I bought this book because I wanted to patch the gaps in my reading about immigration, and Lovers and Strangers deals with the 1950s to the present day. Although the book is marketed as focused on the Windrush generation, it’s much more complex than that, and does a very welcome job of showing how immigration interlocks the diasporas in the British Isles. Along with Ben Judah’s This is London, which is absolutely about the horrific dark side of what migrants suffer in the UK, this is the book to read to understand our glorious patchwork of British identity today.
Wills organises her research into themes, talking about immigrants by the kind of roles they filled when they reached the UK: lovers, strangers, and also East Enders, troublemakers, broadcasters, bachelors, homeowners, teachers, voters, hustlers and survivors. Categorising the movements of people by their role rather than where they came from is a beautifully clear way to emphasise that origins don’t matter compared to what you make of yourself when you’ve arrived, and overcome what the home that you left had inflicted upon you, emotionally or socially or politically.
Wills’ voice is a critical external perspective, and it is so refreshing to read about the British written by a semi-outsider, a 2nd generation immigrant herself. She moves across the many British immigrant centres and regions, telling important migrant stories from Poland, Bangladesh, Ireland, Pakistan, Grenada, that the London-centric have ignored for decades. It also ignores class and education boundaries, another set of barriers wafted through by extraordinary stories of love, grit and survival. Immigrant politics connect to international movements, international music evolves from immigrant creativity. This is proper history as a public service, with impeccable sources.
Clair Wills, Lovers and Strangers. An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain (2017, Penguin 2018), ISBN 978-0-141-97497-2, £9.99