Windrush Day: Journalist Josh Layton reflects on grandmother’s voyage – Coventry Telegraph

Posted: June 22, 2020 at 2:44 pm


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Having borrowed everything she could to secure her passage, Myrtle Lewars set sail on June 15, 1955.

Efforts to improve her fortunes in Jamaica textbooks were her favourite reading and she could convert any currency mentally in less than a minute had offered no escape from the hardship that meant she had missed out on a formal education. A decent pair of shoes cost more than she could save in months.

Brought up in the rural parish of Clarendon or bush, as she called it Myrtle would move to Kingston and pin her hopes on England, the country she regarded as the motherland.

Two weeks before stepping aboard at the Port of Kingston holding a small suitcase, my maternal grandmother had chanted at dawn White rabbit, white rabbit, lucky white rabbit.

When the day came, she dressed impeccably, fixing a white rose to the lapel of her pressed suit jacket.

It had been shipped to the island in the precious consignments of imported goods known as the barrels.

An attractive young woman, Myrtle had once appeared in front of crowds to draw the sweepstake, with the moment captured on the front page of national newspaper, The Gleaner.

But like the waves of finely turned-out Jamaican migrants before and after her, she had staked everything on the land of The Queen, Vera Lynn and double-decker buses.

Myrtle would never again call Jamaica home.

She sailed from Kingston on the Ortega at 2.30pm, hoping that better must come in the promised land.

Sixty-five years on from that voyage, the Windrush Generation Caribbean migrants who arrived in the UK between 1948 and 1971 are still campaigning for redress after being wrongly targeted by the Home Offices hostile environment immigration policies.

A petition signed by 131,000 people was delivered to Downing Street on Friday (June 19), calling on the Government to act on the findings of a review into the scandal.

The ongoing campaign follows protests about the treatment of British citizens who have been detained, denied healthcare and threatened with deportation. While the Government has repeatedly apologised to the victims, the issue remains in the backdrop of celebrations to mark 72 years since the MV Empire Windrush first arrived with the prospective workforce in Tilbury Docks.

A sense of betrayal remains at the Home Offices treatment of some of its most dutiful subjects, who were wrongly told to leave the country they had spent decades investing in, and helped rebuild, after the war.

As MP David Lammy has forcefully stated in Parliament, the relationship between the Caribbean and UK is inextricable. But a wider debt of gratitude must be given to the Jamaican community, for the boundless energy and creativity that has helped shape the West Midlands.

Paulette Wilson was among those who marched on No10 and has helped to organise the second national Windrush Day as a member of the event's advisory panel.

She said: "We are living in extraordinary times, but the commitment and effort shown by community groups around the country to adapt and adjust their plans to ensure Windrush Day 2020 is acknowledged and celebrated is both inspiring and heart-warming.

"It clearly demonstrates the depth of feeling that exists for the Windrush Generation and their descendants and all they have contributed and continue to contribute to British society and thats to say nothing of the great resilience and fortitude they showed.

"With each passing year, Windrush Day becomes more firmly embedded in the national consciousness. It might not be a Windrush Day like we saw last year, but it will remain a Windrush Day honoured by a community fiercely proud of their heritage, and a day that provides an opportunity for us all to celebrate our shared culture and heritage."

Its only been in recent years that I have taken stock of my late grandmothers journey, feeling humbled as I examine a family anthology detailing her life. Jamaican accents are thin on the ground in Coventry and Warwickshire now, at least in comparison to years gone by.

While this is partly due to the migrants success in assimilating into British culture, a lasting foothold is still needed far beyond the Governments long-overdue back-pedalling.

While the Windrush Day anniversary does include funding for community projects in the West Midlands, the region is crying out for a yearly festival that shares not just Jamaican culture but recognises the way it has fused with British life and traditions over the years.

The exuberant Independence Day scenes that held sway in Birmingham in 2018 are an example of how the Jamaican community, a loose term encompassing many English born-and-bred people of all colours, could contribute towards a major yearly festival in the region.

The Windrush Generation's legacy, and that of the Irish, Indian and other overseas migrants who arrived in Britain at the time, should also be realised amid the relentless development, with the dull grey steel and towers of scaffolding, that swaddles much of the West Midlands.

One milestone has been reached in that June 22 the day the former German naval vessel first disembarked its prospective workforce is officially recognised as Windrush Day.

I believe there is more to do, including putting the subject on the National Curriculum in secondary schools.

One thing I am sure of is that my grandmother would have encouraged all students, from all backgrounds, to make the most of every tool, opportunity and crumb of education at their disposal.

After arriving in South London, Myrtle struggled to settle in her adopted country.

Despite her mental skills, application and willingness for hard work and self-improvement, assimilation into a cold and often hostile world was far from easy.

Life began in the smallest rented room in a Brixton tenement, with any money left over from day-to-day survival sent back to a long list of people in Jamaica. But later generations of her family would step onto the groundstones she had laid for their education and career prospects.

We owe these pioneers a lasting debt of gratitude.

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Windrush Day: Journalist Josh Layton reflects on grandmother's voyage - Coventry Telegraph

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