O pioneer

Jeremy Taylor on Horizons: The Life and Times of Edric Connor

Edric and Pearl Connor

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)

 

Edric Connor was one of those pioneering spirits who somehow personified cultural change in the years before West Indian independence. Like Jamaica’s Louise Bennett and his Trinidadian compatriot Beryl McBurnie, he stood for a new cultural nationalism and assertiveness. Because of his early death in 1968, when he was only fifty-five, he is little remembered in his native country 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, before West Indian writers started broadcasting on the BBC, before VE Day released the early steelbands onto the streets and into public consciousness.

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, alongside Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, Tony Curtis, Sidney Poitier, and Rita Hayworth. He set up his own movie company and produced award-winning documentaries, and wrote music for an Alexander Korda film (The Heart of the Matter). 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, and on his forty-fifth birthday turned that sacred theatre into a massive Trini fete, just as Kitchener had done for Lords in 1950 to mark the mother country’s cricket defeat. His London home became a centre for Caribbean and African networking.

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 to Pearl Nunez, who had been his partner in every way since 1948. 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.

Connor was born in August 1913 in Mayaro, in the remote south-eastern corner of Trinidad. The first, and best, chapter of Horizons describes vividly how family and community shaped him as a singer, dancer, story-teller, and actor, skills which stood him in good stead on the Stratford stage. One of the most poignant moments in the book is the young Connor’s departure from this bonne vaux, staring out of the back window of a country bus as everything familiar disappears. "When it was gone I turned and found my immediate travelling companions were two pigs. They lay there silently with their legs tied."

In Port of Spain, 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. When Bansfield [the machine shop foreman] gave me hell and I was sick at heart, I would sing to soothe the pain, full-throated, drowning the noise."

He worked as the Trinidad Guardian‘s "industrial reporter", and was noticed and encouraged by a couple of visiting film-makers. 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. He turned his hand to construction, and became a fixer for the Americans when they started building a wartime naval base at Chaguaramas, tangling with land acquisition politics.

In 1943, he gave two public lectures on West Indies folk music, long before the celebration of indigenous tradition became intellectually respectable in Port of Spain. "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.

He travelled widely, spent three months living the high life in Hollywood (courtesy of Rita Hayworth), and was chosen to represent "the Negro race and song" at the dedication of the new Coventry Cathedral to the arts.

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.

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. He doesn’t bother with dates; he doesn’t try to be comprehensive or methodical; he begins to brag.

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"). He doesn’t really face up to the compromises he made at Chaguaramas for the Americans, or explore the British interest in hurrying him out of Trinidad. His visits to Paris and Prague, and his relationship with Paul Robeson, are left vague; there is no mention of his foray into opera. His unsuccessful business projects in Trinidad (one was a cinema in San Juan which was to show art films like Bergman’s Seventh Seal), projects like the Negro Theatre Workshop and the Players’ Workshop, and the collapse of his film company after a visit to Nigeria, are unexplored. His recordings and his published folksong collections are not properly documented.

Hard details become scarcer as the book proceeds, and there is an unsettling sense of a man losing his grip, culminating in a mystical vision in Coventry Cathedral. After that, he soon concludes, "It is time for me to go home now".

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 and plug factual gaps. The late Pearl Connor-Mogotsi contributes an essay, "My Life with Edric Connor", which gives some idea of what Connor left unsaid. The outline text of Connor’s December 1943 lecture is appended, and Brereton contributes detailed textual notes, though they leave many references unclarified. 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.

 

Reproduced with permission from the Caribbean Review of Books (CRB), November 2006. Copyright Media & Editorial Projects Ltd (MEP) and the CRB.