In thinking about ideas of newness and multiculturalism, it seems wise to begin with some historical contexts. Although the mid-twentieth century Caribbean migration that has come to be symbolized by the arrival of the SS Empire Windrush in June 1948 is often understood to be the ‘beginning’ of non-white arrival in Britain, there was in fact a black and Asian presence in Britain long before the late 1940s. As Peter Fryer writes in his memorable opening to Staying Power (1984), ‘There were Africans in Britain before the English came here. Some were soldiers in the Roman imperial army that occupied the southern part of our island for three and a half centuries. Others were slaves.’ If we look at the post-war period, however, there is little sense of this longer history of black residence in Britain. The apparent ‘forgetting’ of this pre-1948 black history in Britain has been crucial in refuting the legitimacy of black habitation in Britain in the post-war years. Admitting that black people have lived in Britain longer than (in Fryer's words) ‘the English’ makes it difficult to cast them as recent intruders, or even visitors, to the country. The rhetoric of invasion was used by figures like Enoch Powell, who gave voice to a discontent earlier expressed in the series of post-war ‘anti-black’ riots, such as those of 1958 in Nottingham and Notting Hill, and the associated increase in racist violence and police brutality.
It is also important to remember that migrants were writing long before they arrived in Britain. In the Caribbean, the short story was already a popular genre in the first half of the twentieth century, as shorter pieces of writing were more easily printed and disseminated in local news and magazine publications. As Bill Schwartz has argued, ‘West Indian emigrants came from societies well advanced in the prerequisites of breaking from colonialism … The typewritten novels and poems in their suitcases, their mimeographed manifestos, their music: all were testament to the depth of emergent anti-colonial sensibilities.’ As this quotation suggests, much of this literature was political, expressing discontent at Empire. This period of writing in Britain has been typified by Sam Selvon's novel The Lonely Londoners (1956), which contrasts migrants’ optimism and hope for a new life in Britain with the difficulties these men and women were little prepared for.