Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain, by Clair Wills, Allen Lane, 442 pp, £25.00, ISBN 978-1846147166
The view of American secretary of state Dean Acheson that “Great Britain has lost an empire, and has yet to find a role” has been conventionally taken as a neat summation of the postwar history of the island next door. Acheson was no longer in office when he made the statement in 1962. But neither that circumstance nor subsequent events have prevented his formulation from becoming not merely a cliché, a truism, an occasion for smiles around diplomatic water-coolers, but something more cast-iron and condign, like a comeuppance or a curse, a judgment or a destiny. Yet you could also say that at the very same time as Acheson spoke the British empire was never more available to the home country: never had “overseas” presented the mothership with a greater opportunity to affirm the values of social amelioration and moral example on which the imperial project persuaded itself, and all those listening at home, that it was based. In saying that “everyone experienced the same post-war Britain; everyone was us in that present of the 1940s and 1950s, wherever they had come from”, Clair Wills underlines not only the possibility of new beginnings but something of its character ‑ collective, diverse, facing a future with an historical awareness and social conscience honed in the recent all-embracing conflict.
The idea of turning the world into a better place – how quaint that seems these days. And a fresh start wasn’t only a matter of removing the ground-zero look of the country. Bricks and mortar were essential as both practical and symbolic expressions of recovery. But over and above buildings themselves there was also an impetus to build something different ‑ not Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land necessarily, but clearly in the establishment of the National Health Service (and in nationalisation generally) something more than just a pious hope for brighter days was being expressed. The new institutions and the thought on which they were founded were a revision of the social contract, a renovation of the notion of an “us”, making the postwar landscape one in which service and entitlement could be in cohesive dialogue. And, wittingly or not, another expression of this brave new world was an invitation to natives of the empire to come on over, and as they helped improve life for the locals they could do so for themselves as well. It is difficult to get away from the implication that the future being constructed was one for natives and immigrants, both involved in the reconstruction effort, to share. Encouraging “the Windrush generation” to get on board with postwar rehabilitation articulated a need and a promise, the latter being no more than might be expected as a result of the former, namely that the mother country would be willing to meet and adapt to the human consequences of the immigrant influx, and that the wherewithal existed to accept the empire as a living presence on the home ground. Socially, culturally, morally, there was a world to gain from a structured, thoroughgoing working through of such an understanding. Once Britain opened its doors it gave itself a new role, only to appear unable to comprehend, much less to live up to, what it seemed to welcome.
Wills quotes the sociologist Ruth Glass as saying in 1960 that future historians “will point out that the relations between white and coloured people in this country were a test of Britain’s ability to fulfil the demands for progressive rationality in social organisation, so urgently imposed in the latter half of the twentieth century”. Britain failed the test. One of the basic ways that Wills depicts what happened is by, in effect, pointing out that there never was a plan other than to secure bodies for no-collar jobs (Irish building labourers, Punjabi foundry workers) or to maintain certain essential services (Barbadians for London buses, Irish women for nursing). It was bodies that were needed, not people. People were an afterthought, and it was in the penumbra of that thought that they would have to muddle through. Maybe the assumption was that the present demographic sea-change could be weathered because it was just a replay of the long trek the English themselves made through the industrial revolution into urbanisation (as though nothing had been learned in the hundred and fifty years since that disruption, as though newcomers’ cultural, racial and religious differences made no difference). In the event, the mother country didn’t cherish all her children equally. I suppose she never really said she did. New arrivals were only admitted to England in the narrow legal sense. Their admissibility in other respects was contested sufficiently to keep them at a distance, informing their primary experiences of landfall with disconnections and discontinuities between bodies and persons, between visibility and erasure, between labour and citizenship, between national policy and local conditions, between utility and presence, earning a living and having a life. Fissures like these also evoke the old imperial mindset’s continuity: immigrants’ interests seemed to be of as little account abroad as those of their forebears had been in their colonial homes.
It isn’t really too surprising then to find that each successive immigration Act limits its predecessor’s scope, thus reflecting the changes of the official mind with respect to immigrants’ value and standing and suggesting that the longer they stayed the less welcome, and less entitled, they were. The British Nationality Act of 1948 pushed the legislative boat out in a come-one-come-all fashion, giving every member of the extended family of Commonwealth nations the same rights as native-born Britons, thereby permitting, as Wills says, “a staggering quarter of the population of the planet” to come “home”. This bill was replaced by the Commonwealth Immigrants Act (1962; the change in nomenclature is revealing), which introduced a voucher system that was not only discriminatory but essentially dispensed with the welcome mat of the earlier Act. But the voucher strategy backfired. It alerted England’s Asian populations, whose disposition was more that of migrants than of permanent settlers, that they might not get back in if they went home. They therefore opted to stay put, and they also got as many as possible of their kith and kin to join them.
Further discriminatory restrictions resulted from the Race Relations Act (1965) and Race Relations Bill (1968). The latter did outlaw housing discrimination, a relief, no doubt, but it seems extraordinary that it took so long, what with the initial state of postwar housing stock, the early-Sixties depredations of Rachmanism in “Rotting Hill” and the pervasive prejudice of most landlords and their white tenants. It was a hell of a sight to see, those derelict acres upon acres of North Paddington and environs. Housing in Dublin and the country places I knew was nothing to write home about, nor was the half a box-room I lived in in the Sixties in a rickety, rackety pile in Earl’s Court. But it was the sheer extent of what I could see from the top of the 31 bus coasting the hill down from my mot’s in Swiss Cottage that I couldn’t get over, the very consistency and repetition of neglect in themselves an affront and an intimidation to me.
For Wills, “the political history – and its social impact – tend to overshadow what migration might actually have felt like for those concerned”. This is where she comes in, exploring with great resourcefulness and sympathy newcomers’ material experiences, cultural viewpoints and communal responses, while at the same time seeing such spheres “in tandem” with the larger socio-political context, though the degree of synchronicity between the multiple worlds of immigrants and reductive officialdom which that phrase implies is debatable. It’s not really with Whitehall (nomen est omen …) that Wills is ultimately concerned but with “the human story” of strangers in a strange land, where in their uprooted state they were unfamiliar even to themselves – West Indians see themselves as an entity, not just as people from different islands; East Pakistanis are at a loss without halal butchers – and of course offputtingly strange to the locals, who don’t know them and don’t want to know them. To tell this story, Wills combines “a process of excavation … with something more like ‘misreading’ or ‘reading from the inside out’”. She draws on a trove of various types of immigrant thought and testimony – literature, cinema, ephemera, polemic and cultural critique. Also included are what for many readers will be their first encounter with the writing of various South Asian communities, and a revealing excursion into the radical black press of the mid- to late Sixties, when new legislation was baring the unmistakable face of institutional racism while at the same time James Baldwin was being given a standing ovation at the Cambridge Union ‑ as seen in the documentary I Am Not Your Negro ‑ as if all he was talking about was a country thousands of miles away).
One effect of using these materials is to reveal (without comment) that although English intellectual life underwent a growth spurt from the Fifties onwards, not many English writers, intellectuals and so on seem to have thought very much at the time about the immigrant phenomenon ‑ yet one more reminder of the importance of active public debate. The want of thoughtful alternatives in this particular case meant that the media, in the form of the popular press, could more or less have its way with cliché, fear-mongering, alleging if not inciting moral panic and worse. Speaking of media, Wills has an interesting section on broadcasters, part of which deals with the BBC as an important source of income for West Indian writers new to London. Even as VS Naipaul, Samuel Selvon and the like were welcomed, they also found themselves “trapped … in a kind of racial cul-de-sac, safely isolated from the main thoroughfare of British culture”; when they asked to write for and speak to general audiences on subjects with not just Caribbean appeal they were turned down. And even broadcasts to the islands constituted a silencing of sorts, a muting, since the nature and quality of their appeal was predetermined, largely by writer-producer Henry Swanzy, originally of The Rectory, Glanmire, Co Cork. As an influential critic and arbiter of West Indian literary culture, Swanzy’s patronage was significant; Wills cites its grateful beneficiaries to that effect. He gave work. Yet, his view of Caribbean writing was condescendingly unreconstructed, endorsing and thus helping to perpetuate its colourful orality, its folkloric charm, its essentially innocent pre-modernism. Interestingly, such views find a counterpart in broadcasts about Ireland by WR Rodgers, which Wills also mentions. Here, however, the relations are not those of metropole to periphery, but the reverse, with the presenter warbling his native wood-notes wild for Third Programme listeners sated, presumably, with more sophisticated fare.
Broadcasting may seem remote from immigrant experience, but “the human story” – a phrase of VS Naipaul’s – shouldn’t privilege anybody, and the inclusion of broadcasters underlines perhaps the most important and admirable feature of Lovers and Strangers – its point of honour, one might say: the fact that its net is cast so wide. This too, of course, counteracts the exclusionary, the discriminatory, the stereotypical and other similar constraints in terms of which the history of immigration has tended to make itself known. Thus the central part of the book consists of a “series of miniatures” that ranges over ostensibly unconnected subjects – from “Carers” to “Hustlers”, from “Bachelors” to “Scroungers”, from “Drinkers” to “Voters”, sixteen in all. “Lovers” and “Strangers” are also included of course, and the sense of distance and intimacy these words convey, their capacity in combination to evoke the particular “limbo” of being neither one thing nor another, neither here nor there, that is at the heart of the immigrant experience, resonates throughout all the other categories, frameworks, styles and roles that make up Wills’s spectrum and give her book a refreshingly undetermined air of discovery. (It’s too bad that religion, sport and to a considerable degree music, other than calypso, are overlooked, but the basic intention is to be illustrative rather than exhaustive; and focusing largely on the workaday lot does help to keep conditioning political realities in view.) The organisational method also facilitates ease of movement between different locations (it’s all England all the time, by the way, an England made up of places that in the years in question became synonymous with immigration and its discontents – Southall, Brixton, Bradford, Notting Hill, the Birmingham constituency of Smethwick; neither Liverpool nor Cardiff’s Tiger Bay, useful for comparative purposes, get a look in).
Wills’s approach also allows for a more flexible narrative than the chronologically determined one that’s the historian’s stand-by. As a result, it seems like more than the twenty years between the arrival of the Empire Windrush and the fomentations of Enoch Powell are covered, though this is also because so much of the experience depicted finds an echo in the attitudes, policies and humiliations of the present time. Taking what the immigrant typically encountered as her starting point, Wills is able to read against the grain of various prevailing cultural, political and social orthodoxies. These are her “misreadings” ‑ that is, corrective, counteractive, more generous, more understanding interpretations of either unexamined or biased ideations of those presumed to be, in Kipling’s deathless phrase, “lesser breeds without the law” and who now, as one police report bristled, “are demanding their rights as British subjects”. Immigrants needed “to cultivate a sort of double consciousness”, enabling them to retain a sense of who they were and an awareness of what their contexts and environments insisted on telling them they were. They had to negotiate a position between self-respect and all that sought to deface it. Wills reveals a comparable doubleness in her narrative, with her kaleidoscope of immigrants’ social and cultural occasions also functioning as a panorama of native (and nativist) ignorance and hostility. These two sets of data are locked in a painful cycle of effort and obstruction, vulnerability and indifference. Even so, the various phases and typologies dealt with in the book’s sixteen central chapters may be seen as a prototype of a non-discriminatory polity. Wills’s “thick” assemblage of information and perspectives exhibits and illuminates the textures, layerings, colours, idioms and practices out of which a rich, instructive hybridity may be derived. This possibility also emerges from the various, necessarily incomplete, ways that different immigrant communities resemble each other, for instance in comparisons between the male worlds of Punjabi foundry workers and Irish builders’ labourers. And the sense of alternatives that Wills’s critical practice of what might be called reading resistantly comes as well from her own doubleness as not only the daughter of an English father and a mother from the Skibbereen area but as somebody who has obviously found in those dual origins an illuminating and advantageous way of looking.
The most explicit, most elementary and most challenging demonstration of Wills’s perspective is her statement, repeated a number of times, of “the fact that they [immigrants] were far more like ‘us’ than not”. It will seem unduly pedantic no doubt to draw attention to those inverted commas, but one of Wills’s tacit positions throughout is that what happens, or what has happened, socially and historically – journeys, laws, initiatives, denials ‑ is a result of choices. It’s not just a jungle out there. What occurs is the result of rejecting what otherwise could have occurred. Thus “us” is a construct, defensive and complicit. It doesn’t possess the inevitability of a natural phenomenon, rather it claims it does as an assertion of its own power, and in doing so encodes the righteousness of its selectivity. As a designation, “us” is as questionable as “other”. Bearing this artifice in mind helps in a reading of Lovers and Strangers as not only “an immigrant history” of early postwar England but also as a history of the English in the same period. Analogously, the English preoccupation with the race of those who took passage on the Empire Windrush and all the boats that followed, and all the planes from Karachi and points east, suggests their own racial insecurity, or at least a susceptibility to thinking themselves racially threatened, a notion preached by various fringe rabble-rousers, confidence men, Empire Loyalists and Fascists. The Blackshirt Oswald Mosley received votes in a local election when the electorate was being told by prime minister Harold Macmillan that “you’ve never had it so good”. While London swung, true Brit Enoch Powell was prophesying race war. Neither of those two buckos was talking to himself.
As Wills sees it, the decisive event in postwar British race relations was the 1958 Notting Hill riots, a series of unprovoked attacks by white gangs on the area’s black residents. These were as surprising to the black population as they were calculated on the part of the aggressors. The latter weren’t merely a bunch of hot-headed, irresponsible youths. A political atmosphere generated locally by right-wing groups gave the perpetrators legitimacy and a sense of purpose. “The riots were by white people against black, and no amount of fudging could disguise the fact. The battle lines were clear – they were meant to be – and they were racial.” While the attacks were going on, white crowds lined the streets – police estimated a crowd of “probably about 800” one evening – to watch. “Nigger baiting” was what the violence and humiliation was called, a spectator sport enjoyed by droves of onlookers, as if it were entertainment rather than tribal bullying by dead-end kids on dead-end streets.
This public display rejected all too explicitly community evolution, the ethos of neighbours and neighbourhoods, and even the right to the common thoroughfare to those perceived not merely as strangers but as permanent outsiders, who never would be Britons (even if legally they already were). The riot’s principal offenders were given jail as well as a stern lecture from the judge. But the bench could hardly adjudicate on more deep-seated defences of whiteness, such as official policy’s reliance on it. Ten years before the Notting Hill riots, Britain was recruiting labour from displaced persons’ camps on the continent, an episode also covered in Lovers and Strangers. All the recruits thought suitable were racially profiled, classified not by nationality but in terms of “stock”, “blood” and similar nineteenth century anthropometric criteria, lineaments of the human beloved of imperialists. Given the privations displaced persons had undergone prior to arriving in camp, it may be argued that taking their measure before entry to Britain was no more than prophylactic. But it wasn’t only on health grounds that the classifications were applied: “assumptions about class and breeding … lay behind the processes by which they were chosen – so Baltic women, ‘of the same racial background to us’, were taken in preference to Jews, for example”. Ordering, classifying, labelling, segregating, isolating: procedures considered necessary for managerial purposes can in their implementation give strong signals to a society, an electorate, a particular area regarding acceptance, integration, fitness, status ‑ signals that toggle back and forth erratically between resident and newcomer, all the more so when there are no means of knowing the latter as other than an intruder, an impersonal answer to an official need, a racial blot on a white landscape.
Racism, obviously, is a set of attitudes, judgments, perceptions, a mindset operating within selected limits. As such, it is an ideological invention, a form of understanding and interpretation which typically masquerades as an ideal but which, with regard to actual lives, is used to assert, vindicate and rationalise the imposition of power. At another level, however, racism is also a story that people tell themselves about who they think they are. Their faith in this story is a resource by which what they do can be articulated and justified. Primal gene meets primal theme. It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to suggest that the British narrative, with its emphases on singularity and superiority, on “never being slaves”, on habituation to success, on doing the right thing in taking up the white man’s burden, added a further chapter based on the national effort during World War II. Alone against Europe, steadfast against tyranny, “we happy few”, so on and so forth (the film of Henry V was released in 1944) …. We are a rock. We are an island. We are from a country with Great in its name (how many of those are there?). And there’s something to this chapter, of course, even if the main drift leaves in its wake the not insignificant number of comrades-in-arms from the West Indies, Africa, and South Asia who also served. Wills notes that “the self-congratulatory nature of popular histories of the island nation’s victorious isolation” has contributed to “semi-detachment” regarding Europe, a timely observation no doubt. And throughout the Fifties popular histories purveying not only our chaps’ derring-do but also portraying Europe as basically a place in which to carry out rescues, reliefs and similar operations were in full spate – The Wooden Horse (1949), The White Rabbit (1952), They Have Their Exits (by Airey Neave, 1953) ‑ my Aunt Peggy had a small Pan Books library of them ‑ Carve Her Name with Pride (1956). Most of these, and there appears to have been a very brisk market for them, were filmed and there were many other films of the same kind besides. Their essential triumphalism hit the popular note right on the money: The Dambusters (1955) reportedly took in over £400,000 at the box office.
It’s easy to overstate the influence of popular culture of course, particularly when less formulaic responses to the Britain that was emerging during the Fifties seem pretty thin on the ground (Wills has no trouble pointing out the blind spots in the films Sapphire (1959) and Flame in the Streets (1961), each considered at the time breakthroughs in daring to deal with race relations; she might, though, have given more attention to Colin MacInnes’s Notting Hill novels). But I wonder if the proliferation and promotion of one particular national narrative carries with it countervailing intimations of defensiveness and insularity. Better fidelity to what you think you know than the incomprehensibility of the adjustment one might be required to make. An expression of this incomprehension is the finding of the celebrated and influential West Indian cultural theorist Stuart Hall that the white teenagers he was teaching early in his career “suffered from cultural rather than economic deprivation”. Hall more or less founded cultural studies, an area of the humanities to which Lovers and Strangers is obviously indebted, and his amazement to find that there definitely were people who refused with prejudice to let him buy a house when he took up a university appointment in Birmingham is one of the book’s most striking pieces of testimony. It may well be that one of the most difficult tasks a society can undertake is a change of mind. But it is also one of the most necessary.
In any case, one of the obvious problems with this new England is that there were so few places where a meeting of various minds could occur. The minority perspective had extreme difficulty in making its presence felt, suggesting a host society both self-involved and obtuse, its grounds for acceptance and assimilation both unthinking and prescriptive. Being white, displaced persons could eventually immerse themselves in the mainstream, and others, like Italians and Maltese, could similarly pass muster. The same goes for the Irish, up to a point (more on them in a minute). But when it came to East and West Indians, it’s as if a particular onus was placed on them to fit in because they stuck out. Jamaicans fond of house parties and Punjabis willing to work twelve and more hours a day were somehow suspect, rather than being credited with social usages or alternative economic priorities (thanks to her “inside out”, Wills is a dab hand at defanging prejudice by teasing out patiently and resourcefully the assumptions and conclusions of what might be termed immigrant reason, while at the same time often indicating that rather than conceptual fireworks or critical calisthenics, all that’s required is a willingness to be open and to pay attention). Thinking, and claiming that West Indians didn’t mind living in atrocious housing because that was what they were used to was an almost wilfully convenient way of ignoring the iniquities of the housing market. Claiming that East Indians willingly worked ungodly hours of overtime because that’s what they were like really casually overlooks the possibility that taking an extra shift was a decision serving a personal purpose, such as earning enough to return home.
And if there was no coming together over these issues, the likelihood of there being with respect to more intimate areas was utterly unthinkable, even if it’s the latter areas that are most illustrative of a shared humanity. For this reason, presumably, sex is the great flashpoint and taboo, the pre-social, race-obviating domain which as Wills says became “the fault line around which so much of the debate about immigration coalesced in the 1950s”. Every now and then the English popular press (purely in a spirit of objective inquiry of course), shrieked “Would you let your daughter marry one of them?” The very language of the question reveals its separatist intent, discriminating between the individual – “your daughter” ‑ and someone who evidently is not thought of in those terms but seems no more than a member of a tribe or race. (We’re all distinct; they’re all the same.) And there’s a similarly unacknowledged thoughtlessness in the ostensibly thoughtful follow-up question: “But what about the children?” The concern that mixed-race kids will have a particularly tough time is also an admission that nothing is going to change for them. On all fronts, it strikes Wills that “interracial love was, for a large section of British public opinion, impossible to fathom” – wording which underlines again how racist attitudes rely on and perpetuate the psychological wounds of rejection, denial, repression and related insults to personhood.
In more or less all of this the Irish are mixed up, touching centrally on such issues as accommodation and employment and tangentially on matters of settlement, sexuality, and intellectual engagement. In a way, the Irish in England go against the immigrant grain, having different legal standing, being more migratory, occupying a somewhat different cultural place in English eyes. It’s as though they’re off-white ‑ or at least of a sufficient whiteness not to offend Oswald Mosley (“I’m very fond of their people,” he’s quoted as saying, “because they have been here a long time” – but then racism does tend to be an idiolect of non-sequiturs). But the Irish earn their place in this history because, as she does with the other main immigrant groups, Wills focuses largely on the labouring and service-occupation Irish, sons and daughters, as she tends to see them, of small farms in the West and Southwest. To a certain extent her remarks on this population repeat what she said in her The Best are Leaving: Emigration and Post-War Irish Culture (2015), and most of the sources used there receive another airing here without much further consideration – Anthony Cronin’s The Life of Riley, Donall Mac Amhlaigh’s An Irish Navvy, Tom Murphy’s Whistle in the Dark, Richard Power’s Apple in the Treetop, films by Philip Donnellan. No Edna O’Brien this time, and not a word anywhere of Brian Behan’s With Breast Expanded (1964), much less of the novels of JM O’Neill, Peter Woods’s Hard Shoulder (2003) or Jimmy Murphy’s play Kings of the Kilburn High Road (2000) and the 2007 Tom Collins film based on it. The works Wills uses all feature the Irishman as outsider. For accounts of the Irish in settled life, portraits of minor characters such as Irish-born priests and mothers in some of the early works of English Catholic novelist David Lodge are used (there’s nothing the matter with these representations; availing of them just underlines a lack of material). Given the enormous number of Irish people who went to England the pickings are pretty slim, and as the works cited are all one-off treatments of different aspects of the Irish immigrant experience, there’s no real comparison between them as a body of work and the much more substantial output of Caribbean and East Indian writers and thinkers. (To a large extent the latter still remain a closed book, though Wills must be commended on her attempts to open it and on the integrationist spirit underlying those attempts.) And, bibliographical cavilling to one side, the literary accounts of the Irish in England chosen seem unnecessarily limited, leaving no place for memory or desire and even in the treatment of those selected placing documentary attestation before artistic interest – but then this is what typically happens when the imagination encounters cultural studies’ reductiveness.
The Irish on whom Wills focuses fly by the nets of family, education and generational transition with which their settled immigrant peers must contend. She does give a fuller picture than in her earlier work of the vicissitudes of the building-site as a workplace, the limitations of life on the lump and the various dodges used to avoid the taxman and other official interferers. A miserable picture it is, which is no news, intensely homosocial, clannish to an almost incestuous degree, averse both to settling and self-improvement and in its social manifestations a kind of massive acting-out, largely through drink and fighting, of being without home or place. “In Cricklewood the crack was good, we never left The Crown / With glasses flying and biddies crying as Paddy goes to town” – that kind of thing. And indeed I spent enough time ‑ little though it was ‑ on the Harrow Road and up around Kilburn High Road to see, though I hardly knew up from down then, that way of life’s sadness, bravado and sterility.
One time I was coming in from Hammersmith on the Tube when, of all things, a lad from Lismore got in and sat opposite me. We greeted each other warmly, pleased at the surprise. But once we’d shared pleasantries we had little else. We both could see it was only by accident we met, he in his plaster-speckled overalls, me with my shoulder-length hair. Unlike my compatriot, to dig I was unable; I was of the lesser spotted invoice clerk species instead. Strange: we used to assume we were more or less alike. But the days of hand-balling together a few years before were in another century now (besides, is there an alley in the whole of London?). The pitch-and-toss we’d shared in had taken an unsuspected form of chance encounter, tails between legs, heads just about above water. Wills has an almost “workerist” view of the builder’s labourer as the representative Irish emigrant, and as with her account of West and East Indians, this view doesn’t entirely allow for the nuances and layers of class which immigrants bring with them, much less the additional ones that help to structure the social reality of their new daily lives. Granted, she’s alert to the gombeenism of Irish pub-owners’ financial dealings with their labourer regulars. But this is intended to highlight the latter’s vulnerability rather than to underscore the class differences indicated by landlords’ economic wherewithal and labourers’ dependence. These differences are not necessarily or unremittingly exploitative. Indeed, they might even be reassuring in their resemblance to forms of local patronage and clientelism familiar from home. It’s less on the economic or civic Paddy that Wills dwells than on the racial figure of Paddy the navvy, on the one hand the mythic male who “built Britain” and on the other a displaced and socially adrift wage-slave, a figure to be at once memorialised and pitied, a body who has never bothered to evolve a style beyond the self-destructiveness of drink and fight, a victim and an icon.
It wouldn’t be right to say that Wills privileges Paddies by taking them to be somehow exemplary, or archetypical because of their amorphous social presence, or venerable by virtue of their historical longevity. But their lowly social status and limited interest in English civic life does earn them a distinctive niche in her narrative, a distinctiveness enhanced by the author’s understanding of their origins. Natives of the West of Ireland, largely, they are seen as having been forced to leave by the failure of small-farm rural Ireland, making them both immigrants and in a special psychological and cultural sense evictees. As such they not only follow a historic immigrant trail, they also carry a heavy weight of existential baggage which seems uniquely to deny them the onward and upward character of mobility that their peer immigrant groups embrace (no corner shops for them). And their typically migratory way of life, the cycle of departure and return which structures many of their lives, testifies not merely to their singular and helpless fate of being homeless in two countries but to their recurring enactment of it. Wills’s characterisation has much to be said for it of course, and there’s no doubt that a deficiency in life skills resulting from, in Ireland, insufficient education, unavailability of opportunity, absence of savoir faire ‑ to mention only the most obvious handicaps ‑ result in isolation, poor self-confidence and self-awareness in England, as well as an inclination to shun the demands of adjusting to an alien milieu. No historian can cover everything, needless to say, and Wills’s account of the Irish labourer is certainly worthwhile. Still, even within its own terms, never mind in relation to the story of the Irish in England, the picture is undeveloped.
Take the point about the cause of immigration from the West and Southwest. In Lovers and Strangers, as in The Best Are Leaving, Wills cites a passage from John Healy’s Death of an Irish Town depicting a train full of weeping emigrants heading to the boat. An affecting cortege undoubtedly, and perhaps the copiousness and consistency of those tears make reasons for leaving a secondary consideration. Still, as Wills certainly knows, and as her treatment of immigrants as “ordinary people” presupposes, there are almost as many causes for leaving as there are leavers. The textures of “human stories” take us beyond considering immigration in statistical or legalistic terms, and where those stories have their origins is a fundamental aspect of the many-sided character of uprooting, relocation, and all the other micro-transitions that make up the experience as a whole. So, the tears in some cases were of those who didn’t want to go but had to because the only way parents could survive was by means of ensuing remittances. And there were other reasons why parents thought emigration was the best option, some well-meaning, some not, many that confused the actual high road with the moral one, and others that people who might have known better didn’t give a damn one way or the other. Immigration in some cases was an act of defiance, in other cases it was an expression of heartbreak. Rows led to abrupt departures; the claustrophobia of small places prompted others to go. Further, rural Ireland consists of more than small farms; sons and daughters of “good” farms were as likely to leave as any others. Scandal, crime, threat, violence, tedium, a priest’s advice, a sergeant’s warning, these also could be reasons to take off and never come back. Desire, adventure, self-belief, youthfulness also played their parts in departures, one assumes, one hopes, and however tearful the parting may have been, perhaps even in resignation there was a spark of will, in loss a drop of optimism. The doubleness which makes the citizen-immigrant a distinctive modern type reproduces itself in every phase and dimension of that type’s psychic and cultural history, in reasons and outcomes, in being an object of belittlement and a subject of possibility. It’s not just a leaving of the land, either; small and, in the local scale, not so small towns saw more than their fair share of farewells. A large number of these members of the provincial petit bourgeoisie reproduced their class, cultural and confessional identities in England, doing so no doubt with a certain diffidence and a consciousness of difference but at the same time more or less toeing a line that was evident all around them, regardless of how mean the streets or how far off the greenery.
Wills knows all this very well: the opening pages of The Best are Leaving and her thoughtful reflections in Lovers and Strangers on her Irish mother and her Croydon upbringing say as much. Perhaps the dual nature of home – a native place, and a dwelling place – which she mentions in relation to her own twofold heritage inclines her to think “first of all” (as she likes to say) of those who strike her as having been dispossessed. Still, at a time when, on the home front, a perennial condescension to the fact of emigration and immigration seems to have been superseded by a more active interest in what the experience of going entails, it would have been worthwhile at least to outline all the kinds and conditions of those departing. Their diversity is what has allowed so many Irish people in England to more or less “pass”, hampered by race no doubt but unimpeded by pigmentation, coloured inevitably by their homeland’s overstated politics and religion but, by and large, less “trouble” than other groups allegedly are, temperamentally different, of course, but with the tact to exhibit a talent to amuse. Thus, they were in the main, knowable, or apparently amenable to constructions of identity which were placebos to the hosts, and otherwise – that is, to themselves – were so much water off ducks’ backs. As it is, however, the contrast with her hard corps of labourers that Wills provides is with Irish broadcasters, where the success – one might almost think of it as a domestication – of family entertainers is differentiated from the confinement of West Indians to the Caribbean service.
In another iteration of immigration double consciousness, through being denied a face, these West Indians were preserving one, many of them going on to comprise a critically engaged intelligentsia. In contrast, Irish television personalities seemed to be in the business of offering a face for the self-effacing, the docile and inoffensive. Their tones were vaguely bedside and emollient, their material akin to wallpaper (Dave Allen being perhaps an exception). Who wouldn’t let their daughter marry one of them? Some might see these broadcasters’ celebrity as in the tradition of nineteenth century Micks on the make, Roy Foster’s celebrated classification (or is it jibe?). But they’d never be on prime-time if they really were Micks. Their appeal as performers was that they were natural, a contradiction which recapitulated the place of the majority of the Irish in England, a people for whom difference made no difference. One reason for this is that they were not inclined to organise themselves as a national bloc (there are no Irish equivalents to the Indian Workers’ Association or Caribbean Artists Movement; the Irish in Britain (as elsewhere) are among the very few diasporic communities not to represent themselves in such terms). Wills notes areas of contact between the British Black Power movement and elements in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, as well as the influence of US civil rights militants on both, or at least their rhetoric. But these connections seem to have been a thing of the moment, and draw attention to the lack of common cause between Irish and other postwar immigrant communities rather than lend substance to Northern Irish international credentials. Yet whatever the calibre and commitment of these radical departures, it must also be borne in mind that they took place in a country in which it does seem quite difficult to organise opposition on the grounds of civil rights, possibly because these grounds are overshadowed in minds that matter by the chivalric championing of individual liberties. But in addition to revolutionary American influences and traditional English standpoints, another abiding feature of those times was the general quietude of England’s Irish population characterised by a paucity of critical thinking and an absence of social leadership, drawbacks which Wills does not examine. “The world of the post-war immigrant operated,” Wills writes, “in what was not only a geographical limbo but also a temporal limbo.” That’s probably as true of the Irish as of any other community. They too, perhaps, were permitted to reside in England without really living there, never saying a word about it, and hardly ever seeming to acknowledge that there was a word to be said.
Wills points out that immigration generates “new narratives”, and concluding her history with reflections on her own Irish dimension is a welcome embrace of the intimacy that humanises ethnicity. In part, this intimacy traces the domestic geography of a woman’s world, a professional world of caring, a personal world whose interior (or distinctive life) may be objectively represented and subjectively repossessed through dwelling on certain tokens of its material culture, pictures, furnishings and the like. These objects are not merely purchases; they’re statements of settlement, of settling down and settling for. Even in the front room of her childhood, Wills is able to convey that home is where many histories reside. There needs to be room for them, and for those living them, as they make a home for themselves. In combining her understandings of transition and settlement, home and dislocation, black and white, Wills offers in effect a rebuke to those who think of those terms as naturally opposed and in so doing create the fear and loathing this history records as a disproportionate part of the immigrant’s lot. Will’s outlook and values might be contrasted with, say, those of the English intellectual David Goodhart’s admonitions about an England that has become so diverse that “being squashed together on buses, trains and tubes” with, implicitly, the great unwashed not only discriminates between different kinds of passengers on public (sic!) transport but is a metaphor for a certain type of cultural claustrophobia, the cure for which seems to be distance and separateness. Goodhart published his views in 2004; (and reiterated them in a book published last year, The Road to Somewhere). The interval has only made Wills’s book more timely – not that it won’t also strike the reader that a book like Lovers and Strangers would be timely whenever it appeared.
George O’Brien was born in Enniscorthy and reared in Lismore, Co Waterford. He is emeritus professor of English at Georgetown University, Washington DC.