As I traversed London metro from the southern outskirts of South Croydon into central London, the clouds hanging low and a damp chill in the air on 26th November, I watched neighborhood after neighborhood of attached housing. I tried to imagine Jan in those early years. It would be the 1950s, long before I met him. I wonder if he, like I, liked the ‘idea’ of London, having been steeped in English literature and lore, but then found the ‘living’ in London to be far more complex and nuanced?
I had to smile that the rail ticket agent spoke with a decidedly Russian accent, and that her name was Irina. When I asked her in Russian if she spoke Russian, “Vi govorite pa-russki?” She said, “Da” shyly, and I said, “I see your name is Irina,” pointing to her badge, then collecting my change, said, “Spasiba (Thank you)” as I turned to leave. I detected a faint smile on her face, as I, perhaps, brought a brief piece of home back into the indifference of her young life here now in London.
The London of literature and lore was not as diverse and complex as the one Jan would have encountered, or I encounter now some 55 years later. But both, London of the 1950s and London of 2015, have stretched and grown enormously with the polyglot and poly-cultural populations squeezing themselves into the city. Each time, new generations have forced the city’s housing and borders to expand to accommodate them. Each new wave, ever hopeful to ‘make it’ here, has brought its own demands and contributions, and both they, and London, have adjusted — despite themselves. The working class Russians and Eastern Europeans of today share much with the Caribbean folk of 50 years back. But, one wonders, though, in the context of the niggling racial pall that hangs over these former colonial metropoles, and if, in light of patterns of previous generations of European immigrants to the city, they, too will join the side of those happy to be in the lower reaches of the have-gots, looking askant at the have-nots of color? For, as much as they might be looked down upon as the latest waves of ‘supplicants’ to the British welfare system and the low-wage jobs, might they, too, forget those struggles and take some strange comfort in knowing that — at least — their skin does not tie them to the African diaspora?
The Caribbean people came in waves after WW II, starting with the 1948 steamship Empire Windrush. Subsequent aspirants appeared on later ships. That is how Jan Carew first arrived in 1949. Jan once told me that after he was established in the city, he had to stop going through a certain train station, for he was forever encountering miserable Caribbean women having only a towels around their shoulders against the London chill, and he could not help giving away his coats to them. The years in London had taught Jan what to expect — both in terms of climate and problems with racism — but for most of those answering the “call” to come help rebuild Britain, this was a rude awakening. Nonetheless, like Jan, their imprint on London and British culture would be indelible.
The double book launch of Jan Carew’s Return to Streets of Eternity and Episodes in my Life: the Autobiography of Jan Carew was a fantastic gathering of enthusiastic people, anxious to be there and a part of something emergent and magical. The interlaced reminiscences added a fascinating texture to the evening. We cannot thank the Claudia Jones Organisation enough for allowing us to use their facilities and for the good work they are doing in the community in Claudia Jones’ name (http://claudiajones.org/). We cannot thank enough the Institute of Race Relations (http://www.irr.org.uk/news/, Smokestack Books (http://smokestack-books.co.uk/, and Peepal Tree Press (http://www.peepaltreepress.com/home.asp) and our many friends for their support in providing a wonderful program.
Though a writer of Jan Carew’s enormous oeuvre does need a ‘launching,’ taking the opportunity of the conterminous appearance of these two latest and complimentary works was a brilliant maneuver. Between the physical launching and the electronic milieu which has further spread the word, we can safely say that Jan Carew’s latest posthumous work has been properly ‘sent off’ into the stratosphere!
Jan Carew Double Book Launch, London (UK), 26 November 2015, for poetry collection, Return to Streets of Eternity (Smokestack Books, 2015) and memoir Episodes in My Life: The Autobiography of Jan Carew (Peepal Tree Press 2015). Joy Gleason Carew, center, with Margaret Busby, Burt Caesar and Luke Daniels. Further details on Jan Carew books and projects can be found at: www.jancarew.com. Photo courtesy of Margaret Busby