Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

When your past catches up with you

Social networking sites such as Facebook have become big business. But they also are very much about what they are--connecting people. Over the past week my past caught up with me in a hurry when I got a message from a person whose name I knew, as a six year old new immigrant at primary school in England. He mentioned our school and a lot of names of boys and girls who were there at the same time, some also recently arrived from the Caribbean. We have exchanged a few messages and confirmed our recollection of more names and faces over the past week. He mentioned that he had been trying to relocate me, and others, over the past few years. Yesterday he sent me a photograph from those school days. I am not in the picture but he is. It must have been around late 1961, when I went to England.

For those from the Caribbean who have any direct experience of migrating to Britain, whether as travellers or those who were left behind by travellers, myexperience and the picture might evoke many thoughts. The wave of migration from this region to Britain from the late 1940s through 1960s, before most of the islands and countries gained independence, is to my mind one of the major social phenomena of the 20th century. Many of the effects will take a lot of analysis to really understand and the consequences for the exporting and importing countries have been and continue to be very significant. Some, such as old family friend, Dr, Fredrick Hickling, have done important work on one of the negative consequences, the mental health challenge for the Diaspora (people of African descent in Europe).

Everone will have a personal set of memories of for the first time being a black person in a world where almost everyone else was white. Dealing with ignorance ("Do you have a tail?" or "You speak English!"). A fairly normal sense of defending territory led many British residents to resist the influx of foreigners, whether they were from the Caribbean, Indian subcontinent or Ireland, by denying space through rentals or home sales, moving away, or fighting to keep them out (e.g, Nottning Hill's riots). Many black people felt racism and felt that their colour made them easy targets. The jobs that migrants (not just black ones) tended to fill often did not put them into the public eye as more than very ordinary: nurses, public transport workers, fitters in car factories, labourers, etc. After a short period of time in Britain black immigrants became almost synonymous with social problems, tending to concentrate in urban areas that were on the verge of decline (inner cities in London, Birmingham and Manchester), and then became depressed areas as industries closed and left behind people without jobs--not just the immigrants--and little income to maintain a decent life style. A familiar spiral of social ills became evident in these areas: crime, drugs, violence, dysfunctional families, etc.

Of course, there was always that group of very well-educated migrants who had been flowing to Britain to study or to take up diplomatic and representative posts, who also faced many racial challenges, but could often float around a world where they did not have to deal with some of the harsher social difficulties of migrants who were likely to become semi-permanent residents. Many of our prime ministers got their educational grounding in Britain. But they were not part of the common migrant experience.

Although many of the West Indian migrants tried to assimilate in Britain there were many reasons why that was difficult. We realized that the way we spoke English was often like a foreign language to the British; they way that the English spoke was equally hard to understand. A couple of examples:
  • Englishman: "C'mon, Sweep, time to take a break from the trouble and strife." [Hey friend, why don't you take a break from your wife? "Sweep" was a black and white puppet dog in a TV series famous from the late 1950s, the reference is a familiar form of English allusion to something black and/or white. It could also mean a chimney sweep ,whose face was often blackened by soot. "Trouble and strife" is Cockney rhyming slang, meaning "wife".]

  • Jamaican man: "Is wha' de rahtid you ask me?" [Damn it, man, what kind of question is that?]
Mutual comprehension? Zero or not far from it.

We had to adjust to a radically different climate, and experience living with real cold weather much of the year. Caribbean people are not bred for living in snow and ice and no amount of bobsled movies really changes that. It takes a certain exposure for black people to learn to enjoy skiing, which I do.

Some found that the work they could find was "not respectable" given the qualifications they had--gained in a British-based education system and believed, wrongly, to be equal to those in Britain. Many saw their children struggle for years in an education system that did not understand the cultural differences and shock that was part of the immigrants' base and too quickly labelled them as "difficult" or "unteachable".

Most of my personal memories of life in England are not bitter at all. When I arrived there at age six, I had already done three years of school and could read, write "copperplate", and do a lot of arithmetic. I seemed like a genius at infant school, and remember that I did not learn much in the first three years there. I do not recall ever feeling out of place, always being one of very few black people in a world of white people. My parents had never drawn attention to my colour as an issue before we left Jamaica, and never since they arrived in England. I could speak and understand standard English very well. I excelled at athletics but also academically. My parents had hoped that I would go to a "good school" in Kingston, even though they had had no success in getting me into one of the good prep schools there. In England, the education system was not something that was set to trip me up; I had had a good start. I moved through it relatively smoothly--there were some hiccups at school but I made many of them for myself; I did not learn how to study until after I took my O-levels, believing that good work during the term would take me through exams. Wrong! By the time I was studying for A-levels I had figured out that a different approach was needed and I took that to university and afterwards.

When I left universtity and went to work first in rural North Wales and later in The City of London at the central bank, much of the background for me was as it had always been: one or very few amongst many (a play on Jamaica's post-independence motto of "Out of many, one people" could easily have been for me "out of many people one person").

I remember vividly the experiences of overt prejudice that I faced or witnessed in Britain. I faced discrimination from black people (from the Caribbean) who objected that my wife was white and refused to rent to me. I remember also being in a committee meeting with one of The Bank's directors, and I was the committee secretary. The room shrank around me as he referred to something as "the nigger in the wood pile". With little thought, I reacted by saying "Excuse me, sir. Did I hear you correctly and do you want that recorded in the minutes?" He looked at me, rolled another cigarette in his Rizla machine. I honestly don't recall his next words. The phrase never went into the minutes and he never uttered a remark like that again while I was on the secretariat. To me the phrase was inappropriate. It was not a phrase used generally as a racial slur in Britain and I am sure the generation and class from which the director came probably made me "invisible" in the sense that there was no need to consider my reactions; he probably applied the same view to most others in the room. I remember the Bank's Governor walking into a room of mainly dark faces, with representatives from Commonwealth central banks who were having training, and asking me for which country I was central bank governor; he blushed when I told him that I was running The Bank's manager training course. (In his defence, he also made a similar mistake with a long-time (white) Advisor who was from Lancashire.)

I also remember being in a pub in Wales, where the (white) landlord steadfastly ignored a group of English (white) visitors, and continued to serve the rest of the locals (including black me--who spoke some albeit bad Welsh--and my white wife) as if the visitors had never entered the bar. In many parts of Wales the English are still detested.

I remember the "exclusion" I felt when I finished university in England and tried unsuccessfully to find a job in Jamaica in the late 1970s, at both the central bank (BSc. (Economics) should help) and at the Urban Development Corporation (M. Phil. (Urban Planning) should help). At least I got an interview at BoJ; I'm still waiting for UDC to reply. I felt bewildered that with all the flight of educated Jamaicans out of that country it still had no need for good university graduates. I did not realize how important it was to have a "backer" or to be "mi good, good frien'".

My parents (both trained nurses) had had to really work for their living, to make sense of their migration. My mother had led the move overseas after the system in Jamaica "failed her" (she needed a mark of over 90, but got just 90) and limited her scope for advancement. Britain needed nurses so off she went. My father had followed reluctantly, with me, leaving a very good position at Bellevue Mental Hospital. They promised me that in England I would still get the education that they wanted for me and they felt I deserved. When my father speaks nowadays he is often bitter about "mad Jamaican politicians talking about free education ... and not educating anybody". My father's Jamaican paper qualifications and previous experience were regarded as worthless in England and he was offered the opportunity to restart his studies; he declined. He worked as a bus conductor, then for the Post Office, doing mainly administrative work. Proud all the time, they worked hard. They both managed to move from one room flat in a basement (we lived five minutes walk from the primary school where I went) to becoming homeowners three times over, moving out of central London to the semi-detached suburbs.

On taking early retirement in their mid-50s they did the "middle class thing" and moved to the countryside, settling in Somerset, as English as it gets. Principally, this was to allow them the luxury of watching Viv Richards play cricket. But they settled into their new English country village and quickly became regular residents (and cards still come at Christmas from former neighbours), until they decided to up stakes and return to Jamaica in the mid-1980s. They had completed their "tour of duty" and the circle for them was almost closed. "Back home", though not in their parishes of origin; settling into a lovely part of that island--the parish of Manchester--where the climate is kind, and mostly cool, life is easier, and with a small cluster of "English people" (as some of the returning residents were called).

I read Andrea Levy's book "Small Island" about three years ago and remember how difficult it was to see anything other than my own experiences when I read about Hortense and her hopes, her disappointments, her adjustments to life in the "mother country".

My own circle has not yet closed. Here I am living in Barbados, back in the Caribbean but not quite "back home". A place referred to as "little England", which reminds me a bit of England, but only a bit and it's more to do with the amount of Cockney and scouse accents that I hear from tourists. Though the lay out of the countryside reminds me of some of the rolling hills of the south of England. But this place also has some irony in my life. Before I took a job in Washington I had come here in 1989 to interview for a job at the Caribbean Development Bank. But after being offered the post, the salary package was going to leave me losing money; not a good situation for a man with a wife and two year old. (Maybe I should have taken it and who knows by now I could have become super rich or a politician or....) I am now a trained economist who has left his career in Washington and would gladly class myself as an "island hopper". From one small island to a bigger small island to yet another smaller island.

I am not sure where my roundabout will stop turning but I am enjoying the way that it's turning.

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