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Sukhdev Sandhu

  • Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multiracial Britain by Mike Phillips and Trevor Phillips
    HarperCollins, 422 pp, £16.99, May 1998, ISBN 0 00 255909 9

Elderly Jamaicans, still trim, their trousers shiny-kneed but meticulously creased, smile spryly and recount with courtesy their memories of treading down the gangplank of a former German warship onto a grey, gale-swept motherland. As they tell their word-perfect stories, a series of familiar archive images floods the screen: broad-brimmed, broad-smiled West Indians with their natty suits and meagre luggage; the scrum of cameramen snapping away at this strange and freshly-docked cargo; the calypsonian Lord Kitchener acceding to a Pathé newsman’s request and breaking into a reedy ‘London Is the Place for Me’. Suddenly, according to innumerable commemorative church services and TV series, a marvellous post-colonial transformation was about to be wrought on a monochrome, war-weary nation.

The docking of the SS Empire Windrush at Tilbury in 1948 did not herald the beginning of multiracial Britain, even if that myth has become entrenched in the wake of last year’s 50th-anniversary celebrations. Black people had lived here for years: in addition to the long-established communities in Liverpool and Cardiff, thousands of Caribbean men and women had served in the RAF and worked as technicians and electricians in factories in the North-West during World War Two. Nocturnal Soho was crammed with illicit dens and clubs in which East End racketeers, West African stowaways and black GIs smoked one joint after another and frittered away their scant earnings on illegal gambling and drinking sessions.

Nor was the Windrush the first postwar ship to ferry Caribbean migrants to England. Six months earlier and completely unheralded, the Almanzora had docked at Southampton with 150 Jamaicans aboard. The state did not offer them hand-outs or cheap accommodation; they spent the weeks after disembarking trying to stave off the coldest winter this century by loitering for as long as possible in the Underground and in Lyons Corner Houses. Nor did the Windrush trigger a massive influx of new immigrants. Scarcely more than a thousand drifted across the Atlantic over the next five years. Ambitious West Indians found it cheaper to sail to the United States, where they had been making their fortunes since the 19th century. Many headed for Florida where they farmed, picked citrus fruit and worked in canning factories. By the Twenties, the decade of the Harlem renaissance, a quarter of the district’s residents were of Caribbean origin, while half of New York’s black businesses were owned by West Indians. In 1952, however, when Congress passed the McCarran Walter Act restricting migration, prospective migrants to the US were obliged to reconsider. The United Kingdom, where some of their kin had already settled, was an obvious choice.

Officially, 492 West Indians, the majority of them Jamaican men with an average age of 24, were on board the Windrush when it sailed for England on Empire Day in May 1948. They paid £28 10s. each – the not inconsiderable equivalent of three cows – and were armed with affidavits signed by Justices of the Peace which testified to their good character. There were also eight stowaways on board. In addition to an assortment of journalists, students, clerks, boxers, mechanics and actors, around a third of the passengers were on leave from the RAF or returning after being demobbed. Although the hurricane which hit Jamaica in 1944 had destroyed the island’s coffee and banana crops and thrown it into deep recession, the early settlers were not economic migrants. Most had marketable skills and did not need to come to England. They were drawn by the opportunity to escape the cosseted predictability of island life and experience the freedom that England represented. The Caribbean seemed to offer spiritual petrification, England the possibility of endless possibility. Only by fleeing Jamaica – however firmly they told themselves they would return in five or ten years – could they begin to exist. Harris, in George Lamming’s novel The Emigrants (1954), pinpoints this feeling when, setting eyes on England for the first time from a ship’s porthole, he thinks to himself: ‘There was life, life, life, and wherever there was life there had to be something other than no-THING which did not matter.’

The Windrush passengers drew a cheerier response in London than they did in Jamaica, where the Daily Gleaner spoke glumly of ‘New Life in Sombre Setting for W.I. Job-Seekers’. That paper’s curmudgeonliness contrasted unfavourably with the Daily Mail which, in a spasm of magnanimity it would fail to show in the following decades, announced: ‘Cheers for men from Jamaica’. More warmly still, the Evening Standard greeted the arrivals with a headline – ‘Welcome Home’ – that was both generous and accurate.

It’s easy in retrospect to sneer at the immigrants and accuse them of colonial cringe. Yet the Windrush passengers and those who followed them over the next 15 years were right to regard their voyage as a kind of homecoming. The history, literature and landscape of England were at least as familiar to them as those of the islands they had left behind. Their school textbooks were full of monumental images – Big Ben, Nelson’s Column, the Houses of Parliament – reinforcing the message that England was a land fit for heroes, the home of democracy. Years later they could still recite the words of the Eton Boating Song and passages from John Evelyn’s account of the Great Fire of London. Caribbean schoolchildren knew that the best commodities were English, from medicines and neckties to crown-embossed mustard jars and the brilliantine which they applied so liberally to their hair. Caribbean doctors, judges and lawyers were invariably white and England came to be associated with rectitude, the pulling-up of socks and standing to attention. In the Cadet Corps, on school Speech Days, whenever the National Anthem was played, Englishness compelled deference and a feeling that one was in the presence of pedigree and authority. To go to the source was a challenge of Mayflower-like magnitude. It was also an act of love. Thousands of West Indian conscripts had been prepared to die for England only a few years earlier, while their younger brothers and sisters scrupulously saved up halfpennies and farthings to drop into collecting tins at schools or knitted blankets as part of the war effort.

The disappointment felt by those immigrants who arrived in England hoping, in V.S. Naipaul’s words, to ‘find the centre’, to share in the might and vertebration of a triumphant colonial power rather than live out palsied and prefabricated lives on marginal islands has been rehearsed so many times that it is now a commonplace. Yet their tales of being stranded between ‘expansion and failure, ecstasy and impasse’ constitute by far the most interesting section of Windrush, Mike and Trevor Phillips’s history of postwar black England.

Early arrivals who had been weaned on Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Dickens imagined the metropolis as ancient and archival. They had peered at celluloid images of its citadels and monuments on the Movietone newsreels screened before the main features at their local Empire Theatre fleapit. They had listened to the voices of Bush House broadcasters, all black-tie and plummy syllables, crackling out of purple Bakelite radios with great auctoritas. They saw London as a haven of order and stability rather than a soft city which, as their children later envisaged, could be modelled at will.

Fifty years on, many of the people interviewed in Windrush still appear to be reeling from the devastation they experienced after disembarking from their trains at Waterloo and Paddington. Week after week, they filled out useless forms, pestered friends, scanned shop windows for accommodation ads without the proviso ‘No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs’, only to trudge back to their hostel rooms, cold, sodden and smarting from the weasel words of the latest slum landlord to close a door in their face.

All this was a long way from the welcoming words of the tabloids, but animosity was not universal: an English woman travelling on the same London bus as Eric Huntley escorted him under her umbrella all the way to the Haroldstone Road house he was looking for. Vince Reid, on the other hand, recalls how people came up to him and rubbed his skin to see if the blackness came off (a ritual which, with the help of bleaches and scouring agents, many second-generation Anglo-Caribbeans would later perform in the desperate privacy of their parents’ bathrooms). Others talk of an unexpected sense of constriction. Hemmed in by peasoupers, with no horizons in sight, they crammed into tiny bedsits and basement flats which stank of paraffin fumes, drying workers’ overalls and damp plaster. Here they were in the London they had hungered after for so long, yet the capital they’d imagined was nowhere to be seen.

It’s a quandary identified by the Trinidadian author Sam Selvon, whose characters pace Piccadilly Circus in vain looking for the lions and elephants which they’ve grown up believing stalk the area. Similarly, in The Lonely Londoners (1956), the finest and funniest ‘black British’ novel ever written, Selvon introduces the grandstanding, metrophiliac Big City, who keeps using the neologism ‘fusic’, a bizarre cognate of ‘fuse’, which implies addition and synthesis – terms which, both linguistically and culturally, have a strong association with migrant groups in postwar Britain. But it is also an inkhorn expression suggesting the faltering efforts of Caribbean immigrants during the Forties and Fifties to get the measure of their new environment.

Selvon does not appear in Windrush. Nor does George Lamming. E.R. Braithwaite, author of To Sir with Love (1959), an autobiographical account of the hostility and prejudice he encountered as a young schoolteacher in the East End, gets only a fleeting namecheck. And it’s remarkable how few artists and writers are featured. Their inclusion would presumably strike the authors as being too evocative of those cheerful Commission for Racial Equality information packs littered with photographs of celebrity chefs, Premier League centre-forwards and poorly postured ragga crews from Romford making like ruffnecks.

Windrush doesn’t analyse how ethnic groups have been portrayed – or sought to portray themselves – in the media during the last fifty years. The authors regard that kind of cultural studies approach as insufficiently materialist. They want to repoliticise black British historiography, as is evident from their book’s sloppy subtitle, with its double conflation of Caribbean and ‘multiracial’, England and ‘Britain’. Mike Phillips writes London-based cop novels, while Trevor presents LWT’s The London Programme and has been mooted as a potential mayor for the city, so it’s no surprise that Windrush is a fastidiously metropolitan work which rarely ventures out to provincial or rural England, let alone Wales or Scotland. The small black populations in these regions lack the profusion of drum’n’ bass clubs, hairweaving salons, polemical further education courses and fancy restaurants which might allow them, in an aberrant froth of superficiality, to endorse the cultural homogenisation we find in the authors’ claim that ‘Black is sexy and we all know it ... Black is beautiful. We’re born that way.’

The Phillipses assert more than once that the arrival of the Windrush permanently altered British identity. They disdain, however, to outline either the characteristics of that apparently static identity or the malign ends it may have served. Nor do they spell out the creolised transformations they claim it has undergone. Their inability to pin down such centrifugal and slippery phenomena is well illustrated by their interview with Jazzie B, leader of the once hugely successful North London dance outfit Soul II Soul. Over the course of 12 pages they consistently misspell not only his name but those of almost every other musician Jazzie B refers to as proof of a new diasporic sensibility among black English youngsters.

The book scrolls through postwar history to isolate a series of decisive incidents, both familiar and sombre: the Notting Hill Riots of 1958; Tory candidate Peter Griffiths winning Smethwick six years later with the slogan ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour vote Labour’; Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech in 1968; the New Cross fire of 1981 which killed 13 young black men and women; the riots in St Paul’s, Brixton, Toxteth, Handsworth and many other places from 1980 to 1985. Almost every page is clouded by accounts of black people’s runins with the police and judiciary, social services and the teaching system. Predictably, words such as ‘hostility’ and ‘racism’ crop up a lot. Dutifully, the Phillipses tell few jokes.

Windrush is guilty of the same crime it imputes to white people: ‘Few black British people,’ it asserts, ‘can be in any doubt that the majority of their fellow citizens take the colour of their skins to be a characteristic which defines what they are and what they can do.’ Yet the authors allow their black interviewees to recall only incidents and emotions which pertain to their colour. They are permitted to hold views, for example, on Race Relations Bills or changing immigration law, but there’s no suggestion that they may be equally interested in – and impassioned about – the UK’s entry into the Common Market or England’s chances of winning the World Cup. Each of the topics which structure the book – among them, Powellism, carnival, rioting – has been chosen with race in mind. If the Phillipses suggest that too often all West Indians are perceived as being alike (again on the basis of their skin colour), they, too, flatten the individuality of their interviewees by squeezing their narratives into the most restrictive of conceptual corsets.

Windrush needs more along the lines of Diane Abbott, Britain’s first black woman MP, recalling how her father insisted on carrying a briefcase to parents’ days at her Harrow school: ‘The briefcase was completely empty but, somehow, the briefcase was his armour against the white world.’ Mr Abbott’s desire to present a respectable front to the world, and his fear of being exposed as a social impostor – his daughter went to the sister school of the one attended by Michael Portillo – were as much about class as they were about race. It’s a pity, therefore, that the unifying ‘we’ with which the authors underscore their book prevents the potentially divisive issue of class from being fully explored. How much does an expensively draped property developer conducting slick business in a buppie West End wine bar have in common with a teenage single mother raising her baby on a slum estate in Harlesden? What connects the black Oxbridge graduate earnestly relaying the latest stock-market fluctuations for BBC cable news channels to the Guyanese octogenarian wasting away his final years in a cold and poorly-staffed old people’s home in Balsall Heath?

Windrush is at its most entertaining when it is not labouring to identify socially significant phenomena. It contains, for instance, an account of the egregious Michael de Freitas, of whom Naipaul wrote so caustically. De Freitas was born in Trinidad in 1933 to a Portuguese shopkeeper and a mother who later emigrated to London where she ran a large brothel. He sailed to Tiger Bay as a cargo seaman, doing stints as a mugger, pimp and drug-pusher before a botched post-office raid led him to flee to London. His reputation as a hardman endeared him to the slum-landlord Peter Rachman, who hired him in the late Fifties as a rent-collector, a job which allowed him to learn the rudiments of media manipulation: he was in the habit of tipping off newspapers at £50 a throw about which houses were being used as brothels. The ensuing publicity triggered police raids and led many disgusted occupants to leave, at which point de Freitas would move in new residents for a sizeable commission. He went to sea again but was jailed for stealing the ship’s paint supplies. On his release he set himself up as a West London drugs baron. Street-sharp, an eloquent dandy who swooshed around town in a red Ford Thunderbird, he soon became well-known among the many writers and painters who hung out in Shepherd’s Bush and on the Portobello Road, for whom he embodied the cool, transgressive sass that Norman Mailer in ‘The White Negro’ had claimed white bohos habitually seek from black people.

Eager to profit from the rise of colour consciousness which followed decolonisation and the emergence of the American Civil Rights movement, De Freitas changed his name to Michael X and in 1965 created the Racial Adjustment Action Society whose acronym was a Jamaican term for a sanitary towel as well as a popular expletive. It was this vacuously militant Black Power organisation – its membership of 150 or so was roughly 60,000 less than officially claimed – that helped Michael X convince the gullible media that he was the chief spokesman and theoretician of a soon-to-be insurgent black Britain. From then on he was rarely out of the news: encouraged by Alexander Trocchi and William Burroughs, he penned execrable verse, topical examples of which he sent to Chairman Mao who rapidly telexed back his response; when Muhammad Ali came to London for his championship fight with Henry Cooper, Michael X escorted him to West Indian playgrounds and community centres in Notting Hill; changing his name once more to Michael Abdul Malik, he wrote pro-sex, pro-dope, pro-revolution copy for hip underground magazines such as International Times. He also published an autobiography (for the Olympia Press), and lectured in Oxford.

His most ambitious venture, launched after spending 1967 in jail for inciting racial hatred, was the establishment of the Black House, a complex in Holloway Road run by and for black people, which included a theatre, a barber’s shop, a museum, a place for Muslim worship and a supermarket specialising in West Indian and African products. He solicited donations from US entertainers such as Sammy Davis Jr and the comedian Dick Gregory. He also guilt-tripped John Lennon by claiming that ‘you have stolen the rhythms of the black people you knew in Liverpool.’ Soon Yoko Ono was presenting him with £10,000 in £10 notes. Malik offered Lennon a pair of Muhammad Ali’s bloodied shorts in return for a box containing locks of the singer’s hair. The plan was to sell them to Beatles fans with the proceeds going to the Black House. This involved far too much petty organisational work for Malik, however, and, predictably, the establishment soon ran out of funds. In 1971 he fled to Trinidad, having been charged with robbing and menacing a Jewish businessman in London.

One of Malik’s cronies was Hakim Jamal, a black Muslim with a history of mental instability who, like him, had a penchant for the same white aristocratic women he vituperated from public soapboxes. His lover, Gail Ann Benson, was the daughter of a former Tory MP, Captain Sir Leonard Plugge, and a descendant of Sir John Hawkins, the first English slave-trafficker. When Malik set up a commune, the couple joined – Jamal had persuaded Benson that Malik was God. Her growing scepticism riled Malik, who was increasingly tetchy and paranoid. He believed she was a spy and had her killed. Three years later, in May 1975, he was hanged in Port of Spain’s Royal Jail.

Michael X was a huckster, an opportunistic self-shaper who managed to maximise the returns on his racial background. Like every con-man’s story, his is fascinating and it’s a pity that Windrush does not feature more like it. It’s also noticeable that while the authors are given to romanticising black criminality in previous decades, they, like many black English professionals, are silent about a more violent criminal strain in certain sections of today’s Anglo-Caribbean male population.

It’s the lack of cultural texture in Windrush that renders its portrait of an apparently post-colonial United Kingdom unrecognisable. Though it claims that most images of West Indian migrants are media fabrications, it doesn’t give us immediate access to the lives of these men and women. Postwar migrant life as it is shown here cleaves to a form of historiographical manichaeism in which black people seem to have spent the last half-century either being oppressed or rallying to combat that oppression. For most of that time they did neither. Instead, they shared post-work pints with the Poles and Ukrainians alongside whom they’d just spent the day sweating over the assembly and manufacture of crankshafts; they affectionately dusted their frontroom mantelpieces bearing school photos of the children whose backsides they’d shortly be belting after the pious old biddy from down the road had come round to moan about delinquent cherry-knockers; they trudged around Sixties shopping centres on wet Saturday afternoons comparing and contrasting the prices of root vegetables; they laughed themselves silly watching Morecambe and Wise Christmas specials. Most of the time they did ordinary, quotidian things. Most of the time they lived untoward, unexceptional lives. Most of the time they were not – and are not – black.