My sister doesn’t get my blog. She reckons there’s a big difference between ‘my new life in the sun’ as she calls it and our granny’s graduation to the cold 55 years ago. I beg to differ. In the spirit of the new year, I thought I’d better get onto explaining the similarities, so this post is all about my granny’s experiences of moving when black.
After having conducted an impromptu interview with my grandmother about her experiences of moving to England in the late 1950s I confess to being wracked with doubt about the wisdom of it. I thought interspersing my thoughts and feelings with hers would be a bit more interesting than just another here’s-me-doing-cool-stuff type travel blog (though you can see a bit of that here). And I kinda wanted it to be an homage to those who’ve done much tougher stuff before me as I take comfort in knowing that if my granny could move continents 55 years earlier without a laptop, smartphone, emails and skype, then I can definitely emigrate with so many 21st century communication modcons to keep me in touch with my loved ones.
Now, however, I’m not so sure about that idea. I’ve badgered my grandmother for years about ‘telling her story’. She has never shown the slightest bit of interest in sharing it, but every time I see her (which is not that often because I’m usually located in London and she’s lived in Barbados since I was 5), I find a way to bring it up.As a teenager I was characteristically clueless ‘Granny, what was it like when you moved to England? Was it, like, really racist?’ I asked once, as if ‘the racism’ was a dance I’d learned about in school, which people used to do when granny was young. She gave me a look, kissed her teeth and said ‘girl, you have no idea.’ thereby closing the conversation down on the spot.
Somehow I understood that this topic was taboo – unusually. For now, my determination qualified. We’re a relatively warm and chatty family. We don’t really have taboo subjects. I figured I’d said the wrong thing. Come from the wrong angle. What I needed to do was regroup, ask more precise questions, then I’d find out.
When I was growing up, there was no shame in having parents or grandparents who came from somewhere other than London. It was pretty common. Similarly, it wasn’t unusual for kids to be bilingual or to spend summer holidays visiting family in far-flung destinations. For us, France did not count if you were comparing places you’d visited; everyone had been to France by the time we were 16.
To give you a picture, on the road where I spent my formative years we lived between an elderly Irish couple and a mixed race family (white dad, Indian mum) who later moved to the suburbs. The latter were replaced by a black woman, who later met a black guy and had a baby and they moved out and rented their house to another mixed race family (black dad, white mum), who remain my mum’s neighbours. Directly opposite us was a Vietnamese family, Sri Lankans to their right, an older English couple to their left. The white family next door to the English people were originally from Australia and moved back there when we were in secondary school. A Jamaican family lived next door to them and English families in the houses opposite them, and then moving back up towards ours.
Almost all the kids went to the same primary school as me and my siblings and were in our classes/year groups. Some went to secondary school with us too. I didn’t realise there was anything unusual about my area until I started planning my first trip abroad with young people from less, um, multicultural parts of the country. As time goes on my childhood looks increasingly like some sort of lefty utopia designed to give the Daily Mail fodder for decades. Except it was real.
I was 16 before I met a black person who didn’t know ‘where they were from’ i.e.which country their parents/grandparents came to England from. I recall quizzing this strange creature extensively on their family history in utter amazement. The convo would have gone something like ‘So what about your grandparents, where were they born?’ ‘England.’ ‘Random! But what about their parents?’ ‘England.’ ‘All of them?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Really?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘But that’s crazy!’ Pause. ‘Okay but what about their parents?’ Tact came much later in life to me.
To date, I think she’s only one of two black people I’ve met who fall into that category, although I now appreciate that actually, the presence of black people in Britain has been denied by the chattering classes at least since Elizabeth I was on the the throne. In our corner of South London, when I was growing up, the majority of black people came to England in the same way my grandparents did; as colonial migrants invited to help rebuild Britain after world war two. In Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados from whence my maternal grandparents came, TfL, or The London Transport Board as it was then known, opened up a recruitment agency on the high street.
Over the years I’ve got bits of information here and there, when other things piqued my interest in my family’s involvement in what historians were calling ‘The Windrush Generation’ ‘Post-war immigration into Britain’ and ‘The Beginnings of Multiculturalism in Britain’ among other things. Except David Starkey who called it…hold up, no, his specialist subject is The Tudors. My fault. As I was saying. The bit in Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony at the London 2012 Olympics with all the black people in period dress carrying suitcases; that’s my granny’s generation immortalised in history. I was reading Andrea Levy’s epic novel about postwar Caribbean migration Small Island when I was staying with granny one summer, and that got me curious about where she had lived when she’d first come to England. She was always surprised I was interested, but told great stories.
After reading Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, I wanted to know about her social life in the ‘swinging sixties’ as she’d arrived in England in 1957. This is probably the only time granny was keen as opposed to polite (my family are English you’ll recall. We’re always polite). She pulled out photo albums of her raving crew back in the day. Her in her 1950s finery, posing with her mates, black and white pics of them in various bar and dance hall-type places. As granny’s always been, well, old, when I’ve known her, it was disorienting seeing her looking young, fabulous and carefree. She clearly enjoyed pointing out all her different mates in various locations, and animatedly explained the frequency with which the different parties took place. I meant to try and find out if any of her old haunts were still there when I was next in Birmingham but would be lying if I said I’d gotten round to it.
Until today, I don’t think I realised how tactless some of my lines of questioning of granny over the years may have been. I’m now relieved I’d just gotten back from a summer stay at hers when I met Floella Benjamin after a screening of her film Coming to England. From her I learnt that it was a common experience of black girls in 1950s English playgrounds to have their skirts and dresses lifted by kids wanting to know if they had tails. As in they were genuinely curious. Horrified as I was, I’m sure if I’d read that in a book while I’d have been at granny’s I’d have careered down her small hallway dying to know if it was true. ‘Grannnnnnnnnnny…did people lift up your skirt to see if you had a tail, or did they not because you were an adult?’ I would have asked thinking I was intelligent for having made the distinction. Alas.
This time, I’d really taken time out. Having heard so many tales of the emotional impacts of immigration, and far more aware of what a trickster memory can be, I formulated my questions carefully, Re-read them a week later. Reviewed them again. Decided that for what I wanted to know, they were okay. I’d done a degree. I understood about positivist and constructivist approaches. My questions would yield the answers I would need to construct granny’s story in her own words. It was time. Sort of. I’d actually just phoned her to say hi as it had been a while. Mid-way through the conversation I asked her if it would be cool to phone back and ask questions about her arrival in England, but she was keen to talk today. So we went for it.
Having covered the topic in bits and drips over the years, I was surprised by how difficult it was to get granny to talk. How quickly her recollections became too painful to talk about. She in turn said I should have followed my daddy into law as I like to ask a lot of questions. That was an uber-polite way of saying she’d changed her mind about talking. Her discomfort distressed me. Half a century later, my granny remained somewhat traumatised by her experience of emigrating to postwar Britain. Even though she’d been back in Barbados for 25 years. Why was I pushing her to talk? What benefit can be gleaned from forcing my 85 year old grandmother to relive some of what she described as ‘the worst experience of my life’?
As uncomfortable as the experience was, granny’s okay with me sharing her story. I do so, not because I want to peddle her tragedy, but because she struggled, suffered and sacrificed so her family could have ‘a better life.’ Because she succeeded; her granddaughter had a very happy childhood in the country which was so harsh and unwelcoming to her. But I enjoy life precisely because I know how much easier I have it, and how much I can be grateful for. And because I put my granny through the trauma of talking about the past, I ought to do something with her story.
Eudene, or Granny P as we call her, was born in the Parish of St. Phillip on the island of Barbados in the summer of 1927. 1927 Barbados was not a sovereign nation. In 1927, neither Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand nor South Africa were sovereign nations (that would come later with the 1931 Statute of Westminster known as the Dominion Act). When granny was born, they were all part of the dwindling British Empire.
As such, when my granny left Barbados in 1957, she was a British imperial subject (the nation would become independent in 1966), so her concept of her Britishness was markedly different from mine. Unlike her footloose and fancy free granddaughter, it was her first time leaving the country (‘Where are you now? You working there or you on holidays?’ were the first two questions granny asked me when I phoned). Nor did she have a job and accommodation waiting for her as was the case with me.
Granny was the same age as me when she crossed the Atlantic fifty odd years ago but she left a very different life behind. She was not married in a white dress church kinda way, but had four young children with the same man she’d been living with for years – my granddad. To her community, they were as official as a couple could be and they stayed together until his death in 2005. Bear in mind, the registration of the births and deaths of black people was still a developing concept in my granny’s day. As was – and is – standard practice in the Caribbean, my granny and granddad left my mum and her siblings with a close relative who brought them up as best she knew how. In this case, it was my grandmother’s sister.
That upbringing did not involve a lot of tenderness I imagine. When I realised that my grandmother moved to England and never saw her mother again, I was horrified by the pain of making a decision to emigrate with such heartache at stake. I remember my granny’s response to my histrionics ‘When we were young parents didn’t know how to love ya, they only knew how to beat ya.’ Not such a hard decision then. That said, the way my mum tells it, they actually had quite a happy childhood in Barbados, it was when they moved to England and were reunited with parents they had no recollection of in a strange country that they developed issues. But that’s a different story. This is granny as young black female immigrant, not granny as mother.
Hopefully this post has thoroughly contextualised my granny’s migration experience half a century ago and some of the similarities with my own. And convinced you to look out for part two of the tale.