Published in 1998 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the most famous voyage undertaken by the Empire Windrush, this book is a brilliant resource for anyone interested discovering how Britain became the multicultural society it is today. I originally only checked this book out of the library to fact check a few details for a short story that I was writing, but I found myself reading on, fascinated by the wealth of stories contained within. The book begins, of course, with the circumstances that led to the Windrush carrying five hundred West Indians to a new life in Britain, but it goes on to chart the growth of the black community, the challenges and experiences of those who decided to take a chance and cross the Atlantic. The full fifty years between the Windrush‘s docking at Tilbury in June 1948 and the publication date is brought to life, from first impressions of those who arrived in London, through to second and third generation black Britons.
The great strength of this book is that so much of it is based around first person accounts. A mix of well known names and ordinary Britons, each chapter is brought to life through the sharing of true stories, the little details that real memories impart making this a joy to read (or tragically sad in some parts, especially the chapter on the 1981 Deptford fire). The interviews are realistically reproduced, in real language, so that the reader can imagine hearing the interviewee speak.
I was most interested initially in the earlier chapters, those which described the voyage itself, the reasons given by several of the intrepid passengers for choosing to migrate to a country that they had only ever read about in a textbook. This was before independence, when there was still a British empire to talk about, and these so-called immigrants very much referred to themselves as British as much as Jamaican, Trinidadian, Guyanese. It was a shock to arrive in a country that was very much depressed following World War II, far from the great nation that they had expected, and to also be made less than welcome. Decent housing was scarce, jobs were not difficult to find initially but were harder to keep, the white workforce very much against them, and the weather was a shock to the system. That so many stayed (a lot of those who came originally only had plans to stay for four to five years, enough to save money and move home) was partly due to a lack of funds to pay for a ticket home.
From initial impressions, the book moves on to the expected issues of racism in its many guises. Children who came to join their families were surprised to find that the standards of the British education system were perhaps not as high as they expected. And yet, teachers often placed them in lower classes. Bright children were ignored and were only put forward for O and A Levels at their parents’ insistence. Black children were expected to fail. Across England tensions began to rise, there were riots in Nottingham, Manchester and London in the 60s, and the unprovoked murder of Kelso Cochrane was a turning point.
Recent history is sometimes a shock to recall. To think that the black community has moved from being complete outsiders, to very much a part of everyday life in my own lifetime is incredible. Horrific incidents such as the Deptford fire, which killed thirteen and barely earned a newspaper article, would not be treated the same today. I found this book a fascinating read and for anyone interested in this subject, or in recent history, I would highly recommend it.