Play it Again Sam: Remembering Sam Selvon

Jeremy Taylor on the life and times of the popular novelist Samuel Selvon, who died in April, with tributes from leading Caribbean writers and critics

Festivals like Phagwah are very much part of Trinidad’s Indian-descended communities that Selvon knew so well. Photograph by Bruce PaddingtonLonely Londoners? Selvon playing cards in the London apartment of writer Lawrence Scott. Photograph by Ken RamchandPhotograph by Bruce PaddingtonSelvon and family. Photograph by Ken RamchandSelvon enjoys Maracas Beach in Trinidad. Photograph by Ken RamchandSelvon in typical good humour at Colgate University. Photograph by Ken RamchandSelvon on the dockTrinidad’s sugar cane fields provided the imaginiative setting for much of Selvon’s work. Photograph by Bruce Paddington

By the middle of the afternoon a Caribbean classroom can be a sweltering place, with the temperature in the mid thirties and 45 adolescents – truculent and perspiring, restless and drowsy – deeply disinclined to debate niceties of English grammar, punctuation and comprehension. It was difficult to get too excited about literature either: no matter how hard you worked at Shakespeare or Steinbeck, the agonies of Scottish kings, Roman generals and misunderstood Moors seemed impossibly far away as the afternoon wore on.

I used to feel it as a teacher too, and liked to abandon the curriculum when time allowed and simply read. We would dig out stories, plays, extracts from novels, and read them aloud round the class, different voices taking each character. It felt a bit like playing truant, enjoying writers instead of solemnly studying them, and the faint sense of illicit activity encouraged weary classes to humour me.

But there was one writer we came back to regularly, whose work needed no humouring.

Somehow, Sam Selvon always managed to speak to those youngsters through all the boredom and the heat. Once we got into stories from Ways Of Sunlight or another episode from The Lonely Londoners, they perked up, they were laughing, anxious to turn the pages and read more, competing to read a character’s lines, and cross when the class was over.

Those students were seeing themselves in a book: the way they spoke, the way they thought and laughed, the way they were. Literature was no longer about other people’s lives and tribulations, it was about themselves. Selvon brought those classes alive through a delight in self-recognition.

That was 20 years ago, and I’ve often thought back to analyse what it was about Selvon’s writing that spoke to my old students in a way no other writer did. Now I know. And never was a teacher more indebted to a writer than I was.

Because Sam Selvon seemed to be a simple and unpretentious man, and because his writing seemed the same way – funny, sad, bittersweet, natural – people thought he was a literary lightweight. A serious mistake.

In many ways Sam Selvon was an improbable candidate for international literary success. He was born in south Trinidad in 1921, close to the canefields and the oilfields, and the sounds and smells and feel of rural Trinidad stayed with him all his life. “When I come back here to Trinidad,” he told film-maker Bruce Paddington in an interview, “I hear the kiskidee in the morning. You can identify yourself with the soil and the feeling of those sounds, and you instantly become part of the land.”

His father was a dry-goods merchant, descended from the Indian labourers imported into Trinidad in the 19th century, and his mother was half Indian, half Scottish. He was never too academically inclined, and his education finished with high school. He worked in the oilfields for a while, then signed up with the Royal Naval Reserve as a wireless operator during the war (I never fought, but I worked on all the ships escorting convoys and inspecting incoming and outgoing vessels … with men from all over the Caribbean who had joined the Navy”).

It was an English lieutenant in the Navy, recalled in the essay A Man I Remember who encouraged him to write, and after the war Selvon workcd for several years as a sub-editor with the Trinidad Guardian, in charge of the paper’s literary page. It was here that he came into contact with writers who were to make big names for themselves and started pouring out stories and essays and poems of his own, so many that he had to employ a whole repertoire of pseudonyms. Some of the best of the pieces — about Trinidad, about love — have been reprinted in Foreday Morning. Some were published in the Caribbean literary magazine Bim and broadcast on the BBC.

In 1950, feeling the need for broader horizons – as so many West Indians did at that time – Selvon went to England. “I had to run from Trinidad,” he later explained. “I had a fairly comfortable job at the Guardian and was thinking of buying a car and going for drives to the beach on Sundays – it was a malaise I had to escape from. “London was certainly not comfortable: Selvon was miserably poor, hungry, eking out a life in an immigrant hostel and a basement flat in the west London suburb of Notting Hill. But it gave him a new world to write about: the world of West Indians adrift in London, freezing in front of their metered gasfires in damp bedsits, hustling for funds, chasing women, and dreaming furtively of home.

Many of the exiles he met were turned into the vivid characters of The Lonely Londoners (1956), which was glowingly reviewed and established him as a serious novelist. The streetwise Moses, Galahad trying to snatch a Hyde Park pigeon to take home to cook, Five Past Twelve (someone told him “You black like midnight!” then took a closer look and said “No, you more like Five Past Twelve)” and many others wandered anonymously in the wilderness of Bayswater and Notting Hill until Selvon made them real, caught them on the page, and endeared them both to themselves and to a whole new readership. “Sam will remain with us particularly in this absurdly triumphant band of immigrants,” says novelist Earl Lovelace, “saying hurrah for having invented nothing but insistent on their right to a place in the world.”

He had already published his first two novels, set in Trinidad – A Brighter Sun (1952) and An Island Is A World (1955). Next he collected some of his early Trinidad stories, and put them side by side with new stories from the world of The Lonely Londoners, and produced a brilliant collection called Ways of Sunlight (1957). It contains some tales that are still told with relish, and which Selvon himself included in readings till the end of his life.

In Brackley and the Bed for example, Brackley, pursued to London by the formidable Teena who takes over his life and his flat and his bed, is forced to marry her in order to repossess his bed and get some sleep, only to find that Teena’s auntie is coming up too and will be sleeping with Teena “until we find another place.” In Waiting for Auntie to Cough Brackley’s girlfriend Beatrice keeps him out all night on the frozen doorstep because she daren’t wake up her aunt to open the door till she hears her coughing.

The Lonely Londoners was later followed by two more London novels: Moses Ascending (1975) and Moses Migrating (1983), which continued the saga of Caribbean immigrants in London.

In many ways this was groundbreaking work. It was partly the sharpness of the humour and the accuracy of the observation. It was partly Selvon’s success in forging a lively and distinctive style of his own – whether funny or poignant or both at once, it had beautifully shaped structures, an easy-going anecdotal approach and brilliant timing. But most of all, this was the first time in West Indian literature that a writer had managed to put Caribbean speech with all its idiosyncrasies and its subtle rhythms onto the page, not as a curiosity, not as something exotic, but as something as natural as sunlight. Caribbean language suddenly found a narrative voice of its own.

Selvon had tried at first to write The Lonely Londoners in straight standard English. “But it wouldn’t work. I thought and thought and wrestled with it for a very long time, and then I said to myself, why don’t I use the language as we use it in Trinidad? And I started to write down a few sentences like that and the book just shot along. It seemed to me like I had just turned the key in a lock and the whole thing was open. And in six months I had done the whole book.”

This is perhaps Selvon’s biggest contribution to Caribbean writing, for it opened the way for many other non-British writers to use English in forms natural to them, liberated them from “standard English“.

But it was not something he liked to talk about much. Asked about technical matters, he liked to say he was an ignorant man, a man who didn’t read books, and that creativity was a mystery. “I can’t tell you,” he once said, “I get away with it, I don’t know what it is really.”

But to see Selvon as essentially a humorist is misleading. There was much more to him than that. In a preface to Moses Migrating, Selvon noted: “The humour and entertainment that Moses provide sometimes tend to whelm the serious side of his nature. It is a knack that all black people learn to survive. In my own years in London, any hardcore material I wrote about blacks had to have ha-ha. So laugh your guts out. But remember there is more in the mortar than the pestle.”

For critic Ken Ramchand, Selvon’s love stories are an underestimated aspect of his work. The short, poignant piece that closes Ways of Sunlight, a prose piece about London called My Girl and the City, is “the best love poem in West Indian literature”. In Foreday Morning there’s a piece called Passing Cloud that is painful in its clear, simple truthfulness. Dan returns to Trinidad after four years of studies to find that the girl he left behind and has come back to claim is already married. He arranges a meeting, tries to make her admit that their love is still alive and necessary, but she is adamant; what he feels now, she says, is just a passing cloud; not to worry, he will find happiness.

“Are you happy” I ask.
She looked at me with depth. She shrugged. “What is happiness? ”
We were both silent for a long time, leaning there on the bridge and gazing in the water. And then just like that she said “Goodbye, Dan,” and she slipped her hand from mine and walked out of my life.
I stood there until dark came, and candle-flies.

In his early Trinidad days Selvon published poems too, about loss and longing and love. One called Fear ends like this:

I am afraid
That love might be insufficient
That life might not be full enough
So I build little vague gods
Little vague gods in the deep night
And in the shallow day
And they all come tumbling down

There is a gentle, profound sensitivity in these sadder pieces of Selvon’s that makes him much more than a comic writer. Disguised as simple, naturalistic reflection, it is easy to overlook: but it shows that Selvon knew perfectly well how much pain lurked beneath the comic surface of his stories and his Caribbean. As he wrote in The Lonely Londoners: “They only laughing because they fraid to cry.”

There were several other novels, there were plays and film scripts (including Pressure in 1978, the first black British movie, co-written with Horace Ové). There were honours and awards, readings and lectures; Selvon remained a sought-after performer long after he moved from London to Calgary in Canada in 1978.

Selvon was a gentle, warm, self-effacing man, little affected by celebrity status. “Sam came home from time to time,” says Earl Lovelace, “to give the obligatory lecture, to read here or there, to lime, to play the windball cricket match. But I got the impression, though he never laboured the point, that it would have been nice to be invited back to live and work at home. Of course that never happened; and it is a tribute to his grace that he remained steadfast in his love and advocacy of his homeland.”

“He came back to Trinidad in December 1993,” recalls his friend Ken Ramchand, “to make preparations for speaking his life into a tape recorder, the first stage in what was to become an account of his life in his own words. It was a season of illness and increasing fragility, but he was typically generous with his time and his thoughts, visiting a number of schools to talk and read because he wanted to make contact with children. He had the pleasure of seeing the new edition of An Island is a World, a novel to which he had begun to return because it was the one closest to him.”

But illness closed in on him, and that trip became his last. He never again left the island, and died there on April 16.

Not long before, on the way to San Fernando, Sam “had talked almost in a voice of bewildered hurt of what he was seeing in Trinidad. Something had gone dreadfully wrong,” Earl Lovelace recalls. “And that is why I believe it must have given him great pleasure and renewed hope that at his passing the young batsman Brian Lara was playing his historic innings in Antigua. I don’t think it’s out of place to claim that as a stone in the monument for a man whose work was one of the earliest expressions of the West Indian’s unconditional self-confidence and demands for a place in the world.”

BOOKS BY SAMUEL SELVON

  • A Brighter Sun (1952)
  • An Island Is A World (1955)
  • The Lonely Londoners ( 1956)
  • Ways of Sunlight (1957)
  • Turn Again Tiger (1958)
  • I Hear Thunder (1963)
  • The Housing Lark (1965)
  • The Plains of Caroni (1970)
  • Those Who Eat The Cascadura (1972)
  • Moses Ascending (1975)
  • Moses Migrating (1983)
  • El Dorado West One (1988)
  • Foreday Morning (1989)

TRIBUTES

The last time I saw Sam, he was sitting on a couch at his nephew’s home in Champs Fleurs eating a bake and saltfish buljol, and with his half-smiling face and a somewhat astonished tone giving me the episode of the heart attack he had suffered a few nights before.

Earlier that week I had been with him at a panel on Carnival in San Fernando. I had also introduced what proved to be his last public reading. I had watched him perform with characteristic angular gestures, hunching his shoulders and spreading out his innocent hands, affecting himself the non-intellectual (“Me ain’t no intellectual, boy”), mystified by his own creations and amused by the constructions critics put on his work.

But I knew Sam as a quietly thoughtful man, serenely confident in his own sense of the people about whom he wrote. His fiction shows that beyond their kiff-kiff laughter, their humour and rascality and their poses of nonchalance, his most successful characters were irrepressible, alive people who individually, with no prestigious institutions to support them, made their own way in an indifferent if not hostile world with such an innocent, even unconscious belief in themselves that if one couldn’t call them superior, no one could claim to be better than them.

These portraits, I knew, grew out of Sam’s belief in the genius of the Caribbean and particularly the Trinidadian folk for whom he had an almost mystical respect. “The Trinidadian, boy! ” he would say. “The Trinidadian is a helluva fellow! ” And he came to his defence with a fierceness that sometimes took him beyond politeness. Once in Iowa City I heard him lash out so severely at the illiteracy in America that I had to plead with him for restraint. And even then he kept on mumbling, “They talking about us, and they can’t even read.”

It is this defence and advocacy of the value of ordinary people of the Caribbean, their language, their often comic grief and struggles, that lay at the heart of Sam’s work. He not only laughed at them, at us, but with them too, in affectionate tones that made the West Indian writer for the first time very much part of the community of ordinary Caribbean people and provided a solid launching pad for much of the West Indian literature of confidence that was to follow.

Earl Lovelace

 

It was as a not so lonely student in London that I first discovered Sam Selvon, and it was through his work that I was exposed to the brighter sun of the Caribbean.

I would visit the local Westbourne Grove Library and take advantage of the surprisingly rich West Indian Literature section. It was Sam Selvon’s novels and short stories that transported me into the world of the Caribbean and of Caribbean people living in London. I found Selvon’s books so readable because he used such vivid language to describe his characters and the situations they found themselves in. Juxtaposing humour and pathos, often rejecting conventional punctuation and grammatical rules, Selvon used natural free-flowing dialogue to bring his characters alive.

Ten years later, working as a television producer in Trinidad and Tobago, I met Selvon for the first time, as I attempted to produce a television special that could be used in schools. I wanted him to give the background to the various novels that were being studied, but as the interview progressed and the rum level in the Vat 19 bottle fell, I realised that the interview was not going where I’d hoped, and I tried to get it back on track. But Selvon would have nothing of that: “I am a natural man, let me just talk.” I retreated, and Selvon’s conversation and the rum flowed. He “ol talked” about life in Trinidad, and how he gets his strength from the land and the trees.

– Bruce Paddington

 

He was a believer fighting off unbelief. So many demons to exorcise. In a poem of 1947, he speaks of being “deeply afraid of life”. This fear is elaborated upon in the novel An Island is a World by a character called Foster who is modelled upon the author himself: “it’s everything and nothing. It’s sun shining and man eating, wind blowing, the sound of gurgling water. It’s an ant and a giant, and a telephone conversation and the cow that jumped over the moon. It’s poetry and music and the smell of dirty drains and the flight of birds over the sea.”

This fear gives depth and meaning to what Selvon is most famous for – his comic celebrations of ordinary people’s capacity to twist and turn and take delight in “the heartbeat, the pulse, the kiss, wine and the nearness of women.

Instead of making him negative, this fear inspired him to write passionately and philosophically on a wide range of subjects including education, art, and finding something to believe in; the struggle to express and discover what has been thought and felt; the possibility of communicating; the need to relate to place and landscape; and politics, economics and culture. And of course, love. All the means, in short, by which social beings create constructs against despair, disorder, loneliness, and the work of time.

Ken Ramchand 

 

One splendid summer evening in 1987 in London, writers gathered at the Commonwealth Institute for the Caribbean Writers Conference.

The only notable absentees were Vidia Naipaul and Derek Walcott. But Selvon was there along with Earl Lovelace, Kamau Brathwaite, Austin Clarke, Lorna Goodison, Ken Ramchand and a host of others. On opening night they read from their works. Sam chose a passage from The Lonely Londoners where Moses is on a memory trip featuring his early life in London, the hustling, the cold, the racism, the fetes, the girls when, to everyone’s amazement, this West Indian woman walks up the spiral stairway from the floor to the rostrum and slaps him twice, hard. He was insulting black women, she shouted. Sam was deeply upset: he loved women and honoured them, he kept saying afterwards. It kept him awake, worrying.

George John

 

Selvon was a revolutionary in form and style, as well as in a social sense. He engaged not with the economic and political powers, not with the military or the police, but with the very source of our strength and creativity. He took it for granted that the ordinary person in the Caribbean is not an object or tool but a human being.

It was in A Brighter Sun that the West Indian peasant was first recognised, and successfully presented, as the central character or hero in a novel. We had been brought up to think of English literature as the only literature, the only hero the white hero, the only significant world the world of the Other. Here now was a book whose chosen tongue was our tongue, a book that could take us beyond what we knew because it began with what we thought we knew.

Selvon took up the tempered language of the dark ones, the sunken in the land, and tuned and hammered it into an instrument to express the soul of a people who had come out of the plains of enslavement and indentureship where cane is bitter, and who were now passing through “cold slicing winds, falling leaves, sunlight on green grass, snow on the land”, the seasons and cities of exile.

The process began in his earliest writings, but it was in The Lonely Londoners (1956) that Selvon pushed his linguistic experiments beyond the boundary set by a sound colonial education. It was the sensational impact of this work that opened up the way for succeeding generations to write and speak in the language of the islands.

Ken Ramchand

 

The publication of A Brighter Sun in 1952 was one of the most important events of my youth: maybe it is true to say that it made me decide I would definitely take up writing as a career. I guess that most of the young hopeful writers in Trinidad felt very much as I did. Becoming an author had seemed like a vain dream for us; very few of us had even heard of James and Mendez, and all the literature in our lives came from abroad.

When I read A Brighter Sun, Sam became a person of heroic proportions for me, for he had dared to mirror our everyday, mundane lives in his books. I had never before seen ourselves and our environment on the page between hardcovers, and it made a great deal of difference to me. Whenever I opened the book, I would see the people, the landscape, the idiom, and the way of life, bright and vivid before my eyes.

I was surprised to discover that Sam had come from the area where I was, San Fernando; that he had lately been a journalist at the Trinidad Guardian in Port of Spain; and that he had left for England with his manuscript in 1950 in order to become an author.

It was a long time afterwards that I met Sam. I believe it was at the BBC’s Bush House in London where the literary programme Caribbean Voices was produced. The paths of West Indian writers always crossed there, and if you were a frequent visitor or just went to see the producer – who was then an aspiring writer called Vidia Naipaul – you could not fail to meet a whole galaxy of stars.

That day I listened to Sam in disbelief. No, this could not really be Sam Selvon – it must be a character from A Brighter Sun, probably Tiger, the hero. The easy flow of everyday Trinidadianese, the humour, the bubbling laughter, the simplicity, the easy-going Trinidadian way – these were the things that struck me.

I met Sam only rarely afterwards, at conferences and other writers’ gatherings, and it was always a joy to be near him. I am so glad that he was as simple as he was, and so much like his books. Because whenever I feel nostalgic for him, all I have to do is open any of his fine books and listen to him again. When he died, those who knew him well felt that something very like a brighter sun had gone behind the clouds.

– Michael Anthony

 

Sam Selvon’s final visit to Britain in the autumn of last year was to take part in a series of literature events to be held at the London South Bank Centre as well as a prestigious Arts Council literary tour where three writers toured the country together and performed readings at a variety of venues. Sam was definitely the elder statesman of the group and represented with dignity the title which Maya Angelou, the African-American writer, once bestowed on him as “father of black literature.”

As often with his readings in Britain, Sam chose to read from texts which would appeal to a local audience; he presented a hilarious rendering of Brackley and the Bed (a story he almost always read because it was so popular) and which he combined with a lyrical performance of My Girl and the City (a piece in a different mood which evokes his romance with the city). As always, he concluded with a moving dramatisation of the almost choric voices of the directionless “boys” all gathered in Moses’s basement room in Bayswater from the last section of his classic novel of exile, The Lonely Londoners.

His readings from the London works were particularly poignant, as the room where Sam was reading on that autumn afternoon looked out directly onto Waterloo Bridge and the River Thames flowing beneath:

The old Moses, standing on the banks of the Thames. Sometimes he think he see some sort of profound realisation in his life as I fall that happen to him was experience that make him a better man, as if he could just draw apart from any hustling and just sit down and watch other people fight to live. Under the kiff-kiff laughter, behind the ballad and the episode, the what-happening, the summer-is-hearts, he could see a great aimlessness, a great restless, swaying movement that leaving you standing in the same spot

Most readers familiar with Selvon’s work remember him primarily for his humour, his creation of easily accessible, picaresque and calypsonian characters whom one meets both on the streets of London and Port of Spain. But there is a far more serious side to Selvon’s writing which is often disguised. . . The seriousness underlying the warmth and human compassion of Selvon’s writing . . . is a crucial element which binds all his ten novels together.

Susheila Nasta 

 

Your Island, Your World

In memoriam Sam Selvon

With that loping stoop,
you bore down on me like
an eagle (as I imagined one)
and asked me to write
something for the Sunday
Guardian magazine you
brought out. Me, who thought
writers lived on Pamiusus
(a mountain I’d heard of.)

But youth is impetuous.
I went home and scribbled
an implausible story that
you printed. (I still have the page I clipped out.)
And some nights I walked
the two blocks between
our homes and tried
to tap, inside your words
the vein feeding your pulse.

You seemed to a blind
fumbler a mystic of sorts,
one mad enough to think
about leaving the island
to write. Openmouthed
I watched you depart.

Then you took the small
language used by the island
for picong and calypsoes
and stretched its vowels
across the mouth of the world.
Placed us, as raw as uncured
rum, with every sweet nuance
we used for survival, in pubs
and underground stations
of London. Took Brackley
and Moses out of Rose Hill
and gave them a stature
Micawber once had
in the classrooms
that censored the tongue
our thoughts found ease in. . .

Rest now. Your pen has
done all of its work. Tiger
lives, Urmilla stoops at a
standpipe washing away
the last traces of race
you sent her to get rid of.
Sir Galahad has touched
your shoulder with time’s
irrevocable knighthood.
I never delivered the tales
of the place you expected,
save a few. See my wreath
like an O in my sorrow.

But then I knew every
square mile gave you its
story, each dustpile its gold.
All of it was your island,
all of it your world.

Cecil Gray