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Andrea Levy: acclaimed Windrush author who grew up on Blackstock road council estate

Tributes to former Highbury Hill Grammar School pupil who went on to become a renowned author and leading voice of the Windrush generation

22 February, 2019 — By Calum Fraser

Andrea Levy on the BBC show Imagine with presenter Alan Yentob last year. PHOTO: BBC

ANDREA Levy was made to think she was different from a young age.

She was one of a small number of Caribbean immigrants who grew up in Twyford House council estate, just off the Blackstock Road in the 1960s. Andrea’s mother was a seamstress and her father – who arrived in the UK on HMS Windrush – worked in a post office.

By the time the renowned author died last week she had become a leading voice of the Windrush generation, championing a vision of Britain that celebrated difference.

Author and stand-up comedian Valerie Lee met Andrea when they were both on a City Lit course in Holborn in the 1990s.

She said: “There were at least 20 others in the class, but Andrea stood out – and not just because she had recently been accepted for publication. To me, and I’m sure to others, she represented the idea of the much-loved, much-admired head girl.

“There was a serenity about her and also kindly humour – a very lovely and intelligent face.

“The Andrea Levy I knew was a modest, self-deprecating woman. I believe she would be surprised to know how many people are saddened by her death.”

The estate off Blackstock Road where Andrea Levy grew up

Andrea was an active member of a thriving black literary community in north London during this time.

She would regularly attend salons held in bookshops and community centres in Islington, Camden and Hackney even after the success of her novel Small Island, which tells the story of Caribbean immigrants in post-war Britain, propelled her to global fame.

London Assembly member for Islington, Hackney and Walthamstow, Jennette Arnold, knew Andrea from these salons.

She said: “We were black women together, of the same age range and experience. Our parents had come from the Caribbean.

“The big publishers at that time had ghettoised black stories and black writers.

“Then I remember when Small Island started taking off, a reading was organised at the Centreprise in Hackney.

“Everybody was so excited by the book and we were all clutching our own copies. She was telling the story of our parents, which had not been done on this scale before.

“She really captured the experience of the Windrush generation and we are so lucky to have that literary history from Andrea.”

Ms Arnold added: “She had a sense of bewilderment with people who want to be so hateful about difference, whether that is race, gender, disability. That comes through in her writing.”

Former Highbury Hill Grammar pupil Ms Levy during her school days. PHOTO: BBC

Her early novels, Every Light in the House Burnin’, Never Far From Nowhere, and Fruit of the Lemon, were inspired by her time growing up in Highbury as the youngest of four.

“In school I knew I was the black girl who had arrived,” she told the BBC. “I was made to feel very different. ‘Where are you from and when are you going back?’ was asked a lot.”

Andrea claimed she did not read a book until she was in her 20s and did not start writing until her 30s. Small Island, published in 2004, won the Whitbread Book of the Year, the Orange Prize, and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Six years later she was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize with her novel about life as a slave on a Jamaican sugar plantation, The Long Song.

Highbury East ward councillor Sue Lukes wants to have a plaque erected in the area in Andrea’s memory. She said: “I believe we really owe it to her as a community to tell her that she will always belong with us.”

Andrea, who later lived in Crouch End with her husband Bill Mayblin, did not move far from where she was brought up and schooled in Highbury Hill Grammar School, now Highbury Fields.

Perhaps if little girls are asked the same question as she was, “where are you from and when are you going back?”, they’ll find an answer in one of her novels.
Andrea Levy, born March 7, 1956, died of breast cancer on February 14, 2019.

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