Isaac Gordon (b. 1927): An Introduction

This is an image of Isaac Gordon himself, found on the cover of his memoir ‘Going Where the Work is’

“I didn’t want to come to England

  and I didn’t have the money.

  But I did want to go to America.” (9)

Isaac Gordon was born in a town called Scarborough in Jamaica, which immediately brings to mind the colonial connections, which frame and shadow Isaac’s life and memoir. His birth date is still unknown at this moment, though I hope to find it by the end of my research. One reason that he may not have included his birth date is that he may not even know it himself.

An illustration from Centerprise as it looked in the 1970s. This is where Isaac learnt how to read and write English.

Isaac’s Memoir Going Where the Work is was written in 1978 and published a year later in 1979 by Hackney Reading Centre. He did not write the memoir himself, as we learn from the beginning of his text that he could not read and write as he started to “cry and hide from school” (1) at a young age. Instead, Isaac got the help of Jud Stone, a worker at the Hackney Reading Centre, to transcribe his thoughts over the space of a year and a half. He was learning to read and write in the centre over the course of 16 years, so he was a key member of their society and community. Though he did not write the memoir himself, it was written in Jamaican Creole and therefore transcribed exactly how he would have spoken it. This allows you to enter his mind and thoughts fully when diving into his fascinating life of low paid labour and hardship.

Isaac’s memoir is written purely in verse, capturing his life moments in a clear, concise but individual way. He also separates his memoir into 10 different sections to clearly lay out the timeline of the events that he is describing. Each section captures a different moment of his life. For example, he tells us of his early years in his beginning chapter ‘School’, where he sets out the key points and the tone for his memoir. Later, Isaac tells us more specifically about his work and his travelling from place to place. In his chapter ‘Isaac to the States’ he tells us “Everybody glad when someone leave and go to America because they send something back for them,” (12). This teaches us of the hardships of casual work and a little bit more about the state of Jamaica in the 1950’s.

This is a photo of three men who are part of the ‘Windrush generation’. They had just arrived to the UK from a Caribbean country.

These few insights into Isaac’s life begin to explore the context of the time and the way in which being black in different countries affected him and his work. Isaac travelled across three different countries in order to find work, though he made it clear that he just wanted to live in the United States (to chase the American dream, maybe?). However, he was not able to move to the states without an employer sponsoring his time there by giving him a contract. Isaac states that he had to go to England for work, though he did not want to, and he ended up making his life there. This reveals at the end of the memoir that he got married to his wife and had two children during his time living in England.

Isaac’s memoir is distinctively different in tone and content to the memoirs of other Londoners studied on this website. While many autobiographies who were born and bred in London struggled with hardships, their experience of class inequality was not compounded by racial discrimination. ‘Going Where the Work is’ brings a new approach to life in the 1950’s and Isaac’s memoir will allow me to explore the cultural experiences that he would have gone through, whilst relating these to the context then and now.

Works cited:

Gordon, Isaac. ‘Going Where the Work is’. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection Library, vol. 2:327.

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