Lovers and Strangers

Issue section: 

In today’s fight for the right of free movement, countering racist myths is at the heart of our task. We need to know the history of migration and this well written, easy to read book can help. It is ambitious, aiming to capture the experience of those who came here in the years 1945 to 1968, in particular up to 1962 before when entrance to Britain by Commonwealth citizens was still officially unrestricted.

Wills is determined not to tell the story as “outsiders” coming to “our” country but as it was experienced by migrants themselves. She isn’t writing another “public” history of post-war immigration, covering the colour bars, the violence, the hypocrisy, the anti-immigrant legislation and the pathetic laws meant to tackle racial discrimination. Rather she starts with leaving home, the journey and arrival, what it felt like to be in the limbo state of abandoning a past life to be a stranger in a new country.

It goes on to try to capture the experiences of working, housing, eating, education, loving, socialising, shopping and much else. The immigrant communities covered include the Irish, most of the time the largest group, the Caribbean, the Indian and Pakistani, the Polish and Ukrainian and others.

As they find places to live and work there are battles against landlords and bosses, some of whom are migrants themselves. Often there are ongoing battles with middlemen, some starting as tickets and passports have to be procured. Immigration officials, police and the labour exchange feature frequently.

In places the detail is overwhelming but if we have the patience there is much we can learn as it draws on sometimes wonderful memories, poems, novels and films. There are also the archives, chief constables’ arrogant paternalism as they review the new migrants and means to control them, Home Office officials’ pretence that colour is not the issue as they seek ways to restrict black immigration.

Clair Wills teaches at Princeton yet, despite many pages of references and bibliography, nowhere is the pressure for academic respectability allowed to dull the story. However, in seeking to capture a vast range of experience, some shocking, some inspiring, providing us with much of value — in a short review it is impossible to do it justice — the apparently random order of chapters lacks any sense of a central argument.

We glimpse the resistance when the young Hanif Kureishi watches the medal ceremony on TV as Tommy Smith and John Carlos, first and third in the 1968 Olympics 200 metres, hold their black leather fists high in a Black Power salute. But this isn’t tied into a narrative of the growing black self-organisation that is taking off. While no reader is going to find exactly the details they want, leaving out the first big strike led by migrant workers at Courtauld’s giant Red Scar mill in Preston in 1965: a 17-hour occupation, three weeks picketing, the intervention by black activists and International Socialists, is a serious omission. In telling the story of the resistance to racism this book can help but there is more to be done.