Memoirs

7th February 2003 at 00:00
The thousands of children who left the Caribbean for Britain between the 1950s and the 1970s have, as adults, an epic story to tell. Two dozen of them feature in When Will I See You Again?, edited by Zindika Kamauesi and Natalie Smith (Pen Press, pound;9.99). This striking anthology, a blend of memoirs, poems and interviews, weaves together departure and arrival, anticipation and actuality, past and present, narrative and meditation.

It begins with the islands left behind, the "emerald turquoise and sapphire" of views from the hills, the kitchen smells, the loving grandmothers, the "enormous strength" of the sun. Idylls are only part of the story. We hear of the pain that can come from loving a place rather than a parent. This realism is developed in the section dealing with first impressions of the UK. Hoped-for scenes from Christmas cards are replaced by a cold grey drabness; reunion with families can be lacklustre or full of tension.

Even as roots are put down, the same ambivalence surfaces repeatedly.

School is sometimes a place for fun and excitement, sometimes humiliation, not always inflicted by thoughtless authorities but by those undergoing parallel experiences. One editor writes: "When we left Grandmother behind, we were bereft of a whole generation, their wisdom and their knowledge."

Finally, we meet the adults those children have grown into. Although they include a headteacher, an artist, a solicitor, a photographer, and a businesswoman, the account is not one of professional success tempered by nostalgia. There are "returnees" who regret the division carved by what was intended as opportunity. The "bottle full of memories" contains a bitter-sweet potion.

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