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Sarah Lee on giving voice to unspoken histories

Sarah Lee on giving voice to unspoken histories

It’s said that history is written by the victors. But what happens when the proverbial battle is over, and we aren’t only living through a period of sustained peace, but as a nation, we’ve been forging a modern society upheld by much-valued organisations?

Who tells the history of average people doing seemingly average things, living lives that perhaps aren’t accented by a grandiose list of achievements, but they are contributing to building a stable, caring society.

And then, what if those people originate, in large number, from under-represented ethnic groups, who have in the not so distant past been stripped of their history, their culture and humanity?

Charting the contributions of such under-represented groups rarely tops the agenda. When I told a friend that my debut novel, An Ocean Apart, was inspired by stories of Windrush Generation women who came to Britain to train as nurses in the fledgling NHS of the 1950s, she said how interesting it would be to her and her son. I was a little surprised, not that it would appeal to her – as a woman in her late 40s, she’s within the target audience for my book. But her teenage son? Surely it wouldn’t align with his interests.

However, she explained that her mixed race son was often frustrated by the shallow black history taught at his school. He said it amounted only to the horrors of slavery, casting black people in positions of subservience and misery. Surely, he mused, there was more to the story of the black existence, even here in Britain.

An 18-year-old could recognise this, and yet, so little is made of black people’s history in Britain. Their stories are often unspoken, their voices mute.

Ill be honest, before I embarked on writing my Windrush novel, this period in our recent history wasnt something even Id thought much about. Travelling to Britain, settling here and helping build the NHS was just something I knew my mother and other people like her had done. There was an accepted normality to it for me and other second-generation black Brits.

But after carrying out my research, having used their under-exposed experiences as the inspiration for that of my characters in An Ocean Apart – and critically, having had feedback from readers who have never heard of the Windrush Generation, least of all, the contributions Caribbean people made to British life – I have been struck by how important these truths are to the history of modern Britain.

The Windrush Generation, the term that identifies people who migrated to Britain from the Caribbean from 1948 (starting with the arrival of the HMS Empire Windrush in June) to 1972, was perhaps the first of many ethnic groups to arrive in Britain from its colonies post-war.

It was a time when Britain, crippled by the war and experiencing a significant labour shortage, was reaching out to its citizens from the four corners of the world to come to the so-called Mother Country to fill its labour force.

The late 1940s and the 1950s were also a time of huge social change, with Britain aiming to pull its populous out of the shackles of poverty with a welfare state and a National Health Service (which coincidentally, was introduced exactly two weeks after the arrival of the Empire Windrush). For the first time, the nation was provided with healthcare free at the point of delivery, from cradle to grave.

It was an ambitious project, and one that even today, has its challenges, but is acknowledged as one of the world’s best healthcare systems. And just like the railways, London’s buses, and the construction industry at the time, the NHS needed very many trained workers to fulfil its aims.

As part of my research for my novel, I interviewed Windrush Generation women, including my own mother, who came to Britain as young women –some not even 20-years-old – to train as nurses. They then gave their entire working lives to Britain’s caring profession. The sentiment from each, was that Britain called and they answered that call.

Over time, the NHS has been continually staffed by foreign workers and today simply couldn’t operate effectively without them. Up to a fifth of the workforce is non-British.

It has, especially in recent years when we’ve battled the Covid-19 pandemic, become a national treasure. People love and appreciate the NHS, our doctors and nurses have been lauded as heroes, with people clapping for them on their doorsteps during lockdown. Meanwhile medical dramas are a mainstay of television scheduling, so it would seem that there is interest among the viewing public in such narratives.

But how much do we really celebrate the contributions of these ordinary people, whose every day work is remarkable to those that depend on them?

I’d love to see these unsung heroes and unspoken histories shared more, and fiction is an engaging vehicle for it. So many people wouldn’t pick up a history book, wouldn’t remember facts and dates, but they will devour a novel.

This is just one of many examples of how the efforts and contributions of immigrants to Britain have transformed it for the better, and highlights the fact that black history is British history. So as we prepare to mark another Black History Month this October, let us seek a more complete version of our nation’s history, and listen to more diverse voices. Within them, we will find many undiscovered stories and new, unsung heroes.

An Ocean Apart is published in paperback by Pan Macmillan on 29 September 2022

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