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This article is taken from PN Review 149, Volume 29 Number 3, January - February 2003.Roots and Roots
This was one of five PN Review lectures delivered at the Literature of the Commonwealth Festival, Manchester, 2002.
I had to check on the title of this talk because I should imagine it's the same sort of talk I've given elsewhere, under this or that heading; always coming away with the feeling that a better title may have helped. And although Roots and Roots might not, in fact, mean anything much, it's perhaps a little bit less self-aggrandising than Taking the Drawing Room Through Customs (and Forgetting the Bookcase) which was the working title last time. And although that title was prompted by my having to make a snap decision over the phone, much of what I have to say might be said to stem from a consciousness of the failure of people like me, from a corner of the Caribbean migrating to Britain, to bring something of their literary tradition with them: i.e. to take the Drawing Room through Customs. I'm thinking of the Empire Windrush generation of 1948 and following, and attempting to locate my own family - coming here between 1954 and 1956 - as one missing point of reference in this discussion.
I imagine the literary image Windrush conjures up would be of those memorably folksy characters portrayed in Sam Selvon's 1956 novel, The Lonely Londoners, a work still fresh and compelling. But no Caribbean person reading The Lonely Londoners at the time would have taken this accurate portrait of youngish, mainly male, good-humoured and resilient migrants to a 'cold' environment, as a cross-section of Caribbean - or, indeed, even or West Indian - i.e. the cricket-playing Caribbean - society. I'm tempted to compare this with those stories and novels of William Trevor presenting an accurate social record of an unchanging rural Ireland: but whereas those who know Ireland talk of how those early Trevor images now need to be modified, we are often encouraged to suppose that British-born grandchildren of Selvon's 1956 pioneers are still to be characterised by their folksiness and exoticism.
So I want to start by drawing attention to our habit of allowing a part of the community to stand in for the whole community from which it is derived, and to ignore that new unrepresentative community's essential frames of reference which might help it to locate it - to redefine itself. The host community will have no difficulty in seeing the guests in a reductive way. What's equally evident is that the migrant communities so often collude with this themselves: how soon are the disadvantaged-at-home West Indians and South Africans reconstituted as black British Community with an identity to defend, black now becoming the defining quality, not West Indianness, not Indianness, not yet Britishness, black having to battle for separate space in grudgingly-shared land. (Where to place, say, the whiteskinned Jamaican poet, Edward Lucie Smith, living in London?) Letters home (home not yet queried in inverted commas) from this black British Community acknowledge the advantages of living in an advanced, liberal democracy, but at the same time often lament the new community's lack of social depth, its requirements that certain intellectual and other aspirations, certain medium-term ambitions, etc. relating to risk-taking must be put on hold, at least till the next generation - while the more immediate challenges of resettlement - negotiating living and working space and civil treatment - are addressed. (The risk of deferring certain needs as a community - as we know - is that they come to be seen as accidental not essential to the community, and if recovered, tend to be treated as gifts bestowed rather than as rights regained. (Cf. Mr Justice Bork; cf. Palestine). Until then, the migrant group cedes the right to be part of the norm, and must accept the label of 'minority', of 'other', of 'ethnic minor', of having an adjective preceding a noun. I'm stating the obvious, and posing the question that derives from it: how does a community trapped in 'otherness' regain or gain the mobility - social, intellectual, psychic, artistic - how does it establish new frames of reference, new contexts for itself, to check the hardening from 'otherness' into 'alienness'?
My leaping off point in this argument is a remark by George Lamming, the great Barbadian novelist, talking of migration from the Carribean to Britain in the 1950s: the contention that both sides of the encounter - host and guest - were deceived as the hosts weren't really consulted and the guests were lied to. George's wonderful image is that of a young Englishwoman wandering downstairs one Sunday morning, shocked to see a black man, a stranger, stretched out on her couch. (I took the liberty to write the poem that George may have had in mind.)
On George Lamming's Couch
So, she comes down in a nightie revealing
more than she intended: something has disturbed
the Sunday-morning snooze: what are you doing here?
she asks the stranger on the couch. She has seen him
in the street, one of his colour: does he speak
her language through those lips? Can they spirit
themselves through the keyhole: what are you doing here?
Though the house won't be paid for, it seems, in this lifetime
she holds the key to the door: what hill did he climb
to breach these walls; there are no weapons on him
that she can see, and his body in repose reminds her
they are said to be cunning. So much black skin
on her couch: is it hot to the touch? That's right, two men
in the house, before breakfast. Last time the government
promised an end to rationing: will every home now have one
of these for Christmas? Luck of the draw maybe;
she has been warned what happens to a girl
with a will of her own: did peeing on the rubble with her friend
lead to this? His eyes seem to see her crouching
on the site, and here she is naked in a nightie. He's up
on two feet, reading her thoughts. He speaks through a mouth
of uncovered sex. And she will stand her ground
checking he's left nothing on the couch. I live here.
His voice close enough to trip her over: the curtains
are his; does he know curtains from nightie? She won't
call for help till she's ready and dressing-gowned. Standards:
I'm English and this is my castle. She will banish
fear and do the normal thing; ask for evidence
of his claim to the couch. You get away with things
when your nerve holds: will he touch her before
she can wake the house? And through those lips, yes, he asks
to go to the bathroom. So he can't live here, after all.
You will notice that this encounter of host and guest is different from some earlier rehearsals of this scene - different from that which faced early European migrants to North America or Australia, say, where an ethnic cleansing policy eased the process of settlement. Here, in the north of England of the 1950s, the host is securely in place, a fixed entity; the guest must account for himself; is, in effect, a defendant in Court (Is your case better than that of refugee or asylum seeker?). How are you going to justify your place on this young woman's Sunday morning couch?
So let's go back to that point off the map, beyond the journeying, before one became an ethnic minor; other side of Dover or Liverpool, etc., not yet, solely Black British. Let us resist the attempt to turn one into a statistic, and distort one's case for legitimacy; this is going to be personal; this is part of the missing story.
The year is again 1956; the place is Montserrat in the Eastern Caribbean, a tiny outpost of the British Empire; a colony. The bookcase is in the drawing-room of a house shortly to be abandoned by its inhabitants. It is a big house by Montserratian standards, what some call a near-Great House; twelve rooms. On the upper floor, besides the drawing-room are the grandmother's, the mother's and the boys' rooms as well as spare room and bathroom with WC. (The boys' room was, incidentally, designated for the two elder boys in the family, it was not a euphemism: the boys are already abroad, the grandmother is two years dead.) The drawing-room and the mother's room open out onto a veranda, with spectacular view of sea and mountains in the distance, twelve steps down to the front lawn.
Downstairs is the dining room with bread room and kitchen on one side facing the back yard. On the other side, facing the front lawn, the coal room under the veranda and, at the back, the servants' room; and another room, used for nothing much but storing lumber. So, that was the house in which I grew up until I was eleven, my grandmother's house. (My mother - like a representative of a ruling family - tried to bring the entire House with her: I modestly settled for the idea of the bookcase.)
What was in the bookcase? Well, lots of clerical stuff, as two of the men of the house (one dead, one abroad) had been preachers. Apart from the Bible I didn't read any of it. What I remember reading was Robinson Crusoe, The Pilgrim's Progress and something called John Halifax, Gentleman. Things I didn't read - items from the bookcase in the drawing-room - included a version of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Milton's Paradise Lost and a book called Sin Fein. (Montserrat, remember, was colonised by the Irish. In the drawing-room, on a Sunday afternoon, visitors came - the headmaster, the Methodist minister, a successful cousin, a businessman, from town to talk of a world outside of Montserrat; to talk of how family had conducted themselves in that world; to point out to us, the new generation, what would be required. The small point here is that I left before growing into full familiarity with my own literary and intellectual world: that's why it was puzzling to find in England, other West Indians, similarly unprepared 'at home', instantly transformed into experts on the West Indies.)
We brought a lot of luggage to England, my mother, my sister and myself. My father had been absent, living in Canada for many years. My elder brothers had left the island two years previously, and were in England; there was disagreement among the family on what to take to England; so we left the books. The feeling was that there were already enough books in England. We brought lots of (best) cutlery and crockery to England, hopefully, to demonstrate our status to the natives; we brought presents for people we knew living in England - including their favourite bread made of cassava, and herbs from the garden for the brewing of tea; we left the clocks, the radio, grandfather's rockingchair, the piano and the furniture; we debated, yes, but left - gave away - all the animals in the yard, including Ruby, the horse: the chickens, pigs and goat going to neighbours. My mother had to be persuaded that it was not practicable to bring Ruby, the horse. (For someone told us that Royalty in England and France liked horses, and were sometimes painted sitting on them: we may have been hazy about the fate of some members of the French Royal family.) Apart from the bible - two Bibles - we brought no books.
It soon dawned on you, in England, that nearly everyone you met - both English and Caribbean - assumed that you had left nothing of value behind: to claim otherwise was to lay yourself open to the charge, at best, of nostalgia, at worst of rewriting history. I check with my family when I write this history, just to be on the safe side. When I'm tempted to call this talk - culled from a larger disquisition - 'Taking the Drawing-Room through Customs (and forgetting the Bookcase)' I use 'Drawing-room' as something of a metaphor for a certain style of living, a certain level of expectation, an attempt to shift (or enlarge) - as I said - the frame of reference within which the Caribbean experience in Britain is discussed.
I'd like to compare, or relate the 'Drawing-room' experience I have in mind to two other types of experience that are thought to define 'ethnics' in this country from the black Commonwealth. Africa and the Caribbean are widely acknowledged for their success in transferring the Playground Experience to Europe, in terms of ball players, of runners and jumpers, not forgetting those other consenting adults - men who are prepared to be hit, repeatedly, in the face in the name of sport. The Indian sub-continent has been universally praised - not least by genial self-proclaiming racists - for having transported, successfully, to Britain, the sub-Continental kitchen (Okay, so we gave you curry. But you added the spices): no one who is anyone in Britain can do without the Indian culinary experience, as cultural accessory. Though some Asians may have misgivings about this, there is no doubt that contact with Indian cuisine might encourage a sense that the kitchen might not be entirely detached from the larger culture of the south Asian household.
This is not true of the Caribbean or African playground: indeed, those who don't make it as professional sportspeople are seen as a threat to society, disrupting the schools, and making the streets of Britain unsafe. The connection in the old Caribbean, between drawing-room and playground was unsatisfactory; but connection there was. It was an unsatisfactory connection because colonial island life was still in a fairly early process of negotiating the complex social and ethical codes by which families and groups, lacking a certain psychological security, could live with and respect one another. We hadn't yet let go of the inherited aids to status: racism, pigmentocracy, sexism, religiosity, homophobia and wife and child-beating. But, it is my fantasy that if we could reconnect the Caribbean playground with that Caribbean drawing-room at home, alert to the need to convert plantation experience to a civil society, those of us, abroad, could draw on the same intellectual and moral courage in our community-forming.
It is true that most black British writers - we are going to focus on writers: this is a literature festival - most black British writers have tried to contest settled arrangements between 'hosts' and 'guests' - including the use of these terms but in a conceptually lazy way which leaves the rival assumptions more or less intact. So it's more productive, perhaps, to draw attention to those others who conceived of these terms in ways that lessen rather than increase the marginalisation of the black writer and artist in British society. We would all have our list of names of those who have tried to create space for themselves and others to renegotiate the geography of host and guest; of norm and alternative; of those possessing a history and those dispossessed of it. My random list of Caribbean-heritage writers would include C.L.R. James, Wilson Harris and (as we can't appropriate George Lamming as being Black British), from later generations, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Caryl Phillips and Andrea Levi, the novelist.
In our ideal, transported, drawing-room, C.L.R. James - we travelled by sea in those days: transporting a drawingroom was no problem - in our drawing-room, C.L.R James might be expected to be discussing Toussaint-L'Ouverture and the Haitian revolution, or Marxism, or the philosophy of cricket; but he might well be reflecting on those writers who were our near neighbours, Amie Cesaire in Martinique, St-John Perse in Guadeloupe, Nicolas Guillen in Cuba. I hear of no black-British writer today under the age, say, of Caryl Phillips, talking of their shared interests with Nancy Morejon, or Patrick Chamoiseau. (Though it is possible they might be affirming ethnic solidarity with writers from the United States: and that might not be the most interesting way to reward Toni Morrison. For then it might be difficult to distinguish the aesthetic experience gained from reading Morrison from that, say, of reading Alice Walker or Maya Angelou.) I mentioned Wilson Harris.
Wilson Harris (from Guyana) has fought a forty-year battle against what he calls 'the novel of persuasion', to a certain extent declining both the novelist's ancient right to mug the reader into literary submission and the current fashionable slide into literary journalism. Of L.K.J. - Linton - we're doing a round up of people in the drawing-room, now - those people who are doing our thinking for us while we fight other battles - Linton didn't just slip into a readymade slot called the 'British Working Class', he shifted (as we say) the sensibility of that class (and not only of that class) extending its range of reference, modifying its inherited aesthetic. Most recently - of the people mentioned above - Andrea Levi, member of the new generation, born in England, shows, in her second novel Every Light in the House Burnin' that her narrator and her characters are not guests on someone else's housing estate, not bunking down on someone else's couch, but people belonging to their ascribed space: the great sense of being in place (which is different from the sense of ownership) comes through. Harris has been marginalised because sustained intellectual effort and imaginative enlargement are no longer the fashion for readers in Britain. (Other names in the drawing-room - while we're in name-dropping mood - would include Jan Carew and Sylvia Winter and Andrew Salkey, the sculptor Ron Moody and - as we turn from West Indian to Black British without replicating bad, separatist habits - in the drawing-room, also, would be M.J. Tambimuttu - who hailed from Ceylon - the legendary editor, in the 40s, of Poetry London; and figures like Mulk Raj Anand, novelist, with his arresting portraits of poverty in the Punjab, etc.
To come back to Linton. L.K.J. seems of special interest because, among other things, the space he opened up for poetry - welcoming but unfrivolous; selective but not exclusive; makes him our most successful missionary to England. (His achievement is nearer, it seems to me, to that of Bob Marley, than of another 'post-colonial' pioneer, Salman Rushdie, who though his 'exoticism' adds necessary spice to a bland literary diet, might find that after a while consumers get used to the spices, and use them on chips.)
There is stereotyping, marginalisation, banishment into 'otherness' of a black community in Britain, we are the victims. Yes, of course; and yet... (I recall a man, a couple of years ago, who won the vote but lost the count for the US Presidency. After Al Gore laid out his opponent's claims for the job, he said: But I have another view.) My other view is concerned less with blaming the host, than in seeing how we could repair some of the damage of not having brought the drawing-room with us through Customs, in the 1950s. I borrow here from a specific argument I am engaged in which is entitled 'A Counter-blast Against Racism in the British Poetry Establishment' and it holds up to account recent anthologies edited by figures thought to represent the British Poetry Establishment. (You know the accuracy of the charge when the people in question deny the existence of a Literary Establishment.) In the polemic I try to point to two types of failure: (a) to transport enough strands of the culture which makes one seem incomplete, one-dimensional, posturing - a V.S. Naipaul figure, say (and V.S. Naipaul is himself the quintessential stage-West Indian) or: (b) literary abuse by editors who select only the colourful, the exotic, the work not informed by one's living in England, the better to de-nationalise you. (I will try to gloss the term 'racism' as I go along.)
But we were saying, failure to transport enough of our self, makes it easy for people to make vulgar assumptions about us. We were seen in a still class-stratified society as constituting a class. But what class? Those West Indians who fought in the Second World War returned home, or, like my father, an ambitious man who wished to spend less time with the family, moved to North America. Those who came as students returned to positions of power or idleness. Those who came to stay were treated as, and accepted the role of, second class citizens associated with poor housing, unskilled jobs and social resentment. They were seen as part of a working class but not of the British working class; the dark-skinned were unofficially accorded a class to themselves, beyond and below the British working class. So, cut off from the old Caribbean drawing-room links, they naturally aspired to be part of the British working class, without realising that upward mobility within that class necessitated, in most cases, a change of colour. (Some of us try it by growing old, grayfully: sometimes it works.) Much black British poetry, liked by the punters - from Jean Binta Breeze to Benjamin Zephaniah - has legitimacy, but at the same time might be playing into the hands of those who would impose simplistic binary opposites - oral v. scribal - on us.
There was a time when the debate was about gaining cultural space, being registered on the literary map. For those who were not ambitious this was enough. For those who were ambitious the type of space gained was significant: I plead guilty to the party of ambition. It was not enough to say: though the mainstream is denied us, special spaces might be created specially for us to work and play: you mightn't label them 'other'; you might even call it 'cultural diversity', which, being P.C., avoids unpleasant connotations of the ghetto.
Yes, there is a time for access. I was myself, for a period in the 1970s, part of a poetry-performing troupe called 'The Bluefoot Travellers' (a Jamaican term, suggested by James Berry, the poet) - with James, himself, young Linton Kwesi Johnston, Mikki Herndriks, the actor Jimi Rand, the calypso singer and actor Cy Grant, etc. criss-crossing the country, performing poems. I remember reading at an anti-Nazi rally at the University of Hull some time in the 70s and before I went on the organiser whispered in my ear that he expected some strong anti-Nazi poems from me. I had just enough time to remind myself that if there was something less than being fully human in being Nazi, then to be anti-Nazi would call forth those poems where my fullest humanity would seem to be expressed - so I read my Love Poems. After the reading the organiser confided that I had missed a trick. (They were, perhaps, not good poems: I should have read them some Neruda.)
A month or two later, at the Sherwood Theatre in Cardiff the Bluefoot Travellers were again in action. When we got there we found that the poster advertising us also advertised a group of Scandinavian poets. They were featured as constituting WHITE WRITING and we as representing BLACK WRITING. I decided, after the ritual protest, that it was not my role to take time out from the reading, each time, to contest the way in which I was being labelled, so discontinued my membership of the Bluefoot Travellers.
This rough Arts & Artists climate, sometimes characterised by the slogan BLACK ARTISTS, WHITE INSTITUTIONS, extended to most areas of the arts. In the theatre the random-coloured casting of the Wall Theatre soon gave way to the Black Theatre of Brixton; in the visual arts, in the mid-1980s, Black Women Artists were accorded their own exhibition at the ICA, in the Mall - their paintings hung in the corridor. The Exhibition was called - I'm told without conscious irony - The Thin Black Line. (You could not step back to view the exhibits.) In 1987, a major Channel Four investigation of the visual arts led to a publication, State of the Art: Ideas and Images in the 1980s, edited by Sandy Nairne. The project was divided into six categories of art, and the black artists were all brought together under the two categories labelled 'Identity'. When, about five years ago, I approached the publishers, Macmillan with a proposal to edit a book on Caribbean intellectual history, I was told to commission essays costing no more than £50 apiece.
At one point, in the mid-1980s, as editor of a Black Arts magazine in London, I had an opportunity to help to define what we - supposedly Black British artists - might be about. When, in Artrage, I tried to define black as a political colour, printing as black writing, work from people of whatever colour, which seemed to challenge the prevailing sexist, racist and xenophobic tendencies, I was challenged by many black-skinned writers, who demanded that their work - robustly sexist, racist and xenophobic - should be published in a black arts magazine. They had the funding bodies, and in particular, the Arts Council, on their side; they had the literary editors and Arts Administrators on their side and they had the audience on their side. In those days Anthony Everett, the Director General, used to describe the Arts Council's treasure store as a cake, and would cheerfully invite you to bid for a slice of it. We lived then, as now, in a rough climate. I decided to give up the struggle of editing a black arts magazine in London.
This failure of mine to shift, to modify, to do something other than queue up for my slice of the cake can be put down to personal frailty: there was no drawing-room example to stiffen my resolve.
Imagine entering the drawing-room to complain that Heinemann wanted from me stories that the African schoolboy could recognise as being West Indian (this, twenty years after one was supposedly part of something called the black British community); imagine complaining to the drawing-room - which, you know, was not a place for simplistic responses - imagine complaining that Macmillan wouldn't let you pay the price of Walcott's Nobel acceptance speech in your proposed book of Caribbean essays. First of all, what sort of discussion would I be interrupting there?
In the drawing-room (In the room the brothers come and go/Talking of Hue & Uncle Ho.) the question of the geography of a West Indian nation would have been settled, its boundaries stretching from Cuba to the Guyanas, its people multilingual. The gathering would, perhaps, with a certain wariness, be reviewing the latest monographs on the slave trade: always difficult to get your head round this one. So, to recap. The Atlantic variety lasts 250 years; the Islamic variety fourteen centuries. But this is not GCE Shakespeare; this is not a compare and contrast question. The ferocity of the Atlantic version still engenders rage; the slow beddingdown process of the other which historians tell us was somewhat more benign in its implementation, might induce puzzlement (the castrated eunuch in the latter often rose to power, the castrated male in the former usually ended up hanging from a tree). So our Drawing-roomers are not talking ethics in the drawing-room; or reparations: they are talking of how to survive 250 years of human ferocity; or how to endure 14 centuries of servicing others and ending up in modifying both your pigments in the process: they might refer to an Atlantic Colin Powell and to the Eunuch who held sway in Egypt under successive sixteenth century sultans, ending up controlling Islam's Holy places, and ask if there is any satisfaction (I can't get no... satisfaction...) to be drawn from this sorry tale.
In this drawing-room environment I am embarrassed to press my old claims for legitimacy in coming from a colony, not yet a nation, no option (unlike the Jamaican, the Pakistani, the Irish) but to have 'British' stamped on my passport. I don't even have the advantage of the naturalised citizen who doesn't like his home country any more, perhaps because it'd undergoing a spell of bad government. (These last, if they are white-skinned, will, though their children soon become part of the mainstream: the children of the black-skinned - unless you give it fourteen centuries - will inherit their status as 'ethnics' - one form of inherited income that even the radicals seem relaxed about.) I've also given up the sentimental argument: a father helping to liberate Belgium. Before that, a Great Uncle, aged fifteen, volunteering for service in the Great War, etc. My intellectual mentors in the drawing room would be likely to remind me of my responsibilities nearer home. Apropos Macmillan: after all, by that time, I had published fourteen books; and if I was committed to producing a book arguing for the existence of a Caribbean or West Indian intellectual tradition, I could have tried harder.
I seem to be making the same sort of complaint forever - that a plantation settlement was interrupted in its formation of a society before it had time to negotiate the intellectual and social and other relationships to make it fully-functioning, multi-layered and self-respecting; that a random, unrepresentative section of that society found itself abroad, under stressful circumstances (linking up with other equally unrepresentative sections of other societies in exile) forced to negotiate new social and political contacts, under pressure, under siege: Before, back there, policemen may have been indisciplined and poorly-educated, now there are white.
How to illustrate my particular complaint without having it hi-jacked, swallowed up in parallel complaints? I'm going to give three examples. The first is from a review I wrote in 1988. It was a collection called The New British Poetry, published by Picador, at £6.95. It had four editors, and each worked to confirm or subvert a labelling of an area of poetry. The results are worth dwelling on. Here is part of the review - a rather long session, I'm afraid - published originally in Artrage.
The New British Poetry has four editors, Gillian Allnutt, Fred D'Aguiar, Ken Edwards and Eric Mottram, each responsible for introducing, quote, 'an important strand in contemporary British poetry to a relatively uncommitted but open-minded reader'. Unquote. This was intended to prevent a single editor, or a group of likeminded editors asserting the claims of, quote, 'one particular group, or a particular idea about poetry, a shared set of concerns of social experience'. Unquote. The strands represented are: Black British Poetry (introduced by D'Aguiar); Quote Feminist Unquote Poetry.
Let me say that again. Quote. Quote Feminist Unquote Poetry. Unquote. (Gillian Allnutt); A Treacherous Assault on British Poetry (by Mottram) and Some Younger Poets (by Ken Edwards). We'll come back to these categories.
This solution at least has the advantage of seeming democratic without delegating the selection process to committee: if the literary criteria of poetry editors in general tend to be strange, then the poet stands a better chance with four varieties of strange. When the two (likeminded?) editors of the earlier Penguin book of Contemporary British Poetry inform us that 'if a poem draws a line round an incident or area of experience, observations which fall within its circumference seek out each other and establish relationships', we accept this as a truism. But when the drawing of that line seems predictable, when 'incident' and 'area of experience' take the same well-traced steps from the favourite page in the old school atlas, then those who wish to turn over, to draw new lines - who wish to extend the possibilities of the relationships - tend to get restless. So one gain in having these professed disparate areas of experience represented in one book is that it brings together readers - and poets - who are usually kept apart.
But The New British Poetry doesn't escape all the pitfalls of its predecessors. Not all the four editors display unease at being confined to their respective ghettoes of 'Black', 'Quote Feminist' and, perhaps less self-limiting, 'Assault' and 'Young' areas. Gillian Allnutt's solution was to 'give away' as many women as she could to other editors, so as to get more women poets into the anthology as a whole. Good tactics. But you see, this excellent principle falls down if the gesture isn't reciprocated: there are no feminist poems written by men in Allnutt's selection. If this were purely a political decision we would accept it readily; but as Allnutt says, she's allowed 'feminist' to slide into 'woman' representing her 'truth'. Though this biographical/political stance is also valid, it has consequences for other categories in the book: what does 'Black' slide into?
There are no black women in the 'Feminist' section...
No Black poets are allowed to make the 'treacherous assault'. The same applies to the 'Younger Poets' section. Ken Edwards uses 'Younger' not in a purely biographical sense. (Why is 'Black' the only term used literally?)...
The second illustration. I must now ask you, in the interest of time, to take something on trust. My argument is that a decision can perhaps be made between those Caribbeanheritage writers who are determined to engage in a subtle way with their new society, and those who celebrate the stance of 'otherness'. Of the former I cite Dionne Brand, a Trinidadian migrant to Canada. (I may not have time to read the poem I have in mind. That's why I ask you to take it on trust.) It's from her collection Land to Light On. You will find here an extraordinary and courageous large-mindedness to engage with the society, to learn about it, as if in preparation to be part of it; owning it.
Maybe this wide country just stretches your life to a thinness just trying to take it in, trying to calculate in it what you must do, the airy bay at its head scatters your thoughts like someone going mad from science and birds pulling your hair, ice invades your nostrils in chunks, land fills your throat, you are so busy with collecting the north, scrambling to the Arctic so wilfully, so busy getting a handle to steady you to this place you get blown into bays and lakes and fissures you have yet to see, except on a map in a schoolroom long ago but you have a sense that whole parts of you are floating in heavy lake water heading for what you suspect is some other life that lives there, and you, you only trust moving water and water that reveals itself in colour. It always takes long to come to what you have to say, you have to sweep this stretch of land up around your feet and point to the signs, pleat whole histories with pins in your mouth and guess at the fall of words.
In contrast we have two writers from England who display the opposite tendency. And the interesting thing is whether they do it by intent, or whether the cultural, literary, editorial environment is just too strong to challenge.
In a poetry anthology edited by Andrew Motion for Faber in 2001, an anthology of poems taken from various parts of the English-speaking world, there is a poem by James Berry (a Jamaican) and one by Benjamin Zephaniah (Black British) that I'm drawn to commenting on. In the old argument about 'access' we would have done a quick scan of how many black British writers were included. (As it happens, twelve in Mr Motion's book: One - Nil to England). But I think by now we are concerned about the quality of the space occupied. And, I have to say, Motion's book is no more skewed in its determination to make certain Caribbean and Asian-heritage writers 'other' than other recent so-called major anthologies brought out by Penguin, Bloodaxe and OUP and edited variously by Edna Longley, Peter Forbes, Sean O'Brien and Simon Armitage. Indeed, Mr Motion compares favourably with some of these. But think of the politics behind the inclusion of James Berry's 'Old Man in New Country' and Benjamin Zephaniah's 'It's Work'.
Old Man in New Country
I am both Watutsi and Pygmy.
I have shone the moment's glory.
I have been the total loss.
Both leaf and flesh grinder,
both sucker of milk and narcotics,
I have been full and still;
my knees have rattled without flesh.
My shoulder supporting spear and bag,
I have ambled along tracks,
shoeless and not clothed. With leaves,
with secret eyes, with butterflies,
I have been the sun's painting exhibited.
Needing not one machine,
no sounds marked down,
I grew certain with my skills.
From all streams
the seasons wake in my blood.
But challenges and attacks
have entangled my peace.
My bag has repeated emptiness
to my bed. My hands have attended wounds
of wars undeclared.
Now my world is new
I cannot find a waterhole.
I could hav been a builder
A painter or a swimmer
I dreamt of being a Rasta writer,
I fancied me a farmer
I could never be a barber
Once I was not sure about de future,
Got a sentence an I done it
Still me angry feelings groweth
Now I am jus a different fighter,
I sight de struggle up more clearly
I get younger yearly
An me black heart don't get no lighter.
I will not join de army
I would work wid malt and barley
But here I am checking me roots,
I could work de ital kitchen
But I won't cook dead chicken
An I won't lick nobody's boots,
Yes I could be a beggar
Maybe not a tax collector
But I could be a streetwise snob,
But I'll jus keep reciting de poems dat I am writing
One day I'll hav a proper job.
Now, James's poem is a very good poem, and James is a man of some years, 78 at the last count; almost my contemporary. But reading the poem against, say, those in the same volume by New Zealand-born Fleur Adcock and Australian-born Peter Porter - both of whom were later migrants to Britain than Berry, who came here in 1948 - you get the impression that these other two have been allowed by editors - in their selection - to assume a sort of ownership of the place in which they live that James' excellent poem - allowing for subtleties of persona and of dramatic role-playing - doesn't: indeed, that's partly the theme of the poem.
Now, Zephaniah is a different case; and Zephaniah is a sweet, unaggressive man - and a vegetarian. And is suitably modest when he picks up honourably degrees from the universities. The poem, here, 'It's Work' is a glancing look at the occupations the poet might have had - builder, painter, swimmer, beggar, etc. The army as a career is not an option - we don't know what he feels about those 10,000-12,000 Caribbean people who served in the British army on either side of the Second World War and he is ambivalent about being a tax-collector. There is some little shift from an earlier mindset. For even though the poet asserts, mysteriously, something called a 'black heart', at least now 'farming' is an option for a black man (a growing out of the postslavery reaction to working on the land). But rejection of army and ambivalence of the role of tax-collector leave other people in charge of your security; and other people to collect your taxes. Surely, isn't this risky in a community you show no desire - unlike Dionne Brand, in Canada - to own? This is no criticism of Zephaniah's right to produce his poems; this is a comment on sharp editorial practice. That's why I say the jettisoning of that drawing-room experience has cost us something.
When I, let into the drawing-room, for no good reason, they are talking about Sellafield, and of GM crops, because this is not an 'ethnic' drawing-room. They are talking of the spectacle of India and Pakistan lumbering up for another - what we might call - pigment war over Kashmir. (Very light-skinned, you know, up there.) In the drawing-room, they own the tendency of people not to learn from their mistakes, not to grow into the job - and they cite political leadership throughout the world today; and academic leadership in our universities - but they refuse to put it down to the human condition. I am there, reflecting on the old challenge of converting what might be the richness of West Indianness for the straight-jacket of being Black British. I don't go on about being the heir to two languages - the RP of school, church, drawing-room, etc. combined with the Nation language of the school playground, the yard, the kitchen, the rum-shop, the cane-field, etc. to make a distinctive mix. All cultures have something similar. I mean something else by richness.
I mean, probably, something nebulous like the state of mind which unanxiously maintains a sort of balance in contemplating England's past imperial pretensions and recognizing England's present frailties. Association with Britain's imperial past was not unconnected with the fact that family members had participated in both the Great War and the Second World War, as I've said. But what are England's perceived frailties in 1956? (Remember rationing ended officially in 1953.) As late as 1959 my school meals included portions of chemical sawdust presented as scrambled eggs (OneNil to the West Indies); the television tried to convince us that we could not tell the difference between butter and Stork margarine; and Number One in the Hit Parade was Doris Day's 'Whatever Will Be Will Be'. (My brother, who was older than I, knowing I was attracted to popular music - and had, indeed, unsuccessfully, made a record - wanted to know whether I would be side-tracked by Doris Day rather than go back to school and be grounded in the clarity of Caesar's Gallic Wars. Self-respect made me fake an interest in Caesar's Gallic Wars. (My brother, of course, moved into the drawing-room sometime before I did.) Later, at school in Kilburn, doing GCEs, I often found myself in the Latin class drifting off and humming a popular air. When I was just a little girl...
There was bomb-damage in the streets surrounding where we lived. You came into contact with maimed and widowed Britains, etc. Now, many people present this as a dichotomy - hanging on to a sense of Britain (in 1956) as a great nation with which one associated, on the one hand and, on the other, being aware of post-war austerity and the shrinking of Britain's ambitions. Family had explored - lived - in various parts of the world - in Panama, in Cuba and Haiti, in Aruba, in the United States and Canada. And we chose to come to England for a purpose. My mother always said that the purpose was for education; but it was more than that. It was to compete, really, with what was sold to us as the best. So the tendency was to resist the scaling down of expectations in an England uncertain of its post-war identity. This was part of our age of exploration; and we resisted being part of the hosts' acceptance that their best time was past, and that now we must all be prepared to accept less - like a space labelled 'Black' or 'Black British' (somewhere located beyond the reaches of the British working class) - a space that was altogether too small, comfortably to live in, for people who weren't, after all, refugees; for people who were not fleeing persecution. (We have no problem with the children of refugees changing their accents and adopting the Conservative Party as a cover of Englishness - the well-known list would include the Romanian family producing the Englishman, Michael Howard; the Russian families producing the Englishmen Leon Brittain, Oliver Letwin and - courtesy of one parent - Boris Johnson, etc. So, as with the East European immigrants and their children, one demands the right of the people from the new Commonwealth, not to be 'ethnicked'.)
What has this got to do with the drawing-room? It was in the drawing-room that one prepared oneself to compete in a society that was sure of itself; not one that doubted itself. It was a sophisticated vision which - unlike Mr Naipaul's - could at the same time welcome Britain's humiliation at the hands of Nasser over the Suez canal in 1956 and at the same time praise Britain's relatively graceful retreat from Empire - in comparison with the Belgians and French, say. Or the Portugese.
And what are the dangers of the drawing-room? An obvious one I've hinted at: having other people do your thinking for you. I know the dangers of over-intellectualising culture. Our friend, the Polish journalist, Ryszard Kapuscinsky, had memorably reminded us, in his reportage of African politics, of the ideologues - the professors of history and philosophy from Rwanda's Butare university - who formulated the ideology that would legitimise genocide against the Tutsi people. Yes, we know the danger, but the alternative isn't to opt for ignorance. So the drawing-roomers, gathered in an accessible part of London or Manchester - would take this into account. We'd recognise the place, for on the walls would be pictures of some of the people already spoken of; where the successors to C.L.R. James would sit down with successors to Mr Naipaul to the benefit of all; for a C.L.R. wouldn't now be surrounded by acolytes and forced to do their thinking for them. And a Mr Naipaul in the presence of his intellectual equals would understand that his stage- West Indianness does not impress the adults. The drawingroom would be a space where a successful publisher, writer, anthologist and critic - a Margaret Busby, say - would be able to pop in and seek advice on what to do as she gets sent for review by major publishers, books mainly pertaining to race. The drawing-room would be a space where good, liberal editors from the nation's fashionable publishers would come to learn of their complacency and be confronted with their racism. At which point the 'ethnic' drawing-room would begin to serve the entire society.
This article is taken from PN Review 149, Volume 29 Number 3, January - February 2003.