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My Windrush friend Stewart taught me how to oppose racism

John Bird reflects on late friend Stewart's lifelong disdain to the damage done to the human mind by oppression slavery and colonialism and how it echoes with him today
22nd June 1948: The ex-troopship 'Empire Windrush' arriving at Tilbury Docks from Jamaica, with 482 Jamaicans on board, emigrating to Britain. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Stewart was a photographer in his native Kingston for the Jamaica Gleaner. He was obsessed with photography and would often buy cameras with his meagre salary as a train cleaner, or later as a plastics machinist in North Kensington’s Latimer Road. He would run out of money and often sell me an odd camera to make ends meet.

He was the first photographer I knew. He took a delight in small cameras and when I built a dark room by Paddington Station he would spend his two weeks holiday working there through the night, developing and experimenting. He did an odd wedding, and even funeral, but was never able to make his mark with photos after he got off the Windrush in 1962.

He died of cancer 10 years after I met him, in South Wales where he was a popular man because he was big and black and reminded them of Paul Robeson. Robeson had made a film (The Proud Valley, 1940) about the mines, among the miners. Stewart died in love there, after having lived almost 20 years without it. He was gentle and incredibly educated, always correcting the at times poor grammar to be found in the revolutionary paper we both sold around pubs in Shepherd’s Bush and Hammersmith Broadway.

Proud Valley Paul Robeson
Prod DB © CAPAD - Ealing Studios / DR THE PROUD VALLEY de Pen Tennyson 1940 GB affiche quad anglaise avec Paul Robeson
The poster for Paul Robeson film The Proud Valley. Image credit: TCD / Prod.DB / Alamy Stock Photo

On occasions as we went around selling I would goad him into anger, a bit like baiting a large bear, and had on odd occasions to run for my life. After such baiting I would have to be careful when I next knocked on the window of his ground floor room in Shepherd’s Bush. But overall we valued and appreciated each other. He was fascinated by my stories about growing up as a slum boy hater of blacks and Jews, and would have me tell him the story countless times of my instant conversion when I became a Marxist in Paris in 1967.

When we talked about racialism, as racism was then called, he always said roughly the same thing. “In 1945 your middle and upper class government invited the poor of other countries in the empire to join the poor of Great Britain. They did not invite the poor of Jamaica for instance to join them in Mayfair and Hampstead, nor into their Oxford country cottages, but to join the poor in Brixton, Notting Hill and other poor parts of the British cities.”

Stewart in many ways has become more important for me with the passage of time and tidesJohn Bird

Once, walking through Hyde Park on our way to a demonstration, he said memorably, “They said ‘come to our white lands. Come and sweat and labour and be poor with our white poor’.” Stewart – as we called him, as he only announced his first name when almost dying – was incensed at the lack of education and preparation for such an enormous change to the lives of poor white people. “No wonder there is racialism in this white land. Imagine what it would be like if thousands of white people tried to move into Trenchtown in Kingston, Jamaica! Murder! Mayhem.”

We got to the demonstration – against what, I cannot remember. For some strange reason the head copper surreptitiously talked to me in a strange way. When I told Stewart later about my encounter with the top copper, he laughed and said: “Because they think you’re under cover.” Only then did it make sense. They thought I was one of them, explaining also the constant winking throughout the march.

When Stewart found love and moved to South Wales for a while, he blossomed. He appeared happier and more steady. But the last time I saw him, at Alexandra Palace on a high hill overlooking North London, he told me about his illness. I tried to make a joke out of it. I did not want to be one of the long list of people who offered commiserations. We after all were in a class war against the evils of capital, and it was a noble fight. We were a part of that long roll call of people going back to Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian revolution and the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and even further, who strived for meaning and understanding in the face of the ugliness of exploitation and oppression. We took succour that we both came from small islands – Jamaica and Ireland – where there was oppression in the pursuit of wealth (for some), and did not accept our demeaned existence.

Stewart in many ways has become more important for me with the passage of time and tides. And his withering disdain for those that would deny the damage done to the human mind by oppression, slavery and colonialism still echoes for me. For it made us all less human. To be human, he thought, was to oppose the damage done to the human mind, to all human minds, by oppression, racialism and its trail of ugly thinking that diminished our own thinking.

We probably could do with a few more Stewarts at this particular time.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue