Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

The book which changed my perception of London

Perhaps one of my favourite aspects of the English Literature course here at the University of Warwick is the diversity the texts celebrate, as writers span the globe. It was in my first week at Warwick this past September that I had the privilege of being able to the see an alternative perception of a place very familiar to me: London.

The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon was not only composed by a writer who was a part of the so-called ‘Windrush generation’, but also contains developed characters that travelled that same journey to arrive in what Moses, the primary character, deems the ‘Mother Country’.

Initially, I was baffled at the depiction of a character who felt such a close affiliation to a country he had never visited. However, this was explained through the imperialist ideas fed to school-age children within the British colonies of the twentieth-century. Children within the West Indies, where the majority of the characters are from, would have often been taught British history rather than the history of their own countries.

The further I delved into the text, the more my perception of the city changed

Through the eyes of a Londoner, it was bizarre that people across the world held my home in such reverence. The further I delved into the text, the more my perception of the city changed. The novel explores how the city whose streets I walk regularly were built on the blood of those who came here to work and integrate into British society, but instead were met with hatred, poverty and xenophobia.

There is a significant element of pathos to the novel as Moses welcomes his excited friends to England, each time knowing that this excitement will be quashed as they are forced to endure racial slurs and physical violence. Moments of blatant sexism as well as racism occur at Piccadilly Circus. Women are referred to as “cats”, wealthy white women throw down spare change to the black man from their ornate windows and workers at the employment offices mark the resumes of black men with “Col.” as a forewarning to employers.

Hailing from a diverse area of London and moving directly into the equally diverse environment of Warwick, to read of new Londoners being refused service in restaurants, told to “haul” when entering a space considered to be for “distinguished” people, and being rejected from jobs across the city was not only alien, but disturbing.

The multi-million pound houses and apartments would have previously been occupied by immigrant workers struggling to find their place

Now, this is certainly not to say that I was not aware of the history of racial oppression and abuse within London. However, I am ashamed to say it is rare that I consider the isolation and despair that Moses’ character and real men and women of colour would have felt while strolling alongside the Thames, and that many still do today. Rarely would I consider the gentrification of areas such as Waterloo and Notting Hill and how the multi-million pound houses and apartments would have previously been occupied by immigrant workers struggling to find their place within such a hostile and frankly violent society.

The Lonely Londoners is a truly significant example of literary excellence that allowed me to experience the history of my city through a highly moving, episodic narrative as opposed to a history textbook. It is not simply a depiction of the atrocities of the past, but a reminder that the rhetoric of that period of history has insidiously seeped into the modern day. Ranging from the 1993 murder of Stephen Lawrence to the more recent 2018 Windrush scandal, the city I call my home, at times, sadly still reflects the experiences of Selvon’s characters.

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