Forty-six years ago a bemused little lad stood on a Southsea pavement terrified at what was about to confront him.
George Alagiah was on the verge of starting his secondary education as a boarder at St John’s College.
His father stood beside him. They had flown to Britain from their home in Accra, Ghana, and then travelled in a cab to Portsmouth from London.
Young George would not see his family again for another 10 months when the summer holidays eventually rolled around.
Looking back, George, recognises that moment as the most pivotal in his life – the moment when the Tamil immigrant boy from Sri Lanka, by way of Ghana, started to learn how to become an Englishman.
Today, of course, his face and mellifluous voice are recognised the world over as one of the most famous and well-respected journalists working for the BBC. And he says he owes it all to his seven years at St John’s.
Next Friday he makes a rare return to the city that made the man when he speaks at the New Theatre Royal about his transformation from nervous little boy to confident 18-year-old ready to take on the world.
He will also tell his audience of his firm belief that his assimilation into British society was the correct way to do it.
‘I had to sink or swim. There were very few of us with brown skins at St John’s and I was absolutely determined that I would fit in and become an Englishman.
‘It was a world away from the sadly separate development of so many immigrant children today, many of whom simply end up in what can only be called enclaves, surrounded by their own culture, often by people who don’t speak English.
‘It’s one of the great challenges of multi-cultural Britain.’
So how did George, now 57, end up in Portsmouth in September 1967?
He says: ‘I have been to Britain once before in 1963, when my family came over from Ghana for a few weeks to enrol my two elder sisters in a Catholic boarding school in Littlehampton. Four years later, it was my turn.
‘I didn’t know what to make of it. It was quite a shock. I’d left behind a big garden in Accra with guava and pineapple trees, a dog and hot sun and here I was in Southsea looking at a Tarmac courtyard at St John’s outside my boarding house.’
He recalls his father trying to smile as he bid his son farewell at the school gate. ‘I’d seen him cry before when his brother died, so I could tell when he was on the verge of doing so again, but I was going to be brave.
‘My father had told me that and I was not going to let him down. So I, too, held back the tears. Perhaps it would have been different if my mother had been there. But she was far away.
‘My parents couldn’t afford the plane fare for her and the other children to come to England. So she was in Sri Lanka, where I was born, at the tail end of a holiday with some of our Tamil relatives. From there she joined my father in Ghana, where our family moved in 1961. My mother would not have been afraid to cry and then, maybe, it would have been OK for me to cry too.’
He says he probably felt like a woman who had walked into a room full of men. ‘Was everyone looking at me or was I just imagining it? I felt awkward, strange, and suddenly my voice didn’t seem right, even the English accent I thought I’d perfected. I felt different. Foreign.’
But it was an event later on in his first week at St John’s that sticks in his memory. ‘It was the moment I realised I was going to have to develop a pretty thick skin if I was going to make it in England.’
And, of course, in true British boarding school tradition, it happened in the showers when George was asked why he had not got a tan line around his waist.
‘It was the autumn term and everyone had come back from their holidays and they were nicely browned except for the bit where they wore swimming trunks. I suppose I could have sounded terribly superior and said something about mad dogs and Englishmen going out in the sun, but my mind was a complete blank.
‘How could I explain that we were brought up never to hang around in the sun? How could I explain that we had no need to tan ourselves in order to feel that we looked good?
‘How could I explain that I had never had a communal shower before and that I had never seen a tan line before? Above all, how could I explain that I wanted all of them to stop looking at me?’
But they did and George played a full part in St John’s cultural and sporting life and cut his journalistic teeth on the school magazine. ‘I had a wonderful time there. They were very happy years and I shall always retain a great fondness for Portsmouth.’
· George Alagiah will talk about his years in Portsmouth, his career and tackle the issue of multi-cultural Britain at 7.30pm on December 14 at the New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth.
HIS CONCERNS FOR TODAY’S IMMIGRANT CHILDREN
George Alagiah fears for youngsters growing up parts of Britain where there are large numbers of immigrants.
He says: ‘I accomplished the immigrant journey so successfully that I have been able to exploit to the full everything that Britain has had to offer. I have gained so much an education, a career, a country... ‘
He says he escaped the ‘square-peg-round-hole fate’ into which many immigrants fall.
‘What worries me is the very different experience of many black and Asian children in Britain today,’ he said.
‘While my own upbringing may have entailed an unnatural and undesirable dislocation from my parents’ traditions, the reverse may be true for many immigrant children growing up now: an unnatural and undesirable estrangement from the culture of the country in which they live.’
He says that for them, school can represent a microcosm of whichever ethnic community they belong to. ‘When they go home, they can return to neighbourhoods that are ethnically segregated in much the same way.
‘It seems to me that, in multi-cultural Britain there are thousands of young immigrant boys and girls who seem to live in parallel communities and cannot aspire to the achievements and sense of belonging that I and my sisters have acquired since we came here in the 60s.
‘I worry that there is a generation who will be forever locked into an ethnic ghetto, unable to exploit everything that Britain has to offer.’