Five women, five very different stories of arriving in the UK, often unwillingly and always alone. How did they cope with the loneliness, the poverty, the loss of everything they once knew? What do they now think of the country that has become their adopted home? Jeremy Vine talks to them next week in a new lunchtime series on Radio 2. In My Country, My Music (produced by Chris Walsh-Heron) Vine and his five guests try to work out which country they now belong to, not through work, beliefs, hobbies or family but through the music they listen to.
By putting music centre-stage, as the focus, the heart of the conversation, some unusual perspectives and unexpected connections emerge. Prepare for some surprises. The theme tune from Chariots of Fire, for instance, almost sounds Chinese after listening to Sylvia’s favourite music from her childhood — ‘Ambush’, from Chinese opera — which recalls for her the hardships of her family who had to escape to Hong Kong during the Revolution, losing everything.
It’s also heartening to discover that of the five women only one (from Zimbabwe) is determined to return. On the contrary, most of Vine’s guests, even if at first shocked, disorientated, unhappy, now relish the diversity of life in Britain today. Their experiences, and their spirited optimism, are a refreshing antidote to all the current stories of corruption in high places and fears that the UK’s stature in the world is diminishing. Forty-five years after Enoch Powell’s threatening ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech (which Vine relives by visiting the hotel dining-room where Powell made it), we have here five stories of determination, extreme hardship and some kind of resolution to migration, emigration, immigration.
Take Yvonne Bailey who grew up on the island of St Vincent and the Grenadines. As a child she lived in a house with a paradisal view of the Caribbean. Now she looks out on the King George V reservoir in Chingford, Essex. The water might be grey, not blue, the sky covered with clouds. But she loves it. All the white sails on the water at the weekend remind her of ‘home’, or rather of her first home.
Radio was everywhere, she recalls, still bursting with enthusiasm for the music of her native tropical island — calypso, carnival, steelpan. But her parents soon left for the UK, part of the Windrush generation, leaving their children with the grandparents. By the time they sent for her, Yvonne had forgotten them. ‘What are we going to call them?’ she asked her brother on the way to London. ‘How do you call strangers Mum and Dad?’
She never did get on with her Dad, leaving home at 17 after a row that turned ugly. Tom Jones and Bob Marley took over from calypso; Notting Hill gave her carnival. ‘I wasn’t daunted,’ she now says of her bravado in taking a job as a typist in the London Metal Exchange, becoming the first black woman on the floor. ‘I was up for an adventure. But I did experience quite a lot of racism.’ Now she says, with pride, ‘We helped to build up Britain …We’re part of the British experience.’
Sylvia left Hong Kong to find a life for herself away from the difficulties of her family. She spent the flight across to London learning how to ask, ‘Where is the toilet?’ realising this would be the phrase she most needed. That plane journey felt like a week, she recalls. When the plane touched down in Manchester she noticed ‘the wet roofs’, ‘the little box houses’ and ‘the very tall Englishmen, with different coloured hair’. She was ‘very scared’.
It took her two years to understand English: ‘You can imagine the difficulties I faced.’ She watched Newsnight to learn the language and listened to Chariots of Fire countless times to inspire herself as she struggled to survive on £5 a month for food (which bought her three chickens and a bit of rice). Hearing its pounding succession of chords, she would say to herself, ‘Look, Sylvia. Don’t give up.’ She didn’t, and now her favourite song is Susan Boyle’s ‘I dreamed a dream’.
Alma Repesa is less upbeat. ‘I came here because of war,’ she says, a Bosnian whose family was forced to flee to a refugee camp in Croatia after the war broke out in 1992. Looking back she realises she had once taken a lot of things for granted. Not just food and safety, but also education, music, values of community and neighbourhood.
Things changed so quickly, from growing up in a quiet town where she fed the ducks to sleeping in the basement of her uncle’s house and listening out for shells — ‘If you hear a whizzing sound over you, it’s OK.’ Her favourite song now is Sting’s ‘Fragile’, which helped her to remember ‘there is sunshine after rain’. Vine wonders what she would now say to the frightened 17-year-old Alma, just arrived in the UK. There’s a long pause. Her voice breaks. ‘Just to hang on. It will be better.’ And she did, affirms Vine. ‘Yes, I think so,’ says Alma.
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