The Dead Yard
By Ian Thomson
Paperback, 392 pages
List price: $16.99
I began my journey in south London, where James Fairweather had lived since 1947 after serving in the RAF. His Peckham house stood in a Victorian terrace which had been occupied once by horse omnibus inspectors and bank clerks; now, increasingly, by refugees from Africa. On greeting me, Fairweather led the way down a dimly lit corridor to the kitchen. Above the fridge hung an oilskin map of pre-independence Jamaica and, next to it, an out-of-date Page Three girl calendar. In his pinstriped waistcoat, Fairweather was prepared for the interview.
Another man was seated at the table, drinking white rum ('the whites', he called it). He introduced himself as George Walters, a building contractor. Walters had left Jamaica in 1966. Like Fairweather, he was natty, dressed in a pork-pie hat and a tie with a Top Cat motif. 'So when are you off to Jamaica?' Walters asked me, interested. 'Next week,' I said. He winced slightly. 'Mind how you go out there,' he said.
Fairweather's Jamaican childhood, as he described it to me, seemed very remote, a golden age when Jamaica had been an outpost of Britain's sovereignty. He loved Britain, he said, and the British royal cult with its fripperies and rituals (increasingly meaning less to young Jamaicans). On display in the kitchen were a Union Jack sweet tin and a 1952 coronation mug, as well as souvenir shire horses. Fairweather's wartime service was prompted by the anti-Nazi film In Which We Serve starring Noel Coward. The film inspired him to join the RAF. 'We all thought Hitler would bring back slavery and repatriate us to Africa if he won the war.' In 1943, after training in the United States as a wireless operator, Fair weather was transferred to Scotland, where his white superiors showed him a soldierly respect. 'There was no place for prejudice back then,' he explained. 'A war was on, and it was to be fought by black and white alike.' Some 8,000 Jamaicans served in the RAF during the 1939-45 conflict.
While on leave in wartime London, Fairweather joined white servicemen at the Hammersmith Palais, and in the smoky night clubs off Jermyn Street. He was filled with patriotic zeal and felt a pride in being a citizen of the Empire. In 1947 he returned to Jamaica for ten months. The island was recovering from the hurricane of 1944 and many Jamaicans were tempted to book a one-way passage to Britain in search of a better life. Fairweather, who was now an important source of knowledge about jobs and money in the so-called mother country, encouraged them to go. Britain, he told his Jamaican friends, 'was the best place for a black man to be'.
George Walters, who had been listening to the conversation, turned to me. 'But hear me now on this, my friend. England was a bad disappointment for me at first.' He could not believe that London could look so old and dead and poor — so plain different from the way it was depicted in the posters back home. In the grey, inner-city streets lined with scruffy, bay-fronted houses he desperately looked for somewhere to live. His biggest surprise was not the glum clothes or the shut-in, unsmiling faces of the landladies, but the cockney they spoke. 'After the high-class English they taught me in Jamaica, cockney sounded low class,' said Walters, 'it sounded bad and coarse.' Saying this, he sighed heavily.
Understandably, Walters had expected British people to be exactly like the white missionaries and colonials he had known in Jamaica. So the spectacle of white people doing menial work shocked him. 'Road-sweeps? I nearly died.' It was a quite astonishing reversal of roles: Caucasian hands doing a black man's work. Other shocks were in store for him. Englishwomen wore their hair in rollers in public; dogs came to sniff the packets of bread left by the milkman on the doorstep. What kind of life could spring from such squalor?
Inevitably as a West Indian 'room-seeker' Walters experienced a degree of racism. He was surprised to find himself categorised as 'coloured'. ('Room to Let: Regret No Kolored' ran the typical advert.) In Jamaica the term 'coloured' applied to people of mixed race; in England it was one of the basic words of boarding-house culture and of polite vocabulary in general. Usually, there was no violence: the aggressors, once stood up to, turned on their heels. Walters was prepared to fight back, though. 'First try rebuke by tongue,' he told me, 'then fists.'
Fairweather, like Walters, had family responsibilities in Jamaica, and routinely sent remittances. Would I take out a sum of money to his older brother Roy? Roy was a farmer who lived twelve miles outside Kingston in Spanish Town, the capital of Jamaica when Spain ruled the island. 'He talks a bit raw-chaw — rough, you know — but he's arright.' I agreed and later, with the money in my pocket, I caught the bus back home from Peckham.
Excerpted from The Dead Yard: A Story of Modern Jamaica by Ian Thomson. Copyright 2011 by Ian Thomson. Reprinted with the permission of Nation Books.