Advertisement
Art

Danny Keen: ‘My only burning desire was to become an artist’

Danny Keen did his share of low-paid jobs and faced racism at work. But now he’s doing what he was born to do. This is his Windrush story

The British Empire was founded on the strong backs of West Indians.

My grandfather and thousands like him volunteered for service in World War 1. When we were called we came with good humour to serve the mother country.

After World War 2 they came on the Empire Windrush, former British servicemen and women returning to England to rebuild this country.

It’s hard to hate people when you’re dancing to their music and eating their food.

Alongside them stepped calypso, reggae, ska, salsa, rumba, mamba, modern jazz, curried goat and jerked chicken. It’s hard to hate people when you’re dancing to their music and eating their food.

My mother arrived in 1950 and I soon followed. She was a single mother of two children who were left in the care of her sisters in Jamaica. There were no systems of support waiting for her in this cold country, no benefits, no council accommodation.

She was unskilled and did factory work, and yet she was a pioneer who paved the way for others who trained as nurses and built the NHS from the ground up. Strong black women like my mother set down roots in spite of the adversities and prejudices that greeted them.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Women are the heroes of the Windrush story. White English women who defied every cultural taboo and prejudice to fall in love with and marry black men from the West Indies.

They are the quiet, unsung heroes of equality and diversity. My own wife and partner of over 50 years will testify to this.

They said that we came to take their jobs and their women. In reality we only did the work that they wouldn’t do for the low pay. I’ve worked in the catering industry all my life.

Racism was common in the workplace back then. In the 1960s I joined the team of washer-uppers and pot scrubbers in Harrods.

We were all West Indians led by a foreman from Trinidad – none of us were allowed to eat in the staff restaurant. Whites only. We had to eat sitting on boxes by the back door of the kitchen.

My lifelong friend John Bird was a member of London’s colourful street community. He would come to the back door and share my food.

John and I share the privilege of having been kicked out of the same art school. Race and class prejudice went side by side in the British establishment back then.

John eventually became one of the most erudite scholars of art history (and founder of The Big Issue), and is a successful portrait painter. And I have had my portraits of forces personnel displayed in the Imperial War Museum in London.

Becoming an artist was my only burning ambition.

I eventually graduated from the Central School of Art but went straight back to working in kitchens and stayed there for the next 40 years.

I didn’t bother to knock on the doors of the establishment as I knew that they were shut to the likes of me and my generation.

We came here to do the dirty jobs that no one else wanted. Our generation took the opportunities that arose.

We became a property-owning generation. We worked hard and raised our families to be law-abiding and decent people. Yet it seems that we are disposable.

They have short memories. They deprive us of citizenship. They kick us in the teeth and tell us ‘back to where you came from’.

The last Labour government created a hostile environment for immigrants and ordered the records of our arrival to be destroyed.

Their policies were enthusiastically pursued by Theresa May until the Commonwealth prime ministers confronted her in 2018, and at last the illegal persecution stopped.

It is a crying shame that so many of those who suffered most are still waiting for compensation.

facebook.com/dannykeenartist

Advertisement

Every copy counts this Christmas

Your local vendor is at the sharp end of the cost-of-living crisis this Christmas. Prices of energy and food are rising rapidly. As is the cost of rent. All at their highest rate in 40 years. Vendors are amongst the most vulnerable people affected. Support our vendors to earn as much as they can and give them a fighting chance this Christmas.

Recommended for you

Read All
The Big Issue's Christmas art wrapping paper is back and these are the stories behind the designs
Christmas

The Big Issue's Christmas art wrapping paper is back and these are the stories behind the designs

Just Be Nice! Real Hackney Dave rallies UK artists for essential message
Art special

Just Be Nice! Real Hackney Dave rallies UK artists for essential message

Tidings of comfort and joy: Our Christmas Kids Cover Competition is open!
Kids cover competition

Tidings of comfort and joy: Our Christmas Kids Cover Competition is open!

New exhibition Grown Up in Britain: 100 Years of Teenage Kicks shows the spirit of rebellion
Art

New exhibition Grown Up in Britain: 100 Years of Teenage Kicks shows the spirit of rebellion

Most Popular

Read All
Here's when and where nurses are going on strike
1.

Here's when and where nurses are going on strike

Pattie Boyd: 'I was with The Beatles and everything was fabulous'
2.

Pattie Boyd: 'I was with The Beatles and everything was fabulous'

Here's when people will get the additional cost of living payment
3.

Here's when people will get the additional cost of living payment

Why do people hate Matt Hancock? Oh, let us count the ways
4.

Why do people hate Matt Hancock? Oh, let us count the ways