A chance encounter on a bus led Donald Hinds to work as reporter for Britain’s first black newspaper, launched 50 years ago
It was a usual day on the buses as Donald Hinds went about collecting fares from passengers, deflecting their curious stares with a smile, when a young black man handed him a newspaper instead of money. ‘It was a copy of the West Indian Gazette and he asked me whether I would like to buy one,’ he remembers.
‘This was about a month after it first came out so I had never heard of it. I bought one, adding that I would also like to write for it. He said fine, come along to the offices. That’s how I got my first job as a reporter.’
Hinds, then 24 and one of the first West Indians to be employed on the London buses, had always thought of himself as writer. As a schoolboy in Kingston, Jamaica, he was an avid reader and loved to write poetry. By the time he was 19, he had filled eight exercise books with the start of a novel.
But when he came to Britain in 1955 to study for a degree he found himself cut adrift in a strange and hostile land and, like many, was forced to set his sights lower to make ends meet. Now he had a chance to put pen to paper again.
The very next day, he hurried along to the cramped West Indian Gazette offices in Brixton, south London, to meet the editor, the civil rights campaigner Claudia Jones who had been deported from the US in 1955 at the height of the McCarthy witch hunts. Hinds had never heard of the woman who was to change his life forever. But he was immediately struck by her elegance and grace.
‘She got up from her desk and shook my hand, saying if I wanted to write then I should simply do so. Two days later I brought an article to her based on interviews I did with migrants along Brixton Road. She read it and said, “You can write”.’
Indeed he could. Apart from supplying the BBC World Service’s Caribbean Programme with stories of his encounters on the buses, years later he would go on to write for a national newspaper and see his first book published.
For now though he lived a strange parallel existence of working as a bus conductor and being a reporter on a paper that was run on such a shoe string budget that it could not afford to pay him:
‘If I was on the late shift I would be down there in the morning. To be on the safe side I would wear my bus conductor trousers. If I was on early, it would devote the afternoon and evenings to the Gazette.’
Designated as the paper’s “city reporter”, Hinds never knew quite what to expect. One day he was be reporting on how a local Brixton butcher was going to start selling goat meat for its West Indian customers, the next he was suddenly whisked away in a cab to attend a plush Nigerian independence conference in central London with the world’s press.
In 1959 he travelled to Vienna for the Seventh World Conference for Youth and Students and heard Paul Robeson sing Ole Man River on the banks of the Danube. Another highlight was an interview with James Baldwin, who had come to Britain to promote his latest book Another Country.
‘To interview one of the best known black people alive at the time was an awesome experience,’ Hinds recalls. ‘He was so easy to talk to and interviewed me at the same time to find out what life was like in the UK for blacks. He realised it was no easy ride.’
On one occasion, he was dismayed to find that Jones had spiked one of his articles. It was an interview with Amy Jaques Garvey, Marcus Garvey’s wife, which he considered quite a scoop. Hinds smiles as he takes up the story. ‘Claudia said, “Donald, I can’t print this. Take a look at our masthead”. I did and saw that Garvey’s first wife, Amy Ashwood Garvey, was on our editorial board. Apparently she always referred to the new wife as “that woman”!’
Sometimes his two worlds collided: ‘Once I took a fare from someone I interviewed a couple of months back. She was really astonished. “I thought you were a journalist,” she said. “I am, but I’m also a bus conductor”, I replied.’
Looking back, Hinds wonders why he never got round to interviewing Jones herself. ‘Claudia was a wonderful person and it was only after she died that I realised that I was in the presence of history.
‘If I were to call anyone my mentor it would be her,’ he declares with quiet passion.
‘Even now I hear her voice: “Donald, I asked for 300 words. This is far too long.” And then that smile, “But if I ask you to cut it, you would only make it 500. What am I going to do with you? Give it here.”’
Once in Britain, Jones, though in poor health after being imprisoned by the US authorities, had thrown herself into the anti-racist struggle and in 1958 set up the West Indian Gazette as a campaign organ. It was, says Hinds, Britain’s first commercial black newspaper.
‘It was a kind of house journal for migrants,’ he adds.
‘It debated, detailed and explained what was going on in the black community at a time when many of us felt confused and lost.’
Hostility towards black people was spilling over into violence, culminating in the 1958 Notting Hill riots. That month, the Gazette sold a record 30,000 copies, before reverting to the normal 3,000 to 4,000.
‘Black people did not automatically buy the paper. They may have been having it tough but most were convinced they’d be home in five years’ time so they felt somehow detached,’ explains Hinds.
‘Many would say, why should I buy your paper for 6 pence when the Daily Mirror is only 2 and a half pence.’
The paper was always strapped for cash. Although one of its biggest advertisers was the Grimaldi Siosa Line, whose ships carried thousands of migrants from the Caribbean to Britain, including Hinds himself, the paper relied overwhelmingly the small local businesses who wanted to attract West Indian trade. But many did not pay for their ads on time and the agents who sold the paper were slow in returning the cash.
Nevertheless, it managed to stay in business for seven years, charting the defining years of early migration, as well as touching on wider international issues that would be of interest to its readers, particularly the anti-colonial struggle in and efforts to form a West Indian Federation.
‘We also reported sympathetically on Nelson Mandela’s treason trial at Rivona in 1961,’ Hinds says. ‘I remember Claudia saying, “If this be treason then it is our struggle”.’
Some of the best Caribbean writers contributed to the Gazette, including the novelists Jan Carew and George Lamming, while leading politicians like Normal Manley from Jamaica and Guyana’s Cheddi Jagan would hotfoot it down to 250 Brixton Road, where the offices were based on top of a black record shop, and present themselves to be interviewed.
‘The place was a beehive of activity rivalling the West Indies High Commission in Mayfair,’ remarks Hinds.
‘During the riots of 1958, The Gazette dealt with more worried black people than the government’s Migrants Service Department.’
When Jones died suddenly at the age of 49 in 1964, the West Indian Gazette – now called the West Indian and Afro Asian Gazette in acknowledgement of a wider migration going on – limped along for a few months before folding. But thanks to his work on it, Hinds had met a number of English journalists and in 1964 was asked to write a piece for the Observer about the experience of young West Indians in school as part of its Coloured Settlers series.
A few days after it appeared, he received a call from a literary agent wanting to know whether he had enough material for a book. The result was Journey To An Illusion, published by Heinemann in 1966, a fascinating account of West Indian migration to Britain based on interviews with ordinary people.
It was a tremendous break and Hinds felt confident enough to give up his day job and concentrate on becoming a professional writer. Three of his short stories, one of them titled Once upon a bus, had appeared in an anthology of Caribbean writing alongside heavyweights like VS Naipaul and Sam Selvon. However, now married with children, he never earned enough to make a comfortable living and he decided to train to become a teacher, eventually becoming head of history at a London secondary school, and later a lecturer in education at South Bank University.
But the writing bug has never left him and Black Peoples of the Americas, a school textbook, and Claudia Jones: A Life in Exile, a collaboration with Marika Sherwood and Colin Prescod, are among his credits. He also has a novel awaiting publication. Suffice to say, it is about a group of early Caribbean migrants in London.
Journey To An Illusion, has been republished by Bogle L’Ouverture
‘Ten years ago when you gave a passenger his change and a ticket, besides marvelling at the fact you actually spoke English and you gave him the correct change, he would also grab hold of our hand and then shout to all the bus that your hands are warm.
Some, of course, gave your hands a vigorous rub to see whether it was dirt which made you black. All these things sound incredible, but they are all true. So many people put their hands on my hair for good luck in the first year of my working on the London buses that I was in fear of going bald prematurely.
I think that gave some people a brief chance of talking – you would be surprised at the amount of things people can talk about during a 10 penny ride. Naturally it did not cure all the ills, but it helped to erode some of the myths about coloureds for a few people. On the other side, it gave a few of us an opportunity to study the idiosyncrasies of the British.
The sudden transfer from the West Indies to Britain had unnerved me. If I had gone into a factory to work I might not have got over some of my inhibitions about the British. While working on the buses I met an average of 800 people per day. That restored my confidence.
Taken from Journey To An Illusion
Black History 365/Spring 2008/ www.black-history-month.co.uk