Linton Kwesi Johnson: ‘It was a Myth that Immigrants didn’t want to fit into British society’

Linton Kwesi Johnson: ‘It was a Myth that Immigrants didn’t want to fit into British society. We weren’t allowed’

Decca Aitkenhead  | The Guardian UK 

As the Jamaican-born dub poet reflects on decades of race relations in the UK, from the Brixton riots to Windrush, he says young black men carry knives out of fear, and questions how much progress we have made since his time as a teenage Black Panther

When Linton Kwesi Johnson was a boy, he wanted to grow up to be an accountant. “If I was an accountant,” he chuckles softly, sitting surrounded by piles of books and CDs in his modest south-London terrace house: “I would probably be a multimillionaire by now.” The world, on the other hand, would be considerably poorer.   

It is 40 years since the Jamaican-born poet made his debut as a recording artist. The release of Dread Beat an’ Blood – an album of radical political poetry spoken in Jamaican patois, set to a reggae beat – created a new literary genre known as dub poetry, and introduced Johnson, now 65, as the voice of the Windrush generation.

Neither he nor his work was universally welcomed. The Spectator memorably accused him of helping “to create a generation of rioters and illiterates” – the magazine was appalled by his phonetic spelling – say, “massakaha” for massacre – and he remembers how the police arrested and beat him up. Yet he became only the second living poet to have his work published by Penguin Modern Classics, and was the 2012 winner of the Golden PEN award for his “distinguished service to literature”. Next month, his contribution to the country’s cultural life will be honoured at the Southbank Centre in London – an occasion whose significance has been intensified by events of recent weeks.

Johnson describes himself as a reluctant interviewee. “I’ve got interview fatigue,” he smiles before we have even sat down, and it is true that he can be quite diffident and reserved. But rereading all the interviews he has given over the years, I was struck by how comprehensively they chart each turn in the evolving history of British race relations.

From the Black Panther movement to the New Cross fire and Brixton riots of 1981, through the Metropolitan police’s notorious Special Patrol Group, the Stephen Lawrence murder and the Macpherson report, right up to the Grenfell Tower tragedy, Johnson has provided the social commentary absent from so much of the public narrative. Sometimes, he has sounded full of rage – and at other times, more hopeful. I’m curious, therefore, to hear how he would characterise the present moment.

“In terms of our country, it would be foolish to say that we haven’t made some progress. Because we have.” He cites the contrast between the “almost complete and utter indifference to the New Cross fire from mainstream media” with the “huge outpouring of sympathy for people affected by the Grenfell tragedy” and reflects: “I think it’s a measure of how much progress we’ve made; how integrated we are.” Then he pauses.

“But, right now, we are living through a time of reaction; the rise of Conservative populism. And some things simply won’t go away. I’m sure I’ll be crucified for saying this, but I believe that racism is very much part of the cultural DNA of this country, and most probably has been so from imperial times. And, in spite of the progress that we have made, it’s there. It is something we have to contend with in our everyday lives.”

Linton was born in rural Jamaica in 1952, and arrived in London 11 years later to join his mother. “I remember when I was a youngster, there was always this myth that we were finding it difficult to integrate ourselves into British society. Or that there was a reluctance on our part to fit in with British society.” Most of the time, he speaks slowly, as if carefully measuring each word before committing it to speech, but occasionally they come firing out, and do now as he goes on: “And that was really a nonsense, because we are British! We were created by the British, for God’s sake.” The more deliberate rhythm resuming, he adds quietly: “The fact of the matter is we wanted desperately to integrate. But they wouldn’t allow us.”

Johnson has held a British passport since Margaret Thatcher was in power, but has known many Jamaican people who lived in the UK for years, only to visit the Caribbean and discover they were not allowed back. “So this Windrush scandal has been going on for a long time. But it is also symptomatic of the ascendancy of the Ukip wing of the Conservative party. Ukip doesn’t really exist in any concrete sense any more, but it is alive and well within the Conservative party. It has not only been the nasty party; it has been the anti-immigrant party.”

He takes heart from the public outcry that has forced the government to radically revise its hostile environment policy. “I think the vast majority of British people are outraged and think it’s grossly unjust. I mean, if you have got someone like Joseph [sic] Rees-Mogg, or whatever his name is, coming out and saying this is unacceptable, that’s a measure of the general public outrage.”

I ask what the government’s abject apologies mean to him. “Well, there’s no harm in saying sorry,” he smiles, with a mischievous glint. “But people want their situation resolved.” Does he assume from everything the government has promised that it will be?

“Well, I hope so. Because if it isn’t, they’ve got a fight on their hands, I can tell you that.”

Johnson’s worry, he adds, is: “It’s not just the so-called Windrush generation, but other people, maybe from the Indian subcontinent and other parts of the Commonwealth, who will be affected by this.”

The Brexiters in government, I say, blame EU membership for causing Britain to neglect its Commonwealth cousins, and promise that Brexit will put this right.

“That’s laughable,” he sighs. “Really, it is laughable.” He doesn’t know anyone in London’s West Indian community who fell for it.

“I’m sure that some of our governments in the Caribbean may be hoping for some benefit. But that is very naive … very naive. I think when people in government are talking about the Commonwealth, they’re really talking about Australia and New Zealand and Canada. Not these little specks in the Caribbean Sea.”

Johnson subscribes to Marcus Garvey’s belief that progress comes through autonomy, so has never looked to Westminster for progress. As a schoolboy, he joined the Black Panther movement, so I ask what he would join if he were in his teens today. “Oh, I would be in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, for sure.” Mainstream parties don’t interest him, he offers mildly. “Racist immigration legislation has been shared by both political parties. Winston Churchill talked about the ‘wogs’ and all that. So Mrs May, she’s not exceptional; there’s a historical continuity. And the Labour party is not exactly squeaky-clean. Though I’m very encouraged that in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, there’s now a different tone.”

Different enough for him to vote at the next general election? It has been Johnson’s lifelong policy to vote only in local elections, but after a brief pause, he nods. “I would probably give it serious thought.”

Linton Kwesi Johnson is In Conversation with Robin Denselow on 14 May, as part of the (B)old festival at Southbank Centre 14-20 May. Phone 020 3879 9555.

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Comments

  • Clyde Duncan  On April 28, 2018 at 4:12 pm

    One exciting Trini …

  • Clyde Duncan  On April 28, 2018 at 4:20 pm

  • Clyde Duncan  On April 30, 2018 at 10:32 am

    There are Two Possible Reasons Amber Rudd Finally Decided to Quit

    Matthew Parris | The Times UK

    For me what really took the biscuit was Diane Abbott, late last night, declining the invitation to say she felt any pity for Amber Rudd. And this from the woman who, criticised for getting her figures for the cost of extra police officers out by a factor of about two thousand, asked for the nation’s sympathy because she’d been feeling woozy due to diabetes.

    Sympathy in politics is anyway a counterfeit currency. We may feel sorry for Rudd, but still perplexed. Why did she do it? Let’s turn to Sherlock Holmes: “One must first eliminate all impossibilities, and whatever remains must be the solution.” You won’t find anyone who knows Rudd personally who thinks it possible she told a barefaced lie.

    When the former home secretary said her department did not deport illegal immigrants according to targets, she would have believed this. We can argue until the cows come home about her definitions of words like “target”, about her recollection, or about her administrative “grip”, but I have absolutely no doubt we can eliminate the possibility she meant to lie her way out of trouble.

    Why do I say that? Well, if you think (as I do) she’d have had a moral objection to such dishonesty, you need go no further. But if you won’t take her honesty on trust, then consider a more selfish motive: her instinct for self-preservation.

    If Rudd remembered the emails copied to her and the things she’d signed, and if she’d thought this language did amount to “targeting”, she’d have been crazy to deny this knowledge.

    Anything written down can be found and published – or leaked. Every minister knows that. Enemies are everywhere, and if you know they have ammunition you don’t offer them the open goal to use it.

    It was not, after all, as if a targets-based office culture cannot be defended. Most people in Britain would think the target for deporting illegal immigrants should be 100 percent.

    The point, though, is that THE WINDRUSH GENERATION ARE NOT ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS.

    This has rather been lost in the hue and cry about what Rudd said about targets.
    And as for targets, she had the perfectly serviceable option of defending the practice.

    The police have targets for drink-driving arrests; the Department of Work and Pensions should have targets for the take-up of benefits by the elderly; the NHS has targets for waiting times in A&E. If she didn’t defend targets as she could have, then I’m certain this was because, whatever might have flown around in paperwork and emails, Ms Rudd’s impression was that targeting was not what drove her department’s operations for the removal of illegal immigrants.

    Therefore, if we eliminate dishonesty from our list of suspects, what have we left?

    Two possibilities, I think. First, it has become increasingly clear there was a serious operation afoot to trip and catch her. The way in which material was dribbled out by sources (presumably in the Home Office) appeared calculated to keep the story running and intensify the torture through slow-motion. She may simply have concluded that she’d got so hopelessly on to the back foot that tottering on just wasn’t worth the candle: that if she survived, it would be a broken-backed survival.

    And I think she could have survived. It’s a fair bet the prime minister wanted her to, for – unless you speculate that Theresa May is actually plotting to tip the balance against her Brexiteers – these developments cannot have strengthened May’s position:

    Downing Street will end up with a substitute Remainer in the cabinet, and an extra and now-unmuzzled Remainer roaming the back benches.

    Which brings us to the second possibility. Rudd just snapped: just said: “Sod it, I’m out of here”.

    She can’t have felt it was going well, can’t have felt she was distinguishing herself in the post – I argued in Saturday’s Times that it is literally impossible to “get a grip” on a department like the Home Office; and can’t anyway have felt her heart was in what this government is doing.

    Ministers are human. None are without ambition, but only a few are so consumed with ambition as to take punishment without limit. Paradoxically, the more honest and moral you are, the more you twist on the rack, the more you sweat under the TV lights, the more tortured become your attempts not to lie and yet not to let cats out of bags.

    Nice people do look shifty. They feel shifty. Because they’re nice.

    A minister without a conscience could have sauntered through all this, carefree and catch-me- if-you- can, weeping crocodile tears for the Windrush generation and feeling no pain.

    Rudd did feel pain, did feel crushed and dispirited by the baggage she’d inherited, did feel stung by Abbott’s taunts about her honour.

    Do you remember why Jacqui Smith resigned as home secretary? No? Nor I, really.

    Do you remember why Stephen Byers resigned as transport secretary? Search me, though doubtless I wrote a finger-wagging column at the time.

    I don’t even quite remember why Peter Mandelson had to keep resigning.

    Rudd’s resignation will prove one of these: a storm which, once abated, is quite forgotten. What she did or didn’t do is last week’s news.

    What will be remembered – or might be – is what she may do next.

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