Broadly speaking, Windrush literature has so far been produced in two distinct timeframes: first, during the period of governmentally encouraged Caribbean immigration into Britain from the 1950s to the early 1970s, and then more recently as anniversaries of HMT Empire Windrush’s docking at Tilbury on 22 June 1948 began to arise. Read Nick Berbier’s blog post to find out more:
To describe these literary works as fictional in the pure sense would be something of a misnomer. Most have narratives based (albeit at times loosely) on the lived experience of migration by the authors and their families, thus creating characters who live in storyworlds that feel culturally authentic and convincingly real. The first and perhaps greatest of these is The Lonely Londoners (1956) by Sam Selvon.i
Dapper young Windrush man 1962. Studioplace (Howard Grey), CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Selvon (1923-94) was a Trinidadian who, after wartime service, worked as a reporter and literary editor on the Trinidad Guardian, where he began writing poetry and short stories.ii He then moved to London in 1950, working as a clerk at the Indian Embassy whilst continuing writing: his first two novels were published in 1952 and 1955.iii The Lonely Londoners (1956), his widely recognised masterwork, is one of the first, and many critics believe best, chronicles the experiences of post-war Caribbean migrants to London.iv Unlike the few other previous attempts to explore the theme by authors such as George Lamming, Selvin made the literally and literarily transformative leap of using a creolised voice for the language of the narration and the dialogue. With this innovative device, says Professor Susheila Nasta:
Selvon not only envisioned a new way of reading and writing the city but also exploded some of the narrow and hyphenated categories by which black working-class voices had hitherto been defined. Closing the sometimes awkward gap between the teller of the tale and the tale itself, Selvon thus finds a means to not only reinvent London but to reshape its spaces giving his previously voiceless characters a place to live in it.v
Sam Selvon, 1952. BBC UK Government, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Frequently humorous in his approach, Selvon does not however shrink away from a whole range of complexities within his immigrants’ lives, not least the everyday, endless racism that ‘the boys’ (London’s pals of colour who, well named by Selvon, frequently behave like immature boy-men) face. These ‘boys’ are far from perfect. Selvon reveals both their own highly questionable treatment and mistreatment of both one another at various points, and, even more disconcertingly, of women.
As Nasta observes, the novel has no real beginning or end: we merely arrive upon the characters, spend time with them, and then depart – though not permanently as it turns out.vi The Lonely Londoners being so significant a text, it is surprising how often it goes unmentioned that there were also two sequel novels by Selvon in which we similarly come upon Moses, his chief protagonist, at other key moments in his life. In Moses Ascending (1975), Selvon explores the characters’ travails with the British housing market, and in Moses Migrating (1983), the now elderly man’s fish-out-of-water return to Trinidad. Whilst lesser faire than the first triumphant novel, nonetheless, read as a trilogy, the three works give powerful testament to the realties and meanings, good, bad, and indifferent, of the Black British immigrant experience.vii
AndyScott, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Errol John’s Moon on a Rainbow Shawl (1958) (available in the library) is a play that was first produced at the Royal Court Theatre, London in December 1958.viii Sharing a similar Caribbean dialect to The Lonely Londoners, John’s play centres on a group of impoverished Trinidadian tenement-sharing characters in the immediate post war years. The play follows their aspirations to escape their shared tenement yard, precisely capturing the migratory impulse of those who came to England from the Caribbean: in a sense, acting as thematic prequal to The Lonely Londoners.
Ambition proves to be one of the key motivators in the play. This was no less so for actor and playwright Errol John himself, who ‘wrote the play after becoming disillusioned by the lack of good roles for Black actors in Britain’, sadly evidencing one area of racial inequality that, judging by Sir Lenny Henry’s comments, has progressed at a snail’s pace in the intervening sixty-plus years.ix
E.R. Braithwaite’s autobiographical novel To Sir, With Love (1959), is perhaps remembered less now than the 1967 film adaption starring Sidney Poitier and a very young theme-tune-singing Lulu.x The book, a bestseller on publication, sought to expose racism and discrimination in postwar Britain.
Braithwaite was born in 1912 in Guyana (then known as British Guiana). After serving with the RAF in World War Two, Braithwaite moved to England where he gained a bachelor’s degree and master’s in physics at the University of Cambridge. Expecting to enter straight into the higher levels of his chosen profession of engineering, Braithwaite was unprepared for the racism he would experience. After spending 18 months being rejected for jobs in engineering, he reluctantly took up a job as a teacher in an unconventional East London school made up of predominantly white working-class students.xi
E.R. Braithwaite. The original uploader was Noirish at English Wikipedia., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The novel, ultimately positive and hopeful in outlook, goes on to show the transformative power of progressive teaching for both teacher and pupils, and the value of the teacher’s relationship with a white colleague conducted in the face much social opposition, not least from the woman’s parents who, in the end, begin to move beyond their prejudice and support the couple’s future together.
The second generation of Windrush literature begins with Andrea Levy’s multi-award winning Small Island (2004) (available in the library): arguably the first significant Caribbean immigration novel of the post-colonial era, it was later adapted for both television and for the stage at the National Theatre.xii ‘Born in England to Jamaican parents who came to Britain in 1948, Andrea Levy wrote the novels that she had always wanted to read as a young woman, engaging books that reflect the experiences of black Britons and at the intimacies that bind British history with that of the Caribbean.’xiii In Small Island, a white woman’s neighbours disapprove of her taking in a Black male Jamaican lodger after the war: a man who served with honour against Hitler, but now, as a civilian, finds a far from warm welcome in postwar Britain. This excellent novel goes on to examine how individuals negotiate the ‘point in England’s past when the country began to change…[and] the weighty themes of empire, prejudice, war and love.’xiv
James Berry’s Windrush Songs (2007) are a series of poems in which:
[m]igration is treated as both specific and amorphous, not wedded to the Windrush, nor separate from it. Berry employs a more general and oblique ship motif which appears in echoes, allusions and resonances – a ‘glorious world ship coming silently / on the old, old waterway’, a signal of the universal, transnational history of migration (p. 80). And despite the introduction’s hint of an autobiographical approach, the poems are narrated by a multitude of speakers with different perspectives and desires, a polyphony which destabilises the notion of authorial truth or singular story.xv
As Hannah Lowe observes, this approach reinforces the view of cultural theorist Stuart Hall (himself a Windrush immigrant, who was described recently at a University of Kent conference as “Britain’s greatest academic”), that ‘that the colonial experience is both communal – in a shared history of transportation, colonisation and migration – and about difference, in the multiplicity of, for example, ethnic/cultural inheritances, life histories and individual subjectivities.’xvi
Finally, to two texts from 2020. Recognising that there are now multi-generational Britons who might want to tell the Windrush story to their young children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, prolific writer and poet Benjamin Zephaniah, whose parents were Windrush émigrés to Handsworth, Birmingham, produced the children’s book Windrush Child (available in the library).xvii It tells the story of ten year old Jamaican Leonard and his mother, who join Leonard’s father in postwar Manchester, with a narrative that does ‘not shirk from exploring the society and the racism that Leonard encounters in his school and in … 50’s and 60’s society in Manchester – where Leonard’s father [is] a bus driver’.xviii As Tricia Adams notes, ‘the language, plus seeing everything through Leonard’s often confused eyes, makes it a valuable lesson for children to read’.xix
Edwardx, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Louise Hare’s This Lovely City takes Windrush literature in an entirely new direction: the noire thriller.xx It is 1950, two years on from Laurie’s arrival in the UK on the Empire Windrush. Settled into a decent job as a postman, and happily courting the girl next door, his world is thrown into turmoil as he is accused of a truly terrible crime. Darkly atmospheric, it brings new layers to the storyworld of Black immigrants, not least via the fog of noirish distrust that it swirls around London, where to the white populace, newcomers are always, in some sense, ‘suspect’.
Hare’s excellent recent entry shows one of the many interesting directions in which Windrush literature may now go. It is still a young genre. There are many more multi-generational stories to be told on the page, stage, and screen, in poetry and prose. I look forward to the next iterations with excitement.
i Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners (London: Penguin Books, 2016).
ii The British Library, ‘Samuel Selvon’, https://www.bl.uk/people/samuel-selvon
iii Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Samuel Selvon – Caribbean Author’, 2023, https://www.britannica.com/art/Caribbean-literature.
iv Susheila Nasta, ‘The Lonely Londoners’, The British Library, https://www.bl.uk/works/the-lonely-londoners.
vi Nasta, ibid.
vii Sam Selvon, Moses Ascending (London: Penguin Books, 2020); Sam Selvon, Moses Migrating (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2008).
viii Errol John, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl (London: Faber & Faber, 2012); British Library, ‘Moon on a Rainbow Shawl’, 2018, https://www.bl.uk/works/moon-on-a-rainbow-shawl.
ix British Library, ‘Moon on a Rainbow Shawl’, British Library, 2018 https://www.bl.uk/works/moon-on-a-rainbow-shawl; Tara Conlan, ‘Lenny Henry calls for law to boost low numbers of black people in TV industry’, The Guardian, 18 March 2014.
x E.R. Braithwaite, To Sir, With Love (London: Penguin Books, 2005); IMDb, ‘To Sir, with Love’, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0062376/.
xi British Library, ‘Typescript draft of E R Braithwaite’s To Sir, With Love, revised by hand’, https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/typescript-draft-of-e-r-braithwaites-to-sir-with-love-revised-by-hand.
xii Andrea Levy, Small Island (London: Tinder Press, 2009); ‘Small Island: Winner of the “Best of the Best” Orange Prize’, The Guardian Bookshop, 2004 https://guardianbookshop.com/small-island-winner-of-the-best-of-the-best-orange-prize-9780755307500.
xiii The Guardian Bookshop, ibid.
xv Hannah Lowe, ‘An Introduction to James Berry’s Windrush Songs’, British Library, 2018 https://www.bl.uk/windrush/articles/an-introduction-to-james-berrys-windrush-songs.
xvii Benjamin Zephaniah, Windrush Child (London: Scholastic, 2020).
xviii Tricia Adams, ‘Windrush Child’, Love Reading, Undated https://www.lovereading4kids.co.uk/book/9780702302725/isbn/Windrush-Child-by-Benjamin-Zephaniah.html.
xx Louise Hare, This Lovely City (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2021).
This blog post has been written by Nick Berbiers who studied English Literature at CCCU and is now a Library and Information Adviser