Manchester Happened by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Facebook group reading challenge)


This is a collection of short stories by a Ugandan author living in Manchester, about the experiences of Ugandan immigrants in and around our city.  If you know the area, you’ll recognise all the street names 🙂  :when the author first moved here, she lived near Platt Fields Park.  I’m not normally keen on short story collections, but this one works really well because it makes the point that everyone’s experience is different.  The author herself is from a middle-class family who suffered at the hands of Idi Amin, and some of the stories are about upper-middle-class Ugandans who grew up in big houses with servants, and were sent to Britain by parents who felt that there were few opportunities in Uganda and that a degree from a British university would set them up for life, but fully expected them to come back after a while … which most of them didn’t.  That’s probably not most people’s typical image of immigration from East Africa to Britain, but the book is making the point that there can’t really *be* a typical image.

The stories in the second half of the book are mostly about Ugandan people who’ve settled in the Manchester area going back to Uganda, either permanently or to visit – and finding it difficult, especially if accompanied by a partner and children who’d never been there before.  Once you move away, to a different society, can you go back?   This isn’t something which is often discussed.  There used to be the idea of, say, moving from southern Italy to America to make your fortune and then moving back, but migration to Britain has historically been permanent, unless it was for a particular job or course of study.  It’s interesting reading.

It’s a lovely book.  The style of writing’s very informal, which isn’t really for me, but that’s an observation, not a criticism.  There’s no agenda, very little politics, and plenty of humour.  It’s just telling the story of the different experiences of different people.  It’s very positive: the characters’ main quibble about Manchester, and Britain in general, is the weather!   And, whilst it’s specifically about Ugandans in Manchester, so much of it applies to any group of immigrants moving from any one place to any other place – getting used to a new home and a new way of life, and trying to find your place in amongst two different cultures.  And that place is going to be different for each individual person.

Within most waves (for lack of a better word) of immigration, there are people from different countries.  That does seem to be being forgotten.  How often do you hear anyone talk about “the Ugandan community in Manchester” or “the Ugandan community in Britain” (unless they’re talking about Ugandan Asians, which this book isn’t doing), rather than “the black community” or “the Afro-Caribbean community”?  There are people from different regions and cultures within those countries, and, within those sub-divisions, from different socio-economic classes.

If we’re looking at immigration into Manchester in the 19th century, are we going to take the story of a person leaving rural Ireland because of the potato famine, a middle-class German professional coming here for work reasons, a working-class Bessarabian Jewish person fleeing a shtetl because of the pogroms, a middle-class Austrian Jewish person leaving a Viennese suburb because of concerns about prejudice and an Italian person moving away from the Mezziogiorno because of poverty, and talk about  “the white immigrant experience” or even just “the immigrant experience”?  No.  And we shouldn’t be doing it with immigration in the second half of the 20th century or in the 21st century either, and that’s what she’s saying.  In one of the stories in this book, a white British woman is concerned about how her Ugandan husband’s family will receive her when she goes to Uganda for the first time, and is told that, yes, she’ll be seen as an outsider, but no more so than if she were black British or Nigerian.  The cultures are completely different.

There are people who want to move permanently and people who intend to return.  There are people who move to a new country as children, people who move as young adults, and people who move as older adults: I’ve known families where siblings have had completely different experiences because the younger ones have gone to school in the new country but the older ones haven’t.   And there are people who want to assimilate into the culture of the new country, and people who want to continue to live by the culture of the old country – there’s a story about the Manchester born and bred son of a Ugandan man and a British woman choosing to go to Uganda for an adult circumcision ceremony – and prefer to socialise only with people with the same heritage, and want their children to do the same.  People even within one nuclear family can feel completely differently.

There may also be many different waves of immigration within a community.  In this book, we’ve got, amongst others, a war veteran who moved here in the early 1950s, an upper-middle-class girl who moved here in the 1980s, and a family who came here as illegal immigrants in the 2010s.  There’s also one story told from the viewpoint of a dog, which I could have done without, but never mind!

There’s a lot of general human interest, as well – like the story about the woman who found out that her husband had another wife back in Uganda.  And, whilst it’s specifically about Ugandan people, a lot of it’s about the general issues of settling into life somewhere completely different.  It took the man who came here in the early 1950s a while to realise that you could tell a lot about someone’s background from their clothes and from their accent.  So much of it would apply to any minority group, such as being in a crowd of people and looking around for someone whom you can tell or sense is from the same cultural group as you are.

And the positivity’s great.  One of the big problems we’ve got at the moment is people who seem to think that the way to prove how “woke” they are is to abuse Britain or America or France or any other Western country.  Those sort of keyboard warriors really won’t like this book, because it doesn’t do that!   That then puts other people’s backs up, and just creates more problems.  Another problem is people who expect everyone from a particular ethnicity or culture to act in a particular way, and abuse them when they don’t, as we’ve seen with the Guardian‘s racist attacks on Priti Patel.  As this book shows, everyone’s different, and everyone has their own way.

But most people want to belong, and that can be very challenging when you’ve moved to a new country.  Which way do you go?  Integrate and assimilate?  “Stick to your own kind,” to quote West Side Story.  And, if you’ve only moved temporarily, how easy will it be to fit in when you go back?  The answers are going to be different for everyone: you can’t generalise.  Books like this, where the focus is narrow, where it’s about people from one country moving to one city, are a very effective way of reminding us of that.

There used to be a lot of immigration novels.  OK, most of them were about people moving to New York, but there were also plenty about people moving to British cities. They seem to be increasingly rare these days, though.  That’s a shame.  This is a great book.  It’d be good to see more like it.

The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files – BBC 2


Early on in this programme, we were shown that Clement Attlee’s government preferred to fill the post-war labour shortage with white men who’d fought for the Nazis rather than black men who’d served in the British forces.  That set the tone for the rest of it.  Britain, unlike some other countries, has never had immigration laws officially based on ethnicity, but this programme showed how successive governments, of both main parties, tried to find ways of making it difficult for non-white people to settle here. We *are* talking governments here: business, and organisations like the NHS, did actively recruit staff from the West Indies. Nothing that the Establishment’s done really surprises me any more – we know that it’s covered up child sex abuse, the infected blood scandal, what really happened at Hillsborough, and who knows what else – but you can be shocked and appalled without being surprised, and there was some very unpleasant stuff in this programme.  I’m not sure that the argument about there being a direct line from the attitudes of the post-war era to the recent (and indeed ongoing) Windrush scandal entirely worked.  And I’ve also got a quibble about the programme not showing that discrimination in immigration and naturalisation systems is nothing new: it goes back to 1905, and arguably even to 1708.  But David Olusoga made some very interesting, important and distressing points, and showed us the paperwork, in black and white, that went with them.

Just a quick historical note, seeing as I said I had a quibble. In 1708, legislation was introduced allowing for the naturalisation of foreign-born Protestants, mostly Huguenots, living in Britain. It only lasted a few years, before the previous system of having to apply for an individual Act of Parliament in order to be naturalised was re-introduced, because people got hysterical at the thought of an influx of foreigners pouring into the country, but the point is that it was only for Protestants. To be fair, at that time Britain was at war with France, the Jacobites were hoping to regain the throne, and it was genuinely feared that foreign-born Catholics posed a threat to national security, but it wasn’t until the 1820s that anyone could be naturalised without taking the sacrament in a Protestant service. Apart from between 1753 and 1754, when foreign-born Jews, who unlike Catholics were accepted as being loyal to the British Crown, were also allowed to be naturalised – but that initially only lasted a year, because people got hysterical at the thought of non-Christians becoming British citizens.

Fast forward to the Aliens Act of 1905. The religious requirement in relation to naturalisation was long gone, but, in the midst of the second wave of pogroms in the Russian Empire, large numbers of Eastern European Jews were arriving in Britain. There’d also been an increase in the number of people arriving in Britain from China. No-one had moaned about (mainly Protestant) German immigration to Britain in the 19th century, but, as soon as you had large numbers of people who were mainly working-class, weren’t Christians and, in the case of the Chinese immigrants, weren’t white, in came the immigration restrictions.  The “wrong type of immigration” idea did not begin when SS Windrush arrived at Tilbury docks.  It goes back long before that.

Unlike what happened in some other countries, though, immigration and naturalisation laws in the UK have never been legally, officially, based on race (nor, since the 1820s, on religion, for the record). In the US, for example, Asian immigrants, mainly Chinese people working in California, were specifically denied the right to become US citizens until the 1940s, and, in 1921, immigration quotas were brought in, based on the numbers of people from each country living in the US in 1910 – i.e. making it a lot easier to enter the US from northern and western Europe than from southern and eastern Europe. I’m not having a go at the US, or at any other country, just making a point.

The difference in Britain – and a lot of this was due to the idea of promoting a sense of Empire/Commonwealth unity, not just the acceptance that legal discrimination on grounds of race (and we’re talking race by this time, because we’re mainly talking about the immigration of black and Asian people) was morally wrong – was that governments felt unable to bring in immigration laws which were openly racially-based. But, as David Olusoga showed, successive governments didn’t want non-white people coming into the country, and tried to find ways to keep them out, one way or another.

The programme did get a bit emotive in parts. There were lots of pictures of cute little kids, and interviews with people talking about the distress of families being separated. And it was strongly suggested that some of the Ukrainian soldiers who fought for the Nazis during the war and then settled in Britain, preferred by the government to Caribbean men who’d fought in our own armed forces, had been involved in war crimes – this is a very controversial subject, but the official verdict is still that they hadn’t. But it was generally factual. The cameras focused in on the documents, on the government and civil service paperwork, there in black and white, actual physical proof of what went on, so that we could see it with our own eyes. And it made for very unpleasant reading.

In 1948, as a result of changes to citizenship laws in other Commonwealth countries, the British Nationality Act was passed, confirming the fact that people born in British colonies were British subjects. That didn’t actually change anything, in that people from colonies and Commonwealth countries had already had the right to enter and remain in the UK without any restrictions.  But it did confirm it.

Also in 1948, the famous SS Windrush brought 802 people, many of them ex-servicemen, from the West Indies to Britain – the first of the “Windrush generation”. This was at a time when the country was facing a significant labour shortage due to the huge task of rebuilding after the war. The newly-created NHS, the railways, the Post Office and public transport all actively recruited staff from the West Indies during the late 1940s and the early 1950s, but the Windrush had barely docked before a group of Labour MPs approached Clement Attlee with their concerns about excessive immigration and a “flotilla” of ships bringing people from the Caribbean to the UK. (Some people have been keen to cast one major party or the other as the party associated with racism, but, over the years, both parties have been involved in racially-motived immigration policies. This is not a party political issue, and no-one should be trying to make it one.  Both main parties have been at fault.)

Meanwhile, the government introduced a programme to fill gaps in the labour market with Displaced Persons from various parts of Europe. And, yes, these did include some German POWs, and some people who’d served with the Ukrainian division of the SS. Most of them, to be fair, didn’t have any connections with the Nazis, and I think there was also some idea of “saving” them from communism (which the programme didn’t mention), but it’s certainly true that they didn’t have any historical, cultural or linguistic ties with Britain either, and yet the government wanted them to fill the gaps in the labour market in preference to black people who were British subjects and, in many cases, had fought for Britain during the war.

In 1950,a Cabinet committee was set up specifically to try to find ways to restrict “coloured” immigration into the UK. In 1953, hitting on the idea of trying to paint black people as scroungers, the government instructed labour exchanges to keep records of people claiming benefits, showing how many of those people fell into each of various racial categories. The programme actually showed examples of the forms used.

However, no immigration controls were actually introduced at this stage, and many people arrived in Britain from the Caribbean and other parts of the Empire/Commonwealth during the 1950s: at this stage, no steps were taken to change this. But, as the 1950s went on, racial tensions developed, and there was some serious unrest in 1958. As talk grew that immigration restrictions were going to be introduced, levels of immigration increased.

Then, in 1962, the system was changed.  The Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962 brought in a system based on employment prospects, with people to be divided into three categories –  skilled workers, and anybody with a guaranteed job, to be encouraged, and unskilled workers with no guaranteed job, numbers to be severely restricted.  On the face of it, it sounds quite reasonable. However, the programme showed us papers which clearly stated that the government believed that the restrictions would “operate on coloured people almost exclusively”, and that this was being done specifically to restrict numbers of “coloured” immigrants, without doing so “ostensibly”.

Then, in 1968, the system was changed again, restricting the automatic right of settlement in the UK to people who’d either been born in the UK or had at least one parent or grandparent brought here.  And, in 1971, the automatic right of Commonwealth citizens already in the UK to remain here was removed – although they would still be allowed to remain in UK if they had lived and worked here for five years.

The 1968 Act, passed shortly after Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, wasn’t aimed at black people, but was rather intended to stop large numbers of Kenyan Asians coming into Britain after the Kenyan government brought in laws against them. David Olusoga did rather rush over this one, which I must say I wasn’t very impressed with. He didn’t interview any Kenyan Asian people, and he didn’t even mention the situation with Ugandan Asians seeking to come to Britain in 1972. Nor – typical BBC – did he explain that the 1971 Act was brought in as part of preparations for Britain to join the Common Market.

And the programme did lose its coherence at this point. It was explained that the 1971 Act granted Commonwealth citizens already living in the UK “deemed leave” to remain here, but that the burden of proof, if their right to be in the UK was challenged, was on the individual to prove that they did have the right to be here, not on the authorities to prove that they didn’t.

But then we were shown clips of Tony Blair and David Cameron saying that legal immigrants were welcome in the UK but illegal immigrants weren’t. That wasn’t about racism, or racially-motivated immigration controls, and it certainly wasn’t aimed at the Windrush generation.  Different times, different immigration-related issues.  For everything that went on in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, no-one was talking about deportations. And, with regards to the 1971 Act, the people who wrote it couldn’t possibly have foreseen the issues surrounding immigration, worldwide, that would exist by the 2010s. Equally, the people who wrote the legislation in the 2010s never meant for it to affect people who’d come here legally and been here for over half a century.  To be fair, David Olusoga did say that the “hostile environment” legislation of the 2010s wasn’t aimed at the Windrush generation, but … well I think that part of the programme could have been put together a bit better.  And why was there no reference to the destruction of the landing cards?  That’s been a big part of all this.  It wasn’t even mentioned.

Anyway.  I was reading in the Manchester Evening News only this week that there are still people, who’ve been here for decades, living in fear of deportation.  No, the legislation wasn’t aimed at the Windrush generation … well, the very kindest interpretation of the Windrush scandal is that it’s been about people being more concerned about ticking boxes than about other human beings’ lives.  A probably more realistic interpretation is that it’s been about heartless government departments so desperate to meet their net migration targets that they didn’t care if they ruined the lives of decent, innocent people, who were easy targets because they weren’t keeping under the radar because they had no reason to do so.  People who’ve lived and worked in the UK, quite legally, for decades,  have lost their jobs, been refused medical treatment, and even been dragged off to detention centres, because they haven’t got paperwork to show what they were doing in the 1960s.  Over 80 people have actually been deported, wrongly.  It’s one of the most shameful episodes in recent British history.

And the attitudes of successive governments from 1948 to 1971, wanting to restrict immigration not because of pressure on housing or public services but in order to “Keep Britain White”, a slogan in widespread use in the 1950s, is equally shameful – maybe even more so, because it was deliberate.  Some very nasty things go on in the corridors of power.  This programme showed us some of them.  It did not make for pleasant or comfortable watching.



A Passage to Britain – BBC 2


It’s been a while since we’ve had a documentary series about historical immigration to the UK and, with the upsurge in interest in genealogy making personalised history very appealing at the moment, the idea of tracing the lives of passengers on ships travelling from India to Britain in three different decades sounded fascinating. It would have been a lot better had it concentrated more on telling their stories and less on trying to score socio-political points; but it certainly had its moments and was well worth watching.

The first episode used the passenger lists from the voyages of the P&O ship Viceroy of India, a rather luxurious liner, in 1933 and 1935.  Immigration from India to the UK is generally associated with the post Second World War era, so this sounded like it might throw up some particularly interesting stories.  At least, Yasmin Khan, the presenter, said that she was looking for stories about Indian (which at the time would obviously have included people from the areas which are now Pakistan and Bangladesh) people settling in the UK; but only three of the six people whose stories were explored actually fitted that category, so I’m not quite sure why she said it.

Maybe she said it because, at the beginning of the programme, it was a convenient way of dismissing the many schoolchildren and university students who were amongst the passengers. Students at schools, universities and other further education institutions made up a third of the Indian population of the UK in the 1930s, and – as an avid reader of school stories! – I’d like to have heard about the experiences of some of them.  Especially the girls, given that four of the five passengers we did hear about were male.

But they were ignored on the grounds that most of them went home afterwards –which would have been fair enough had the programme actually been all about Indian people staying in the UK. Maybe I’m being unduly cynical, but it was hard not to feel that they didn’t get a look-in because most of them would have been from the royal families of the princely Indian states, which weren’t under British rule, and that the BBC didn’t think that the avocado-eaters of Islington, or whoever it is that they try to appeal to these days, wanted to hear about them.  On a posh ship like that, you’d think there’d also have been plenty of adults from princely families, heading off to enjoy a whirl of glamorous social engagements in London and maybe then the French Riviera, and (I read Hello! magazine as well as school stories) I’d rather have like to have heard about them too … but nary a mention did they get.

Oh well!   The one student we did hear about had a very interesting story, as it happened.  The idea of the programme was to trace the passengers’ surviving relatives and follow the stories with them, and the son of this man was under the impression that his dad had come to London to take the Indian Civil Service exams, failed them, and not returned to India because of the shame.  Instead, it turned out that he’d become involved with the independence movement and that his parents had sent him away because they thought they were keeping him out of trouble.  He was so angry that he never spoke to them again.  You wonder why he never told his family about this, but evidently he didn’t.

The BBC tried to make out that this was all about the evils of empire, but I don’t think that that was entirely the right angle to come at. Clearly it was about the Indian independence movement, but it was also part of a wider pattern – a story, and you can find so many similar stories in the history of pretty much every country in the world, about the people who are involved in trying to overthrow a foreign and or tyrannical regime, or to work for change within that regime; and the people, generally the older generations, who either don’t want change or are frightened of the possible consequences of working against the powers that be.  What an intriguing story – and what a shame that this man’s relatives had thought all these years that the reason he’d stayed in Britain was because he was ashamed of failing some exams.  I hope they were really pleased to learn the real story.

Next up was Mulk Raj Anand, the writer. Of course, the BBC had to make out that the focus of his writings was, you guessed it, the evils of empire, whereas he also wrote a lot of important works about the sufferings of the Untouchables under the Indian caste system.  They also ignored his journalistic work during the Spanish Civil War.  Now there is a subject that deserves a documentary series – the role of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War!   He was someone who was in favour of change in many ways and many places – yes, Indian independence, but a lot more than that.  We heard a bit about his unsuccessful marriage to a British woman, and there was a nice personal touch with his niece talking about his recipes for curry!

The third person discussed was the only woman of the five – an ayah to a British family. They didn’t seem to have been able to find any of her relatives, but the baby of the family for whom she’d worked was still alive.  He’d been on the ship as well, possibly the only passenger from either of those voyages still alive.  The poor ayah had had to travel third class, whilst the family had been in the posh part.  There wasn’t much information about her, though: the family had paid for her to return to India once the children were older, and the BBC tried to make out that she’d been hard done by, but surely, unless she’d worked for someone like the Earl of Grantham, a nanny would have expected her employment to be terminated once the children were all at school?   It was pretty horrible that they’d refused to pay for her to have a decent cabin on the ship, but, sadly, par for the course, whether the servants were Indian or British.

The family themselves were very interesting. I got the impression that the BBC had hoped they’d be some very snooty types, the way people usually envisage the British in India – think all those people at the club in A Passage to India – and very definitely coming from British India, but it transpired that the dad was a jockey who’d been working for a maharajah.  So we got to hear a bit about the glamorous lives of princely families after all, hooray!  (Sorry, too much Hello! magazine!)  The surviving passenger had some lovely stories to tell about the relationship between his family and his father’s employers, and the good times they’d had there.

None of this really had much to do with the establishment of Indian communities in Britain, though. No problem with that – it was all very interesting – but why make out that that was what the programme was about, when it wasn’t?!   And the next passenger certainly wasn’t Indian: he was the gloriously named Sir Lancelot Graham, the first governor of Sind.  And his grandson lives in Altrincham!  The BBC seemed keen to push the snooty angle, going on about how Sir Lancelot had been to a public school and then to Oxford, but his grandson made a point about how hard the exams were and how hard his grandfather had had to work to pass them.

I think a lot of us are guilty of thinking of the imperial service in general, not just in India, as some sort of old boys’ club where getting a top job wasn’t so much what you knew as who you knew, but it’s probably not very fair to think like that, certainly by the 1930s. Er, yes, and the last viceroy was the king’s second cousin and the uncle of the future queen’s intended!   OK, OK!

It moved into Children of the Raj territory then, with the Altrincham-dwelling grandson explaining that his father hadn’t been on the ship because he had at that time been at boarding school in Britain, and talking about the difficulties faced by families because of the system of sending children to school in Britain whilst their parents remained in India.  That possibly wasn’t what the BBC had been after, but it was a fair point.  It can be hard now to sympathise with adults who made that choice, although it’s very easy to sympathise with the children, who weren’t given any choice; but times were different then, and the separation can’t have been easy for anyone.

Finally, we did actually get back to what was supposed to be the point, Indian immigration to Britain – with the life of a man, a lawyer, who’d come from India and settled, not in an urban area of the UK, as might have been expected, but in a rural area of Essex, and had married a white British woman. We were told that there were around three thousand marriages between Indian men and white British women in the 1930s, probably more than might have been expected.  At a time when levels of racial tolerance left a lot to be desired, and when religious intermarriage even between Protestants and Catholics was frowned on, this marriage hadn’t gone down very well with either family.  Even now, there are so many cases of families being unwilling to accept someone’s choice of partner: we’ve come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go.

It was also sad to hear, from one of the couple’s descendants, about the abuse that the children had suffered at school, from the teachers as well as the other kids. In that area, at that time, the man who’d travelled on the ship was the only Asian person, and that must have been very difficult.  The idea was mooted last year about every council in the country being asked to take a small number of Syrian immigrants, rather than large groups of people settling in a small number of areas, and you can see where the authorities were coming from from a financial and practical viewpoint, but that sort of thing just doesn’t work.  It must have been so hard to have been the only Indian person, the only non-white person, in a community that doesn’t seem to have been overly welcoming.

Also, the family’s surname had been changed, to something that sounded English. That, in my experience, is very unusual for a family with Indian sub-continental heritage: it happens more with surnames associated with other parts of Europe. I doubt we’ll be seeing that again in the later episodes.

All in all, quite a mixed bag of stories. I’m not sure what the programme was actually hoping to show – the BBC always seems to have to have an agenda with everything these days, and it’s rather annoying –  and I’m not sure that it showed what it hoped to, but it was certainly interesting.  I suppose they don’t want to overlap too much with Who Do You Think You Are?, but I wonder if this could be done with other groups of immigrants to the UK as well – maybe go back to the 1680s (possibly not with ships’ passenger lists, but there’ll be some records available), when there were Huguenots moving to the British Isles (I can’t really say “Britain” pre-1707!) from France, and both Protestants and Jews from the United Provinces (the Netherlands), and work forward from there?

As I said, it’s been a while since we’ve had a documentary series about immigration to the UK – and I’m talking history, not current affairs and certainly not politics.   And this personalised history does seem to be very popular at the moment.   Great idea for a documentary series.