"It nah good to stay in white man country too long". Still, the author's Jamaican parents stayed, and inevitably assimilated into British culture. This is his message to the English Defence League, who marched through London's Downing Street in their hundreds this week.
‘This world is not my resting place.’ So goes the line in one of my mother’s favourite hymns. It holds out the promise of a better life in the hereafter. She sang it repeatedly, so that it became a mantra or chant, on Saturday mornings whilst cleaning the house in Luton that was our temporary home. Both our Jamaican parents were of the opinion that though us children were born here, we mustn’t get too comfortable because we were only passing through.
Our family was not part of a millennial cult; the yearning was not for ascension to the next world but rather a return to home: Jamaica. “It nah good to stay in white man country too long,” my father would warn. We must be ready to leave because, though ‘Right of Abode’ may have been stamped on our parents’ passports and they considered themselves British from the peel to the core, they were daily reminded, it seemed, that Britain did not want them – not really.
Monday’s march through Downing Street by the English Defence League reminds me of that earlier anxiety that we felt in Luton in the late 1960s and 70s. Migrants are yet again depicted as nameless shadowy exploiters intent on undermining the social fabric of this Sceptred Isle. The EDL’s vitriolic message is an expression of a kind of neurosis or pathology that aims to polarise, to stoke fears and sow divisions between British people. It is not far off from Margaret Thatcher’s concerns that the majority white population risked being swamped by a rising tide of immigrants.
My message is, they need not worry. The trajectory of most migrants is of eventual assimilation: the velocity may differ but the outcome is the same. Consider my Jamaican father, Bageye - so called because of the permanent bags under his eyes. All of his West Indian friends whom I observed growing up in Luton, equally had defining nicknames: Pumpkin Head had a pumpkin-shaped head; Tidy Boots fussed over his footwear; Pioneer was obsessed with a certain brand of hi fi; and Summer Wear always wore light summer suits, no matter the weather.
My father and his friends were reluctant assimilators; they cleaved together. Like many migrants they expressed dual allegiance: towards here and back home. They provided remittance for poor relatives still in the West Indies, and dreamed of return themselves.
Each Friday our mother scoured the back pages of the Jamaican Gleaner with its myriad adverts for plots of land for sale in Jamaica and architects’ impressions of the new homes on offer. England was no new Jerusalem: Zion was Jamaica. Many West Indians came here with a five-year plan, to stay for five years, “work some money” and go back. But the five years stretched to ten; the ten years morphed into fifteen; and one day we woke up and our parents had changed the wall-paper. It was clear that we were here to stay. Polystyrene ceiling tiles followed; and soon our obsession with DIY was indistinguishable from the British ritual of spending Bank Holidays on home improvements.
Gradually the migrants adapted to the new reality. In some cases it was adapt or die. SummerWear, for instance, soon paid for his determination to outface the weather: he caught a bad cold, developed pneumonia and died.
But it is not possible to retrofit a spirit of patriotism and belonging. It has to evolve. Initially, for example, we did not cheer Britain’s sporting successes. But when Daley Thompson came along and wrapped himself in the nation’s flag it helped; still, we were more likely to celebrate the success of the semi-detached white Britons, the marginal sporting mavericks. Sebastian Coe? No. Steve Ovett? Most definitely.
We loved Steve Ovett for his grit, for brooding in his tent, for being disliked by the Establishment and for being allegedly un-British and ungentlemanly. We identified with Ovett as being an outsider, just like us; and for being the polar opposite of the prim, fresh-faced uncomplicatedly quintessential English Head boy, Sebastian Coe.
Behind the concerns over migration is a fear of the changing nature of British culture. But all cultures must change if they are to remain vital. Without the steady stream of immigrants to the UK the country would have ossified. It is time to accept the changes, and move on. In any event it is too late to complain. It’s now sixty-five years since the MV Empire Windrush sailed into Tilbury docks with 493 emigrants who’d arrived from the West Indies. Little did they, or the country know, that it would herald the beginning of multicultural Britain. We have arrived. And as the great Jamaican folk singer, Louise Bennett, pointed out many years ago, we have “colonised England in reverse.”
*Colin Grant is a historian and producer for BBC radio. His books include: Negro with a Hat, a biography of Marcus Garvey; I&I, The Natural Mystics, a group biography of the original Wailers; and Bageye at the Wheel, his memoir of a 1970s suburban childhood in Luton.