Bogle L’Ouverture publishers have just reissued Donald Hinds’ 1966 book Journey to an Illusion: The West Indian in Britain, a “series of interviews interspersed with autobiography and social commentary. . . that vividly conveys the plight of Commonwealth immigrants to the ‘mother country’ in the postwar decades.” The book has been out of print for 30 years. Hinds, who was born in Jamaica in 1934, was a London bus conductor who wrote between shifts for the West Indian Gazette, Britain’s first black newspaper, founded in 1958 by Trinidad-born Claudia Jones, the civil rights activist and journalist. The book was the subject this week of an extended review in the Guardian by Ian Thomson, author of The Dead Yard. Here are some excerpts:
As a “clippie” on the double-deckers Hinds was exposed to racism and sometimes even the anger Britons felt at their country’s imperial decline, yet when I interviewed him for my book The Dead Yard: Tales of Modern Jamaica, he spoke of his days on the buses with nostalgia, even amazement. At Brixton garage his driver, a Woodbine-smoking first world war veteran, was happy to have a Jamaican on board. “I fought alongside a lot of coloureds in the trenches,” he would say. West Indians were not that numerous in 50s London; an entire week could go by without Hinds seeing another black face. Passengers, astonished to encounter a non-white clippie, asked Hinds if they could pat his hair for “good luck”. After the civil rights movement had taken hold in America, understandably he came to resent such curiosity. Yet London Transport played its role, Hinds now believes, in breaking down race prejudice in postwar Britain; the buses provided the British public with an opportunity to encounter West Indians for the first time and even (heavens!) talk to them. The sense of camaraderie, unfortunately, did not last.
Journey to an Illusion is haunted by the race “disturbances” that swept Britain in 1958. Tensions erupted first in Nottingham, then, more grievously, in London. White youths (“teddy boys” to the press) went out to beat up West Indians and “Pakis” in Shepherd’s Bush and the area then known as Notting Dale, between the factories of Wood Lane and the now middle-class streets of Notting Hill. Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement and other thugs were rallying the disaffected to go out “nigger-hunting”. So began four days of some of the worst civil unrest the United Kingdom was to see until the Brixton riots of 1981. The 1958 riots dramatically altered the way West Indians viewed the host country, and helped to dispel myths of imperial Britain as protector of “subject peoples”.
The following year, on the night of 17 May 1959, a young black carpenter from Antigua, Kelso Cochrane, was fatally stabbed by white youths in a street off Portobello Road. It was the first racist killing of a black man in modern Britain. Mosley later held a meeting at the murder scene (today occupied by the Grove pub on Southam Street). Half a century on, Cochrane’s killers have still not been found. The murdered man’s funeral in Kensal Green cemetery was attended by more than 1,000 mourners. “After Cochrane’s death,” Hinds says, “we had to rethink everything, we had to revise our faith in the Union flag.” Journey to an Illusion grew out of the despair attendant on the race riots and Cochrane’s murder.
When, in 1955, Hinds had emigrated from Jamaica to “Missus Queen’s” country, he felt secure in his British citizenship and place in the Commonwealth. His family, “poor but ambitious” farmers, likewise saw Jamaica as an outpost of British sovereignty. At school, history had meant the history of British imperial endeavour as exemplified by Mungo Park, David Livingstone and Cecil Rhodes. Little or no mention was made of Jamaican history – the slave system and its abolition, the anti-imperial Maroon wars, Marcus Garvey. Only later would Hinds discover the history of his own country.
The crush of humanity on board the immigrant ship, however, made him think of the Middle Passage – the feared Atlantic crossing of slaves from Africa to imperial sugar fields. By the journey’s end, the SS Auriga’s stairs smelled of vomit and urine. Nevertheless, the 1,300 immigrants on board were filled with hope for a better future. They were coming to Britain to work. By migrating they believed they were exercising a birthright: “UK-Right of Abode” was stamped in their passports; Britain was going to rescue them from poverty.
. . .
A recurring theme of Journey to an Illusion is the immigrant’s discovery that Britain was not only unmindful of the Commonwealth but also disinclined to help West Indians. Italians selling ice-cream were made to feel more welcome, despite having fought on Hitler’s side in the conflict. But, as Hinds points out: “When the British speak about immigrants they do not mean white people.” It was especially galling to Hinds, who as a teenager had read Charles Dickens and Shelley, and watched endless genteel “tea-party movies” from Gainsborough Studios. But for all his immersion in British culture, Hinds was “struck dumb” on his arrival in London. He could not believe that Britain could look so different to the way it had been depicted in the posters back home. His biggest surprise was not the glum clothes or unsmiling faces, but the cockney people spoke. Hinds had expected the British to be exactly like the white colonials he had known back home. The spectacle of white road-sweepers was an astonishing reversal of roles. “Caucasian hands doing a black man’s work: whatever next?” Another shock was seeing women with their hair in rollers in public. What sort of life could spring from such squalor? The British lion must have become a very minor power, it was thought, if London could look so depleted.
. . .
Journey to an Illusion fills a void in their recorded history. Even now, three decades on, the book’s importance is spoken of as something extraordinary. The book helped to promote psychological independence from colonial Britain, and gave hope to West Indians dissatisfied by the old, closed imperial view of their past.
The complete review can be found at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/aug/29/donald-hinds-journey-to-illusion