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Oral History Interview - James Fletcher


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Audio recording of an oral history interview with James Fletcher, who was born in Antigua and moved to Britain in 1960.


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Q. Name age and where you are from:

James Fletcher (JF). My name is James and I’m from Antigua. I’m 64 going on for 65. I left Antigua in April 1960, and landed in Southampton, England on a Wednesday. I was a little but taken back when I saw the situation regarding the standard of living and the structure of the work.

Q. Life in the Caribbean?

JF. I don’t know very much about my father, so I can’t speak about him. I was a farm worker; I used to work in the sugarcanes, and cotton fields. There were four of us, I was the third. At the end of the 1950’s I realised that things weren’t going too well for me, so I thought that I would take a trip to England. I didn’t really come with the intention to spend a long time. I came to spend a few years, expecting to go back, but I found myself stuck, which I’ve never regretted. It was an interesting.

I didn’t find it hard to get work, because I came to a person and in less than a week I got a job working in N. 1 in clothing factory as a tea-boy, starting from about 7 to 6. 1 worked there until the factory closed and I left. When I left there I worked for the Ministry of Works in Kensington Gardens for three and a half years. I could see a bit of racism there, so I thought I would get out. After that, I went into laundry work, which I did for about fifteen months, then in 1968 1 got a job in Hackney Council where I worked for the past 25 years. It was a very hard job. Unemployment has gone up but I didn’t pay any mind to it. I have no regrets. They are looking after me very well and it happens that because I worked with the Council for 25 years I was entitled to, and took early retirement. I received my gold watch, and a well due pension, so I’m not doing too badly at the present.

Q. Was there a history of military involvement in your family?

JF. I have a very small family, and they are scattered all around the world. When I left home left my mother, sister and one other brother before I came here. I wasn’t looking for anything extra-ordinary when I came to England, and I knew that it was up to me to make it what I wanted. It was a bit of struggle at first, but I think I was pretty lucky. The person whom I came to when I first come to England, he and I parted after some time. Eventually I got married in 1962, and I had a child that same year. At that point I left Stoke Newington for Highbury, at which point my wife was having our second child. One day I stayed at home from work and went to Islington Borough Council to put my name on the housing list. As I was sitting waiting for my turn, he replied to me in the presence of my wife ‘people have been here since the First World War’. Well we all know that the first war was in 1914, and I don’t think that he was around either. This was in 1965. He said ‘I’m sorry sir, I cannot help you’. I thought that well if he cannot help me there was no point in staying in the office. When I came out of the office, and came onto the main road, I looked at her and said ‘did you hear what that chap said’ she replied ‘yes’. Then I stopped and said ‘what are we going to do’? I said to her, ‘alright I have a better plan, let us buy a house. We bought the house in Stoke Newington, and I’m still in the house 32 years later until today.

Q. What brought you to Hackney in the first place?

JF. I was living in Hackney from the outset, but when I got married I couldn’t live in the same place so I moved from the area for a while, until the time I bought the house in Hackney. So altogether I lived in the area for 36 years.

Q. Promotion in jobs?

JF. I didn’t gain any promotions in my various jobs. I started out as a labourer and ended up as a labourer. I worked along with other and picked up a few tips along the way. I played the game and it did work. There were always jobs to get, you could leave a job one day and get another the following day, unlike today. But, I did succeed somewhat.

Q. Colour of skin?

JF. I never took it seriously. We knew it was there, but it depended on how hard you took it. I didn’t take it hard. I met a great deal of discrimination in the early days, but I would just smile. As my mother always said ‘you must always take the rough and the smooth together’ and I did. I never treasured the things my mother said to me until I came to Britain. That is what really pulled me along. I had a rough life on many levels, many foremen didn’t like my colour, but one took it. I was determined to try to make something out of what there was at the end of the day.

Q. Entertainment?
JF. In the 60’s there was a lot of entertainment. Friday night was party night, Saturday night was party night. In those days, you could go to a house party for 2/óp. That was before the new money. When I came here, it wasn’t as it was now. Obviously the money was different, because it was guineas, shilling and pence. The music was different. Black people have a wide range of music, and sometimes the police would come and run us, because the English people say we make a lot of noise. So sometime the police would come in and raid the place and close down the party.But, it wouldn’t be for long, the next night it would be on again in the same place. There was a lot of entertainment. Everywhere you go there was music. It was completely different. There were not so many jobs like now, but there were jobs.

Q. Mixing between blacks and white?
JF. Mixing was there, but not as heavy as now. Now there are many more black and white couples. When we came here it was very difficult for us to fit in, but as our children grew and went to school, it all became easier as the years went by. I remember years ago when you look for flats or rooms and you went to the paper shop to look at rooms to let. You couldn’t help but notice the number of cards, which had ‘No Blacks’ on them, as well as ‘No Irish and No Dogs’. Sometimes, it didn’t have those wording and you would phone up and be told ‘yes come around’, and when you went along and they saw your face, the landlord or landlady would say I’m sorry. Then if you went to a phone box, and dialled the same number again, you would be told to ‘come along’.

Q. Was there much mixing with the locals?
IF. I got married in 1962 to a Caribbean woman, and although it didn’t work for very long, it was a good experience and I have no regrets. By the end of the 60’s I found that there were some problems in the marriage and my wife walked out on me in 1972 and by 1974 it was all over and I was divorced. I have no intention of doing it again and I must say that, to today, I am happy.

Q. Different white people?
JF. I never interacted very much with white people. I was never entertained by any, and none took me to their home. The closest I got to any was at work, and even though there were many racial jibes at work in the canteen, changing room, or when we were relaxing. Sometimes one would makes jokes about when they were making ‘the spray’ which they forget to spray on my hands. Some of the other black people would get upset, but not me. I would just play it cool, so that the whites would then say to the other black people ‘how comes James never get upset’. But, it wasn’t because I was not upset or anything, but it was how I played the game, because as my mother always said ‘when your hand in the lion mouth, take your time and draw it out’. Sometimes when I asked then to do anything they do it straight away, whilst somebody else ask then and they wouldn’t do it.

Q. Saving schemes and pardners?

JF. How a lot of West Indians accumulated money to buy a house was by throwing pardner. Maybe a flyer, two pounds fifty or whatever, but we saved in this way. There weren’t as many building societies as there are now, so it was only the banks. Sometimes the bank reffuse you, but you try others. A lot of people borrowed money from each other to buy house and so forth. It was very difficult, but it wasn’t very difficult for me when I bought my place I was pretty lucky. But, to get the second part of my money after the divorce, it was very hard, but I never gave up.

Q. Difference between the islanders?

JF. I get along with Jamaicans and other islanders. My best friend now is a Jamaican. I get along with many other islanders better than my own Antiguan. I always link with a Jamaican and get on better with them than with other islanders. They are plain speakers, and the stand with me more than my own country people are

Q. Change in children’s attitudes?

JF. There is a big difference. Years ago we were brought up in the West Indies to respect our elders and just to have manners and respect generally. In this country, for the past few years now, there has been little respect shown to older people. Children are also very aide to each other, they have no respect at all. In my days, you are brought up to look after the older people but they have no respect for anyone here. I have children myself, and they are alright, but generally children are very rude..
I think that us Caribbean people would like our children to be how we ourselves were brought up. From the time they start to go to school and go into their teens, they completely shift away from you. They look at you as if to ask ‘what are you talking about’.

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