In 1945, the English fiction-writer V. S. Pritchett made a telling comment on the ‘disappearance’ of his friend, Mulk Raj Anand. Anand, well known as founding father of the Indian novel in English, had been living in London for over twenty years. A public intellectual and vociferous anti-imperialist, he was active in many different areas of cultural life. Yet, as Pritchett says, reflecting on Anand's sudden departure for India at the end of the war, ‘He vanished…there seems to have been a long silence.’ That silence was partly the silence of war. Before 1939, Britain was an imperial nation, still confident, despite building colonial resistance, of its global role. After 1945, its horizons swiftly began to shift inwards to an island nation, keen to ‘screen out’ the awkward consequences of its declining empire from its field of vision. Pritchett would certainly have been aware of the changing landscape of a blitz-torn nation, struggling, despite victory, to cope with the changed economic, political and social realities of the post-war world. The ‘silence’ intimated here, however, was primarily a cultural one: what Stuart Hall was later to call a ‘profound historical forgetfulness’ or wilful ‘amnesia’, that has continued for decades in accounts of British history. Although this gap in the cultural historiography of the nation has now begun to be addressed by a post-1990s generation of scholars keen to thicken the ‘lines’ of the ‘black in the Union Jack’, there remains a general failure to recognise the extent to which the map of English literature has always been forged from its mixed colonial past.
Britain has had a heterogeneous migrant population for well over 400 years, correspondent to its empire abroad, making the imperial centre as much the ‘home’ of the colonial encounter as were the colonies themselves, situated on the so-called peripheries. As W. E. B. Du Bois noted in 1911, not only was the ‘Empire’ a ‘coloured’ empire but the streets of London were increasingly revealing ‘this fact’. The more visible presence of several generations of African, Caribbean and Asian ‘immigrants’ in the decades after World War II was not simply an effect of the residue of empire (‘you are here because we were there’) but the culmination of a long and more intimate relationship.