Continuing the series on aspects of Britishness that appeared in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics.
After the opening ceremony for the London Olympics, some British political figures said the presentation had been too political, that it had too left-wing an agenda, and reports here seem to show that some Americans agreed.
I’m left (as it were) struggling to see how a production introduced by a Greek chorus of Victorian industrialists can be seen as left-leaning. Okay, under those top hats and behind that facial hair we saw skin tones not normally seen in British boardrooms of the period, but surely no one could have thought the production was meant to be realistic—the stylized movements of industrialists and workers were a bit of a giveaway. Any way you look at it, those guys represented the economic powers behind the industrial revolution, which was hardly a socialist love fest. As right-leaning mayor of London Boris Johnson even said (though not in these words), the Eton Boating Song and the Queen of England are icons, and not ones associated with the proletariat.
Over here, BBC commentators told us the theme of the evening was revolution, from the industrial to the digital, but perhaps change would be a better characterization. Yes, votes for women was once a revolutionary idea, but surely nobody today would argue that including suffragettes reveals a left-wing agenda.
Other countries were free to cut whatever portions of the production they didn’t like, and the USA made some surprising cuts, including a nod to the social revolution British people refer to with the shorthand “the Windrush”. I sat down today thinking “Surely a good many readers of this column must have wondered why a model ship came into the arena, accompanied by a lot of well-dressed black people carrying suitcases”—but then I read that NBC cut that sequence, so today I find myself answering a question nobody asked: What’s the Windrush, and why include it?
The British vessel Empire Windrush started life as the Monte Rosa, a cruise ship built in Hamburg in the early 1930s. The Monte Rosa became part of the Nazis’ Strength Through Joy program/programme (the party rewarded deserving members with cruises), and eventually part of the German war effort. She stayed in military service but changed sides when the British captured and renamed her in 1945, adding her to a series of troopships with two-word names beginning Empire and ending with the name of a UK waterway.
(The Windrush is a minor river that joins the Thames way upstream in Oxfordshire at Newbridge, a bridge so named, rather unimaginatively, because it was the newest of three built in the area. By monks. During the reign of King John. So it must have been before 1216, though the existing stonework dates only (only!) to the 1300s. I wonder what people will call the proposed modern bridge that is being considered, which if built would give Newbridge some relief; its 600-year old stonework is beginning to show wear. They could instead consider raising funds for bridge maintenance the way people did back then: get a bridge hermit. It sounds like something out of a folktale, but apparently you built a hermitage at the foot of the bridge, installed a hermit, and got your hermit, when not doing his daily hermiting, to collect contributions from travelers.)
But when most British people today refer to the Windrush, they don’t mean the river or even the ship, but specifically the voyage it made in 1948 from Australia to England via Jamaica. Ads in Jamaican newspapers offered inexpensive berths to encourage relocation to the UK to help bulk up a labour force depleted by the war, and so the Windrush brought what’s generally taken to be the first substantial group of Caribbean immigrants. Nearly 500 people took up the offer (and at least one stowed away), mostly Jamaicans and Trinidadians, some to join the Royal Air Force, some just to get a look at Britain, some to make a new life, but most to make good and then go home again—though mostly they stayed. (As my own much less dramatic and completely historically unimportant 2- to 3-year British adventure has lasted 13 years so far, I understand how this can happen.)
These were mostly skilled people, not the ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free’ who come to mind when most Americans think about groups of immigrants. Some had places to stay, but authorities found beds for those who didn’t in the Clapham South deep shelter, one of 8 air-raid shelters dug during the war with the idea that afterwards they would be used as tunnels for London Underground (US: subway). That was prophetic for the many Windrush passengers who eventually went to work on trains or buses. (In the 1950s, the UK held recruitment drives in the Caribbean specifically to hire bus drivers. That came up on my citizenship test, actually.) As for the rest, a sizeable contingent went to work for the newly formed National Health Service.
The closest Employment Exchange (now Jobcentre Plus; US: Unemployment Office) was in Brixton, so some looked for lodgings in that part of London, which still has strong associations with what’s called here the West Indian or the Afro-Caribbean community. On the 50th anniversary of the landing of the Windrush, one of the squares in Brixton was renamed Windrush Square. Scholars, historians, and teachers use phrases such as the “Windrush Generation”, and “pre-Windrush Britain”, and there’s a move afoot to have a national Windrush Day.
Everybody here recognizes the Windrush as a symbol of modern, multicultural Britain. (It’s a shame that NBC didn’t.) The Angles and the Saxons were after all just immigrants who got here earlier (okay, about 2 millennia earlier). There were Afro-Caribbean communities in Britain by the 18th century; the Windrush passengers weren’t the first, but the Windrush stands for the larger, post-war changes in the complexion and the complexity of the British population, and the contributions of recent immigrants—some from Commonwealth countries, some from non-Anglo-Saxon peoples—to the cultural mix.
Today in British boardrooms you are liable to see some of the different skin tones we saw in the opening ceremony’s group of industrialists (and–gasp!–you might even see a woman). And if that’s a left-wing agenda, that’s okay by me.
Note: Belatedly it occurs to me that whatever your nationality, if you’ve read Andrea Levy’s award-winning novel Small Island you may know something about the Windrush already. I hope you feel you know more now, and that it’s worth knowing.
[Images from the opening ceremony itself are screen shots; I'm assuming that as it was a BBC broadcast and I'm a taxpayer, I have the right to use the image for a nonprofit purpose.]