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

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Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners

Representations of women in The Lonely Londoners

Activity 4

Reread the episode of Galahad’s date with a white woman (from ‘When that first London summer hit’ on p. 71 to ‘he tell Sir Galahad’ on p. 83) and think about the following questions:

  1. Looking back on the three types of illusions faced by Caribbean migrants according to Dabydeen and Wilson-Tagoe above, which are most applicable to Galahad’s situation here?
  2. Compare and contrast the depiction of Galahad’s attitude towards women with that of Bart.

Discussion

  1. Galahad seems to be still seduced by ‘the romantic sense of English history’. His nickname, Sir Galahad, is taken from a character in Arthurian legend, and constitutes another example of the novel drawing on canonical literary and mythical sources. It is also clear that London place names still carry a thrill for him – a thrill that is validated with reference to yet another kind of literary source:
    • Jesus Christ, when he say ‘Charing Cross’, when he realise that is he, Sir Galahad, who going there, near that place that everybody in the world know about (it even have the name in the dictionary) he feel like a new man.
    • (p. 72)

    Galahad also still seems to take for granted the ‘imagined willingness of their white women to readily accept black men’, a belief that had been inculcated in Galahad when he was still in Trinidad: ‘This was something he uses to dream about in Trinidad. The time when he was leaving, Frank tell him: “Boy, it have bags of white pussy in London, and you will eat till you tired”’ (p. 79).

  2. While Bart continually scours the metropolis hoping to see his lost Beatrice again, for Galahad, the pursuit of white women is a more casual affair, almost a ‘game’, to alleviate the hardship and misery of migrant life. Although he is on his way to meet Daisy, his ‘first’ white woman, he is distracted by what he perceives as the seeming availability of other women: ‘He go into the gardens, and begin to walk down to the Arch, seeing so much cat about the place, laying down on the grass, sitting and talking, all of them in pretty summer colours’ (p. 78).

The description of the prelude to Galahad’s date is instructive in relation to the rather restricted gender perspectives the novel has to offer. As stated earlier, migration from the Caribbean was initially primarily a male phenomenon. It is male experience with which the novel is concerned; the demeaning and derogatory terms used by Galahad and other characters about women – ‘white pussy’, ‘so much cat about the place’, ‘a first-class craft’ (p. 78) – dehumanise the women with whom the men come into contact. Galahad is not alone in using women for his own ends and gratification. Bart is a rare example in this novel of a man demonstrating genuine emotional attachment to a woman, and his obsession evokes pity in the narrator that the reader is presumably expected to share.

Activity 5

Based on your reading of the novel, how would you describe the depiction of its few female characters?

Discussion

Mostly, representations of women in The Lonely Londoners tend towards the stereotypical, characteristically identified with domestic roles. Although Tolroy’s mother, named only as ‘Ma’, does move beyond the family circle, finding work in London, that work is only a kind of domestic labour, washing up in a Lyons Corner House, where she is able to observe, but not participate directly in, London life: ‘Ma work in the back, in the kitchen, but she was near enough to the front to see what happening outside of the kitchen’ (p. 68).

Tanty, the only female character accorded extended focalisation, is for the most part similarly confined to the domestic sphere, though she is a disruptive force in the immediate environment of the working-class area around the Harrow Road where she lives, subverting cultural norms by forcefully persuading the white shopkeeper to give credit, and using her shopping expeditions to indulge in ‘big oldtalk’ (p. 67) with the shop assistants. Tanty’s refusal to bow to the cultural and social mores of her adopted homeland offer an affirmative alternative to the struggles to conform undertaken by characters like Bart. Her only real encounter with the world beyond the Harrow Road, a journey to Ma’s workplace in the centre of London, serves, perhaps, as a parody of the migrant theme, and is presented in mock-epic terms as she overcomes her fears to take the underground to central London:

But was plenty different when she find sheself in the station, and the idea of going under the ground in this train nearly make she turn back. But the thought that she would never be able to say she went made her carry on.

(p. 70)

That Tanty is shown to exaggerate the perils attendant on her journey home by bus – ‘She was so frighten that she didn’t bother to look out of the window and see anything’ (p. 71) – indicates that her role in the novel seems to be mainly to provide comic relief. This suggests a marginalisation of black female experience as her fearful progress across London and back contrasts with the confident ease with which characters such as Galahad move around the capital, often in predatory pursuit of white women.

To return to the earlier comparison of Galahad and Bart, Galahad’s approach to London life is in direct contrast with Bart’s desire to escape his own identity, but Galahad’s main function in the novel is to present a life-affirming counterpoint to the world-weariness of the central character, Moses. The two have a symbiotic relationship that reaches a peak of formal complexity in the section of the novel depicting London in the summer.

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