In 1953 we lived in Tunstall Road, Brixton. A part of South London that had changed significantly with the arrival of hundreds of West Indian families. These immigrants came looking for jobs and a better way of life in the capital city of the country that had colonised their own countries many years before.
I was very close to my dad, Bill, and listened attentively when he discussed with Bess, my mum, the way things had changed in our neighbourhood. Mum had said she didn’t like the way that many of our white friends had left Brixton and been replaced by black families. She said she felt threatened by the blacks, especially the youths who gathered in groups on the street and spoke in a way that seemed hostile and foreign. Dad said that we had nothing to fear; that they were no different to us and most likely just as anxious as she was about their prospects in a new place with new neighbours. Most of all, dad wanted to remind us that less than 10 years ago, he had returned from a war that had been fought to ensure freedom from prejudice and ignorance. Pointing to me and my little sister, Lorraine, he said; ‘So they can grow up in a world where difference is the norm. Where difference is celebrated. Where the gap between black and white is the same distance, no matter which side you’re looking from.’ Although I was very young, about 8 years old, those words – that view of the world – were carved into the bark of my mind and have never been forgotten.
Before WW II, my father – that’s Bill on the left – had been a member of the Communist Party and once the war started was faced with the choice of taking up arms to defeat fascism or to conscientiously object to the war. Many of his comrades had already gone that way and were subsequently arrested when demonstrating outside munitions factories, or suchlike. (He once told me that he thought these people to be the bravest he had ever known)
After being de-mobbed, dad – appalled by Stalin’s show trials and purges, left the CP and joined the Labour Party. Our upstairs flat in Tunstall Road quickly became a meeting place for party activists and intelligentsia alike. I can remember well that Tom Driberg was a frequent visitor. A prominent MP, the charismatic Driberg was openly homosexual, a singularly rare condition in the 40s and 50s, and could open many doors into the Labour leadership. No doubt, the Government’s immigration policy was a significant item on the agenda of those meetings.
At that time, the tension between white and black was palpable and this tension was intensified by right-wing activists through their publications and frequent meetings and rallys. Oswald Moseley had reactivated the Union Party after the war and although he had left the UK in 1951, his legacy was maintained by parties such as The League of Empire Loyalists. Dad loathed these people and their divisive policies – with a passion and would attend their meetings with his friends – where they frequently had running battles with the ‘Blackshirts’ as he called them. These clashes caused my mother much anxiety as I recall.
On one particular summer evening, not long after Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, dad was late home again and mum was agitated and worried. I remember creeping out of my bedroom to sit on the stairs and I could hear Bess sobbing loudly in the living room.
Much later, I heard the front door open and close – then the familiar creak of the stairs as my dad came home at last. At the top of the stairs he saw me and saw that I saw him – his face, fists and white shirt bloodied. From the living room door my mum gasps; ‘Oh Bill!’.
Well, that night caused quite a rift between them and for a while the tension on the streets gave way to the tension in our upstairs flat. I can recall, as if it were yesterday, the relief I felt when on the roof, watching the fireworks on Guy Fawkes Night, Bill and Bess held hands and he nervously pecked her on the cheek. Two Londoners doing their best in difficult times.