The other 75th anniversary…

…or the beginning of an answer to  why the world came to South London to care for me at Guys in 2023?.

After a major operation last October, I spent just over a week in hospital. This was followed in November and December by daily visits for radiotherapy. Of course, with my background, friends wanted to know what lesson I had taken away from this lengthy experience of care. It was a simple lesson. I felt like finding a member of the National Front and punching them. Because if they had been successful in keeping out migrants I would have died. 

The personal gratitude that I felt for the people that had looked after me came from pondering the big question which had left me wondering, “Why did all these very different people come from all over the world to look after me?”. They could have stayed where they were. They could have gone somewhere else. But they came to London, to the NHS, and one day, to care for me.

And let’s be absolutely clear. If they hadn’t, I would not have survived. If I analysed a list of the 70+ very different people who cared for me it won’t surprise any of you to know that the vast majority were either migrants or the daughters and sons of migrants. Without them there would be nowhere near enough nurses, porters, doctors catering staff and administrators to run a few wards – let alone a major hospital.

You want to know about long waiting lists? Try running the NHS without migrants (and their children ) and see how long the waits would be.

You want to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the NHS? Just imagine how long it would have survived without migrant labour.

So this week I’m writing about two 75th birthdays. Both deserve celebration for all the real human beings involved. Today’s raises a glass to the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948 – tomorrow’s the NHS (and of course both celebrations also toast my arrival in April of that year!).

The Windrush berthed in the Thames Estuary just a few miles downriver from the Thameside neighbourhood in which I grew up – the then all-white Woolwich. I went to a then all-white primary school (1953-59) and an all-white grammar school. The first black person I met and became friends with was a fellow student at the LSE when I was 18. The influence of the Windrush generation didn’t pass me by – they just weren’t living near me.

Like many of you I’ve been reading the second and third generation accounts of their forebears turning up in the ‘brutal cold’ in 1948 (It was a harsh winter). Above all what they remember is the drive of their forebears for improvement.

There will be hurdles – just learn to jump high over them’,People will try and stand in your way – learn to swerve round them.’

Beautiful, wise words from an older generation passing on advice for moving onward and upward in a new country to their children and grandchildren.

What they were telling them was that they had come to a country where much of the system, and many of the people, are racist. “That’s just the way of the world”. “Learn to expect it”. “Don’t be surprised”. “Don’t be hurt”. “It will be there, jump over it, swerve round it”.

But in the real world it was very hard to swerve round it. By 1971 I was sufficiently conscious of this racism to read Bernard Coard’s analysis of black children’s education in London.

“…black children are therefore made neurotic about their race and culture. Some have behaviour problems as a result.  They become resentful and bitter, being told their language is second-rate and their history and culture is non-existent that they hardly exist at all except by the grace of whites” [1]

Many of the little boys and girls who went to schools couldn’t just swerve or jump over the racism that confronted them. They became ‘educationally subnormal’ because they were different.

But some of them made it –  and more of the next generation and, as I mentioned in my opening paragraphs, went on to work in the NHS and save our lives. To do that they had to overcome a lot – a LOT – of racism almost every day.

And of course, it wouldn’t be possible to have a post about the Windrush Generation without mentioning Enoch Powell. I can tell you where I was in 1968 when he made his rivers of blood speech, and where I was a few days later when my people – MY People – the dockers of East London – marched to Westminster in his support. I was so young, so much to learn.

Dockers march for Enoch

But I had never paid close attention to his speech until recently. Now I have found a truly stunning paragraph (partly explained by the fact that between 1960 and 1963 Enoch Powell was Minister of Health and specifically recruited nurses from the Caribbean to come to work in the NHS. Having effectively said that his own actions would lead to rivers of blood was, well, a bit tricky). Enoch was a clever man and felt he had found a way around it. It’s a bit breathtaking but then racism often is,

‘the Commonwealth doctors who […] have enabled our hospital service to be expanded faster than would otherwise have been possible […] are not, and never have been, immigrants’.(Quoted in Windrush Migrants and “Our NHS Heroes”)

What on earth does this mean? Black people coming to this country will lead to rivers of blood, but if you go to hospital for treatment for the resultant wounds and are treated by a black immigrant doctor, they will not actually be an immigrant. So the bus driver that takes you to the hospital is, but the doctor that treats you isn’t?

Famously, Powell was a classics scholar and would have studied logic. So saying that migrant black doctors are not migrants because, well, they are doctors is just a bit weird.

Never forget Enoch Powell and his capacity to develop racism and inhumanity.

Raise a fist.

And NEVER forget the Windrush generation and their drive to help us all.

Raise a glass!

[1] Bernard Coard How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System. The Scandal of the Black Child in Schools in Britain.