Sam Selvon‘s 1956 novel The Lonely Londoners is a pitch-perfect little gem of a book. I’m somewhat ashamed to say I had never heard of it until reading Guy Gunaratne‘s fiery In Our Mad and Furious City which deservedly took the Jhalak Prize this year. One of its central characters is named Selvon, and learning that Gunaratne intended this as an act of homage to the Trinidadian writer who pioneered a new way of writing about London, I set out to find out more about this chap.
It’s hard to think of a book I have recently enjoyed more than ‘The Lonely Londoners’. Although it doesn’t flinch from depicting the poverty and racism of the 1950s London experienced by the Windrush Generation, the book is full of irrepressible joy. You can hear it in the rhythm of its creolised English, the hilarious proverbs and insults, and the invocation of London as a city of almost magical romance and self-transformation. It is a lovely book with a cast of characters you want to hear more from.
Sad to say, but ‘Moses Ascending’ is not that book. Although Penguin’s blurb claims it follows the fortunes of the characters from Selvon’s earlier novel, it’s a sequel in name only, not in spirit. Gone are the vivid evocations of riding London buses, watching the latest immigrants arrive at Waterloo station one winter, of ‘liming’ through Hyde Park in search of pretty girls on a summer’s evening. The action is confined almost purely to Moses’ ramshackle house in Shepherd’s Bush, where he struggles to control the comings and goings of his tenants, who are variously involved in illegal immigration scams and Black Power campaigning. Gone is the expansive lyrical realism; instead, the book comes across as a staged farce, oddly reminiscent of 70s TV shows like Steptoe and Son and Rising Damp.
I say that because the central relationship in the book is between Moses and his ‘Man Friday’ Bob, which is transparently intended as a parody of the symbiotic relationship between the migrant and his host country. It’s unsubtle, improbable and not very funny. As Hari Kunzru points out in his introduction, and others beside, it is also troublingly sexist and, worse, racist towards Pakistani immigrants. They are not granted much in the way of humanity and simply do not come to life on the page; they are present to make a point, and I am not sure it is a point I particularly like.
I wonder what happened to Selvon during the 20 years between writing ‘The Lonely Londoners’ and ‘Moses Ascending’ that caused this shift. All I have been able to glean (from Wikipedia) is that he supported himself by writing TV and radio scripts for the BBC; so my supposition is that he stopped thinking like a chronicler of his generation, and started writing like a cultural commentator mediating between different cultures. He seems to have sacrificed a collective identity and voice – one that drips warmth, authenticity and humour – for the singular, self-appointed identity of the immigrant ironist who seeks authority on his own terms.
And what’s more, Selvon was queasily aware of this. Moses in this book is continually parodied for his attempts to gather material for, and write, his memoirs. When Brenda, the token female character (who everyone seems to get their leg over, in true 70s style) reads his MS, she mocks him for being illiterate. And just to underline the point, we are told her basement room is littered with books by the likes of Baldwin and Lamming. Selvon clearly saw himself as being cut from a different cloth from these iconic writers, and refuses to offer himself up as a figurehead for black consciousness and its associated literature, preferring ludic self-mockery and parody. In the process he not only traduces his great talent, but stoops to suggesting that we are merely motivated by sex and money. How could he forget? ‘The Lonely Londoners’ tells us that there is so much more to life than that.