An Intimate History of the British Empire

From The New Yorker:

After Carl Carby arrived in England from Jamaica, in 1943, he wore starched shirts, polished dress shoes, and neatly knotted ties. He was from the colonies, but his mannerisms evinced a restrained, British sensibility. Like most early immigrants from the Caribbean, he was expected to provide a service: his entrance to England was predicated on his employment as a bomber pilot in the Royal Air Force, which recruited around six thousand people from England’s “black colonies” to fight in the Second World War. At a dance in Worcester, he met Iris Leaworthy, a young, white Welsh woman who worked as a civil servant in the Air Ministry, and the two bonded over the surprising similarities of their upbringings. Both had grown up in poverty. As schoolchildren, each donned a starched uniform and, on Empire Day, a holiday designed to instill in children a feeling of belonging to a great nation, waved the Union Jack. When England went to war, both of them enthusiastically offered their service. The pair soon married, and had a daughter named Hazel. To her, Carl spoke little of Jamaica. “It was as if he had been born an airman in the Royal Air Force,” Hazel Carby writes in “Imperial Intimacies,” her new book of political history, which came out last month.

As Carby recounts, upon the completion of his service, Carl, who was then twenty-three, applied to the Welfare Department of the Colonial Office for an award to attend further-education courses in economics and accounting. For Carl, getting vocational training was akin to securing a life with his family. As an interracial couple, he and Iris had found it difficult to find a landlord willing to house them; they would need to buy their own home. Carl’s application was granted, but with a stipulation: like all colonial recruits, he was asked to declare his intent to return to his colony by “the first available ship” after his course of training—a pledge, the Welfare Department assured him, that would be “watched with interest in the Colonial Office.” Under the threat of deportation, he took a job as an accounts clerk at an engraving firm. His salary was meagre, and the only home that he and Iris could afford was one that had suffered extensive bomb damage.

. . . .

As a child, for example, she witnessed the disintegration of her parents’ marriage, which was punctuated by arguments in the family’s kitchen. The room—painted a neat blue and white, with a two-tub washing machine and a stove tucked between the sink and countertop—was Iris’s domain. Carl enjoyed cooking Jamaican food––curries, banana fritters, fried rice––but Iris refused to eat it.

. . . .

Carby recalls this story, and her parents’ eventual divorce, from memory. Initially, she thinks of it as an account of marital incompatibility. But, in the course of her research, she finds government records—recriminations in depositions, police reports from domestic disputes, and an on-the-record account of the attempted suicide—that show how her parents’ domestic difficulties were exacerbated by interactions with the state. After Iris married Carl, she was forced to leave her position in the Air Ministry, which put financial strain on the family. The Colonial Office provided Carl with a small allowance, which included an allotment for his wife, but it was too little to survive on, and the pair bickered over how to spend it. Iris resented that Carl sent a portion of the money to his family in Jamaica, and eventually she petitioned the Colonial Office to pay her share directly to her. “An acid rain fell on their interracial parade, replacing affection with bitter resentment,” Carby writes.

. . . .

That her parents’ romantic narrative convenes with a national one is not incidental: each of the stories in “Imperial Intimacies” shows how an individual life is shaped by external forces. This project is reflected in the book’s title and in its epigraph, a quote from the cultural and political theorist Stuart Hall, who wrote, “Identity is not only a story, a narrative which we tell ourselves about ourselves, it is stories which change with historical circumstance. . . . Far from only coming from the still small point of truth inside us, identities actually come from outside.” Carby was Hall’s student, and his words reverberate throughout the book. Carby assembles a sprawling account of how imperialism––a web of social relations, labor markets, and trade networks—conditions private feeling. The resulting narrative is something like an affective history of the British Empire.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker