Episodes in My Life

Written by Marika Sherwood for BASA (Black & Asian Studies Association), British Black Studies, Race & Ethnicity Study Group on Tuesday, April 12th, 2016

Episodes in my Life: an autobiography of Jan Carew, compiled, edited and expanded by Joy Gleason Carew

Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 321pp, £19,99, pbk 

One of the magical moments in my long life was my two meetings with the incredible Jan Carew. There can be few people who have lived such a varied life, done so much in so many parts of the world. So I was really looking forward to reading this book.

According to the publisher, ‘Sadly, as Carew grew older his original plans for writing this book could not be realised without the assistance of his wife, Joy Carew. As well as what Jan Carew was able to write, the memoir was constructed from taped, transcribed material – which brings us closer to Carew’s compelling speaking voice – and where there are gaps, Joy Gleason Carew goes back to some of the vivid, eye-witness journalism Jan Carew wrote in those heady days of hope and struggle.’

So in the long book you will learn about Carew’s life: he was born in 1920 in what was the colony of British Guiana; during WWII in the local military and then in Trinidad as a low-rank civil servant.  In 1945 he left for the USA, to attend university; from there he went to universities in the Prague and then Paris. then studied in the USA. But he was not only studying, but drawing, painting, and writing and getting involved in local politics. By 1950 he was in London, working as a journalist, broadcaster for the BBC, and actor. His first novels, Black Midas was published in 1958; the second, Wild Coast, in 1960.

His London life lasted till 1966, then the USA in 1969, where he began a new life as a university lecturer at a number of universities; he also continued writing, as a novelist, journalist (for a variety of newspapers) and as a historian. But he did not leave politics: he was worked for Cheddi Jagan in independent Guyana; for Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana and Maurice Bishop in Grenada. He was advisor to the University of Namibia. He also spent time in Jamaica, Mexico, Canada, Spain and Cuba.

Some aspect of his politics is perhaps highlighted by the invitation ‘in the early 1960s’ from the Soviet Writers’ Union to visit them when his novel Black Midas was being translated into Russian. He returned for another visit to the Union at an unknown date. In London in 1960 he and Ed Scobie were contributing to the Flamingo; 1965 he edited the newspaper Magnet. Sadly neither lasted long. 

So this book attempts to cover Carew’s long, long, life and at least gives a glimpse of the many people – mainly political activists and writers  -  whom Carew met all over the world. It is not chronological but is compiled by themes into 6 sections: for example, Section 2 (this is printed in Roman numerals!), ‘Eastern Bloc Overtures’- is self-explanatory;  Section 5, ‘From Lotus-Eating Into the Jaws of a Coup’, is mainly about Nkrumah. Some sections begin with an explanation/summary by editor/compiler Professor Joy Carew; each section concludes with excerpts from Carew’s publications. (There is a list of these at the end.) This thematic rendering, at least to me, means that I feel I’ve become more familiar with Carew’s activism, but not with the man whose hands I held all those years ago while I thanked him for all his writings…  But I love the photographs of him!

So, a fascinating book. I hope that Jan’s  original script and recordings will be made available to researchers!