by BARBARA BLAKE HANNAH
- CHAPTER TWO
One particularly English puzzle confronted me in my hotel room. I could tell from the neighbourhood that we were staying in a fairly upper-class place. The street on which our hotel was situated faced Hyde Park, and there were expensive cars parked down the center of the broad avenue. The desk clerk was suitably aloof to make us feel that she was accustomed to dealing with far more important people than three black Jamaican women.
Which made it all the harder to find the solution to my problem, which was: as I prepared to go to bed, I washed my face and brushed my teeth in the basin in the bathroom attached to the room, but where was the toilet? There was indeed a bath and a basin, but search high and low, I could not find a toilet. I looked under the bed for a chamber pot, but found none. I looked again in the bathroom, tapped every wall, searched under corners, in case I was overlooking some simple device, but eventually I had to conclude that in designing this particular room, the hotel had neglected to put in a toilet.
With much trepidation and unease, I perched on the edge of the bath and relieved myself of the day’s accumulated liquid.
The next morning Beverly and Maude were hysterical when I told them in hushed tones the story of the missing toilet. Finally they gathered themselves together enough to explain that up a few stairs on the landing was a toilet to be shared by the guests on that floor. Coming from a Jamaica of luxury hotel rooms -- each with air conditioning, a view of the sea and one toilet per individual -- I thought this practice not only barbaric but unhygienic. I never got used to the idea of sharing a toilet in all the years I lived in England, especially the idea of sharing a toilet with a total stranger.
* * * *
I can never forget my first days in London. I had bought a bottle of “Diorissima” perfume in the Montego Bay airport, and the smell will always put my head back to those days. On our first day, we went to Oxford Street to buy shoes. I later regretted my two purchases which had looked so attractive to my unpracticed Jamaican eye, but which turned out to be made of cardboard and very uncomfortable. I soon learned that choosing leather shoes was important not only because of comfort, but because what you wore was carefully scrutinized by all who saw you to determine what you were worth and which social bracket you were in. Cardboard shoes, however pretty, meant you were right at the bottom.
We were appalled by the dull colours people wore -- gray, brown, maroon, navy, and beige. In 1964 neither Caribbean gaiety nor hippy madness had yet affected the British culture, and it was simply not possible to buy anything in red, yellow, bright green or any of the colours we Tropical Roses were accustomed to.
On Oxford Street, too, Maude gave us our first lesson in how to detect and deal with “colour prejudice”, as racism was then termed. We were in a Marks & Spencer shop trying to buy sweaters when, after trying to attract the salesgirl’s attention in vain, Maud said loudly: “She doesn’t want to serve us because we are coloured.” (In those days we did not call ourselves ‘black’.) The salesgirl looked in our direction with a haughty expression which confirmed Maude’s statement. “Keep it then,” Maude said, flinging down the sweater, and stormed out the shop, closely followed by Beverly and me.
“That’s why you mustn’t buy in cheap shops,” Maude explained to us on the street. “The poor whites who work in them consider themselves superior to immigrants, and when they have to serve you, it makes them vex.”
The whole scene had made me afraid, terrified in fact. We bought some clothes in a dress shop and I was glad to be finished, forever I hoped, with shopping.
I wish I had a mirror to see myself then. Looking at pictures today of me at that age, I was certainly pretty, but I had no idea of my own good looks. In Jamaica my skinny frame had not been fashionable; in fact it was ridiculed. In Britain, many women who saw me envied my model-like shape, although I did not know that for some months, and never believed it for years. On top of my slim shape, my big eyes, shoulder-length (straightened) hair and air of innocence must have made me one of the city’s most unusual beauties.
The foregoing is not said from arrogance, but sorrow of not knowing it and gaining from it a little confidence, rather than practically none. The concept of oneself as beautiful existed in VERY FEW Black people, least of all me. I saw myself as ugly, broad-nosed, emaciated, with “bad” hair and black skin -- the exact opposite of the Marilyn Monroe ideal then popular as the norm of beauty.
I wish I had known. I wish we could turn back time and live life over again with the knowledge we now have. But no such luck. To me, I was just a skinny black (sorry, coloured) girl, fresh from Jamaica with only Fifty Pounds in my pocket (that rapidly dwindling), nowhere to live and absolutely no idea how I was going to conquer this awesome city and achieve Fame and Fortune -- my real ambition in life.
We stayed at the hotel for about five days with no communication from the film company, Eventually word came that the film company would no longer pay our accommodation, and we were on our own -- at least Beverly and I were. Maud was a featured actress, already a name-star in Jamaica who intended to return home, so was not in the same category.
Beverly had a sister, Roma, who was already living in London in a small flat in a district named Turnpike Lane. She said we were welcome to stay, so we packed up and took the tube to Turnpike Lane. There we found her in a semi-detached house in a working class neighbourhood. Downstairs lived the Greek landlady and her family, while upstairs there was a living room, bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, Roma, and now us as well.
* * * *
London seemed so big. I had never seen such wide streets.
Everyone seemed to know just where they were going and what they were
Turnpike Lane didn’t help either. I knew somehow that this was just not the right place to be. I was sleeping in the living room on the couch with my suitcase on the floor beside me, changing our Pounds into coins to feed the gas meter. Roma was great, but the thought of settling down to life there was not comfortable. Roma and Beverly could laugh at it all, but I was impatient to get out. I didn’t know it, but Turnpike Lane was really the end of the world. It was about five years later before I passed through Turnpike Lane again -- so remote was it from everywhere else.
I had two phone numbers of friends whom I had met in Jamaica, and called them. Turnpike Lane was much too far for them to come and visit, but if ever I was in town (see how far away it was!) I should call them again. Turnpike Lane and its discomfort was beginning to be a disadvantage. Beverly agreed. We decided to look for somewhere more central.
There was something else I did not like about Turnpike Lane. It was too “immigrant”. Nearly everyone seemed to be from a foreign country speaking a strange language. There was a flat nearby in which lived three Jamaican boys studying law and other improving skills. They had no intention of settling in England, as I did. They simply wanted to equip themselves to earn big money when they returned to Jamaica, to make themselves able to buy the house in Beverly Hills or inherit their father’s business. They cooked rice and peas and chicken on Sundays and invited us over, when they would discuss how much they hated the English and England and how much they were eager to be back in Jamaica.
I did not share their attitude. I thought they were provincial and narrow-minded. Here was great England waiting to be explored, with so much potential for greatness in any field whatsoever, and all they wanted was rice and peas and Jamaica. Had they no ambition? Admittedly, the England in which they lived was inferior to Jamaica -- sad, shuffling West Indian immigrants buying smelly fish and chips outside the Underground station at nights, gas-metered cold flats, the long, endless train ride home from any civilized entertainment in Central London.
But I was looking further than that. I knew that out there was the possibility for me to become a famous author, or an actress, or... or... well, something, other than just another girl in Jamaica. I had had that, thank you. Surely the world held more for me.
I was going to “make it”. I did not intend to sink into the quicksand these others seemed to be fastened in. I had no idea how I was going to do it, but I was damned if I was going to sit in Turnpike Lane feeding the gas meter and trying not to offend the Greek landlady and her fat son.
Beverly and I phoned Trader Faulkner, the Australian actor we had met on the set who was always willing to help and offered to spend the next day flat-hunting with us. As he met us as South Kensington station, Trader looked at us with a slight misgiving. I think he wanted to warn us of what we might encounter, and in fact he vaguely hinted that we might find a little ‘colour prejudice’, but then again, he was with us and we didn’t look like regular ‘immigrants’, did we. Moreover, we were film stars, not quite like other females. We started the trek around the tree-shaded streets of Kensington and Chelsea.
This was more like it, I thought as I looked at the beautiful
buildings on both sides of well-kept streets. I wouldn’t mind living
here. But the men and women in the many estate agents we visited thought
Most of them smiled that icy smile. Some smiled hypocritically, saying: “Well I personally don’t have anything against you ... but y’know, the landlord ...”
Or: “Well we have one or two flats on our books,
but they all say “No Coloureds”. (These were the days before
the Race Relations Act made it illegal to discriminate so openly.)
We scaled down our ambitions and tried some less fancy
establishments. But these were even nastier. Finally at the end of a long
and tiring day, our spirits down and our smiles gone, I burst out at one
women in whose office we had sat for at least half an hour only to be
told that she didn’t rent to coloureds:
Beverly said” You know what is true? I gone back to Turnpike Lane. Now I can see why Roma is content there.”
As she left, Trader remembered that the house next to his had a flat for rent. It was only a one room bedsitter. Did I want him to ask the landlady?
Did I? The next day he phoned. It was okay. He hadn’t told her that I was coloured until she had said she would rent the flat. And when he had told her, he had begged her to take me, explaining that I was a very well-brought-up girl, not a prostitute (as all attractive coloured girls were supposed to be), and moreover I was working in the same film he was in. She relented and agreed to rent me the flat at Five Pounds a week.
The next day I moved out of Turnpike Lane and became one of the thousands of young people living in Earls Court bedsitters. It wasn’t somewhere Daddy would have approved of -- one room with a bed in it (were you supposed to entertain in your bedroom?!) with a threadbare carpet on the floor, a single gas ring for cooking (also on the floor), a gas fire into which one fed Shillings in order to light it, and a chest of drawers. But -- best of all -- my own private bath and basin, made up for all deficiencies. The toilet, however, was down the hall (again!).
But Earls Court was part of South Kensington and considered a good neighbourhood, and the flat's windows looked out over a park with trees.
I fed the meter, unpacked my guitar and strummed my favourite
* * * *
My parents separated when I was four (and my sister three) and I was broght up by my father in whose house I lived until I was 17 years old. He was a widely-known journalist and publisher of SPOTLIGHT, a montly newsmagazine which was the TIME of the Caribbean, and an influential leader of his day with enough life credits to have earned him the Order of Distinction in his later years. However, highlight of his career -- in his opinion -- was being chosen to present a copy of his picturebook “Beautiful Jamaica” to Queen Elizabeth of England on one of her visits to Jamaica. With that act, he achieved his life's ambition -- to meet the white woman he most admired.
He was best remembered for having de-segregated the pool of the city’s leading hotel -- the Myrtle Bank -- simply by going for a swim there one day and refusing to come out despite the unwritten rule that forbade Black Jamaicans from enjoying the water. Pop swam daily in the beautiful Bournemouth Pool close to our seaside home, but he had hired an English accountant for his business and the man would spend his lunchtimes swimming at the Myrtle Bank in the pool that was out-of-bounds to Black Jamaicans. This rankled my father as unfair, so me made his silent protest.
“Call the Police, call the Manager, call God” was his only comment when they told him to come out. He swam around for a while, then sat at the shallow end and read his newspaper. My father was famous enough and his magazine powerful enough, that this act of defiance eventually led to the desegration of both the pool and the hotel.
You would have thought that a father like this would have been the source of inspiration for my Black consciousness. Hardly so. It was not that he wanted equal opportunity for Blacks, but that he felt he was White enough in everything but skin colour and therefore entitled to the same priveleges as Whites. What my father tried to drum into my head was the thought that Black people could only be accepted by whites ON THE BASIS OF HOW WELL THEY IMMITATED AND FITTED IN WITH WHITE CUSTOMS AND MANNERISMS, HOW WHITE THEY COULD BE. I did my best to immitate the 'norm'.
My father encouraged me to straighten my hair and shave my legs and underarms. He constantly lamented the ‘broadness’ of my nose, and I knew that in his eyes I was not considered pretty. His preference was always for white female partners, by comparison with whom I certainly fell short. This did not exactly give me a confidence in myself or my looks as a black female. By the time I was a young woman, I saw myself as ugly, thin and black with ‘bad’ hair.
Ever hoping to please my father, I did my best to try to be as white as possible.
* * * * *
Ah well, where did we leave our innocent heroine? Somewhere on Oxford Street wondering if she would ever know which bus to take and which direction was north. An important thing for us islanders to know is which direction is north. Where we come from, our entire orientation is based on knowing which direction we are facing. If the mountains are in front of you and the sea coast is black sand, you are facing north. If the mountains are in front of you, but the sand is white, then you are facing south. In any case, where there is doubt you simply look at the sun -- since it rises in the East and sets in the West, you can always be sure of compass points.
Not so in England. The sun was merely a pale greyish-yellow light that occasionally lightened leaden skies with as much brilliance as a 50-watt bulb in a large room. And those were the days when it wasn’t raining. Some days the sun actually shone, but it was strange getting used to a sun that shone, but didn’t give warmth. I tell a lie. Some autumn days the sun did give warmth -- in fact I learnt that there could be a distinct difference in temperature between the sunny and shady sides of the street. At home we walked on the shady side. In England, I learnt to reverse the procedure.
* * * *
So there I was -- a bed-sitter of my own, a few of my precious Pounds still intact, and on the road to adventure. But we were not yet finished with the film.
One day, when we had almost forgotten about it, we each got letters telling us to report to Pinewood Studios at 6:30 a.m. Trader helped to get us organized with transportation and soon we were having our first experience of a film studio. I must admit it cured me forever of any vague hope I may have nurtured of becoming a movie star. The enormous studio sound stage was drab and boring, and the act of putting on the pink costume and black wig again brought back sharply the fact that I was no longer in the happy beauty of Jamaica -- no sunshine, no between-takes laughter -- just repetitive work.
We filmed the interior of the Damas de Noches bar sequence. Quinn was there and Coburn, and we also saw for the first time Lila Kedrova who was to come to fame in the film she had just finished shooting with Quinn -- “Zorba The Greek”. The professional English extras made us shy with their exuberant acting, the lunch food was alien to us, the vast rooms and passages of the studios were drafty and confusing. By the end of the day Beverly and I could look at each other and say: “No bwoy, me don’t want to be no movie star”.
And mean it.
Filming over, Beverly and I never thought we would ever see Quinn again. But one evening many months later as we were walking home to a South Kensington apartment we then shared, a thick fog enveloped us and in a panic we realised we were lost. Suddenly out of the mist a large figure appeared -- none other than Anthony Quinn whose home we were passing!
"Beverly! Is that your voice? What a happy surprise!" Clearly, Beverly's 'Truth Games" on the set had been a worthwhile time investment. This miracle was met with huge hugs and happiness. "How great to see you! What brings you here? You're lost? Come, I'll show you the way." With his booming laugh and full of memories of the film, Quinn walked the distance with us through the foggy streets until we were home.
I had the addresses of two friends in London. The first was an Englishman whom I had met briefly in Kingston. The other was a Jamaican girl and former Hampton schoolmate, Sally Densham, who lived in Ladbroke Grove. I phoned her up and she said come over, so somehow I made my way there one Saturday night and had my first experience of London’s main Black ghetto. The contrasts of the city of London were sharply revealed by the difference between Turnpike Lane, Earls Court and Ladbroke Grove. Standing on the main avenue wondering which direction to turn, I was struck by the poverty, the dirtiness of the street, the shabbiness of the buildings and, most of all, by the sight of so many black people gathered in one place in that white man’s town.
And what pitiful specimens of Black people they were too! Loose, threadbare suits, heads covered by narrow-brimmed hats, feet shod in broken-down shoes -- all wearing an air of suffering or sadness, of total dejection. Some drunks staggered past me, laughing crazily as drunks do, and frightening me. Proper brought up girl that I was, I had nothing to compare with the underworld that I felt I had descended into. It was sad and frightening.
I found the street I wanted and looked for Sally’s house. All the houses were scabby and unpainted, with garbage and rotting furniture piled in the small yards outside, dying trees, dirty-faced children, shouting women, music from windows, black and white couples, prams on doorsteps and, over everything, the smell of decay and poverty.
This was the ghetto. Sally, my friend, was not in the least bit conscious of it. In fact, on reflection, I realise that she enjoyed being there, living in such a beatnik manner. I say she was Jamaican, and I know that you immediately imagined a black girl. But Sally was in fact white, with waist-length blonde hair and a petite Bardot-like figure. Born in one of the aristocratic English families of Mandeville, and a fabulously skilled artist, we had been tomboys together at boarding school, firm friends and partners in such petty crimes as skipping classes to play “ hot potato” with water-filled balloons on the out-of-bounds hillside. Neither of us had changed much since those school days.
Sally lived in a two-room apartment with two Australian young men who worked as window dressers with her at Selfridges -- the city’s big store on Oxford Street. They were homosexuals and slept together in the living room, which was very well decorated -- most of it with things they gleefully told me had been ‘nicked” (stolen) from the windows they dressed. They thought lightly of such theft -- after all, a window dresser had once stolen a grand piano!
Sally slept in the second room, which was also the dining room and opened into the small kitchen. I spent many weekends sharing a mattress on the floor with her. I could never understand how she could accept the fact that these two guys were queer. She just laughed at the situation and at them, and loved them in a motherly way. The queers often quarreled petulantly with each other, accused each other of infidelities, inconsiderateness and generally behaved as if they were a normal man-and-woman couple. But a touch of sado-masochism marked their relationship which, to me, overshadowed any of the fun we had when the four of us went to see a movie, a play or to an art gallery, or just spent the day huddled by the gas fire chatting.
There were a lot of Australians in London, I learnt, most of them living in South Kensington as I was. They were clannish, given to drinking beer and considered their trip to England an essential of life before settling down forever, so far away from anywhere, on the other side of the world in Australia. A few of the Australians were artistic types, writers or actors or even homosexuals whose behaviour would not be condoned in macho Australia.
But most were simply girls and boys for whom a European trip had as much social cachet on their return home, as a University degree to most Jamaicans. In this Australian community, I later met and became friends with Germaine Greer -- who became Britain’s first radical feminist and author of the movement’s best-selling book “The Female Eunuch” -- recently graduated from Oxford and already making a name as an unconventional and outspoken personality.
Black music was not yet competing with the Beatles and the Liverpool sound, but there was a Blue Beat record named “My Boy Lollipop” sung by Chris’ protégé Millie Small, which went to Number One and opened up the mainstream market. More popular was a group of three pretty Black American girls named the Supremes who had a hit song named “Where Did Our Love Go”. Both songs were very popular in England, despite a Top Ten crowded with the new stars of British music, like Sandy Shaw, Cilla Black and Dusty Springfield.
I remember Chris Phipps, an English boy who worked for Island who amused me continually because of his very accurate Jamaican accent. I also remember two beautiful Jamaican girls named Esther Anderson and Mary Beswick who always hung out at the double penthouse flat where Blackwell and Millie lived. Both girls had starred in the 1960 Miss Jamaica Beauty Contest, achieved notoriety but not the crown, and departed for England to make their name as movie stars. Mary -- white-skinned with a stunning figure, had changed her name to ‘Martine”, accordingly because of the martinis she loved to drink. She won minor roles in two Bond films, while Esther -- of East Indian origin -- co-starred with Sidney Potier years later in the hit film “A Warm December”, but neither achieved the lasting international stardom they hoped for.
My world and theirs did not cross often -- they laughed at my seriousness, my earnestness, my unhip ways and clothes, so I kept my distance in awe of these luminaries who ran in the fashionable fast lanes. To be Black and part of that inner circle, you had to qualify by being rich, famous or beautiful. I was none of these.
went back home to marry Perry Henzell and later help him make THE
HARDER THEY COME.