When an old person dies it’s like a library burning down. The words jumped out at me at the launch of a book by one such old person, happily alive and kicking. Mother Country: In the Wake of A Dream is a novel set in Brixton in the 1950s recounting the trials and tribulations of a group of early settlers from Jamaica.
In it, author Donald Hinds manages to richly capture the flavour of those days with a host of vividly drawn characters trying to make their way in a country that wanted their labour but didn’t want them around. Despite this, they manage to fashion a life for themselves, bringing their own sunshine to the smoggy, cold skies of London. In fact, their witty banter wouldn’t be out of place in the Comedy Club.
If the book sounds authentic it’s because Donald lived through those days and walked those same south London streets. Although he denied it at the launch, he also bears a strong resemblance to one of the characters, Alonso. Like him, Donald arrived from Jamaica in the fifties – aged 21 – with dreams of becoming a writer but ended up working as a bus conductor out of Brixton garage.
In real life, a chance encounter with one of his fares led Donald to work on what is generally described as Britain’s first commercial black newspaper, the West Indian Gazette, whose editor was the redoubtable Claudia Jones. As she could not afford to pay him, Donald continued working as a bus conductor, fitting in his job as ‘city reporter’ around his shifts. It helped that the offices were also in Brixton, above a black record shop.
It was a life changing experience: “You never knew what to expect,” Donald once told me. “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 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 – “the most famous black man on the planet”, he recalled – who had come to Britain to promote his latest book Another Country.
In 1966, after an article of his was published in the Observer as part of its ‘Coloured Settlers’ series, Donald wrote Journey to an Illusion, a series of interviews with ordinary men and women that record the painful birth of multicultural Britain. It is considered the defining account of migrant life in post-war London.
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.
But when he presented the first draft of a novel to his publishers, it was rejected, not once but twice, and since then, Donald told his audience, it has gone through eight re-writings, a long gestation “like an elephant”. Mother Country really is a labour of love.
But he was determined to see the job through, he told fellow writer and host of the evening, Z Nia Reynolds. “I am getting on in years and I am really worried that the Britain that I encountered and of migration in general will just be forgotten,” he said.
“I just wanted to write a book about the main events of my early sojourn in this country so that future generations can say ‘so that is what it was like living in those days’.”
Thank goodness that Donald, an unfailingly self-deprecating man with a wry sense of humour, was not defeated by the inhospitable terrain of British publishing. On another level, thank goodness we have a glimpse of Brixton as it was, light years away from its now rapid gentrification. It was also heartwarming to witness Donald’s obvious delight at finally being able to launch the book, with the added bonus for him that it took place at Brixton’s Tate Library, which lies just around the corner from where he first got his job on the busses at the former Brixton labour exchange in Coldharbour Lane 50 odd years ago. And, he announced, he has three other novels waiting in the wings.
Fellow pioneers – for that is what they are – turned up at the event to hail him. One of them, Eric Huntley, who co-founded Bogle Ouverture publishers with his late wife Jessica, took to the floor urging people to read Mother Country. “It is such an important work of historical fiction,” he said passionately. “I’ve never been to Jamaica, but I feel I know it now.”
As Z Nia Reynolds reminded us, so many of that generation are dying off: “They say when an old person dies it’s like a library burning down,” she added. We owe it to them and ourselves to keep their memories alive. As Bob Marley once sang, they have so much things to say.
Mother Country: In the Wake of a Dream is published in paperback by Hansib, price 14.99