Lovers and Strangers: An Im­mi­grant His­tory of Post-War Bri­tain

THE (Times Higher Education) - - BOOKS - Panikos Panayi is pro­fes­sor of Euro­pean his­tory at De Mont­fort Univer­sity.

By Clair Wills

Allen Lane, 464pp, £25.00 ISBN 9781846147166 Pub­lished 31 Au­gust 2017

Clair Wills aims to re­con­struct the lives of first-gen­er­a­tion mi­grants in Bri­tain from the end of the 1940s to the lat­ter 1960s. Rather than fo­cus­ing sim­ply upon those who ar­rived from the West Indies and South Asia, she also de­votes at­ten­tion to con­ti­nen­tal Euro­peans, in­clud­ing those who ar­rived at the end of the Sec­ond World War, and the Ir­ish, who fea­ture heav­ily, since her par­ents mi­grated from the coun­try. In fact, she weaves the ex­pe­ri­ences of her own fam­ily (warts and all, es­pe­cially in the chap­ter on “Scroungers”) into her nar­ra­tive.

Her well-writ­ten, read­able story evolves like a novel or film script with key char­ac­ters. These in­clude some of the most prom­i­nent im­mi­grants to post-war Bri­tain, such as Stu­art Hall and V. S. Naipaul, while the tele­vi­sion per­son­al­i­ties Val Doon­i­can, Terry Wo­gan and Ea­monn An­drews all make cameo ap­pear­ances. While the lives of some eth­nic groups are richly de­vel­oped, oth­ers do not re­ceive such at­ten­tion. Con­ti­nen­tal Euro­peans fade away after re­ceiv­ing some ini­tial cov­er­age, the Chi­nese are com­pletely ig­nored, Africans rarely make ap­pear­ances, while Mal­tese and Cypri­ots play the role of car­i­ca­tures, never de­vel­op­ing into real char­ac­ters.

One rea­son for the fo­cus on West Indians, South Asians and early post-war Euro­peans lies in one of the main sources for the vol­ume: the so­ci­o­log­i­cal stud­ies on these groups pro­duced from the early 1950s on­wards, from which Wills gar­ners in­for­ma­tion and reuses in­ter­view ma­te­rial. The pi­o­neer­ing so­cial sci­en­tists whom she quotes ig­nored the Chi­nese and the Cypri­ots be­cause nei­ther the gov­ern­ment nor aca­demics viewed them as prob­lems. The Ir­ish also re­ceived rel­a­tively little at­ten­tion, but Wills’ deeper per­sonal knowl­edge of this group al­lows her to bring them to life.

The main part of the vol­ume (pre­ceded by a sec­tion on jour­neys and fol­lowed by a con­clu­sion on liv­ing be­tween two cul­tures in the UK) is beau­ti­fully con­structed, with a se­ries of en­tic­ing chap­ter ti­tles that serve as an en­try point into the ex­pe­ri­ences of par­tic­u­lar groups. Each sug­gests which community re­ceives con­sid­er­a­tion. “Drinkers”, about the Ir­ish, pri­mar­ily fo­cuses upon causes of drink­ing, es­pe­cially lone­li­ness. “Bach­e­lors” tack­les early all-male Asian house­holds, but also deals with pub cul­ture. The 13 chap­ters that form the core of the book progress both the­mat­i­cally and chrono­log­i­cally, and the nar­ra­tive ends with the rise of Black Power and the anti-im­mi­grant pop­ulism pro­moted by Enoch Pow­ell.

The vol­ume places the lives of mi­grants at the cen­tre of the evo­lu­tion of the UK dur­ing the pe­riod it cov­ers. Wills tack­les ev­ery­thing from the post-war hous­ing cri­sis and aus­ter­ity to the pre­dom­i­nance of man­ual labour among the work­ing pop­u­la­tion, the break­down of “tra­di­tional” fam­i­lies and the rise of con­sumerism from an im­mi­grant per­spec­tive. In ad­di­tion, she deals with con­se­quences of mi­gra­tion, in­clud­ing loss (es­pe­cially of fam­ily, even if only tem­po­rar­ily), me­mory and home­sick­ness, community and racism. Post-war mi­gra­tion has in­creas­ingly be­come part of the Bri­tish story: this vol­ume helps to ce­ment its cen­tral role in Bri­tish lives.

A cup of kind­ness Ja­maican im­mi­grants col­lect a meal from a can­teen set up for them at a South Lon­don hos­tel, 1948

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