Proper people

22 June 2020 Proper

Colin Grant on uncovering the stories of Caribbean migration to Britain for his book, Homecoming, and finding authenticity in lost oral histories

My family tree has only a few recorded branches. Before my mother, Ethlyn, who was born in Jamaica in 1932, there was her mother, Pauline Fredrickson, a violinist and dancer, glamorously billed ‘Late of New York’ when she returned to Jamaica in the 1920s. Then there was my great grandma, Marma, who’d run a bar in Panama City serving the Caribbean workforce that built the Panama Canal. Marma was preceded by Grannie Reid who’d been a highway robber in the 1850s but had flirted with the judge during her trial and was found subsequently to be ‘not guilty’. And before Grannie Reid there was Gong, who was enslaved. And that’s it; in our family we can go back no further. The rest is darkness.

Scant details and a few crumbs of family lore are all that many West Indian households in Britain can count on to illuminate their past. To reach beyond the darkness, then, to write an oral history of the pioneers who came to the UK in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, from Jamaica, Guyana, St Kitts and myriad Caribbean islands, presented a huge challenge. Perhaps the moment had passed when there’d be sufficient numbers of people prepared to let down their guard and dig up stories that had been buried for decades.

Left: Clinton ‘Bageye’ Grant. Photo by Viv Adams
Middle: Bert and Shirley Williams. Courtesy of Bert Williams

Telling the right story

Growing up in 1970s Luton I felt, along with my West Indian peers, a sense of incompleteness. We were unmoored and displaced, and seemed to live permanently in a liminal state. Our history – how our parents had lived in the Caribbean and their relationship with Britain – was difficult to pin down reliably, as elders when questioned would default to the slippery Jamaican maxim: ‘there are no facts; only versions’.

It wasn’t that Jamaicans didn’t trust facts but rather were suspicious of their presentation, in books, films, television, newspapers, ‘every damn where’, in ways that were especially favourable towards the English and detrimental towards us. It was apparent to me as a schoolboy that we were relegated in textbooks to the also-rans, even in our own stories. An African proverb, popularised by Chinua Achebe, speaks to that notion: ‘Until the lions have their own historians then the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’

I’ve long believed in the validity of that assertion. And when I looked for models for Homecoming, my oral history of Caribbean migration to Britain, I failed to find anything that quite matched what I wanted to achieve. As a teenager, in the 1980s, my thinking was revolutionised by Angus Calder’s The People’s War. Drawing on archives of the Mass Observation project, Calder’s book charted how ‘the people of Britain were protagonists in their own history’. This challenged the idea of history told through a succession of important and eminent figures, and instead placed working-class people at its front and centre.

It didn’t matter to me that Calder was the privileged son of a Lord; no more than that Staying Power, a history of black people in Britain, was written by Peter Fryer, a white Marxist historian. The intention and empathy of the authors trumped their identity. But the transition to this relatively new way of recording history in Britain has not evolved as I imagined; today, marginalised lives are likely mediated by middle-class (mostly white) researchers whose work rarely strays beyond the confines of the university campus.

There are exceptions such as David Kynaston’s empathic social histories of twentieth-century Britons, which broke out from academia. Aside from Kynaston, I defaulted to the startling and innovative oral histories of ordinary Americans recorded and recounted by Studs Terkel, and Svetlana Alexievich’s extraordinary rendering of ordinary Russian lives. Her book, The Unwomanly Face of War, first published in 1985, is especially passionate and unflinching in its depiction of Soviet women soldiers navigating the brutalities of the Second World War while struggling not to become brutalised themselves.

Inspired by Svetlana’s approach, I was soon directed to George Ewart Evans, whose work had been awaiting me all along. Often cited as a founding father of the oral-history movement in Britain, Evans was a self-effacing Welshman who migrated to Suffolk in the 1940s and encouraged farm workers and shepherds to tell him their stories for what he would later call ‘spoken history’. Listening to the audio archives (originally recorded on magnetic tape) at the British Library, Evans’s humility is evident as he cedes space and time to his interviewees, the bearers of a long tradition of storytelling. Throughout his eleven books – the first, published in 1956, was Ask the Fellows who Cut the Hay (1956) – Evans acts as an amanuensis who is determined not just to be faithful to voices and accents, but to relate the simple truths of that which he is privileged to hear.

Evans’ working-class sensibility was his great advantage; having moved from a poor mining village in Glamorgan, he settled in Blaxhall in the East Anglian countryside; he was no tourist with a typewriter but an ardent and lifelong chronicler. ‘He come here,’ recalled one local, ‘and he livened Blaxhall.’

Rena and David Khublal, whose story features in Homecoming. Photo by Christian Cassiel.

Past, present and future

Today a common lament heard in British publishing is: ‘Where have all the working-class authors gone?’ Often the question is raised by writers who still identify as working class (the anthology Common People would suggest they include Kit De Waal, Daljit Nagra, Damian Barr and Louise Doughty). But the simple answer is that they’ve mostly gone middle class. Over the course of a Luton childhood, I spent 18 years on a council estate, but it wasn’t until recently that I returned to record working-class lives for Homecoming. In the intervening decades, I’d imagined returning would be like a criminal irresistibly drawn back to the scene of the crime. In the end, I berated myself for not having done so earlier. Increasingly, it seems, writers, even when born into working-class households, are nervously keeping to the borders of the class to which they presently belong, discouraged by the assertion that their inauthentic voices are no match for the authentic tales that need to be told. But surely this is to be resisted. In the meantime, oral history, for me at least, offers a bridge to the formerly familiar and a chance to breach our silos of separation.

But if working-class people have been the subplot of our national story, then West Indians, ever since the 1940s, have been the subplot of the subplot, and often cast as villains. This was the case even in left-leaning publications such as Picture Post, which in October 1954 led with the headline ‘Would You Let Your Daughter Marry a Negro?’ Subsequent Pathé news stories included Our Jamaica Problem (1955) and Racial Troubles in Notting Hill (1959).

Faced with negative depictions, slights and rejections, West Indians mostly pulled up the collar of their coats and walked on – at least that was their initial remembrance as I sat down to record them. The palpable veil of respectability, which descended almost as soon as I turned on my recording device, was testament to the peculiar reticence of the Windrush generation to share information. ‘Me don’t like people chat my business’ is a phrase you’ll often hear in West Indian households. It took a while to disabuse these elderly pioneers, now in their 80s and 90s, of the suspicion that despite my blackness I was in some way white, and therefore untrustworthy. People were also concerned that once edited they might not be shown in a respectful light. That word ‘respect’ is the most important in the West Indian lexicon.

A few were not so thrilled to see, after the interviews were transcribed, that they did not sound ‘speaky spokey’ (as if speaking the Queen’s English); they wanted me to put back a ‘h’ that might have been dropped from the beginning of one spoken word or delete a ‘h’ that had been wrongly added to another. Phrases like ‘Me a coolie? but me nah have ring in me nose’ or ‘Me never put basket ’pon my head go market’ were included in Homecoming as examples of the uniqueness of the West Indian idiom – and of middle-class pretensions. One of the two complained to me: ‘But I thought you’d clean me up.’

During the interviews I tended to head in the other direction, attempting with some difficulty to sound as I might have done before my accent was educated out of me. I was pleased when my informants noted the ‘tell’ of my West Indianness, namely that I put the ‘k’ in the ‘wrong’ place whenever I was aksing a question.

Perhaps, like George Ewart Evans, the oral historian’s desire to act as a conduit is made easier if they can code-switch and retain vestiges of their working-class, shared experience. Though oral historians must guard against interpolation, surely empathy leads to solidarity in breaching divisions whether of race or class.

What comes across forcefully and unashamedly in Svetlana Alexievich’s work is her sense of duty towards illuminating a dark and forbidding past. I felt some of that sense and burden of responsibility in compiling Homecoming. I also felt determined to detach the story of the Windrush generation from the word ‘scandal’, to resist the force of historical accounts and reportage (no matter how well intended) that places penitent white liberals and the British authorities once more at the centre of our West Indian stories.

It’s an old and ongoing debate. As far back as the 1820s J.B. Russwurm, an abolitionist and early black publisher of Freedom’s Journal, espoused the value of black people telling their own history: ‘too long have others spoke for us [such that] our vices and our degradations are ever arrayed against us, but our virtues are passed unnoticed.’ On behalf of Ethyln, Pauline Fredrickson, Marma, Grannie Reid and Gong, I say ‘Amen to that.’

Originally published in the Spring 2020 issue of The Author.

Colin Grant’s five books include the memoir Bageye at the Wheel, which was shortlisted for the PEN/Ackerley prize 2013. His oral history Homecoming: Voice from the Windrush Generation was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week (2019).

Photo © Dominic Martlew