There was one of those moments late on Sunday night when a voice is so arresting (either through tone, timbre, or from what’s being said) that you just have to stop what you’re doing and listen, really concentrate, anxious not to miss a word. Floella Benjamin was on the Westminster Hour on Radio 4 talking about the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks with 500 passengers from the Caribbean. Nothing unusual about that; it’s an anniversary that’s been given a lot of coverage. But then she started talking about her own experience of coming to the UK by boat, in 1960, with her three siblings, travelling by themselves across the Atlantic to join their parents, who had gone on ahead with two of their children to find work. She was just ten and had not seen her mother for 15 months.
Perhaps because I still think of her as the bouncy, happy, enthusiastic face of Play School in the 1970s, what she said had extra resonance. ‘It was like an adventure on the high seas,’ she told us, her voice filled with excitement at the memory. ‘We felt we were freed.’ They had been living with foster parents who were ‘rather cruel’. On arrival at Southampton she was thrilled to see her mother waiting for them by the quayside ‘like an angel’. She was, though, soon confused to notice that everywhere they went people kept staring at her. From that moment, she became, she said, no longer Floella but ‘a colour’. Unlike in Trinidad, people didn’t identify her as a person any more.
Later in the week we heard from four ‘immigrants’ who in May 1977 had been at a huge rally in Handsworth Park, close to the centre of Birmingham, celebrating African Liberation Day.