William Matthews Lecture 2020: ‘One grim evening’: The Colonial Migrant in Britain

Caryl Phillips, acclaimed novelist and playwright delivered, this year’s William Matthews lecture, offering a moving and sobering view of the experience of the colonial migrant in Britain.

Jamaican Immigrants to Britain in 1948

22 Jun 1948, Tilbury, Essex, England, UK — Original caption: Emigration In Reverse – The Men From Jamaica Arrive At Tilbury. The ex troopship. Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Caryl Phillips begins by reflecting on the jubilation of the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, and the moment when in the telling of British history a representation of the HMT Empire Windrush emerges marking the era of mass settlement of British colonial subjects from the West Indies. A moment when it could be assumed that the Windrush generation was accepted as part of the narrative of British history, a moment Phillips says was eclipsed by the ‘antics’ of the British government who later, in 2018, would strip them of their jobs and homes, and even try to deport them on the basis that they were never really British citizens, despite having built lives in Britain at the invitation of the British government.

Phillips speaks of his own childhood, having arrived in Leeds aged four months, a second-generation child of colonial migrants from St Kitts, who as he grew up felt ‘no great love’ for Britain. He witnessed the ways in which it rejected the colonial migrants who came with the hope and promise of being welcomed into what they considered the ‘Motherland’ – this love for the country had always puzzled him.

Caryl Phillips

Caryl Phillips

He says for the colonial migrant, “they are not leaving home, rather they are leaving to go home”. A sentiment that was echoed by the 1948 British Nationality Act which granted members of British colonies citizenship in Britain.

Phillips tells us the story of the colonial migrant through the lens of two, David Oluwale and author Sam Selvon, in their respective cities; Leeds and London.

David Oluwale

David Oluwale

David Oluwale was a British Nigerian who in 1969 drowned in the River Aire in Leeds following years of abuse from gangs and the police after coming to Britain with dreams of becoming an engineer. Oluwale was met with disdain and life on the streets and was even committed to a psychiatric hospital for eight years, an experience that forever altered him. One might question why Oluwale never left Leeds, a place that had taken so much from him.

Oluwale’s experience is parallel to the protagonist of Selvon’s book, The Lonely Londoners, published in 1956. Moses Aloetta is a Trinidadian émigré who faces great hardship throughout the novel, yet in the end he cannot move away from his preconceived notions of Britain, and the promise it held.

Selvon’s book opens with the line ‘one grim winter evening’ encapsulating the often hostile and bleak circumstances colonial migrants found themselves in. But for people from the colonies who had been taught that they were British, their status as British subjects had come to be a part of their own identities, so to reject Britain was to reject a part of themselves. This allowed them to “absorb the abuse and humiliation” and participate in British society, staying and fighting to make a place for themselves.

The plight of the colonial migrant, Phillips reminds us, is echoed now in the fallout of the Windrush Scandal, for those who had come between the years 1948 and 1962 and found that ‘one grim winter evening’ was a reflection of the evening of their lives, characterised by betrayal and disappointment.

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A place for new beginnings

Rajivan Rajamohan’s Birkbeck journey was fraught with personal challenges that brought him to the brink of giving up on his MSc in Economics. However, through will, self-care and support from friends and staff, last week he graduated. Here is his #BBKgrad story.

Rajivan Rajamohan

Rajivan Rajamohan

After completing a BA in Accounting and Finance from the University of Essex, Rajivan set about making his ambition to become an economist happen. The first step on his way to achieving his dream was completing a Graduate Diploma in Economics (GDE) to get him onto an MSc in his chosen area of study.

In 2016, Rajivan left his Wealth Management role at a bank in the City to begin his MSc at Birkbeck. Like many Birkbeck students, Rajivan felt the physical and mental demands of working full-time in a professionally demanding role while studying a subject that he didn’t have much previous experience in, “I had to work harder to fill the missing gaps in my knowledge, considerably more and quicker than most of my peers as my MSc was funded by myself with my full-time role as a Waiter for Nando’s”, he says. But that didn’t stop him diving headfirst into other commitments, taking the time to volunteer at Great Ormond Street Hospital and for Birkbeck’s Academic Panel on behalf of the Student Union, which earned him the ‘Birkbeck Colours and Honours Award’ in 2018.

It was during his GDE that Rajivan realised that the stress of exams was affecting him more than other students, with a fellow student urging him to seek help. Eventually Rajivan was diagnosed with the mental health condition Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which he discovered was triggered by exams. He explained, “While undertaking my GCSE exams at the age of 16, I went through unexpected and substantial trauma during the year of my final GCSE exams, which was not correctly diagnosed as PTSD for eight years. Due to the extremely delayed diagnosis, my PTSD was untreated and served to exacerbate the original trauma and exam-related anxiety.” Rajivan was able to begin treatment for his PTSD in the summer of 2016.

Being at Birkbeck meant that Rajivan could access disability support to help him with managing his rigorous and technically challenging exams for the first time in his academic studies, as well as receiving support from fellow students and lecturers who urged him to keep going with his degree, despite the challenges he faced.

Unfortunately, Rajivan suffered a further setback when he lost his creditworthiness due to a mistake made by a bank, meaning he could no longer work in that field, a huge blow as he had previously held roles in the financial sector. He said, “I am currently still seeking legal representation to take further legal advice and actions to rectify this error.”

Yet, now having completed his MSc, after three years, Rajivan can proudly declare that he has done it! “The support, kindness and compassion of my therapist, my Econometrics lecturer and a few of my friends from my undergraduate and postgraduate cohort helped me to stay focused and not to drop out of my degree.”

When asked what advice he would give to someone thinking of studying at Birkbeck, Rajivan urges you to, “Go for it and follow your dreams”. He believes the College’s flexibility is a saving grace, and the character of the students is fascinating: “it is only at Birkbeck where you meet incredible people with extraordinary stories and a whole community of individuals who have dedicated work ethics and a burning desire to reach their ambition.”

Rajivan’s concluding message would be to be kind and compassionate, to yourself and to others, because it’s not always clear what challenges people are facing, even if they project that they are coping well. He urges anyone taking up the challenge to “look after themselves with running, meditation and yoga because things could go unexpectedly wrong and when they do, always work with it and not against it. Be ready to look after your Mind, Body and Soul.”

Although his journey had its ups and downs, Rajivan recalled a quote that kept him going; “Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.”-Maria Robinson.

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Discovering the self-belief that never was

Oliver Victorio, inspired by his time at the House of Commons, overcame a number of obstacles, including; disability, financial hardship and lack of confidence to begin a degree at Birkbeck. This week he graduated with a BA Politics, Philosophy and History and the Dakin ‘Best Birkbeck Student’ 2019-20 Prize, this is his #BBKgrad story.  

Oliver Victorio

Oliver Victorio

The Journey to Birkbeck: From the Corridors of Power to the Classroom of Politics

Before attending Birkbeck, I was an MP attendant in the House of Commons, which is parliamentary parlance for being the odd jobs person for MPs’ needs. It had been a memorable time that made me hungry to want to progress my career, although I was not sure exactly what I wanted to do, I did know that I would need a degree to get it.  So, when the voluntary redundancy was offered, I took it to begin a new journey.

After taking on a few more jobs, I eventually I applied for a BA in Politics, Philosophy and History and was delighted when I was invited for an interview. I was elated to receive an ‘unconditional offer’, and immediately shared the glorious news with my wife, the one person who had been there throughout the entire journey. Three years later I would find myself with a first-class degree and the recipient of the Dakin ‘Best Birkbeck Student’ 2019-20 Prize for achieving excellence despite circumstances of hardship – a fitting description of my entire journey.

The First Year: Dim Lights, Dyslexia and Distinctions

Getting back into intense study would take some getting used to. I found understanding what I was reading was the first major obstacle for me – it would often take me hours to get through one assigned reading.  It was only later in the first term that I would discover, due to Birkbeck’s prompting and immense support, for which I am grateful, that I had dyslexia and dyscalculia, despite my intelligence.

Oliver Victorio

Oliver Victorio

This explained my earlier struggles with learning at school and my mixed results, all of which contributed to my lack of confidence – and eventual withdrawal from the educational system. I remember it would take me an enormous amount of time to just read through the required reading, let alone essay writing.

Once I realised this, I attended a lot of study skills workshops, and disability support, and I found these to be pivotal to my success. One thing about Birkbeck that I have found to be exceptional, alongside their teaching, was the enormous amount of support that is available, both in terms of the plethora of support workshops, but also from the teaching staff.

What’s more, at the time, I lived in a basement studio flat, too small to accommodate a family, with very little room to study. It was difficult to find time to study in the daytime with a then three-year-old to care for, so I would wake up at 5am to squeeze in a few hours of study in my dimly lit bathroom while the house was quiet. I endured this back-breaking situation for the entire first year of study.

Yet, despite this, all my perseverance with reading, deep thinking and re-writing paid off – I struck gold with my very first essay, attaining a distinction mark for the Study of Politics. I was so astonished. In my second essay, I got another distinction mark and more in the second term. I was absolutely stunned – I simply could not believe it. It was unreal that, after all these years of struggle, I was even capable of that.

The Final Year: My Best Results Ever

My final year brought more struggles. The COVID-19 pandemic had begun, which required me to juggle homeworking and home-schooling but that didn’t stop me, I would continue to achieve a distinction in my coursework! I was absolutely awestruck. I still am. It just never seemed that such a thing was even remotely possible for me, given my learning difficulties, and my struggles with confidence and communication over the years.

Final Thoughts

My entire experience at Birkbeck, with the phenomenal network of support – teaching staff, study skills tutors, personal tutors, disability support, administrative staff, and library staff – were absolutely vital in making my success a reality. Despite all the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that I had faced, from being accepted onto the degree, to getting through it, I feel like I am finally on the path that I should have been on many years before.

A new life is now a real possibility, where I can provide for my family and steer them away from the life that I had experienced. Birkbeck has made this possible. As the great scientist Sir Isaac Newton eloquently put, I was ‘standing on the shoulders of Giants’. I am forever indebted and will never forget. A new journey now awaits- one that I have been searching for all my life.

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Virtual Beatles in London tour

La Young Jackson, Liason Officer (International) shares details of a virtual Beatles tour of London that Birkbeck students enjoyed earlier this year.

Beatles Tour London

Beatles Tour London

In July we had two special virtual tours exploring the history of The Beatles in London. Our guide Andrew has presented his Beatles London Walking Tour to international students for many years, but this year due to COVID-19 was the first time he did them online as a virtual experience.

Andrew prefers to call himself a Beatles fan rather than an expert, but he impressed students with his knowledge both of the ‘Fab Four’, and of London. ‘The Beatles are my favourite group, and London is my favourite city, so taking students on the tour is always a huge pleasure’ he says. ‘Most people know that the Beatles came from Liverpool, but in fact, during their time together as a band, they all lived in London, and all their records were recorded here, at the famous Abbey Road Studios. Two of the Beatles, Paul and Ringo, were married in London – no not to each other, to their wives!’

Leading the tour online presented both challenges and opportunities. ‘I wanted to create the feeling that we’re really taking a walk through London together, so I filmed not just the places with Beatles history, but also the walking segments in-between, using these as an opportunity to chat with attendees and answer questions, just as I would on a real tour. But being online made it easier to present video clips and audio, which can be quite difficult on busy London streets’.

Andrew presented the tours as Part 1 & Part 2 on separate days, such is the wealth of locations in London connected to the Beatles’ professional and personal lives. Both tours finished at Abbey Road studios, with its iconic traffic crossing. Students expressed a high level of satisfaction with both events and praised Andrew’s friendly and knowledgeable presentation.

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