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Gary Younge

Eustace Maxim, 72, left Dominica in 1960 and returned in 2004.
Homeward bound: Caribbean returnees

Eustace Maxim thought I might be the cable technician. An appointment had been made for no definite time, so there was nothing to do but wait. But from the vantage point of his veranda in Jimmit, with its panoramic view of the Caribbean Sea, there are worse places you can watch the world go by. When he thinks of what he'd be doing now if he'd retired in Plaistow, east London, he says, "If I was in England, all I would be doing is staying home and watching television."

Instead he is back on the island of Dominica, the place where he was born, which he left and to which he has now returned. The end point on a lifelong project across oceans, aspirations, cultures and generations that has landed him pretty much right back where he started. His story is a common one. "I left Dominica when I was 23," says Maxim, 72. "Going to England was a means to an end. I never intended to spend so long there. I wanted something better for my children, and everyone was going at that time."

Like many, if not most, his plan was to go, make some money and come back a few years later. But the work he found at Ford, Standard and Cable and finally as a security guard for the Royal Bank of Scotland was barely enough to sustain the life he had, let alone provide savings for the one he dreamed of. "The gold fell from very high in the sky," wrote John Berger, in A Seventh Man, of the immigrant experience in Europe. "And so when it hit the earth it went down very, very deep."

So Maxim, who left in 1960 and came back in 2004, kept digging. "Five years is very little. You go to achieve something. You don't want to come back worse off than when you left." While he was in England, he made a life. Children, then grandchildren came, and 43 years passed. And he kept squirrelling away so he might first buy land, then build and finally return. "It was a hard life," he says. "You try to make yourself as comfortable as you can. It was not a difficult decision to come back, but I used to worry about not coming back."

In the end he spent longer in England than he has in Dominica. There are signs of England everywhere: despite the heat, his carpets are thick, his sofa fluffy. On the walls are pictures of his offspring in graduation finery. But no matter how long he was away, Dominica, he insists, was always home. He never considered himself English, and after four decades his accent doesn't carry the slightest trace of it. "There is a freedom I feel here," he says. "I have the hot sunshine on my back and can have a dip in the river or the hot springs."

Maxim may never have considered himself English and may now feel home, but not everyone sees it like that. Some in Dominica brand him an outsider, yet another returnee with their airs and graces – English ways and English money.

"People say this, people say that." He shrugs. "I ignore it. They think you have all the money in the world. You try to tell them what you had to go through to get it, but they don't want to listen."

The generation of Caribbeans who transformed Britain economically, politically and culturally after the war are nearing the end of their working lives. Like Maxim, many are now fulfilling a long-deferred dream to return to the countries from which they came. Figures to support the scale of this return are patchy. Many returnees have dual citizenship and, given family ties, few have broken with Britain definitively. But anecdotally, the evidence is overwhelming. My own father was one of 10 children, my mother one of six; both were born in Barbados. Of those 16, 11 left for the US, Canada or the UK. Today, all but one has bought land to build on and six have already returned, one way or another. All across the island, crates are arriving, new houses being built and returnees' associations springing up. And just as their arrival radically altered Britain, so their return is having a considerable effect on the Caribbean. "We were pioneers when we left and we are pioneers now we have come back," says Franklyn Georges, who left in 1960 and returned in 2006.

During the 90s, foreign remittances in Jamaica – a large proportion of which are pensions and other moneys coming into returnees – comprised a larger percentage of GDP than foreign currency earners such as bauxite and sugar. In 1997, almost £6m in pension payments went to Barbados, while both St Lucia and Grenada each got £2m.

The smaller the island, the more noticeable the impact. Dominica's domestic population has stayed constant at around 70,000 for the last few decades as people kept emigrating. Today, more Dominicans live abroad – primarily in the UK, US and Guadeloupe, which is part of France – than at home. As time goes on, the potential demographic, economic and political clout of returnees can only grow. Little wonder, then, that there is tension between those who stayed and those who left.

"There is a little back and forth," says John McIntyre, minister for trade, industry, consumer and diaspora affairs, "just like in any family." But there is little doubt who he thinks is primarily responsible for the friction. "When they land, they imagine someone will put a crown on their head. They dress in the UK style. But if you walk down to Roseau [the capital] in a jacket and tie, people will laugh at you. They've been away a long time. This is not the Dominica they left. The local people are not necessarily against them, they just don't know them. We try to bridge the gap. But don't think you're going to hear bells when you come back. When they left, England was on the rise, but over the last few years people are going to Venezuela, Cuba and China for education and opportunities, not England."

He has a point. Shortly before Jean Popeau left the island in 1957, aged 11, his headmaster made him stand up in front of the class. "He was one of those old colonial headmasters," says Popeau, who is putting the finishing touches to his new house. "Very stuck in the old-fashioned ways. A regular caner – an austere, distant man."

"Boy, you're going to be a big shot," the headmaster said. "Going to England was the opening of a door," Popeau says. "The future was yours. I remember Empire Day, parading round the village."

The UK is no longer the presence here that it once was. In McIntyre's anteroom there are two magazines: Beijing Review and Latin Trade. England's historical presence is felt everywhere – from his building you can see the Windsor Park cricket stadium and Roseau's grammar school, while Princess Margaret hospital is just a short drive away – but the evidence of new economic relationships is no less prevalent: the stadium, grammar school and road were all built by the Chinese, who also refurbished the hospital.

Even though none of those I spoke to says they ever felt "English", nearly all have spent more time in England than they have in Dominica, and this has inevitably left its mark on them. They have become accustomed to a different level of efficiency, standard of living and pace of life. "I've been called English without even opening my mouth," said Popeau in Polly Pattullo's Home Again. "I wonder how they can work it out. Perhaps you're brisker in your walk, more purposeful." Popeau has a season ticket to the British Library, where he goes to concerts and free films whenever he is back. He may have felt alienated from British identity, but in all sorts of ways he was embedded in its culture.

Returnees do, at times, sound like expats with disdainful attitudes towards the locals. They complain about the service, some miss their favourite soaps and get frustrated by the relative insularity of a small island. Referring to Dominican politicians, one returnee says: "The standard of leadership here is very low. These guys were banana pickers one day, then they are elected to government the next. They are unimaginative."

Georges, 72, goes one step further. "We who travelled abroad got to know a lot about ourselves that we wouldn't have known if we had stayed at home. We have a wider perspective and those who stayed have a narrower one." They are, he says, "ignorant", and he blames the government for failing to educate them politically.

Many returnees, including Georges, concede they might have an attitude problem. "Sometimes it's not Dominica, it's us," says Kenneth Bruney, who left for England in 1964 and returned in 1997. "Some of us come back and expect to find Marks & Spencer and John Lewis. I'd tell anyone who wants to come back, you should realise you are returning to Dominica. You can't leave England and expect to find three tins of baked beans for 99 cents."

Bruney recalls seeing returners embroiled in confrontation before they had barely set foot in the country, bristling at questions from the customs officer and responding disrespectfully. "The man's doing his job. Talk to him like a human being and he'll behave like a human being. If you don't, you're going to have trouble."

But the image minister McIntyre conjured, of returnees swaggering through Roseau suited and booted like country squires, is ludicrous. Most made frequent trips back while living abroad, so are well aware of how the country has changed and what the living conditions are like. With the exception of one journey to Canada, the only trips Bruney took while in England were to Dominica.

"It's ridiculous to suggest we don't know what it's like, because people come back all the time," Popeau says. "When you return to the Caribbean, you have to leave behind the kind of comfort zone you grew accustomed to." And since most return to the villages where they grew up, people do know them. "People know my parents and my family. My sister came back 10 years ago," Popeau says. "Word gets around that you are from here, and that makes acceptance much easier."

Indeed, in many ways McIntyre's language tells a story. The whole time they have been in England, these returnees have clung to the notion that the place they were from – Dominica – was home, as opposed to the place where they lived. "England was good to me, but I always yearned to come back," Bruney says. When he told a Scottish friend he was going "home" for Christmas, the friend was perplexed. "From a family point of view, England is home," Bruney says, "but from a national point of view, it's not. So when I go to Dominica I'm going home; when I go back to England I'm going back to England. People can say what they like about me there, but they can't here because I'm 101% Domin­ ican." Yet now they are "home", the minister with responsibility for resettling them talks in terms of "us" (Dominicans) and "them" (returnees).

The roads in Dominica wind, curve, dip and rise with such severity that even a short drive will rid a visitor of their bearings. Heading in and out of forests, mountains and valleys, skirting streams and groves is like being on a rollercoaster through an enormous botanical garden that happens to have its own flag and government. In the shadow of Mount Diablo, Bruney shoos away the goats that are eating the plants on his lawn. He also has turkeys, chicken, sheep and pigs.

He was 22 when he left Dominica. "In those days, everyone was going away. We always felt the pastures were greener, we read books about the mother country, so it was a surprise to see all these terraced houses, chimneys and smoke. I was expecting a wealthier, cleaner country."

In Dominica he had been a teacher, and he wanted to join the RAF in the UK. But he met his wife, started a family and ended up working as a clerk for British Rail for 29 years. When he got made redundant, he came back almost immediately. "Money can't compensate for the time I spend here in Dominica," he says.

What would he be doing if he had stayed in England? "I can visualise myself being stuck indoors watching TV and vegetating. What can you do during the winter?"

The weather comes up a lot. While talk of home and the issues of belonging are real, sometimes what you hear are working-class English people who have a more meaningful place to go to than Spain. The fact that they are at "home" only enhances the sense of achievement they feel when they reach the end of their working life and have something to show for it.

Even so, there was a moment shortly after he returned when Bruney briefly regretted coming back. A huge container, holding the bulk of his possessions from England, arrived and the shipping company insisted it had to transport it to his house because it was insured. En route, the lorry overturned, destroying most of what he needed to start his new life. The company refused to compensate him. Even though it was an open-and-shut case, it took him 11 years to get his money back.

Many of the points of tension between returnees and locals are very real problems such as this that have nothing to do with identity. Most have tales of frustrating experiences with the legal system, being cheated while trying to build their house or being otherwise disrespected by bureaucrats. These are frustrations other Dominicans presumably share, but because the returnees have moved back, they are more likely than most to be dealing with bureaucracy and builders.

There are very real income disparities between returnees and locals, too. There are no obvious signs of abject poverty in Dominica – the country is too bountiful for anyone to go hungry – but it is still a poor country with an unemployment rate around 20% and a per capita GDP of £6,000. To buy the land and build a decent-sized house from scratch costs around £90,000. If you worked in the public sector in England, bought your own council house in the 90s and sold it a few years ago, you could retire here in relative wealth and comfort.

"No matter how humble your job might have been, that is a factor you have to deal with," Popeau says. "You can live like a minister here," says Georges, who worked for the Post Office and the railways, and became mayor of Waltham Forest. For some, the shift from struggling to get by to being regarded as wealthy is difficult to fathom. "They think we're rich. I don't think I'm rich," says Helena Durand, 63, who left Dominica in 1959 and came back in 1997. "I don't think of myself as rich at all. But I don't know how people here manage with a family." You can see why returnees would be annoyed at people trying to charge them higher prices for things because they think they have a lot of money, but it is also not difficult to see why local people might try it.

Moreover, in Dominica memories of colonialism are still quite fresh. The country didn't gain independence until 1978, so when the returnees are accused of "acting English", the phrase has connotations that go beyond geography. "To be called English is a slur," Popeau says. "It can be very annoying. It associates you in shorthand with having Anglo-Saxon colonial attitudes, which is pretty ironic because we spent a lot of our working lives fighting those attitudes."

Indeed, the discrepancy between self-perception and appearance feels like just one of a series of misunderstandings inherent in this journey. What local people have seen is people leave, build relatively large houses and return to a grand retirement. What they don't see are the decades in between. It's as though the long hours, the racial humiliations, the sense of alienation and dislocation are all buried under the newly bought land, then built over.

What returnees see is the place they have pined for, sent money back to and otherwise emotionally and financially invested in, keep them at arm's-length. What they sometimes fail to recognise is the degree to which both they and Dominica have changed, and the extent to which they will have to navigate those changes to reintegrate comfortably.

Those who stayed and those who left, to some extent, clash horns because of a colossal mistranslation. Thanks to the global inequalities of wealth, the fruits of a working-class life in England are converted into the retirement of the privileged; the natural process of acculturation is understood as a sign of haughtiness; the desire to see improvement in the place they have returned to is taken as an implicit slight on the attitudes that have prevailed while they were away.

Some emigrants were too embarrassed about their life abroad to say how difficult it was. On their return, some built houses with perimeter walls and curtains locals took as a sign that they didn't want to mix; having spent so long in cities, getting used to the less private, more convivial nature of village life took some adjustments.

These misunderstandings, compounded by the possibly unbridgeable differences that have emerged over a working life abroad, deepen the friction. This was clearly illustrated by an incident Bruney related when a car ahead of him stopped in the middle of a narrow road so the driver could chat with someone on the street. No one could pass. Bruney said he waited a while before his patience, and the patience of others before him, wore out. He asked the driver to move.

"Shut up, you foreigner," the driver replied.

"I was born and bred here," Bruney told the man. "I am more of a Dominican than you are. While I was away I was probably keeping you by sending money back."

When I finish at Eustace Maxim's house, he sees me to the gate and stands there. The cable technician has still not come to fix his computer so he can communicate with his grandkids. I ask if he's expecting him in the morning or evening.

"Just sometime," he says. "But I'm retired. I can wait. He'll come sometime. Praise be to God."

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