Jamaica

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.

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