The Lonely Londoners
Moses and Sir Galahad: Deciphering Biblical and Arthurian Allusions in The Lonely Londoners
In The Lonely Londoners by Samuel Selvon, Moses and Henry Oliver fight to overcome the discrimination they suffer due to prejudice in London towards immigrants. As insidious as the American South’s notoriously overt racism, London’s covert racism influences Moses’s critical view of London and forces Henry Oliver to come to terms with the flaws of his new city. Through artful allusions, Samuel Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners anchors Moses’ characterization in biblical history and Henry Oliver’s characterization in Arthurian legend. Consequently, the novel constructs a poignant illustration of how the oppressive environment of 1950s London affects Moses’s and Henry Oliver’s lives.
Like his biblical counterpart, Moses’s altruism and his authoritative voice contribute to his characterization as a caretaker. According to the Hebrew Bible, Moses valiantly led the Exodus of Israelites from 400 years of slavery in Egypt across the Red Sea to Mount Sinai where he received the Ten Commandments from God. Similarly, Selvon’s Moses leads immigrants who escaped the economic bondage of the West Indies for the Mother Country. In this particular narrative, “it is the same soft heart that have [Moses] now on the bus to Waterloo to meet a fellar name Henry Oliver. He don’t know how he always getting in position like this, helping people out” (25). Selvon’s Moses expresses reluctance like that which the biblical Moses felt when God called on him through the burning bush to lead the Israelites. Despite his reluctance, Selvon’s Moses aids all of the young men who come to him. He does not claim to follow God’s will like the biblical Moses does. In effect, Selvon highlights his Moses’s virtue by presenting a “soft heart” or morality as his incentive rather than divine intervention. Moses’s altruism stems directly from his experience with racism in London which he expounds upon in later dialogue.
Just as Moses in the Bible serves as an authoritative voice for God’s Word for His followers, Moses in The Lonely Londoners serves as an authoritative voice for a critique of racism in London for his fellow immigrants. By aligning Moses with his biblical namesake, Selvon establishes Moses’s accountability and builds upon our preconceived notions of the Moses archetype to create a sagacious character. In particular, Moses’s wisdom emerges in his conversations with Henry Oliver. After Moses picks up Henry Oliver from Waterloo, Henry bombards Moses with questions about London. Moses cautions him to “‘take it easy…you will find out for yourself before long’” (Selvon 36). Moses emphasizes learning through experience, implying that he knows more about London since he has lived there longer. He distinguishes himself as an authority on London and uses his license to speak candidly about London’s racial tensions. At one point, Moses differentiates the covert racism in London from the overt racism in America. He explains, “‘in America they don’t like you, and they tell you straight, so that you know how you stand…In America you see a sign telling you to keep off, but over here you don’t see any…they will politely tell you to haul–or else give you the cold treatment’” (40). Moses depicts Americans’ forthright racism as preferable to London’s passive aggression. To American readers like myself, this explanation is contrary to the perpetuated falsehood that Britain was more socially progressive than America due to its relatively early abolishment of the slave trade in 1807 and slavery as a whole in 1833 (The National Archives). Like Henry, American readers may be skeptical of Moses’s explanation and wonder if this covert racism is in fact more detrimental than overt racism. Regardless of one’s individual conclusion, Moses’s statement demonstrates London’s negative impact on him. Thereby, Moses acts as a knowledgeable guide for both Henry Oliver and the readers through the racial landscape of London.
While Moses’s characterization illustrates the aftermath of systemic discrimination, Henry Oliver’s character development in The Lonely Londoners shows the process through which London’s hostile environment diminishes immigrants’ morale. Upon meeting Henry Oliver, Moses dubs him “Sir Galahad” (Selvon 35). In Arthurian legend, Sir Galahad was the son of Lancelot and was known as “the purest and noblest knight in King Arthur’s court” (Currin). The idea of knighthood alone alludes to the Middle Age principles of chivalry, and so Henry’s association with the highest representation of these ideals beckons readers to deduce its significance. From Moses’s point of view, this ironic moniker highlights Henry’s foolhardiness rather than his bravery. He sees Henry as the “kind of fellar who does never like people to think they unaccustomed to anything, or that they are strangers in a place, or that they don’t know where they going” (38). In other words, Henry’s eagerness strikes Moses as arrogance given his ignorance of the societal complexities in London. On the other hand, Henry bears some resemblance to Sir Galahad when he tells Moses: “‘I know you mean well telling me all these things, but papa, I want to find out for myself’” (41). Though brash, Henry’s persistence exhibits his gallant desire for adventure. Like an Arthurian knight, Henry refuses to allow the odds to discourage him.
Once Henry Oliver ventures out into London, his courage dissipates. Subsequently, Sir Galahad’s cultural significance provides a telling contrast to Henry’s character. On his way to secure a job, Henry finds himself overwhelmed by this foreign environment. Around him, Henry saw “a kind of fog hovering…sun shining, but Galahad never see the sun look like how it looking now. No heat from it, it just there in the sky like a force-ripe orange. When he look up, the colour of the sky so desolate it make him more frighten” (Selvon 42). The insertion of “Galahad” here rather than Henry’s actual name establishes further how Henry’s fear is the exact antithesis of Sir Galahad’s legacy (42). Nevertheless, Selvon seems to justify Henry’s cowardice by depicting the atmosphere’s hostility. He places the reader inside Henry’s consciousness in order for her to better understand the malevolent, deterministic forces at work against him. Thankfully, Moses appears to save Henry, who is “so relieved to see Moses that he putting his hands on his shoulders like they is old pals” (43). This fortuitous reunion serves two purposes. Firstly, it harkens back to Moses’s alignment with the biblical Moses as a caretaker, and secondly, it displays Henry’s newfound gratitude for Moses’s experience. While Henry Oliver may not exhibit Arthurian bravery, his cordial acceptance of Moses’s guidance after this instance demonstrates his chivalrous nature. All in all, Henry’s interaction with London’s antagonism molds him into a more receptive pupil of Moses’s tutelage.
In age and temperament alone, Moses and Henry Oliver foil each other, providing a conflict which propels The Lonely Londoners forward. Moses’s embodiment of his namesake in comparison to Henry’s more ironic association with Sir Galahad both strengthens their characterizations and underscores their differences. Their differing characterizations allow the reader to observe the detrimental effect of covert racism in London as well as the compassion it breeds in immigrants for one another as they fight to transcend discrimination.
Currin, Nathan. “Sir Galahad.” King Arthur & The Knights of the Round Table. Nathan Currin, 2001-2009. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.
The National Archives. “Slavery.” The National Archives. Open Government License. Web.
Selvon, Samuel. The Lonely Londoners. London: Longman, 2009. Print.
Integration in The Lonely Londoners
It have some men in this world, they don’t do nothing at all, and you feel that they would dead from starvation, but day after day you meeting them and they looking hale, they laughing and they talking as if they have a million dollars, and in truth it look as if they would not only live longer than you but they would dead happier. Cap was a man like that. – Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners (London: Penguin Books, 2006) (page 31)
The Lonely Londoners was published in 1956 during a period of intense mass-migration from Britain’s colonies to England due to the post-war situation and its demand for labour. The perspective of a possible better life filled up many people’s aspirations with romantic expectation. Once they arrive there, they face a distinctive reality. The book shows how these migrants try to succeed in London among so many others of them and the British silent prejudice: “when you go in the hotel or the restaurant they will politely tell you to haul – or else give you the cold treatment” (21), Moses says about it. Each character epitomises certain features of the migrant community that the author, Sam Selvon, tries to pass to the reader.
Captain is the only black African in the group of West-Indians migrants, the “boys” portrayed in the novel. He is depicted in the story making people believe in him with his angelical smile. The way he integrates into the group throughout the plot and how this assimilation happens are two points that rise attention in Cap as a character. The first point that makes Cap a singular character among all the others, besides his origin and that he comes to study, is the specific way he is represented by the narrator when compared to the other boys. In the epigraph the description of Cap shows his aversion to work, while the others struggle to settle in London and try to find a regular job. Inserted in such a historical context, we can consider Cap facing a double assimilation process: one into the white British society, and another into the black West Indian group. Local prejudice from the white perception is inclined to tag all the black migrants as being Caribbean. Cap serves as someone who stands in contrast to the West Indian and emphasises the distinctive characteristics of them. As a foil, he embodies an alternative way of considering the black characters of the plot.
One of the characteristics that differentiate Cap from the group is his way of speaking, which initially is not the Caribbean speech. When Cap arrives in London, the narrator affirms that “[a]t this stage in his acquaintance to the boys he does forget proper English and many times you would mistake him for a West Indian, he get so hep” (35). The passage shows how Cap becomes integrated into the group of the boys and also how it pleases him to be part of it. He seems to assimilate not only the language but also common habits from the West Indian boys, habits he sees them practicing and repeat due to his time spent with them: “‘I will give it back to you tomorrow’, Cap say, making the sign of the cross with his forefingers and kissing it, like he see the West Indian boys do” (43). The fact that Cap does not have the same origin as the other boys excludes him from the group common “old talk”. He does not have a nostalgic feeling; or at least he does not share it with the others. The narrator describes him as a happy person in general, as shown in the initial passage from page 31.
With his docile look, Cap manages to deceive many people to get what he wants. He convinces most of his friends to lend him money. He deceives even the least susceptible of being cheated, like Bart, another member of the group. Despite Bart being known for his stinginess and never lending money to anyone, Cap is the only person who persuades him to lend him some money. In the beginning, at the hostel where he meets Moses, we are told that “Cap face so innocent that the clerk start calling him ‘mister’ and hustle to get him a room. No cheap room, one of the best […]” (33). Another example of Cap’s deceiving feature is shown with Moses, who is seen as the most experienced of the boys. He is the one who knows all of them very well, as in the end of the book the reader is given as a possible interpretation the prospect of him being the narrator. Despite of that, Cap also takes advantage of Moses’ generosity. “One powerful winter Cap was shivering with cold and the sight touch Moses heart. He lend Cap a camelhair coat. When spring come, Moses looking all about for Cap to get back the coat. But he can’t see Cap nowhere” (38).
The sexuality of the male characters in the book is a notable aspect. Cap is the one who has the biggest number of relationships. His charming and persuasive features also work with women of diverse nationalities, as the narrator explains: “One thing with Cap, he love woman too bad” (33). Despite of all his laziness and repetition of his deceits, he is still able to seduce many women. They are spellbound by Cap and believe anything he says. It does not matter how fantastic his stories are. Interestingly, despite of being a womaniser, he is the only one in the book who has a long-term relationship – actually two – and even gets married.
As everyone else tries to succeed, Cap simply does not worry about life the same way the others do. Moses is driven by a melancholic sentiment considering his past years and what he made of his life during this time. After years living there, Cap possesses the same, materially speaking, as Moses, the pioneer of the boys. They have nothing, but Cap seems to be more emotionally fulfilled. Perhaps his behaviour is a product of a different way of thinking, or at least of not spending much time reflecting about his problems, like Moses does. This seems to contribute to Moses’ reflexive moment in the end of the book. “Although he does have hard times very often, “[y]et day after day Cap still alive, defying all logic an reason and convention, living without working, smoking the best cigarettes, never without women.” (45)
Through Cap, the reader is exposed to the struggles of the black migrant community and its integration to society. Outside people wonder how they can be able to show some happiness, dance and sing their calypso, or say to just to “take it easy” in the most difficult moments. The reader may experience a deep feeling of pathos for Cap, the same Moses demonstrates towards him. He may also be deceived by Cap, “[b]ut still Moses have compassion on him.” (39). We see in a different way how prejudice works. People are convinced to trust Cap led by his trustworthy appearance, then they realise they are being cheated.
Selvon uses a light way of writing about issues like racism and rootlessness feeling experienced by the characters. Doses of humour are recurrent in the anecdotes involving the boys, as well as their “oldtalks”. They work as a softener for their daily harsh routine. As an example, we have Cap’s episode in which he meets a woman who greets the boys with a “Bon soir”. Motivated by Moses, he goes out with her so he finds out when he turns off the lights “that this ‘Bon soir’ woman was really a test [man] who used to dress up like a woman and patrol the area” (40). The final story of Cap also exemplifies this usage of humour in order to depict a tense moment. When jobs get harder to find and winter arrives, the situation reaches its hardest point, in contrast to the summer situation. Food becomes a difficult matter for the boys and Cap is again at the centre of a comic and dramatic scene. Noticing that seagulls install themselves on his rooftop, he seizes many of them with much difficulty in their room so that “[i]n the two weeks that Cap stay in the room, he lessen the seagull population in London evening after evening” (133)
A final element can be added to Cap’s set of characteristics that separates him from the others. His social origin is a key factor explaining his behaviour, as Cap is the only one descending from a family rich enough to pay for his education in London. Cap had a high social position already, position of which he takes advantage by, for example, being allowed to stay in the hostel after lying about the fact that he is waiting for his family to send him money, as it was seen in the passage on page 33. His initial intention differs from the others’: they arrived aiming to find work to economically succeed, Cap wants to have fun in his inconsequent way and live in a differently from his rich family in Nigeria. Therefore, it is possible to define his uniqueness, as he remains lonely in the process of double assimilation as well as in the status of descendant of a rich family among the other migrants.
Selvon Sam. The Lonely Londoners, London: Penguin Books, 2006, p. 21, 31, 33, 35, 40, 43, 45, 38, 39, 133
Susheila, Nasta: “Introduction”. Sam Selvon: The Lonely Londoners, Penguin Books: London, 2006, p. vi.
Buzelin, Hélène. The Lonely Londoners en Français : lépreuve du métissage