Caribbean Bookshelf (January/February 2007)

Edric Connor’s memoirs, and a roundup of other new books


Horizons: The Life and Times of Edric Connor, 1913–1968: An Autobiography,

with a foreword by George Lamming, and an introduction by Bridget Brereton and Gordon Rohlehr (Ian Randle Publishers, ISBN 976-637-277-2, 229 pp)

Because of his early death in 1968, when he was only fifty-five, Edric Connor is little remembered in Trinidad now except as a name, a man who documented folk songs. But, as his autobiography reminds us, ethnomusicology was just one of his many careers. Connor arrived in London in 1944, well ahead of the Empire Windrush influx. Within a couple of years he was a household name as a broadcaster and singer. He worked in movies for John Huston and the Kordas. He set up his own movie company and produced award-winning documentaries. He nurtured the careers of a whole generation of Caribbean talent in the UK. He played Gower in Shakespeare’s Pericles at Stratford-on-Avon. His London home became a centre for Caribbean and African networking.

Edric Connor was born in August 1913 in Mayaro, in remote south-east Trinidad. The first chapter of Horizons describes vividly how family and community shaped him as a singer, dancer, story-teller, and actor. Moving to Port of Spain as a young man, he learned to survive on little but his wits, working with the railways, studying engineering, and comforting himself with singing. “I suppose my voice really developed against the noise of the machines and engines of the Trinidad Government Railway workshop.” He started exploring the island, collecting songs as he went (“I found the people. I found my roots”). His music made him popular; he fell in with Albert Gomes and the young progressives.

In 1943, he gave two public lectures on West Indies folk music, long before the celebration of indigenous tradition became intellectually respectable. “Now,” he writes with relish, “I would spring a surprise on ‘high society’. Now I would show the great talents to be found in the lower strata of the island.” Somewhat alarmed, the British hustled him off to England and an engineering course in Essex. He began broadcasting, working in theatre and cabaret, film and television. One of the most vivid sequences in the book is his account of playing a harpooner on John Huston’s film of Moby Dick, shooting in mountainous seas off the Irish and Welsh coasts.

It was a wonderful life, and it embodied essential Caribbean themes: the constant reaching for new horizons, not failing, the sense of responsibility to race and people, the excitement of liberation and possibility, the enchantment with celebrity and validation, bitterness over glass walls and glass ceilings through which no West Indian artist could travel.

To accomplish all this in London now, in 2006, would be good going. To do it in the 1940s and 50s, given the constraints and typecasting which black artists suffered, is astonishing. Connor wrote his autobiography in 1964, four years before his death, while he was recovering from his first heart attack and the breakdown of his marriage. The story of the manuscript’s recent rediscovery is briefly told by Professors Bridget Brereton and Gordon Rohlehr at the end of their long and useful introduction. Appearing now for the first time, the book should have a great story to tell.

Yet Horizons leaves unsaid at least as much as it says. After Trinidad, Connor’s clarity and self-awareness deteriorate. The writing becomes vague, his mind flits from one thing to another, even in mid-sentence. And he leaves out large chunks of his life. He doesn’t mention meeting and marrying Pearl Nunez, or their long personal and professional partnership (he simply refers to “my wife” and “grave domestic problems”).

Connor’s 132-page text is accompanied by 96 pages of notes and clarifications. George Lamming’s foreword and Brereton and Rohlehr’s introduction help to fill in some of the context. The late Pearl Connor-Mogotsi contributes an essay, “My Life with Edric Connor”, which gives some idea of what Connor left unsaid. A clear timeline would have helped, since so many threads in the story are left hanging. The difficulty is obvious enough: how do you package an incomplete and evasive autobiography without disrespecting its author? In Horizons, several hands have given it a good try. But it will be up to a fresh biographer to pull the whole story together and make sense of it.

Further reading

Meet Me in Mozambique by E.A. Markham (Tindal Street Press, ISBN 0-9547913-7-1, 246 pp), a novel about a globe-trotting Caribbean-born academic (much like Markham himself) who sets off for Mozambique in search of a mysterious character. • Goldengrove: New and Selected Poems by Lorna Goodison (Carcanet, ISBN 1-85754-848-5, 124 pp), a joyous book of poems collecting new work with excerpts from her previous two books. • Barbara Jardine: Goldsmith (Robert and Christopher Publishers, ISBN 978-976819479-0, 140 pp), a lavish volume showcasing the work of the Trinidadian jeweller, with a biographical text by Judy Raymond and photographs by Michele Jorsling.