Maggie Hartford talks to artist and educationist Paul Dash, who left the Caribbean at the age of 11 to face rain and racism in 1960s Oxford . . .

Paul Dash Artist Paul Dash still remembers his first sight of London at the age of 11. He was expecting a glittering great city, but all he could see was high buildings in a grey murky gloom. It couldn't have been a bigger contrast to the country he came from, where there was light, warmth and vibrant colours - mahogany, brilliant red bougainvillea, rich green pine, sugar cane, palm, fruit trees, coconut and giant casuarinas. At Victoria station, he was reunited with his parents, whom he hadn't seen since they had moved from Barbados nearly two years earlier, and driven to Oxford.

In his autobiography Foreday Morning he describes the city which greeted him. "Oxford in the late 1950s was a city that lacked comfort, a place mired in work, toil and greyness. I found Cowley, in those first winters, bleak, cold and dark. Living under a canopy of cloud for days on end, untouched by sunlight, was a reversal of everything I was used to and central to life."

It was not only the weather that was dark - there was also the attitude of the people, many of whom were not at all welcoming to the arrivals from the Caribbean. Like earlier waves of immigrants, his father found work at the Cowley car factory. However, the first Caribbean immigrants faced racism at its most naked and acute.

Dash, who taught in London secondary schools for more than 20 years, reserves his worst opprobrium for Cowley St John School.

He and his brother were the school's first black pupils and he never met another black child of his age during his four years there. Classmates smelt him, and occasionally called him Sambo, but gradually grew to accept him, and he made several good friends. The teachers were another matter.

He describes incidents involving his form mistress Mrs Harris, and a PE teacher, Mr Shirley, which were so acutely painful and humiliating that he felt he could tell no one. He has a vivid recollection of such childhood experiences and the feelings of powerlessness against the adult world.

Dash's school in Barbados had offered a formal education based on an English grammar school. At Cowley St John, he repeated maths he had done the previous year.

During his entire school career, he was never set any homework. He even had to endure a teacher explaining to the class that "West Indians" lived in mud huts. He lived through Enoch Powell's "river of blood" speech against immigration, and the Notting Hill riots, but black people in Oxford distanced themselves from these.

"There was real racism in Oxford," he said. "But people either swept it under the carpet or found ways of dealing with their situation."

Redemption came through his love of art. Encouraged by high marks at school from the art teacher, the appropriately-named Mr Goodwill, and by supportive parents, he started painting at home, creating pointillist pictures of Oxford market, where he went shopping with his mother. Towards the end of his school career, staff began to treat him differently because of his success at art and cricket.

Even then, the paintings he created at home - scenes of Caribbean life - were never shown to anyone outside his immediate family. He said: "I kept my work to myself because I lacked confidence about the way people would respond." He took his GCEs at Oxford College of Further Education and enrolled in Oxford School of Art - part of the then Oxford Polytechnic in Headington - where he escaped into a different way of life, working under Len McComb, who later became Keeper of the Royal Academy.

Meanwhile, his musical career was also taking off, with a band called the Carib Six, playing black music at the town hall, a club in the Cowley Road, and for US forces at Upper Heyford. At Chelsea School of Art, he fell in with an even more bohemian crowd, joining the black middle-classes and eventually becoming a lecturer at Goldsmiths College, London.

He was asked to write the book by Black Amber publisher Rosemary Hudson, who heard him speak at the Barbadian High Commission about how difficult it was for a child from a black working-class background to become an artist.

He has spent his life in Britain, and only returned to the Carribean in 1974 - 17 years after that first gloomy September day.

He says: "Britain to me is not so grey now. My wife is English and I feel very committed to this country. I have been away for too long and I belong here now, but the Carribean has a magic that I can still tap into."

**Foreday Morning is published by Black Amber Books at £12.99.