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.’

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