Celebrating Literature that has Wind Rushing Through its Pages
By Shaniah Shields, Leanne Francis, Michelle Ye and Jia Wen Ho
On 22 June 1948, the Empire Windrush docked into Tilbury, Essex, carrying hundreds of passengers who could not fathom the impact they would have on cosmopolitan Britain. Formerly the MV Monte Rosa, the Empire Windrush was renamed after the River Windrush in the Cotswolds. It signified the start of a post-war immigration boom from the Caribbean to Britain which brought workers to help fill post-war labour shortages.
Every year on 22 June, Windrush Day is commemorated to celebrate and acknowledge the contributions that the Windrush generation and their descendants have made to British society. The Windrush Generation (1948–1971) helped to shape modern Black British culture including art, music, and literature. Now, nearly seventy-five years on, it is important to educate ourselves on the Windrush Generation, their impact on British history and on their betrayal by the British Home Office in 2018 which was uncovered by journalist Amelia Gentleman. For more information on the Windrush scandal, Gentleman’s The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing the Hostile Environment is a credible resource. For more information on the Windrush, The British Library has a great selection of Windrush stories available.
The Windrush Generation not only contributed to the economy of Britain, but also to the culture, bringing with them new styles of dress, food and music that are at the core of our contemporary culture. They were pioneers and notably a passenger on the Empire Windrush, Sam King MBE, became Mayor of Southwark in the 1980s. He was one of the creators of the Windrush Foundation and of Notting Hill Carnival, the annual Caribbean festival event that showcases the beauty and vibrancy of Caribbean culture. Furthermore, Allyson Williams MBE has also been involved in Notting Hill Carnival since 1975, a tradition that is woven into the fabric of the nation.
In the sporting world, cricketer Sir Clive Lloyd and Olympian Linford Christie OBE have Windrush roots. Author, presenter and politician Baroness Floella Benjamin has noted her journey during the Windrush in her children’s book Coming to England (1995) which is an inspirational story of hope and determination.
The seismic impact of the Windrush Generation also sculpted the contemporary art and literature that was being published. At their core, a sense of belonging and community was explored in conjunction with narratives on heritage and identity. We have collated a list of fiction, poetry and children’s books that showcase the talent of the Windrush Generation.
The complexity and emotional gravity of the Windrush is brought ever closer through novels of fiction such as Andrea Levy’s award-winning Small Island (2004). Anchored by Queenie, Bernard, Gilbert and Hortense, the novel contrasts the Jamaican diaspora with the English community. Hortense and Gilbert immigrate from Jamaica to London after World War Two, only to find a chasm between imagination and reality. Hortense, who prides herself on her English, is confronted with a language barrier when conversing with Queenie and realises the England of her imagination is not the one before her. Gilbert and Bernard, both soldiers, find themselves on opposite sides after the war. Gilbert is greeted with racial hostility and prejudice embodied by a patriotic and patriarchal Bernard. Blatant racism and internalised social prejudices are woven throughout the novel, encapsulating the many facets of society immigrants were forced to endure and yet still thrived in.
The Lonely Londoners (1956) by Sam Selvon reflects the lives of immigrants in London during the 1950s. Each character has their own dreams and expectations for London, but even as they assimilate into English society they are simultaneously ostracised and forced into the margins. Between Moses, Tolroy and the plethora of other characters we encounter, each becomes part of a group identity inevitably forged through conscious and unconscious segregation. Every character is a unique window into the experience of the “other,” as they swing between identities that were forced upon them and identities they claim for themselves. While the running thread of loneliness is disheartening, the novel also reaches out to capture those moments of warmth and vibrancy that can be grasped in a big city’s kaleidoscope of little worlds.
In Louise Hare’s novel, This Lovely City (2020), bound for a beckoning England, Lawrie Matthews boards the Empire Windrush. At first, Lawrie finds employment as a postman, while enjoying nights playing the clarinet at clubs amongst friends. Content and in love with his neighbour Evie, Lawrie’s life seems to be on track. Unfortunately, his accidental discovery of a dead baby incites a cascade of escalating racial violence. Despite the encouraging greetings on paper, Lawrie and other immigrants are battered by hostilities. The ironic title articulates just how far removed post-war London was from the hopeful conjurings of the immigrants it purported to welcome. Set against bleak circumstances, Lawrie’s perseverance and faith in love is a beacon of hope in a city he strives to define for himself.
Born in 1924, James Berry OBE was a Jamaican poet who came to England in 1948 on the SS Orbita, the second ship after the Windrush. In 1981, Berry was the winner of the Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition, becoming the first poet from the West Indies to achieve this award. From there on, his career skyrocketed, and in 2007, he produced the poetry collection Windrush Songs, published by Newcastle-based independent publisher Bloodaxe Books. Originally published to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, Windrush Songs gave voice “to the people who came on the first ships from the Caribbean, whose journeys held strange echoes of earlier sea voyages which had brought ancestors from Africa to the slave plantation.”
Berry’s poetry employs a combination of Standard English and Jamaican Patois when narrating multiple voices in this collection. Windrush Songs is both reminiscent and angry: a time capsule providing a unique social and political commentary on the world after the arrival of the Windrush. This is a collection about journeys, heritage, ripe fruit and the feeling of being an outsider. Though James Berry passed away in 2017, the impact he had on Black British literature will forever remain. As a way to honour and celebrate him, in 2021 the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts and Bloodaxe Books launched the James Berry Poetry Prize to support emerging poets of colour.
Guyanese poet Grace Nichols moved to England in 1977. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a recipient of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, Nichols has published numerous collections of poetry, including I is a Long-Memoried Woman (1983), The Fat Black Woman’s Poems (1984) and Passport to Here and There (2020). Much like Berry, Nichols’ poetry is a response to political and social tensions at the time. Her collections deal with the evolving world, each time employing a different tone.
I is a Long-Memoried Woman is perhaps her most serious work, offering an intimate, first-person account of life for enslaved Black women. The Fat Black Woman’s Poems, on the other hand, is a more light-hearted collection, discussing Western beauty standards in a playful, mocking tone. Sunris (1996) is a colourful collection, mimicking the vibrancy and musicality of carnival. Passport to Here and There journeys between Britain and Guyana, narrating multiple voices in a way which is reminiscent of James Berry’s Windrush Songs.
Children’s books play a vital role in introducing the younger generation to the Windrush history and exploring their own cultural and historical identities. They are also a fun and delightful way to connect young children with history positively. It’s especially important that children have access to books that are about them.
In her autobiographical children’s book, Coming to England (1995), Baroness Floella Benjamin narrates her story of coming to England. At ten years old she travelled 4,000 miles with three siblings by ship to find a new life in England. However, the journey was only the start of her troubles when she found the new country unfriendly and hostile towards her. A deeply personal and moving account through the lens of a young girl, Coming to England is suitable for children aged five and above and is wonderfully illustrated by Diane Ewen.
Granny Came Here on the Empire Windrush (2022) is a children’s book that crosses generational boundaries. Authored by Patrice Lawrence and illustrated by Camilla Sucre, this heartwarming tale celebrates the Windrush generation through a child, Ava, and her granny. For school, Ava has to dress up as an inspirational figure; she asks her Granny who suggests names like Mary Seacole and Rosa Parks. However, as they are searching for an outfit in Granny’s trunk, she learns about Granny’s own history – how she sailed to England during the Windrush. Ava realises her true inspirational figure was right at home all along.
A poetry book for children aged four and above, John Agard’s Windrush Child (2022), illustrated by Sophie Bass, is a lyrical and vibrant story of a young Caribbean boy who is waving goodbye to all he has ever known. The journey is long and the future is uncertain; however, there is hope and promise. The book commemorates the long journey that countless Caribbean families have gone through.
A book for older children aged nine and above, Benjamin Zephaniah’s Windrush Child (2020) is about ten-year-old Leanard who struggles to live in England, a new country that his family just moved into. The food is horrible and winters are cold. However, it is worse when the people are unwelcoming and hostile towards him and his family. Tackling these difficult issues, Benjamin Zephaniah adds his experiences growing up in England in the 1960s along with detailed research of the Windrush history.