Sarah O’Reilly has been recording life story interviews with writers since 2007 for NLS’s Authors’ Lives project. Here she reflects on a recording she made with the novelist Andrea Levy in 2014.
Amy and Winston Levy’s arrival in Britain
When Andrea Levy’s parents came to Britain in 1948, her father on the Empire Windrush, her mother on a banana producer’s boat, they brought with them an idea of England that had been nurtured in the colonial classrooms of Jamaica. Growing up, their textbooks had been full of English geography, English history and English literature – from its canals and road systems to its kings and queens, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Wordsworth on daffodils. What Amy and Winston found on their arrival – the rationing, poverty and greyness of postwar Britain – was not what they had expected, or imagined.
Shock was common amongst the British subjects who arrived from Jamaica in large numbers around this time. So too was disappointment, as diaries kept by Andrea’s father revealed to her years later:
For Andrea’s mother – a qualified teacher from the middle classes in Jamaica, desperate to better her prospects in Britain – the conditions in which the English lived, and their disdain for her as a recent arrival from the Caribbean, was startling:
By the time of her birth in 1956, Andrea’s parents had settled in a flat on the Twyford Estate in Highbury, London. Jamaica was never mentioned at home, reflecting her parents’ belief that ‘in order to get on in this country they should live quietly and not make a fuss. They should assimilate and be as respectable as they possibly could... [so] they never discussed Jamaica with anyone’. Some 40 years later, when she spoke to me about that time, Andrea confessed to being haunted by conversations that never took place between them: ‘I have dreams now where I sit down with my parents and we talk about the difficulty of being a black person in a white country, but at the time? No. No, no, no.’
Silence within the home conspired with amnesia outside it to make foreigners of Andrea’s parents. The ‘mother country’ did not know who they were, and did not understand the historical links that made Britain the natural destination for Amy and Winston in the post-war period. Nor did the British know how and why such links with Jamaica were forged in the first place. The result was a cultural and historical amnesia painfully expressed by the character of Gilbert in Andrea’s fourth novel, Small Island (2004):
Ask any of us West Indian RAF volunteers – ask any of us colony troops where in Britain are ships built, where is cotton woven, steel forged, cars made, jam boiled, cups shaped, lace knotted, glass blown, tin mined, whisky distilled? Ask, then sit back and learn your lesson.
Now see this. An English soldier, a Tommy called Tommy Atkins. Skin pale as soap, hair slicked with oil and shinier than his boots. See him sitting in a pub sipping a glass of warming rum and rolling a cigarette from a tin. Ask him, “Tommy, tell me nah, where is Jamaica?” And hear him reply, “Well, dunno, Africa, ain’t it?” (Chapter Twelve: Gilbert, Small Island)
Gilbert’s question – ‘How come England did not know me?’ – echoes through Small Island, and speaks to the discussions around race, belonging and history that have been pushed to the forefront of the national conversation by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Intertwined histories: Andrea Levy’s writing and influences
Uncovering and dramatizing the historical links between Britain and the Caribbean – the invisible ties that facilitated the movement of families like her own into post-war Britain, based on a colonial history going back hundreds of years – was what fuelled Andrea’s books, and the connection between two ‘small islands’, Jamaica and Britain, was her central theme. Andrea saw their long historical relationship as a profoundly British concern rather than a niche interest relevant only to those of Caribbean heritage. As Ambalavaner Sivanandan’s aphorism puts it: ‘We are here, because you were there’. Her literary project was to make people of both islands aware of their intertwined history, black and white.
Andrea began writing in her thirties, after joining an evening course at the City Lit. It took a long time to find a publisher for her work. Looking back, she joked that she ‘could’ve plastered a bloody bathroom’ with the number of rejections her agent received for her first novel Every Light in the House Burnin’:
In Every Light in the House Burnin’ (1994), Never Far from Nowhere (1996) and Fruit of the Lemon (1999), Andrea drew heavily on her experience of growing up in 1960s and 70s London when writing – after all, she’d been advised at the City Lit to ‘write what you know’. In these books she made visible the sorts of stories and characters that literature had largely ignored up to this point: young Black women born of Jamaican parents who were part of a new burgeoning demographic, Black Britons. Heroines in her early novels like Angela, Vivien and Faith were shaped by Andrea’s own experiences. She described feeling alienated by the casual racism she experienced at school and in the workplace; terrified when the National Front became active in her corner of Islington in the 1970s and 80s; lonely when attending her first political march, The Black People’s Day of Action, on her own. These experiences found their way into her fiction. In putting them down on paper she began to tell Britain a new story about itself, powered by her ‘need to express the things I’d gone through, and my family had gone through’:
It was Small Island, Andrea’s fourth novel, which propelled her to international acclaim, but – as with earlier books – she initially struggled to find a publisher for her story of two couples coming together in post-war Britain, one white, one black. The story was inspired by her parents’ experience of moving to England but it set out to explore how migration shapes both those who travel to a new country and the people they come to live amongst. It’s a story of journeys that are both geographical and cultural. Like Gilbert, some 6,000 Caribbean men volunteered to fight for Britain in the Second World War. They too, on experiencing the prejudice of characters such as Bernard Bligh, might have said:
“You wan’ know what your white skin make you, man? It make you white. That is all, man. White. No better, no worse than me – just white... Listen to me, man, we both just finish fighting a war – a bloody war – for the better world we wan’ see. And on the same side – you and me… But still, after all that we suffer together, you wan’ tell me I am worthless and you are not. Am I to be the servant and you are the master for all time?” No. (Chapter Fifty-nine: Hortense, Small Island)
Small Island, a word-of-mouth hit, went on to sell over a million copies in the UK and its success held deep personal significance for Andrea:
From then on I thought “Things are possible”. My world view changed. I had written a book about immigration into a country that I thought couldn’t give a shit about me, and my book was beginning to be the talk! And that was a journey: that story was now a national story; people wanted to know it... The country was beginning to accept what was happening to it and wanting to understand it a bit more. I don’t want to overplay it, but it was the start of something. And I lived in this place where instead of feeling worthless, unable to hold my head up, I could be myself and myself was good enough. That’s incredibly liberating... that the place you live in is willing to accept you. It’s a big one.
Later she wrote Uriah’s War (2014), a short story inspired by her grandfather’s service in the First World War (1914–1918) supplying the front line at the Somme and elsewhere as part of the British West Indies Regiment. Another conflict, another reminder of the contribution made by the people of the Caribbean to Britain. And between Small Island and Uriah’s War she published The Long Song (2010), a novel set on a sugar plantation in mid-19th-century Jamaica. She looked agonized as she recalled the moment she realized slavery would be the subject of her next book: ‘I thought oh gosh, no, I don’t want to write a book about slavery, but it’s the big one. There was no other book in my head’. By a strange coincidence, or prescience on her part, it later transpired that a relationship imagined by Andrea between her heroine, the enslaved July, and Robert Goodwin, the white overseer of the Amity plantation, mirrored a real life relationship between Andrea’s great-great grandmother Fanny Fischer and William Ridsgard, the English plantation attorney by whom she had a child. It was from this child that Andrea was descended, the very embodiment of the dark and tangled relationship between Britain and Jamaica, history made flesh.
Recording her life story
When Andrea first came to the British Library to record her life story in 2014 she was living with an untreatable cancer, a condition she chose not to share with the public until the last few months of her life when she quietly made it known, with a characteristic lack of fanfare, in the final minutes of an episode of the BBC’s Imagine: “I accept that I am going to die of it, but while I am living, I live.” Not sure how long she had left, the arrival of my letter inviting her to make a recording for Authors’ Lives seemed like ‘kismet’. ‘It was like I imagined you into being’, she told me later. ‘You wrote to me and said would you let your life flash before you? You’re dying; would you come and tell me about the life you’ve lived?’ Luckily, she ‘didn’t hesitate for a second’ – ‘Yes’:
The ability to speak freely about her life appealed to Andrea, but so too did the prospect of adding her voice to a national archive and leaving a record of her experiences for ‘a country which I feel absolutely part of, but not everybody feels that I am part of’. Her work is bound up with a larger struggle to expand our national story. Her life invites us to reflect on important questions. Does our literary culture reflect the diversity of Britain’s changing population? What aspects of Britain’s history have been left out by historians and educators? And how does our understanding, and misunderstanding, of the past affect the stories we tell ourselves about who we are in modern Britain?
All images © By kind permission of Andrea Levy. Manuscript images © Small Island 2004 by Andrea Levy. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing the work.