As many parts of the UK prepare to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, it feels as if nostalgia is back in vogue. Many trappings of the festivities have a timeless feel to them – Union Jacks, Scones, and bunting – but as we all know, Britain has been transformed over the last 60 years.

Many of the reasons for this transformation have been well documented. These include breakthroughs in science and medicine; rapid advancements in computer and mobile technologies; popular music and culture; globalization; deregulation and the birth of the Internet have all helped to reshape British society.

Another visible and often contentious driver of change has been migration. There’s no denying that some parts of Britain look very different today. What was once known as a cultural melting pot could now be renamed a remix culture.

We can point to historic moments such as the arrival of the Empire Windrush, which docked in Tilbury on 22 June 1948, carrying 493 passengers from Jamaica hoping to start a new life in the United Kingdom. But most changes are harder to track as they take place on a micro level and involve the daily interactions that occur among people of different cultures. I call these hidden histories.

My Hidden History

My parents came to the UK over 50 years ago. My father had been a teacher in his native country Nigeria, but because he was bright and ambitious, he was selected by his village and sent to England to study law. His plan was to qualify as a lawyer and return home to set up his legal practice. In the end, it took him over 20 years to complete this mission.

My mother came to Britain from her home on the outskirts of Montreux in Switzerland to learn English. She worked as an au pair and was living with a family in South London when she had what turned out to be a life-changing encounter on the London Underground with a lady carrying too many bags of shopping.

The lady, who happened to be Nigerian, was struggling with her bags as she disembarked from the tube. In a random (but not uncharacteristic) act of kindness, my mother offered to help her.

The two of them walked from the station to the apartment where the Nigerian lady lived. The lady insisted on returning my mother’s kindness by inviting her back for a meal at a later date.  My mother, who until this point had never known any black people, felt it would be rude to refuse, so she accepted the offer.

It turns out the Nigerian lady was a friend of my father. When she recounted the story to him later, she declared emphatically: ”I have met your future wife!”

Soon afterwards my mother received the invitation back to the flat for a meal. Not knowing quite what to expect, she arrived brandishing a bunch of flowers. However, when the door opened she was shocked to discover that her host for the evening was not the lady she had met before, but my father. Despite wanting to turn and run away, she stayed and had dinner with the man who would become her future husband.

My mother tells me that she will never forget the date of that first meeting: 22 November 1963. How can she be so sure? It was there that she first heard the news that President John F Kennedy had been assassinated.

Half the story has never been told

Stories like the one above form a tiny part of Britain’s hidden history, composed by ordinary people who weren’t kings or queens, musicians or movie stars. Taken together they form part of the broader historical narrative of Post-War Britain, highlighting how migration created unlikely encounters that helped shape the world we now inhabit.

Bob Marley sang, ‘half the story has never been told’. Over 30 years ago a group of parents, educationalists and community activists led by Len Garrison set out to correct this by forming the Black Cultural Archives. Since then, the BCA has been preserving the hidden histories of black people in the UK, amassing a collection of magazines, photographs, recordings and artifacts that bring these stories to life.

I’ve been involved with the BCA as a Trustee for the last few years working towards launching the first National Black Heritage Centre in Brixton. Having received over £5m for a capital building project from sources including the Heritage Lottery Fund, the BCA is well on the way to making this dream a reality by 2013.

This will be a significant milestone, because as the Diamond Jubilee reminds us, history is important. Britain is far from perfect, but there’s a lot to be proud of. Our unique remix culture has created an environment where Urban Mashup’s like me can feel at home. I think that’s worth celebrating.

Photo credits: Thanks to @MelKirk for the shot of the cakes. My Mum and Dad (middle image). My youngest son outside Raleigh Hall currently under construction and soon to be home for the BCA collection when complete in 2013 (bottom image).


10 thoughts on “Uncovering Britain’s Hidden Histories

  1. Great story. Britain has a lot to be proud of but I can’t celebrate anything related to royalty. The Queen is an unelected head of state and the ultimate symbol of colonialism….i wont go on…. Got save the Urban Mashup

  2. i think you’ve inspired me to write my own story by the way….Quite different but also very similar

  3. Great peace of history Jonathan. It just shows how it pays to be kind. You never know who you are going to meet in your private or working life!

  4. Madame Akwue taught us so much, but she never told us this about herself.. It’s been a plesure knowing her!!

  5. Lovely anecdote Jon. To think, without this chance encounter you wouldn’t exist! 🙂 I wonder how many other stories like this are out there?

  6. Interesting… hmmm guess I will have to tell my story sometime. Although, both my parents came to study from Nigeria. Their story is somewhat similar. Nice one..

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