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Josiane Ranguin, Mediating the Windrush Children. Caryl Phillips and Horace Ove

Anne Fuchs
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Josiane Ranguin, Mediating the Windrush Children. Caryl Phillips and Horace Ove (New York: Peter Lang (Prompt), 2020). 79 p. ISBN: 978-1-4331-7428- 5 (ebook pdf) 978-1-4331-7424 – 7 (hardback)

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1The publisher, Peter Lang, has brought out a new series of books, shorter in length than the traditional academic work, stating that “this concise model gives researchers the chance to publish their time-sensitive research, open a forum for debate, and create a greater impact.” That Josiane Raguin’s Mediating the Windrush Children should find its place within this “time-sensitive” collection may seem at first strange in that the writing she refers to and its subject matter is encompassed within the period 1975-1984. There are, however, at least two valid reasons for this: the 2018 so-called ‘Windrush scandal’ when it was revealed that the government had wrongly deported 83 Windrush immigrants to the Caribbean and detained hundreds of others; secondly, the interest generated by the scandal resulting in the new production of Caryl Phillips’s play, Strange Fruit, at the Bush Theatre in 2019. It must also be said that Caryl Phillips, although almost exclusively through his novels, has been for the last two or three decades at the centre of a consistently growing production, noted by both critics and the public, of BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) literature and culture. For his part, Harold Ove’s film Pressure had been selected in 2019 as one of the best Black British films.

2The first ten pages of Ranguin’s study are devoted to an introduction to her subject matter and the historical context for the second generation of the immigrants whose parents had arrived on the boat from the British Caribbean in 1948, looking for work in the “Motherland”. That the “Motherland” should be more than a disappointment comes through most strongly in chapter one which analyses Horace Ove’s Pressure (1975). This film can indeed be construed as a paradigm for Phillips’s three early plays produced nearly 10 years later. However, Phillips himself in an interview with Ranguin points out that Ove’s film was directed and written by two first-generation artists, Ove and Sam Selvon, author of The Lonely Londoners. During the period between the film and his own plays, Phillips notes that the second generation has itself become involved in protest, expressing their frustrations and the “pressure” exerted over them by society and the differing attitudes of family members to the oppression and racism. Immediately after the release of the film, from 1976 to 1981, the first riots of the Windrush children took place at the Notting Hill Carnival (1976), Bristol, Brixton, and then right across Britain in 1980-81. For Phillips however the real emergence of a powerful second generation voice is that of the rap poet Linton Kwesi-Johnson with his Dread Beat an’ Blood in 1978. Ranguin’s analysis of Pressure differentiates very clearly the various attitudes within the same family that immigrants adopted towards the racist oppression confronted in England at the time. Two brothers represent respectively violent protest and an unsuccessful attempt at integration. The latter includes the denial of one’s roots whereas the mother of the family tries to maintain their Caribbean lifestyle. The family is reconciled with the arrest of their ‘Black Power’- influenced son and with defending him. Horace Ove seems to follow what Ranguin calls a ‘cinema-vérité’ tradition but then she goes on to talk about the British movement of ‘Kitchen-Sink’ drama which Ove, born in 1939, must have known well.

3Strange Fruit, written by Phillips at the age of 21, constitutes the largest section of Ranguin’s book (p. 19-41) and with its themes of identity, family conflict and remorseless pressure of society derives directly from Ove’s film. There is a detailed description of how the term ‘strange fruit’ originated: initially taken from the Billie Holliday song it comes to have varied meanings in the play. Extra themes and characters are introduced including, notably, black-white relationships. If the family setting is similar, the emphases shift to the one son’s oppression of his white pregnant girlfriend and to the mother’s friendship with another black immigrant woman. These adjuncts introduce a feminist slant. Ranguin explains how the comparative lack of success in these early dramatic ventures persuaded Phillips to look towards other media, introducing the same themes into his novels. But meanwhile our author looks at the other two plays of this period.

4Where There is Darkness (1982) is a departure from Ove’s paradigm not only in theme (even if the family conflict is part of the wider background) but also as regards the form. A black-white relationship is this time at the heart of the play but even more important is the new theme of whether a return from Britain to the Caribbean is now possible. As for these second and third plays of his career, Ranguin, with perception, cites a passage from a ‘Conversation’ in New York (published at the much later date of 2007) where Phillips discusses the ‘form’ mirroring the subject matter. In this second play, we are far from ‘Kitchen-Sink’ drama, and the time-space shifts from Britain in the present to the Caribbean in the past, create a sense of defamiliarisation (as theorised by the Russian Formalists). Ranguin discusses more in depth the post-structural elements of these diffracted narratives but also what she calls in her last chapter of the study “Writing in Spirals” or consecutive returns to past themes.

5The third play Shelter necessitated complex analyses both of its origins and also once more of its form. In common with Where There is Darkness, it also deals with a black-white relationship as revelatory of the historical continuum of racial discrimination. Ranguin has rightly detailed how Phillips came to write the play with his own explanation of the epiphanic moment when he is looking at a postcard reproduction of a photo of a white woman with black hands pressing on her brow. In the first act of the play, this couple (Him and Her) appear in the 18th century, shipwrecked on a desert island; ‘Her’ needs ‘His’ protection but as an English gentlewoman of the time she treats ‘Him’ as a slave and ‘Him’ explains to ‘Her’ what it is to be treated as one. A second act shows a 1950’s mixed-race couple, Louis and Irene, sitting in a pub in Ladbroke Grove being watched with curiosity by the other clients. Louis, facing the racism of British society where he has become a British ‘object’ rather than a British ‘subject’ of the Caribbean, is so depressed he decides to return ‘home’ where he knows he will be unable to support his pregnant companion. Ranguin’s analyses are detailed and, in the main, convincing. However, in spite of her efforts, the mystery of the title The Shelter (which, incidentally, is also the title of the postcard photograph) remains.

6Mediating the Windrush Children contains multiple elements of ‘mediation’. If Ranguin in this publication is, herself, mediating for the reader the arrival of the Caribbean community in Britain in 1948 and the subsequent effects of this displacement upon their children, more importantly the mediation between the two different cultural media of film and drama are at the heart of the book. A welcome extension of ‘mediating’ may also be found in the author’s way of ‘mediating’ her own analyses with those of others. She often cites most appropriately passages from Phillips’s own commentaries on his evolving progression from one work to another, but also those of numerous other critics including, on many occasions, the understanding of probably the best-known, Bénédicte Ledent. Notes and a competent list of books and articles on the subject complete the author’s mediation with her reader.

7One of the first in the ‘Prompt’ series, Ranguin’s is a welcome addition to the critical apparatus of this early Black British culture. It obviously has its weaknesses and strengths due to the reduced formula. The author has managed to convey a very inclusive overview of Ove and Phillips’s early work, whetting the reader’s appetite to know more of each artist’s subsequent development. But the weakness is probably down to the very richness of the book which gives the reader an excessive amount of information to process at the same time. Finally, we would like to point out the timeliness of a publication appearing at the moment when ‘Black Lives Matter’.

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Anne Fuchs, « Josiane Ranguin, Mediating the Windrush Children. Caryl Phillips and Horace Ove »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. 19-n°51 | 2021, document 9, mis en ligne le 15 juillet 2021, consulté le 02 octobre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Anne Fuchs

Anne Fuchs retired in 1996 from the University of Nice (now Université Côte d’Azur) where she taught Comparative Literature and Theatre Studies and wrote numerous articles in these fields. She published Playing the Market, The Market Theatre Johannesburg (Harwood 1990, revised ed. Rodopi 2002) and edited or co-edited among other texts Theatre and Change in South Africa (Harwood 1996) Staging New Britain (Peter Lang, 2006), Black and South Asian British Literatures (WVT, 2018).

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