He stares out from the dust cover, his po-faced features teetering somewhere between self-consciousness and longing as he poses by a car that is not his own but that he would love to possess. The faded, oddly moving image sets the tone of Colin Grant’s affectionately written memoir of his father, Bageye at the Wheel.
Grant looks at his father through the eyes of his 10-year-old self who gets to accompany him on his various escapades or is sent by his long suffering mother, Blossom, to rescue his wages before they are gambled away at the all night weekend poker game with his Caribbean friends.
Tyrannical and feckless, ‘Bageye’ – so called because of the permanent bags under his eyes – is nevertheless a decent soul who ultimately stands by his family. “My mother was mostly frustrated by a man she characterised as one who ‘like tek chance’. Occasionally, our bellies were knocking on our back bones but, usually, there was plenty of pig-tail soup and dumplin’s to go round,” says Grant with a writerly flourish.
The book is also a finely observed portrait of Caribbean migrant life in 1970s Luton, specifically Farley Hill, a large estate of suburban terraces built for mainly Irish immigrants where the Grants lived along with a handful of black families.
The attraction was Vauxhall Motors, which at the time employed 30,000 people. Unfortunately, having a wife and five children to feed, Bageye couldn’t afford to buy one of their cars, not even with the generous discount offered to workers.
“Bageye worked at Vauxhall and yet had no car! I felt his humiliation keenly at this state of affairs, which has to be rectified during the course of the book, even if he ends up with a beaten-up and rusting Mini estate.”
Originally from Jamaica, Bageye shares the frustrated dreams of fellow migrants of a better life as well as the notion that they are only “passing through”. Marooned in a provincial town just 30 miles from London, he lives in a kind of parallel universe with his “spars”, bringing warmth and colour to the drab English days.
“I loved going to the poker game, especially if Bageye had hit on a winning streak, because it was like being invited onto the set of Damon Runyon’s Guys and Dolls– such was the glamour of these West Indian men who made Englishmen seem grey and joyless by comparison.”
Grant, who dropped out of medical school and now works as a producer in the BBC’s science unit, already has two books under his belt, Negro with a Hat, a meticulously researched biography of Marcus Garvey, and I&I, The Natural Mystics, about The Wailers. Both established him as a writer of note, adept at reproducing the lives of others in an absorbing and perceptive way. So what made him turn the spotlight on himself, or at least an aspect of his own life?
“The lives of Bageye and that of the post-Windrush generation have rarely been written about, apart from in the work of Andrea Levy and one or two others. I knew that for a writer there was gold in the hills of Bageye at the Wheel and that readers would find it a richly rewarding and heart-rending tale,” explains Grant, who lives in Brighton with his wife and three children.
As for Luton, where the octogenarian Bageye still lives, Grant is full of affection for it despite its reputation for dullness. Farley Hill, far from being an out-of-town sink estate crawling with EDL prototypes, was as an idyllic place to grow up in, he says. “Elegantly laid out, it was built after the war with clear social intent – in fact some of its avenues remind me of the Champs-Élysées.”
Moreover, he can recall no direct abuse or prejudice, perhaps because his family’s mainly Irish neighbours shared the feeling of being put upon by their hosts. “I’d say that all the groups in Luton mostly rubbed up alongside each other without much tension,” he adds.
“In any event, we were taught always to take things on the chin and move on. Looking back at the relative racial harmony in the 1960s and ‘70s in Luton the recent rise of the EDL there seems an enigma.”
With its stock of larger than life characters, amusing episodes and the chance to dress actors up in flares and pork pie hats, don’t be surprised if the book is turned into a film. In fact, Grant has already had inquiries from directors and producers.
“Bageye at the Wheel will make a fantastic film,” he agrees. “I wrote it in a very filmic way, and there are numerous set pieces that lend themselves to the big or small screen. I can already hear the soundtrack of ska and reggae mixed in with Slade and David Cassidy.”
Bageye at the Wheel is published by Jonathan Cape London. Colin Grant’s next book will be The Recall of Herman Harcourt, an autobiographical novel focusing on his time as a medical student at the London Hospital, Whitechapel
Published Camden New Journal, October 18 2012