Opinion

Barrel Children: The kids left behind by Windrush

Journalist Nadine White's documentary examines the trauma suffered by the Windrush generation

Four children at a train station

A still from Nadine White's documentary, Barrel Children

I grew up in West London in the 1980s, a time and place that was pretty multiracial but not very multicultural. By which I mean there were plenty of non-white kids at my school, but we only really understood our differences in terms of colour. 

There was no understanding or discussion of the differences in the way we lived, the things we believed in or the backgrounds of our families. As far as I could see, the kids of African, Caribbean, Pakistani or Indian descent just fitted in with the rest of us: playing football, singing Christian songs in assembly, eating unseasoned food in the canteen and learning about all the wars we had won and monarchs that had ruled over us.  

When I got older, I announced to myself and anyone else who cared to listen that, having grown up around all this diversity, I was totally colour blind, impeccably tolerant and painfully liberal. I was quite pleased with myself. But it was bollocks. 

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Just because I’d been around kids of other colours without it seeming like a big deal, it didn’t quite make me the super-woke warrior I thought I was. The truth is that I had almost no comprehension of anyone’s racial or cultural background beyond the fact that it made them look different.  

This ignorance was rooted in arrogance. An unconscious cultural arrogance that told me that the fundamental differences in our backgrounds didn’t matter. 

Probably because I figured being British was better. I grew up in what felt like a very liberal family where racism was forbidden and tub-thumping patriotism was the subject of piss-taking. Nevertheless, I was taught that being white and British was the most fortuitous, and therefore aspirational, thing to be. 

I am a believer in the beauty and power of true multiculturalism but have come to understand that it takes more effort on all sides to engage with the diverse life experiences that rub against each other in modern society. Empathy is essential for it to work. 

I went to the Ritzy in Brixton to watch the brilliant new film Barrel Children, made by journalist Nadine White. ‘Barrel children’ was the name given to the kids who were left back home in the Caribbean when their parents departed for Britain as part of the Windrush generation.  

Mums and dads often went to the UK alone before sending for their kids. These early Windrushers were promised better lives in return for rebuilding the postwar ‘motherland’. In White’s film, we discover the reality was quite different.  

The Windrush generation often found themselves dumped into difficult living circumstances, with decent jobs hard to come by. Unable to afford to bring their children over as quickly as they might have hoped, they sent gifts and supplies to them once or twice a year in barrels.  

Many kids were left as infants and grew up without much memory of their parents. If and when they did manage to join them, they felt estranged and alienated not just from society but from their families too.  

What this reveals is a mass state of trauma among early immigrants from the Caribbean – lured away by what turned out to be the false promise of comfort and compassion. What they found was hostility and struggle. 

This is what generational trauma looks like. It’s impossible to really understand the different cultures we live among unless we understand their history. This history was not only unknown to white Britain, but also unspoken among many of the families who had lived through it. White’s film features barrel children speaking for the first time about their experiences.   

Barrel Children is a real eye opener about how little all of us really know about each other. It’s important we make more of an effort, I think.

White cites the Marcus Garvey quote: “A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” 

Watching Barrel Children is a good way for all of us to set some roots.  

Barrel Children is showing at Picturehouse cinemas until 6 July

Read more from Sam Delaney here

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