Empire Windrush. Grey ghost of war.
Twin-funnelled troopship bringing back
the Forces from their newsreels, outposts,
and jungle camps. From last posts, and lowering flags.
She’s slow and diesel driven – and launched
as Monte Rosa in a German yard.
A cruiser for vacations, and the middle classes.
And then the Kreigsmarine. Berthship
to the Tirpitz, Auschwitz ferry for Norwegian
Jews – endures air attacks and mines. Survives.
Under British hands, she pays the price
of peace. White paint shrouds sides
that buckled under war. Blighty-bound,
half empty, calls at Kingston and offers
passage to a thousand citizens, newly minted
by a government desperate for willing hands.
Curious to see the land so many fought
to save, they find the forty quid and come
aboard. Thus filled with hope she sails
for England, and a place in history the Equal
of Trafalgar, Agincourt or Waterloo.
New waters for the future meet
her prow. At Tilbury, grey frowning
skies rain blessings and surprise.
It’s June, but cool enough to stand
and shiver on the docks, and wait
to fill the shortages they’re here to satisfy.
The Windrush sails away. Empire sunsets
churned froth and pother at her stern. At last,
she burns and sinks, her contribution made.
A generation makes its home, ignoring
cards in doors and shops that advertise
“No coloureds”. The slums and cities make
them room, and heritage adds on another page.
Once enslaved, transported chained, plantation-
bound, then freed to poverty’s thin dreams,
they London’s voices richly spice with sun,
and suffering. Deepened and engaged, English
suddenly awake finds new rhythms in its feet.
It takes a dozen years or more for startled
whites to close the door on opportunity.
Betrayal shakes a hostile hand, minds fill
with wasting tribal fear. The voice of England
forgets the rights of man, the promises of war.
Each party over, every politician clamours
For the closing of the doors, and seeks a way to send
the yearning back to their hovels or the sea.
Windrush rises from the deeps and sails again,
evoked by ministers who bend the rules,
and marks the careless crimes of those whose biros
sign the orders to deport. Black heroes flew
and fought to hold the spread of camps, and
looked for better orders – now fall to age,
feel clerks’ indifference with quotas to fulfill.
The River Windrush flows and flows,
and adds more depths to English as it goes.