Donald Hinds’s long journey

hinds nowIt is considered the defining account of migrant life in post-war London, a series of interviews with ordinary men and women that record the painful birth of multicultural Britain.

Now almost 50 years after the publication of Journey to an Illusion, its author Donald Hinds has attempted to capture the moment again, this time in a novel chronicling the trials and tribulations of early settlers whose dreams about the Mother Country are blown away like cobwebs almost as soon as they set foot on English soil.

“It is not my particular story but one that I witnessed many times over,” says Donald of Mother Country: In The Wake of a Dream, which is being published by Hansib.  

“It’s all there – the nine men to a room, the conviction that they’d be home in five years’ time, the Keep Britain White graffiti,   … but how through it all particular characters manage to carve out a life for themselves.”

Donald came to Britain from Jamaica in 1955 aged 21 with vague literary ambitions, having already filled his schoolboy exercise books with poetry and stories.

But faced with the realities of life on the margins, he had to settle for work as a bus conductor.

By his own estimation he’d meet an average of 800 people a day on his double-decker, offering him the bird’s eye view of humanity that would one day provide him with such a rich seam of observation to mine from.

It was one of his fares who was to unwittingly change his life for ever.  “He was selling a paper called the West Indian Gazette and my eyes lit up,” he recalls, his eyes lighting up yet again.  “I bought one and the very next day went down to the offices in Brixton to find out if I could write for it.”

Its editor was Claudia Jones,  a woman he had never heard of but who was to have a profound influence on his life as a political mentor and writer.

“Claudia told me to come back with an article so I did a piece on migrants in Brixton  – she liked it and took me on board.”

Donald was designated the paper’s ‘city reporter’ but as it could not afford to pay him, he continued working as a clippie.

Not that it bothered him much. “It was hectic but wonderful,” he laughs.   “If I was on late shift I would work at the Gazette  in the morning and wear my bus conductor trousers to jobs. If I was on early, it would devote the afternoon and evenings to the paper.”

Regarded as Britain’s first commercial black newspaper,  the Gazette had been set up by Jones a few years after she had been deported from the US to Britain during the McCarthy witch hunts.

It began to assume more and more importance as hostility towards migrants spilled over into violence, culminating in the 1958 Notting Hill riots.

Writers and politicians, some of them future leaders like Jamaica’s Norman Manley, would regularly call in at the Gazette to have their say.  “The place was a beehive of activity rivalling the West Indies High Commission in Mayfair,’ remarks Hinds.

“During the riots, when  the Gazette sold 30,000 plus copies, it dealt with more worried black people than the government’s Migrants Service Department.”

But he relished being in the thick of it. “You never knew what to expect. One day I’d be reporting on how a Brixton butcher was  getting goat meat in for its West Indian customers, the next I’d be whisked away by cab to attend Nigeria’s independence conference along with the world’s press.”

In 1959 he travelled to Vienna to cover the Seventh World Conference for Youth and Students and a few years later he interviewed James Baldwin, “at that time one of the best known black Americans alive”.

The paper folded shortly after Jones’ death in 1964 but by this time Donald had become a ‘name’, supplying the BBC World Service’s Caribbean Programme with stories of his encounters on the buses and writing a piece for the Observer about the experiences of West Indian schoolchildren 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. “I’d been paid £100 in advance, which equalled eight weeks’ wages as a bus conductor, so I felt bold enough to hand in my resignation.”

Three of his short stories, one of them titled Once upon a bus, went on to appear  in an anthology of Caribbean writing alongside heavyweights like VS Naipaul and Sam Selvon. He also joined the team of Magnet, a newspaper set up by Guyanese novelist Jan Carew.

However, now married with three children, he never earned enough to make a comfortable living and he decided to become a teacher, ending his career as a lecturer in education at South Bank University.

He continued to write, though, and his latest project is a novel set in the rural Jamaica of his youth.

As someone who has charted the defining years of early migration, he regularly holds court at his home in Eltham for those seeking to pick his brains, most recently researchers from the British Library.

“I am always surprised that so many people are interested in what I have to say,” he tells me with genuine modesty. “All I did was live through a certain period and then write down what I saw.”

First published in Camden Review, October 10 2013

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