Book 51: The Lonely Londoners, Sam Selvon (1956)

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Image result for the lonely londonersLocation: The Eagle & Tun, home to UB40, and our first time in a “desi pub”.

Theme: Black History Month

Chosen by: Lorna

In 1956, Trinidadian author Sam Selvon wrote The Lonely Londoners. The book marked an important point in the history of literature as the first book to focus on working-class black immigrants after the introduction of the British Nationality Act 1948.

The book is set over a 3-year period in London after the Second World War, with a very loose plot focused on the day-to-day lives of a group of West Indian immigrants. The main character, Moses, has lived in London for a decade, yet achieved nothing. Moses helps other newer immigrants to navigate British life—looking for jobs, trying to date white women, and seeing prostitutes.

Despite their hopes that England would be a land of promise, Moses and “the boys” are homesick, holding on to their dream of home, and it’s no surprise since they are only given the jobs that nobody else wants, are frequently exploited, and are treated as outsiders by the rest of society. For them, London is a lonely city where they are unwelcome and forced to unite through their common differences. It is a London divided, and that divides.

But Selvon himself went some way to removing this division by writing the book, not least because he rewrote the book in creolized English after starting in the Queen’s English so he could convey the realistic emotions of his characters and create awareness. While the slang and vocabulary used isn’t a barrier to enjoyment, the beat writer tradition he employs really is a barrier unless you’re a fan of it. Rather than the unfocused, meandering snapshots, we would have preferred a beginning, middle, and end (perhaps we’re a little conventional in our unconventionality.)

This succinct book offers a quick foray into the subject, but we felt that it lacked detail and merely skimmed the surface of the issues. On the whole, we wanted less of the characters chasing women and more insights, particularly of the female experience, which isn’t really explored. Instead of observational snippets and social commentary that provides just a flavour, we wanted back story and a more in-depth exploration of the immigrant experience.

Inevitably, coming to the book in 2016 when society has considerably moved on means the book doesn’t offer the kind of insights it did back in 1956. Yet it remains incredibly popular—perhaps leading to our high expectations. While we didn’t love the book for these reasons, it certainly provoked an interesting discussion around some of our parents’ experience of immigrating to England and of how much has really changed.

Score: 6


Book 43: To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (1960)

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Location: Our old favourite, Bacchus Bar

Category: Classics

Chosen by: Raman

For the second or third time in the history of the Unconventional Book Club, we picked a book only for the author to sadly move off the mortal coil the same week. I’m beginning to think we should stop picking ageing authors… RIP Harper Lee.

To Kill a Mockingbird is an undeniable classic—regularly gracing and often topping must-read and Top 10 book lists. We came to this book from a range of positions, from first timers to re-reads to those who had studied in school and others who had only seen the film. And we left this book in a range of positions too, from those who loved it to those who still loved it to those who liked it less on re-read to those who disliked it.

For the benefit of those who haven’t read it, To Kill a Mockingbird is the “coming of age” tale of Scout, the young daughter of a lawyer, Atticus, who represents a black man, Tom Robinson, accused of raping a while girl in 1930s deep south America. Set against a background of racial prejudice in small town Alabama, it details Scout and her older brother Jem’s daily activities at school and at play as they learn about morality and justice.

Why those who loved it loved it

A tale narrated from a child’s perspective, To Kill a Mockingbird has always held wide appeal for children and has often been taught in schools. Those of us who loved the book enjoyed Scout’s innocence and hunger for knowledge, and how it provides an interesting perspective on a society that is otherwise ingrained with racism and inequalities.

While much of the local community deplores or doesn’t understand Atticus’ reasoning for representing Tom, and his children experience this first-hand, Atticus imbues his children with a sense of morality and equality through his measured answers to their numerous questions. It is easy to see why Atticus is a much-loved literary character. In a riveting court scene during Tom’s trial, Atticus expertly represents the voice of reason.

Indeed, the story itself provokes anger at the injustice, amusement at the children’s antics, and nostalgia—of times when stories of the unknown (i.e. neighbour Boo Radley) caused fear in children. By the end of the novel, Scout has matured and no longer seeks explanation for everything.

After a brief debate on the merits and demerits of mushy peas, the discussion continued…

Why those who didn’t didn’t

While we all agreed that we enjoyed the subject matter and plot, our disappointment was that the book is remembered for its theme of racial injustice, but the majority of the book is actually the banal day-to-day lives of the children. The exciting, and arguably best, parts of the book are the court scenes, but those are actually minor points in what seemed like an aside to the coming of age story.

These important scenes are over too quickly, while the novel focuses more on the interactions of the children through a lot of dialogue. In terms of style, there is also much preamble and scene setting. In fact, by page 80, literally nothing has happened. What we wanted was more of Tom Robinson’s story and less of Scout’s.

Perhaps the hype around this novel as an expression of inequality have led to perceptions that race is the main focus of the story, when in fact, the focus is on Scout’s coming of age.

Score: 7