William Matthews Lecture 2020: ‘One grim evening’: The Colonial Migrant in Britain

Caryl Phillips, acclaimed novelist and playwright delivered, this year’s William Matthews lecture, offering a moving and sobering view of the experience of the colonial migrant in Britain.

Jamaican Immigrants to Britain in 1948

22 Jun 1948, Tilbury, Essex, England, UK — Original caption: Emigration In Reverse – The Men From Jamaica Arrive At Tilbury. The ex troopship. Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Caryl Phillips begins by reflecting on the jubilation of the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, and the moment when in the telling of British history a representation of the HMT Empire Windrush emerges marking the era of mass settlement of British colonial subjects from the West Indies. A moment when it could be assumed that the Windrush generation was accepted as part of the narrative of British history, a moment Phillips says was eclipsed by the ‘antics’ of the British government who later, in 2018, would strip them of their jobs and homes, and even try to deport them on the basis that they were never really British citizens, despite having built lives in Britain at the invitation of the British government.

Phillips speaks of his own childhood, having arrived in Leeds aged four months, a second-generation child of colonial migrants from St Kitts, who as he grew up felt ‘no great love’ for Britain. He witnessed the ways in which it rejected the colonial migrants who came with the hope and promise of being welcomed into what they considered the ‘Motherland’ – this love for the country had always puzzled him.

Caryl Phillips

Caryl Phillips

He says for the colonial migrant, “they are not leaving home, rather they are leaving to go home”. A sentiment that was echoed by the 1948 British Nationality Act which granted members of British colonies citizenship in Britain.

Phillips tells us the story of the colonial migrant through the lens of two, David Oluwale and author Sam Selvon, in their respective cities; Leeds and London.

David Oluwale

David Oluwale

David Oluwale was a British Nigerian who in 1969 drowned in the River Aire in Leeds following years of abuse from gangs and the police after coming to Britain with dreams of becoming an engineer. Oluwale was met with disdain and life on the streets and was even committed to a psychiatric hospital for eight years, an experience that forever altered him. One might question why Oluwale never left Leeds, a place that had taken so much from him.

Oluwale’s experience is parallel to the protagonist of Selvon’s book, The Lonely Londoners, published in 1956. Moses Aloetta is a Trinidadian émigré who faces great hardship throughout the novel, yet in the end he cannot move away from his preconceived notions of Britain, and the promise it held.

Selvon’s book opens with the line ‘one grim winter evening’ encapsulating the often hostile and bleak circumstances colonial migrants found themselves in. But for people from the colonies who had been taught that they were British, their status as British subjects had come to be a part of their own identities, so to reject Britain was to reject a part of themselves. This allowed them to “absorb the abuse and humiliation” and participate in British society, staying and fighting to make a place for themselves.

The plight of the colonial migrant, Phillips reminds us, is echoed now in the fallout of the Windrush Scandal, for those who had come between the years 1948 and 1962 and found that ‘one grim winter evening’ was a reflection of the evening of their lives, characterised by betrayal and disappointment.

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William Matthews Memorial Lecture: ‘European Journeys, Medieval and Modern’

Dr Marion Turner’s lecture on Chaucer’s writings and journeys reframed the quintessentially English writer as a great European poet and source of inspiration beyond the continent.

Dr Marion Turner took an audience of Chaucer enthusiasts on a journey through the poet’s works for the 2019 William Matthews Memorial Lecture. Following on from her own travels around Europe, where she contrasted the medieval with the contemporary, she demonstrated how Chaucer weaved his journeys through Europe into his works of poetry. Geoffrey Chaucer was an English poet and author, whose most famous works include The Canterbury Tales. He is often thought of as ‘the Father of English Literature.’

During her research, Dr Turner endeavoured to go on a physical journey through contemporary Europe in order to retrace Chaucer’s journey through Medieval Europe, to understand his interests, works and what gives the writer appeal beyond the borders of England.

Early on in the lecture, Dr Turner shared the impetus of her travels; being approached to write a biography of Chaucer’s life. She lamented that, upon sitting down to write the book, the plan she sketched was not very different from any other biography written about Chaucer. Frustrated, she set out on a walk to help her find ways of approaching the structure of the book, when she came to her ‘road to Damascus moment’; the idea to approach Chaucer’s work through his travels through Europe in the fourteenth century as a way of understanding the writer in the reader’s imagination.

Dr Turner reflected on numerous characterisations of Chaucer as an English poet firmly rooted in the English imagination and identity. She used the example of UKIP aligning Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Alisoun with the party during the 2013 election, thus painting her as an English archetype. But this trope is challenged by the numerous writers of colour, particularly women, who have taken Chaucer’s work and adapted it to create stories in their own contexts.

What’s more, through her travels she found that Chaucer’s stories came from distant places made up of diverse demographics. Particularly Navarre, located in the northern region of Spain, where Chaucer visited and saw members of the three main religions living harmoniously. She highlights that in the medieval period the most educated of the population were multilingual and that Chaucer himself would have been influenced by French, Italian and Latin poetry, which he enjoyed.

Chaucer’s travels through Europe also highlighted to Dr Turner the importance he places on perspective in his work, and it is this transition of perspective that characterises much of his poetry. She gives the example of the prominence of birds and someone who can only see from the ground as a way of demonstrating these different perspectives, which will inform an individual’s thinking on any given situation.

The lecture concluded with a reflection on Chaucer’s views of time and crossings, the place of crossing being “a place of magic, darkness and possibility” – an ongoing action in which the past infiltrates the present, much like the persistent influence of Chaucer’s works on writers across place and space within the literary canon.

The William Mathews memorial lecture is an annual lecture on either the English language or medieval English literature.

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Mongrel Tongues/Mongrel Nation: William Matthews Lecture 2018

On Thursday 29 November, author Bernadine Evaristo delivered an insightful lecture exploring how and why authors create voices that challenge the predominance of Standard English as the literary and cultural norm.

If you were passing the Beveridge Hall in Senate House on Thursday 29 November, you may have been surprised to hear a speaker addressing her audience in a language decidedly far from Standard English. Indeed, it wasn’t just author Bernadine Evaristo’s voice that filled the hall as she gave her fascinating lecture entitled ‘Mongrel Tongues/Mongrel Nation’, but the voices of countless others who have been left out of traditional English literature. From the pidgin English of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy [soldier boy] (1985) to the inner city gang slang voiced by Evaristo’s protagonist in Hello Mum (2010), this year’s William Matthews Lecture challenged our ideas of the language that should be spoken in literature, and opened the floor to include every voice in the discussion.

Following a welcome from Professor Heike Bauer, Head of Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities, Bernadine Evaristo, who has written eight books and numerous other publications, began the lecture with a discussion about belonging. Having grown up in Britain with a black father and a white mother, Evaristo knows what it is to feel different. Recalling the disapproval of her mother’s family when their daughter married a Nigerian, Evaristo explains “My father always said that he became a black man when he arrived in England … Black British people were not seen as fully, properly British, and from this I absorbed the concept of ‘blackness’ as a negative.” This idea was explored in her first novel, Lara (1997).

Evaristo herself felt like an outsider for much of her youth, neither fully belonging to her father’s Nigerian culture nor the British one in which she was growing up. “People don’t know you, but they think they do,” she explains, “they know ‘your kind.’” Such was Evaristo’s father’s concern that she should be fully integrated into British culture, that he deliberately avoided passing his own language and heritage onto his children. Perhaps it is due to this loss that Evaristo is determined to broaden our understanding of the value of a range of different voices in literature.

Through the evening’s discussion, Evaristo asks “Can you truly capture characters’ lives in Standard English?” Take the aforementioned Sozaboy, for example. His stream of consciousness is punctuated with non-standard phrases that form part of the pidgin English spoken by 75 million people in Nigeria. Evaristo argues that by using Sozaboy’s language, its author, Ken Saro-Wiwa, establishes the setting, society, culture and context that make up Sozaboy’s world. The use of dialect, far from patronizing the protagonist, means that “we are charmed by him”, and “when he goes to war, so do we.”

By giving the text the subtitle “A Novel in Rotten English”, Saro-Wiwa brings the discomfort that an audience accustomed to Standard English might feel on reading (and understanding) the book to the forefront. But Evaristo also draws attention to writers that go further than this, such as Junot Díaz, who leaves vast swathes of his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) in Spanish, without offering his reader a convenient explanation or glossary. This act, which Evaristo dubs “assertive non-translation”, forces the reader to engage with “the bilingual and bicultural reality of the text”, and begs the question: how far can we embed foreign words and phrases in our literature, without alienating our reader?

For Evaristo, the expansion of accepted novelistic languages is a welcome one, and she argues that writers and artists should have the freedom to write from any perspective (while amused by the fact that, as a self-titled black writer, she should be seen as more limited in subject matter than a white writer, given the vast cultural richness and experiences of the 54 countries of Africa and 33 countries of the Caribbean, not to mention the Americas and Britain itself). Indeed, in her 2010 short novel Hello Mum, she sought to get inside the mind of a teenage boy, conducting extensive research in youth detention centres and carefully mimicking the style of speech she found. For, as Evaristo says, “How do we begin to claim ownership of something as nebulous and transitory as culture?” It is not the right voice, but every voice, that should be heard through literature.

The annual William Matthews Lecture at Birkbeck is made possible by a bequest from the estate of the late Professor William Matthews for a lecture on either the English language or medieval English literature.

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