Windrush and the mingling of Britain

Kunapipi - Empire Windrush - West Africans in Britain 1900-60 - Windrush

August 14, 1998

They came, they saw, they stayed - and gradually, through a process of what the Jamaican poet and raconteur Louise Bennett has called "colonisation in reverse", they conquered. In June 1948 the SS Empire Windrush docked in Tilbury, bringing with it the 450 mainly Jamaican passengers who were to become the symbol of post-war Caribbean migration to Britain. Fifty years on, the literature of the black British experience has been swollen by a group of books commemorating the Windrush's arrival and charting the various phases of the Caribbean-British encounter, as a sense of patriotic return to the "mother country" gave way to various forms of disillusion, resistance, assimilation and hybridised self-redefinition. While it is misleading to see the advent of the Windrush pioneers as an originary moment for the history of the Caribbean-British community (as literary and social commentators such as David Dabydeen, Paul Edwards and Peter Fryer have demonstrated, the black presence in Britain goes back to the 18th century and earlier), it still remains a watershed, because it represents the beginning of the mass migration that has transformed the face of British society.

Mike and Trevor Phillips' Windrush is a companion to the recent BBC television series, which follows the fortunes of the Windrush generation and chronicles "the irresistible rise of multi-racial Britain" through interviews with the first arrivals and their descendants, including such prominent members of the black British community as politicians (Paul Boateng, Diane Abbott, Valerie Amos and David Lane), academics (Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy) and entertainers (Cy Grant, Lenny Henry, Lord Kitchener and Jazzy B). The method is oral testimony and this is highly appropriate for a community that, despite its very considerable literary output, has only recently begun to achieve something approaching a fair degree of self-expression in mainstream public record contexts, having previously often suffered as a result of definition from outside.

After outlining some of the factors that led the original post-war emigrants to leave the Caribbean, Windrush tells a story that provides a subaltern history of Britain during the past half-century. The community's experience is set against the background of changes in British society more generally (post-war austerity, the end of empire and Thatcherism among them), and both specific episodes such as the Profumo affair and more persistent phenomena such as Powellism take on broader meanings in this re-reading. So while the narrative constructed by the Phillipses is in one sense the very particular story of what has happened to Caribbeans and their descendants in Britain, it also holds a mirror up to British society at large. Overall the reflection is far from flattering, but the book maintains a judicious and balanced approach, for the most part allowing its various interviewees to speak for themselves. Inevitably the selection of the interviewees and topics frames the events; additionally each chapter offers a summary that locates the witnesses' remarks and there are a few more personal sections in which Mike Phillips contributes his own testimony. However, Windrush is remarkably even-handed and comes close to the impossible ideal of a neutral historiography. The widespread and continuing prevalence of racism in British society is inescapable on the evidence provided, but the tone is always discriminating and the documentary-like method is all the more powerful for its avoidance of rhetorical special pleading. Windrush is essential for Caribbean and black British readers and for anyone with an interest in late 20th-century British society.

Onyekachi Wambu's Empire Windrush is a similarly valuable volume; it is quite simply the best anthology of writing about the black British experience to have appeared to date. It offers material from the first generation of writers who for the most part were happy enough to accept George Lamming's categorisation of them as writers of "exile", white commentators as varied as Colin MacInnes and Enoch Powell, through to second- and third-generation writers, who are very definitely "black British" rather than Caribbean, even if they share Wambu's own reservations about the term. Of the major figures only Naipaul is missing and this, it turns out, is because he characteristically declined to be included. While some may see this as Hamlet without the prince, and Wambu's introduction indicates that he regards Naipaul as one of the two giants of the "post-Empire black imagination" (the other being C. L. R. James), there is surely an appropriateness in Naipaul's omission, in view of his refusal to be categorised as a Caribbean and his habitual distancing himself from "black" causes. Besides, as with the Phillips's Windrush, the narrative this anthology constructs surely has more affinity with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: former bit-players are now being accorded centrality. The one significant failing of the anthology, and it is a familiar one, is the omission of drama, which has played an important part in Caribbean-British renegotiations of identity.

Empire Windrush opens with extracts from such acknowledged classics as Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin and Wilson Harris's Palace of the Peacock, which are set in the Caribbean, and Lamming's The Emigrants and Sam Selvon's The Lonely Londoners, which deal with archetypal aspects of the experience of the new "arrivants": the boat journey to Britain and the very particular nature of life in Notting Hill in the 1950s. Linton Kwesi Johnson is represented by "Inglan is a Bitch"; Caryl Phillips, the finest of the writers to have come to the fore in the past two decades, by an extract from Cambridge. There is a section from C. L. R. James's cricket book, Beyond a Boundary, which says more about social formations than many hefty tomes on the subject; and a disturbing episode from Joan Riley's disturbing novel about black British alienation, The Unbelonging. Voices that speak more directly about the "new Britain" include those of Bernardine Evaristo, Diran Adebayo and Victor Headley. Helping to provide a context for all of this are essays by two of the most interesting sociological analysts of black Britishness, Paul Gilroy and Colin Prescod, and a three-part interview with Stuart Hall, the doyen of all such commentators, on the negotiation of new identities. The most interesting of the contributions from white "others" is Elizabeth Taylor's short story "The Devastating Boys", in which an Oxford professor and his wife decide to take two black boys from the East End into their household for a holiday. The creative disruption that ensues provides a prophetic metaphor of the transformations occasioned in middle England's way of life by the changing composition of society, even if this is only now becoming apparent to many in the shires.

Wambu's eclecticism is not without its problems. Like Caryl this impressive anthology of British "outsider" writing, Extravagant Strangers: A Literature of Belonging (published last year), it displays a degree of uncertainty as to the exact nature of its remit, mainly focusing on Caribbean writers or black British writers of Caribbean descent, but finding space for the odd African and, more problematically, "Asian" writers such as Salman Rushdie and the Sri Lankan-born A. Sivanandan. The annexation of Asians (who do not have Caribbean or African connections) is the more problematic of these inclusions, since they seem to occupy an honorary role - Wambu is clearly not interested in representing Asian-British writing at all comprehensively - but it does help to keep the parameters of the anthology fluid.

A special issue of the influential post-colonial literary journal Kunapipi, guest edited by David Dabydeen, provides a valuable companion to Wambu's anthology. It offers a range of new writing by British Caribbeans and academic articles that sketch in chapters of the post-Windrush experience, along with reprinted material. Kunapipi has carved out its own niche among post-colonial literary journals, bringing together creative and critical writing, painting and photography, and this issue is among its best in recent years. Dabydeen's introduction is concise, perceptive and informative, as are the academic essays by Philip Nanton on the influential Caribbean Voices programme, broadcast on the BBC's West Indian Service from 1943 to 1958 and a first port of call for such writers as Selvon and Lamming, Stewart Brown on James Berry and Sarah Lawson Welsh on recent critical myopia with regard to black British writing and neglected aspects of Linton Kwesi Johnson's work. Other high spots include Yvonne Brewster, the leading Caribbean-born theatre director in Britain, talking about Louise Bennett, photographs of the Notting Hill Carnival by Deo Persaud, a cover by painter Aubrey Williams, and two fine short poems by John Agard, who despite his success in a range of performance and related contexts, has still to achieve the critical reputation his sometimes minimalist work richly deserves.

Hakim Adi's West Africans in Britain is a careful and well-documented account of the experience of students from the region, whom Adi sees as "one of the most significant groups of West Africans to have resided in Britain throughout the 20th century". More academic than this study, the book sometimes loses sight of the wood for the trees, and uninitiated readers are all too likely to get lost amid a welter of acronyms for the names of the numerous student movements whose vicissitudes Adi documents.

However, if one can get beyond the trees, what emerges is a fascinating case-study of the efforts of successive generations of students to articulate an anti-colonial politics and in so doing to claim a space for themselves in a society that, prior to the impact of the Windrush generation, openly advocated a colour bar. Adi's method is as balanced as that of the Phillipses: he documents instances of racism in a matter-of-fact tone that only occasionally allows itself to suggest the possibility of irony.

However, gradually and cumulatively, a clear indictment of the late colonial policies being pursued within Britain emerges, as for example when Adi recounts details of the struggle to set up a West African student hostel, with the Colonial Office initially giving the impression that it wanted to collaborate with Wasu (the West African Students Union) and its secretary-general, the mercurial Nigerian Ladipo Solanke, but with the two bodies subsequently pursuing their own very different agendas and setting up rival hostels.

The story of Wasu, the most important and enduring of the organisations discussed, is intertwined with that of the charismatic and controversial Solanke, who claimed to have had the idea for founding it divinely revealed to him in a dream and was to remain its secretary-general for 25 years. West Africans in Britain goes part-way to providing a biography of this paradoxical figure, but its focus on institutions prevents his life-history from ever fully coming alive and he remains an enigma.

One of the most interesting sections of Windrush deals with the variety of black cultures to be found even within London and the interview with Hall included in Wambu's anthology emphasises the extent to which "identity" is provisional, a construct that comes "out of the very specific histories and cultural repertoires of enunciation".

This finally is what emerges from the group of books considered together. Collectively, they bear witness to the malleable and shifting nature of identity stories, both through the range and diversity of the situations and positions that they represent and through their own contribution to continuing debates. The Windrush commemorative events and the discourse that has emerged around them are themselves moving discussions of "black British" identity into new territories at an increasingly rapid rate.

John Thieme is professor of English studies, South Bank University.

Kunapipi: Journal of Post-Colonial Writing: The Windrush Commemorative Issue

Editor - David Dabydeen
ISBN - ISSN 1 871049 09 1
Publisher - Dangaroo
Price - £6.95
Pages - 152

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