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Tributes to Cecil Gray (1923-2020)

Jeremy Poynting and Kenneth Ramchand write tributes to Cecil Gray, author of The Woolgatherer.

Tribute by Jeremy Poynting on behalf of Peepal Tree Press

We are very sorry to have to record the death of Cecil Gray in Toronto on 14th March 2020. Cecil was in his ninety-seventh year and had undoubtedly led a long and full life, but we send our commiserations to his family for their loss. Peepal Tree’s connection with Cecil was two-fold. We published his first, long-matured collection of poetry, The Woolgatherer in 1994 (and there are still copies to be had via the website); thereafter Cecil produced new collections at such a rate that we could not keep up and he published them himself.

Then, at a time in the mid 1990s, when Peepal Tree was in severe financial difficulties, Cecil was one of those who helped to rescue us by buying shares in a rapidly set-up limited company – at the time with no thought that he would ever see any of his money back (he didn’t, but his children will). Cecil was undoubtedly a very good poet and perhaps the fact that some of the best poems in The Woolgatherer are about his Trinidadian childhood, and in particular impoverished and excluded Caribbean childhoods, points to another reason why we should be celebrating his life: his lifelong service as an educationist who more than anyone (perhaps Kenneth Ramchand and Anne Walmesley excluded) ensured that in the earliest days (the 1960s) Caribbean writing was both available for and on the reading lists of Caribbean schools.

Kenneth Ramchand’s lovely tribute to his friend spells out some of that vital activity and gives us, who didn’t have the privilege of knowing him, something of the essence of the man. 

Cecil was born in the poorest circumstances, and as his poem “Story” suggests, it was the word and books that rescued him.

Jeremy Poynting

A Story

by Cecil Gray

When he was nine they lived
in a room in a chopped-up building
up a low hill.

When he was ten
they lived in a room in an annexe
crouched near a house.

When he was eleven
the door of the room opened up to
a bleach of grey stones.

When he was twelve
the room was up wooden steps through
a dark passage.

The Public Library was around the corner

And then his life began.

Tribute from Kenneth Ramchand

“He stands outside the fencing looking in.” (the first line of ‘Caribbean Journal’)

My friendship with Cecil Gray began at the Mona Campus in early 1970. I know he was nearly a hundred years old, but it is hard to digest the passing of a friend, an influence, a teacher of poems and stories, one of our early writers who sang virtually to the end, and one of those who made a West Indian Literature possible. I had read some of his short stories and I knew of his early involvement in Trinidad with short-lived literary groups and with the theatre.

So I was pleased to meet in person this already ‘historic’ figure who was in John Figueroa’s Department of Education and he would come to my office which was near to the Education Faculty to talk under a banyan tree outside my office about getting West Indian Literature into the schools. I don’t think we ever had a Red Stripe or Appleton together at home or at The Senior Common Room. He played tennis, but he never considered me a possible recruit.  It was said that women loved him but he never talked with me about anything other than literature and Trinidad. He was fanatical about reaching out to teachers and students, and that chimed in with my own evangelism.  

It was not long before Rex Nettleford’s Extra Mural Office agreed to send us out on missions to schools in Kingston and far out in the rural areas with Cecil driving through crazy roads flanked by the coolest green. Cecil’s willingness and enthusiasm and his knowledge of Jamaica and the Jamaican school system took us out of the Campus and to groundings with teachers and students far from Mona. He was a great teacher of literature, and working with him was delightful learning.

I could be mistaken in remembering that his hair was already growing white when we met in 1970, but for sure he was upright, physically impressive and had laughter which could sometimes be quite scornful. People said to me that he was a difficult person, and could get vex but I experienced none of that. He was charming and he had a sense of humour (and picong which, I too, found was not much appreciated in Jamaica). We had a few arguments about poems, stories and writers but we never quarreled.   

When we worked at his home on the Mona Campus, he would sit barebacked at the dining table and behave like a natural Trini. (He had perfect skin and no belly to talk of, and he knew it). He had a copy of my West Indian Narrative (1966). He loved the map locating the writers in their islands, the photographs that showed children that writers were people like them, and he was professionally interested in the questions at the end for teachers and students. I knew at once that  he would agree to work with me to produce West Indian Poetry (1972)  and some of his best qualities as a man and a teacher came out when, at his house in Diego Martin,  we worked  for years, poem by poem, question after question, on a new edition that was published in 1989.  He was humble, argumentative, innovative, focused on what he thought the teachers and the students would be able to use. He was blunt and no-nonsense, and was quick to pull me up if I started to talk as if I was gallerying in the University. From time to time he would hand me one of his own poems and we talked about them. I had to override him when he insisted that on principle he could not as an anthologist include any of his poems in the new edition.

We remained friends after he removed to Canada and we met when he visited the island at Carnival time. He couldn’t stop writing poems. He never failed to send a copy of the several books of poems he wrote and self-published in his new country. They were poems of a Trinidadian and they all sounded like the Cecil I admired.  I don’t think I ever sent to him any lengthy comment on his poems.  He never reproached me. Some of the poems were dark and I was a little saddened by them, wishing he was here and we could talk about the poems and the feelings behind the poems, and be a comfort to each other. I don’t think I could be myself, living permanently in another country, and I always imagine that my friends (and my beloved children, vain hope) are longing to come back.  Every book of his poems brought him home to me, like Face Time.

At some point I started to read over his short stories (in Bim and other places) and thought how hard it was in his time for talent to believe in itself and grow in these islands. I asked him to send me what he thought were his best and he did. I look at them now and see a pioneer and a foundation stone. I won’t forget him, but we shouldn’t let him go to an unmarked grave.

Kenneth Ramchand

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