The rise of the lonely Londoners: When the writer Sam Selvon arrived in England in 1950, he came in on a tide of new West Indian creativity. This week he reads from his work in the South Bank's 'Out of the Margins' season. Naseem Khan met him

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Sam Selvon must have been born under a kindly star. How else to account for the warmth of his books? There he was, a young man, getting off the boat from Trinidad in 1950, coming to a country that was not only cold but increasingly hysterical about the arrival of what were called 'Jamaicans' whichever Caribbean island they came from. 'I was just swept up by exaltation,' he recalls. 'It was so vivid as a period of time, so very much alive, and I myself wasn't widely travelled. I was as naive as any immigrant coming out of a small island to live in a country like England.'

To see with his own eyes places that he had only heard about - the 'historic Thames', the Embankment and, above all, Piccadilly Circus, was magic. 'That circus have a magnet for him, that circus represent life,' he wrote about a character in his classic novel, The Lonely Londoners. 'That circus is the beginning and the ending of the world . . . drink coca-cola, any time is guinness time, bovril and the fireworks, a million flashing lights, gay laughter, the wide doors of theatres, the huge posters, everready batteries, rich people going into tall hotels . . .'

London might have had the intoxication of a world stage, but it offered only walk-on parts to the new immigrants. Selvon considered himself fortunate. At 27, he'd arrived with 'a small name'. The son of an Indian Trinidadian (a drygoods merchant in a small village), he'd joined the Trinidad Guardian and had a few stories published. But there was little outlet for the arts, and England was the natural place to turn.

So disembarking one April day, he settled down to find his fortune. First of all the practicalities: a job clerking at the Indian High Commission and a basement room in Notting Hill. Here he sat down and 'wrote like hell'.

Then the problems started. He was trying to write about a young man living in the village of Barataria (his own village in real life). 'I started to write in standard English,' he says, 'but for some reason it didn't get off the ground. Weeks passed. I said, this thing is bursting out of me . . . What happens when I use the Caribbean kind of English instead? Well . . . in six months it was done. Just like that] It was as if it could not be written without the language, it fitted so neatly. Of course, then I was wondering how the publishers would feel.' He pauses and lights another Benson & Hedges. 'But they liked it. And it (A Brighter Sun) had wonderful reviews.'

In fact, Selvon could hardly have picked a better time to come to Britain. He had stepped into a renaissance and was to help shape it. For the Fifties marked the steady arrival of many Caribbean artists whose work has now been recognised for its true stature. George Lamming had been Selvon's companion on the same boat in the voyage over. V S Naipaul and Edward Kamau Brathwaite came to take up scholarships, one at Oxford and and the other at Cambridge. Andrew Salkey and Aubrey Williams followed two years later. The tide of West Indian creativity was running high, profiting from the stimulus that a shift of place always brings - new horizons, new forms of expression, new and challenging definitions of roots. It was, says Selvon, a wonderful time, 'a period which marked the beginning of our future'. An informal federation, the writers and artists met frequently in the corridors of Bush House. Later, in the 1960s, they came together in an extraordinary grouping called The Caribbean Artists Movement. Behind today's black arts developments stand these sterling days.

At the time, their quality may not have been so apparent to Selvon, who fell ill with TB in 1953 and was in hospital for a year. However, when he emerged, it was to the publication of his second novel and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Encouraged, he decided to give up clerking and support himself, as best he could, as a writer.

The first fruits were auspicious. The Lonely Londoners was Selvon's first response to life in Britain: a book that will last, with Mayhew, as a classic record of London life. Its picaresque characters were real, based on the men he'd travelled over with - several of whom threatened to sue him later. There's 'Galahad' who survives by perfecting a patent method of trapping and eating seagulls. There's Captain who accepts the invitation of a husky-voiced woman, to be told by the whooping boys later that he'd screwed a man (so that's why the going was so hard, he mused). There's Harris, the would-be Englishman, whose posh do is disrupted by the boys.

It's the 'boys' all the time (not, significantly, the 'men') - larking, tussling, hanging in and making out. But is it really good cheer, ponders Moses, one of their number, at the end of the book? 'Under the kiff-kiff laughter, behind the ballad and the episode, the what-happening, the summer-is-hearts, he could see a great aimlessness . . . As if the boys laughing, but they only laughing because they fraid to cry, they only laughing because to think so much about everyting would be a big calamity - like how he here now, the thoughts so heavy like he unable to move his body.'

On the sidelines, Selvon - an honorary 'boy' - watched and felt and recorded. He is not a joiner, he says. He was part of CAM, for instance, but not a prime mover. His forte is the compassion of his view, involving a distance that he had always instinctively maintained. 'I've always been pretty much of a loner. I've felt that my creativity should as much as possible come out of my own experiences. And I have this fear that if I analyse the innocence you discover in A Brighter Sun and the exuberance in The Lonely Londoners, I'll lose their originality. It's good to be a little bit ignorant about your own processes and work out of that, creating something that is coming out of you, not something that can be seen as being part of a school of writers. To me that is the firing force that keeps me going, and I have to guard it very preciously.'

Now based in Canada, after 28 years in Britain, Selvon would seem in some danger of running full tilt into the very analysis he fears. Workshops, residencies, lectures, he says ruefully, had piled themselves upon him. He resists however - 'I'm still holding on to that originality' - and the next novel is growing slowly, a large fictional view of the Caribbean psyche. Forty years and more have gone by since Selvon first left his island, thoughts full of Piccadilly Circus and the wider world. No, he says, he has no regrets; in a sense, he has never left. 'I have always remained a Caribbean. I don't want to lose that, girl, because that is all I have.'

Sam Selvon is speaking at London's South Bank Centre, on 12 Nov, 4pm, in 'Out of the Margins'. For details, phone: 071-928 8800.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments