How I earned a kicking as soon as I came to England
Next weekend, I celebrate the anniversary of an event that changed the course of my life. I arrived at Southampton 40 years ago, carrying a British and Commonwealth passport with a photograph that bore the stamp of innocence, details of name and birth, and my occupation - civil servant.
There was no immigration officer in sight. I was travelling from one remote corner of the empire to another, much like those moving from Selkirk to London. I was dressed in a rather thin mohair suit. The wind tore through the flimsy material on that cold spring day. At once, I joined in that traditional British dialogue about the weather. It was the very first time I had left my parents' home. All the smells and sounds of urban Trinidad were gone.
Yet it was not a culture shock. Before my first day at primary school in Trinidad, my sister and I were given a talk by our parents. There we stood, four and five years old, starched and ironed to the hilt.
We were told that, from primary school, we were expected to win scholarships to the leading grammar schools on the island, then to attain university entrance qualifications, and then go to England to make something of ourselves. Nothing else would do. From the age of five, all roads led to England. And all things English were stuffed into our tiny heads.
We attended Eckles Village EC School: EC stood for English Catholic. We lived in a small village surrounded by acres of sugar cane plantations. The sugar produced there was owned by Tate & Lyle, a British firm; the final product was headed for London.
From halfway up a mango tree at the back of our wooden cottage, I had a clear view of the oil refinery. My father boasted that the oil produced by our villages had supplied the energy for British warships in the Second World War. In our first lesson in arithmetic, we learnt to recite that £1 equalled $4 and 80 cents in the local currency.
We were Anglicans; my father was a deacon, and the parish priests were white and came from England. All the history and geography we were taught was about Britain. I knew more names and places in England than in the country where I lived.
A mobile library came monthly, carrying abridged versions of the works of Charles Dickens. Oliver Twist and David Copperfield became my close friends, and a week after arriving in England, I followed Copperfield's movements through London.
My entry qualifications to university were achieved with relative ease, but not without my being converted to atheism and republicanism by a white Oxford graduate. He stamped his size ten boots on the theory of a divine right to rule.
This spelt trouble for me during my first six weeks in London. I went to the Odeon in Swiss Cottage, north-west London, to see a movie. The national anthem was played at the end of the screening. I got up and walked out. A gang of Teddy boys dressed in winkle-picker shoes kicked the shit out of me. For three weeks afterwards, one friend joked that they were picking winkle-pickers out of my arse.
Race had reared its ugly head. I arrived here without feeling any sense of inferiority to white people. I respected all things British. It was all that I had known. I left Trinidad before America had completely displaced the British in all things cultural and economic. I left before independence and the cultural renaissance that went with it.
As the race issue dominated my landscape, I found I had no culture to fall back on. The Indians and Pakistanis had a distinct culture of their own which provided a cocoon of defence. But, as Caribbeans, our backs were bare, exposed to the raw and bruising experience.
I plunged into the resistance to racism with all the energy I could muster. The British state, the established authority, was unbending; it would not relent in the face of monumental injustice. Yet it was in and through these struggles that I discovered the Britishness in myself, that I am part of this land and it is part of me. No regrets!