'I don't think we will ever be valued here';Books

19th June 1998 at 01:00
WITH HOPE IN THEIR EYES. By Vivienne Francis. NiaX Press pound;6.99.

Maureen McTaggart catches up with the 'Windrush' generation

Golliwog, Sambo, Monkey, Blackie . . . where's your tail?" were the words of welcome from Len Garrison's new fellow pupils.

Demonstrating their powers of recall, they constantly recited passages from Enid Blyton's Three Golliwogs to the 12-year-old Jamaican: "There were once three golliwogs, Nigger, Golly and Woggie . . . None of the other toys liked them because their mistress, Angela, did not like black faces . . ." Don't panic, that wasn't last week - it was in the Fifties.

Len, who was one the first Caribbean immigrants to arrive in Britain, was told to "fit in" when he complained to his teachers. So when the non-swimmer was pushed into the deep end during a swimming lesson he was not surprised that the crowd of laughing white faces included that of his form teacher. Young Len quickly learned that: "This is a dangerous environment. Life in England is all about survival."

His story of British ignorance, racism and resentment is one of many in Vivienne Francis's contribution to the current focus on the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the first post-war wave of Caribbean immigrants. It is a shorter, more accessible read than Windrush, the book by Trevor and Mike Phillips which accompanies the television series (HarperCollins pound;16.99).

The accounts of those who sailed on the Windrush and the relatives who came to join them, some semi-fictionalised, are interspersed with extracts from confidential letters between government departments clarifying the mother country's reluctance to welcome its black colonial offspring. Newspaper stories about riots and "nigger bashers" complete this vivid picture of the black experience.

With Hope in Their Eyes sets out to challenge white perceptions of the reason for the coming of the 492 pairs of "willing Jamaican hands" on the battered old troopship, SS Empire Windrush, in June 1948. Invited by the then British Government to "help build a new Britain" they handed over the pound;28 10s fare and braved the 30-day journey full of optimism. Little did they know that, even before the ship had docked, the tide was turning. The invitation was revoked and newspapers began to take an anti-immigration line.

The Windrush generation are retired now but their memories demonstrate the impact the racial slights they endured have had on their lives. Their anger is apparent in the stories of their fellow immigrants' suicides, and their joy shines through those of their triumphs.

A postscript catches up on the interviewees' lives today. Many wonder whether the struggle to settle in Britain has been worth it. "I don't think we will ever be valued here. Perhaps we are richer materially, but we are poorer spiritually," concludes Len Garrison, now a 72-year-old grandfather.

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