Literature: Riding an emotional rollercoaster

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Ten years ago, when he was editing The Voice, Onyekachi Wambu (right) decided to mark the 40th anniversary of the arrival of 492 Jamaican immigrants at Tilbury Docks in the former troopship Empire Windrush. In conjunction with Lambeth Council and the South London Press, the paper published a booklet entitled Forty Winters, a riposte to a remark made by a journalist who interviewed the newcomers at the time, suggesting that they would all be gone after one winter. It received almost no attention.

The 50th anniversary, by contrast, has seen a flurry of newspaper articles, a TV documentary, numerous books and associated events. This time round, cultural commentators have rushed to examine the commemorative anthology Wambu has edited: Empire Windrush: Fifty Years of Writing about Black Britain (Gollancz). So why is the significance of 22 June, 1948, only now being accorded due public recognition? Aside from the greater marketability of a half century, Wambu believes the last decade has seen a groundswell of retrospection: "What started back then was a realisation that many of the people who came over in the first wave were beginning to die off or return home," he explains. "There was a changing of the guard to a certain extent, and we had to make sense of what had happened."

Empire Windrush doesn't presume to make sense of what happened on its own. It's an attempt to follow, through 57 extracts, an "emotional rollercoaster" - as Nigerian-born Wambu terms the forging of Black British identities following the end of Empire. The voices here come from the Caribbean, Africa and Asia, as well as Britain (Sam Selvon, Ben Okri, Salman Rushdie and even Enoch Powell are all included). Wambu has a broad hypothesis that brackets writers' concerns according to age-group, and this will be explored in the day-long discussions taking place today at the South Bank between contributors to the anthology. This morning (11.30am, Purcell Room), ER Braithwaite, Beryl Gilroy and George Lamming talk about their experiences as students, professionals and writers in 1950s London. The poet David Dabydeen and the novelist Caryl Phillips will later discuss their debt to the first generation (2pm, Chelsfield Rm), and finally (4pm, Chelsfield Rm), younger writers - Maggie Gee, Mike Phillips and Gillian Slovo - will ask why writers, particularly white ones, rarely create characters of a different race. Rush to it.

Windrush events, today, venues in Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 (0171- 960 4242) pounds 5-pounds 6