Notebook

But the single greatest shock, which recurs in emigrant reminiscences with the force of a primal scene, was seeing working-class Britons. The vast majority of the new arrivals modelled their idea of British people on the colonial officials and missionaries they had encountered in the Caribbean. They had met no others. A number of women, headed for nursing training, recall the shock of seeing “ordinary white people doing ordinary work. You were sort of made to believe that they lived in a more aristocratic way, that they didn’t clean floors and they didn’t sweep streets. I couldn’t understand any of what they were saying!” “It was really strange to see white people sweeping streets and doing manual jobs. I had not seen that before.” “We had white people pick up our luggage and that was one of the first shocks because in Guyana all the white people that we came into contact with spoke like Prince Charles and they were in very high positions.” For the men it was the same. “My images of white people were of a race which had all the good jobs and therefore lots of money. A people whose menfolk work while their women stay at home or play tennis.” The novelty of being addressed as “sir” by station porters and train staff would wear off. But the image of the white street sweeper was so powerful because it revealed to the migrants their new situation. If white people worked in such lowly jobs, then to seek any employment at all in Britain meant challenging those who already belonged.

Clair Wills, “Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain”.

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