Two books about the Windrush experience offer tales of humour, hope and shocking heartlessness

The Observer book of the week recently reviewed Colin Grant’s Home Coming and Amelia Gentleman’s The Windrush Betrayal.

Sukhdev Sandhu writes:

The dreamers and adventurers who sailed to the UK from the Caribbean after the second world war aren’t getting any younger; their memories need to be kindled and teased out.

Grant is the writer to do justice to their lives.

Many of Grant’s confidantes recall the past in terms of skin and touch. Some remember being checked to see if they had tails, or rubbed to see if their blackness was produced by dirt. Hospital patients sometimes feared being contaminated by Caribbean nurses bathing them.

Homecoming ends with reflections on going back to the Caribbean. Some wish to do so. Some have tried. Not infrequently, returnees are assumed to be rich and become targets for criminals. For Viv Adams, though, even the idea of return is an anathema: “It wasn’t a question of it being a sign of failure; it would be a sign of destruction.”

Amelia Gentleman’s The Windrush Betrayal is a withering account of what happened when the Conservative party decided, in the words of the then home secretary Theresa May, “to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration”. British subjects, most of them from the Caribbean, lost their jobs and their access to proper healthcare – and were in many cases deported to countries that they had last seen as young children.

If much of this story is familiar that’s largely due to Gentleman, whose reporting for the Guardian on this shameful episode saw her named journalist of the year at the 2018 British journalism awards.

On many occasions, The Windrush Betrayal reads like a Black Mirror-style dystopia. Eviction notices were outsourced to Capita, who communicated by text: “Message from the UK Border Agency. You are required to leave the UK as you no longer have right to remain.” Vans were hired to drive around London boroughs with billboards declaring: “Go Home or Face Arrest.”

Gentleman’s book contains valuable lessons – about the importance of maintaining paper-based archives, of allowing citizens direct access to officials, and of supporting investigative journalism. It closes with a worrying question: “How will the same department register the 3.5 million EU nationals who will need formal confirmation of their status in the UK after Brexit?”

Observer book of the week was written by Sukhdev Sandhu and published Sun 29 Sep 2019. Read the full article here. 

We are proud to welcome Colin Grant and Amelia Gentleman to Buxton Saturday 20 October, 2.30pm – 3.30pm. Tickets are £12, book here.