PM Press Blog

“Liberation begins in the Imagination”

By James Kelman

In 1987 a friend urged me to drop in at New Beacon Bookshop next time in London and say hello to John La Rose. There were two or three ‘next times’ before I got round to it. It is awkward going to meet somebody you have not met before who is not expecting you and who most likely has not been advised of your existence; crossing social and racial borders does not help matters.

It happened one Saturday afternoon I had about five hours free time before travelling back to Scotland. I arrived at New Beacon about one o’clock. In the shop area was one other person, a younger man. He had a fair pile of books next to him on a table. He seemed to know his way around and I reckoned he was an employee. I had a small list prepared but could not find what I was looking for. He showed me where, then indicated other work he thought could be of interest. Afterwards I noticed him at the cash till paying for his books. He was not an employee at all, he was a customer.

I continued browsing. My own pile was steadily building; magazines, books and pamphlets. I called a halt and went to sort out the cash. It came to more than expected but included a couple of duplicates I was buying for a friend back in Glasgow. The woman behind the counter had an accent I find difficult: middle-class English Home Counties, or so it sounded to me. At the same time I did not want to leave without trying: I asked if John La Rose was around.

She was quite matter-of-fact. John was semi-retired nowadays and was not keeping too well. I thought that a polite way of putting me off. It was not. She said I should call on him and gave me the home address. Outside the shop I reconsidered. Why was I dropping in? To say hello. Apart from that what had I to say? I could not think of anything. But here I was and why else had I come?

John answered the door. I cannot remember what I said although it wasn’t as brief as ‘hello’. He brought me in along the lobby past piles of books, piles of books and piles of books, and upstairs books were stacked on the sides of steps. In the wee kitchen he introduced me to somebody already sitting there: lo and behold the guy from the shop, the one I had taken for an employee; he was from East Africa.
The conversation I had interrupted continued. But not as if I was not there, and neither was I excluded. John glanced at me occasionally. It was up to me, if I had anything to say then say it. The conversation touched on various matters connected to Africa and the diaspora: economics, literature, liberation politics; issues around language, the prominence of Hausa. It was really interesting; quite explicit politically, considering I was a stranger.

After about an hour and a half I could see John was tired. He had been doing most of the talking and it was a strain. He suggested myself and the other guy share the journey back to where we were going, he to Brixton and me to Victoria for the bus home to Glasgow. Whether he found the suggestion as novel as myself I do not know; but off we went and made the best of it. By the time we reached Victoria we were exchanging addresses. (A year later when he and his partner were visiting Glasgow they stayed overnight with me and Marie.)

In the space of that one short visit to New Beacon Bookshop I became friends with three people: one from East Africa, one from Trinidad and one from middle-class England; it transpired that the woman in the shop with the middle-class English accent was John’s partner, Sarah White.

There was no internet in those days. Most of what I learned of John’s background I picked up directly or from his friends and comrades, not through research. It was what was happening there and then that was important. The New Beacon community had a mixture of art, culture and politics: an ethos. I was drawn to this ethos so strongly it seemed like ‘the missing link’.

Here I widen the context to include the Monitoring Group in Southall and its founder Suresh Grover. The principles, ideas and commitment of the people involved around New Beacon and the Monitoring Group made absolute sense to me, way beyond what is conventionally thought possible in liberal-left Britain. This expressed itself in the immediate impact it had on people’s lives. Not consolation. It was a sense of solidarity; a proper solidarity. People cared enough to assist in the struggle for justice. Hope was not passive. It developed through engagement, in the spirit of struggle. People asserted that fundamental right to existence, in defence of that and in absolute opposition to racism, and to make known publicly its effects and to confront mainstream Britain with its findings. Racists were murdering people and no one was being held accountable. Families walked in fear on a daily basis; unable to relax until their children returned safe and sound. Where have they been? Out playing with their pals; away to school, college, the leisure centre. Are they home yet? Did they say they were going to be late? Oh God, oh God.

It was extraordinary that this was happening in contemporary Britain.

Why were the criminals who perpetrated these horrors not brought to justice? Why was so little interest being shown by the British establishment? Why was the burden of proof being laid on the families, friends and communities of those whose lives were destroyed through the worst forms of racial violence? In very many such cases the work of the police and the Crown Prosecution Service appears designed to safeguard the perpetrators of these horrific crimes.

People had no choice but to strengthen their own communities and find the means and commitment to sustain these communities in the face of attack. It is when we consider the violence unleashed against human beings for no other reason than difference — skin colour, ethnicity, racial origin — that the picture clarifies. These communities were, and to this day remain, communities of resistance; whether in Southall, inside London, Bradford, parts of Liverpool, of Manchester, Birmingham; wherever. Historical accounts of these areas of conflict are available online.

The mutual friend who suggested I say hello to John La Rose in the first place was Tarlochan Gata-Aura who also introduced me to his long-time friend, Suresh Grover. Tarlochan was known in Edinburgh for his campaigning on behalf of the victims of racist attacks and for his work at the Citizens Rights Office. His approach to these areas brought a refreshing sense of priority, grounded on the rights of all human beings and his willingness not just to confront authority but to lay on it the burden of proof. In Scotland we are not used to asking the police and other state officers to explain or justify their actions. At the Citizens Rights Office in Edinburgh he worked tirelessly and efficiently: so much so that the Labour-controlled regional council closed down the office. Later he became Elaine Henry’s right-hand man at Wordpower, Edinburgh’s radical independent bookshop.

In this wider context I knew where I was politically, culturally and strategically, assisted greatly by the work of the communities around New Beacon and Southall’s Monitoring Group. It helped explain my frustration and general irritation with traditional left-wing circles in the UK, including the anti-parliamentarian left, most of whom appeared to accept ‘unity of the nation’ arguments. Their vision was blinkered and naive. The establishment talks of ‘our’ way forward and the vast majority of the white working-class believe themselves included in the term ‘our’, standing shoulder to shoulder with Sir Jim Ratcliffe, Lady Charlotte Wellesley, Sir Richard Branson and Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor. It is ludicrous.

I see now that I was drawing together a perspective derived from the experience of imperialism and forms of colonization, and the push for justice by those resisting the fetters and chains. Some of this I knew personally from my background as a writer, as a member of my family and wider community. I knew what I was doing in language might be paralleled roughly with the work of other writers from diverse English-language literatures. It was the right to difference in individuals and communities, to reject assimilation and if enforced to resist it. That too lies at the heart of English-language literatures, literatures that incorporate the rhythms and richness of indigenous linguistic forms. It is quite straightforward when seen in the anti-imperialist context.

I discovered that areas of John La Rose’s background had touched me earlier than I thought; as far back as 1969 when I was working at the new Barbican development in London. I was a hammerman, one step up from a general labourer and it was the highest hourly rate I had ever earned. We worked a forty-six hour, five day week; the basic forty plus six hours overtime. Those forty-six hours were all that could be worked. The wage at the end of the week did not make you a millionaire but there were no complaints. The conditions were exceptionally good, including a subsidised canteen; potatoes, meat and gravy, the works. Was the grub tasty? Who knows. The quality was the quantity. Plus music while you ate from the guys at the next table: Derrick Morgan, Jimmy Cliff and Prince Buster, and the Ethiopians, the Skatalites, the Maytals.

The weird thing for me was the union, it was the old T & G, the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU). I knew it of old as weak and toothless from my four times as a bus conductor. Not so here. Every Friday the lunch-break was cut to the half-hour, lunch followed by the branch meeting which was treated as compulsory. The workforce was Irish and West Indian, with a tiny sprinkling of Scots. The shop steward was a white Londoner, a very business-like guy. On the door into the canteen branch officials sold the Morning Star and whether or not your politics were to the left, right or centre of the CPGB it was good having the choice of a non-establishment line. This was the time of the long strike down at Thamesmead and construction workers travelled there in solidarity.

I was married by then; we were expecting a child and my wife stopped working. On one wage we couldn’t find a place to stay. I quit the building trade and we returned to Glasgow. Back on the buses again; this time a driver, there was no other work. Once again I was a member of the TGWU. Once again the weekly wage I earned was only a liveable wage by cramming into one week’s work the equivalent of two.

At the same I no longer scorned the T & G. Working on the Barbican development taught me a lesson about trades unionism: any union can be strong; it is a function of individual branches. At the Barbican development the old TGWU was as strong as any; this because of its strength on the shopfloor. It was a hundred percent. Years later, through a chance remark from John, I discovered he had been a shop steward at the Barbican, on the very next site to my own. And I happened to know that the outfit he worked with had the best conditions on the entire Barbican.

It was no coincidence. Nobody can convince me otherwise. Here is a brief summary of what the shop steward John La Rose brought to the Barbican:

In the 1940s in Trinidad, he helped to found the Workers Freedom Movement and edited its journal, Freedom. He was an executive member of the Federated Workers Trade Union, later merged into the National Union of Government and Federated Workers. He became the general secretary of the West Indian Independence Party and contested a seat in the 1956 Trinidad general election after being banned from other West Indian islands by the British colonial authorities. He was also involved in the internal struggle of the Oilfield Workers Trade Union, siding with the “rebel” faction that wanted a more radical and democratic union. The rebels prevailed in the 1962 union election and John became their European representative, a position he held until his death.

These were discoveries I was making of John long after I had come to know and respect him as a man, as a friend, as a comrade.

In the late 1960s in whatever free time I had I was working on my short stories. It would have been great to know John then and the wider New Beacon community. It would have helped prepare me for what lay ahead. Unless involved in Standard English literary form it is not enough to try for the highest literary level, you should prepare for life on the margins, for hostility, even ridicule. And, of course, the economic reality which is penury unless working full-time elsewhere to pay for your ‘self-indulgence’. The struggle is to support your family and accept that your family must support you.

And, if the art is literary, the practicalities: publishing, printing, distribution. Every writer should face up to startled, bored or hostile bookshop workers at some time in their life. Go and place copies of your work on a ‘sale or return’ basis, the deal where your books are tucked out of sight on the remotest of shelves, lying dormant for years. Here is where a peculiar phenomenon arises: the reluctance of writers to return to the bookshop, not only in case they didn’t sell any, in case they did! A writer plucks up the courage to return to the bookshop and surreptitiously search the shelves. Jesus Christ the books are gone! Have they been sold? Who knows. Nobody in the shop has ever heard of the damn thing, title or author. What is this, some newfangled ruse for shoplifting!

Those banal aspects of being a writer are compounded by ‘difference’ and part of what it means to be a different kind of writer, from a different kind of community, from a different tradition. Additional burdens, crucial burdens. The New Beacon ethos accepted “the artist as a totally vulnerable person engaged with other artists in a very vulnerable way.” This was part of how John related to writers; he recognized their vulnerability and tried to lift some of the burdens from them.

In 1966 John La Rose stopped work at the new Barbican site. He and Sarah whizzed around London on a motor scooter, transporting books, pamphlets and magazines. In this way they laid the foundations of New Beacon Bookshop.

But there was so much more to it than opening a bookshop, no matter how radical, no matter how independent. The way I saw it, “Besides being a publisher and writer (he was) creating a whole autonomous community in the sense that you have the publisher, you have the writers (then) a sympathetic printer (plus) the shop to sell the work.” Not only were they writing the books, they were the customers, they were buying them. “So there’s a complete self-sufficiency within this. It is, in a sense, the ideal.” I said all that to John and he was clear in his response:

It happened by chance . . . partly because of the fact that here in London all the books I wanted to get and read, there was no place I could buy them. So I decided at some stage that we would really do the international book service. That was the very first book service of its kind ever done from the Caribbean. I was a Caribbean specialist so it meant that I did a booklist in French, Spanish and English. The very first catalogues we sent internationally to everywhere, so it meant that people came here all the time. This was still in the 1960s, people came to our house and worked downstairs, here in Albert Road, Finsbury Park . . .

The Caribbean Artists Movement was formed in that same year, 1966, and John was one of its three founder members, the other two being E. K. Brathwaite and Andrew Salkey. Its impact was swift and far-reaching. “The concept behind its informal structure was that of a community.”

The sure basis for critical recognition by the establishment is assimilation. The call is unity at all costs. Difference is frowned upon. Show the authorities that you fit in. The greater the distance you place between your art and your home culture the more welcome you are at the gates of the establishment. And who knows, the guardians of that might pat yer head and grant entry. It is up to them, the merit of your art is irrelevant. Assimilation does not guarantee reward but sets you on the trail. One day they may reward you with a badge of empire. If you reject assimilation you will be punished by critical neglect, marginalization and the ever-diminishing means to survive as an artist.

The founder members of CAM recognised one fundamental issue, a most crucial and neglected effect of a marginalized culture, that for the artists there is no proper assessment of their creative output. Authentic criticism does not exist within a context defined by the dominant culture. Even where such creative output is noticed by the dominant culture it remains subject to it, judged by its criteria of what is ‘good’.

During the 1950s and 1960s West Indian art was not unknown in mainstream circles, particularly its literature through the work of writers such as V. S. Naipaul, George Lamming and Derek Walcott, by Sam Selvon and Wilson Harris. Other artists were around but a critical context was missing. One of CAM’s founder members was the poet and educator E. K. Brathwaite whose published work had received almost no attention whatsoever, neither from the dominant culture of the ruling British elite, nor from his own West Indian community: “Our problem is that we have been trained for over 300 years to despise [our] indigenous forms.”

Brathwaite had worked in Ghana during the period of Nkrumah and independence and become “immersed in the rural community life and traditional culture” of West Africa. At the first public meeting of CAM he argued the case for ‘a jazz novel’, that there was “a correspondence between jazz and contemporary Caribbean culture . . . the basic elements of word, image and rhythm; the nature of improvisation, of repetition and refrain;” and that the “oral tradition provided a model for West Indian literature . . . suggestive of an indigenous aesthetic for West Indian creativity and criticism.”
These points on orature made by Brathwaite are striking and of major importance. I find it quite astonishing that they are so little known.

The influence of Caribbean music was crucial. A later public meeting was devoted to “Sparrow and the Language of the Calypso.” John La Rose had already written on kaiso, calypso music. From an early age La Rose had been politically active in Trinidad. Former General Secretary of the Workers’ Freedom Movement, he later held the same office for the West Indian Independence Party, “producing Noise of Youth, a fortnightly radio programme.” He was still in his twenties when he was forced into exile.

The third founder of CAM was Andrew Salkey who often met John at the same protests and demonstrations in London. Salkey was a freelance broadcaster (interviewing Martin Luther King on three occasions) and had a very wide network of contacts. As a student at London University he “devised an alternative learning plan for himself: ‘I damn well wanted to talk to Jamaicans about Jamaica in the long poem I was hoping to write.’”

Of the broader political agenda Salkey made a key comment in relation to the different formations that existed during the 1960s – including the Black Power groups – that “no one group had it all, and I figured I had [to] serve nearly all and be useful to all.”

CAM began as a means by which “writers, artists and people interested in literature, art and culture” could come together. Literature was the predominant artform but painters, musicians, sculptors and theatre workers were also involved. From informal gatherings held in the homes of members it was broadened out to public meetings and “included talks and symposia, readings and performances, art exhibitions and films . . . and a newsletter, bookselling and contact network.”

It would be a mistake to place too great an emphasis on the founders. They were acquainted with a circle of committed individuals, artists and activists. One of its impressive aspects was the number and multiplicity of its participants, ranging from the elderly C. L. R. James to the young Ngugi and even younger Linton Kwesi Johnson. It was an extremely ambitious project and given the nature of its structure could not have succeeded without that wider commitment.

At CAM’s first conference the historian Elsa Goveia argued in her keynote speech that artists have a choice between the inferiority/superiority ranking according to race and wealth and the equality which is implied by one man one vote (and) until then we cannot be really creative as individuals because our energies are going to be absorbed by the terrible job of working from two completely different sets of premises . . .

She also established the point “that the creative arts were at the forefront of . . . social change.” This raised other questions, e.g. the “sort of art the committed artist should produce”, “which art forms were most effective”, “how the artist communicates and to whom”, etc. The painters Aubrey Williams and Clifton Campbell who “both worked in predominantly abstract styles were concerned to defend it as no less socially committed than figurative painting . . .” Williams “asked for freedom for the artist to explore his own style: ‘If our painters must grope and search and forge ahead, we do not as yet know the language they should speak.’” He spoke of his doubts on “narrative painting” as “hand-me-down missionary art” in danger of becoming “tourist representational art.” The response from the audience to the work of the visual artists under discussion forced him to “conclude that the level of visual art appreciation among intellectuals is very, very low . . .”

The conference was such an exciting and unique event that how to follow it was a major problem. John La Rose was moved to write to Brathwaite that CAM is a movement . . . not a structure. We . . . have struck a chord. With such things, in my experience, people take out of it what they are looking for and bring what they must give. Then the communion is over. And it lives; and we inherit it; and it passes on. The vital spark of life and spontaneity, as I have discovered, in my own life, is not long-lasting. Glowing embers remain and we mistake it for fire. I mention this only that we would know what to expect.

That was in 1967, some five years before CAM’s eventual demise. It is impossible to do justice to the impact and legacy of the Caribbean Artists Movement, both culturally and in the broader political context. Being within such a community in those years would have been dynamite for myself. The CAM aesthetic would have helped prepare those of us attempting to work from within the living voice and living tradition of our own communities. As a young writer it was my experience in that present period, as I was living it and working at it. Already I was running into problems in terms of language as a living thing, as a means of communication between human beings. In the very year CAM ended — 1972 — a printer in England refused to publish my first short story on the grounds of blasphemy, elsewhere described as “the language of the gutter.” A year later a small press in the USA published my first collection of stories. Nobody in Britain would have touched it, not that I knew about.

My ‘payment’ came by parcel post: two hundred copies of the book in lieu of cash. Next day I was driving a bus out the garage at 4 o’clock in the morning; just the thing to destroy any romantic illusions about being a writer. Empathy makes the difference, noting a shared experience, technical similarities. I saw it immediately and was drawn to the work of ‘other colonials.’ The struggle against the imposition of Standard English literary form was a class issue but there was another context, a wider context, that of imperialism, and the fight for indigenous survival.

In my local library in Theobalds Road, Holborn, 1967-69, did they stock a few writers from the Indian subcontinent and Africa? I seem to remember this was where I discovered the work of Mulk Raj Anand, among others.

Since my late teens, early twenties, outside of the European traditions I had been reading American writers who adapted standard form for their own use. In this respect I cannot say that any individual writer influenced me in particular. But it was very important to know that I was on the same track as these overseas writers. Here I can speak on behalf of others. In Scotland there is a tradition. A few writers were around who appreciated what was happening in alternative, English-language literatures. In 1975-77 Sam Selvon was Writer in Residence at Dundee University and made a huge impression, so much so that “(s)ince his death (in 1994), the Samuel Selvon Memorial Prize has been awarded each year to the most outstanding final year undergraduate English student at Dundee.”

In 1979 I landed a job as Writer in Residence myself, based in Paisley’s Central Library. There I came upon the work of Ayi Kwei Armah, Chinua Achebe, Sam Selvon, Amos Tutuola, Alex La Guma, Okot p’Bitek and others. Although using the English language, these writers were not out to assimilate, to emulate nor ‘to be as good as.’ They were attacking and the attack was formal, laying claim to language and the right to use it as necessary, where, when and how.

What they were doing was not new to me formally, not at all, but it strengthened my conviction and clarified the position. If I had known of the Caribbean Artists Movement ten years earlier then its impact would have been the greater, not in the practice itself but in making sense of the reaction.

There in Paisley Central Library I also found a couple of interesting catalogues which seemed responsible for most of the books in this ‘Ethnic’ section. One was the Heinemann catalogue for the African Writers Series and the other belonged to an independent publisher and distributor. I kept both in my room at the library. And when I left the Writer in Residence job I took both catalogues home with me. It was only in the last couple of years that I discovered I still have them. The small independent one turned out to be the 1979 catalogue, printed and published by New Beacon.

Any marginalised culture is a culture under attack. Accept the marginalisation and act on it. Spread the information; share the experience; disseminate the knowledge. If the struggle succeeds it will succeed from the bottom up. Be methodical. Take what exists and lay claim to it, transcend it, get beyond it. You write, publish, co-publish or otherwise acquire the books, pamphlets, magazines, tapes or whatever; then you advertise, distribute and sell them, if possible in your own bookshop, a place where people will eventually drop in, just to say hello. No lines of demarcation, no restricted zones; outsiders may enter and are welcome. But the operation will function either way, whether new people visit or not. A certain commitment from within the community is required: with maximum commitment who knows where it may lead. As John said at the founding of the Caribbean Artists Movement: “liberation begins in the imagination.” He died in 2006. New Beacon Bookshop remains in existence, the George Padmore Institute thrives.