"Put that thing away!" Ninety-two-year-old Joyce Estelle Trotman stands up from the sofa in the middle of my interview with her. I am commanded to turn off my recording device and hold out my hands. She pulls me up to demonstrate how to accompany a partner on a folk dance she first learned as a schoolgirl in Stanleytown Village, Demerara, British Guiana (now Guyana) in the 1930s. She sings as we dance: 'If all the world were paper, and all the seas were ink, if all the trees were bread and cheese, what would you have to drink?’ Joyce was reminded of the dance when watching a recent edition of Poldark on TV, and exclaimed at the remembrance, "Oh my that’s Black Nag!"
She has the exuberance and infectious good nature of a youngster embarking on an awfully big adventure, which is exactly what Joyce was when she set out to come to England in the winter of 1955 to further her vocation (she’d been the acting Principal of a teacher training college in British Guiana), and wended her way first to Newcastle. It was bitterly cold that weekend of arrival; there were snow ploughs on the roads, but Joyce was saved by the cinemas which screened films continuously. "I sat through The Red Shoes, round and round and round, psyching myself to go back out into the cold."
Her South Croydon home is brimful of memorabilia of the legacy of the British Empire: portraits of the Queen; pictures of Salisbury Cathedral; and copies of her old text books Nelson’s West Indian Readers (primers of British history and culture) which were shipped out from Britain to all of its Caribbean colonies in her school years. "Everything was imported," says Joyce, "even the canes which were like whips." And everything was learned by rote. "We were rapping without knowing that we were rapping." She recalls a passage on all the flowers of England that included ‘delphinium’ and ‘antirrhinum’: "I spelled ‘antirrhinum’ with one r and I got licks [smacked]; so every time I look at an antirrhinum in my garden I say, ‘You! You caused me a headache!"
It’s a little disconcerting to be in Joyce’s company. She reminds me of my time as a medical student when patients would present their medical histories, ailments and reversals, beaming with the biggest smiles. She has that kind of enveloping positivity, the expectation of joy that comes when you lift the lid on the keys of a grand piano.
Women such as Joyce, now described as part of the Windrush Generation, conjure the singular joie de vivre of the West Indian friends and relations of my parents, growing up in 1960s Luton. They had a code and great stores of good humour that got them through the hostile environment of the day (the policy began long before Theresa May’s iteration of it in 2012); back then the West Indians pulled up the collar of their coats and walked on. Eric Johnson, another member of the Windrush generation, had a typical approach. Reflecting on the times when he arrived for job opportunities only to be told again and again by the terribly sorrowful prospective employers that he was too late as the job had just gone, he concludes: "Bwoi, the Englishman is the nicest man in the world when he’s telling you 'no.'"
My parents arrived from Jamaica to the UK in 1959 and their, as well as fellow West Indians’, strategies to setbacks were often inventive and enchanting. Whenever I was a passenger in a car driven by my father, Bageye, in the 1960s, I was always struck by his amused approach to being stopped by policemen. He’d smile graciously at the police constable and promote him immediately: "Good morning Detective Inspector. Of course Chief Constable." Inevitably the policeman would stifle a laugh and wave us on without bothering to search my father or the car (which was often laden with bootlegged spirits).
Men like Bageye were buoyed by their sense of mischief and style. In the Caribbean there’d always been a premium placed on style, and this was most publicly manifest later in Britain in the playing and appreciation of cricket. West Indians brought a much needed injection of fun to the spectacle, recalls Alford Gardner. The former RAF airman was instrumental in starting a local West Indian cricket team in Leeds who, along with their cricket bats, balls and pads, were also minded to bring along guitars to their matches.
Bageye and Alford Gardner were prophets of the here today; they weren’t going to wait for their share of pleasure and glory in the next life. My mother, Ethlyn, and many of her church sisters, by contrast, took equal joy in their Christian faith; investing in God was their strategy for getting through the forbidding landscape of Britain and ignorance of the British public. I remember Ethlyn’s attitude towards slights and iniquities almost as a mantra: "I no bother answer them; I just walk and don’t look back." Her stoicism was both shield and balm. And as was evident from the ecstatic and revelatory hymns such as ‘This World is Not My Resting Place’ that would fill our living room – alongside the Ska of Blues parties and the nostalgic tunes of Jim Reeves – Ethlyn and her congregation were bound for glory in the hereafter.
In recent years a pall has been cast over the West Indian experience of life in Britain. It is important that the egregious behavior of the authorities in the Windrush scandal be exposed; those responsible should be held accountable and the elderly black Britons who have been wrongly classified as immigrants must be compensated. But it is also especially urgent that we detach the word scandal from Windrush. There’s a danger of framing a negative narrative that eclipses all the others of the Windrush Generation.
None of the extraordinary elders, such as Joyce Estelle Trotman, whom I interviewed for the book Homecoming see themselves as a victim. Their eyes are not so glazed over with nostalgia that they forget the calumnies and reprehensible manner in which they were treated. Joyce sums up the changing ways, during her sixty-five years in the country, that West Indians have been perceived and cast: "Very quickly were converted. First we were 'Children of Empire', then we were 'Citizens of the Commonwealth' and finally we were 'Foreigners and Immigrants.'"
Notwithstanding that perception, Joyce, my mother, Alford Gardner and myriad others characterise their lives and those of fellow West Indian pioneers to the UK as a triumph. "Well, years passed, my life is me myself and I," asserts Alford Gardner. "[But] if I had to do it all over, I wouldn’t change a thing. I wouldn’t change a single thing."
Colin Grant is the author of Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation.
For Black History Month, we asked Black British authors at Penguin to celebrate the things that bring them joy.
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