West Indian homes of the kind in which cultural historian Colin Grant grew up were governed by what he calls an “omerta” – a reticence to talk about the past. This meant that he and his peers had to make do with “crumbs of information about the lives of our parents back in the cinnamon-scented past”.
The dreamers and adventurers who sailed to the UK from the Caribbean after the second world war aren’t getting any younger; their memories need to be kindled and teased out.
Grant is the writer to do justice to their lives. A radio producer and author – most recently of pensive, probing memoirs Bageye at the Wheel (2012) and A Smell of Burning (2016) – he has conducted dozens of interviews, dug into the Mass Observation archives, and combed through semi-forgotten oral histories from the 1960s to produce this anthology of submerged lives that prickles with beautiful, comic and brutal details. Mostly focusing on the period before independence, Homecoming frames post-Windrush mass migration as a family reunion. Britain really was coming home.
Many of Grant’s confidantes recall the past in terms of skin and touch. Some remember being checked to see if they had tails, or rubbed to see if their blackness was produced by dirt. Hospital patients sometimes feared being contaminated by Caribbean nurses bathing them.
A bus conductor laughs at how “so many people put their hands on my hair for good luck in the first year of my working on London buses that I was in fear of going bald prematurely”. Feeling out of sorts, smothered by the greyness of the capital city, Bert Williams noticed “how low the sky was, feel like you could jump and touch it”. He didn’t.
There are heartbreaking reminiscences from “barrel children”, those boys and girls left behind on their islands by parents who were saving money to be united with them. The barrelfuls of sweets and gifts they sent were no substitute for the absence of touch and bodily warmth.
There are funnier stories of trying to find feathers for carnival costumes in 1960s Leeds. Grant notes his own surprise at hearing from interviewees who didn’t find events long claimed to be era-defining – such as the Notting Hill riots in 1958 and Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech a decade later – quite so viscerally transformative.
Homecoming ends with reflections on going back to the Caribbean. Some wish to do so. Some have tried. Not infrequently, returnees are assumed to be rich and become targets for criminals. For Viv Adams, though, even the idea of return is an anathema: “It wasn’t a question of it being a sign of failure; it would be a sign of destruction.”
Amelia Gentleman’s The Windrush Betrayal is a withering account of what happened when the Conservative party decided, in the words of the then home secretary Theresa May, “to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration”. British subjects, most of them from the Caribbean, lost their jobs and their access to proper healthcare – and were in many cases deported to countries that they had last seen as young children. Gentleman tracked down one of them, Vernon Vanriel, in coastal Jamaica – where he was “living in an abandoned roadside grocery shack, with no electricity, no running water, no glass in the windows, and a flimsy plywood door that allowed the torrential rain to seep in”.
If much of this story is familiar that’s largely due to Gentleman, whose reporting for the Guardian on this shameful episode saw her named journalist of the year at the 2018 British journalism awards. It’s still shocking to read about people who had given so much care to this country – nurses, NHS drivers, special needs teaching assistants – being treated so coldly. Jocelyn John, who was four when she arrived from Grenada in 1963, was expelled by the Home Office and told she had a baggage allowance of 20 kilos – “You will be expected to pay for any excess.”
On many occasions, The Windrush Betrayal reads like a Black Mirror-style dystopia. Eviction notices were outsourced to Capita, who communicated by text: “Message from the UK Border Agency. You are required to leave the UK as you no longer have right to remain.” Vans were hired to drive around London boroughs with billboards declaring: “Go Home or Face Arrest.” On 14 February 2013, the Home Office twitter account announced: “#Rosesareredvioletsareblue, if your marriage is a sham we’ll be on to you ... #happyvalentinesday”.
Gentleman’s book contains valuable lessons – about the importance of maintaining paper-based archives, of allowing citizens direct access to officials, and of supporting investigative journalism. It closes with a worrying question: “How will the same department register the 3.5 million EU nationals who will need formal confirmation of their status in the UK after Brexit?”
• Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation by Colin Grant is published by Vintage (£18.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
• The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing the Hostile Environment by Amelia Gentleman is published by Guardian Faber (£18.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99