Almost every West Indian who set out for Britain these last 50 years, ever since the Empire Windrush in June 1948, has harboured the same thought: I will return. Sometimes they said it out loud, as they waved farewell to their folks. Sometimes they muttered it to themselves at the first sight of the awful greyness of England. Or they secreted it in their soul, during those tough early years, just to cheer themselves up. They meant it. But in the end, only a minority have ever returned.
Today, however, more and more are going back. One of the reasons is that many can well afford it. They might have started off in a rented flat or shared rooms in Brixton, but with a steady job, and following the social patterns of the Brits around them, they got a mortgage and bought a flat themselves, later a house, then perhaps a slightly better house, till in the end they had acquired a capital asset. Perhaps £250,000, which is what a modest terrace house in Tottenham can fetch. If they had gone to the USA or Canada, which many of their relations did, they might not today have ended up quite so lucky. There the tradition of renting is more ingrained.
So, in middle age, they begin to think, heh, with a quarter of a million, I can return home and not only build myself a nice little three-bedroom bungalow in my home village, back in Tobago or Grenada, for about £25,000, I can also build a little block of holidays flats. I can let them out to all these new tourists from Blighty. And probably still have a bit in the bank.
In my wanderings round the West Indies during the last few years, visiting 27 different islands, talking to people, I soon learned to spot the home of a Returnee. They tend, when they build their own bijou house, to do it in an English suburban bijou way, complete with wrought-iron gates, pretend Georgian doors, neat little bow windows. It's almost like putting a label on their house. Here lives a Returnee.
The money, and how far it will go out there, is a positive reason for returning. There are also negative elements at play. Like many native Brits, they have begun to feel life here has grown worse over the decades - the horrible traffic and grime in our cities, the crime and violence, lack of politeness and courtesy, lack of discipline, especially among the young.
Many now return for the education of their children. In the West Indies, they still teach the three Rs, insist on sparkling uniforms, rigid discipline, old-fashioned standards. But of course when they do return, for whatever reason, things are not quite as idyllic as they imagined in their mind. That bijou house for example, so identifiable, can easily lead to envy and bad-mouthing. Without meaning to, they can appear to be showing off, by their lifestyle, their attitudes. Those who never left can get it into their heads that those who did leave are now looking down on them.
I met some who have had their cars vandalised, threatening letters, doors daubed. They have to be so careful, the Returnees, not to go on about Britain, what it was like back there. They mustn't say, "In London, we had three telephones, all working." Or, "In Birmingham, we could get takeaways delivered all night long." And of course they must never moan about the slow pace of life, or the inefficiencies, now they are home.
So what often happens is that they are thrown together with other Returnees, with whom they find they have more in common than even members of their own family who never left.
I went to see a group of "JCBs" one evening in Grenada. That's the local nickname - meaning Just Come Backs. They were sitting on a bench, drinking beer. As I approached, I could hear what sounded like an argument. "You're wrong, man. Heath came after Callaghan." "No, he didn't. Callaghan was in first."
I thought for a moment they were discussing cricketers, till I realised it was politics, life as it was, back in the Smoke.
Hunter Davies's latest book, 'A Walk Around the West Indies', is published in hardback next week by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, price £18.99
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- Caribbean Islands (west Indies)
- Life Expectancy
- Middle Age