Taken at the Flood
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare
By 1971 the West Indian heritage community and myself had much in common by way of shared experiences. We had both come through a period of transition, and no longer relied on others to do things for us, to act for us, or to act towards us. We were also confident and capable of taking our own decisions to influence our role in the world in which we found ourselves. We were confident in our respective destinies and the way forward lay in our own hands. Together, and severally, were afloat on that tide in the affairs of men that if “taken at the flood leads on to fortune”.
Nevertheless there were a number of awkward passages to get through first.
THINGS FALL DOWN
There was no reason to doubt that the Wembley festivals would be the platform from which the dreams of the preceding decade would be realised. My boring days as a civil servant seemed to be coming to a close. My script lay at the top of Bernard Miles’ drawer. The Gleaner and the West Indian World could not get enough of my work. By the law of averages one or two of my stories would provide the “big break” in the national press. The same could be set of several of the entertainers with whom I was involved.
Furthermore, a mutual friend even brokered a deal with Hopelyn’s father by which we looked after, and moved into, his house on Kilmorie Road in Forest Hill while he and his immediate family settled into their new home in New York.
It didn’t quite work out like that.
Everything came tumbling down.
The death of my maternal grandfather in January 1970 initiated a run of hitherto unparalleled setbacks. Over the next three to four years we lost also my paternal grandmother and no branch of the family was left untouched by death or serious illness. The much-treasured cohesion was impaired by frustration over how/if to benefit from the sale of the family bungalow, and by my parents’ move in Gravesend town which severed the direct contact with our village roots. At the same time most of Hopelyn’s relatives moved away, with her parents and younger siblings going to the USA and her maternal grandmother, with whom she had grown up, to Canada. In a short time her father, whose attitude had been soothed at first by Atlantic barrier, repented his decision to let us live in his house and set about trying to get us removed.
College friends, the core of our personal social life, took up the overseas jobs for which they had trained at SOAS. There was also a haemorrhage from my “proper” work. Robert Duthie married and transferred to Doncaster. Eddie Grant went even further afield to Toronto. He was joined in North America by Tony Mossop, Rema Nelson, Hugh Scotland, Vibart Scrubb and Celia (nee) Philip, Aubrey Baynes secretary. Some Jamaicans were tempted “home” by the election success of Michael Manley in 1972. Our world suddenly became suddenly very compressed with a whole cast of new players in both our personal and professional lives.
The “big story” did not break. The artistes went sideways overseas, instead of up, and my script slipped downwards in Bernard Miles’ pending tray. When my father mentioned to me that the general manager of British Uralite Ltd, the building and construction company for which he worked, was looking for a personal assistant I grabbed the chance to get out. The factory was situated on the Kentish marshes beyond Higham, where Pip had met the convict, Magwitch, in Great Expectations. The move there gave me a chance to start my life again. My writing would be confined now to reports on roofing and cladding.
14 April 1969
There was one silver lining to this sadness. Welcome new members came into the family to replace those that had passed on. Our daughter Elaine was born at Mayday Hospital in Croydon in April 1969. Hopelyn went into labour around breakfast time. I was the only person at the time in the maternity ward waiting-room. An African nurse came in, looked around anxiously, and then she went out. The same thing happened a few minutes later.
The third time ….. I asked: “Can I help?”
“I’m looking for Mr Goodwin” she replied. “His wife is having a baby”.
“I know” I added. “That’s me you’re looking forward”.
“It can’t be” she returned. “This Mr Goodwin has to be black”.
After the confusion had been sorted out, the nurse advised me to go in to work and explained that the hospital would call me there when the baby had arrived. In the lunch-hour I paced up and down nervously in the washroom and, for no apparent reason, washed my hair. As I was doing that a colleague took the message.
“It’s a girl. Mother and baby are sleeping”.
When working-hours ended I rushed into nearby Victoria Street, oblivious to the April shower and the shampoo still in my unrinsed hair. Little Elaine’s first sight of her father as she looked up from the incubator was of an idiot grinning at her with foam coming out of his head. I haven’t summoned up the courage yet to ask her if she has forgiven me.
5th August 1972
The cosmopolitan nature of our life was reflected in the choice of made we made for our son who was born in August 1972. The godparents had been chosen – they were English, Jamaican, German and Scottish. We wanted a name that fitted all these nationalities easily and was not associated too closely with either of our families.
“Let us make a list of suitable names and think them over” I suggested, picking up pencil and paper. “We shall start with Robert”.
I went no further. There had been a Robert in every class of every school I attended, and in every office in which I had worked, not one of whom had given me any trouble. It was without doubt my lucky name. And, with Hopelyn agreeing to the choice, so it has proved to be with our son.
Why did Robert come into my mind first? Robert Duthie was of the opinion that he was a close friend and may well have phoned me just beforehand. He could well be right. Or it could have been the call of fate. Roberto did win the Derby that year, but I am not a horse-racing fan and would not have been influenced by it.
Rob came into our lives on a hot summer Saturday afternoon. After travelling into the hospital with Hopelyn I had to return home to look after Elaine. An elderly health visitor brought the news to us that he had been born – and added a few unfortunate remarks about mixed-race children, based, she said, on her missionary experience in China. She also had something unpleasant to say to Hopelyn later about unmarried mothers expecting to “live on the state” in the mistaken belief that we couldn’t possibly have been married.
We didn’t care. We had our son to go with our daughter. We were now the perfectly balanced family – and we even had a cat!
British Uralite Ltd
April 1973 – May 1976
At British Uralite, which I joined on 1st April (All Fools’ Day) 1973, I had to re-invent myself as an Englishman, especially after we had moved into Holmsdale Grove in Barnehurst, then a “white” suburb, two years later. The West Indian cricket tour that summer came and went without me having any involvement. Now I supported Kent cricket and Gillingham football teams. The works social club piped out bubble-gum music such as Chirpy, Chirpy, Cheep, Cheep and Knock Three Times instead of hard reggae. The name Millie Small meant nothing there – some of my colleagues confused her with Lulu, the similarly monosyllabic Scottish singer. As I slipped back into being “Ian” – with “Clayton” forgotten – nobody could tell that I was supposed to be an adopted Jamaican.
Brian Hill, a friendly visiting salesman, told me why he had moved out of London’s East End into Essex.
“My little girl had to sit next to a little black girl at school. I know you have a daughter. How would you like it if she had to sit next to a little black girl?”
“Brian, my daughter would be that little black girl” I replied.
His face went a bright red.
Mr Honess was the perfect boss. Tall, self-effacing with a melancholic manner, he seemed to dress always in the same brown suit. His only sign of ostentation was his red Jaguar car. There was none of the “shout and make them mind” attitude about him. He said what he wanted to be done and left me to decide how to get on with it. While those who didn’t know him well considered him to be a bit eccentric (the “professor” of stereotype), his staff thought the world of him. Nobody wanted to disappoint John. He was understanding, as befitted his much-quoted motto “the man who has never make a mistake has never made anything”.
“I am John when we are together” he informed me. “And Mr Honess when you speak about me to other people”.
Mr Honess knew that my heart wasn’t in the work at British Uralite. In earlier years he had had to abandon his own ambition to be a doctor in order to take over the family business. In spite of his success and his favourable social standing, he considered his life to be unfulfilled. He made it easy for me to pursue my writing aspirations – if I still wanted to do so. As long as my work was completed by the end-of-the-month deadline, he wasn’t too particular how or when it was done. An assigned in London could be timed to co-incide with a Test match there, one in Edinburgh or Birmingham to tie in with a boxing promotion, and he turned a blind eye to me arriving at the office early to use the phones to call through my copy to the Westindian World.
Also I had the advantage of sharing that office with Bill Ritchie, the deputy company secretary and a taciturn Scot, whose words, while few, were full of sound business advice. The long lunch-time walks across the lonely marshes gave me time to think through what I would do if I were to be given a second turn as a writer.
Slim chance there was of that, though.
The Oval cricket ground
14th June 1975
The most memorable cricket moment for me in these years was as an English spectator – even though West Indies were one of the terms involved. My BU colleague Adam Gilbert, a member of Surrey CCC, arranged for myself, my father and a friend to attend the preliminary round match of the first (Prudential) World Cup competition played between Australia and West Indies at the Oval in June 1975.
With my father sitting next to me, I felt myself to be once more the schoolboy he had taken to Test matches on this ground in the 1950s rather than the “working” reporter/messenger for those matches there in the next decade. There was a freshness in the air as West Indies, the overwhelming favourites of the predominantly English crowd, took the field against the “old enemy” at this supposedly neutral venue.
This was the famous match in which Alvin Kallicharran mugged Dennis Lillee. He came to the wicket with West Indies on 29-1 and by the time he was dismissed at 153-2 his batting had decided the issue. The innings was on a par with that of his Guyanese compatriot Rohan Kanhai on the same ground 12 years earlier. Lillee and fast-bowling partner Jeff Thomson, who had terrorised England the previous winter, would give West Indies a thorough “going over” before the year was out. But that was not to be on this day.
This afternoon was different. Kallicharran, a left-hander of short stature, tucked into the bowling. Lillee, tall, strong and menacing, his long, dark locks flowing behind him – Keith Miller “with attitude” – thundered in from the Vauxhall End. The faster he bowled, and the shorter he pitched, Kallicharran despatched the ball quicker to the boundary with a range of hooks, cuts and drives. He scored 78 from 83 balls with 14 fours and a six. I didn’t expect to see the like again – and haven’t done so. It was the innings about which everybody wants to talk to the batsman, but Kallicharran, understandably, can become irritated when it is brought up time and time again.
Arif Ali, who is also from Guyana and had taken over the Westindian World from Baynes, had noted that innings, too. He was even more interested when West Indies won the World Cup final. With the region’s cricketers due to tour England the next summer Arif decided to bring out a cricket supplement. He went about finding a sponsor for the project – and a writer to bring this dream to fruition.
I knew nothing about that then and returned to describing in something like readable prose the attractions of working with bitumen and asbestos.
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