Joe from the Windrush Generation helped shape my liberal life

Today is the anniversary of MV Empire Windrush arriving at Tilbury Docks.

This is a personal story. It is also a story about how my liberal views came into being. Above all, is a story about Joe. He died long ago but he still lives in my life. I want to tell this story because the Windrush Generation was so important. To me at least.

We are travelling back to 1962. I was seven and a sicky child. I was the weakest kid on the street. But when an ambulance drew up outside our council house, kids rushed to wonder at my sudden importance. I was taken to a sanitorium that seemed so far away. There I made my first black friend. A friendship that endured for years. Joe had come on a boat from Jamaica. The Windrush Generation.

Of course, at the age of seven I had no idea about the Windrush. I grew up on a council estate on the edge of Northampton. It was decent for its time. The cold, mould and damp were standard but our house had three bedrooms and an indoor bathroom.

The only dark faces I saw were in encyclopaedias and children’s books. They were often labelled as “primitives” and “tribes”.

None of this mattered. I didn’t know there was another life outside the street I lived in. Or that there was anything beyond the school a few hundred yards away. We didn’t have a TV. Radio was the Home Service and the Light Programme. No phone. No car.

I struggled to keep up with street life. It was rough and naughty. I was pathetic at the rough stuff but better at being naughty.

Long before asthma control, I couldn’t breathe well. There were no inhalers and no management plans. One day, I retired to bed with barely able to breathe. The doctor was summoned late at night after my father rushed to the phone box a couple of streets away.

The next morning an ambulance arrived. This was such a unique experience that the kids from across the estate came to watch me being loaded in. It was the highpoint of my life on that street.

I was ferried to a TB sanatorium. Rooms facing onto gardens. Big windows that were open all day. There were two beds in our room. For me and for Joe.

I had never met a Jamaican before. I didn’t know where Jamaica was. I am certain that I had not met a black man before. Joe was maybe in his thirties. Black. Gap toothed. Broad grin. Forever cheerful.

Joe was a tonic but he was more. We talked endlessly and I am sure I exhausted him with my pesky questions. At the age of seven, I thought I knew everything about the world. I had a lot to learn.

He told me he came across on a boat to work on the buses. I really enjoyed being in the next bed to him. My knowledge and my thirst for more learning expanded every day in that hospital.

This older man treated me as an equal. We were just mates in the same ward. He with TB. Me with pneumonia.

Joe worked as a conductor on Northampton Corporation buses. We met often afterwards. He always had that same grin. It was always the same friendship. He would never take my fare. I was petrified of an inspector getting onboard to check tickets.

Despite the angst I felt as a teenager, the moment I saw Joe I would burst into laughter.

By the mid 1970s, I was working away. I heard that Joe, who was a heavy smoker, had died from lung cancer. Lying in a bed next to Joe at the age of seven helped shaped my life. As a weakling on a street when those that could kick hardest were top of the pile, I learnt the principles of equality. Even before I knew what those words meant. I got to understand the value of friendship. Joe treated me as an equal. And my treating everyone as equal remains his legacy in my life.

That’s a legacy of the Windrush Generation.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem living in Shropshire, and a former editor for Lib Dem Voice

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