June 22nd – 72 years since the start of the “Windrush Generation” in Britain: a reflection on The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon.

“Now Moses don’t know a damn thing about Jamaica – Moses come from Trinidad, which is a thousand miles from Jamaica, but the English people believe that everybody who come from the West Indies come from Jamaica.”
― Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners

On June 22nd 1948, as George Orwell sat writing 1984 on the remote Scottish isle of Jura, a ship named the SS Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury, Essex and 492 West Indian immigrants disembarked, the first travellers of what became known as the ‘Windrush Generation’. In 1950, Sam Selvon and George Lamming (both from Trinidad) came on the same voyage to Britain where they later developed notable careers as writers, publishing novels which were to form the bedrock of Black literary culture in the UK. Their novels gave voice to an emerging Black British community as well as educating an ignorant British readership regarding the harsh economic and social realities these people faced. Sam Selvon’s characters in his seminal novel The Lonely Londoners are placed on one of in these early waves of West Indian immigration to Britain.

West Indians were being encouraged to come to the UK under the ‘Nationality Act’ which had just been passed, partly inspired by Indian independence the year before. The Nationality Act indicated that subjects of the British empire and its former subjects (the Commonwealth) were able to come to Britain to live and work more easily than before in order to fill the shortage of labour after the loss of life and destruction of WWII. Jamaica was still under British rule at this point and remained so until 1962. According to the propaganda spread through British Imperial rule around the globe, Britain was a place of plenty, fairness, power, influence and education. Many colonial subjects, and those of newly independent nations, saw a life in the ‘Motherland’ as a way to a progressive future. The people who came to fill this post-war shortage of workers provided cheap labour (connotations of slavery and exploitation abound) and found themselves locked out of that centre of power and influence even while they lived and worked within it.

On the day after the arrival of the SS Empire Windrush, The Evening Standard’s front-page headline was “WELCOME HOME!” – the implication being that these West Indians had come to their Mother-country. Yet the people who disembarked were not welcomed into a society which had lived for generations under the idea of colonised people as their social inferiors. Signs saying “No blacks” went up at the doors of many boarding houses, only the most menial poorly paid jobs were offered to these immigrants (despite any qualifications they may have had) and problems of integration began. Sam Selvon captures this moment in The Lonely Londoners, which uses a defiantly Caribbean third-person narration throughout and focuses on a set of friends who are all connected through Moses Aloetta, a guide of sorts who attempts to ‘part the waters’ and help settle his people in the ‘promised land’.

“It have people living in London who don’t know what happening in the room next to them, far more the street, or how other people living. London is a place like that. It divide up in little worlds, and you stay in the world you belong to and you don’t know anything about what happening in the other ones except what you read in the papers.”
― Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners