I. Windrush Lineage
They came in earlier ships,
Mahadai’s ancestors and mine,
with hope, and by imperialist design;
and I am too young to have seen them
dying, as she says, on streets.
I am resigned to dreaming them
wherever Victorian iron
palisades the public squares
like spears. I take her word
that the bread they died wanting
was British; the languages
and laws denied them were British,
for a quarter of the globe
rose pink to cry empire,
havoc, and natural resource.
This was recent.
Recent enough: my cousin
saw them too. The finish
of those ships overlapping
as ships ineluctably do
with others, keening the curled
wake with a forward-looking wave.
The sea is like this.
What you expect nobody
can expect. What you accept
nobody can’t accept.
What the great hungry puzzle
stamped with a crown is
must be big enough to see
big enough to ignore.
Why wouldn’t you
take a canoe, a pirogue,
carrack, caravel, ocean
liner, yacht, banana boat,
naval destroyer, oil tanker
or cruise ship, why wouldn’t you?
When survival becomes
an acquired taste, improvement
a second skin, and home
is a long-distance love affair
with loss, and home is an arranged
marriage to glorious, unseen London?
Windrush wasn’t the first.
The voyage was not an arrow
flying one way to lodge in sorrow.
Island people met island
people on the docks. Some were there
long time. Some stayed. Some went back.
Twelve to a room, cold in welcome,
post-war Britain already was home
by birthright: documentation
was not a prize or a promise
for this generation born under
the far-fetched Union Jack. Citizens
drilled in the hymns and nursery rhymes,
sweepings of a dust-devil map?
Singer, soldier, fabric designer,
novelist, nurse, BBC presenter,
stowaway, activist, carnival maker,
lawyer, bus driver, self-reinventor,
brought up as British in sightline and grip
crossing to Britain, the way some move
to Leeds from York. Surely. Sure. No more.
Sugar brickwork, tobacco boulevards
and bloody wool are the well-known parts
making Albion’s very groundsong
a subclass of Caribbean harmonies.
It takes a special effort
to tune out the transatlantic
jumbie jumble ripple
in the Humber and the Thames.
Hear now: Lord Beginner. Lord
Kitchener. Sam Selvon. V.S. Naipaul.
Mikey Smith, stoned to death in Jamaica.
Una Marson, ruling the airwaves.
Wilson Harris. The nationality
act in one of its ever-revisable
revisions. And a prime minister,
and a journalist . . .
II. Windrush Caribbean Cento
Things does have a way of fixing themselves.
Cyaan mek blood out a stone.
Be it enacted by the King’s most Excellent Majesty,
one grim winter evening, when it had a kind of uneasiness about London;
by and with the advice of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons,
fury and diamond.
Is a place where everyone is your enemy and your friend,
or else like charcoal to grain.
An Act to make provision for British nationality.
I am glad to know my Mother Country.
Rest, then, my heart, thou knowest but too well
I an I alone.
Where I come from you take what you want
and you pay every Friday,
and for citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies.
But let me just look at what the policy . . .
Cricket lovely Cricket!
But I keep coming back to it:
Your hostile environment policy.
The compliant environment policy,
The government is taking action against
every person who under this Act is a citizen of the United Kingdom
a dancing dwarf on the tarmac.
Spirit of leaves like smoke.
A burning injustice.
But our hearts are white.
A burning injustice.
But their hearts are black.
God is sen you His spirit,
This lady died.
Because the English people are very much sociable,
every person born within the United Kingdom and Colonies,
in the womb of converted horse
in the Christmas supplement of the colour magazine,
you’re absolutely right,
shall be a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies by birth,
but as me gon in
cock-roach rat and scorpion also come in.
What is it that a city have
that any place in the world have . . .
room dem a rent.
Hate dat ironed hair.
He looked in the mirror one day
and couldn’t see himself.
Citizenship by birth.
Citizenship by descent.
Citizenship by registration.
After all was said and done,
Birth is never treason.
And he began to scream.
You thinking about the thing without a name
You get so much to like it
you wouldn’t leave it for anywhere else,
subject to the provisions of this section.
Second Test and the West Indies won.
III. Windrush Exhibition
I fail the bag check. Once in,
my phone falls under suspicion.
It feels like pulling a string
when I give the names and the reason
that let me photograph the exhibition:
Songs of a Strange Land.
There are no arrows. You make
your own way; excavate
your own gates. What is a keeper?
The 1700s names and sale prices
for old to underage slaves
sold off with a Tobago estate . . .
But that is not Windrush 1948?
The footage of 2000s Brits driven out
for a retroactive lack of paperwork . . .
Is all Caribbean heritage Windrush?
I miss the delight and taxonomy
of birds, woods, foods, medals or geology,
the ocean of non-human
But here are voices
beyond glass cases: letters
between brothers, entertainments
in community magazines,
funerals and arrivals,
achievements, doubts and designs.
If only ‘shock and awe’ were a phrase
we could reclaim, not to mean ‘war’,
that might lift off with love, like good labels do.
Can these stories, their satin and skulls,
good-clothes and cologne, like a Pierrot pun
or a Robber cloak, unfold unfurl unfall
their particular nuance, universal burn,
300km away as the egret flies
from London to south Leeds?
It is not informational, it is
not a blameshift, it is not
all-lives-matter top down and sideways blank.
It is in itself important,
crucial in the crucible of history:
these isles and these isles
these shelves and these selves
these aisles and desires
these disasters and out of disasters
these stars and the astronomer out for stars…
If you could send a postcard
to the past, send a postcard
to the future, if you could
welcome, warn, object or anything else
that reaches flying, what would you, would you,
if you could, would you send, would you have
sent? You on the journeys from Ireland,
Bangladesh, Cumbria, you with different
literacies, you in the forest
of skilled restoration, achievements by your hand
and unsigned, you with the quick eye to sketch,
you on the everlasting buses?
You share your music and tell me
you’d take a calypsonian to lunch . . .
IV. Windrush Leeds Cento
Stay, if you’ve come all this way.
I also know about uprooting.
In the airport the smells were
mixed. Anxious. Friends
to lonely, what a journey.
Who did you leave behind?
Approach. Anxious. Someone
to love. A travel buddy.
You will be welcome here;
we finally settled.
How was the voyage?
Come here! I would
take you for a walk
and show you York. Leeds
Town Hall. Kirkgate Market.
Bradford. Chapeltown. Spain.
Blackpool. Windermere. Turkey.
Not everybody lives in Buckingham Palace.
I’d like to show you round
Leeds. Celebrate the NHS.
Dear Mr Churchill . . . Dear President
Kennedy . . . Getting experience
after unemployment. Nursing and tending
to old soldiers. Can’t wait for peace
and quiet. In this big freezer.
Family near me.
Know the area. Explore. Enjoy.
I walk around the park
and I found a friend.
Please sing another song.
notes on the poems: ‘Windrush Reflections’ was commissioned by Poet in the City and the British Library for Collections in Verse. A response to Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land and the communities of South Leeds. Inspiration for ‘Windrush Lineage’: Mahadai Das, A Leaf in His Ear: Selected Poems (Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 2010). Sources for ‘Caribbean Cento’: collage of Lord Kitchener; Lord Beginner; British Nationality Act 1948; Andrew Marr and Theresa May, 30/09/2018 interview, BBC transcript; Wilson Harris; Una Marson; V.S. Naipaul; Samuel Selvon; Michael Smith. Sources for ‘Windrush Leeds Cento’: collage of original material by participants in events in Leeds. ‘Windrush Reflections’ is included in Vahni Capildeo’s Odyssey Calling (Sad Press, forthcoming 2019).
Image © Andrea Levy, postcard of Empire Windrush purchased by Winston Levy while on board, c. 1948