Stuart Hall’s First Encounter with London

In this excerpt from Stuart Hall’s new memoir, Familiar Stranger: A Life between Two Islands, he describes his trip with his mother, Jessie, from Jamaica to the United Kingdom. Hall had earned a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University and the two traveled there together in 1951. Enjoy the excerpt and then buy the book for 30% off with coupon E17FAMST.

978-0-8223-6387-3_pr w strokeIt is uncannily disconcerting to look back at my younger self, arriving in the port of Avonmouth in 1951, ready for a new life but absolutely unsure how it would happen, or what it would look like if it did. I was indeed elsewhere! I can say, however, that the colonial experience prepared me for England. Far from being an untroubled, innocent opportunity for me to step out into something new, this was an encounter which was mightily overdetermined.

My arrival preceded by some three months the general election in October in which the Conservatives ousted Labour and Winston Churchill regained the office of Prime Minister. After a short while I headed for Oxford University, into the very cultural heartland of England.

But this was an encounter which has not yet come to an end. It continues. It was, as Donald Hinds termed it a long while ago, ‘a journey to an illusion’ – or rather, a journey to the shattering of illusions, inaugurating a process of protracted disenchantment. I didn’t really know what I would find or what I would do with ‘it’ if I found ‘it’. I knew I didn’t want to be ‘it’, whatever that was. But I did want to encounter in the flesh, as it were, this phantasm of ‘other worlds’, swollen with – as it happened – false promise. What I really knew about Britain turned out to be a bewildering farrago of reality and fantasy. However, such illusions as I may have taken with me were unrealized because, fortunately, they were unrealizable. The episode was painful as well as exciting. It changed me irrevocably, almost none of it in ways I had remotely anticipated.

The whole experience was eerily familiar and disconcertingly strange at the same time. One can attribute this to the sense of déjà‑vu which assails colonial travellers on first encountering face-to-face the imperial metropole, which they actually know only in its translated form through a colonial haze, but which has always functioned as their ‘constitutive outside’: constituting them, or us, by its absence, because it is what they – we – are not. This is a manner of being defined from the beyond!

On the boat train to London, I kept feeling I’d seen this place somewhere before, as in a screen memory. It provoked a deep psychic recognition, an illusory after-effect. Had I been here before? Yes and no. I hadn’t anticipated what the English countryside would look like but, once I saw it whizzing past the train windows, I knew that this was how it should look: those proper, well-fed, black-and-white cows munching away contentedly in their neatly divided, hedgerowed fields surrounded by enormous, spreading sycamore trees. Everything I had read had prepared me for that. I knew, after all, the novels of Thomas Hardy. On the other hand, nothing had prepared me for the stark contrast between the sombre brick-and-cement hues and the well-disciplined dark, monotone character of London streets and the chaotic bustle of Kingston street life, with people shoving past one another on the crowded pavements, the handcarts and ice barrows with their rows of syrup bottles, the raucous hubbub and teeming vitality, provincial as it was.

London, when we got there, felt unwelcoming and forbidding. I guess my memories must have been infiltrated by what happened later, for what immediately comes to mind is the heavy, leaden autumn sky, the light permanently stuck halfway to dusk, the constant fine drizzle (where was the proper rain, the tropical downpour?), the blank windows of the square black cabs, the anonymity of the faces in the red double-decker buses, the yellow headlights glistening off the wet tarmac along the Bayswater Road. A dark, shuttered, anonymous city; high blocks of mansion flats,
turning up their noses at the life of the streets below. Everyone was buttoned up in dark suits, overcoats and hats, many carrying the proverbial umbrellas, scurrying with downcast eyes through the gathering gloom to unknown destinations. This was post-war austerity London, with its bombed-out sites, rubble and gaping spaces like missing teeth. A faint mist permanently shrouded Hyde Park, where ladies in jodhpurs and hard riding hats cantered their horses in the early mornings; the lights blazed in the Oxford Street department stores by three in the afternoon. There must have been bright and sunny days, for it was only the end of summer. But I don’t remember them.

We had some time first, in limbo, in London; then the full impact of Oxford and the beginning of another phase of my life. My mother accompanied me, together with an enormous steamer trunk, a felt hat and a chequered overcoat. We were the second-class passengers on a banana boat courtesy of Elders and Fyffes, the British firm linked to my father’s company. It went around the island, stopping at different places to load bananas, and on its last day we drove across to meet it in Port Antonio, its last Jamaican call, for the final leg of its journey ‘home’. I remember the boat slipping out in the fading sunset light along the narrow channel of Port Antonio harbour between Navy Island and Titchfield Hill, where the old hotel once stood. We were so close to land on either side that I could clearly make out the faces of my family standing on the promontory, watching the late-afternoon departure and waving farewell.

Hall and his mother on boat

Hall and his mother Jessie on the trip from Jamaica to London

We had a tumultuous journey. At sea we encountered the ferocious hurricane which, we learned later, had ravaged Jamaica. I have photographs showing how far down into the ocean the boat descended, burying its prow in the channel hollowed out in the turbulent water. We looked into the chasm, convinced that we would never struggle up again out of the depths. But within minutes, as the vessel righted itself, the sea reared up above us like a wall, so high above the deck railings that it entirely blotted out the sky. The tables and crockery in the dining room were sliding freely to and fro across the floor with each tilt of the decks. It was scarily exciting. But we didn’t yet know of the wreckage the hurricane had left in its wake at home. In the spirit of what literary critics call ‘the fallacy of imitative form’, where the natural world appears to mirror the mood of the narrative, nature seemed to be carrying some ominous latent message about the journey to my destination, although I didn’t choose to anticipate what it could mean.

We arrived in August, and since the Oxford term didn’t start until October we spent a few weeks in London as tourists. We stayed at Methodist International House, a kind of refuge for overseas students in Bayswater. Among the first people I met there were A. N. R. Robinson, subsequently both Prime Minister and President of Trinidad and Tobago, who was studying law at the Inns of Court and was soon to be a founding member of the People’s National Movement; and Doris Wellcome from British Guiana, who became the first wife of the celebrated Barbadian poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite. The house was full of African, Asian and Caribbean students. It was self-consciously international in ethos: ‘native dress’ (whatever that was) at weekends, food from different regions, many languages. There was a more religious atmosphere than either I or my mother was accustomed to: grace at meals, hymns around the piano of an evening, chapel on Sunday morning. However, it did give me the chance to acclimatize slowly to London in a place which was not impenetrably English.

And then one day I came to see that ‘impenetrable England’ wasn’t impenetrable at all. Passing Paddington Station, which was only around the corner from Bayswater Terrace, I saw a stream of black people spilling out into the London afternoon. They were too poorly dressed to be tourists. Who were they and what were they doing here? In fact, this was my first encounter with an advance guard of what became black Caribbean, post-war, post-Windrush migration, which over the years has transformed Britain. One world intruded on another. This was a game-changing
moment for me. Suddenly everything looked different.

It is hard to reconstruct the effect of seeing these black West Indian working men and women in London, with their strapped‑up suitcases and bulging straw baskets, looking for all the world as if they planned a long stay. They had made extraordinary efforts within their means to dress up to the nines for the journey, as West Indians always did in those days when travelling or going to church: the men in soft-brim felt hats, cocked at a rakish angle, the women in flimsy, colourful cotton dresses, stepping uncertainly into the cold wind, or waiting for relatives or friends to rescue them from the enveloping strangeness. They hesitated in front of ticket windows, trying to figure out how to take another train to some equally unfamiliar place, to find people they knew who had preceded them. Their minds seemed fixed, not on some mythic ‘romance of travel’ or on the equally unpersuasive notion of an ‘unfolding adventure’, but on the immediate practicalities: a place to sleep, a room to rent, work.

For them and for me, this was a fateful moment of transition, frozen in time.

The sight of all these black people in the centre of London was astonishing. What I thought I had left behind as an unresolved dilemma – the difficulties my family background had bequeathed to me of neither wanting any identification with my own social stratum, nor being able to feel present in my own homeland, conscious of the chasm that separated me from the multitude – had turned up to meet me on the other side of the Atlantic. This made me feel like I was travelling forwards towards the past!

These were still early days, and migration carried the promise that it would level the colonial playing field. Here, at last, we all were what Sheila Patterson, in her early study of post-war migration, called ‘dark strangers’: travellers in unfamiliar territory, puzzled about what the future held, fearful about whether we would survive, unsettled by how different everything seemed and worried by how much the experience would change us.

I had anticipated all sorts of new beginnings, but I never imagined London would secrete this explosive little time bomb from the past. Of course, any idea of making an absolutely new start had been a fantasy, and I don’t think I ever succumbed to it. I was convinced my leaving Jamaica was a temporary break and I fully intended to return and to spend my adult life there. In any case, as I subsequently discovered, the hope of making an absolutely new start – Year One – is often the first of the illusions to go. Besides, it wasn’t really a beginning, only another chapter in a long-
running story which had begun centuries before.

Hall at Oxford

Stuart Hall at Merton College, Oxford, 1951

We did the tourist thing – Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s, the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, the Changing of the Guard, the Festival of Britain site on the South Bank. I remember catching one of the first performances of The Mousetrap, but that must have been a little later. Anticipating the start of term, my mother delivered me, complete with the steamer trunk, to Merton College, Oxford. By some mysterious serendipity our house in Kingston had been called Merton, but I couldn’t trace any actual connection. My mother, however, in fine form insisted it must have been Destiny.

Copyright Catherine Hall, 2017.


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