Article, poems & illustration by: Merrie LeMaître
|[image description: Windrush figures in various positions drawn in pink ballpoint]|
In June 1948, the ex-troopship Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks, UK, carrying 482 Jamaicans emigrating to Britain in search of a better standard of life. Britain had encouraged Commonwealth citizens to emigrate to fill shortages in the labour market after the Second World War.
Six years later, my seven year old grandmother and her family arrived from Trinidad, following my great-uncle. Some other LeMaîtres emigrated to Canada at the same time but passed on the message that it is too cold there and that their children are begging to go home.
My grandmother (who I’m going to call Granny to save confusion) used to tell me stories of Trinidad when I was little, mostly because I’d never been to the Caribbean and I still haven’t, or maybe because she needed to refresh her memory since she hasn’t been back to her homeland for at least 40 years by my estimate. Granny was a good storyteller; she’d sit my brother, sister and I in a circle, make us play ‘Fidget Police’ for a few minutes to make sure we were paying full attention and then begin ‘When I was in Trinidad…’ She’d draw us pictures of the dresses she wore , the fruit that grew or maybe just portraits of us whilst she was talking. A couple of weeks back I found one of her drawings and thought I should write a poem about her:
Port Of Spain, 1947
tell me about where you came from again:
Take it from the
Port of Spain, 1947,
Sunshine beating down
Straight from heaven ,
thick like honey, I’m sure that
The house where you were born is
colonial dusty rose or
clouded creme de menthe,
with a verandah and palm trees planted far too close to the soft,
rotting windows, the blinds tightly closed as you take your first few breaths, your sister just three years old, waiting on the landing for a glimpse of you.
Beneath the verandah is where the
snakes lived just like in Rikki Tikki Tavi,
they were as long as your yardstick, you said laying
The length of sweet-smelling wood against the solidness of the dining table, and green like a Granny Smith, thicker than your forearm.
When Great-Grandad found one in the cellar, writhing and luminous in the half-dark, he sliced it in half with his machete, just like the Beamish Boy in the Jabberwocky.
Tell me how,
Great Granny bought you pink coconut ice, sugary and not proper ice, you don’t know how to explain it , and you could buy snow cones for a T and T dollar , the artificial taste of a fruit
that couldn’t grow in those climes sharp in your mouth.
The heat and the thunderstorms and the endless colours of the place you left age seven, all starched ribbons and tightly coiled hair, cos Great-Grandad decided life would be better over here. And here you are now,
Barely remembering the taste of home
My dad arrived in England in 1968 from Jamaica. His parents had left him in the mountains above Kingston with his grandfather so that they could establish themselves over here. Once they had settled in and found work the plan was to “send for” the other 3 children but more and more children were born until ten years later the UK parliament announced a crackdown on immigrants and Dad was brought over in a hurry. When he arrived he had a strong Jamaican accent which he was told to get rid of to get on in the school system so he swapped it for a Stoke-on-Trent one and then got rid of that one when he eventually came to London, and every so often one of the accents pops out and I thought it was pretty interesting.
When you look at him,
do you see home trapped under his skin, the mangoes and mountains of a country I’ve never seen, do you
see the tiny, tiny house where he was born,
and great-grandpa raised him cos
there was no-one else to, do you see the stream where he went fishing aged 6 in the cloudy tiredness of his eyes, iris melting into pupil,
the uprooting in his hands, the scars curving like puckered crescent moons in the darkness?
do you see how he
disowned home in the whiteness of his teeth, the way he dropped Jamaica like surplus skin for Stoke then Luton?
do you see a man who sheds his past over
doesn’t know who he is anymore?