Spotlight

[Excerpt] Coming to England by Floella Benjamin

Revisiting the classic book twenty years later.


A few years ago, I had the rare experience of speaking with Baroness Floella Benjamin, OBE via telephone for a two-part interview Anansesem ran in our May 2012 issue. It was a conversation I will never forget. We talked at length about her books for young people and her work championing causes close to her heart: children's rights; diversity and inclusion; young people's online safety. One of the things I remember most about that talk is the emotion in Benjamin's voice as she spoke about her experiences as a black immigrant child during England's "Windrush era". Decades after setting off on a ship to a new land, that classic immigrant's journey still informs the person Benjamin is; indeed, it has shaped her into the outspoken advocate for immigrant children that we know her as today.

In 1995, Benjamin published her classic memoir Coming to England recounting her childhood in Trinidad, immigration to England in the 1960s as a ten-year-old child, and the challenges she faced adjusting to a new life in the racially-charged South London suburb of Beckenham. The book is on the National Reading List for Schools in Britain and in 2003 it was adapted into a film for BBC TV. Macmillan Children's Books is set to release a twentieth-anniversary edition of the book this October, including a new foreword by the author, additional historical information, and illustrations by Michael Frith. The cover shown below is the twentieth-anniversary edition cover. Get a taste of the vividly-rendered novel with this extract.


Coming to England

FLOELLA BENJAMIN | 10 MINS
© Pan Macmillan 2016



Chapter One

Life in Trinidad

 The day my brother Ellington was born my elder sister Sandra, who was four, my brother Lester, who was two, and I, aged three, were all out on the gallery – that’s what we called the veranda. My mother, whom we affectionately named Marmie, had told us that if we looked hard enough we would see a stork flying high in the sky with our new baby. I was hungry and really wanted Marmie to make one of her delicious soups for us, but I dared not take my eyes off the sky just in case I missed the big arrival.
Anyway, Mrs Jackson, the local midwife who lived in the lane opposite our house, said we couldn’t come into the house to see my mother until she called us.
I was beginning to feel more and more hungry, tired and anxious but I still kept my eyes glued to the heavens. Suddenly I heard the loud cry of a newborn baby. I felt happy but disappointed at the same time because I hadn’t seen the stork arrive. My mother told us it had come through the back door. I looked for it years later when my brother Roy and sister Cynthia arrived. Mrs Jackson was always there but I never spotted that elusive stork coming through the front or the back door!
The house we lived in was a small wooden building on stilts with dazzling whitewashed walls. There were windows and doors at the front and the back. We had two bedrooms which were the scene of many pillow fights and trampolining sessions, a small washroom, with a sink and cold tap, an airy kitchen with a large glassless louvred window where we also ate all our meals, and finally a sitting room where no one was allowed except on special occasions or when we had visitors.
This room was my mother’s pride and joy. Its brilliant white curtains always smelt fresh and the mahogany furniture was always highly polished, as was the wooden floor. My sister and I spent many hours polishing and shining that room from as far back as I can remember. We had to do the polishing before we left for school each day. The comfortable wooden chairs in the room were draped with crisp white lace headrests and the round table, which we ate from on Sundays and other special occasions, had a doily in its centre, on which sat a vase of glorious fresh flowers. These were from our small front garden, which was full of exotic, sweet-smelling flowers and shrubs such as beautiful flame-red hibiscus which seemed to attract swarms of exquisite butterflies and hovering humming birds, in search of nectar. The back yard was where Marmie grew vegetables for our kitchen, like pigeon peas, cassavas, okras and dasheen. A tall bushy tree stood in the yard, reaching up to the kitchen window, and whenever one of us had a bad cold Marmie would pick some of the leaves, boil them and give us the vile-tasting liquid to drink. It always made us better – I guess the thought of a second dose was enough to do the trick! Also in the yard was a galvanized shower unit where we had our baths. There was no hot tap but the cold water was always warm because of the heat of the sun. During the drought season, from around July to September, we would have to get water from a standpipe in the street. Everyone would queue up with large enamel buckets, oil cans, basins – anything big enough to carry the water. The washing was done under the house in a big wooden tub with a scrubbing board, and the washing lines hung between two trees in the back yard. Our car was also parked under the house.
At the very bottom of the yard was the latrine, the outside toilet. It was a small wooden hut and none of the planks of wood quite met, allowing chinks of light to shine through.
Inside was a four-metre deep hole, reinforced with concrete. A wooden seat was built on top like a throne. The lock for the door was a piece of string which was hooked over a large nail. The square pieces of toilet paper, cut out of sheets of newspaper, hung on one of the walls. The comic strip pages always made good reading, but the only problem was you could never finish a story because the last part had inevitably been chopped off to make another sheet.
I didn’t mind using the latrine during the day. I would imagine myself as a queen sitting on a throne holding court. But in the evening it was a different story. The scratching sound of the crickets, the loud deep croaks of the toads, the buzzing and flashing sparks of the night insects was enough to drive any child’s imagination wild and I was no exception. I hated having to visit that dark hole – even the flickering light of my candle was no defence or comfort.
I liked sitting on the gallery after dark, though. We would sit there at night on the two rocking chairs with my father, Dardie, who used to tell us some amazing tales: his own stories as well as Anancy stories, the tales that came from Africa to the Carribbean. Dardie was born in Antigua and came to Trinidad, where he met Marmie, when he was nineteen. So he would tell us about his homeland, and about the capitals of the world – where they were and how many people lived there. We were quizzed on these night after night. He also gave us vivid descriptions of American movies and filmstars and we were each given a filmstar’s name as well as a pet name. Mine was Martha Raye because I used to love to dance and sing like her. In fact we each had to do a party piece before we went to bed, parading and performing up and down the gallery like superstars. There was no television so we had to make our own entertainment. But once a month he would take us to see a film at the cinema in San Fernando.
Dardie felt it was his duty to open our eyes and minds to the world even though we lived on a small island just a few miles from South America. He always found time to play with us even though he worked hard as a field policeman. He patrolled the huge oil refinery at Point-a-Pierre which was near the oil field Forest Reserves in the southwest of the island. He wore a khaki uniform with brass buttons which we all took great pride in polishing every night so they would glitter in the sunshine like gold. We always ran to meet him on his way from work and he would carry us home like a strong giant, two under his arms and two on his shoulders, while the two youngest watched. Then he would toss us in the air like acrobats. Oh what excitement! We didn’t always have our meals with Dardie because he worked shifts, but we would crowd around him whenever he had his meals.
Food played a very important part in our lives. Marmie insisted that we had plenty of it and her cupboards were never empty. She insisted we all ate well so that we would grow up big and strong. Mind you we didn’t need much encouragement – it was always a race to see who finished first or ate the most food. Not a scrap was ever left on the plates.
For breakfast we would have fresh home-baked bread, scrambled eggs or saltfish, fresh fruits and tea, which could mean anything from fresh grated cocoa, coffee or tea itself. After breakfast we had to line up to be given a dose of cod liver oil which was hideous.
The fishy, oily liquid seemed to line the inside of the throat and stay there. It was one of the few things I didn’t want to be first in line for and when it was my turn I used to hold my nose and only the promise of a piece of orange would encourage me to take it. Marmie told us it was good for our bones and teeth, which was true but it didn’t make it taste any better.
For lunch it was either a rich tasty soup which was like a stew made of meat, pulses, vegetables and dumplings, or rice served with beef, chicken or, on Fridays, fish. For dessert we had whatever fresh fruit was in season: mangoes, pineapples, pawpaw or pomsitea, and for supper we had bread and cakes, all baked by Marmie, washed down with cocoa.
Saturday was Marmie’s baking day, and she would bake enough for the whole week. Bread or bakes – a sort of bread with no yeast, sweet bread – bread with coconut and sugar, sponge cakes and coconut drops. The smell of her freshly baked bread and cakes was wonderful – it always made me hungry. Sandra and I had to do our bit by helping to grease the baking tins and stir the cake mixture. The best part was when we fought over licking the cake bowl.
Sunday was a special day in Trinidad. It was the one time of the week when we all got together which gave me a happy feeling of belonging and a sense of occasion. The realization that the family unit was special began to take place during that time. We ate lavishly in the sitting room: the crisp starched white tablecloth would be spread out over the mahogany table, and the best glasses – frosted coloured ones – and plates were used. Then the table would be laden with dishes of food – it was like a feast. On the menu was brown down chicken, rice, plantains, callaloo, sweet potatoes, cassavas, gungo peas, macaroni cheese pie. To drink we would have soursop juice or limeade made from the fresh fruit and ice bought by my mother from the ice truck which came round every day. Not many people had refrigerators so the big blocks of ice would be wrapped in sackcloth and newspaper and would be kept in a big wooden tub. Pieces of ice would be broken off with an ice pick which was very sharp.
For dessert Dardie would make ice cream in a special ice cream tub. It was a thick metal churn inside a wooden tub with ice, salt and newspaper crammed between the two. The ice cream mixture was made up of custard powder, fresh vanilla, condensed milk, sugar and gelatine. He would always drop five cents into the churn and when the ice cream was served the lucky person who found the coin would keep it. We all excitedly took turns to churn the container round and round to make the ice cream set which seemed to take forever.
When Marmie was not cooking she was doing other household chores, and while she worked she sang songs. She didn’t have a particularly good voice but that didn’t stop her. Her singing was very infectious, so whenever we helped her we sang too. She sang whilst she washed, cooked, cleaned and ironed. The iron she used was a big heavy cast-iron one with hot coals inside it. She had to wrap a towel around the handle to hold it because it was so hot. Marmie also made all our clothes, even down to our knickers and petticoats. Most people made their own clothes but Marmie was always creative in what she made for us to wear. She had style, a real flair for fashion. People often used to stop and admire all six of us when we were dressed and out with her and Dardie.
The job Marmie seemed to love doing best was shopping at the local market. What a spectacular event that was. The market was a big concrete two-storey building with steps leading up to it. There were concrete slabs where the stallholders displayed their wares. Meat, fruit and vegetables had to be bought fresh every day. The smell was intoxicating: the air was full of the scent of fruit and spices mixed with a tinge of sea and sun. At the busy, bustling market the noise was deafening. The stallholders tried to outshout each other as they attempted to attract the attention of the customers. The customers, in turn, haggled over prices. You could buy anything there: live chickens, breadfruit, sugar cane, cocoa pods, pineapples, rice, sweet potatoes, sweetcorn, guavas, yams, dasheen, limes, grapefruit, mangoes, tomatoes, cassava and enormous watermelons. Watermelons have a special association for me because of the day I saw some unceremoniously topple out of a truck. It was on one of the many days when Marmie had sent Sandra and I to the market with a shopping list, some dollars and cents and instructions not to overspend but to get the best things. On the way to the market we saw a stray dog run across the road in front of a truck full of juicy watermelons. The driver had to slam on his brakes so hard that the flimsy wooden sides of the truck collapsed, sending the ripe watermelons cascading on to the road and leaving it awash in a sea of red mush. Shoppers scattered as the melons tumbled down the street – they, like us, could not stop themselves from laughing but the driver was furious. The dog disappeared into the crowd but the red colour of the watermelons stained the road for days.
It was also a great adventure whenever we had to buy fish. Sandra and I used to hold hands and skip down the lane to the wharf where the fishermen sold their catch. Fish of all sizes were on sale: red snappers, herrings, butterfish, barracudas, crabs, shrimps and lobsters. Once we were privileged to witness a fisherman’s dream – the biggest fish imaginable. It was about three times the size of me. The fisherman, who was the star of the day, had caught a shark and as customers gathered round to touch and admire the stone grey giant of a fish as it hung high, its vicious grinning mouth pointing to the ground, I pushed my way forward to get a closer look. I came eye to eye with the huge monster, and as I stared back at it I was convinced it winked at me.
Marmie sometimes took us shopping in the big towns, like San Fernando and Port of Spain, where there were large stores like Woolworths. There were also furniture stores as well as stores selling fabrics, books and shoes. These were very similar to the stores in any big city. I really didn’t like going to them because Marmie would always tell us not to touch the glass counters in case we broke them. I much preferred going to Mr Ching’s shop, which was like an Aladdin’s cave. It was our local corner shop and sold everything from scrubbing brushes and soap to butter and powdered milk, from shoelaces and matches to sweets and candles.
I found joy and pleasure in the simplest things. It took very little to make me happy because Marmie had taught us all how to be contented with what we had, how to make our lot seem the best in the world. I had learned from an early age how to have pride in myself and my country. During this period of my life everything seemed perfect.


Source: http://bit.ly/2cpuJmE



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About the Author

Summer Edward is the Managing Editor and Kids Editor here at Anansesem. Her writing and art have been published in various literary magazines and anthologies. Her home on the web is www.summeredward.com.


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About Anansesem

Anansesem is an online magazine of Caribbean children's and young adult literature by adults and children. We strive to bring you the best in news, reviews and creative content from the world of Caribbean children's publishing.
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