An essay adapted from the forthcoming The Dead Yard: A Story of Modern Jamaica.
One of the great books to have come out of the Jamaican–British encounter is Journey to an Illusion: The West Indian in Britain, by Donald Hinds. Published in London in 1966, it sympathetically conveys the plight of Jamaicans who, lost amid alien signs in Britain, tried to settle and earn a crust. The book is made up of a series of interviews with Jamaican (and other West Indian) migrants in Britain, interspersed with social commentary. The author is described on the dust jacket as a “Jamaican-born journalist and former London bus conductor.”
A recurring theme in the book is Hinds’s discovery that Britain was not only unmindful of the Commonwealth but disinclined to help Jamaicans. After World War II, Italians in Britain who sold ice cream and confectionery were made to feel more welcome, despite having fought on Hitler’s side in the conflict. The antipathy was especially galling to Donald Hinds, who as a teenager in Jamaica had read Dickens and Wordsworth, and watched endless genteel films—“tea party movies”—from the Gainsborough Studios. But for all his immersion in British culture, Hinds was, he recalled, “Struck dumb” on his arrival in Britain in 1955.
I met Hinds in a café in Eltham, south London, in 2006. He was looking relaxed in a pair of trainers and a tracksuit. His wife was a retired Jamaican nurse who had trained at the Victoria Jubilee Hospital in Kingston. Hinds spoke of his days on the London buses with nostalgia, even amazement. At London Transport’s Brixton garage his driver, a Woodbine-smoking World War I veteran, was happy to have a Jamaican on board. “I fought alongside a lot of coloreds in the trenches,” he would say.
Jamaicans were not numerous in 1950s London, and an entire week could go by on the double-deckers without Hinds seeing another black face. Passengers, astonished to encounter a black “clippie” (bus conductor), asked him if they could pat his hair for “good luck.” After the civil rights movement asserted itself in America, Hinds came to resent such curiosity. Yet London Transport played its role, he now believes, in breaking down race prejudice in postwar Britain; the buses provided the British public with an opportunity to encounter West Indians for the first time and even (heavens!) talk to them. However, the sense of camaraderie did not last.
The race “disturbances” of 1958 dramatically altered the way Donald Hinds looked at Britain. Tensions erupted first in Nottingham, then, more grievously, in west London. White youths (“Teddy Boys” to the press) went out to beat up West Indians in Shepherd’s Bush and the area then known as Notting Dale between the factories of Wood Lane and the newly claimed middle-class streets of Notting Hill Gate. Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement and other “Keep Britain White” parties were rallying working-class youths to go out “nigger hunting.” So began four days of the worst rioting the United Kingdom had ever seen.
The Times, in a now celebrated editorial of September 4, 1958, “A Family of Nations,” announced: “The time has come to admit that there is a coloured problem in our midst.” The following year, on the night of May 17, 1959, a 32-year-old black carpenter from Antigua, Kelso Cochrane, was fatally stabbed under a railway bridge. His killers have still not been found.
Cochrane’s burial in Kensal Green Cemetery was attended by more than 1,000 mourners, black and white. The show of white support did little to prevent the notion, fast growing among Jamaicans, that the mother country was not so welcoming. As Hinds put it to me: “After Cochrane’s death we had to rethink everything; we had to revise our faith in the Union Jack.”