I noted in this earlier piece that the word “spy” had been in the news a lot recently, and that the story still had some way to run. The same is true of the word “Windrush”. The Windrush was a ship that arrived in the UK (in Tilbury Essex, specifically) in June 1948 with the first of many boatloads of immigrants from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and other islands in the West Indies. “The Windrush Generation” describes the hundreds of thousands of children and adults who followed those first arrivals right up to 1971, when the Immigration Act changed the rules for Commonwealth citizens arriving in the UK.
This piece from the BBC website summarizes the background to the current Windrush scandal and its development up to the middle of April. Although the Windrush generation are legally entitled to remain in the UK many of them have been prevented from returning here after taking a trip abroad. Many of them had arrived as children, on adult passports, and without a passport of their own. They were granted “leave to remain”, indefinitely, but as the BBC piece points out:
The Home Office did not keep a record of those granted leave to remain or issue any paperwork confirming it – meaning it is difficult for Windrush arrivals to prove they are in the UK legally.
And in 2010, landing cards belonging to Windrush migrants were destroyed by the Home Office.
This whole scandal has been made worse by the “hostile environment” that recent governments set out to create, and took credit for creating, to discourage migration into the UK. It has created an environment that is hostile even to those legally entitled to live here. Last night the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, resigned over the issue. Rather than speculate on what will happen next, or try to find the words to describe how outrageous this whole business is, I will reflect on my parents’ experiences on their arrival in the UK by boat in the 1950s, recall an event from 40 years ago today (and my generation’s anti-racist activism), and finish with a sad story illustrating that the “hostile environment” to immigrants is not a new development.
Like the Windrush generation my parents arrived here by boat in the 1950s, from Ireland rather than the Caribbean. The name of the boat is not a matter of record. They experienced their own share of prejudice and discrimination, but thanks to the colour of their skin this was hardly comparable to the racism routinely experienced by their contemporaries from further afield.
People trying to find accommodation here in London in the 1950s and 60s were regularly met with signs reading: “No blacks. No dogs. No Irish.” I first heard about this from my mother, long before I read about it. John Lydon used the phrase as the title of his first autobiography, his parents having encountered the signs plenty of times themselves. I once heard Michael Caine spin this a bit further, saying that he had found it hard to find rooms in the 1960s. He described notices reading, “No blacks. No dogs. No Irish. No actors.” He even suggested that the actors, being bottom of the list, were especially unwelcome. Really.
Anti-Irish sentiments, and anti-Catholic sentiments, are not difficult to find in England but, again, they are on a far lesser scale than old-fashioned prejudices based on colour. A chap from Galway who I got to know about 30 years ago, and who died in 1996, explained that much of the hostility that he encountered after arriving here in the late 1940s was based on Ireland’s neutrality in World War Two, one extra factor to add to all the other historical prejudices.
As a Londoner I am grateful for the opportunities this great city has afforded me, and grateful for the mix of people, cultures and languages that we enjoy. The parents of nearly all of my childhood friends came from outside the UK. I have friends whose parents were part of the Windrush generation. It was only at university that I first befriended people who had four English grandparents. Forty years ago today (30 April 1978) I, and tens of thousands of my generation, marched from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park Hackney to denounce racism, as I noted in this piece from two years ago. We were rewarded with an outdoor concert featuring an exceptional line-up (Steel Pulse, The Clash and the Tom Robinson Band among them). The bands that we followed promoted tolerance and multi-culturalism. The bands promoting hatred and violence sank without trace. I do not need to name them here.
Yesterday, in this piece, I quoted David Quantick writing about the Beatles song “Ob-la-di Ob-la-da”. The last paragraph of that chapter is relevant here, and worth quoting in some detail:
“McCartney did not come up with the song’s title (or, therefore, its refrain) himself. One of McCartney’s friends at the time of the White Album sessions was a Nigerian conga player, called Jimmy Anomungharan Scott Emuakpor, known around London simply as Jimmy Scott. Scott’s catchphrase for all occasions was a Yoruba expression that he would instantly translate – ob-la-di ob-la-da, life goes on. McCartney, enamoured of the phrase, put it into a song. Despite being hired to play on the track, Scott was understandably unhappy about this, and some years later McCartney did send Scott – then playing with the UK ska revival band Bad Manners – a cheque to settle the matter. Sadly, Scott is now dead, effectively killed by British immigration officers. Reentering the United Kingdom, he was strip-searched by customs officials. By then a man in his 60s, he was then left naked in his cell for two hours. He died from pneumonia the next day.”
Jimmy Scott died in 1986. The “hostile environment” for people entering, or re-entering, the UK is nothing new.