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Hearing voices of the Windrush Generation

A QUARTER OF a century ago, when I started out as a journalist with Caribbean Times – the weekly newspaper which, for many years, gave The Voice a run for its money as ‘Britain’s best black newspaper’ – people seldom, if ever, spoke about a “Windrush scandal”.

That’s not to say that the horrors of summary deportations, family break-ups, financial catastrophe, denial of healthcare and the like did not exist for those of an African Caribbean background who, for whatever reason, found themselves without papers.

Far from it: in those days, Britain’s black press was full of stories illustrating just how hostile the environment could be, if the authorities decided you were persona non grata. I remember one story I covered, which had been championed by the late MP for Tottenham, Bernie Grant himself, who, like my parents, came to Britain from Guyana in the early 1960s.

Between Bernie, Caribbean Times and God knows how many unheralded individuals of the day, a young girl who was born in Jamaica had won indefinite leave to remain.

To cut a long immigration story short (they are never succinct), the girl’s mother and father had separated, but her mother had returned to Jamaica.

Her father had leave to remain, but she didn’t. The Home Office, in its wisdom, had decided that the young girl should go back to Jamaica to be reunited with her mother – despite the fact that her mother did not want her and she had spent most of her life growing up in London.

We convened on the steps of Tottenham Town Hall for a triumphant photo opportunity. There were maybe half a dozen of us. There was no fanfare. This was business as usual.

Twenty-five years later, Tottenham MP David Lammy, whose parents also hailed from Guyana (we are a truculent bunch), has been leading a campaign for justice for the legion of people who have been humiliated by successive UK governments.

While in Britain we mock US President Donald Trump and his muscular immigration policies of threatened border walls and the actual incarceration of children – shorn from their parents – in Britain, quietly, determinedly, passive aggressively, we do the same, and worse, in the name of the Crown.

And critics wonder why so many people within Britain’s black communities have an identity crisis.

In my own occasionally clumsy way, I have tried to investigate, interrogate, prod, poke and provoke discussion around the hot topic of the African Caribbean community’s identity, in print, on TV and radio, not because it makes good copy or frightfully jolly conversation, but because I have a personal stake in it.

When I look around, the community I see is not the one I grew up in. Notwithstanding the hostile environment, the old school of the community is dwindling, in decline and being assailed by African American cultural imperialism and ‘black culture’ – whatever the hell that is.

I freely admit that I feel ashamed of my own role in all of this. It’s not so much what I’ve done that I feel guilty about; it’s what I haven’t done. As the philosopher John Stuart Mill said: “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”

So, by talking to the contributors in my new book, Voices of the Windrush Generation, in a concerted and deliberate way, I have come to appreciate that the challenges my parents endured, not just coming here, but under the colonial system they escaped.

A NEW HOME: One of the thousands of families that came to settle in Britain from the Caribbean in the 1950s and 1960s

It hardened them in ways that inevitably had a knock-on effect on my wellbeing.

In hindsight, and with a better education, access to resources and a greater understanding of the world than they had, I should have helped them to navigate their way through Britain better, rather than spend so much of my time rebelling. The stories in the book come from the hearts, minds and lips of people simply telling it as it is: how they see it, saw it, experienced it.

But for some foggy recollections about exact dates or ships’ names, due diligence suggests a higher than average appreciation for the facts among the people I met.

Some recollections are so vivid they put you right there – in a cane field one minute, a grubby factory floor the next.

Linguistically, I tried to stay true to the dulcet tones and nuances of the West Indian brogue. However, the written word can never do justice to Caribbean dialect, which can range from a darker shade of a Bristolian or Cornish accent (Barbados) up through the Windward Islands to the mystical Kwéyòl (Dominica) and westward to Jamaica and a patois that pervades global popular culture.

But given the fine line between an authentic reproduction of ‘yard’ speech and clunky Caribbean caricature, I’ve been mindful to give the book’s storytellers a generous touch of linguistic Encona rather than drown the reader in red-hot pidgin English.

Accents aside, West Indians of my parents’ generation speak with impeccable diction. As an East Ender, I was forever pulled up by my folks for dropping my aitches and turning every ‘TH’ sound into an ‘F’.

If anything, to hear a Windrusher turn on a heavy yard accent is as much an affectation as Jamie ‘jerk rice’ Oliver’s mockney marketing shtick.

As the crow flies, the distance from Jamaica to Guyana – one end of what was once known as the British West Indies to another – is some 1,500 miles, the equivalent of London to Vienna. The current population of the West Indies is around six million, with the West Indian community in Britain numbering just over a million.

As politically incorrect as ‘West Indian’ may seem, it’s important to differentiate it, at least for my book, from the term ‘Caribbean’, which as a region is home to some 45 million people.

In other words, the West Indies and the Caribbean are two very different things. I don’t know anyone from Haiti or Cuba, despite those two islands accounting for half the population of the Caribbean.

BUILDING THE NHS: Many nurses came over from the Caribbean to work in healthcare in Britain

In countless years of travelling to Barbados for winter holidays, I’ve never run into anyone from Puerto Rico. And I can count on no hands the last time I ate in a Guadeloupean, Martinican or United States Virgin Islands restaurant.

The point is, based on Powellian arguments against ‘whip-handed’ West Indian immigration, decades of organised racist policy and practice and the ill-treatment of the Windrush Generation up to today, it’s worth putting that community into some sort of perspective, especially when measured against the hundreds of millions of people from the EU who have had an automatic right of entry to the UK, since the Maastricht Treaty came into force in 1993.

The point should also be made that the stories in Voices of the Windrush Generation are not the definitive story of West Indians, African Caribbeans or people from the Caribbean in Britain, or the history of people of African descent in the British Isles. There are other, far loftier tomes, that deal with African Roman legionnaires or the decline, fall and renaissance of pre-Windrush black communities in Cardiff, Liverpool or Bristol.

I know from personal experience that West Indians were coming and going from these shores long before the Empire Windrush set sail.

My grandfather, Sir Kenneth Sievewright Stoby, who went on to become the Chief Justice of Guyana and then Barbados, for instance, first came to Britain in 1926, with his father, William, who by all accounts was of Scottish ancestry anyway. My great-uncle, Percy Sievewright Stoby, was a decorated sergeant who served in the London Regiment in the First World War and was Mayor of Beddington and Wallington from 1951 to 1952. Another great-uncle, Ivan, was a second lieutenant in the Second World War.

In 1920, aged 12, another great-uncle, Eric Sievewright Stoby, was shipped off to Truro College in Cornwall … you get the picture.

Like most West Indians, the Matthews-Stoby-Dey-SkeeteTowler-von Schultz family axis is a tale of admixture, exploration, exploitation, adventure and upheaval; but the origins of such tales lie in a history of transatlantic comings and goings dating back centuries. To paraphrase Malcolm X: we didn’t land on Plymouth Sound, Plymouth Sound landed on us.

In an age in which those of us known as ‘the other’ are still routinely questioned in Britain about our status, rights, contributions, commitment and even our capacity to understand the English sense of humour, it is perhaps ‘ironic’ that the Windrush Generation has merely headed back in the direction whence its unwitting Pilgrim Forefathers came centuries earlier. The way that I see it, the Windrush Generation are not immigrants.

Nor are they economic migrants.

They are more than that. They are pioneers who forged a path out of the moral, political and economic bankruptcy of a rapacious colonial era. Many were born into poverty – and were destined to remain in it – until they came to Britain in search of a better life. In return, they gave their blood, sweat and tears.

Seventy years on from when the Windrush set sail from Jamaica, their journey hasn’t ended.

Successive generations of sons and daughters, doctors and nurses, train drivers, cab drivers, carpenters, builders, lawyers, footballers, cricketers, singers, actors and, dare I say, writers, demonstrate that the journey has only just begun.

Voices of the Windrush Generation by David Matthews is out now, published by 535 Books in hardback.

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