A report by Tristan Fane Saunders for London’s Telegraph.
A new exhibition celebrates the inspiring music and literature of the Windrush generation
Two years ago, when the British Library decided to stage an exhibition about the Windrush generation, there was no inkling of the political maelstrom to come. Now it could not be more timely, opening just weeks after the resignation of Home Secretary Amber Rudd, following the Government’s admission that “terrible mistakes” had been made in its treatment of the Caribbean immigrants who arrived to live in the UK from 1948 onwards.
Featuring photographs, rare audio recordings, first drafts of famous novels, and letters by some of Britain’s most acclaimed black writers, the show highlights the optimism of the new arrivals and their fight for equality in the face of racial discrimination.
It also reignites the feeling of injustice that was provoked by the actions of the Government, who admitted earlier this year that it had binned thousands of landing cards belonging to the Windrush generation and then gone on to target them in a crackdown on illegal immigrants.
“I think it’s a travesty that [the documents] were destroyed,” says curator Elizabeth Cooper.
To drive home the impact of the scandal, Cooper and her co-curator Zoe Wilcox have added a piece of news footage to the exhibition in which people discuss how their lives have been affected by the 2014 Immigration Act, a law passed as part of the government’s “hostile environment” policy, which made it more difficult for anyone without the right paperwork to get a driving licence, open a bank account or rent a place to live.
But music and literature convey the truth of the community’s experience more acutely than any news report. One highlight of the exhibition – called Songs in a Strange Land – are recordings of the calypso singer Aldwin Roberts (who went by the stage name Lord Kitchener).
“I am glad to know my mother country,” he sang, a cappella. “London is the place for me.” That golden voice, captured on Pathé’s newsreels, was the sound of a whole generation’s optimism and hope. “If you’re brown… every door is shut in your face,” that same voice would sing a decade later. “You got to suffer until you die.” Roberts’s bitterly satirical lyrics reflected the disillusionment of many new arrivals who found they were not as welcome in Britain as they had first thought.
I wrote for a job in a big city.
They reply I should come immediately.
But when they saw my face, the foreman turn and say,
‘Somebody took the job yesterday.’
The exhibition also features audio interviews with some of the first black NHS nurses and London bus drivers. And a first edition of the writer Samuel Selvon’s seminal 1959 novel The Lonely Londoners, which reflected the anger many felt at the colour bar. At one point, the protagonist Moses describes being turned away at a restaurant. “Go there and see if they serve you. And you know the hurtful part of it? The Pole who has that restaurant, he ain’t have no more right in this country than we. In fact we is British subjects, and he is a foreigner […] Is we who bleed to make this country prosperous.”
Many aboard the Windrush were not first-time arrivals, but returning to the UK, having previously served in the British armed forces. Sam King was one of them. He told The Telegraph in 2015, shortly before his death, that he had felt compelled to go: “The Mother Country was at war, and she could not beat Nazi Germany on her own.” The exhibition features three medals awarded to King for his service as an RAF engineer. On his return to Jamaica, he found the island in a state of depression.
After seeing an advert in a local newspaper for tickets on the Windrush, King returned to Britain and rejoined the RAF, before a stint working for the Royal Mail. He became a leading activist for the Caribbean community.
King was an ardent socialist (but a devoted Telegraph reader – he loved EW Swanton’s cricket coverage) and his political interests led him to stand for the local council. In 1983, he became the first black mayor of Southwark, London’s oldest borough.
It’s an extraordinary success story, but not every West Indian war veteran was as readily accepted. Born in British Guiana, ER Braithwaite served as an RAF pilot, and after the war earned a PhD in Physics from Cambridge University. But no one would offer him work as a scientist. He took a low-paid job teaching at a run-down secondary school in the East End, and channelled his frustration into an autobiographical novel, To Sir, With Love, later adapted as a popular film starring Sidney Poitier.
The author was unhappy at how the film glossed over his novel’s more uncomfortable elements (“I detest the movie from the bottom of my heart”, Braithwaite said in 2007). But this exhibition reveals that one of the story’s most powerful moments was struck out by the author himself. One item on show is a manuscript for his novel, including a deleted passage in which the narrator describes being “whipped to a terrible fury” by “the accumulated anger of the years of taking it in silence. I had taken it in the hope of getting a job, I had taken it from strangers on buses, trains, in the street”.
Other exhibits offer a conflicted but optimistic vision of the Windrush generation’s role in creating a new multicultural society, such as work by the Jamaican-born poet James Berry.
The show also shines a light on lesser-known writers, such as Una Marson, a poet who became the first black woman employed by the BBC.
Overall, says Cooper, there is one theme that unites all the exhibits.
“A strong thread that goes throughout is the idea of creative resistance, of finding your voice and expressing your humanity,” she says. “Part of this story for Caribbean people has been that, in spite of facing such violence for centuries, the response has consistently been about reaffirming humanity, and insisting that the world become a more compassionate and human place – through art, through literature, and through the kinds of communities that they built here, and the ways that they responded to the difficulties they faced.”