Sitting in his Georgetown garden in the early evening, with little frogs singing from the shrubbery, Ian McDonald chuckles over stories of his early days in Guyana. He first came here 60 years ago, he tells me, the 15-year-old junior tennis champion of Trinidad, and cut a dashing figure on the grass courts at the old Portuguese Club. “I remember beating everybody. And I remember the tremendous hospitality.”
In 1955, after an interlude at Cambridge, McDonald found himself in British Guiana again, this time the star-boy recruit of the sugar company Bookers, which practically ran the Guyanese economy. (BG, people joked, stood for “Bookers’ Guyana”.) “The job turned out to be absolutely fascinating, and I was the privileged of the privileged.” It was a thrilling time politically, but also culturally, with AJ Seymour’s literary journal Kyk-Over-Al at its apogee and writers like Wilson Harris and Martin Carter forging a robust new literature.
McDonald had begun writing poems at school, and while at Cambridge he finished a novel he called The Marbleus, after a kind of butterfly. A few of his poems were published in journals like Kyk in the late 1950s, but his high-flying job – and his tennis-champ career – left little time for writing. Then one day, sorting through his papers, he came across the manuscript of his novel. “I almost didn’t remember writing it. I read it with eyes that were ten years older, and I said to myself, some of this is quite good.”
He showed the manuscript to a Bookers colleague, who sent it to friend in London, a literary agent. “Literally within two weeks I had a letter saying he loved the book.” Heinemann wanted the novel, with just one change, to the title. The Humming-Bird Tree, published in 1969, has never gone out of print, and is now considered a West Indian classic.
McDonald’s readers might have hoped for a sequel, but The Humming-Bird Tree remains his only published fiction, and it was nearly 20 years before his next book appeared. “I was always reading tremendously,” he says, but time for writing remained elusive as he rose through the ranks of the Guyana Sugar Corporation, as the nationalised Bookers was now called.
Then, at the end of the 1970s, he met Mary, his second wife.
“Living a very much more settled and happy life with her … literature began to become much more important.” McDonald entered a phase of creative renewal, and turned again to poetry. The result: four books, Mercy Ward (1988), Essequibo (1992), Jaffo the Calypsonian (1994, collecting many poems of the 1950s), and Between Silence and Silence (2003).
And now a fifth: in 2008, the year of his 75th birthday, McDonald published his Selected Poems, edited by the Jamaican poet and scholar Edward Baugh. It presents his oeuvre in chronological order for the first time, from his early poems celebrating what Baugh calls “the single-minded strength of personality of ordinary folk”, to his latter meditations on nature, inexorable time, and the beautiful but also painful privilege of being in the world.
“There is no limit to our love,/even death will set no limit,” McDonald says in the final poem. “I write this absurdly happy verse/to tell what it was like once forever.” These are poems, above all, of gratitude, which McDonald elevates to a form of grace. Sitting with him in his twilit garden, hearing stories of his rich and lucky life, I understand why.