Donald Hinds obituary

Writer, teacher and historian whose book Journey to an Illusion provided an insight into the lives of postwar Black immigrants

When the writer and educator Donald Hinds, newly arrived in London from Jamaica, with boyish good looks and impeccable manners, attended his appointment at the Brixton labour exchange in the mid-1950s, he did so with a certain spring in his step. After all, he had his national exam certificates and the classroom experience that he was certain would land him a good teaching job in the “mother country”, as he called it.

The clerks there had other ideas, and signposted him to try out for the role of “transport executive bus conductor” with London Transport. Donald, who has died aged 89, recalled that “it sounded very grand”. He passed the test and was posted to Brixton bus garage in Streatham Hill, where he became the fifth Black conductor in the company. It was handy for him that one of the drivers who had been asked about the potential pairing told the bosses that he did not mind “working with a coloured”.

Donald would later write that he enjoyed his time on the buses, nine years and four months, and his experiences as a “clippie” would inspire him to write the groundbreaking book, Journey to an Illusion (1966). The book provided an insight into the lives of postwar Black immigrants for whom, in the main, the book’s title could not have been more apposite. It was a revelation and a critical success.

While working on the buses, in 1958, Donald met Claudia Jones, the Trinidadian political activist and exile from the US. She mentored him to become first a stringer then a regular reporter for the West Indian Gazette newspaper, which she edited.

In 1964 the Observer published an article by Donald about immigration, The Two Way Dream. He was then commissioned by a literary agent to expand the theme into book form, which became Journey to an Illusion.

According to the academic and activist Gus John, Hinds’s work was “a must read for each new generation of those white and black citizens who have the task of knowing the past in order to understand the present … Using the testimonies of a wide cross-section of ‘Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies’ … Donald laid bare the struggle Britain was having with itself, because the way it had sold itself to its colonial subjects did not tally with the reality they were confronting.

“As such, Journey to an Illusion was as much a story about Britain and the kind of society it really was and still is, than about those whose dreams were being shattered.”

Out of print for more than 30 years, Journey to an Illusion was republished in 2001, “an essential guide to the vagaries of our mixed-up, mixed-race world”, according to the Guardian.

Born in Kingston, Donald was raised by his grandmother in Richmond Gap, St Thomas, after his mother, Teresa, travelled to Britain for work in 1951. He attended the elementary school there, where he became a pupil-teacher until the age of 18.

Donald wrote that from the age of 14 he had wanted to be a writer and a schoolteacher. He recalled: “I had a great appetite for reading to the extent that between April 1954 and August 1955, I had read 104 books, including Shakespeare’s 37 plays, and the complete poetic output of Walter Scott, while writing poems, short stories and a historical novel.”

journey to an illusion donald hinds

That August, in 1955, Donald sailed to the UK on the SS Auriga, to join his mother and stepfather, Mr Ashley, first in Elephant and Castle, south London, then Brixton. In 1957, he moved out to a room in Brixton Hill, close to his day job.

Donald recalled the daily humiliations he experienced at work, such as when a cleaner likened him to the golliwog on the Robertson’s jamjar just as he thought she was about to announce his resemblance to Harry Belafonte. It was to the credit of the dignified, cricket-loving man that he did not allow such low balls to disrupt his discipline and focus.

The transport job provided the security he needed while studying at evening classes, having to retake the exams he had already qualified in in Jamaica, and doing freelance writing for emerging Black publications such as Flamingo, Joffa Magazine and the West Indian Gazette. He was also doing occasional broadcasts with the BBC’s Caribbean Service.

At the Gazette, Jones encouraged her young protege to write articles about issues affecting the developing Black community, and he became her news reporter. She sent him to interview visiting luminaries such as James Baldwin and Paul Robeson.

In 1961 Donald married Dawn Bruce, a nurse who later became a social worker. With a young family to support, he held down various civil service roles, including working for the Post Office library. He continued evening classes, while contributing to publications such as Stories from the Caribbean, an anthology edited by Andrew Salkey, which included work by Jan Carew, George Lamming and Samuel Selvon. He would later become, from 1972, alongside James Berry, the joint secretary of the Caribbean Artists Movement.

About 20 years after trying for a job in teaching, his ambition was realised in the mid-70s when he gained his teacher-training certificate, and became a history teacher at Tulse Hill school, rising to be deputy head of department (1977-85).

After becoming head of history at Geoffrey Chaucer school in Southwark (1985-97), he completed his master’s in social and industrial history, and wrote the textbook Black Peoples of the Americas (1991). He would go on to become senior lecturer in history and supervisor of trainee teachers at London South Bank University, retiring from there in 2007.

Donald wrote seven novels, but only one, Mother Country, was published, in 2014.

I invited him to write two chapters for an anthology I edited, When I Came to England (2001; expanded edition 2014), a collection of Caribbean oral histories by people who came to the UK between the 1940s and 60s.

An associated exhibition will take place in June this year at the Department for Transport, as part of its observance of Windrush Day. Donald’s story will be celebrated as part of this exhibition.

Donald is survived by Dawn, two daughters, Carol and Tracy, four grandchildren and a great-granddaughter. Another daughter, Jackie, died in 2014.

• Donald Lloyd Hinds, writer and educator, born 13 January 1934; died 13 March 2023


Nia Reynolds

The GuardianTramp

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