Black History Month – those that influenced us – Sam Selvon
Date posted: 2 November 2020
During Black History Month our lawyers have been reflecting on the cases and the black lawyers and activists who have most influenced them in their legal career.
Our Muhunthan Paramesvaran, a partner in the Immigration Department, pays tribute to Sam Selvon.
When reflecting on a historical figure who inspired my work as part of black history month, it was not a famous lawyer, activist or political figure that sprung to mind, but an author, Sam Selvon.
A brief biography reveals the melting pot of cultures and nationalities in Selvon’s family background.
Samuel Dickson Selvon was born in the south of Trinidad, the sixth of seven children. His parents were Indian: his father was a first-generation Christian Tamil immigrant from Madras and his mother was a Christian Anglo Indian. His maternal grandfather was Scottish and his maternal grandmother was Indian. He was a wireless operator with the local branch of the Royal Naval Reserve from 1940 to 1945 during the Second World War.
Selvon moved to London in 1950, where he took menial jobs eventually working as a clerk for the Indian Embassy, while writing in his spare time. His short stories and poetry appeared in various publications, including the London Magazine, New Statesman and The Nation. In London he also worked with the BBC, producing two television scripts, Anansi the Spiderman, and Home Sweet India.
Selvon later became a fellow in creative writing at the University of Dundee from 1975 until 1977. In the late 1970s Selvon moved to Alberta, Canada, and found a job teaching creative writing as a visiting professor at the University of Victoria. When that job ended, he took a job as a janitor at the University of Calgary in Alberta for a few months before becoming writer-in-residence there. He was largely ignored by the Canadian literary establishment, with his works receiving no reviews during his residency.
His most famous work is The Lonely Londoners, written in 1956, which I recall picking up from a church jumble sale in the late 1980s. I was drawn to the cover (one of the few with black faces on display at the time) and the title. I found the book a compelling read even though it did not follow a conventional plot structure. The novel follows a number of characters from the Windrush generation, through their daily lives in the capital. The various threads of action form a whole through the unifying central character of Trinidadian, Moses Aloetta, a veteran émigré who, after more than ten years in London, has still not achieved anything of note and whose homesickness increases as he gets older.
Sources describe how Selvon started writing the novel in standard English but soon found out that such language would not aptly convey the experiences and the unarticulated thoughts and desires of his characters. In creating a third person narrator who uses the same creolized form of English as the characters of the novel, Selvon added a new, multiculturalist dimension to the traditional London novel and enhanced the awareness in both readers and writers of a changing London society which could no longer be ignored.
While the migrant journey of the Windrush generation was different to that of my own parents from Sri Lanka a decade or so later, much of writing resonated with what they must have experienced as strangers in a strange land.
The book was thrown into the spotlight again for all the wrong reasons in 2017/2018 as details of the Windrush scandal emerged and the government’s appalling treatment of that generation of migrants came to light.
Reflecting on the novel more recently I realized that it was the first time I had read anything about this country that contained a discourse and narrative different from that taught at school or represented in the mainstream media. It was also hugely evocative in its description of London, my city.
The Guardian comments in a blog from 2018,
You only have to look at Selvon’s audacious first sentence to get an idea of The Lonely Londoners’ enduring appeal. He takes the language and imagery of Charles Dickens and TS Eliot and makes it entirely his own:
“One grim winter evening, when it had a kind of unrealness about London with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in the blur as if is not London but some strange place on another planet, Moses Aloetta hop on a number 46 bus at the corner of Chepstow Road and Westbourne Grove to go to Waterloo to meet a fellar who was coming from Trinidad on the boat-train.”
In the novel, Moses describes London as a lonely city that “divide[s] up in little worlds, and you stay in the world where you belong to and you don’t know anything about what is happening in the other ones except what you read in the papers.” It is depressing to think that the same is largely true 64 years after the book was written.
In a 2018 piece on the author, the Independent called Selvon ‘the ground-breaking author who gave voice to the Windrush generation.’ The novel only got the recognition it deserved many years after it was written, with Penguin categorizing it as a Modern Classic and various critics describing it as the definitive novel about London’s West Indians.
In the Independent piece, the writer Helon Habila comments,
“One imagines immediately the loneliness that must have gnawed at these immigrants whose memory of their sunny, convivial island communities was their only refuge at such moments. But although this is a book about exile and alienation, it is not a sad book. Even when his characters are under-going the direst of tribulations, Selvon has a way of capturing the humour in the situation…. The message of The Lonely Londoners is even more vital today than in 50s Britain: that, although we live in societies increasingly divided along racial, ideological and religious lines, we must remember what we still have in common – our humanity.”
It is perhaps this message that resonates most in the times in which we live and which continues to inspire me in the work I do.