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Added: Monday 19th March, 2018

'Soon Come' by Colin Grant

Colin Grant makes a call for stories and memories of Caribbean immigration.

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture,” as Marcus Garvey said, “is like a tree without roots.” Growing up in 1970s Luton in a Caribbean family, it often appeared to me that I was in the midst of the most marvellous story-tellers. Their Caribbean voices were witty, salty, and full of spice. The language of adults could at times seem stern and steeped in Old Testament Biblical certainty but it was also mischievous and fun.

Though there were spoken stories, there seemed little written down or at least available in the library to satisfy me and my siblings yearning to learn more about black history and our parents’ lives before their arrival on these shores. In that regard, we did feel rootless.

At times it felt intentional. Our father, Bageye, often bid us not to get too comfortable because we were not here to stay, we were going back home someday; we were only passing through. Though born here, throughout my life in Britain, there have moments, such as the aftermath of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers  of Blood’ speech in 1968 when I thought my father’s prophesy (“it nah good to stay in white man country too long”) might come true.

In the absence of official narratives and histories, our mother told us in her own griot-like fashion our matrilineal family history. It was recited almost as a poem: “Gong was a slave; Marma gave birth to Aunt Anita (who went to the USA) a highway robber who charmed a judge and married one of the jurors; Theresa played the violin in Carnegie Hall. Theresa's artistic life was replicated by her dancing daughter Pauline Fredrickson who performed with the Ziegfeld follies before giving birth to Ethlyn, our mother. All of these stories forged Ethlyn’s identity and she in turn passed them on, bequeathed them, to us.

Ethlyn spoke of coming to Britain as if it were akin to landing on the moon. There was no sense of any preceding, foundation story. But others had prepared the ground for her arrival, men such as Ulric Cross whom I met a decade ago and who fuelled my desire to tell the oral history of Caribbean people in this country.

When Flying Officer Cross, a tall black man with a plummy voice was introduced on the 1943 Ministry of Information film, ‘West Indies Calling’, the Trinidadian bomber navigator revealed the degree to which West Indians saw Britain as the motherland and were keen to ‘do their bit’ in the fight against Hitler. British viewers also were able to see people from the imagined far-off colonies, who strangely, but for a slight sing song Caribbean lilt, sounded just like them.

Collecting and curating stories for an oral history provisionally called England Fever, I aim to explore how and why West Indians succumbed to the fever to leave the islands; how their imagined temporary stay morphed into permanency with the realisation that the opportunities afforded to them, despite the antipathy of the host nation, were far greater than what was available back on the islands; and how they began to weave themselves into the very fabric of British society.

England Fever will be an oral history of Caribbean immigration, relying on the stories told to me. I want to hear from those who travelled, sporting Trilbies, snazzy suits and dresses as they navigated Britain's peculiar cultural landscape.  How bewildering and inhospitable must it have been to establish yourself, coming from countries where black people were in the majority to one where you were now in a minority?

But we also need to hear from the children and grandchildren of these early pioneers. Were you, like me one of the second generation, someone who described themselves as British by birth but Caribbean by will and temperament until that time when you first went to St Kitts, Trinidad or Antigua where people shouted at you “Hey Englishman!”

Leaving the island was a huge decision; it would have a psychological wrench on men and women some of whom hadn't even set foot off the islands, never mind travelled 4,000 miles across the world. England Fever will describe the working and social lives on the islands before departure and the excitement and sorrow of leaving their homes. Who and what were they leaving behind?

At some point the psychic moment arrived when migrants realised that they were not going back home. But they strove to maintain their cultural capital - whether in their food, dance, music or style of clothing - to hold fast to the idea of the West Indies. Indeed it’s often stated that any historian today intent on carrying out field research to gain insights into 1950s and 60s West Indian culture should not travel 4,000 miles to Kingston or Port of Spain; rather they should head to Brixton or Luton, because those early West Indians, in their look and even in the way they walk and talk, have attempted to preserve West Indian traditions and the notion of a West Indian identity.

If a majority of migrants (figures range from 230, 000 – 280,000 between 1948 and 1962) eventually settled in Britain, a significant number decided to return to the islands. Did migrants have second thoughts even whilst on ships steaming towards the motherland? What dreams and anxieties played out on the voyage at sea?

I’d like to hear from as many people as possible with their unique stories: the factory workers, social workers, the people who paid into the ‘pardner’ systems and managed to gain deposits for houses ; bus drivers, teachers, panel beaters, seamstresses, merchant seamen, welders.

How often have pioneers thought: I wish I’d shared my stories with my children and grandchildren, and how often have descendants voiced the regret: I wished I’d spoken more to Granny? Stories sustain us but if they are not told or recounted then they will be lost; and without them we are lost, too.

Many Caribbean people say that there are no facts; there are only versions. But the versions need to be set down. Fundamentally, I believe that it’s important that we take possession of and tell our own stories. Bob Marley told an undeniable truth when he sang "half the story has never been told". The Caribbean voice will take centre stage in this new book. It's time to "lift every voice and sing."

If you, your parent, grand parent, or sibling would like your story to be included in England Fever, please contact Colin at http://www.colingrant.info/england-fever/4594184983 and click on Your Story

 

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