Christine Checinska<Where would you like to start?
Grant Watson<Perhaps with our childhood—the coincidence of us having both grown up in Tredworth.
CC< I know! It’s just brilliant, isn’t it? So strange. As we’re talking about textiles and cloth, I do think that some of my earliest memories are of the woman who made our clothes. Her name was Mrs. Watson and she lived across the road. And it was always really exciting, because we would first go to one of the big fabric stores in town, and my Mum would choose fabric. We’d have ideas, but I think Mum used to design the outfits. Then we would sort of be dragged across the road to Mrs. Watson’s and measured up and jabbed with pins. Mum used to love it; she would be there chatting to her Jamaican friends. Mrs. Watson had a back room upstairs, a sewing room with one of those treadle machines and a basket with piles of fabrics and all kinds of sewing paraphernalia, so the older people would be talking and us kids would be there, holding arms out to be measured for this and that. Then a few weeks later, or however long it took, you’d have this new outfit. And it was always for a particular occasion, you know—some summer party or Christmas or something at school. That’s a really fond memory of those days. And my recollection is that Tredworth was a really multicultural area.
GW< Do you remember the café in the park, with all the Rastafarians?
CC< Yeah, I remember, that was all new then. And it was a little bit dangerous. The sister of one of my friends had become politicized, because, you might not remember, but those were the days when we were still called “colored people.” My friend Audrey’s big sister—who was about four or five years older than me—had met some Rastas, and then she ended up running away and joining a Rasta commune. I recall a sort of angry exchange with her, where she said, “we’re not colored, we’re black, you know.” It’s a really vivid memory. My memory of that moment was that it was powerful and dangerous, but clearly important. Because it stayed with me.
GW< Was the statement she made something familiar to you?
CC< No. I was much younger, maybe eleven, and so my memory is that it was shocking. It didn’t feel empowering, it felt shocking. And then when she ran away, I was just conscious of how disobedient that was, you know, running away from home. I do remember things like getting a book out of the library on Malcolm X. I don’t think I read it at that age. . . I just got it. It was like a bomb in my bedroom; I sort of looked at it from a distance, a little bit scared. So, all of that was in the air. The older girls and a few people at school would just get on a coach and go off to things like the Rock Against Racism rallies in Birmingham (I don’t remember any taking place in Gloucester). I found that really exciting, but I was too young to join and probably more interested in the badge. I’m only partially joking about the badge, because color and pattern were also in the air, as well as this kind of newly-formed identity as black people in the ’70s. It was a vibrant and exciting time, but also a bit scary. But I think that’s what it’s like when you’re coming into being a teenager, isn’t it?
GW< It is such a coincidence, because my grandmother and grandfather were from Tredworth, from an early twentieth-century working class community. My grandmother worked in a shop, which had lots of black customers. My grandfather used to frequent this local pub, which he’d been going to for years, and I remember a lot of Rastas started going there around that time. But getting back to these questions of racism, did your parents talk to you about this?
CC< I remember very early talks, maybe I was about age ten, realizing that being different wasn’t a wholly positive thing. And all my friends were much more streetwise than me. There was an incident when one of our friends suddenly said: “You can’t come around to play; I’m not allowed to have friends back to play after school.” And I thought. . . okay. . . but then my black friends Deloris and Jennifer said: “Well, it’s because we’re colored.” At the time, I probably said: “No, don’t be silly. That doesn’t happen. It’s not true.” They suggested that we lie in wait to see if this girl did bring friends back. So, we crouched down behind the garden walls where we couldn’t be seen, and we watched as this girl walked into her house with some white girls. The others thought it was really funny, but I was absolutely horrified. And then Mum and Dad and I had the talk about how some people just don’t like us and are prejudiced against us because of the color of our skin. And I remember being really quite puzzled. And really upset, you know, watching this unfold in front of me and realizing that my other friends knew that would happen. I didn’t think people would ever do such a thing. I’d been brought up to believe that there was good and bad in everyone, that was what my Mum and Dad always said. And then they had to sort of qualify it, like: there is good and bad in everyone, but for some people, the bad looks like this. And it’s around race. I think that like many migrant families, we were always taught that you had to excel at school, and you had to be better than everybody else in the class. There was always an element of, “you have to behave well when you leave the house. Otherwise, everyone will think that we’re ‘all’ like that.”
GW< Did your parents ever talk to you about their own experiences?
CC< They didn’t really. I mean, years later we talked a little bit. When I started the PhD, Dad was still alive, so I tried to talk to him, and I interviewed my Mum. But they were still reluctant to talk about it. I know that they found it really hard. Mum in particular—I remember her saying that she more or less cried her way through the first year of being in this country, because she just could not believe the reception that they got, and she missed being at home. Mum and Dad knew each other back in Jamaica, they grew up together, and she always said that Dad really kind of saved her when they reconnected in the UK because she felt completely lost—well, she was lost. She came on her own. It’s a lovely story, but it must have been awful at the time. Mum and Dad went to school together back in Jamaica and the two families were quite intertwined. Apparently, Dad always liked her and would tell his friends, “I’m going to marry her one day” and Mum would get really angry—”No you’re not! Who do you think you are?”
And then Dad came over, I think in ’56 and went straight to Gloucester because there were other members of our family there—two cousins, and I think one of his brothers. He was a carpenter in Jamaica, and really wanted to continue in that profession in the UK, but couldn’t find work so he ended up at the foundry. Dad used to say that he was really unhappy when he first got here because he missed home but he also missed the work, missed making things—he was quite craft orientated, really. So, he worked at the foundry and was madly saving money to send for my mother so that he could marry her, which is so antiquated! Mum knew nothing about this. Dad hatched a plan to save up and write to my grandfather to say “please send Tutsi (which is a pet name for my Mum)” to England. Meanwhile, back in Jamaica, out of the blue Mum got offered a job in Kingston as a secretary, which she was really excited about. But my grandfather didn’t like the idea. So instead he said, “I’ll send you to England, that can be your chance.” Mum didn’t really have any choice in it. Dad sailed to the UK; Mum, that little bit wealthier, was sent on a flight. And she was supposed to have been met at the airport, but the woman didn’t turn up. Mum was very upset, of course, but had met someone on the flight who was going to Gloucester, and this woman sort of really took pity on my Mum. She said, “there are lots of people from Saint Ann’s (where my Mum and Dad were from in Jamaica) there, come with me and we’ll get you back to London eventually.” So, Mum went to Gloucester with this person and when she arrived, they went to a house party. Meanwhile, it happened that my Uncle Jackson caught sight of Mum, and raced home to tell Dad: “She’s here! Tutsi’s here!” Then Dad went off to the local baths two miles away, spruced himself up, went to the party, and then got it together with Mum. So, in fact, the letter was never sent to my grandfather. It’s like a French farce or something! In one door and out the other, and whatever, they were meant to be, they were meant to be. So that’s how it worked out for those two.
After they got married, Mum did all sorts of jobs like packing baby soothers or working for a timber merchant, and then she got a job as a nursing assistant. Nursing really was her passion. I know that she would have liked to have been a midwife, but that opportunity never came. And Dad carried on at the foundry until it closed down. And then he just got a job with one of the old apprentices at the foundry who moved to Unigate Dairies. When he realized that Dad was unemployed, he just gave him a job as a kind of a general maintenance guy, sort of found him things to do, which is really lovely.
GW< Did you talk to your Mum about the impression she had when she arrived?
CC< A little bit. They said more about the climate—lots of funny stories about bringing the washing in, stiff because of the frost, and them not really knowing what snow was, thinking all that white stuff was salt. They talked a little about race in that, for example, when mum fell pregnant with Jackie, they were asked to leave their lodgings because black babies weren’t wanted in the house. And that’s how they ended up buying the house at Barton Street, because they were forced to leave where they were. I mean, it’s just awful; no one would do that now. Later in life, when she would talk about the way that people treated us differently, Mum would say, as long as you’ve got that mark on you—and she meant the skin tone, you know—people will sort of read you and judge you in a different way. Another story that springs to mind happened to one of Mum’s friends. When they started working in the hospital, one of her friends was followed into the ladies’ because the other nurse wanted to see her tail. So, there were stories like that, but they were always told in this kind of jokey manner—they would make it a funny story when they shared the few things that they did share.
GW< Could you say something about Caribbean culture in Tredworth?
CC< Yeah, it was really exciting, really active. Mum and Dad used to have the odd house party so, as a kid, I would sit and watch people coming into the dining area for dances and the house would be booming with music. And I remember things like going to the Indian shop where you could get yams and green bananas and sweet potatoes. That was another kind of buzzing place where you would hear people with Jamaican accents and see families that looked like you. And the church was multicultural—it was Anglican, but very mixed because of the area. Junior and primary school were also totally mixed. It was only when I got to secondary school that suddenly I was one of, I think there were three or four black and brown girls at Denmark Road, in the whole school of 300. And you’d see other black friends at the teenage dances at the Irish Centre, Northern soul initially and then later jazz funk.
GW< And what about styling? Because you mentioned the RAR badge. Did your idea of style and fashion have a particular black identification?
CC< I think it did, because it was so bound up with the music and what you listened to. The way we dressed was very much in that kind of Northern soul tribe, soul girl type of thing. And of course, you had the Northern soul Black Power fist—that was the logo. We had badges and things that we would get from the NME, from the classifieds in the back, you could send away for things. That was one of my early styles.
GW< And the rest of the look?
CC< I’m trying to think. . . I used to wear those Clarkes polyveldt shoes with ankle socks, and a long circular skirt. And a hacking jacket—Tweedy, but really fitted—with these long skirts, because there was that whole ’70s meets ’40s fashion. I had this little neck band with my initial hanging on it, a “C” in faux silver. And we used to wear things like roll-neck jumpers under shirts, and maxi dresses. All of that, flounces with tiers. I think Mum was very into that. Well, Dad and Mum loved clothes.
GW< What did they wear?
CC< Mum always had to have all the latest trends. I remember there was a Lurex phase. . . She had to have a Lurex dress for the PTA meeting at school and was probably wildly overdressed, but maybe all of them were! And I think that’s why mail-order catalogs were really important. Mum would sort of follow celebrities in those catalogs and buy up lots of bits and pieces.
GW< And your Dad?
CC< He loved having bespoke suits made. Every now and then, he would choose the fabric out of the swatch book, and have a three-piece suit or a two-piece suit made to fit.
GW< Where were you getting your clothes from at that time?
CC< When we became New Romantics, we literally went further afield to get our clothes and would buy second-hand ’50s stuff. That was around 1982–83, and I was doing the Foundation course at Cheltenham College of Art. I pretty much either made all of my clothes myself or I bought things from different thrift shops, throwing in a bit of Army surplus because these were the art school New Romantic years. It was a bit of a strange period because on the one hand, I was going to New Romantic clubs, but I was also still going to the odd jazz funk thing. There was that moment when the two groups of people did mix, around style really, because style was important to both movements.
GW< Was the meaning of their styles different? New Romantics had these references to romantic Englishness. Was jazz funk more American?
CC< Jazz funk had this kind of this dandy-esque side, particularly for the men, because I remember things like them wearing ballet pumps. So, there was a little bit of a crossover. That was when I first really started making my own clothes. I was still really inspired by the ’50s; I loved that Sophia Lauren feel, but also a little bit Roxy Music because Roxy Music at the time had a sort of slight ’50s look to it. And I used to wear my Mum’s old faux fur coat and a lovely cream checked mohair coat, both from the ’50s.
GW< And what kind of shoes—crepes?
CC< No, I was really into stilettos. It’s funny, because I was probably quite feminine. In my New Romantic days, I fancied myself as a ’50s siren, so I used to wear these stiletto-heeled shoes—I don’t even know where I got them from—and either handmade dresses or thrift shop dresses. And I had all the bags, you know like the Queen, where you hook it on your wrist? I used to love the jewelry, too.
GW< What did those styles mean?
CC< Well, I think being part of a group that was tied to black culture gave me a sense of pride. I had spent so much time being invisible or wanting to be invisible, because at Denmark Road, I was really conspicuous as one of the few black students. I loved the fact that I was a jazz funk person and nobody else in the class was. Nobody else around me had the gear, but I had the teenager version of the baggy jeans or the beanie hat and the webbing belt and the moccasins. And I think that that experience, probably, that and just the creative spirit within, channeled me towards anything that was alternative.
GW< Was it the power of fashion, and learning that fashion can be powerful?
CC< That’s interesting. I think so, because with the dressing up side of being a New Romantic, I felt visible and I felt a sense of pride, so it was empowering. And it felt important to have all of the trappings of being a jazz funk person, the trappings of the outfit. I did a lot of the “make it tonight, wear it tomorrow” thing when I was a New Romantic, making a frilly shirt and a ruffled skirt for the night out, you know, getting my hair done and everything. And it introduced me to this idea of the power of fashion in terms of self-making, but also I think it was this kind of an armor, almost a disguise. I remember that sense of standing a little bit taller. I had the right clothes on and I was part of what felt like an exclusive group in a positive way. Whereas I think being one of five girls at Denmark Road I was in an exclusive group, but it wasn’t necessarily positive.
And I still get a thrill around this idea of art school or going into an art shop or a thrill of picking up a pencil. I remember as a child watching an American TV program called Rhoda and how she would stride across New York with a portfolio. And I remember thinking, I want to be that woman striding across New York. Because we didn’t know people who were designers or innovators. Dad was a carpenter. Creativity was in the house; I remember potato prints with Mum and Dad teaching me to draw. Mum, before she came to this country, did embroidery for my grandmother (who was a local dressmaker in Saint Ann’s). So, I feel that I’m from this sort of family of people that make things and create things. But that had to stop for them. I do sometimes think, how on earth did I go from that kid going across the road to Mrs. Watson’s to being here doing what I do now? It feels highly unlikely, sometimes it really does.
But one of the things I remember about my Dad that I love and I’ve been thinking about recently is the way we even though we didn’t have very much as children, he would somehow be able to make something out of nothing. So, for example, when I went to art school, I needed an art bin for all the supplies, and he just made one. A wooden one, probably just fashioned out of scraps of wood. Quite sort of rough. He just made things, seemingly out of nothing. And I know that comes from hardship. But I think that’s so creative. I love that stuff, my memory of him just thinking: “The girls need this. Okay, I’ll just make it. Yeah, I can’t buy it. So therefore, I’ll make it.” And I love that.
Read part 2 of the interview with Christine Checinska here.