Launching Henry Swanzy: The Selected Diaries at Bocas Litfest

Introduction made at the launch at the Bocas Litfest on Sunday 30th April. by Jeremy Poynting

(A note: this presentation was given to a predominantly Trinidadian audience, hence its mostly Trinidadian points of reference and the fact the festival was celebrating the 100th anniversary of Samuel Selvon's birth. The diaries, of course, cover writers from all over the Anglophone Caribbean. It is also a personal piece and does not represent Peepal Tree's public views on the monarchy.)

It is of course more than appropriate that we should launch The Selected Diaries of Henry Swanzy at Bocas. As itself a great enabler, Bocas has long acknowledged the importance of Henry Swanzy in the prize awarded in his name, in recognition of the role of other enablers of Caribbean literary culture. The diaries themselves have much to say about what goes into the motivations of Henry Swanzy and his clan, amongst whom I'd number myself. There's a properly self-questioning belief that we have something to offer in support of those with real imaginative visions and talents, and the acknowledgement that our lives gain from the relationship with those who have those qualities. For that reason, I'd like to dedicate this session to the memory of Gordon Rohlehr and Jennifer Rahim (and not to forget Sir Howard Fergus and Alwin Bully). Though I only really knew Gordon and Jennifer as their editor/publisher, and never knew either of them in close personal terms and saw them infrequently, I was really fond of them both in ways that are manifest in Henry Swanzy's account of his involvement with the likes of Sam Selvon, George Lamming and many others in London in the 1950s. I can offer the slight comfort that both Gordon and Jennifer have left us new books to come.

So what are the diaries? First to say that they are a small chip off a huge universe – a couple of hundred pages out of the fifteen volumes of the diary of probably six thousand pages. Rather too hopefully Swanzy enquired of his friend Diana Athill (V.S. Naipaul's editor) whether Andre Deutch would be interested in publishing it. The answer was a flat "no", it would only be of interest in the Caribbean, so I hope the Caribbean bit is true, but also that Athill was wrong about the lack of UK interest. And here I'd like to acknowledge the skill and judgement of the book's editors: Chris Campbell, Michael Niblett and Victoria Ellen Smith, who though they have focused on two important moments in Henry Swanzy's career, have also woven in more personal materials that give a sense of the rich variety that the diaries offer. The two moments, vital in the development of national/regional writings emerging at the end of empire, in both of which Swanzy played a midwife role was the development of the Caribbean Voices programme between 1946-1954 (remembering Una Marson's position as its first instigator in 1945), and his role in helping to develop locally focused and staffed radio programming in Ghana (1954-1958) and specifically the literature programme called The Singing Net. There was one Caribbean writer who bridged both – the young Edward Brathwaite – who, Swanzy claimed, thought the programme was called the "singing gnat" – no doubt a Brathwaite pun.

The diaries make good reading because they contain a flow between the private and the public – the mix of indiscretions and inner confessions, but with half an eye on the hope of publication. And here again the editors have done a great job. They select primarily what the diaries have to say about Swanzy's engagement with the writers like Sam Selvon, whose 100th anniversary we are celebrating, telling for instance of his visit to Sam in a sanatorium suffering from TB, and his awareness, in Sam's terms of how many of the writers in London were "catching their royals" (or arses), but the selection also covers the warfare of office politics, Swanzy's self-critical self-consciousness as being what he described as a CMG – a colonial made gentleman, who thinks he ought to be a socialist and apologises for voting Tory, a man who has a sometimes tragic domestic life, and a man who was alert to the reality of the propaganda of a kindly paternalist empire guiding its children towards independence which, in the name of anti-communism, was fighting hard to retain neo-colonies with leaderships open to welcoming the continuing power of British capitalism -- and fighting for that with exemplary violence as he records in an entry for 26 November 1953:

26 November. 
Those whom the gods would destroy they first make
mad. The Mail has a leader, attacking the hysteria of the USA, writhing
under the coils of the appalling McCarthy. Yet on the same page, they
give details of what is happening in Kenya, an officer, infuriated by
the hamstringing of his horse, tells a Sergeant Major to kill anyone black.
He does so, shooting in the stomach a group of harmless forestry officials
at a road block. They cry out in Swahili for God to put them out of
their agony. Later evidence reveals that 10/- prizes are offered for Mau
Mau deaths by competing units, with a barometer in one mess showing
"official" deaths on one side, and "unofficial" on the other. On the
other side of the medal, no "person of colour" is invited to the dinner
offered the Queen in Bermuda. The British world Empire is no more,
we are pursuing the shadow of a shade. Neither creative, nor dominant, minority…

But as I said, Swanzy hoped to be published, so while he records his minor indiscretions, he does it in a way that hopes for a reader. Let me give you one small example. Swanzy and the Ghanaian writer Efua Sutherland (who was then in London) evidently nurtured a mutual "tendresse" that was kept within careful bounds (and here Swanzy wonders about his motivation). His diary for 18 December records in a distinctly literary way:


18 December.
Saturday. Went to Cambridge to see Efua, more than
ever like Farleigh's "black girl" in a white woolly coat. We had tea,
and I bought her a Christmas present at Heffer's, Poetry in the Bible.
The Victorian seducers! At 6 to my room in Hartington Greve, with
no one in. We kissed and fondled each other, but did nothing more.

In the end, of course, most of us here will read the diaries for what they tell us about a crucial period in the development of Caribbean writing, where along with the work of other enablers like the Jamaican literary elite around Edna Manley and Focus, Frank Collymore and Bim, and A.J. Seymour and Kyk-over-Al, the period of Caribbean Voices incubated an explosion of published writing in the later 1950s and 1960s. Before 1948 there is little that reached an international readership except the Trinidadian writers of the 1930s, and only Edgar Mittelholzer, Vic Reid and Roger Mais had any kind of publishing record outside the region as the 1950s began. By the time Swanzy passed over the programme to Mittelholzer and V.S. Naipaul in 1958, Sam Selvon, George Lamming, Andrew Salkey, Kamau Brathwaite, Neville Dawes, V.S. Naipaul and others were beginning to establish themselves. Here Lamming and others have testified to Swanzy's vital role as an enabler – financial, literary, social and emotional in his support. The diaries give accounts of his at-homes where writers were offered congenial company, discussion, drinks and the loan of books and sometimes money (which he knows George Lamming at least will repay). He tries to get African and Caribbean writers to talk to each other, but without too much success.

But Swanzy wasn't just interested in those based in London. Two of the Caribbean-based writers that he particularly admired were the Trinidadians, poet Eric Roach and short story writer Seepersad Naipaul. Of the latter the entry for 1st July 1953 records:

1 July. 

In the afternoon, Vidia Naipaul read his father's story "Ramdas

and the Cow," a beautiful example of his gentle, humorous art, bringing

Hinduism into the burning lens of West Indian life. After his inhibitions

had been overcome, Naipaul read it very well. I took him home to

supper. It is curious what "breeding" is. Seepersad is a struggling journalist,

one generation out of the canefields, but he is a Brahmin, and his whole

approach is aristocratic. So is his son's. For example, Vidia will not

eat the meat that Henriette offers him, and she provides an omelette.

He seems confident about his Schools, especially the Early English

paper. At the moment, his admiration is reserved for Saki. A sister,

whom he evidently respects and loves, is going home, after four years

at Benares.

Sadly, just a month or so later Swanzy has to record trying to comfort V.S. over the death of his father. Swanzy records, "I talk to him like a Dutch uncle", though I think he means an uncle who was unrelated rather than one who offers strict advice.

A good deal has been written about where Caribbean Voices stood, aesthetically and editorially in relation to Caribbean writing – in the book of Glyne Griffith's and the papers of Philip Nanton and others, and the diaries display an openness and self-awareness about the issues of playing, as a CMG, colonial made gentleman, the role of gatekeeper. He is aware of the critiques from other centres (his dismissal in Jamaica as "Swanky") and he quotes and takes on board the criticism that arrives in a letter written by A.J. Seymour and addressed to Guyanese writers and responds to it in a way that I think has some merit:

25 November. 

JGW passes on a long letter from A. J. Seymour to Guiana

writers, "God's Secretaries", with a bitter paragraph about the

"schoolmasterly" BBC, and its attempt to organise Caribbean writing

into "a certain kind of easily assimilable literature". The programme

will never be any good until run by a West Indian, or by someone "carefully

advised" by West Indians. There is a grain of truth in this. But then,

radio is not an ideal vehicle for things written. There can be second

and third readings, but only one hearing. In any case, I should have

thought that the main danger of a fledgling culture, like the Caribbean's,

precisely lies in a tight control by motivated people, who want to impose

their standards of writing on the others. When I am gone, I am sure

they will regret the "catholicity" of the programme choice, precisely

because I am not competing with West Indian writers, or indeed, with

writers in London.

And Swanzy is always honest about where the programme sits in the context of the BBC's relationship to British governments, both Labour and Conservative, who were only reluctantly acknowledging that empire had to end and were doing their best to ensure that imperial interests were preserved, including arresting and detaining elected leaders and suspending the constitution, as in the case of British Guiana in 1953. Swanzy responds to a BBC directive that's worth quoting here in the context of the present assaults by and submissions of the BBC to the present British government. The exclamation mark is Swanzy's:

19 October. 

A long directive from Ian Jacob, advocating selection, relevance,

very close co-operation with Government departments. In particular,

news must be "carefully balanced" presenting the "British way of life".

There must be only a "British view", not "British views", and no "BBC

attitude". Controversy must only be reported "in proportion to the weight

of the backing". He goes further. "Nothing should figure in our output

which is not consciously planned as being there for an object"… At the

end, he faces the major criticism. "It may be asked whether this implies

that we are to conduct political warfare. The answer is that the BBC is

not conducting anything" (!) But, "we must not in any way shrink from

giving full expression to the British view, and to assist by all means in

our power the national Effort. Only in this way shall we be framing our

programmes in the national interest". Where does the "Humming Bird"

figure in all this? The problem is the scale and range of our horizons.

[…]. Perhaps because of this, perhaps for other reasons, I was in a rage

all day. Rage at JGW, rage at myself above all: neither artist nor man

of action, neither African nor European, neither Communist nor Conservative…

I'll end with something personal and pertinent to the Ruritanian absurdity of the coronation next week, including the preposterous invitation to the British people – as a whole, sitting in front of their televisions—to swear their allegiance as subjects, not citizens, to a hereditary monarch. In 2023, what a farce!

The connection is that in 1953, at the time of the last coronation, Swanzy as editor, was confronted by Eric Roach's "Coronation Verse" which contains a stanza concerning the relation of the first Elizabeth with the infamous, slave-trading John Hawkins whose coat-of-arms contained a "demi Moor, bound". This is how Swanzy records it, and it's one of the few moments when you sense him being a little slippery and evasive:

29 May. 

Dennis Selvon reads a bitter story by his brother Sam, "Foster

and the Coronation," and Vivette Hendricks a "Coronation Verse," by

E.M. Roach, which contains a stanza on the famous Hawkins, whose

coat-of-arms contained a demi-Moor, bound. It is awkward that anti-

Imperialism is so much more sincerely felt than Imperialism. The slight

alterations that had to be made were improvements, technically, and

so admitted by the readers.

Let me quote the offending stanza, so pertinent when our current royalty are facing some tough questions about their hereditary involvement in slavery and slave trading:

John Hawkins pounced upon a continent,

Kidnapped the native in his paradise

And middle-passaged for the Spanish Indies

Smacking the face of trades; bartered and sold

And sailed home sinking with rich merchandise,

The famous pioneer of the three-way passage,

The great slave-trading corsair gentleman

The queen acclaimed him with the accolade.

But though Henry Swanzy felt at this patriotic point that "it was awkward that anti-imperialism is so much more sincerely felt than imperialism", his diaries as a whole testify to why the Bocas Litfest was right to associate itself with his name.


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