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Black in the Union Jack?

Finally, half a century after the first West Indian immigrants got off the SS Empire Windrush in June 1948, black people are no longer screened out of British culture.

There are plenty of non-white faces in the video made by the foreign office as a showcase for Britain's new image (left). Former Sunday Telegraph editor Sir Peregrine Worsthorne has bemoaned 'the depth of racist indoctrination which I received at school' and lauded 'my new friend' Darcus Howe, the black journalist and TV presenter, for being 'more British, in the old-fashioned sense' than many whites. If even the likes of Worsthorne are leaving some of their prejudices behind, it seems that the old adage 'there ain't no black in the Union Jack' is no longer true. But is this a triumph for anti-racism? Or does it simply indicate that British identity is now so ill-defined that nobody can be counted definitively in or out - not even blacks?

When 492 Jamaicans and Trinidadians disembarked at Tilbury 50 years ago, they expected to be included in the common culture of the 'mother country' - after all, they were British subjects and some had fought for the Crown in the Second World War. Once in Britain, they and those that followed were denied access to Britishness and the freedoms associated with it. But at least they knew what it was that they were not allowed into.

Through the sixties and seventies, disappointed that the 'mother country' had refused them inclusion, immigrants and their children nevertheless remained expectant that equality could be won. Their fight for equal rights ended in failure, giving rise to the desperation and frustration expressed in the inner city riots of the early eighties. But by this time British identity was also ailing seriously.

Nowadays traditional British institutions stand discredited; from the monarchy to cricket to Oxbridge, they are a source of embarrassment rather than pride - even to the elite which created them. There is no common, cohesive culture that is quintessentially British. This means that blacks cannot be excluded in the same old way; but their original demand for inclusion cannot be met either. There is simply nothing there to be included into.

This is the context in which multiculturalism has come to the fore. Nowadays blacks can be British, sort of, but only by default. In such circumstances equality is well nigh inconceiveable. Instead we have the celebration of difference. We inhabit not a melting pot but a kind of cultural salad-bowl in which the various ingredients retain their separate character even when they are cheek-by-jowl.

Few will now defend a notion of Britishness that no longer exists. This means that racism in Britain is not usually as overt as it was 20 years ago. Moreover, black and Asian culture is much more a part of everyday life. But it is hard to see a cause for celebration in the fact that black people are half-in and half-out of a society that is so lacking in direction and definition.

Andrew Calcutt

Still from Foreign Office video promoting Britain

'Tilbury, Tuesday. What were they thinking, these 492 men from Jamaica and Trinidad, as the Empire Windrush slid upstream with the flood between the closing shores of Kent and Essex? Standing by the rail this morning, high above the landing-stage at Tilbury, one of them looked over the unlovely town to the grey-green fields beyond and said, "If this is England I like it". A good omen, perhaps. May he and his friends suffer no sharp disappointment.

'...Having satisfied themselves that those in the first group did in fact have friends to go to, they issued them each with a travel warrant and a loan of ten shillings against future insurance contributions, brought them to London and saw them off. This party numbered 204.

'It was simpler to deal with the second group, of 52: they were taken to a Colonial Office hostel in Wimpole Street, where they will later be interviewed by recruiting officers. The 236 friendless and jobless were taken to the deep shelter at Clapham South, and there the Colonial Office will maintain them until Ministry of Labour officials have seen them placed'

Manchester Guardian, 23 June 1948

'Some immigrants, disappointed by what they found in Britain, have written home warning their fellow countrymen not to repeat the mistake which they have made. They find that the myth of Britain carries more weight than their advice, for intending migrants conclude instead that the writers must be trying to prevent others from sharing their good fortune'

Social anthropologist Michael Banton in The Times, 31 May 1954

'A boy of my own age, I'd say, carrying a hold-all and a brown paper parcel - a serious-looking kiddy with a pair of glasses, and one of those rather sad, drab suits that some spades wear, particularly students, in order to show the English people that we must not think they're savages in grass skirts and bones stuck in their hair, but twentieth-century numbers just like we are...Anyway, down the road he walked, stepping aside politely if people were in his way, and they all watching. All those eyes watching him, and the noise dropping. Then someone cried out "Get him!", and the spade dug it quick enough then - and he started running down the Bramley Road like lightning...and at least a hundred young men chasing after him, and hundreds of girls and kids and adults running after them, and even motorbikes and cars'

From Colin MacInnes' fictional account of the Notting Hill riots (1958), when black residents were attacked by whites (Absolute Beginners, 1959)

'Every day there were fights with Teddy Boys, and then the Mods came with their suits and hush puppies, and rockers in leather. Chaos. I didn't mind fighting, as a youth I loved it. I kicked a lot of butts - you had to just to be able to walk on the streets'

Jamaican immigrant Claude Anthony

'One grim winter evening, when it had a kind of unrealness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in the blur as if it is not London at all but some strange place on another planet, Moses Aloetta hop on a number 46 bus at the corner of Chepstow Road and Westbourne Grove to go to Waterloo to meet a fellar who was coming from Trinidad on the boat-train'

Opening sentence from Samuel Selvon's The Lonely Londoners (Longman)

'The hip society in Notting Hill in those days was basically very involved with the West Indians. They were the only people around who had good music, they knew all about jazz and ska and bluebeat. They also smoked rather good dope. That was the classic excuse if anyone got busted. "Where did you get it from?" "I bought it from a black man in Notting Hill." And the magistrate agreed: how can you possibly ever recognise them again, they all look the same'

[Barry] Miles, co-founder of the underground newspaper IT, quoted in Days in the Life: voices from the English underground 1961-1971 by Jonathon Green (1988)

'At the moment we're hero-worshipping the spades - they can dance and sing...we do the shake and the hitchhiker to fast numbers but we're going back to dancing close because the spades do it'

16-year old Mod quoted by Charles Hamblett and Jane Deverson in Generation X (1964)

Research by Toby Marshall

The writer's story

Wayne Anthony, author of the best-selling rave novel, The Class of '88, recalls life as a mixed-up mixed race kid

My dad is Jamaican, and my mother came from Malta. Because I was mixed race, and because of all the crap that black people took from society at that time, they put us up with their enemies, no matter how black we talked and how we dressed. So I was always fighting and I kind of rejected my black side.

I went through this skinhead stage, the only black skinhead I ever knew. I hung out with a gang of 50 from the Trowbridge estate. Our days were spent glue-sniffing and then going out and causing havoc. Then I went through this punk stage, spitting in each others' mouths and being really obnoxious. Until my mum's brother offered me £100 to become a casual boy - Waxman slacks, Burberry macs and all that stuff. Within a week I was in this totally different world with all my black friends and a few mixed race guys who ran a rare groove sound system. At these parties, if you step on somebody's shoes, you could be stabbed - there's going to be a fight, black on black.

A friend of mine, a waiter in the Rock Garden, was in with all these women who seemed really rich. Because I was black and cockney, I'd be pulling them and they used to buy me stuff. But their fathers did not want them going out with a black guy. Then there were the girls who would not go with a black guy but I had a good chance with them because I'm mixed race. As a young guy I thought it was really cool getting these girls that the others couldn't.

So I realised that the way you spoke and the way you dressed played a major part in the way people perceive you. If I talked West Indian slang like with my friends, people were quite cold. But if I spoke cockney, the same person would be a lot easier. Sometimes it pisses you off, because I'm me, why should it matter how I speak? But I know you won't get anywhere if you speak like you do with the brothers. On the surface there is black in the Union Jack, but not in the heart.

I think Ecstasy did more for multicultural integration than a hundred years of politics, and that's what I describe in my book. It may have died down now, but in those two years we did have it and a lot of people from that time can still share that emotion.

The Class of '88 is published by Virgin

SS sound systems

In TV documentaries about the SS Empire Windrush, there is usually a mention of the calypsonians who provided a musical documentation of the passage itself, and who went on to reflect simultaneously the contact with urban Britain and the wish to retain a connection with the Caribbean. That is the cliche´d image of migrant music. But something else that often gets overlooked is the sound systems which they also introduced into Britain via Jamaica. The original sound systems were not separate from the calypsonians; they were often closely connected. Together they provided a source of entertainment, a meeting place, and a kind of informal employment exchange. And you can trace the origins of today's rave scene right back to this.

Talking about sound systems, the latest Massive Attack album, Mezzanine, is in some ways a barometer of how much things have changed and how little they have changed. Massive Attack are a cultural sponge who have refined all kinds of elements into a voice of their own, a voice which is distinctly British. But not without cost. So while they have been lauded in the rock press, my local record shop in Brixton doesn't stock it, and the guy behind the counter will say that there is not much call for it round here. They have been marketed like an indie band, but in order to cross over into that sector, they have had to play the game. At different times various people have tried to go outside the narrow niches allotted to UK-based black musicians, but few have succeeded for long. Really, I am not sure that the position of second or third generation musicians is any more secure today than it was for their grandfathers 50 years ago.

Rebop is a DJ and writer whose internet music website (undergroundlondon.com) is currently under construction


Black British-born artist Keith Piper's 'Four frontiers' (commissioned by Photo '98) is concerned with Europe's perception of itself and its attitude to outsiders. The work is presented as an installation of four large-scale lightboxes set on opposing walls, each representing one of Europe's frontiers and containing a collage of digitally manipulated photographs taken by the artist on a series of journeys around the continent.

'Western front' considers the 'attraction and dread' of the Americas. Besides drawing on Hollywood, MTV and advertising, the piece also considers the impact of 'black musical and aesthetic forms' from the USA, the Caribbean and Latin America. Piper describes 'Four frontiers' as an 'extension' of earlier installations such as 'Fortress Europe' and 'Tagging the other'. His work has focused on questions of race and identity since his student days at Nottingham Trent Polytechnic in the early eighties.

Returning from Europe, Piper was questioned at immigration control about his 'reasons for travel' and 'length of stay in the UK' - despite his British passport and UK-registered car. The experience reinforced his 'personal impression of one's status as "other" and outsider'.

'Four frontiers' is showing at the Cartwright Hall Art Gallery, Bradford, until 28 June 1998 (telephone 01274 493313)

Fictional episodes

(White) writer John Williams reviews the back catalogue of black British fiction

There was a clutch of books written in the fifties celebrating the first wave of post-Windrush immigration. Surprisingly few books were written in the sixties and seventies as the first immigrant generation put down roots; and now in the nineties there is a new wave of second generation writing.

The first post-war black British novel was George Lamming's The Emigrants, published in 1954. Lamming is an important Caribbean writer, much underrated in the UK. The Emigrants is a big, dense account of the banana-boat journey, full of expectation, towards the imaginary homeland of Britain - it is hard to underestimate the extent to which the first generation of West Indian immigrants, brought up in a cod-British educational system, really did see Britain as both the mother country and a promised land. The remainder of the book explores the many and varied ways in which Britain proved deficient. The title of Lamming's novel encapsulates what is crucial about it: this is not a book about immigrants coming into Britain; it is primarily about the experience of emigrants leaving the Caribbean.

By considerable contrast to Lamming's sprawling and imposingly literary work, Samuel Selvon's The Lonely Londoners (1956) was a defiantly short narrative. A prose poem of the city, it is among the very finest British novels of the last 50 years. The Lonely Londoners is a depiction of men (most of the first immigrants were men) adrift in an alien city. But Selvon's triumph is that he not only chronicles the everyday injustices suffered by them, but also evokes the comedy, camaraderie and the sheer excitment of the times when he and his protagonists exploded on to the grey, fog-bound London of the fifties.

Other novels followed soon afterwards, such as Andrew Salkey's A Quality of Violence, and ER Braithwaite's more conventional protest novel To Sir With Love (later filmed with Sidney Poitier and Lulu in starring roles). But in the sixties, the trickle of black British novels dried up almost entirely. Selvon produced two sequels to The Lonely Londoners while Lamming moved his attention back to the Caribbean, as did other writers resident in the UK such as Roy Heath and Lindsay Barrett. The upsurge of black women's writing in the USA in the eighties eventually acted as the catalyst for the first black British women authors to appear, most notably Joan Riley with The Unforgiving.

But the first black British novel to find a mass audience within the black British community was the rather less edifying Yardie, by Victor Headley, which prompted some controversy for playing up to assorted stereotypes of mad, bad and dangerous black men with guns. Its real significance, however, is that here was a black British writer producing the kind of story he wanted to read, rather than a manifesto or apologia aimed, implicitly at least, at a white literary audience. Moreover, the particular merit of Yardie was not its knowingly hackneyed story-line but the freshness of the dialogue delivered with an ear for dialect that is just as canny as that of Irvine Welsh or James Kelman.

And Yardie's success led in turn to the expansion of X-Press, a kind of New English Library producing books by black Britons for black Britons - books full of romance, crime and humour which, alongside the more literary efforts of Andrea Levy and Oxford graduate Diran Adebayo (Some Kind of Black), make it clear that black Britain is no longer a novelty but a permanent presence.

Best of the current crew, though, is Q, the clubland legend whose fictional debut Deadmeat brings it all back home by combining the prose poetry of The Lonely Londoners with the street language and violence of Yardie into the one genuinely original work to come out of last year's shower of over-promoted, under-written Brit Lit.

John Williams' debut novel Faithless is published by Serpent's Tail

'A shop in Savile Row caught my eye, the sign above it read Oswald Boateng, the clothes weren't boring, they screamed of sex. They were pucker not for suckers, you could admire them in the same way you would a painting in the Louvre, or a good body. They were definitely the sort of garments that would do something for me, make me more approachable, give me an elegant look; the fabrics shone bright in the light, it was no hocus pocus business, I knew it was the real deal, delivered and sprinkled with energy. I just had to put one on then I could walk strong and feel like a don'

From Q's Deadmeat (Sceptre)

Wiggas in Wigan

Soul music that emanated from motor-city Detroit in the sixties was kept alive in the seventies by clubs in the north of England like Manchester's Twisted Wheel, the Torch in Stoke-on-Trent, the Blackpool Mecca's Highland Room and, most famously, the Wigan Casino. The clientele for Northern Soul, as it was called, was a bunch of white working class youth from all points above a line roughly drawn from the Wirral to the Wash. Every Saturday night through to late on Sunday morning, we upheld an almost religious devotion to this black music: keep the faith!

Though the Blackpool Mecca was just down the road from me, most Saturdays I climbed into a battered Ford and tore down the M6 to Wigan to dance to Casino stompers like Willie Mitchell's 'The champion' or the World Column's 'So is the sun'. Adulation greeted every black star who performed there like Billy Butler, Edwin Starr and Betty Wright. I'll always remember my local dj 'Harlem' Jon Le Saint's oft-quoted expression: 'I might be white outside but inside I'm all black'. Crowds of white girls stood gawping at the few black dancers stripped down to their kecks, sweat dripping off them as they danced at 'one hundred miles an hour' on Mr M's sprung dancefloor upstairs. On the Northern scene, there was no doubt that black style was seen as the best, and black people were considered to be the greatest dancers, singers and musicians in the world.

Among the Northern Soul crowd the fanatical adoration of blacks coexisted with hostility towards them - just as it did among the skins who followed ska and then reggae, and the suedeheads who danced to Tamla. But prejudice against blacks also coexisted with resentment towards almost anybody who was not part of the Northern scene. Scousers and all Southerners were automatically assumed to be 'divs'. It was not until later in the seventies, when black people were systematically set up by politicians and the press as scroungers and muggers, that they stopped being just another 'div' and came to be seen as wholly alien and criminal. But that did not lessen the attraction of black music. If anything it seems to have added to it.

Aidan Campbell Wigan Casino Soul Club member No 033039

Reproduced from LM issue 111, June 1998

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