Last night, I went to meet some friends of my wife at a nice outdoor eating space in Kingston. Nothing very odd about that. However, during the evening, it turned out that another lady, who was visiting from Montego Bay, had lived up the road and around the corner from me in west London. We had been separated by time, maybe about 7 years, but still. As we talked about life in the 1960s, as West Indian immigrants, I recalled a few things about life then that stick in my head. I have not got to the point of writing an autobiography, but have started it several times. Some early images are strong and I share them.
West Indians had no cultural base in England, so had to carry with them all they had from home. That meant many events together, as the best way to hold those social ties.
I remember Saturday mornings. My father and I would go to have our hair cut. No barber shops were there for us in the early days, but plenty of people knew how to cut our hair. They usually used basements–a familiar lodiging place for many immigrants. Often without windows, and lit in a rudimentary way with a few lights, men and boys would file in during the day. The hair cuts were just part of the ritual–youngsters like me would have to sit on a board stretched across a chair to get us high enough for the barber to cut comfortably. In the early 1960s, hair styles were sharp: partings were cut into the side of the scalp, the razor would be used to give a clear edge to the trimmed head. Little boys dreaded the electric razor, and we were often more at each with the ‘tikity-tikity’ sound of hand shears. Little hairs, cut from out head, fell inside our shirts and itched like crazy. When we were done, the barber would use alcohol (often bay rum) to calm and sterilise the edges that had been cut by a razor. Then, we would be given the final touch of power, placed on a soft brush and dusted around our head and faces. Our fathers would have their turn next, while we would sit quietly and read (in my case) or amuse ourselves.
Men would be there playing draughts (checkers) or dominoes and many boys would learn to play while waiting. I was good at draughts but not so good at dominoes. The men would drink, often white rum. Their conversations would be loud and funny, and often harked back to the Caribbean, which for many was just a few months away since arrival. Of course, that aspect changed over time, but new entrants would keep home memories fresh, while those who’d been in England longer were getting well-heeled in ‘life inna Hinglan”
I lost track of how many Saturdays I spent this way. The fear of the razor–would I be cut and never stop bleeding? The smell of bay rum. The sound of the strop being thwacked by the cut-throat razor. Holding shears in my hand and trying to move my hands like the barber to make them cut.
The smell of paraffin. Many homes in England had no built-in heating, and the cold hit our tropical senses quickly. Paraffin lamps were the standard heating devices for many people. Our eyes would start to burn after a few hours of breathing the fumes, but we never realised that this was a problem, as we huddled around the heater to keep hands and bodies warm on cold days. We had to get used to wearing winter gears–hats, gloves, scarves. What?! A freshly cut head and freezing rain outside do not a happy boy make.
The day had not set time. It was usually better to arrive early, but waiting was the norm. The men never cared. They were out of house and home and would be happy to go home later, filled with good spirits. Sometimes, the house where we went would have a good cook, who would make sure that nice things were available to eat–early morning, salt fish fritters; later in the day, some curry goat and rice. Often, after, as we took the walk home, my father would get part of his education in English culture from me, who was more exposed to it through other children. So, we would go to the ‘chippy’ and buy a bag of potato chips–fat and irregular. It took him a while to get used to fish, English-style–without seasoning, and a white fillet, with no head. In those days, it was normal to wrap the food in greaseproof paper and then newspaper. Lovely!
Fittingly, it’s Saturday morning. The rain is falling. But, it’s Kingston, not Shepherd’s Bush. Football will be played soon. I will watch, on the TV, not from the stands. I will hear the chants and reminisce a little…