By Dr Peter Maber, Lecturer in English, NCH
The Lonely Londoners (1956), by the Trinidad-born author Sam Selvon, depicts the lives of the ‘Windrush Generation’, the West Indian immigrants who came to Britain after the Second World War, taking up the British government on their promise of jobs. The London they discover could not be further from the golden city of their imagination. The hostile climate and attitudes they encounter create a different ‘kind of unrealness about London’. Selvon’s characters try out various survival strategies: Harris adopts the manners of an English gent, and ‘plays ladeda’, dropping the names of lords and ladies; while Henry Oliver, alias Sir Galahad, newly arrived from Trinidad, ‘plays boldface’, pretending he knows it all, only to be overcome by feelings of ‘loneliness and fright’.
If such strategies are presented as absurd, the absurdity extends beyond the caricature. Harris’s imitations expose the hypocrisy of the originals: the English gentlemen he copies are themselves not what they appear, with their skin-deep ‘old English diplomacy’. There’s a more generalised sense of absurdity too, in the condition of being out-of-place. London is not entirely oppressive though: it yields to the influence of the new arrivals. The formidable Tanty Bessy soon has ‘even the English people calling she Tanty’, and stops at nothing until ‘the white people shop’ is operating on a Caribbean system of credit. In London, a lonely place that ‘divide up in little worlds’, connections are still possible, and the West Indians find they have ‘a kind of communal feeling with the Working Class’. Out of these encounters new cultural forms grow, including the form of Selvon’s work, part picaresque novel, part calypso.
Such metropolitan meetings, and the cultural diversity they bring, are the subject of our final-year module on the NCH English Literature degree, ‘Cultures of London’. We study the impact of London’s evolving hybridity on its representations in literature, from the performance of blackness on the Elizabethan stage, through the growth of London as the world city at the heart of the British Empire, and up until its multicultural present, in which more than 250 different languages are spoken. As in The Lonely Londoners, the narratives that emerge so often move in multiple directions: those arriving in London are both changed by and change its character.