Lovers And Strangers: An Immigrant History Of Post-War Britain by Clair Wills

The Blurb On The Back:

The exhausted Britain of 1945 was desperate for workers.  From all over the world thousands of individuals came, assuming they would spend just a few years here, but instead large numbers stayed – and transformed the country.

Drawing on an amazing array of sources, Clair Wills’ new book brings to life the incredible diversity of the migrant experience. She introduces us to lovers, scroungers, dancers, homeowners, teachers, drinkers, carers and more to show the opportunities and excitement, the humiliation and poverty that could be part of their experience.  Irish, Pakistanis, West Indians, Poles, Maltese, Punjabis and Cypriots battled to fit into Britain and found themselves making permanent homes.  

You can order Lovers And Strangers: An Immigrant History Of Post-War Britain by Clair Wills from Amazon USAAmazon UKWaterstone’s or UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Clair Wills teaches at Princeton University and in this fascinating, at times horrifying but always very human book that draws on a rich mix of sources, she describes the experiences of migrants from a range of countries and cultures arriving in Britain in the post War period and although the scope of the book means some experiences get less attention than others, there are obvious and uncomfortable parallels with today’s immigration debate.

Although I admired the scope and ambition of the book, it’s perhaps inevitable that the experiences of some migrant communities (notably displaced Europeans, the Maltese, and Cypriots) get less attention than stories from Indian, Pakistani and West Indian communities and at times rather disappear from the narrative.  That’s a shame because they are communities that don’t tend to get a huge amount of attention in discussions about race and immigration within the United Kingdom and while Wills is able to draw on Irish experiences to show the differences and similarities in British attitudes towards immigration (and often in a way that shows the distasteful hierarchical attitude taken towards race and colour) I felt that it missed an opportunity to discuss a hidden part of British history.

Saying that, Wills’ account of the experiences of West Indian, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi draws on a rich array of sources, including poetry and writing from members of the Punjabi community, which really helps to bring to life what drew people to Britain and what they hoped to get from working here.  I was particularly struck by the attitudes of those from the Caribbean who saw themselves as answering a call for help from a motherland that they very much felt a part of and a duty towards and it’s heart breaking to read of how reality ran up against the expectation (the more so given the shameful conduct of the British government towards the Windrush generation during the last couple of years and currently).  I also learned a number of things that I hadn’t previously been aware of, e.g. that members of the Commonwealth were automatically entitled to British citizenship until 1962 and usually saw themselves as British citizens entitled to the same rights as Brits.  Wills is particularly strong on setting the context of the immigrant experience against political and legislative developments and while there is some repetition of points, this is usually in order to enable Wills to use it to draw in another facet of immigrant life.

Inevitably, there is a strong emphasis in the book on the discrimination and racism endured by newcomers to the United Kingdom (and be aware that this involves reporting on the derogatory language used by people at the time).  Although horrifying and depressing, what is particularly interesting is how many of the arguments about immigrants (e.g. NHS tourism, benefit scamming, “stealing jobs and housing” etc) still crops up in the modern discussion about immigration. Reading this book left me a strong sense that for all the progress in legislation towards racial equality, there hasn’t been much corresponding progress in social attitudes, which merely repeat the same old hackneyed clichés against new and different ethnic groups.  Plus ça change …

Wills divides the book into chapters that each focus on a particular role or assumption about immigrants, e.g. Strangers, Scroungers, Drinkers, Troublemakers, Consumers, and Lovers. Again, there is some overlap in the themes in the different chapters but this is there to enable Wills to explore a different facet of the immigrant experience.  If I have a criticism, then it’s that there is a noticeable skewering of these chapters towards the male immigrant experience – perhaps because there are more sources on this – and as a result I would query whether it does justice to the intersectional experience of those female immigrants (notably from the Caribbean) who answered the British call.  That said, I found this a really engrossing read that’s also a timely one and as such I think it’s well worth a few hours of your time.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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