Lovers & Strangers review: An absorbing picture of immigrant Britain
Roy Foster on Clair Wills’s often scintillating study of people who cross borders
Pre-Brexit Britain: a Jamaican carpenter and a group of Irish labourers in London in 1965. Photograph: Val Wilmer/Getty
Lovers & Strangers: An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain
The author of this book about people who cross borders is something of a border-crosser herself. Clair Wills is a distinguished literary scholar who has migrated into social history: she has already published a remarkable cultural history of Ireland during the second World War, a study of the siege of the GPO in 1916, and a book about emigration and postwar Irish culture. Lovers & Strangers, despite its quixotically Mills & Boon title, draws on these diverse interests to paint an absorbing, substantial and often scintillating picture of immigrant Britain after 1945. Richly empathetic, it comes at a poignant moment in British history.
Her approach owes much to imaginative literature – she begins with the beautiful opening to Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means, describing bombed-out London in 1945 (“houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out, leaving only the cavity”). Insights from VS Naipaul, Buchi Emecheta, Colin McInnes, Tom Murphy, Hanif Kureishi and Brendan Behan recur. (There is no mention, sadly, of JM O’Neill, whose salty novels Open Cut and Duffy Is Dead are steeped in the flavour of London-Irish.)
But the real heft of the book comes from wide and deep reading incorporating sociology, memoir, local newspapers, Sikh folk songs from Southall and a Punjabi epic poem from Wolverhampton. The bulk of the book is organised by ironic occupational criteria (Carers, Troublemakers, Drinkers, Broadcasters, Bachelors, Scroungers and so on) rather than by origin or ethnikos: this enables the experience of Poles, West Indians, Bengalis, Irish and Cypriots to be mingled and mapped against each other, rather in the manner of a teeming 19th-century novel.
One of the subplots is about the remaking of a shattered country: roads built, factories operated, the NHS staffed – and immigrants provided the wherewithal
One of the subplots is about the remaking of a shattered country: those house cavities had to be filled, roads built, factories operated, the NHS staffed – and immigrants provided the wherewithal. Lovers & Strangers profiles the worlds they constructed for themselves, in the process of remaking their lives. There is necessarily less about how middle-class incomers were silently absorbed into some kind of Britishness. The poet Blake Morrison’s mother, an Irish doctor, had her Kerry background, Irish name and Catholic religion decisively eliminated from family history by her Yorkshire husband, as described in Morrison’s memoir Things My Mother Never Told Me. But Wills paints a marvellously vivid picture of those communities where national and cultural identities remained a badge of belonging.
This could lead to violent antagonisms within those communities, as memorably recounted by Dónall Mac Amhlaigh in his autobiographical accounts of fights between “Connemara men” and other Irish labourers. The entertaining chapter on drinkers is mostly about the Irish, perhaps inevitably (whereas that on teachers emphasises the South Asian experience). But there are also flashes of that London underworld suddenly brought to lurid view in the Profumo scandal, when Establishment toffs stumbled into a world where good-time girls consorted with Polish slum landlords, West Indian club owners, and racketeers from God knows where.
The absorbing chapter on “homeowners” profiles the world of Notting Hill, back when the slum landlord Peter Rachman (a middle-class Polish ex-soldier, resettled in Britain in 1946) was its presiding deity rather than Hugh Grant. Wills interleaves Rachman’s story with that of the Trinidadian radical Michael de Freitas (later reborn as Michael X), further enlivened by sharp touches from the novels of Andrew Salkey, the sociological surveys of Ruth Glass, and the work of historians such as John Davis. Here as in other sections, the question of racial discrimination is a constant issue, especially where West Indian communities were concerned. Elsewhere, Wills remarks that “very few accounts by lower caste Indians labouring in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s mention racial discrimination” – trenchantly adding, “arguably they were far too used to being discriminated against to notice”.
As the story reaches the later 1960s the issue of race begins to predominate, culminating in Enoch Powell’s notorious speech on April 20th, 1968
But as the story reaches the later 1960s the issue of race begins to predominate, culminating in Enoch Powell’s notorious speech on April 20th, 1968, three years after the introduction of a toothless Race Relations Act. Wills traces the influence of the American Black Power movement on black consciousness-raising among immigrant communities , taking her chapter title from Hustler, a Black Power journal produced in Notting Hill “at the interface between London hippie culture and local black activism”. She ends the story more or less there, on the cusp of the new post-1960s age.
This inevitably leaves some questions trailing. Wills believes that in the atmosphere of 1945 “everyone was us”, but the next decades were to teach immigrant communities a different and bitter truth. Following the journalist Paul Foot, she refers to “the rise of Enoch Powell”, but in fact after 1968 he was marginalised from polite politics, fired by Edward Heath and ending up stranded on the farther shores of Ulster Unionism. The 1970s and 1980s saw the uneasy adoption of “multicultural” agendas in education and social provision, and a raised consciousness of the endemic racism in many British institutions – as well as new forms of religious separatism within immigrant communities. Today the public face of the British Establishment is certainly more diverse, even more multicultural, than it used to be: it would be nice to think that the replacement of the Old Etonian Boris Johnson as mayor of London by Sadiq Khan, son of Pakistani immigrants, is a hopeful omen.
But the referendum result of June 23rd, 2016, suggests otherwise. “I know it’s economic suicide,” remarked an Oxford taxi driver to his (Irish immigrant) fare a few days later, “but I just don’t like hearing Polish spoken on my street.” Lovers & Strangers brilliantly conjures up an era when new languages flooded on to British streets, and shows how they were sustained and mingled. If there is a sequel it may tell a rather different story.