A great day for a family get together

Who are the movers and shakers in black British writing? And can they all fit on one staircase? Kevin Le Gendre rubs shoulders with 50 networking luminaries at a special photo-shoot, and thinks there could have been 50 more
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The Independent Culture

The tower of scaffolding in the reception area of the British Library is an eye-catching construct. It confers something of an art installation or film set upon the usually prosaic surroundings. People stop and stare instead of walking straight past.

Yet as striking as the new furniture is, it is not what the onlookers are ogling. Their gaze is drawn magnetically to the small island of folks on the staircase directly opposite this makeshift Babel in Babylon.

From the top of this terraced tower, Manuel Vason, the Italian photographer of Tatler and Vogue pedigree, issues instructions to some 50 key figures of black British writing in his viewfinder. Literally speaking, it's a photoshoot. Figuratively speaking, it's a symbolic gathering, an extended family get together.

Novelists, poets, playwrights, editors, publishers and journalists are here to celebrate the contribution they have made to British and indeed global literature over several decades. This sense of deep roots, of prolonged presence is more than apparent when you direct your eye from James Berry, whose suave, sprightly appearance belies his 80 summers, at the foot of the staircase to Diran Adebayo, the thirtysomething looking customarily spruce a few flights up.

Another glance reveals Ben Okri, Bernadine Evaristo, Fred D'Aguiar, Karen McCarthy, Courttia Newland and Gary Younge. Look again and you'll spot Linton Kwesi Johnson, Roger Robinson, Leone Ross, Eric and Jessica Huntley, Dotun Adebayo and Steve Pope, Lemn Sissay, Roy Williams, Mustapha Matura, Patience Agbabi and Andrea Levy.

Melanie Abrahams, founder of Renaissance One, an agency that stages literary events, had the original idea of bringing the movers and shakers of black British literature into the spotlight. The project was funded by decibel, an Arts Council England programme dedicated to raising the profile of culturally diverse arts. Abrahams sought an appropriate hook for the event and found that the obvious precursor was "A Great Day in Harlem", the hallowed portrait of the leading jazz musicians of the 1950s. It remains an arresting image, one honouring an artform whose practitioners had to struggle to upgrade their status from entertainer to artist.

Jazz is ultimately defined by its pluralism and evolutionary drive. Change is its sole constant. The language changes over time; the voices change; the narratives change; the changes change. And so it is with black British literature. The canon really starts with 18th-century writers such as Ignatius Sancho, Ottobah Cugoano and Olaudah Equiano, whose slave narrative is as seminal as the tomes of African-Americans such as Frederick Douglas. Then throughout the 19th century authors such as the Jamaica-born, Scotland-qualified doctor Theophilus Scholes wrote prolifically on Empire and race.

Post-Windrush immigration brought us the giants that were George Padmore, George Lamming, Sam Selvon and C L R James. Their shaping of a new black British voice, one caught precariously between the dissonant terrace chant of the Mother Country and the consonant calypso of the Old Country, was powerfully supplemented by a wave of new writers in the 1980s.

Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy brought an important sociological and political edge to the canon, while Linton Kwesi Johnson, Jean "Binta" Breeze, Buchi Emechta, Caryl Phillips, David Dabydeen, Ben Okri, Ferdinand Dennis, Diran Adebayo and Bernadine Evaristo contributed stylish, rich and profound poetry and prose.

To sum up the mosaic of black British literature, I couldn't put it any better than Diran Adebayo, a writer who has blended Yoruba mythology with Blade Runner-esque futurism in his work. "In between Linton's dub poetry, Ben Okri's fabulist work and Bernadine Evaristo's experiments with prose and verse, the range is vast. Every type of writing you could possibly want you can get in black writing." In other words, black British literature is as complex and heterogeneous as black British people. Andrea Levy, whose novel Small Island won the Orange Prize earlier this year, once said that if "there's half a million black people in this country there's half a million ways of being black."

Vaso finally dismisses his subjects without the slightest De Millean grandeur, and the movers and shakers shake and move among themselves. There are exchanges between members of the same generation - Courttia Newland chuckles with Rajeev Balasubramanyam, Karen McCarthy chats to Bernadine Evaristo - and exchanges between the generations. Diran Adebayo talking to Eric Huntley, the publisher who blazed a trail for Diran's brother Dotun, would have made a great picture.

Some of the writers start to take pictures of one other as I move in to grab a few words. First in my sights is Jean "Binta" Breeze, smile on face, glass of red in hand. How did she feel being shot at the British Library? "It was very special on those stairs. I've seen people that I haven't seen for a very long time and it was so good to meet people like Mustapha Matura. I'd read his plays and I thought a lot of him but I'd never met him." Breeze has been a figurehead for aspiring black British poets for many years now. Whom does she rate among those who've picked up the baton?

"Well, I recently saw Roger Robinson in a performance and he seems to have come on a lot. His work is really taking on a sense of himself and his Trinidadian origins. I think Zena Edwards is doing good work too."

This new generation has a lot to live up to. One of the most honest and telling comments by one of the younger writers is made by Anthony Joseph, a bold, experimental practitioner of language: "I must confess I don't know exactly who everybody is. There's a lot to know though." That's the sign of a rich history. That's exactly what people say when they look at "A Great Day in Harlem".

Leone Ross, author of Orange Laughter and All the Blood is Red, who is currently working on her third novel Faith is Seven, can hardly contain her excitement: "It's a thrill for me to be here. I was like: 'I'm in a picture with Jean "Binta" Breeze and Ben Okri! Oh my god... it's Ben! He's wearing a beret!'"

There is indeed a little bit of a hat thing going on. Breeze blows a serious cool with a tan fedora, Okri's beret lends him the no-nonsense poise of a member of legendary 1970s Carib funksters Cymande, and Linton Kwesi Johnson's pork pie remains as grandiose as it was when he performed "Sonny's Lettah" at Rock Against Racism gigs in the 1980s. That hat is a potent symbol of the defiant, dignified grace black Britons showed amid the debilitating pressures of riot-torn Blighty.

From that period there were other people who made an important contribution to black British literature, such as John Larose and Peter Fryer, and the more you delve into the canon, the more you realise that the 50 represent a fraction of the writers who have been significant in black British literature.

Margaret Busby, editor of the excellent Daughters of Africa anthology, is keen to highlight others who wouldn't have been out of place. "Salman Rushdie could've been here, Roy Heath could've been here. Somebody like Bonnie Greer could've been here. There are some good folks here, but you could have had a very different bunch of people too."

There are many more folks Busby could have mentioned. I'm thinking of writers, workshop facilitators and all round energy providers such as Malika Booker, Dorothea Smartt, Charlie Williams, Chris Abani, Kadija George and of course Kwame Dawes, a colossus of prose and reggae poetry.

Towards the end of the afternoon Michael Horovitz, the vivacious and venerable veteran of British jazz poetry turns up and enjoys a warm welcome from Jean "Binta" Breeze among others.

There's some significance here. Lest we forget, black British writers are not in a race-specific bubble, wholly divorced from their white colleagues. They share stages, ideas, struggles and to a certain extent culture. They are not strangers.

A really harmonious multicultural society will only be achieved when specific voices are heard as part of a general chorus, when tributary and mainstream flow into one another, when a black Briton can be, simply, a Briton. Without compromising his or her blackness.

"When I go round the circuit I'm working with English writers, white writers too, you know," Breeze tells me. "I suppose it would be too many, but a kind of mixture of all the writers working would've been nice. I would have liked people like John Hegley, Carole Ann Duffy or Michael Horovitz to be in a photo with me. Maybe that would be a nice thing to do next."

Food for thought. For the moment though, let's enjoy the sight of these 50 black writers at the British Library whose fine words bring a great deal to our lives. And it has to be said that they look good.

I'd single out Patience Agbabi as the belle of the ball. She's wearing a white suit with broad green, blue, pink and orange stripes. She's a life-size stick of Brighton rock. It's just a shame we can't see her tattoos.

If Thelonious Monk, one of the brightest stars of "A Great Day in Harlem", were alive today, he would have stood next to Patience for A Great Day at the British Library. "She looks really dapper," comments Diran Adebayo. "People say politics is showbusiness for ugly people. Writing could be art for people slightly uglier than people in the music world but the black world of books, well... I think we're quite a well-dressed, well-groomed bunch. I mean there's no elbow patch jackets here!"

For more information about A Great Day, visit www.renaissanceone.com