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Busting the myths of the Windrush Generation

Harris Joshua was frustrated by Windrush clichés. So he tracked down five women whose true stories paint a fuller picture

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Windrush. Illustration: Joseph Joyce

It’s amazing how often the initial spark for doing or making something is some small, seemingly insignificant, issue that has always annoyed you. In the case of A Circle of Five it is that snapshot portrayal of the ‘Windrush Generation’ in popular media.

Is there anyone on the planet who has not seen that short newsreel clip of black men and women cautiously walking down the gangplank of the MV Empire Windrush the day after it arrived at Tilbury Dock in June 1948.

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According to the newsreel commentary at the time: “They are coming from our British Colonies in the West Indies to help rebuild the mother country.”

This provides such a wealth of information that for all practical purposes they could well have materialised out of nowhere, pausing only for the newsreel cameras, before walking off Tilbury Dock and disappearing as they arrived – into the mist.

Nevertheless, this is the moment when the ‘Windrush Generation’ is born. Though many will follow in their footsteps before the 1971 Immigration Act, this is the endlessly repeated cliché that even today stills defines the ‘Windrush Generation’.

Then there was my partner’s mother – Arabella Birdena Smith – who asked me to transcribe three of her diaries. No one in the family even knew Aunt Bell kept diaries. It turned out she was a prolific diarist.

The diaries she asked me to transcribe covered that period of her young adult life in the late 1950s when she immigrated from Jamaica and England.

I am African Caribbean and those few diaries told me how much I did not know about the establishment of African-Caribbean communities in Britain.

Aunt Bell was already suffering with breast cancer when she asked me to transcribe some of her diaries, and unfortunately she died before giving permission to complete the task.

However, I was already utterly captivated by the wealth, depth and vibrancy of the accounts.

A Circle of Five is my attempt to tell the story of the ‘Windrush Generation’ through the eyes and experience of five women.

With me complaining to everyone about how disappointed I was not to be able to make better use of Aunt Bell’s diaries, Chev King – another member of the family – offered some helpful advice: “Quit bellyaching and go out and find other Aunt Bells!”

Not sure I was taking her seriously – which I wasn’t – she added: “Tell you what, I’ll go out and find them myself!” Which is exactly what she did.

All of ‘The Five’ are Jamaican, who make up the overwhelming majority of African-Caribbean people in the UK. Two of ‘The Five’ live in London and three in the West Midlands, areas accounting for most of African-Caribbean settlement.

Given that the ‘Windrush Generation’ story in A Circle of Five was going to span life histories from birth to now, for coherence and continuity it was always going to be through the eyes of our women.

Over 300,000 people from British Colonies in the West Indies came to the UK between 1948 and 1971.

Inevitably, we got to hear about those who later became famous. But what about the experience of the rest of us? None of ‘The Five’ imagined that anyone would want to record and tell their stories.

Though they were proud of their contribution to family and local community, none boasted any claim to fame.

Nevertheless, each story is gripping and compelling in its own right. For instance, Evelyn in the middle of her account of growing up in Jamaica says: “That’s where I met Errol Flynn, his dad, his mother and Patrice Wymore. I met all those people in Portland.”

Or Melissa, who describes that period of her life in Sierra Leone when in addition to her day job as a UN nurse she gets involved with diamond mining and arguing politics with Siaka Stevens – the president.

I did not know any of ‘The Five’ before interviewing them. I am still in awe that they were willing to reveal the entire history of their families to a complete stranger.

Without the efforts of yet another member of my family – Susan Beardmore – A Circle of Five may never have been published. In addition to proofreading successive versions of the manuscript, she is the one who spotted the Jacaranda 20 authors in 2020 opportunity.

A Circle of Five by Harris Joshua is out now (Jacaranda, £8.99)

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