This is a picture of my Father (on the left) and his brother Cyril taken before they left St. Kitts West Indies for England and France respectively. Cyril died on the 18th of August 2014 and my Father died on the 17th of March 2015 at the age of 83. Cyril settled in Paris and created the very successful West Indies Steel Band as well as various Caribbean themed touring shows enlisting his three children Alain, Anna and Annick as dancers. My Father came to England and once he had found accommodation and work as an engineer in Leicester, sent money to my Mother so that she could leave the West Indies and join him in what they thought of as the Mother Country. My parents lived in a small bedsit in Highfields in Leicester, that was owned by a man called Lawrence who had also come from the West Indies. My Father had suffered the humiliation of being denied accommodation because he was black and so it must have been a relief to be introduced to a more humane landlord. My birth and that of my two sisters meant that larger accommodation was needed and so my parents applied to the council for housing, eventually they were offered a house in a sprawling housing estate called Braunstone known for being the “roughest” in Leicester. Things were initially difficult for us and the handful of other black families on the estate as the tight knit community woke to the sound of “coloured” people playing John Holt records on their radiograms and hammering as they put up pictures of The Queen. We had a few windows smashed and were called some nasty names but our immediate neighbours, the McNeil’s, Hughes’, Dalby’s and Felstead’s were very kind and supportive.
My Father worked at tool manufacturers Jones & Shipman and was known for being a hard working, quiet and focused man for whom hello and goodbye were quite enough chit chat thank you very much. He was definitely not dancing on the tables at the staff Christmas party. On Saturday mornings he would have Johnny Cakes for breakfast before assigning jobs to my sisters and I and then settle down to watch World of Sport and his beloved wrestling, anxiously waiting for the unmasking of Kendo Nagasaki. On Sunday afternoons he would drink at the Braunstone Victoria Working Men’s Club before coming home and watching a cowboy film, preferably one with Glenn Ford or Audie Murphy in the leading role. My job was to find the correct channel and then go off to bed for the compulsory Sunday afternoon sleep so as not to disturb a man and his cowboys. Sunday night was music night when the radiogram would be fired up and he would put on albums by the likes of Perry Como and Jim Reeves and woe betide any pickney who made a sound during these moments.
As I grew older I was aware that my friends were doing things with their Fathers that I never did such as build bikes, go to football matches and general Father and son activities. When I asked him to watch me play football for my school he’d tell me to ask my Mother or ask me why I wanted him to watch me. The good old fashioned sleepover was viewed as an English tradition with sinister undertones and he would never allow it, leaving me feeling like the odd one out among my friends. In the summer our neighbour’s grandson Grahame would take me to the Cameo cinema, meals at Wimpy and best of all, visits to Highbury in London to watch Arsenal. How great it would have been if my Father was with me on the North Bank witnessing a Liam Brady wondergoal and then buying me a hot-dog to celebrate. At junior school I achieved a Five Star Award for Athletics and was so upset when my Father wouldn’t even look at it. It has to be said that when my Father was in the right mood he could be very funny and would tell entertaining stories about his early life in the West Indies which lightened the mood in the house enormously. These moments were all too rare and for most of the time he was a distant man whose main role seemed to be keeping his “rude” children in line.
When I was twelve my parents divorced and my Father moved into a house five miles away which I thought would give us the chance to establish a closer relationship, or at least I could get to know him better. Sadly for me he was consumed by bitterness about the divorce and the collapse of his new life in England and there was very little opportunity for progress. Over the next several years he suggested that he had done everything he was supposed to do; leaving the West Indies, finding work, marrying and having children. When I asked if him if he felt that he had done enough with his children he’d always answer by saying that he worked hard and gave my Mother enough money to care for us. Try as I might, I could never get him to understand how it felt to be his only son and yet he did so little with me. The next 15 years consisted of times when we had a good and fruitful relationship and times when things completely broke down and we kept well apart. I now know that part of me resented him for his apparent apathy towards me when I was a child, and now expected him to work damned hard to make up for it.
In the 90’s My Father was made redundant and eventually returned to Braunstone where he lived in a bungalow a mile from his former home. His neighbour there was the very helpful sister of an old school friend of mine called Tracy. During this time he became more withdrawn and difficult to communicate with. I would visit him when I could and support him but always felt that he was happier on his own. He later suffered a minor stroke and seemed convinced that he was going to die. The whole family gathered around him and we all noticed that he seemed much more positive, spirited and genuinely interested in his children. For the first time he was asking questions about our lives and cared for the answers, at last he was telling us about himself with an openness that illuminated hitherto dark corners. Our collective relief turned to dismay when having been given the all clear by the hospital and sent home he quickly returned to his old self and down came the shutters.
In later years I understood that my Father did what his culture, background, character and circumstances dictated. According to my Mother, my Father’s childhood was not a happy one and there were many challenges and I don’t suppose the hug count was very high in 1940’s St. Kitts. Caribbean conservatism would have dictated very defined roles for the sexes and a man was not supposed to let feelings and emotions get the better of him. My Father would have expected to be the breadwinner and the enforcer of the rules whilst my Mother did all the softer, nurturing work. I also realised that the physical, emotional and spiritual effort required to leave the Caribbean and start a life in England must have been immense and may have helped to create the dutiful and stoical man that was my Father. I can only guess at the effect that divorce and redundancy had on him. The distant Father is of course not exclusive to Caribbean culture and some of my white friends had less than cuddly Fathers and would have a story similar to my own but I suppose that the children of immigrants have a potential extra estrangement to deal with.
If my Father is reading this from “upstairs” he might say that as I’ve led a good life, pay my taxes and have never seen the inside of a prison, he must have done a good job. He’d also point out that he paid for my first car, a 1974 Triumph Toledo registration number PAY 927M and that real men don’t hug or say I love to you. He might also add that he didn’t watch me play football because I was rubbish and he would have been too embarrassed to admit that he was connected to me.
Well it’s possible isn’t it?