Windrush – what happened to those young people?

Tony Fairweather launches his new book, Twenty-Eight Pounds Ten Shillings – A Windrush Story, in Brixton library on Thursday 16 June. Camille Addis Alem talked to him about it

man. holding book
Tony Fairweather with his book

After a long career in the publishing industry, the founder of the Windrush Collection and Exhibition Tony Fairweather has written his debut book. On a Saturday afternoon, he took the time to sit with me at Market House and discuss his novel Twenty Eight Pounds and Ten Shillings: A Windrush Story

For Tony, it all started many years ago, in Brixton, while he was working in a gift shop. Among paintings and different ornaments, there was a books section that he was running.

From this small section, the top of the shop became a book shop and quickly gained recognition. So much so that the Voice, the biggest Black newspaper in the UK, approached him and asked him to run its book club.

By making it the biggest Black book club in England in the 80s, Tony responded to large demand and challenged the industry.

He explains: “One day the book Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan came my way.

“She was new. I read the book in one sitting. It was brilliant. I put it in the Book of the Month and said: ‘If anybody doesn’t like it, I will give them a refund’. We sold 400 copies and had two refunds. The publishers heard about it and were very impressed.

“I said: ‘I’d like to meet her. And, hell, I want to do a book reading with a her’.

“And I added: ‘I want to do it in Brixton’. Those days, Brixton wasn’t trendy like it is now. It a was a place where, if you drove through, you would not wind down your window. They were very scared about coming to Brixton.

“I said: ‘Well, what are we going to do with her? She’s Black, like us’.

“And then I also said: ‘I want you to bring a poet or a singer. My people like to entertain. Your people might like to sit down and see someone droning on’.

“They were shocked and they resisted me. But one person in a meeting turned around and I realised he was a top man. He said: ‘I like you. It’s different. Go ahead, we’ll give you a budget’. So I did.”

Hosting events and promoting books, Tony then combined his two passions by founding his PR agency called The Write Thing in 1989. Working with many authors including Alice Walker, Dr Maya Angelou and, more recently, South London Booker prize winner Bernardine Evaristo, he is now the one in the spotlight. 

Twenty Eight Pounds and Ten Shillings: A Windrush Story recounts the history of those young Caribbean people who responded to the call from the British Empire for men and women to help rebuild the “Mother Country” after the Second World War.

On paper, this does not sound new, as much has been written about the Windrush generation after they arrived in Britain.

But Fairweather’s novel is nothing like what you may have heard before.

The narrative is focused on the two-week journey aboard the HMT Empire Windrush – the “ship of dreams” that would take them from Trinidad to Kingston, via Mexico and Bermuda to finally disembark in Essex, on 21 June 1948.

It’s also a book where facts meet fiction. While you will find yourself laughing and crying over the friendships, romances, jealousy, resilience and racism, you will also feel for those passengers, soldiers and staff when you read about their backstories.

Tony says: “I invented those characters. But they are based on stories told to me by my elders. My mother, my late father and elders in the community.

“Some were actually on the Windrush and some came in the boats afterwards. They all told me about what age they came over, what went on in the boat.

“They were young kids, 18, 19 years old, first time away from their parents. That freedom and, you know, the fact that there were four or five men to one woman on the boat.

“My main character in the book, Norma, is a woman. I wanted to give the woman’s perspective, because we’ve heard a lot from the men.

“In those days men were the head hustlers. It was a very sexist society. So, you know, only now in our present day, you’ve started to hear the women’s voice of the Windrush, and they’re coming through loud and clear.

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When I asked Tony if the Windrush scandal pushed him to write this book, he firmly affirmed no and explained that the story really began three years ago, when he went to a funeral. He saw a black and white photograph of young people, very well dressed, on the deck on a boat. Asking the deceased’s daughter, where her father was in the picture, he learned that he was the photographer. 

“After that, it stayed with me when I went to visit again: ‘What happened to those people?’. With that and the stories I was hearing from my elders I started to put it together. I just thought: ‘I would like to write a story about this. How would I do it?’ I said: ‘Let’s talk about it before they got here and just hang it on the roof of the boat’.”

This book brilliantly highlights the misconceptions that most of us can hold of the Windrush passengers.

These young kids, who came with hopes, fears and dreams were qualified people – teachers, nurses, cooks, and plumbers.

They were coming to do business and most of them expected to return to their country and families after the five years they had to stay in the UK.

Including other crucial issues such as the lack of respect and recognition felt by the West Indian soldiers regarding their wartime efforts, this book was a very easy and interesting read.

Already working on the sequel, which picks up from when the ship docks and ends through the eyes of the actual generations of Black Britons, Fairweather concludes:

“I want people to see that this Windrush scandal scarred everything. So I want you to see them as human beings and that they are the people who later get caught up in the Windrush scandal.”

Twenty-Eight Pounds Ten Shillings – A Windrush Story is published today (26 May) in hardback and ebook by HopeRoad publishing.

A Windrush Story with author Tony Fairweather
Thursday, June 16, 7–8.30pm, Brixton Library, SW2 1JQ