An afternoon with George Lamming

Simon Lee talks to legendary Caribbean writer George Lamming

–George Lamming. Photograph by Ronnie CarringtonPhotograph by Ronnie CarringtonPhotograph by Ronnie Carrington

In contrast to the idyllic Caribbean calm of Barbados’s “platinum” west coast, the sea at Bathsheba on the east coast is wild, whipped by the magnificent Atlantic that vanishes from sight, swallowed by the far horizon. With its biblical name, small huddle of buildings and a few fishing boats stranded on the beach, Bathsheba could not be further removed from the luxury resorts of the west.

In such a place, with the Trade Winds stirring the surf, bending trees, ruffling paper and hair, it’s easy to understand the imperative of “a spiritual possession of the landscape in which you live . . . in which you know the rhythm of the wind . . . the smell of the sea . . . the texture of the stone and rock,” and that “these are not objects outside of you: they are part of your consciousness.”

It makes even more sense to find the man who wrote these words living in such a place. When he’s in Barbados, you’ll find George Lamming — novelist, cultural activist and regional elder — at the modest Atlantis Hotel, originally built in 1884 and attractively rescued from genteel delapidation by new, young owners.

In his early 70s, Lamming has the vigour of a man half his age. He’s just as happy clambering unaided on the rocks below the Atlantis to oblige a photographer, as he is to sit with me in the windswept hotel lounge, reviewing more than half a century devoted to writing, the effort to build a “regional house” and the wider struggle against “the old encirclement of poverty, ignorance and fear”.

The Caribbean can now boast three Nobel prizes for literature (St John Perse, Guadeloupe, 1960; Derek Walcott, St Lucia, 1992; and Sir Vidia Naipaul, Trinidad, 2001). Yet it was the instant success of Lamming’s first novel In The Castle of My Skin, published in 1953, which probably alerted the English-speaking world to Caribbean literature.

Castle, acclaimed for its treatment of “a society in transition and individual childhood”, was the product of Lamming’s own early life. He recalls: “In the desolate, frozen heart of London at the age of 23, I tried to reconstruct the world of my childhood and early adolescence. It was also the world of a whole Caribbean reality.”

Raised by his mother in Carrington Village, the model for Creighton Village in the novel, Lamming experienced the poverty, ignorance and fear that characterised Bajan small village society under the British colonial regime: “a terror of the mind, a daily exercise in self-mutilation”.

When still a small boy he witnessed the labour riots of 1937, as the black masses challenged a semi-feudal status quo, losing 14 lives and suffering 500 arrests in the process of establishing the labour movement and nascent political will necessary for independence years later.

Lamming’s mother was one of the God-fearing, hard-working servant class, determined her son would escape the confines of village life, via the only route available to poor blacks — education. When young George won a scholarship to the prestigious Combermere School, he was on the road to freedom and the world beyond Carrington, yet he has never forgotten either his “peasant” roots or where his “navel string is buried.”

 

In the introduction to the 1983 American edition of Castle, Lamming wrote: “The novel has had a peculiar function in the Caribbean. The writer’s preoccupation has been mainly with the poor, and fiction has served as a way of restoring these lives — this world of men and women from down below — to a proper order of attention; to make their reality the supreme concern of the total society. But along with this desire, there was also the writer’s recognition that this world, in spite of its long history of deprivation, represented the womb from which he himself had sprung, and the richest collective reservoir of experience on which the creative imagination could draw.”

So closely has Lamming identified with the village that, in the mature novel Season of Adventure (1960), set in the imaginary island of San Cristobal on the verge of independence, he intervenes in the narrative in his own voice, comparing himself with one of the novel’s main protagonists, the political assassin Powell.

This may be a flaw fictionally, but it provides invaluable insights into Lamming’s personal history and philosophy: “Until the age of ten, Powell and I had lived together equal in the affection of two mothers. Powell had my dreams; and I had lived his passion. Identical in years, and stage by stage, Powell and I were taught in the same primary school.

“And then the division came. I got a public scholarship which started my migration into another world, a world whose roots were the same, but whose style of living was entirely different from what my childhood knew. It had earned me a privilege which now shut Powell and the whole village right out of my future. I had lived as near to Powell as my skin to the hand it darkens. And yet! Yet I forgot the village as men forget a war, and attached myself to this new world which was so recent and so slight beside the weight of what had gone before. Instinctively I attached myself to that new privilege; and in spite of all my effort, I am not free of its embrace even to this day.

“I believe deep in my bones that the mad impulses which drove Powell to his criminal defeat was (sic) largely my doing. I will not have this explained away by talk about environment; nor can I allow my own moral infirmity to be transferred to a foreign conscience called imperialist. I shall go beyond my grave in the knowledge that I am responsible for what happened to my brother.”

 

Lamming’s time at Combermere School was an introduction to the world beyond Carrington, courtesy the library of his English teacher Frank Collymore, writer and founding editor of the seminal Caribbean literary magazine Bim. Lamming devoured H. G. Wells’s Outline of History and Science of Life, along with Conrad, the poetry of Hardy and authors as diverse as Goethe, Gide and Jane Austen.

After school and failing the civil service exams in Barbados, Lamming went to Trinidad in 1946, where for the next four years he taught in a Venezuelan boarding school. This was another giant step: “Trinidad was a defining moment for me in my conception of the Caribbean. Without that I’d never have been aware of Latin America,” he readily admits.

The great Cuban poet, Nicolas Guillén, champion of both the African presence and cultural sovereignty for the region, was required reading at the Venezuelan academy. Lamming was also exposed for the first time to the East Indian presence in Trinidad’s cosmopolitan society.

These were both significant formative influences for the young man who was now writing poetry, soliciting contributions for Bim, and encountering others like the Guyanese novelist Edgar Mittleholzer, who would lead the English Caribbean’s extraordinary literary output in the following decade.

For the 19-year-old who had already decided “I was not only going to be a writer but writing was going to be my way of life”, Mittleholzer was both role model and inspiration: “How I admired that man can only be grasped by those who know what it is to be summoned by the future to create a personal style of living. It was the sheer courage of Mittleholzer, the uncompromising nakedness of the man before the spiritual squalor, the atrocious lack of heart that characterised Port of Spain, that ordered me to the one essential duty that would be my life.”

Those were exciting times in Trinidad, despite the crass superficiality which 50 years on is still the hallmark of Port of Spain’s bourgeoisie. Beryl McBurnie, doyenne of Caribbean dance, was in the process of establishing her Little Carib Theatre, which was to become a regional centre for researching and promoting indigenous culture, forging a Caribbean as opposed to a colonised consciousness.

The peasant in Lamming enjoyed the irony of observing “middle-class dancers initiated into African roots.” A performance by American singer Paul Robeson at The Little Carib remains a cherished memory: “He spoke of his life, pausing to sing songs. It was a most effective way of describing the political and material condition of black people, ending with Langston Hughes’s I’ve Known Rivers.”

In 1948, Dr Eric Williams, scholar and Caribbean historian, returned “to let down his bucket” in Trinidad, and embark on a political career that saw him leading his country to independence. It was Williams who “planted the seeds of the region having a history, including the whole archipelago”, and who told Lamming: “You can’t be a writer without knowing Guillén and Césaire”, the pioneering indigenous voices of Cuba and Martinique.

Living in Port of Spain’s eastern working class district of Belmont, where liberated African slaves had settled in the late 19th century, migrants from neighbouring islands in the 20th, and where African retentions survived among the warren of twisting lanes, was for Lamming “the most fertile creative exchange”.

Lamming mixed with writers Clifford Sealy, Willie Richardson and Cecil Herbert, and anthropologist Andrew Carr. “We met on Sunday mornings, drinking and talking history and politics . . . these were seminars . . . it was a defining period for me in my development as a Caribbean person . . . it was a family of islands, only the kids were born in Trinidad, the fathers were from Grenada, St Vincent. By the time I went to England, the regional cosmopolitanism of Trinidad had firmly planted the seeds of being Caribbean in me.”

Lamming left for England in 1950 on the same ship as another young writer, Trinidadian Sam Selvon. The rest is part of the cultural history of the Caribbean.

 

Completed in 1951 and published in 1953, Castle established Lamming in the literary world (winning the 1958 Somerset Maugham award, selected by Sartre for his Les Temps Modernes series) and “was a powerful example for a generation of African and Caribbean writers how the literary tradition seen as a metropolitan enterprise might be pioneered by the colonised for the imagination of their own experience.” Bajan poet Edward Brathwaite and Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o cite the novel as inspiration in jump-starting their writing careers.

Lamming was also instrumental in getting another Caribbean classic published — C. L. R. James’s Beyond A Boundary. Lamming recalls: “I was going down Charing Cross Road when a man stopped me; his hands were shaking. It was C. L. R. James. We went for coffee and became colleagues.”

James had sent the manuscript to John Arlott, the cricket commentator who had been unable to interest a publisher. Lamming, capitalising on his reputation, arranged the necessary introduction, along the way helping a mentor, who,  along with Eric Williams, Lamming credits with “decolonising the intellectual life of the region”.

Lamming himself has contributed significantly, both in his writing and in his often searing critiques of the way modern Caribbean societies are developing, to the unfinished business of decolonisation. For him “the central and seminal value of the creative imagination is that it functions as a civilising and a humanising force”, and he describes his fiction as “an unfolding of one work”.

From the world of the boys in colonial Barbados to that of the young men in Britain in The Emigrants (1954), returning to the fictional Caribbean island of San Cristobal for the eve of independence in Of Age and Innocence (1958) and the imminent collapse of the republic in Season of Adventure (1960) and the allegories of Water With Berries (1971) and Natives of My Person (1972), which examine how “people on both sides of the imperial encounter were shaped by 500 years of European expansion”, Lamming spans the development of the modern Caribbean.

With his sense of history and political commitment, his charting of Caribbean consciousness begins with the age of discovery, while the Prospero/Caliban theme is as much a central motif in his work as the Haitian Ceremony of Souls.

This ceremony, which he witnessed when he visited Haiti in 1956, is held every seven years “to resolve outstanding quarrels [between the dead and their surviving relatives] in order that the dead may be released into eternity.” For Lamming, the ceremony became a potent metaphor of “the necessity of reconciling the past with each moment of conscious living.”

Although he has not published a novel since the 1970s, Lamming has consistently lent his voice and authority to shaping regional, cultural and political sovereignty. It’s no coincidence that he served as cultural adviser to Maurice Bishop during the ill-fated Grenada revolution, or highlighted the Haitian and Cuban revolutions as defining stages in establishing Caribbean identity.

Critical of both the regional intelligentsia (“who live and work in an orbit of privilege . . . who remain trapped in the dominant Western mode”) and the separatism of the “new political and technical bourgeoisie” (“there’s a mental condition that takes the form of the patient deliberately lacerating his body. This is the aptest parallel I can find for what the politics of separate independence is doing to our area”), Lamming retains “an optimistic scepticism.”

He is convinced that although “the odds are very heavy, the intellectual and creative resources are there”,  but admits: “The challenge is how to nurture that into a creative force of resistance, a constituency of different generations who are critical of outside influences.”

Reviewing what he sees as the “creative restoration of this region,” he cites the writing of a whole body of Caribbean women who have “been replying to the 1950s and 60s West Indian canon”. His list includes novelists Jamaica Kincaid, Simone Schwartz-Bart, Maryse Condé and Olive Senior, poets Nancy Morejon, Lorna Goodison and thinkers Sylvia Wynter and Rhoda Reddock.

And the grand old man himself? Well, he hasn’t finished writing either, and begins enthusiastically outlining the novel he’s been working on for the last five years. Using his favourite motif of the Haitian Ceremony of Souls, Lamming, like Alejo Carpentier in The Harp and the Shadow, recalls Columbus from the grave. This time the explorer is tried by a vaudou houngan.

When I tactlessly ask about a publication date, Lamming shakes his  wild shock of stark white hair, his eyes dancing mischievously: “The point is with these things, you never finish.”

I leave him with the wild sea at Bathsheba.

 

By George Lamming

1953 In the Castle of My Skin

1954 The Emigrants

1958 Of Age and Innocence

1960 The Pleasures of Exile

1960 Season of Adventure

1972 Natives of My Person

1972 Water with Berries

 

Essays

1960 The Pleasures of Exile

1972 Influencia del Africa en las literaturas antillanas (The Influence of Africa on Antillian Literature)

1995  Western Education and the Caribbean Intellectual: Coming, Coming, Coming Home