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Bwa Dife – An Evening at the St. Lucian High Commission

December 4, 2010

Thursday 2nd December 2010 found me slipping on half melted snow  through gracious Edwardian squares just off the Earls Court Road.  I was searching for 1, Collingham Gardens where my friend, Morgan Dalphinis,  the husband of Julie ( also my friend), was preparing to launch his new collection of poetry.  A cold coming we had of it however and by the time  the door to Number 1 was opened to us, there were three other people in the party whom I had met consulting mps under street lights.  However, the beautiful building in which the High Commission is housed was immediate compensation for the difficulty of the trip there.  But the delight in intricate plasterwork and heavy oak doors was quickly forgotten in the fascination of seeing someone I have known a little professionally, and a great deal in the bosom of his family, reveal himself as an eminent St. Lucian as well as  a passionate radical.

The High Commissioner, Eldridge Stephens, introduced the evening with eloquence and warmth. Later it transpired that he had known Morgan’s uncle when they were both young in St. Lucia.  And so, via a brief presentation by the publisher, Dr. Joseph Kyan, on to the book.

Bwa Dife means Firewood in Creole. This was not, as a I had supposed, merely a reference to an inert pile of logs but conjured up instead the time before islanders had electricity or gas and, on rising in the morning, would go to a neighbour’s house where a fire was already lit to obtain bwa dife – glowing embers of wood with which they could kindle their own fires.  The image is used to suggest the fire of revolutionary and radical thought. It conveys impatience with the lies and suffering that permeated slavery, colonialism and the experience of many as the black diaspora brought them to the melange of grudging welcome and downright hostile racism  that was Britain in the fifties and sixties:

Since whites came

Theft in their eyes

Guns in their hands

The only thing they

Wanted

Was money

And the suffering

Of others.

Do’t lie to me

Don’t bring water for me

Bring me firewood!

The poems are written in Creole and English. Translations are given for the Creole though without having heard Morgan read in that language it would have been difficult for me to make much sense of it. Having heard him fill out the dry print with the resonance of his voice I can puzzle out some of it. Creole uses largely French vocabulary  within an African grammatical structure.  It is  a language spoken throughout the Caribbean. Morgan has a PhD in linguistics and beside his knowledge of Creole in particular and African languages in general my glimmering of understanding is like a match struck in a huge cavern.  But my understanding is as follows: the languages that fed into Creole were Wolof,  Mandinka and Umbundu, followed later by Yoruba and Twi.  To search out the origins of these languages – still spoken in Africa – is to glimpse the long reach of the slave trade that brought Africans, living and dying, to the Caribbean.  Wolof is the language of 40% of the population of Senegal.  Mandinka is the main language of the Gambia while Umbundu is spoken in the Highlands of Angola.  Today 20milllion people speak Yoruba in Nigeria, Benin and Togo, while Twi is spoken in the Southern half of Ghana. I know from my own contacts that Yoruba and Twi are both spoken here in the UK today and so, I’m sure, are the others.

The knowledge of this legacy, the sense of ancestral experience of the violation and disruption that came on the evil wings of slavery echoes through these poems, as in Life and Death on John Compton Avenue – a meditation on the death of a young girl in  a traffic accident in Saint Lucia and the disproportion between her power and that of the man who killed her. Morgan takes no prisoners and is scathing about the power structure in St. Lucia:

Tout e-a ek lanme ja/ Vini blan….

All the land and the sea has/become white./Tourist boats/Bringing enslvers/Anew./Blacks who had sold us/In Africa/Have sold all the land/Around the sea./ Mulattoes who had/Sold us here/Have totally sold us out.As slaves to tourism.

Pou eslav tourist.

This passage is written in Creole of which I have given a few lines as a taste. Half way through the evening the Prime Minister of St Lucia, Stephenson King, and the Minister for Communications, Guy Eardley Joseph walked in – to much delight – and Morgan was unabashed by the fiery tone of the verse he was reading. Knowing him as I do I would not have expected anything else.

It would be a monotonous collection  if the iniquities of slavery were the only theme. This is not the case. In the poem quoted above Morgan begins and ends the poem with passages of great lyricism offering green thoughts in the green tropical shade as a spirit flies free;

I am on the/ Wings of green/ Flying through the mango tree/ I am the spirit /that exults and sings/In the dove and the /Eagle.

There is no Creole version of this passage. The spirit of the poet merges with the spirit of the dead girl.  The English in these poems is shot through with the cadences of the Authorised Version of the King James Bible – and none the worse for that.

There are poems in the book about ancestral pride both in family (an invocation of the ancestral line for the poet’s son on his 21st birthday that I had the honour of hearing on the occasion for which it was written: Pou Jiraye Kele Liburd, Lawrence, Isaac and Dalphinis) and in the achievements of African civilisations, for example,  in Beyond Time when “We moved north/ to Egypt/ Creating Meroe.” (Morgan’s daughter is called Meroe though I do not believe she was conceived in Egypt. In fact the poem refers to the great city of Meroe that lay on the banks of the Nile from the 6th Century BC to the 4th Century AD).  There is a poem about Nelson Mandela. In short Morgan’s consciousness and experience as black man and human being is caught within the covers of this book.

Questions from the floor reflected the anxiety of those who had left their mother country that their children should not lose their heritage and that books and writing in Creole should be supported. Morgan’s daughter Meroe was heard to comment that what was needed was pod casts rather than books if the young were to be captured.  Be that as it may I found my evening at the St. Lucian High Commission a stimulating one and I was glad I had braved the snow to get there.  After all I don’t get the chance to be in the same room as a poet, a High Commissioner, and a Prime Minister , and to revel in the music of two languages, every day of the week.

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Boudicca

October 26, 2010

There’s a genre of cloely imagined, well researched historical fiction that I find irresistible.   Mary Renault and Rosemary Sutcliffe come to mind.

Mary Renault is notable for her books about Ancient Greece, both mythic and historical.  In particular I remember Renault’s The Bull from the Sea and its sequels, about Theseus and the legend of the minotaur and her books about Alexander the Great – The Persian Boy, Fire from Heaven and Funeral Games.  Renault’s books are for an adult audience and are lent particular poignancy by the homo-erotic content – the relationship between Alexander and his servant boy Bagoas, for example.  Mary Renault was herself lesbian and there is an interesting non-historical book, The Charioteer, set during the First World War in a London hospital (perhaps The London Hospital where I trained as a nurse – I remember the setting seemed eerily familiar) which concerns love between men and women and explores the dilemmas involved in the attempt to preserve life.

Rosemary Sutcliffe wrote for younger people and concentrates on early British history. One of her most famous books is The Eagle of the Ninth about the search for the Ninth Legion that was wiped out beyond Hadrian’s Wall.

I have just finished another novel in this tradition (complete with a love affair between a Roman Prefect and a young boy from the Eceni tribe).  This is Boudicca (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boudica) by Manda Scott.  Happily there are two more books in the series: this one was called Dreaming the Eagle and takes the reader up to Claudius’ invasion of Britain in AD 39.  One knows the eventual outcome but still I read this  with the ridiculous hope that history might be changed.  Scott writes well with strong research to back up her fictions and I was, as I have been from childhood, taken by the idea of women fighting alongside men and matrilinear royal bloodlines.  As a Druid this is, of course, the culture where some origins of my spirituality probably lie.  The book doesn’t mince words about the brutality of hand to hand combat – in parts it reads like the Illiad with skulls being broken and bodies being cloven in various ways.  Roman and British atrocities are dealt with even handedly.  All sorts of interesting ideas: I’d never thought that a battle horse could itself be a weapon but of course a savage horse could kill effectively.

Why is this fiction so attractive to me? Escapism certainly. “Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance” have distracted and seduced me all my life. It’s equally a curse and a blessing. The eternal mystery of the past – always with us but never truly knowable in material terms.  Well, if you’re reading this and thinking yes, yes, yes try the novels suggested here – if you haven’t already.

Blasted

October 23, 2010

My friend Emily (of Writemysite.com) got free tickets for Sarah Kane’s play Blasted at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith so I went with her on Friday (22nd October).

Blasted was a good word to describe how I felt at the end of the play which featured a dysfunctional relationship between an alcoholic tabloid journalist and a teenage girl – wanking featured as did (mercifully off stage) vaginal and anal rape. Half way through the flimsy hotel room set was ripped apart by an explosion and the last half of the play took place in its ruins, in a post apocalypse hell that was darker than ever Becket imagined though some scenes were clearly influenced by his work.  The second part of the play showed a fairly graphic male rape with both penis and gun, and the description of various war time atrocities that I won’t detail here. You’ll already have got the picture. The audience thinned rapidly as the evening progressed.

Somehow though, I felt this wasn’t just horror for the sake of it.  Like Dante’s Inferno the play shows that hell has various levels.  It plumbs them relentlessly.  But at the very bottom it offers some hope of redemption as water drips into the darkness bringing with it a shaft of light that illuminates the head of the suffering protagonist (eyes put out in the terrible tradition of tragic heroes though he is a commoner and much more sordid man even than Arthur Miller’s anti-heroes never mind Lear or Oedipus). The young girl has sold herself for food and grudgingly, carelessly, innocently even, she feeds the blind man who has abused her.  The play ends with his cry of “Thank you.”It’s not really a relief. The two of them are still stuck in the darkness and the brutal soldier may or may not be dead but it is a small gesture towards the hope that the vital spark of human goodness may endure even in these times. For what end is another, and unanswered question.

Sarah Kane died in 1991 after a failed overdose.  She hanged herself in the bathroom of Kings College Hospital. She wrote that she was attracted to the stage because “theatre has no memory, which makes it the most existential of the arts…I keep coming back in the hope that someone in a darkened room somewhere will show me an image that burns itself into my mind.”[7]

You did, Sarah. You did.

In the beginning …

October 20, 2010

Once more I am dragged, silently kicking and screaming, through another hedge into another field in the electronic world.  This time I’m beginning a blog partly, but not entirely, because I’m producing my first collection of poetry.  The publication date is not set yet but watch this space.  Meanwhile I shall use this space to let the willing world know my thoughts.