By Julia Gregory, local democracy reporter
Peter Straker, the actor and singer who counted rock star Freddie Mercury among his friends, remembers arriving in England in 1955 as part of the Windrush generation.
“We were invited to come here to help rebuild the country,” he said.
“It was beautiful the day I came to the cityside after our crossing. We’d dodged one storm and then crossed the Bay of Biscay which was horrible.”
Now a star of the West End, Straker has unveiled a special green plaque at Paddington station to honour the Windrush generation.
Mr Straker has called Westminster his home for the last 30 years and contributed to the council’s Windrush Project and features in a documentary produced by Westminster City Council’s Black Asian and Multi Ethnic staff network.
He sang The Banana Boat Song – Day O, after unveiling the plaque.
“It was a great honour. It’s important to honour the Windrush Generation and to bring people together and let’s acknowledge our problems,” he said.
In recent years some of the Windrush Generation who arrived in the UK from the Caribbean between 1948 and 1971 were threatened with deportation despite living and working in the country for years.
The government was forced to apologise for its actions.
At the unveiling, councillor Heather Acton, Westminster City Council cabinet member for regeneration and communities, said: “The green plaque at Paddington Station will be an enduring, visual reminder for thousands of people of where the Windrush Generation began in London.
“We have a large Caribbean community here in Westminster, who represent the rich diversity of our city, and we want to celebrate them on this day and every day.
“We must continue to highlight and always remember the enormous contribution the Windrush Generation made and continues to make in our communities.”
He recalled: “For the first generation, like my mother and grandmother, it was quite tough.”
Mr Straker was just 11 and travelled from Jamaica on the ship Reina del Pacifico with his brothers Paul and Martin and his grandmother Iris Straker on an 18-day voyage across the world.
They were reunited with their mother Mavis at Plymouth and then travelled to Paddington, which Mr Straker remembers as “horrific”.
“It was dank and grimy in those days,” he said. “That was a real shock.”
The family moved to a two-bedroomed flat in West Hampstead and Peter set about discovering his new home.
He remembered seeing racist notices in some windows which made it hard for immigrants to find somewhere to rent.
“At the time you laughed as it was quite bizarre. Looking back now – well things have changed,” Straker said. “I think we were quite protected.”
However, he said his mother taught the family to rise above it.
“If you lash out you have a chip on your shoulder. We were always taught we had to be better,” he said.
“You realise that’s the way of things and you try to avoid those people. In the long run people say terrible things about each other. I was brought up that you just move on. You rise above it with dignity.”
The last year has seen a lot of turmoil with the pandemic and the death of George Floyd in America which prompted Black Lives Matter protests.
Mr Straker said it was important to remember the Windrush Generation and the obstacles they overcame to build a new life in the UK.
And he hoped that by commemorating them it would help foster an inclusive society.
“It’s important to honour them, recently with the upheaval that’s come in America, I don’t want England to get to that state.”
Covid also put the brakes on his acting life.
He was appearing in Simon Callow’s adaptation of the Cage Aux Folles at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park.
“Quite literally we were told not to come in the next day because of lockdown.”
He’s just released This One’s On Me – a compilation of his hits from the 70s, including music produced by Freddie Mercury – and was due to perform at Glastonbury and the Edinburgh Festival.
“Covid’s been such a nightmare,” he said.
People can discover more about Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea’s Windrush Generation at an exhibition called ‘London is the Place for Me’, named after the Calypso song by Trinidadian recording artist, Lord Kitchener.
It will go on display at North Kensington Library in Ladbroke Grove from 24 August until 31 October.
There will also be two cultural markets in Maida Hill on Saturday, August 24. The market will have a range of stalls and exhibitors including food, literature, arts and crafts, photos, and interactive events.
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