New book chronicles lives of Caribbeans who breathed new life into London

News Desk (30 March, 2017)

Picture a time without modern technology; where calypso songs told of disputes between countries fighting over land, or men and women over their love; and where it was custom for men to write to the parents of their woman for permission to marry.

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A Camberwell author’s new book has chronicled the life stories of a generation of Caribbean migrants who sailed to Britain in the 1950s and ‘60s, and helped rebuild post-war London.

Jacqueline Crooks set up the Golden Oldies project to tell the stories of local men and women, whose relationships with areas of south of the river have come to define the neighbourhoods we have today.

From her weekly meet-ups at Walworth Methodist Church to interview her six elderly subjects, she has produced ‘Beautiful Blues’.

On March 23, the 45-page book had its launch party at Camberwell Library, joined also by Southwark mayors of past and present.

One of the chapters, ‘I believe in a prayer’ gave 82-year-old Grace Singh from Verney Road, Bermondsey, the opportunity to recall and record her childhood in Guyana.

Grace Singh and Patricia Skeete

She describes it as a world without modern technology; where calypso songs told of disputes between countries fighting over land, or men and women over their love; and where it was custom for men to write to the parents of their woman for permission to marry.

Her story is based on a near-death experience at her home, aged thirteen, when she attempted to use heated gasoline (instead of wax) to polish her kitchen floor.

After life-saving surgery, she lays praying and dreaming on a hospital bed trying to forget her excruciating burns.

“My mother had made a white dress for me to wear that the fair that weekend, and she thought she was going to have to bury me in it,” Grace is quoted as saying.

“People don’t think miracles happen, but I believe.

“All my scars are hidden on my thigh and hip. It took seven years for all my hair to grow back. But it grew back a little more each day I prayed.”

Another golden oldie featured in the chapter ‘Skirts and can-cans’ was 80-year-old Patricia Skeete (pictured in pink on the book’s front cover).

Pat also came to England from Guyana in her twenties, following in the footsteps of her older sister.

“I grew up with my father’s stories,” Pat told the News.

“During the war we had a shortage of everything. But the farmers kept doing their jobs and we planted as many vegetables as we could.

“But it’s nicer to be poor and happy than rich and unhappy – as long as you have food to eat.”

Estelle Murray, Abigail Campbell, and author Jacqueline Crooks

Speaking at the event in Camberwell Library, Pat had the room in stitches with a favourite story from her childhood, aged just six, when the whole town turned out for the funeral of a village elder: Mr Johnson.

“There were two gorgeous black horses and a white carriage,” Pat said.

“When the horses reached the cemetery the driver knocked against the coffin. Suddenly, Mr Johnson sat up and  said “I’m not dead!” She later explained it wasn’t unusual for people to be mistakenly buried alive.

She added: “I think Jacqueline was very surprised by the stories we had to tell her.”

Jacqueline, of Camberwell New Road, told the News she received funding from the Arts Council England and the Big Lottery to deliver the Golden Oldies workshops and create the book.

To find a copy online visit richardskinner.weebly.com/beautiful-blues.html.

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