Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Mother Country: Real Stories of the Windrush Children (ed. Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff)

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

It is the bitterest of ironies that the Windrush Scandal blew up in the year that was supposed to have been a celebration of the 70th Anniversary of the arrival of the “Windrush Generation” – those British subjects from colonies and former colonies who answered the cry of the “Mother Country” to come and fill the massive labour shortage resulting from years of war.

There is a lot to unpick in that oversimplified summary of the situation, and Mother Country, telling as it does the individual stories of twenty-two of those immigrants and their descendents, does a lot to show the true complexity of their history. It includes stories from David Lammy, Lenny Henry, Sharmaine Lovegrove, Corinne Bailey Rae and Jamz Supernova among others.

The Empire Windrush was not the only ship – nor even the first – to bring workers from the Caribbean to these shores. Nor was it just young men who came. Women came, on their own or with their families. Children came, as children did in those days, travelling on their mother’s passports.

Those who came were only in the Caribbean because their ancestors were transported there by the British – whether as chattel slaves from Africa or as indentured servants from other parts of the Empire. They had been taught to think of Britain as the ‘Mother Country’, and they answered her call for help.

And they are far from a monolith, as these stories show. There were those who come from desperately poor backgrounds and those who came from comfortable homes. Those who were highly educated and forced to take much more lowly work than they had been doing back home, and those for whom the Caribbean of the post-War years had nothing to offer.

I wept over the description of the funeral in Natasha Gordon’s 'Nine Nights', and salivated over Riaz Phillips’ celebration of Caribbean food. There were recurring themes, too. Like the house parties “centred on the pulsating ska rhythms of the day – accompanied by rice and peas, curried meats fried dumplings and run – [that] ran deep into the night.” Parties that took place in people’s homes because they were not welcome in any of the public spaces where white people socialised.

And then there was the notion of ‘barrel children.’ As so often with immigrant families, part of the motivation for coming to Britain was to be able to try and make life better for those back home. So families would scrimp and save and send what they could. And they would keep a barrel which they would gradually fill with clothes and toys and other goods. And then they would seal it up and send it back home to be distributed to those who needed them.

The Windrush Generation are often celebrated as immigration ‘success stories’. Academic Maria del Pilar Kaladeen might be regarded as one of those successes, but the story she tells of her two brothers shows how some were broken by the racism they faced in this country. Gail Lewis evokes the term ‘natal alienation’. “You are natally alienated both from your nation of origin and your culture, and you are alienated from your mother. Quite literally.” That is part of this story too.

The shocking death of Joy Gardner in 1993 (recalled here by her mother, Myrna Simpson) reminds us that the roots of the Hostile Environment go back long before 2017. If her tragedy is not to be repeated, we need a fundamental change in our attitude to immigration. But that will require us to acknowledge the roots of our present-day multi-ethnic society lie deep in Britain’s past

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Good Immigrant (ed. Nikesh Shukla), A Country of Refuge (ed. Lucy Popescu)

Avoid If You Dislike: Facing up to the human consequences of  Britain's past

Perfect Accompaniment: A dish of rice and peas

Genre: Non-Fiction, Essays

Available on Amazon

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