Nine White Men Armed with Iron Bars

Andy Beckett

  • Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Postwar Britain by Clair Wills
    Allen Lane, 442 pp, £25.00, August 2017, ISBN 978 1 84614 716 6

In 1964, shortly after getting married and landing the first research fellowship at the new Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham, Stuart Hall, the Jamaican-born analyst of Britain, went looking for somewhere to live. He had already been in Britain for 13 years, in Oxford and London. He wasn’t unaware that prejudice against immigrants existed. But the West Midlands was the first place, he remembered in 1998, where ‘I personally encountered people who said, “We don’t take any blacks here.”’ ‘People shouted at us in the street when we were going round trying to find places,’ he went on, ‘myself and my white wife … She was the particular object of vile remarks about mixed-race couples.’ Hall thought this was ‘a particular kind of resentment’, that some locals already felt ‘left behind by England’ – whether economically or politically, he didn’t say – and, with the arrival of immigrants like him, felt they ‘were going to be left behind in relation to race’ as well. He didn’t consider it a coincidence that the West Midlands produced Enoch Powell.

Four years after Hall’s house-hunting expedition, the Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West made his ‘rivers of blood’ speech. Clair Wills doesn’t write about it until almost the end of Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Postwar Britain – as if delaying the moment as long as possible – and then only quotes a few fragments. But it’s striking how current some of them sound. Powell claimed that the number of immigrants left other Britons ‘unable to obtain hospital beds … [and] school places’, an argument still regularly deployed by right-wing politicians and tabloids, and by those who believe them. In last year’s EU referendum, Birmingham was one of the few British cities to vote in favour of Brexit.

It’s tempting to read this book about immigration to Britain between the 1940s and the 1960s, and its consequences, with contemporary tensions in mind. The story usually told about this influx already feels so familiar – the exhausted imperial power seeking a fresh workforce from its colonies, the Empire Windrush crossing from the Caribbean to Tilbury, the cold English landscape at first baffling incomers from the tropics, a more multicultural society haltingly coming into being – that a Brexity spin feels the only way to freshen it. But Wills has more subtle ambitions. As her subtitle suggests, she’s interested in exploring this great migration’s many dimensions: among them, the effect on the places people left as well as the country they arrived in; the way their experience of Britain evolved as it gradually became home; and the way immigrants felt about their countries of origin if they went back – or if they didn’t.

To cover all this, Wills avoids the ploddingly completist and chronological approach of much contemporary British history for something more open-ended and impressionistic. Short chapters with eyecatching titles – ‘Scroungers’, ‘Hustlers’, ‘Survivors’ – begin by describing different aspects of the immigrant experience, but then their themes intermingle or they head off on unexpected tangents, like some of the protagonists themselves. Thus a chapter about Pakistani Bradford becomes an explanation of immigrant attitudes to housing, and then an illustration of the relationship between immigrant life in England and ‘back home’:

Asian migrants … moved early into property ownership … House-buying was not about settling but about accumulating wealth. They tended to buy cheap houses for cash … and to rent out rooms in order to generate more income to send back home … As one man explained [to the Pakistani sociologist Badr Dahya] … ‘Will the English people think better of me if I buy a modern house? Better to build a pakka [impressive] house in the village [in Pakistan] where there are people who know you and respect you.’

Wills writes well about the places inhabited by early immigrants, from clammy, overcrowded back-to-backs in West Yorkshire to endlessly subdivided terraces in ‘Rotting Hill’ – pre-gentrification Notting Hill. The postwar inner city was often a tatty, neglected place, and immigrants got the worst of it, either because they could only afford the cheapest accommodation, or because of the racism of landlords, or because they had to live near the available jobs, or a combination of all three. This pattern of settlement by immigrants led to what Wills, who is Irish, politely calls ‘a misreading of their behaviour’ by ‘their English neighbours’: a belief that immigrants ‘liked living in slums … that they were simply unable to make good’.

During these years, as since, the offer Britain made to immigrants was ambiguous. The British Nationality Act of 1948, devised by Attlee’s ambitious Labour government, gave everyone in the Commonwealth and Britain’s remaining colonies – ‘a staggering quarter of the population of the planet’, as Wills points out – the right to live in Britain and become a British citizen. Yet the social as well as the physical space into which immigrants were invited was less generous. In the Midlands and the North of England, jobs were often to be found only in the least modern metal foundries and textile mills, in the sickliest parts of Britain’s industrial economy as it began to decline. ‘The first thing I got to do in the foundry,’ an Irishman taken on in Northampton in the early 1950s remembers, ‘was to take a sledgehammer out into the yard and start breaking up some old iron that was to be smelted. Heaps of this stuff was scattered here and there.’

In London, businesses set up by arrivals from the Caribbean and Africa, such as cafés and nightclubs, were assumed by many locals to be criminal enterprises. In 1947, white residents of Cable Street started a petition against the ‘grave moral and physical danger’ presented by the ‘excessive number of cafés open at a late hour’. The story was enthusiastically taken up by the News of the World and the Daily Mail. Wills acknowledges that some of these businesses offered prostitutes, drugs and black-market cigarettes. Yet, without quite producing conclusive evidence, she suggests that immigrants were no more likely to become gangsters than the locals. And she points out that most of the dodgy clubs’ customers weren’t immigrants anyway. When the East End philanthropist and social explorer Edith Ramsay went to a Somali-run club in Wapping, she met ‘one woman, drunk or drugged, but oozing money, [who] told me she drove up every weekend from Norfolk’. Immigrants and their cultures, Wills writes with nice economy, ‘were both desired and feared’.

She is refreshingly thorough in laying out who those immigrants actually were: not just optimistic anglophiles from the colonies, but economic migrants from poor and war-damaged parts of southern Europe, especially Italy and Malta. Justifiably, but provocatively, she describes such jobseekers as ‘refugees from poverty’. There were also political refugees from Eastern Europe, and hundreds of thousands of Irish: ‘Nearly a sixth of the total population of the Republic – and a vastly greater proportion of the working population – was living in Britain by 1961.’ The Windrush, she points out, brought Poles as well as Jamaicans to Tilbury. Before boarding the ship, ‘37-year-old Bronislawa Kot had managed to survive deportations, forced labour and … journeys through Central and Southern Asia with three sons … though we don’t know whether other children had died on the way.’

The mass migration to Britain was part of a much bigger postwar population churn, as peacetime brought economic opportunities, the old European empires shrank, and the Soviet and American empires expanded. The common emphasis in Britain, whether celebratory or critical, on the uniqueness of the modern British experience of immigration can be a kind of parochialism. This book avoids it.

It also avoids presenting the creation of the current, partly cosmopolitan Britain as a steady, linear process. The first postwar immigrants from Sylhet in present-day Bangladesh, for example, were often ships’ cooks, young single men with no fixed view about whether to stay or join another boat. They adjusted with relative ease to life in the rackety areas near the London docks, drinking in the pubs, picking up local women, and sometimes marrying them. They were followed during the 1950s by larger numbers of less ‘individualist’ Sylheti migrants, Wills writes, ‘whose move was sponsored by the family and village back home, and who were therefore bound by stricter religious and customary ties and tended to live together with men from the same neighbourhood’. A more separate Bangladeshi London was the consequence.

Overt hostility towards immigrants ebbed and flowed too. Until the late 1950s, according to Wills, many of them were unsure of the extent of local xenophobia and racism. The reserve of many Britons, the official rhetoric of racial tolerance, and the lack of overtly racist laws or recent history, unlike in the United States, meant that even worldly incomers such as Stuart Hall lived in a state of semi-innocence. Then came the 1958 race riots in Nottingham and London. In a typical incident on 23 August, Wills records, ‘nine white men aged between 17 and 20 … armed with iron bars, torn from street railings, starting handles, table legs, pieces of wood and a knife toured the areas around Shepherd’s Bush and Latimer Road … in cars, stopping to attack black men whenever they saw them. Five of the assaulted men were hospitalised, with broken limbs and chest wounds.’ Crowds of white onlookers gathered to watch the attacks, which continued for more than a fortnight, with the worst of the violence in Notting Hill. Many of these onlookers, Wills writes, ‘were in sympathy with the attackers, and objected when the police attempted to arrest them’. No one was killed, but the age of semi-innocence was over.

Oswald Mosley’s postwar organisation, the Union Movement, was active in Notting Hill both before and after the riots. Wills includes an eyewitness account of a Mosley pavement speech, which used the anti-immigrant argument, variations of which have remained depressingly familiar, that ‘capitalist exploitation’ was made possible by ‘cheap black labour’. Mosley stood in the local seat of North Kensington in the 1959 general election, calling for the repatriation of Caribbean immigrants and a ban on mixed-race marriages. He got 8 per cent of the vote: aggressive racism remained a minority faith. But more mainstream politicians – again, the pattern is familiar – reacted to the riots and their tense aftermath, which included the murder in 1959 of a carpenter from Antigua, Kelso Cochrane, by white youths, by concluding that immigration should be drastically reduced. In 1962, Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government, sometimes revered by liberals for decolonisation in Africa as well as its supposed domestic moderation, passed the Commonwealth Immigrants Act. Its system of categories and vouchers was officially based on incomers’ skills and job prospects, and the needs of the British economy, but these ‘measures of desirability’, Wills writes, ‘were obviously racist in intent’: they placed ‘most of the migrants from Asia and the Caribbean’ – and Africa – in the most restricted category.

There were unintended consequences. Immigration increased hugely before the restrictions came in. Men were hurriedly joined by their families. Many immigrants stopped returning periodically to their home countries, because they feared being barred from re-entering Britain. Now more committed to British life, and also to trying to change it, immigrants started to join trade unions, go on strike, and get involved in party politics, usually on the left. During the 1960s, a coalition slowly began to form in the inner cities between non-white voters, however socially conservative and upwardly mobile, and the more outward-looking parts of the Labour Party, which baffles and frustrates the Tories to this day.

Labour voted against the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, but did not repeal it after its return to office in 1964. Instead, aware that anti-immigrant arguments roused voters of all parties, it restricted the Commonwealth intake further. Yet through the 1968 Race Relations Act Labour also made discrimination against immigrants in housing and employment illegal for the first time. Twenty years after officially inviting them to Britain, and ten years after the Notting Hill riots – something close to an attempt at ethnic cleansing – the state had finally acknowledged that immigrants needed a degree of special protection.

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Wills relies heavily on the perspective of contemporary writers. There are some vivid, if sometimes dated passages, such as this from The Life of Riley, a satire and semi-autobiography published in 1964 by the Irish novelist Anthony Cronin:

I betook myself to a labour exchange, a tastefully appointed building in Camden Town, looking like something left over from the Festival of Britain which had been spat on too often and could never be cleanly swept out. There were long queues … There were the gloomy, intent and resentful representatives of the English working classes, the rightful heirs and beneficiaries of this whole set-up. There were the darkies, Maltese, Cypriots and Irish … exchanging salutations in a variety of languages and dialects … They had landed on these hospitable shores in full expectation of being allowed to put their hands to the plough … Finding no work available … they collected their money.

Less professional witnesses feature more fleetingly. An anonymous Muslim woman in Bradford says that her husband forbids her to enjoy the novelty of English shopping. A 1951 newspaper interview with an anonymous Irish nurse working for the newly created NHS has the headline, ‘They Treat Us like Dirt’. A frustrated Asian home cook has to make do with approximations of the right spices, bought from Jewish delicatessens. There are glimpses of such struggles – and of small, cumulative victories over loneliness and alienation – but not quite enough of them. There is also not much material about immigrant life beyond London, West Yorkshire and the West Midlands. How did postwar immigrants fare in Bristol and Liverpool, places that had much older migrant and mixed-race populations, but also deep racial tensions? Wills doesn’t tell us. The role of the slave trade in creating these and other British cities, the partly race-driven riots in Toxteth, St Pauls, Brixton and elsewhere in the early 1980s: these are obviously outside the remit of this book, but without them, it sometimes feels as if key events are being kept frustratingly offstage. Nor does Wills examine the impact of immigration from Australia and New Zealand, or from America, or northern Europe. Although this book is often rightly critical of the British state and media for the way they think and talk about immigration, it shares their tendency to treat white immigrants from rich countries as invisible.

Unsurprisingly, Wills writes at length about the Irish in Britain, with judicious sections on fighting and drinking, which undermine the stereotypes, if only in part. More interestingly, she suggests that in some ways the Irish experience was the opposite of that of Caribbean immigrants. While for the latter Britain could be an uptight place, for immigrants from rural, Catholic Ireland British cities could be liberating, with their relative sexual freedom and more plentiful state services. Yearnings for the old country coexisted with new excitements: Wills describes how the Irish dance bands that moved profitably back and forth between the two countries sometimes let Irish audience members in England record messages on cassettes, which could be played to relations back home.

Wills writes less memorably about the actual music immigrants introduced, rarely describing what it sounded like; and not at all about cricket, the sport which obsessed so many arrivals from Asia and the Caribbean, and gave them an important foothold in the leisure culture of postwar Britain. The book returns too often to what Wills calls ‘the limbo of migrant culture’, the idea that immigrants don’t quite belong to their old country or their new one. While true and important, it’s hardly an original insight. Wills’s usually clear prose turns cloudy and cod-philosophical as she explores every nuance of it regardless.

She is much better on the other emotional aspects of migration. V.S. Naipaul leaves Trinidad for England in 1950, and as the plane takes off, sees the whole ‘landscape of my childhood’ for the first time, exhilaration and regret running through him. For others leaving the Caribbean, the long sea voyage to Britain arouses apprehension, with the approach of a challenging new life signalled by ‘the creeping onset of colder weather’. Once in England, early West Indian immigrants have ‘an overwhelming sense of being watched, and judged’ – for the way they talk, carry themselves and enjoy themselves – and so some decide to turn their lives into a performance. The Jamaican memoirist Wallace Collins describes a cousin and fellow immigrant who ‘walked as if he expected to draw a gun any moment; squaring his shoulders, elbows open, toes in, chipping the asphalt; swinging his arm[s] from his shoulders and glaring at anyone’.

In 1948, Wills’s own mother left rural Ireland to work as an NHS nurse in England. Wills grew up in Britain, but every summer, ‘and sometimes at Christmas too, for years and years’, she and her family travelled laboriously by car and ferry back to West Cork, where ‘we were greeted by a gentle ritual which never failed to unsettle me’: her Irish cousins saying ‘welcome home’. This anecdote comes late in the book, and sums up the melancholy, provisional aspect of postwar immigration – an aspect that’s beginning to feel like something from another time, at least if you live somewhere in Britain that has now been mixed for generations. The anecdote also hints at another, larger issue. Britain is a small country but a restless one, its cities in particular always rapidly swelling or shrinking. A lot of its inhabitants, not just immigrants, have happily and unhappily left other places far behind.