The Equiano Centre


June 2012

1919 - One Hot Summer

guest blog Juliet Gilkes Romero 
playwright & journalist

History is made behind closed doors - and it is up to playwrights to open them 
David Edgar

I have always been fascinated by the untold stories of the African diaspora. How we have become the people we are. I am specifically interested in pushing open the doors to suppressed voices which have been deemed culturally and historically irrelevant in a post colonial world.

Taken at the Birmingham Rep Theatre during the opening tour of Gaza, October 2008

My first play At The Gates of Gaza set out to do just that. I went to the Imperial War Museum and researched the West Indian men and women who came to serve Britain during the Second World War.  But the more history I unearthed the more I encountered evidence of the black World War One veterans who survived and settled in London. I was stirred up by their buried stories and so decided to write about them instead. 

My interest was powered by ignorance, my own and a degree of irritation. The only Black history I learnt at school was the transatlantic slave trade. There was nothing on the curriculum about the thousands of West Indians who volunteered to defend the British Empire. I did not know they fought in the Middle East and won medals for bravery in battle.  They helped liberate the Empire but returned home to terrible injustices and racial intolerance. But as the Afro-American novelist, Tony Morrison said 'if there is a book you really want to read but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write'. History is told by those who want to tell it, so I decided join the club. At the Gates of Gaza, set in 1917 is a fictionalised account of patriotic but frustrated men gradually unsure of what they are fighting for, as they bitterly come to realise they are simply viewed as Palestinian cannon fodder. 

One Hot Summer tells the true and untold story of what happened at the heart of the British Empire after World War One.  It focuses on the demise of black veterans who survived the then bloodiest war in world history and British society in economic meltdown unable to address the disappointment of jobless, decimated men and the emptiness of Pyrrhic victory whether on the battlefield or on the streets of a once thriving port city crippled by insurmountable war debt.

Adding fuel to this fire was the fact that demobilisation had increased the city's black population by thousands. Unemployed and stranded veterans were being turned out of their lodgings. The British authorities had made no provision for their return home. Liverpool's multi-ethnic society was under intolerable strain with the first ever police strikes, dock strikes, food and fuel shortages. 

The result was an explosion of deadly race rioting exposing racial, and class divisions. The tinder box; a row between West Indian and Scandinavian seamen over a cigarette in a Liverpool pub. The ensuing ten days of fighting saw war veterans take up arms against each other, the burning down of 'negro' homes and Boarding Houses and the internment of the majority of the city's black veterans, unheard of in peace time and erased from collective memory. By the time the fighting had spread to Cardiff, Prime Minister Lloyd George was forced to send in active troops to quell the violence.

I spent weeks researching the events of June 1919 at the British Newspaper Library. As a result the play uses verbatim accounts from papers including the Liverpool Courier, Echo and Evening Express. I also admit to feeling a sense of responsibility towards the black seamen and soldiers who were killed or injured, especially as two of my characters were based on real life participants; John Johnson and Charles Wotten.  Charlie as I called him in my play was chased to Queens Dock by a lynch mob where according to the Liverpool Courier, he either was 'pushed or slipped' into the water and 'pelted with missiles by a crowd number some 2,000 until he drowned'.  Newspaper editorials of the day began to wring their hands over the role of the Empire and the rights of 'coloured' soldiers within it.  Interestingly these anti-black riots were mirrored in the United States, specifically Chicago where an influx of returning black war veterans found themselves unemployed, unwanted and under attack. The news of the British race riots eventually fanned the flames of trade union and independence movements throughout the British colonies.

One Hot Summer was a 45 minute Afternoon play, a very short time to tell such epic history. It specifically focuses on what I imagined could have happened to the characters I created in At The Gates of Gaza, if they had found themselves under attack in Liverpool. Both dramas gave me the opportunity to breath life into a British past that deserves and demands to be told and experienced. I quite literally awakened the ghosts of forgotten lives.

As a journalist, I have seen too many times the disturbing images of war, lives destroyed and horribly crushed. I have always wanted to explore what makes us go to war and the excuses we find to justify it, the consequences of such choices and why we do not seem to learn from history. In the universe of imagination, At The Gates of Gaza and One Hot Summer have given me the opportunity to say something about all these things. 

I was once asked if I am therefore trying to 'teach' Black history. I have to say the answer is no. I am not trying to be didactic. What matters to me is whether the dramatic content can touch emotions or intellect on a profound level. At the end of the day I am writing about people and I hope their experiences pack an emotional and unforgettable punch.


The Liverpool EchoThe Liverpool CourierThe Evening Express (Liverpool) from June, 1919.
Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, Pluto Press, 1984.