Unlonely Londoners

The postwar wave of migration from the West Indies to the United Kingdom that started with the Empire Windrush changed the face of London

Inika Leigh Wright in Monkey. Photograph courtesy Inika Leigh WrightInika Leigh Wright. Photograph courtesy Inika Leigh WrightNicholai La Barrie. Photograph courtesy Nicholai La BarrieThe handbill for Clear Water. Photograph courtesy Oval House TheatreThe handbill for Coram Boy. Photograph courtesy National TheatreThe handbill for Moon on a Rainbow Shawl. Photograph courtesy Inika Leigh WrightThe handbill for Once in a Lifetime. Photograph courtesy National Theatre

For the old Waterloo is a place of arrival and departure, is a place where you see people crying goodbye and kissing welcome, and he hardly have time to sit down on a bench before this feeling of nostalgia hit him … It have some fellars who in Brit’n long, and yet they can’t get away from the habits of going Waterloo whenever a boat-train coming in with passengers from the West Indies … Sometimes they might spot somebody they know: ‘Aye Watson! What the hell you doing in Brit’n boy? Why you didn’t write me you was coming?’ And they would start big oldtalk with the travellers, finding out what happening in Trinidad, in Grenada, in Barbados, in Jamaica and Antigua, what is the latest calypso number, if anybody dead, and so on . . .

Samuel Selvon,
The Lonely Londoners

The great twentieth-century wave of West Indian migration to Britain began in 1948, when the ship called the Empire Windrush sailed from the Caribbean to Tilbury loaded with West Indian immigrants, eyes bright at the prospects that lay ahead. The landing at Tilbury, the beginning of “colonisation in reverse”, in Jamaican poet Louise Bennett’s phrase, was the start of a major change in Britain, then only just recovering from the ravages of war. There was plenty of work. The country needed rebuilding.

By the time The Lonely Londoners, Samuel Selvon’s classic novel about the lives of West Indians in the city, was published in 1956, the annual figure for migrants from the West Indies had reached nearly thirty thousand. Entire families would arrive in London, some with everything they owned packed in their suitcases, with no clear idea of where they would live or how they would find jobs, some totally unprepared for winter. They settled in groups in outlying areas of the city, especially in the south and the west. Sometimes as many as three or four families shared one house, with each family living in one small room, sharing kitchen and bathroom facilities with the rest of the house. Along with the labourers and former soldiers came nurses and teachers, a few scholarship winners, and, as Selvon noted, some “real hustlers”.

They persevered. Their children went through the English school system and they rose resolutely through the ranks of their professions. They set up bank accounts and invested in property. West Indians were firmly established in British society by the 1970s, even while living and working under sometimes difficult social conditions. They brought colour and warmth to the grey and cold city of London, with their sense of style, their language, their food, and their art. They even took Carnival to Notting Hill.

There is also a long-established pattern of Caribbean intellectuals going to Britain to work and study. The list of writers alone reads like a virtual who’s-who of West Indian literature — C.L.R. James, George Lamming, Edgar Mittelholzer, Samuel Selvon, Andrew Salkey, V.S. Naipaul his brother Shiva Naipaul, John La Rose, and Wilson Harris are just a few — but West Indians have excelled in other areas of the arts as well, finding their space in the theatre, in dance, in opera, in visual arts, in film, in academia. The intellectual migration continues today.

The British government’s working holiday scheme, which allows Commonwealth citizens between the ages of seventeen and thirty to live and work part-time in Britain for up to two years, has also stimulated a new interest in London among young West Indians, and British High Commissions in the region now receive a growing flow of applications. Selvon’s Waterloo is today’s Heathrow. And a new generation of young West Indian writers and artists are now holding their own in London, not as a result of overnight success, by any stretch of the imagination, but, for the most part, because they had dreams bigger than their islands and went out to chase them.

And the homesickness is still there. Peppersauce, home seasonings, sweets, and West Indian fast food are hot property if you are boarding that BWIA flight to London.

There are few spaces where you can catch some theatre in Trinidad, and these are concentrated in Port of Spain. It’s also true that very few young performers appear in major productions. Trinidad Theatre Workshop director Albert Laveau admits the deficits in available spaces and young actors, but he explains that sometimes theatre companies have no choice but to use casts which feature better-known, older performers. “Inevitably, you are going to have to go to a certain group of people. People are not going to pay $100 to see a cast with primarily new performers.”

The Lilliput Theatre Company, which was founded in the mid 1970s, has no permanent home, but has stayed active for thirty years, making a continued contribution to Trinidad and Tobago’s acting pool by training young actors and giving them a chance to appear on stage. Originally called the Rounders Theatre, it was started by choreographer Noble Douglas and dramatist Tony Hall. The name changed to the Lilliput Children’s Theatre before it settled on its current moniker.

Nicholai La Barrie had his beginnings at Lilliput, where at the age of ten he presented himself to be moulded into the performer he felt he could be. He worked with the late John Isaacs before coming under the tutelage of Wendell Manwarren (both of them actors and directors as well as members of the rapso group 3Canal). Manwarren says one of the most striking things about La Barrie, even as a pre-teen, was his love of performance.

“He was quite outstanding, because his passion for the thing was very, very clear,” Manwarren remembers. “I was learning what John had put in place. So we were learning together. He was always very humble, and very aware of what came before him.

“In my current crop of students at Lilliput, we have quite a few boys, and that hasn’t happened since Nicholai’s time. There are about fifteen, and that’s a lot. A few potential Nicholais in there, but he was unique. He has a real respect for the thing.”

La Barrie grew up in one of the not-so-scenic parts of Port of Spain, in a block of apartments called Charford Court on Charlotte Street. Instead of getting caught up in the rough-and-tumble of inner city life, he escaped through his association with the Lilliput Theatre, and he spent a lot of time writing. “I had worked for and with the Lilliput Theatre for about nine years, starting when I was about ten years old,” he says. “I was in pretty much every production until I started teaching, and then I started directing for the Lilliput Theatre.

“I dabbled with music there as well, and it is interesting how the whole music thing came about — because it started out with poetry and writing poems for people. When I was in school I used to sell poems, which was really bizarre. I used to write all the time and every now and then I’d write a poem for a girl or something, and say, ‘You know, I wrote this yesterday for you, let me know what you think.’ If somebody made me feel something, I would just go and put that down in words. Word got around the schoolyard, anyhow, and I used to spend my lunchtimes writing down poems for boys to give to their girlfriends.”

La Barrie wrote and recorded a couple of rapso tracks in the early 90s, and was balancing his theatre and music lives well enough to be recognised in both areas for his burgeoning talent. Then he got the opportunity to have his first major role in Clear Water, a play written by Trinidadian Christopher Rodriguez while he was writer-in-residence at London’s Oval House Theatre. The play packed houses and got complimentary reviews during its limited run at Trinidad’s Central Bank Auditorium in 1998. Clear Water was a drama exploring a family’s struggles to accept its African roots and the resulting tension that creates in two brothers. Directed by Manwarren and Dr Helmer Hilwig, the cast included La Barrie, his wife Melanie Hudson-La Barrie, and a cast that combined young talent with elder icons of the Trinidadian stage.

Two years later, the play opened in London, at the Barbican, during BITE (the British International Theatre Event), and La Barrie was re-cast in his role. As fate would have it, the Oval House had an opening just then for a drama tutor, and La Barrie had a wealth of experience from the Lilliput Theatre. He applied for the position and got the job. He and his wife first settled in cramped conditions in Stockwell, in south-west London. Hudson-La Barrie, a respected singer and actress in Trinidad, began getting regular theatre and television work, including roles in such recent West End hits as Fame and My Fair Lady.

Now 27, La Barrie is the head of Youth Arts at the Oval House Theatre. “I am working on four different productions at the moment,” he explains during a break in rehearsals with the Oval House Youth Arts Company in early April. “I am directing Romeo and Juliet with my youth theatre company [in June]. I am directing [Derek Walcott’s] Ti-Jean and His Brothers [in August] with my summer school . . . and I am working on a Mustapha Mathura play called Rum and Coca-Cola as an actor. I am directing a play called Chet Baker Speedball, which is a brand new play, which will hopefully go to Edinburgh in 2007.”

There’s more. La Barrie is also working on a second album of music, titled Warrior Song. His first album, Super Hero to Many Small Insects, was released on the web at honeythedogmusic.com. “It is a tribute to the indomitable spirit of Trinidadians and people from the Third World,” he explains. “I write all the material and do all the production. I have a kinda band, a bunch of friends who come together and jam every now and again. It’s really, really open, and it is possibly the most organic thing I have ever worked on in my life, because every time I go at it, every time I look at the music something new comes up. I am no producer, but I am teaching myself to create what I want to hear and how I want to hear it. That’s a long process.

“I feel that it has to develop how it is developing, and when it is time for it, everybody will hear it. Everything I have dreamed has become a reality thus far.”

”I have always, always wanted to be an actress,” says Inika Leigh Wright. “From the day I was aware of the fact that I could read. Money held me back, and also negativity held me back, and a lot of discouragement. But I just decided one day, you know what? I want more. So I saved every penny.

“I studied business, because my mother believed that you have to have something to fall back on. It was painful, but I did it anyway for my mother. I love her very much. I took a sickie off work, I was working in a bank at the time, and spent a whole day in the British High Commission library. I applied to several university drama programmes. Got accepted. I just wanted more. More than what I was getting in Trinidad — and I wanted to take that chance, and I was ready for it. Then, as soon as I got accepted to the university, that was it.”

In the 1990s, after years under the guidance of respected voice and drama tutor Sonya Moze, Wright was looking for roles that would stretch her, experiences that would fuel her dreams of becoming an actress. She got roles in the productions of several theatre companies active at the time, including the Trinidad Theatre Workshop’s Joker of Seville and For Coloured Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf and Raymond Choo Kong Productions’ Bottoms Up, but it wasn’t enough.

She built sets, tried her hand at stage management, sang — but it wasn’t enough.The directors she worked with — Albert Laveau, Bernard Hazell, and Raymond Choo Kong — all remember that Wright was always very serious and very driven. Laveau recalls: “I liked her from the outset. Commitment and intelligence. And very charming.” Choo Kong says even then he knew that Trinidad could not hold her. “She had her heart set on abroad, the world stage. She was always very professional.”

She received two Cacique Award nominations — the Caciques are Trinidad’s annual theatre awards — for best supporting actress (in A Couple of Chicks Sitting Around Talking) and best actress (in Knock ’Em Dead), but she knew she had a long way to go.

“I have a lot of respect and admiration for the people who hired me, because it wasn’t always easy,” she remembers of her early experience of theatre.

“I was always kind of — and I am — quite the serious West girl and Convent girl” — Wright grew up in one of the middle-class suburbs west of Port of Spain, and attended St Joseph’s Convent, a prestigious Catholic secondary school for girls — “and Raymond Choo Kong and [actor and director] Richard Ragoobarsingh saw something in me that they took onboard. I learned so much from those two men. Because people don’t realise how difficult farce is, and they just taught me so much about timing and presence and how to deal with your audience and, you know, how to ride the wave of the laughter and know when to come in and when to wait.

“All of those things are things that college cannot teach you. It’s only when you go to university that you go: well, alright, I already knew that, but I didn’t quite know how to word it, how to express it.

“And people like Sonya Moze, who came up [to London] very recently and saw my show and just had like floods of tears. She is my idol, that woman. I still think today that she is one of the best actresses that ever came out of Trinidad. She is so talented. Richard [Ragoobarsingh] and Nigel Wong are the two people who helped me with my audition speeches, and I got into every single university that I applied to.”

Wright spent three years studying at the Central School of Speech and Drama at the University of London, and graduated in 2000 with a BA in Acting. At first she was shocked at her success. “All I wanted to do was apply and get an audition, because thousands of people apply for an audition. They audition one thousand and then they accept thirty. The process is gruelling, and you know that when you get there you are sitting with the cream of the crop in that room.

“And then, out of that thirty, not everybody is gonna get an agent. And out of that little bit that might get agents, not everybody gonna actually get any work. Every little success was something that I was just grateful for.”

For the first two years, she worked two different waitressing jobs to make ends meet. In her final year, she dropped one of the waitressing jobs and worked as a clerk in a video store, so she could sleep at night and work on her ‘look’ for the agents who would be scrutinising students at their final-year productions.

It worked. Since graduation, she’s had roles in productions by the Royal National Theatre (Once in A Lifetime, Coram Boy, President of an Empty Room) and the Young Vic (Antigone, Monkey), and has worked with the BBC on radio, television (Casualty), and film (Pompeii) productions. She was nominated as best actress by the Manchester Evening News for her role as Joi, in the Contact Theatre Company’s production of Perfect in 2004.

Her agents, who also have the likes of Helen Mirren and Joseph Fiennes on their selective roster, have recently been turning down theatre roles as they prod Wright into more film and television. She explains the strategy: “Even though the theatre does not pay as much, it gives me a buzz that I cannot define. I am not motivated by money, but if I do get a really good film or TV role it will enhance my theatrical career. It’s a tactic towards better things in general.

“My plan is to go to LA or New York in the next couple of years, but not yet. When I have some more heat around me — and I know I’m not gonna have to push open the door, they’re gonna have to open the door for me — is when I’m gonna go.”

 

London is the place for me: young Trinidadians on life in the big city

Inika Leigh Wright, actress:

“When you’re in Trinidad, you just think London is about red telephone booths and post boxes and buses. That it’s cold and rainy, and you think everybody speaks like the Queen. I sorta came over here with a very jaded idea of what it would be like. It honestly took me five years to like it. But I love it now. I love it. And now I’m a kind of mish-mash of Trinidad and England. When I go home, I feel a bit strange, and people can sniff out that I don’t live there from the time I land.

Nicholai La Barrie, actor:

“I wanted to see what London was like. I’d been here on teaching projects before. I’d liked London. Because I think London is the home of Western theatre. I don’t think there is anywhere else in the world that has as many theatre spaces or as much theatre as is happening in London. As much as I love Trinidad, I know that what happened to me and for me in London would not have happened for me there. The kind of artistic growth I had could not have happened in Trinidad.”

Stacy Marie Ishmael, language and business student, responsible for Trinidad and Tobago’s World Cup Blog:

“It was only when I came to London that I felt what it was like to be a Trini. In addition to all the other stuff that was going on, I learned a lot about Trinidad, the culture, the music, the history. Things that I’d never really been exposed to before when I was at home. It’s ironic to have to go so far from Trinidad to really appreciate it. When I left Trinidad, I didn’t think I was going back. But being in London has revealed to me a lot of things, not just in terms of my own personal development. I know I have to come home now.”

Svenn Miki Grant, student and activist:

“It’s just a place with so much energy that fills your needs intellectually, socially, economically. There are tons of things going on all the time. Trinidad feels like a limited-overs [cricket] match, whereas in London, you’re batting every day. I felt a lot less constrained, like I could have gone anywhere. I didn’t get that ‘gated community’ vibes I get at home. And as anti-social as it can be, it’s still possible to have really interesting interactions with people from all over the world. I miss the buses, the Nigerian woman saying ‘ahh!’, the graffiti in Old Street, watching droves of people going to a match at Stamford Bridge. Feeling a sense of community, varied but mellow.”

Attillah Springer, writer:

“I went to London for history’s sake. Reading Selvon and Lamming and a tube map. To see what it was about the place that inspired a whole generation of Caribbean writers. I found it frustrating and fascinating. But you can choose whether you are overwhelmed by anonymity. You decide to be nobody or a variety of different people. I’m an outsider on the inside. I taught my European friends to wine and learned the joys of vinegared chips at 4 a.m. I could be an art freak, a science geek, a classical music buff, a dubwise dancer, filtered through a Trini lens. I see that things have changed since Moses stalked Ladbroke Grove. But maybe there is something in that dank grey air that makes you empowered to walk further, think deeper, dream bigger.”