A celebration of West Indian writers

Literature: A CELEBRATION OF SAM SELVON; South Bank, London
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The Independent Culture
A great agglutination of West Indian writers of an older generation, together with many relatives, friends and well-wishers, formed at the South Bank this weekend in celebration of the achievements of the Trinidadian novelist Sam Selvon, who died in Canada two years ago.

There were the Barbadians George Lamming and Austin Clarke; Selvon's old friend Ismaith Khan (an East Indian writer from Trinidad); the poet and publisher John La Rose; and Jason Salkey, who read out the talk that his late father Andrew had prepared for this occasion.

The long dead are safely stowed. The more recent dead are less completely absent. That was why this occasion proved so emotionally troubling for so many of them - Sam was hanging over the shoulder of Professor Ramchand, for example, telling him not to go on about all this fucking critical nonsense. Didn't he remember that he, Sam, author of The Lonely Londoners - an account of West Indian immigrant life in the Fifties - had, above all else, been a great storyteller?

It was George Lamming who brought the man and his predicament as an aspiring writer newly arrived from the West Indies brilliantly alive to us, with his seemingly effortless ability to pluck anecdotes straight out of the air that were both amusing and politically telling. His appearance alone would have galvanised any audience into an unusual degree of attentiveness: that extraordinarily mobile face, with eyes that seemed to slither menacingly from side to side in a curiously reptilian way. The audience hung on his every gravelly-voiced word, so slowly and beautifully articulated.

There was, for example, the story about the Chelsea Pensioner whom he met in the street soon after his arrival. They had chatted quite amiably for a while, exchanging tales about their respective childhoods in places half a world apart. Then they'd said their goodbyes. After he'd taken a step or two, the pensioner turned round and said: "There is something I wanted to ask you - do you belong to us - or the French?" That was the attitude of the English precisely, said Lamming. They saw us as possessions. Then there was that old Guyanese man who would shout out to terrified passers-by at Hyde Park Corner: "You know why the sun has never set on the British Empire? Because not even God could trust any Englishman in the dark!"

Many soon-to-be-important writers came over from the West Indies in those years, their colonial status having condemned them to the rights of full citizenship. And each one of them arrived with an idea of England that had been implanted by imperial tutelage. The reality proved so different from what they all expected that it shocked many of them into writing enduring works of poetry and fiction. A West Indian London literary renaissance was born.