The battered and exhausted Britain of 1945 was desperate for workers – to rebuild, to fill the factories, to make the new NHS work. Irish, Bengalis, West Indians, Poles, Maltese, Punjabis and Cypriots battled to fit into an often shocked Britain and, to their own surprise, found themselves making permanent homes. Clair Wills’ latest book, Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain (Allen Lane, £25) brings to life the migrant experience, introducing immigrants through the characters they inhabited – lovers, scroungers, dancers, homeowners, teachers, drinkers, carers and many more.
Your previous books have focused on Ireland or on Irish immigration. What made you decide to expand your research to include all other post-war immigrants to Britain?
The idea for the book came to me while looking for information on Irish immigrants in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. I was struck by how many of the sources I uncovered talked about the Irish in comparison to other immigrants. Police reports compared Irish with West Indian, Indian and Pakistani crime rates, for example. Sociologists recorded stories of mixed Irish-Asian lodgings, and civil servants worried about how to stop Irishmen fighting with Poles in National Service hostels. The immigrants themselves told stories about living and working alongside migrants from other countries. I realised it didn’t make sense to isolate Irish lives from the wider experience of migrating to and settling in post-war Britain. Although there are differences between groups, particularly based on skin colour, they all shared the experience of arriving as strangers and outsiders to a country which was still largely culturally homogeneous in the 1950s.
It’s clear how much research has gone into Lovers and Strangers. How long did it take to write? How much did you rely on books focusing on people’s personal experiences, and how much was interview based?
The book took five years to research and write. As far as possible I tried to use memoirs, stories and reports which were written in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s rather than later memories and reflections. Hindsight can play tricks with us. And I wanted to get as close as possible to the texture of post-war experience, including the language that people used. It wasn’t always possible to find first-hand accounts though, so I did interview some people – particularly when it came to early post-war Asian migrants. Partly because they didn’t speak English their experiences and attitudes are much less well documented than Irish and Caribbean migrants. And unlike the displaced persons and refugees from the camps on the Continent, they weren’t part of a government-organised scheme, so there is less information about them.
The language throughout can often be quite emotive. What sort of message did you want to reader to take away?
Do you think the language is emotive? I tried to be as fair as possible to the language I found in the historical accounts. Many immigrants did write plangently about their experiences of hardship, and many British people were disturbed and unhappy about the changes that the arrival of newcomers brought to their local areas. But there is plenty of evidence too of comedy, pleasure and excitement in the encounters between immigrants and their hosts. I tried to see all sides, and I guess the message that I would like readers to take away is that the history of immigration is complex and varied. It is tempting to tell simple stories (good hard-working immigrants versus bad and sometimes racist hosts, or scrounging and sometimes criminal immigrants versus beleaguered hosts) but those simple stories don’t get us very far at all.
With Brexit and calls for tighter immigration in Britain, where do you think Lovers and Strangers features in the current political climate?
In 1962 the government brought in the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, which was intended to end the open-door policy whereby all citizens of the Commonwealth had the right to live in Britain. What happened was that there was a rush to beat the ban on immigration from the Caribbean and from India and Pakistan, and many people settled permanently in Britain who had previously been happy to spend a few years at a time as migrant workers. One reviewer of the book said recently, referring to Brexit, that one lesson to be taken from the book is: “be careful how you close the door” – in other words that we should be wary of European migrants rushing to turn up before freedom of movement ends. Maybe so, but I think that’s a strange lesson to draw. What the book shows is that British society was in fact very good at absorbing large numbers of immigrants from all over the world, and that it has on the whole been enriched by immigration. When problems occurred, as they sometimes did, it was largely because successive governments failed to provide funding and support for integration, not because there were “too many immigrants”.
Were there any stories or anecdotes you wrote about that particularly resonated with you?
My Irish mother arrived in Croydon in 1948 to work, and train as a nurse, in the newly formed NHS; my uncles worked on the motorways and power stations which helped transform Britain in the 1950s. I did find it moving, personally, to discover more about the kinds of lives my Irish relatives lived in the 1950s. And I also became fascinated by the parallels between their lives, as rural villagers transplanted to an urban industrial environment, and the lives of Punjabi migrants, when we might think of them as literally worlds apart. I loved learning more about the experiences of women immigrants, stories that are not so often told – for example of the difficulties many Indian and Pakistani women had in adjusting to isolated domestic life after leaving extended family networks back home, or conversely of the freedom that might come from moving to a city where you could go out shopping, or even out to work.
Lovers and Strangers makes a particular parallel between the treatment of black people in the US and the UK, mentioning events like Malcolm X coming over to the UK. What are the similarities and differences between the two countries’ approaches?
In fact the possible parallels between race relations in the US and the UK obsessed people at the time. The Notting Hill riots occurred in September 1958, not long after the protests against racial desegregation at Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas, and there were plenty of people who wanted to insist that the racial violence in Notting Hill was an anomaly: the problem was lawless kids rather than the kind of underlying racial tension and prejudice characteristic of the American South. But comparisons with the Civil Rights movement in the United States became sharper during the 1960s, as the racist rhetoric of politicians such as Enoch Powell was met with increasingly radical rhetoric on the part of anti-racist campaigners in Britain. The arguments of men such as Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X and James Baldwin did have an influence on radical Black Power groups and the anti-racist campaigns of the Indian Workers Association. It would have been strange if they had not, given the radical global rhetoric of 1968, in which Civil Rights and the protests against the Vietnam War were seen as part of the same struggle. In the book I try to acknowledge the influences from the United States – fuelling both racist and anti-racist attitudes – but also to focus on the aspects of the story which were uniquely born of Britain’s history of immigration.