'It does still shock you': Windrush generation's verdict on Small Island

As Andrea Levy’s epic hits the National stage, three people whose families came to Britain from the Caribbean give their opinions – and recall their own struggles

‘Dad would come home crying and say, “Why do they hate us?”’

In the play, Hortense goes to see her husband, Gilbert, off at the dock as he leaves Jamaica for the UK, and there is this wonderful image of the Empire Windrush projected on the stage. He goes up the steps to the ship – and it brought back a big memory for me.

Judy Griffith, who came to the UK from Barbados in 1963.
Judy Griffith, who came to the UK from Barbados in 1963. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Drăgoi/The Guardian

When my mum was leaving Barbados, we watched her go from the docks. I must have been about six. There were a lot of people crying and I was bewildered because I didn’t know what was going on. She always used to say “never look back”. When she left me and my sisters, she couldn’t look back – if she had, she would never have got on the boat. That feeling of not looking back meant my mum would never speak about what it was like to come to Britain. I joined her when I was eight.

When Hortense comes to England to join Gilbert, she sees his rented room and isn’t happy. That was hilarious, because where we come from, everybody has their own house. I grew up with my gran and we had a house. I know that coming to England and seeing that would have been a big disappointment for Hortense – and for my mum.

At that time, to go to England was the greatest thing for any person from the Caribbean. It was the thing we bowed down to. I was told, “You’re going to England to be with your mum”, and it felt like I was worshipped for a period of time before I left. The promises and ideas about England – and then the reality – really came across in the play.

When I came here, my family was sharing a house – my aunts and my mum. That wasn’t too bad, but then we moved into a small flat and had to share a bedroom with our parents. We had one of those big old-fashioned prams for my sister. I remember holding on to that as we went around looking for rooms. It wasn’t nice. We would go from place to place, being rejected.

Gershwyn Eustache Jr as Gilbert and Leah Harvey as Hortense in Small Island.
Gershwyn Eustache Jr as Gilbert and Leah Harvey as Hortense in Small Island. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Hortense and Gilbert’s landlady, Queenie, gets a visit from her racist neighbour, and hearing her talk did bring back memories of that time. But where we ended up living, in Bedfordshire, we had a white neighbour who was really nice. She used to give us cookies. We had Indian neighbours on the other side and they were great, too.

My dad used to do the night shift at a bakery and would be called “black this” and “black that”. I remember him crying to my mum and saying: “We have to go back home. Why did we come here? What have we done to these people and why do they hate us?” I wasn’t meant to hear it. Seeing Gilbert being abused by his colleagues, that was difficult.

The good thing for my parents was that practically all the family was here at one point, so that cushioned whatever blows came. They could see the opportunities and that kept them going and able to put up with nonsense. Later, as a teenager, we had to deal with the skinheads. I would fight and they were scared of me a lot of the time.

There is a moment when Gilbert goes to help Queenie and her bigoted husband says: “Get your black hands off my wife.” I experienced that when I worked as a carer. I was looking after people who were sick and dying. We were trying to help them, give them baths, and they would say: “Don’t touch me with your black hands.” I was like, “Really? OK then, I won’t touch you again.” I never worked in care again.

As in the play, people would think we couldn’t speak English. It always surprised me that the government of this country governed other places, but their own people here knew nothing of it. What did they think the British empire meant? Ordinary people here were kept in total ignorance – and they’re still doing it today. It’s divide and rule all the time. Judy Griffith

‘I loved the humour – West Indians laugh at their dilemmas’

I had a tear in my eye at some points, remembering what my parents went through, but I loved the humour because West Indians are people who laugh at their dilemmas. It doesn’t bother me that Andrea Levy’s novel was directed by a white man and adapted by a white woman, if they are truthful about what they’re putting out.

Michael Braithwaite, who arrived in the UK in 1961.
Michael Braithwaite, who arrived in the UK in 1961. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

I was born in Trinidad and my dad left to come to the UK in the 1950s. I went to live in Barbados with my grandparents. In the story, in Jamaica, Hortense goes to live with her aunt and uncle. Like Hortense’s family, mine was very religious – it was church every day, we would ring the bell, pump the organ, help clean the church. My cousins didn’t have to do chores because they were younger than us, and they were light-skinned like Hortense. You got better jobs if you were fair-skinned.

My dad had wanted to leave the Caribbean because there weren’t job opportunities for him unless he worked on a plantation or oil field. He served in the army. He came here, then my mum came over, then my eldest brother and sister came over. When I was nine, I flew to the UK with the British Overseas Airways Corporation. My sister came by boat.

People from Jamaica arrived at Gatwick Airport in 1962.
‘We wondered, “What does snow feel like?”’ … people from Jamaica arriving at Gatwick Airport in 1962. Photograph: Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

I arrived in November, coming into Gatwick in the evening. We had seen snow on Christmas cards and we wondered: “What does snow feel like?” At that age, we weren’t really worried about the cold.

I didn’t understand racism until I came here. It was only when I came here that I thought, “Why are they calling me ‘wog’ and ‘Sambo’ and all this?” I couldn’t understand it. At secondary school, it became more apparent. My dad used to say: “Bite your lip” – if anyone says anything, don’t respond. Like Gilbert, he worked for the post office. My dad was a strong man but he would have gone through some really hard times.

There were gasps in the audience at some of the insults but I loved that the language came over heavy. Because that’s reality. It does shock you, but that’s what was going on. It shouldn’t be hidden. Michael Braithwaite

‘It feels as if we’ve gone backwards instead of forwards’

I came to the UK from Antigua at the end of the 50s, when I was four. We were a big family – there were eight of us – and my mother and father had come earlier. My mother started working in a laundry room, and then became a nurse. My father was a plasterer but he worked in a plastics factory.

Elwaldo Romeo, who moved to the UK in 1959.
Elwaldo Romeo, who moved to the UK in 1959. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

My parents didn’t really talk about their experiences, but fortunately we had extended family we called uncles and aunties who were very forthcoming about the Caribbean. One of my mum’s cousins explained certain things about slavery. My father never said much. My mother, working in a hospital, realised that the older generation were quite hard in their thinking. “Don’t touch me with your black hands” was something she heard. You realise, at that time, you are living in a country where people had outside toilets, when in the Caribbean everybody has a washroom and hygiene is very important.

There is a moment when Hortense tells Queenie she is going to go to the Department of Education. She wants to continue her career as a teacher, but Queenie thinks she means she wants English lessons. The people who came to this country were underestimated, but I also took it to mean Queenie would never think about becoming a teacher because all she would ever be was a landlady. That told you she wasn’t worldly.

Shiloh Coke as Celia and Leah Harvey as Hortense in Small Island at the Olivier, London.
Shiloh Coke as Celia and Leah Harvey as Hortense in Small Island at the Olivier, London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

I have no complaints about the play. It was a good representation of what went on. My parents did find that coming to your mother country wasn’t as glamorous as they were told it would be, and that was a disappointment. The streets weren’t paved with gold and it was actually rougher than where they came from.

Unfortunately, if you have white skin you are put on a pedestal but if you are of a darker complexion you are meant to be down below. As we have moved on, you can see the difference in society, but it hasn’t improved quickly enough. Sometimes it feels as if we’ve gone backwards instead of forwards. Seeing what my parents had to go through and seeing where we are today – particularly with the Windrush scandal – it makes you think about how we’re seen in society. Politicians have forgotten the impact the Caribbean has had on this country. Elwaldo Romeo


Interviews by Emine Saner

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