I remember reading and enjoying Andrea Levy’s book Small Island, but at the same time feeling very uncomfortable while reading it. As recurring memories go, I always remember what took my parents to England. Both of my parents were trained nurses when they left Jamaica in 1961; my father was older and more qualified than my mother. When she went to England to fill the need for nurses in the National Health Service she knew she would have to train again there: she was at the bottom of the career ladder and knew it. My father, by contrast, was well-established as a senior mental nurse at Bellevue Hospital. It was a shock, therefore, for him to have to consider retraining. It always seemed an immense irony that he was trained in the ‘British system’, yet this did not equip him to work in Britain.
When he tells me of his experiences, his resentment is muted and limited to “I could teach the blasted courses they wanted me to take!” He put his family needs ahead of everything and stepped onto another ‘career’ track, working first as a bus conductor and driver for London Transport (which had begun to recruit from Barbados from 1956), then working for the General Post Office.
The comfort came from recognizing so much of the description of life for the Caribbean immigrant. The discomfort came from recognizing so many of the problems faced by the migrants.
One over-riding aspect that strikes me now is how many people travelled with no intention of staying more than a few years, perhaps improving their skills and then returning home to the Caribbean to resume their careers there. Instead, Britain is littered with generations of people who stayed longer than they wanted. The experiences for migrants were often similar, and the congregation in certain areas was one of the ways that helped some to bridge the cultural and social barriers that came their way.
I well remember doing things that were really Caribbean but hidden from sight for most of the British population. For example, going to the barbers on a Saturday, which was in the basement of someone’s house: it was an opportunity to socialize and would be full of people waiting for haircuts and many would be there all day, talking, playing dominoes, eating, drinking rum, and getting haircuts. No fancy hydraulic chairs but hard wooden chairs, perhaps with a board across so that a child could be raised. This was in the day of the leather strop, cut throat razors, and hand-operated shears; when lather was made in a bowl or enamel cup with regular soap and water; partings were in fashion and were made with scissors or razor. For a young boy, like me, this is where you learned to be like the men. The language was not often very coarse, but as the rum flowed, who knew what would come out. My father never stayed very late when I went with him, and we would proudly surface from underground and show off our new cuts, as we walked back to our home. Only West Indians were there: there was no bar on English people, but this was not a world much known to them, if at all.
My life in Britain never had to deal with much overt racism when I was small. I had to endure what seemed like silly statements or questions, which to me showed people to be really ignorant so filled me and my parents with a strong sense of superiority. “Do you live in trees in your country?” was one of those questions. But, the ignorance was no real surprise. How could these people know about our lives in our faraway countries? For instance, they could not understand why our curly hair did not get into our eyes or grow down to our shoulders, unless we decided to have it straightened. I met more ignorance than malice, but I knew many who met plenty of malice with words and blows.
Many of our activities fed stereotypes. We showed prowess in sports and could dance and sing, so we ended up on teams and won competitions and displaced the natives in so doing. Did that lead to resentment and more reasons to dislike us? Probably, in some cases; not so in others. As the face of Britain changed radically in some areas, it was clear that the new arrivals sometimes had attributes that could be beneficial. It was a mixed bag, really. But, we were also stereotyped and abused as a result: “You profile fits the suspect,” a policeman once said to me one night, except I did not, and I made him understand that I did not and that he had no business stopping me for a bogus reason. I didn’t get beaten. I wasn’t afraid. But, I knew the anger generated by being pulled up on ‘sus’.
When I look back over half a century and think about the flow of people from the Caribbean and now back again, I think about the underuse of potential. Jamaica and other Caribbean countries lost many talented people, but Britain did not often get the full benefits of the talent that landed on its shores. People settled for lesser skilled work so that they could earn something. Some managed to do their skilled trade on the side, or were able to find a slot where that was on display all the time. I have an uncle who was a carpenter and managed from an early time since his arrival in England to work in that trade for a major building company–admittedly, not making bureaus and cabinets as he’d done in St. Elizabeth but making stairs and doors and wooden fittings. I remember how proud I was to be given a job by that company when I was on summer holidays and seeing my uncle, now more Anglicised, working hard as a ‘chippie’, and him proud that his nephew was doing well in school and could run mental rings around most of the men who met us.
Mass migration from the Caribbean has left a fractured society in the region and a patchy history for its citizens. We cannot turn back the clock on Britain’s needs for postwar redevelopment and the ‘natural’ response of trying pull in resources from its colonies. Caribbean people were invited then it became clear that these dark people were not really welcome guests in a mostly white country. The guests did not always want to stay too long, but many found that leaving was an ever-harder possibility, as lives became set and families grew. Britain got what it wanted initially but then had to live with getting more than it planned. Caribbean migrants found quickly that their hopes and dreams were not going to be fulfilled in Britain, which was no place of castles or with streets paved in gold. Britain might have believed it had an Empire on which the sun never sets, but it was a country where many natives and immigrants found that the sun set too fast and for some the sun never rose again. Those who’ve had their families shifted around over the years because of this migration have been reaping for years things they did not knew they had sown. Yet, the offspring of these migrants are framing a new life and reshaping Britain.
The spreading of Caribbean culture into British life is now a fact. ‘Britons’ now come in many shades and have more varied roots than half a century ago. A happy blending? I wouldn’t want to say that’s so in all eyes. A disaster for both sides? I wouldn’t say so, either. A complicated interaction that has far to run still? For sure. Thank you, Andrea Levy, for elevating my discomfort about the relationship between two areas supposedly joined but truly very far apart.