by Colin Grant
This year marks the 65th anniversary of the SS Empire Windrush sailing into Tilbury Docks, with 493 West Indian emigrants onboard. As the wide-eyed hopefuls disembarked they probably had no inkling that their epic journey to the ‘Mother Country’ would herald the phenomenon of multi-cultural Britain – at least, as we now regard it in the modern era.
Today, however, even the term ‘multi-culturalism’ is a contentious issue and political football: immigration reform, for example, was one of the main planks in the ‘Queen’s Speech’ which outlined the government’s forthcoming legislative agenda; and Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party (Ukip) is riding high in the opinion polls, primarily based on its single-issue agenda: an unapologetic aversion to immigration. Not only has their popularity soared it’s also taken the major political parties by surprise. Arguably, this has led to the government and its opposition increasingly lurching further to the ‘right’, in order to win back voters who have defected to Ukip.
It is against this backdrop that Colin Grant’s Bageye at the Wheel seems especially topical and pertinent to the wider debate. Indeed, it is one of the few literary accounts by a contemporary British writer that offers a unique insight into how the Windrush generation fared, especially after they had ‘outstayed’ their welcome. Furthermore, Grant’s skilful storytelling has been recognized in his being shortlisted for this year’s prestigious PEN/Ackerley Prize for Memoir.
Grant’s tale, told through the eyes of his 10-year-old self, is the story of growing up in 1970s Luton – an unattractive, semi-industrial English town which, at that time, only a smattering of West Indians called home. He recounts in vivid colours and language [Jamaican patois] his experience of acting as a go-between for his father, reluctant to engage in any meaningful way with his host country, and living in a household where he had to negotiate two separate cultures: a West Indian one at home; and a British one outside.
His father, ‘Bageye’, came to the UK shortly after Windrush, but his was not a tale of assimilation. Indeed, he only kept company with fellow West Indians – most of whom, like ‘Bageye’, so called because of the bags under his eyes, and as was the tradition, were also only ever known by their nicknames: Pumpkin Head; Tidy Boots; Shine; Summer Wear and the other “fellars”. The colourful cast of characters’ main source of entertainment was the all-night poker game that often stretched from Friday nights to Sunday mornings.
Colin Grant recalls that his father mistrusted the English – the Irish, as despised as the West Indians, were alright though – and warned that as a young black British boy he was “different” an “outsider” and needed to be careful how he conducted himself in public, as “he was always being watched”.
Grant’s voice, then, is authentic and he lends an especially poignant viewpoint on the consequences of dreams dashed and hopes deferred, as was felt by ‘Bageye’ and his ilk when it slowly dawned on them that their five-year plans to “work some money” and return to the West Indies had somehow morphed into permanency.
Whilst over the years this had settled into a grudging resignation on both sides, the country had, more recently, to adjust itself to accommodate a new wave of emigrants. Ignorance and an irrational fear of “the other” albeit former British subjects had largely been transferred to Eastern Europeans: firstly, the Poles and, laterally, Bulgarians and Romanians. To that extent, Bageye at the Wheel is, in its own way, testament to the old adage: as much as things change, they remain the same.