Big Issue Vendor

John Bird: Windrushers fed me and housed me. They deserve only our respect

The Windrush generation has nothing to prove. Give them papers, stamps – anything they need to let them know they're welcome

The Windrush generation certainly changed the United Kingdom, and especially our big cities. I was living in Notting Hill as a locally born London Irish boy. And then suddenly, as if all at once, large groups of West Indians arrived on our slum streets. Soon after, though we left the slums for different slums, this sudden arrival led to the Notting Hill race riots of 1958, a week after a similar (forgotten) riot in Nottingham.

These were workers, the initial rush of whom came in an old boat once German and used by the Nazis, but renamed Empire Windrush. London Transport was recruiting directly from Jamaica and Barbados. A Conservative health minister called Enoch Powell was inviting West Indian nurses to work in the NHS. And they took up residence in the cheap and run-down parts of our towns. They filled up the jobs that the UK workforce didn’t want to take up: bus driving, hospital portering, cleaning, factory work, where the labours and machinery combined with the health threats that went with them.

They built and they dug and they portered and they drove. But how could the increasing prosperity of the UK working classes be catered for if these migrating workers weren’t doing the unsavoury jobs?

Many brought poverty with them. Many were from the countryside of the islands. They also brought their culture, food, language and their breezier take on music, which they made out of their own passions.

My first serious friend was a boy who arrived in 1954 and moved to the White City in Hammersmith, West London. I was just out of nick and aged 18 with ambitions to become a great painter. I worked for the Royal Borough of Kensington trees and garden department. My fellow workers, knowing I was out of a correctional institute, ‘sent me to Coventry’ (meaning they ignored me). But Simon, like me – and isolated, like me – took me up as his friend.

I took him out of London that year, his first exit from it since he got off the Windrush at Southampton 10 years before. I took him to Cambridge and he was astonished at how green England was.

I was influenced and changed by Windrushers. And enriched by them. And employed by them. And fed, and housed and entertained by them

A few years later, I met Danny. Danny was completely different. He came over on the same boat and at the same time, but his mother had joined a savings group and got a house out of it. Danny and I have never been separated for long ever since. I lived in his aunt’s Windrush-loaded house in the World’s End, Chelsea. I was part of the family for two years.

What also united Danny and me was our love of art. Danny is a great artist, but also a multi-talented man bringing up four daughters with his wife Wendy,  they’ve all been to university. Danny has worked with disabled people and in restaurants, and, at times, trained troubled children to take up the art of judo.

Stewart, though, I met later. We were determined to destroy capitalism together; but in our spare time, and when we weren’t earning a living. Stewart had been a photographer with The Jamaica Gleaner and then came to Britain in 1962 on one of the last boatloads before the migration was stopped.

The British working classes also seemed to be on their own Windrush, to Australia, for £10 (including the boys who would become the Bee Gees). To start their lives again, and help push Australia towards increasing prosperity. The old rule, as the Germans had learned after the war, is if you want prosperity, you go overseas for a good chunk of the workforce. They went to Turkey and they got their workers – and they got their prosperity.

Stewart didn’t prosper well in this country. We also didn’t manage to destroy  capitalism together. I think we realised in the end that Wall Street is better at destroying capitalism than any revolutionary movement.

I went to his funeral in a Welsh valley where he’d moved with the love of his life. It was surprising, because they took to him as a later version of Paul Robeson, the American bass baritone who sang Welsh songs with an African-American depth. Stewart was a youngish man, a giant, and a grammarian unlike anyone else I knew.

These are just a few stories about Windrushers I have known. I was influenced and changed by them. And enriched by them. And employed by them. And fed, and housed and entertained by them.

What can I make of today’s Windrush debacle? Only outrage. These were our fellow people who came to rebuild a scarred country. Who fought in our European wars. And who died with us.

The Windrush generation have nothing to prove to me, neither their belonging, nor their sincerity. And I think I’m not alone in hating this recent turn of events.

It’s time to hand out the papers, stamps – and anything they need – to make them feel that we welcome their participation in our joint world.