The West Indians were the first to be recruited in any numbers. They started arriving in the early Fifties and were followed a year or two later by the Asians. The Great British economy, even if still swaying a bit, was back on its feet and in need of servicing. The new arrivals did not find the welcome they hoped for; they were poorly received, but they kept on coming; times were even worse at home. Or home was no more; in the mid-Sixties their numbers grew as Asian refugees from newly-independent Kenya and Uganda looked to their British passports for security. There was public concern. ‘They’ began to be seen as a ‘problem’. Enoch Powell prophesied ‘rivers of blood’ and white working-class fascists shaved their heads. A series of Immigration Acts was passed, dividing families, stemming the flow. Most of the migrant workers had originally meant to stay a few years; go back with some money. But it didn’t often work out that way. Most of them stayed.
Jonathon Green’s book is not easy reading, nor can it have been intended to be. He has interviewed 103 first-generation immigrants to Britain about their experiences. His subjects speak for themselves; there is an introduction, but no comment thereafter. In the letters that accompanied his requests for interviews, Green wrote: ‘The premise of the book is that there are certain experiences common to all immigrants, irrespective of the date of their arrival, the old life they abandoned and the new one that immigration set in motion.’ Common to most of those who responded seems to be the coupling of deracination with a frustratingly shallow integration into a ‘closed’ British society. The author, whose mother was a first-generation immigrant, feels ‘only remotely English’ himself; and this remoteness is communicated by most of his contributors, even if their words are occasionally informed by a wry fondness for their new countrymen. On the surface the individual paragraphs of this hook are amusing, irritating, angry, perceptive. At another level, however, they are dense with sadness: sadness for families and countries left behind, sadness for a new place that didn’t want to know them and sadness for life’s shortness.
The voices can be divided. The experiences of, for example, Kathy Acker or Michael Ignatieff are very different from those of the men and women who arrived in Britain from Africa and Asia. Of these, some had a start in their new lives, some had none. By and large, the blacker and poorer they were, the worse time they had. And many of the images of England that they arrived with were sadly wide of the mark; curious distillations in which David Niven-like aristocrats dispensed fairness and tolerance in a Dickensian landscape.
‘All I knew about England was what I read,’ says Teddy Peiro, who was born in Argentina: ‘I was very fond of the famous detective, Derek Lawson, and his assistant, Tinker. What I knew about England from reading was Croydon Airport – Derek Lawson was always arriving there. I would think, “Oh, if one day I could be at Croydon Airport”.’ Peiro arrived in the Sixties. Like most of the speakers in this book, he would have got to know parts of Croydon better than he might have wished after the usual series of compulsory visits to that cheerless suburb. The Home Office, with its endless queues, wretched complicities, dreary humiliations. Names mispronounced by tired, suspicious staff. Guilty until proved innocent. The mother country gathering her children to herself: those who did’t believe it, like Bernie Grant, had still met the myth somewhere along the way. ‘Make some money, go back home, buy some land’ – another myth. It didn’t happen, somehow. Life proved too short to uproot a second time. There were children, it was too late.
It was getting going from scratch that took so long. Qualifications from home were ignored; there was work to be found in England, but it was the worst work. ‘Most of the South-all community worked at the rubber factory,’ remembers Bhajan Singh Chadha. ‘The local whites wouldn’t work there. The conditions were too dangerous for your health.’ ‘These are the people who won us the war,’ whispers Michael Ignatieff’s father to him, meanwhile, of the Cockney ‘characters’ on the bus. So one way or another, with or without visas, with or without English, leaving behind them fear, persecution, wretched poverty or just ennui or lack of opportunity, they crossed the line. ‘On arrival,’ writes Don Ayteo, ‘you were painfully not special.’ Like Carmen Callil, no one had the right clothes. Most were soon cold, and found the place variously grey, colourless, shabby, drab, grim, bombed-out, damp, gloomy and dirty. The more fortunate saw all that as an excitingly quaint and low-key backdrop to the brightness of their future endeavours. The rest, as they grew to understand that their place was to be part of the greyness, fought despair.
What they were faced with was being feared and distrusted as strangers. ‘Race’ is the wrong word. The problem was that their cultures were different, and that made them outsiders. And so to be feared, because the outsider culture which cannot easily be understood threatens the inside culture which is unwilling or unable to explain itself. The problem for many immigrants is the association that is made in the minds of ‘threatened’, identity-weak insiders between certain physical characteristics and cultural outsidership. Today ‘racism’ remains a mixture of simple cultural chauvinism and more complex paranoias concerning balances of ‘culture’ and ‘nature’. The racist is desperate to see Prospero in his mirror. He is most dangerous when the image dissolves into that of Caliban. Last year 70,000 racist attacks were recorded in Greater London alone.
In different ways, the first generation of migrants found the British impossible to fathom and the British caste system impossible to penetrate. ‘The codes here of indicating what you mean are the most devious I have ever come across in the Western world,’ says Kathy Acker. Michael Ignatieff arrived in Cambridge to discover weird visual coding: ‘people with stalk necks and tight little collars and Hush Puppies on their feet and frightful corduroys and awful misshapen hacking jackets’. Shreeram Vidyarthi describes the society of Sittingbourne, where ‘more than a hundred families have dined at my table, some more than once. Some were uninvited – they came, we happened to be eating, we sat them at the table and we fed them. Not one of them in the 18 years of my living there has invited me back.’ British caste was determined on the basis of a past that was continually reinventing itself, neatly excluding all whose claims on the society were based on the present and the actual. ‘They want what always was,’ writes Tess Wickham, who arrived in London in 1964 from Holland. ‘Even if what they get is a completely crappy version of what always was, they still prefer the pastiche, the complete crap version of what they’re used to.’ And so paragraph after paragraph, chapter after chapter for more than four hundred pages, as they sort the waste paper, enamel the baths, walk the greyhounds and manage the Golden Eggs, they describe their experiences, and through those experiences, us.
Zerbanoo Gifford is extensively quoted in Green’s book. She is one of the few who describes her arrival in Britain with any enthusiasm:
I just thought I was coming to Paradise. It was cold and everything else but it was just so wonderful. The sheer excitement ... A lot of people felt depressed and miserable when they arrived but not me.
There is a photograph of the young Zerbanoo smiling hugely and not being depressed and miserable at all. In her book no one is allowed to be depressed and miserable for long. They get on with things.
Like many of her heroines, Gifford is Zoroastrian, a Parsi. The Parsis were staunch supporters of the British in India, and on their marriage, Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer received a set of embroidered doylies from the Parsi community of Bombay. There are elements of the same loyalty in The Golden Thread. Not for this author the arms-length distrust of the British as tight-lipped and thin-blooded. She admires them, and she counts the ways. The ‘Golden Thread’ of the title, used as a catch-all metaphor throughout the book, could also be employed to describe the comparative privilege which draws her subjects together. They have both time and talents. There is very little sense in her book of the terrors and rejections experienced by the speakers of Them. Her subjects are successful women: broadcasters, artists, writers, politicians. No one sorts waste paper.
All of which is impressive, but it makes the book’s subtitle slightly deceptive; no unexceptional woman’s experience is touched. Also, the book is charmingly but, at the beginning especially, almost unapproachably perfumed with metaphor. Gifford’s spoken style, as quoted by Green, is much more to the point. Here she is, in Green’s book, describing the young Bangladeshi community:
They get rather pissed off with this stereotype of their community being disadvantaged, because they’ve been brought up very well. They don’t feel downtrodden, quite the opposite. This is a whole generation who are very articulate and very confident. They’re not going to take any shit from anybody. They’re past that.’