The new African and Caribbean War Memorial is sited at Windrush Square in Brixton, London. The Windrush was the ship that brought over the first non-white immigrants from the West Indies, setting in motion British multiculturalism. Brixton remains an icon of that spirit, but can it survive gentrification? By Clayton Goodwin
Back in the summer I attended the dedication of the African and Caribbean War Memorial at Windrush Square in Brixton, south London. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, the Secretary of Defence, Sir Michael Fallon, war veterans and other distinguished guests were there.
The date – it was 22 June – was chosen because it was the anniversary of the docking of the ship, Empire Windrush, at Tilbury harbour in 1948. That event has come to be accepted as the iconic start of mass non-white Commonwealth immigration to the UK.
Yet November is the month in which the attention of the nation, and of the world, is turned towards remembrance of those service personnel who gave their lives in the two world wars. At many services throughout the land, the words of Laurence Binyon from For The Fallen are read:
They shall grow not old
As we that are left grow old
Time shall not weary them
Nor the years condemn.
Now the African and Caribbean community has a memorial at which their fallen colleagues, relatives and forebears can be honoured specifically. It has already become a London landmark which visitors include in their itinerary. The memorial was designed by Jak Beula of the Nubian Jak Community Trust. It comprises two 6-foot obelisks made from Scottish whinstone, and is inscribed with the name of every regiment from Africa and the Caribbean that served in the two World Wars, where they served and when. It includes also a pyramid plinth made from Ancaster stone.
The open-air occasion was honoured with music from the Ministry of Defence military band, the London All Stars Steel Orchestra and African and Caribbean drummers. The ceremonial unveiling of the memorial, with a traditional military salute and a display of flag and ensigns for each regiment, was followed by African commemorative war music and dance.
The highlight of the occasion was the presence of the ex-servicemen and women, many, of whom had gone on to contribute significantly to the public life of the community which they had defended. Alan Wilmot, 93 years old, expressed his joy that he was able to witness this celebration and to receive his medal in person. He is remembered also as being a member of The Southlanders popular vocal group of the 1950s.
Those critics who aver that black people would not have fought willingly for king and country – Empire as it was then – miss the point of the pride in the eyes of the ex-servicemen (and those of their colleagues who have predeceased them). They risked their lives and their future for the country of King George VI. He was their king as well as king of the British. And the Axis menace was a threat to their country as much as it was to the UK. I am reminded of the words of Manabendra Nath Roy, the Indian nationalist, radical activist and theorist, written during the war years:
“The present in not England’s war. It is a war for the future of the world. If the British government happens to be a party to the war, why should the fighters for human liberty be ashamed of congratulating it for this meritorious deed? The old saying that adversity brings strange bedfellows is not altogether meaningless.”
He reasoned that it should be permissible for the fighters for Indian freedom to support the British government as far as it was engaged in a war against fascism.
Brixton ripe for colonisation
Nowhere is this more associated with Commonwealth immigration, especially that from Jamaica, than Brixton. At the end of the Second World War the area was ripe for “colonisation”.
Less than a century earlier, it had been at the fringe of London. The large houses were a standing testimony to the age of Upstairs, Downstairs – masters and mistresses in the former and servants below.
When that era ended and Brixton was sucked into metropolitan London, these dwellings were broken up into independent flats suitable for those engaged in the theatre. As an entertainment district, Brixton was one of the first places to make extensive use of electricity. Singer Eddy Grant immortalised this in his hit song, Electric Avenue.
The theatre, in turn, yielded place to film and cinema, the residents moved out, the houses became empty, and …
The arrivals from the Empire Windrush, and successive transport, were housed temporarily in the Clapham South deep shelter “just down the road”. The nearest employment office was at Coldharbour Lane in Brixton.
The incomers and the neighbourhood were made for each other, even if it meant starting here from the bottom up. Brixton has had its well-documented difficulties in establishing a multi-cultural community but ever since becoming acquainted with the area first in 1961, I have been impressed by the sense of community and the importance given to individual initiative.
That welcome impression has been confirmed and strengthened since my daughter and her family moved there just under 20 years ago. The ambience is a tribute to the pioneers, whether ex-service or civilian.
Offence to racial animosity
Now is a time for looking to the future as well as for recollection of the past. The street-traders of Brixton have good reason to resent the current gentrification making the place trendily upmarket. The soul of the neighbourhood, of personal and cultural self-expression and of the struggle against disadvantage, cannot be traded.
It is appropriate that the premises, Black Cultural Archives, should be sited here, adjacent to the War Memorial. A short distance away around the junction of Coldharbour Lane and Atlantic Road are an abundance of restaurants – many of them African – hairdressers, record shops and seemingly endless outlets for fish, meat and produce from, apparently, all corners of the earth.
The residents here have so mastered the art of multicultural living that they returned one of the highest, if not the highest, Remain votes in last year’s referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the EU. Here Muslims in distinctive and traditional attire rub shoulders when shopping, or merely walking on the pavement, with Christians of many denominations, Rastafarians, members of all other recognised religions, and those who have decided to give affiliation to any formal creed a miss. Brixton’s presence is an offence to racial animosity.
A short walk from the War Memorial, through the mingling crowds with their inevitable mobile phones and other apparatus plugged into their ears, I found the Brixton Recreation Centre (popularly known as the Brixton Rec).
Here in the spacious basement, which until recently was a rifle-range, founder Steadman Scott, secretary Peter Armstrong and coach Bobby Miltiadous told me about the Afewee boxing club. It started as a football club but added a pugilistic dimension to cope with the needs of the socially disengaged youth after the urban disturbances six years ago. The word “youth” encompasses both genders – as they cater successfully for both boys and girls. The name comes from a rendering of the Jamaican patois afewee, meaning “all for we/us”. By our own efforts, we shall succeed.
That sums up the spirit of Brixton. Steadman emphasised that a community can achieve only by what it does for itself and not by waiting for grants and services to be handed down. The club is proud of the number of former students who have gone on to become professional footballers: the boxers are still at the stage of collecting amateur awards but their day should come soon.
Afewee puts as great an emphasis on courteous conduct, and on enthusiasm, as for skill in the ring (or on the pitch) – and so do the area’s other organisations.
There is indeed a continuity of spirit and commitment, from those young people leaving their homes in Africa and the Caribbean many years ago to fight – as it was put then, for “king and country”, and to defend the values they cherished – and their children, to the third and fourth generation now protecting and securing that community. NA