Patrice Lawrence writes about her father, Windrush, and death.
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I have always loved stories – reading them and writing them. My published books and short stories are mostly for children and young adults. A couple of weeks ago, I was taking part in an online panel for the Young Adult Literature Convention, a big celebration of writing for teenagers that usually takes place in London. The chair asked if there were recurring themes in our books. For me, yes: fathers who are absent; parents who have died.
This is what I know about my father:
- One of his given names is Patrick because he was born on St Patrick’s Day in Guyana;
- He was a psychiatric nurse but also a talented musician;
- He was imprisoned in HMP Lewes for forging a cheque;
- He died an alcoholic and homeless when he was younger than I am now.
This is what I don’t know about my father:
- The names of his parents;
- Why he never visited his family in Barbados;
- Where the council scattered his ashes;
- If he loved me.
My father, Patrick Edward Singh, was part of what is now called the Windrush Generation. He arrived in England from Barbados less than 20 years after the iconic ship but, still, he would only have been a toddler when it docked in Tilbury. Those travellers would have been a generation older than my father and his peers.
Why did he come? I’ve heard that it was a casual decision – he and a friend, barely out of their teens, spotting a callout for nurses in England and booking their passage. He ended up at St Francis Hospital in Haywards Heath, West Sussex. The hospital was originally known as the Sussex County Lunatic Asylum. It is now known as luxury flats. It has the unmistakeable architecture of a Victorian institution. (See also HMP Wandsworth, built three years earlier.)
The building may have been imposing and not entirely welcoming, but it was surrounded by land. There was a farm, a swimming pool and – most importantly of all – the Norman Hay Hall. This was the heart of staff social-life for decades. In the 1960s, in a town with a predominantly white English population, the hospital brought together Italians, Spanish, Filipinos, Irish, Sri Lankans, Bajans, Trinidadians, Guyanese, Zimbabweans, and many more. Porters, cleaners, maintenance staff, nurses, doctors coming to England to bolster the NHS.
My father and his friend were, I believe, the first black male nurses at St Francis. With his hint of Jimi Hendrix hair and striking cheekbones, Patrick Singh was very well received. So how did this intellectual, handsome man end up dead after a fire in a squat aged just 45?
There are certain narratives about the post-war migration from the Caribbean to the UK that are embedded in our consciousness. Samuel Selvon’s book, Lonely Londoners, fictionalises the familiar story of men from the Caribbean and Africa struggling to find a job and lodgings, and the everyday racism that sometimes spilled into violence. The current story is the Windrush Scandal, the hostile immigration policy that has challenged the citizenship of Caribbean-born people who arrived in the UK as children. These are people who have worked in the UK for all their lives but are now under threat of deportation to countries they do not know. Some have died still waiting for the compensation due to them.
My father’s death makes me wonder about the other stories – the black men and women outside of the cities, the ones who did not attend church or contribute to support groups or march with activists. The ones that already had a job lined up and the accommodation that went with it. When I was a teenager, my father taught me the word ‘polymath’. Leonardo Di Vinci was one, he told me, and it was my father’s aspiration to be one too. He had studied law and philosophy at degree level. In his basement flat – jammed full of books, from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, as well as various guitars and amplifiers – he informed me in no uncertain terms that I had to go to university.
I can only guess at the reasons for his decline. What are now referred to as ‘prescription drugs’ were easily accessible at the hospital, to help you sleep, to lift you up. He was, I know, an insomniac. (At the time of his death, he was taking strong tranquilisers, one of the reasons he was unlikely to wake when the flat started burning.) Were the seeds of addiction sown in those early days or already inside him waiting to flourish in difficult times? He married his long-term girlfriend, who died suddenly a few months later, still in her early thirties, from a sleeping-tablet overdose. Deliberate or not, I don’t know. I do know that he was imprisoned for a month for forging a cheque. Was it possible for an ex-prisoner to be a nurse? Or a black ex-prisoner to have any job at all?
Event after event dug at his economic and emotional security.
The last time I saw him was about two years before his death. He reconnected with me after eleven years of silence. He had mental health problems and was bouncing between hostels and squats. He told me he’d been sleeping on Brighton seafront the night that the IRA bomb blew up the Grand Hotel. He must have been living rough for at least three years by then. He’d buy me books and still believed I should go to university. He sent me a card and money for my 22nd birthday, with a note to say that he was moving on and he’d be in touch when he was settled. Perhaps he never did settle.
Was it possible for a black man in late 20th-Century England to be unscathed by personal and systematic racism? How did that constant heaviness, the threat of dehumanisation, the shrinking of ambition and opportunity impact on a man whose head buzzed with ideas? His peers reached out to him and tried to help him, but he still kept falling.
I learnt of my father’s death almost by accident, through the unofficial ex-St Francis nurses’ hotline. There’d been a report in a local paper and the news eventually reached my mother. She told me reluctantly; he treated women badly, including her. She didn’t think I needed to know. I confided in a friend at work who called the coroner for me. A letter from me, with my address on it, had been found in my father’s belongings. Apparently, police had been sent to inform me, but they’d been given the wrong house number. I lived on a small cul-de-sac. We were the only black family. I wouldn’t have been hard to find. My father was too disfigured to view, I was informed, though that had never been part of my agenda. He’d fallen asleep smoking and the cigarette had started the fire. Funerals were expensive, the coroner said, so the council would organise it – not burials, we cremate them. Did I want to attend his funeral? Of course! I didn’t, though – they’d ticked the box that said ‘no’.
My father was an atheist. He wouldn’t have expected to turn up in an afterlife. I hope that, for that last journey, though, there was someone in that room who knew him – the books, the guitars, the opinions, the constants flow of ideas. Someone who knew his infinite cynicism, his loathing of Paul McCartney and Wings, his love of Ernest Hemmingway, his restless energy. I hope there was someone in that room who knew that Patrick Edward Singh was more than a homeless alcoholic being buried at the council’s expense, that his life mattered as much as his death.
In our society, it seems that black deaths matter more than lives. Our violent murders prick mainstream consciousness. From Victoria Climbié and Stephen Lawrence in England, to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the US, the machinery of racism and its contribution to our deaths is unpicked over and over again. There is commitment to change, but still we die. I think of my father and the many traumatic black deaths that are never documented. The people who struggled with mental wellbeing, who died through suicide or addiction, or who did not have the choices that wealth and whiteness can bring. I think about the other Windrush generation, the ones who took a different path, and hope that their stories are remembered too.
Patrice Lawrence is an award-winning writer for children and young people. Her debut novel, Orangeboy, was shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Award and won the Waterstones Prize for Older Children’s Fiction and the Bookseller YA Prize. Indigo Donut won the Bristol Crimefest YA Prize. Prior to being a full-time writer, Patrice worked in the voluntary sector for more than 20 years, promoting social justice and inclusion in children’s services, the criminal justice sector, and for families with social services involvement. Her fourth book for young adults, Eight Pieces of Silva, is published on 6 August.