Sixty years ago, when Caribbean migration to the UK peaked, the BBC produced a handy little booklet – Going to Britain? – as a guide to what new arrivals might expect. “In the shop or in the store, wherever you go you will most likely find people standing one behind the other waiting for service,” readers were told. “They call this line a queue, and your place in this ‘Q’ is Z – that is at the end of the line.”
The black and white cover photo featured a neat, pensive young woman at a London train station, beside a pile of suitcases that seem suddenly to have become too cumbersome for her to carry. She has the bearing of a schoolteacher, but the suggestion of fastidiousness draws attention to the one real oddity: her overcoat is two or three sizes too big. She is emblematic of the times and of the women I interviewed for Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation. The book will be published into an environment that is still full of toxic narratives around immigration, and at a time when the Home Office has failed to learn lessons from what has become known as the –Windrush scandal.
Setting out from the Caribbean in the 1950s and 60s, many could not conceive of snow, and winter coats were almost impossible to acquire. Such women remind me of my mother, Ethlyn, and all of her Caribbean peers memorialised in the book. These giants of my childhood were extraordinary dreamers and romancers who had dared to travel 4,000 miles to a place they had only imagined from arcane ceremonies carried out by governors and other colonial officials, from Pathé newsreels and from the West Indian Reader textbooks sent from England. Some, such as George Mangar, were better prepared. Mangar’s mother packed 100 shirts into a travelling trunk when he left British Guiana (now Guyana). In his first winter in frosty Britain, he wore three at a time. Others were more cavalier. “Summerwear” got his nickname following his determination on leaving Jamaica to wear light summer suits in England no matter the weather, come hail or storm. “Whatever became of Summerwear?” I asked Ethlyn when researching the book. “Well,” she said, “within a few months he caught a chill and died.”
Growing up in 1970s Luton, I was always impressed by what I considered a West Indian code – the phlegmatic shrug and the great store of humour that eased their passage through life. Struggling to find work in a prejudicial environment, one man was often informed that it was “a terrible shame but you’ve just turned up a little too late”. His wry assessment of the news was typically West Indian: “Boy, the Englishman is the nicest man out when he’s telling you ‘no’.”
Faced with rejection, West Indians mostly pulled up the collar of their coats and walked on – at least that was their initial remembrance as I sat down with them. The palpable veil of respectability, which descended almost as soon as I began to record them, was testament to the peculiar reserve and reticence among West Indians of my parents’ generation to share information. “Me don’t like chat people’s business” is a phrase you’ll often hear in West Indian households. But perhaps because of my Jamaican background, when interviewing these octogenarians that guardedness dissolved as they immersed themselves in reminiscences. They soon reverted to the kind of salty, mischievous and thrilling behaviour that took me back to the 60s and 70s.
The poet Derek Walcott once asserted: “All Port of Spain is a noon-day show.” As a child that same vibrancy was evident at almost any gathering I attended of Caribbean people. They were a contrast to the British, who seemed to have worked out that the whole point to life was to proceed, with as little fuss as possible, towards death. Yet in the 70s, our Caribbeanness rarely found expression outside of the four walls that bound us.
Even so, I’ve long felt the Caribbean influence in Britain. Recently my ears pricked up when listening to PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake. One of that album’s most stunning tracks derives its power from the reggae chorus of Niney the Observer’s Blood and Fire: “there is no more water to put out the fire, let it burn, let it burn”. It might very well be an anthem for our times, heralding the embrace of chaos which borders on nihilism.
Going to Britain? could not have prepared the West Indian pioneers for this moment, nor for the fact that, 60 years after their arrival, some of them would be scandalously deported. Joyce Trotman, now aged 91, gives an overview of how British West Indians have been cast since her arrival in 1954. “First we were children of empire, then citizens of the Commonwealth, and now foreigners and immigrants.” Those who found themselves ejected from the bosom of the motherland were further insulted by the cultural advice offered by British officials about what to expect on arrival back in Jamaica. Lesson one was how to “sound Jamaican” and not to attract attention to their Britishness. The sense of shame of these insulted black Britons is compounded by the notion that you left the Caribbean poor, with a desire to travel to Britain to better yourself; you were not expected to return empty and broken.
“Respect” is the most important word in the Jamaican lexicon. To ensure that a mess like the Windrush scandal never happens again, the government should empty the coffers of the Treasury and give the forced returnees whatever sum might assuage their pain. The financial consequences must be such that officials would think twice in the future. And while we’re at it, let’s strip those enforcers of the hostile environment policy of any honours they may subsequently have received.
Perhaps no level of apology can compensate for the humiliation inflicted. But 60 years on from Going to Britain? we will have reached a dangerous point if there’s an absence of water to put out the fire of resentment that burns in the bosom of all of us, ashamed at the reckless and callous treatment of the most vulnerable members of the Windrush generation.