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In Memory of George Lamming, 8 June 1927 – 4 June 2022

George Lamming was a giant of Caribbean letters and one who invited white Britain to think hard about its relationship to the Caribbean in ways we have hardly begun. In In the Castle of My Skin (1953) he wrote the classic novel of growing up under the Union Jack in the 1930s and the discovery of racial pride in the Black struggles for radical change in both the USA and in Barbados, whose impetus would carry forward the demands for national independence, which are still being expressed in his native Barbados in its rejection of colonial monarchy for republican status. In the prophetic characterisation of the teacher, Mr Slime, Lamming also foresaw the capacity of the middle-class for betrayal of the people in settling for a neo-colonial order that accepted inherited social structures and economic inequalities. 

In The Emigrants of 1954, Lamming charts the passage towards the inevitable disillusionment of migrants to Britain and the beginnings of a new disabused awareness that overcoming the centuries of oppressive colonial relationships is a struggle scarcely yet begun, though in the process of their rejection in Britain, his individual island emigrants begin to discover bigger identities as West Indians. Needless to say, Lamming was one of those dismayed by the relapse into petty island nationalism with the collapse of Federation. He was always very clear that formal independence and true sovereignty were two quite different things, that global capitalism was simply a new form of empire without the inconvenience of the costs of colonial occupation. 

In Of Age and Innocence (1958, and republished in Peepal Tree’s Caribbean Modern Classics), he wrote another prophetic work that identified very clearly several of the internal enemies of Caribbean progress. These included the over-trusting relationship between the mass of people and the charismatic leader-hero who, across the region, was heading in the direction of authoritarianism with the tools of repression bequeathed by colonial governments; the resistant conservatism of much of the middle class and the collapse of class interests into ethnic assertion. The tragic virtual civil war in Guyana between 1961-1964 that set Africans and Indians against each other was sad proof of what Of Age and Innocence foretells. Again, in this novel, Lamming explores the continuing connections between Britain and the Caribbean (in his invented island of San Cristobal) in the presence of the white friends of the brown intellectual, Mark Kennedy. What adds depth to all Lamming’s novels, and is powerfully explored in this one, is what he draws from a serious engagement with radical existentialism (Sartre and Fanon) in examining the psychology of perception in colonial society and how this can cripple a confident sense of self.

In Season of Adventure (1960) Lamming moves beyond party politics to examine the historic gulf between the Eurocentric Caribbean middle class now in power in the first post-independent governments in the region, and the African-centred “folk” culture of both rural people and those who were moving in vast numbers into the colonial cities in the post-war period. Here, too, is a prophetic novel which predicts the rebellion that occurred in Trinidad in 1970 when young African Trinidadians took on the Afro-Saxonism of their political leaders. In the focus on the “ceremony of souls” (a syncretic invention of Lamming that looks towards both Haiti and the Orisha worshippers of Trinidad) and the original rebelliousness of Steelband, Lamming looks hard at the region’s divided soul but also at the resources that can flow into the region's creativity.  

In his non-fiction work, The Pleasures of Exile, published in 1960, Lamming embraced the then almost forgotten work of C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins (1938, and then out of print) and wrote a foundational reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest as seen from Caliban’s perspective. Living in Britain at the time, The Pleasures of Exile expressed the hope and the desire for a treaty of understanding between the children of Prospero and the Children of Caliban – another prophetic expression of the necessity of some form of reparation as young British royals discovered to their ignorant chagrin on their recent tours to show the flag.

But if The Pleasures of Exile expresses a tempered optimism, Lamming’s later novel, Water With Berries (1970, and also republished in the Caribbean Modern Classics) expresses a much darker vision of exile, in the increasing alienation and drift of his artist characters, the loss of connection to the Caribbean that sinks the quixotic plans for a return to lead an uprising,  and the seductiveness of even a modicum of acceptance in British society, symbolised by Teeton’s relationship with his landlady, the ‘Old Dowager’. Here, the revisiting of the Tempest sees his male characters behaving much more like Prospero, particularly in their paternalistic misogyny towards the women unfortunately involved with them. 

That same focus on women as a future that men must learn is one of the themes of Lamming’s other novel of that year, Natives of My Person (1970), an exploration through history of how the liberal intentions of European colonialism became, as Caroline Elkins documents in Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire (2022) a saga of slaughter, torture and racial contempt. 

Lamming’s fiction was written between 70 and 50 years ago, but the issues his novels explore remain utterly pertinent today.  As a public intellectual, his contribution to Caribbean thought has few parallels. The George Lamming Reader: The Aesthetics of Decolonisation, published by Ian Randle Publishers in the Caribbean Reasonings series, will remain an essential book for many years. But GL as the Barbadian Poet Laureate, Esther Phillips, always named him was also a private man, and it is the more domestic glimpses of GL in his old age that Esther writes about in Leaving Atlantis (2015) that make this, too, a book to be treasured in this moment both of sadness and gratitude for a life of rich accomplishment.

I was rereading Ngugi Wa Thiongo’s novel A Grain of Wheat for an event at Harrogate Library on the 7th of June to talk about some of the books selected for the Big Jubilee Read when the news of George Lamming’s death arrived in my in-tray from John Robert Lee. There was a rightness about this because it was Ngugi, then a postgraduate at Leeds University (this was 1966-67), who introduced me, then a young Communist Party member in my second year, to Lamming’s writing (amongst others). Ngugi has spoken and written about how much Lamming offered him in political and artistic insight, and there in A Grain of Wheat (1967) is an allusion to Lamming’s rereading of The Tempest in The Pleasures of Exile, when Ngugi’s once idealistic district officer, John Thompson, proposes to write a book called ‘Prospero in Africa’ but ends up with blood on his hands from the slaughter of eleven internees in the “Gulags” that Britain constructed in Kenya to bring civilisation to the “natives”.

 

In Memory of George Lamming, 8 June 1927 – 4 June 2022

Jeremy Poynting

 

As a postscript. With a timing that I know brings him a sense of dread, on Wednesday 8th June, Kwame Dawes is giving the 11th Annual George Lamming lecture, entitled "Lamming Online: A Primer". It is being broadcast, details in the link attached: https://www.cavehill.uwi.edu/news-events/upcoming-events/2022/june/fccpa-11th-annual-george-lamming-distinguished-l.aspx

 

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