of the slave masters, and we retained a general distrust of white men. However, England was the nearest thing we had to a mother country; we saw in it some aspect of hope.

(Berry, 2007, p. 10)

England was seen as a place of vocation, of education, a place to belong, as well as a place where white men had grown rich through slavery. The image of England Berry presents here had been inculcated into its colonised subjects over a long period, as Winder has explained: ‘Years of missionary and educational propaganda, stunning feats of engineering, impressive administrative efficiency, buckets of pageantry, and conspicuous displays of wealth and power had all left their mark. Britain seemed high and mighty, in every sense’ (2004, p. 347).

It can be assumed that the troubled emotions towards their real and potential homelands felt by young Jamaicans were shared as well by inhabitants of other Caribbean islands, such as Trinidad, the birthplace of Sam Selvon. As you work through the course, keep in mind Berry’s recollections of the hopes and fears of his Jamaican contemporaries and try to evaluate how far they are reflected in the experience of Selvon’s characters.

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