The 1956 Club & a timely novella

It’s time for the latest reading year in Simon and Kaggsy’s biannual club. Looking on my shelves, I found two books I hadn’t read, the novella The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon and the chunkier A Walk on the Wild Side by Nelson Algren: the slimmer of the two won out this time.

Looking at the wikipedia literature list of 1956, I’ve read loads already from this year – mostly pre-blog, including: classic SF from Asimov, Poul Anderson, Arthur C Clarke, Philip K Dick and Gordon R Dickson; the Bond novel Diamonds are Forever; Mary Renault; Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes; and children’s classics – The Last Battle and 101 Dalmatians.

But there are also four books on the list I’ve read and reviewed on the blog, click through for my reviews:

The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon

This was a timely read in more ways than one. It so happens that our book group read this month was Guy Gunaratne’s wonderful In Our Mad and Furious City, which can be viewed as an updating of The Lonely Londoners to the next generations born to immigrants to London in the 1950s – indeed the main character is called Selvon! I honestly hadn’t clocked this when I mentioned to the group that I’d just read The Lonely Londoners – one of our members pointed it out to me, and I am grateful for having now made that connection, which brings me to Selvon’s novella…

The Lonely Londoners follows a series of immigrants from the West Indies to London, beginning with Moses who has been there for years already. Moses often gets put upon to show new arrivals the ropes and as the story begins he is on his way to the station to meet one Henry Oliver, whom he’ll christen ‘Sir Galahad’, off the boat train.

Moses watch Henry coming up the platform, and he have a feeling that this couldn’t be the fellar that he come to meet, for the test have on a old grey tropical suit and a pair of watchekong and no overcoat or muffler or gloves or anything for the cold, so Moses is sure is some test who living in London a long, long time and accustom to the best winter. (…)
The fellar, as soon as he see Moses, walk straight up to him and say, ‘Ah, I bet you is Moses!’

Thus it was that Henry Oliver Esquire, alias Sir Galahad, descend on London to swell the population by one, and eight and a half months later it had a Galahad junior in Ladbroke Grove and all them English people stopping in the road and admiring the baby curly hair when the mother pushing it in the pram as she go shopping for rations.

Despite his weariness and rather pessimistic outlook, Moses is rather taken with Galahad, and helps him find his way, including how to interpret the particularly British form of indirect racism that he will encounter as he searches for a room and work. Galahad is an irrepressible optimist though, a wonderful character.

We also meet a host of others, already installed in London. There is Tolroy, whose family from Jamaica have arrived unsettling things for him. Tanty, who is not afraid to speak out, moans about her relative’s antics :

‘White girls,’ Tanty grumble as she put the kettle on the fireplace fire, ‘is that what sweeten up so many of you to come to London. Your own kind of girls not good enough now, is only white girls. I see Agnes bring a nice girl friend from Jamaica to see us, but you didn’t even blink on she. White girls! Go on! They will catch up with you in this country!’

We also meet the Captain, a Nigerian. Cap is never without a girl on his arm, and is a master at working the system. There’s Big City, who is convinced he will win the Football Pools, and many more who crop up in this episodic narrative.

Selvon is particularly good at evoking the areas of 1950s London where the lonely Londoners reside in bedsits, Harrow Road, Ladbroke Grove, south of the river. The chill and London fog permeate everything, making the new arrivals from the Tropics feel the cold acutely, then when summer finally arrives they rejoice in throwing off their overcoats and seeing the girls’ bare legs!

This novella is so full of life, it’s thought-provoking indeed, and will tweak all your emotions as the lonely Londoners make their way in their adopted world. Not everyone will thrive, but most will find a place and make a life for themselves. It’s hard though, and decades later we’ve seen the effects of the mistreatment that was meted out to some of the Windrush generation chronicled here. As Gunaratne describes, some things haven’t changed, but there is hope for the Selvons of the world.

I urge you to read Selvon’s (hugely influential) novella (and listen to Selvon’s comic novel The Housing Lark on Radio 4 at the moment), and then read the Gunaratne. All brilliant! (10/10)

Source: Own copy. Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners, Penguin paperback 160 pages.

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7 thoughts on “The 1956 Club & a timely novella

  1. buriedinprint says:

    This is one that I’d’ve loved to read for this event: it sounds so rich with character and setting, a balance I particularly enjoy.

  2. Simon T says:

    I hadn’t heard of this book, but several interesting reviews around!
    Miss Hargreaves is 1940 (you know I’d have shouted from the rooftops if it was the club year!) but I think an edition was published in 1956.

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