Book of a Lifetime: Collected Poems, by Derek Walcott
Saturday 30 June 2012
In 1976, when I was 14, my family migrated to Britain from the Caribbean. We had landed in a cauldron of bitter rhetoric about race and immigration. Unemployment was rising, and a vociferous minority demanded that "coloured" migrants be sent home.
The National Front was thriving. Every time we commuted in to the capital, we had to pass the graffitied slogan STOP COLOURED IMMIGRATION on an embankment just before we pulled into Wimbledon station. It remained there for several years, an enduring reminder of how unwelcome we were in this new land.
Disorientated, lonely and not a little bit frightened, I retreated into the world of books. Always an avid reader, I became carnivorous, obsessive even, about the written word. Like that classic children's character, the Hungry Caterpillar, my craving could not be assuaged. I devoured Dostoyevsky. I chomped my way through Pushkin and every mystery of Agatha Christie that I could lay my hands on. Then, rifling through my parents' bookshelves, I found a collection of the poems of Derek Walcott. I was perhaps too young to appreciate the subtlety and power of this extraordinary poet, but what I did know was that his work gave me a way to go home.
As I grew older and became more knowledgeable about the remarkable archipelago where I was born, I realised that no one represented its beauty and complexity better than Walcott. One of the first generation of West Indian writers who were able to name their own experience, his work provides a riposte to the derisive reports of four centuries of travel writers who characterised my birthplace as uncultured, unsavoury and irrelevant. And while Walcott revels in the beauty of these island jewels, depicting them with a lyricism and intensity that no other poet has matched, he also probes beneath the pretty postcards that the islanders use to seduce Northern tourists. Walcott knows that we are a mélange of Asia and Africa and Europe, of the Old World and the New, and that our history is more than a narrative of slavery, shipwrecks and suffering. With painstaking sweat and love, he reassembles the fragments of our past into something beautiful, ineluctable.
Everything I need is in his Collected Poems. I dip into it whenever I feel in need of consolation, or long to return to my roots, or just wish to remind myself of the peerless power of language. He is a shaman, revealing to us visions of a new New World where we can watch the unfolding beauty of a culture in the process of defining itself.
Andrea Stuart's 'Sugar in the Blood: a family's story of slavery and empire' is published by Portobello
Film More romcom than S&M
Review: The Imitation Gamefilm
Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars
TVNetflix gets cryptic
TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth
Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Lee Evans announces retirement from comedy on The Jonathan Ross Show
- 2 Pirelli calendar 2015: The problem with 'plus-size' models like Candice Huffine
- 3 These grandmas smoking weed for the first time are wonderful
- 4 Woman opens professional cuddling shop – gets 10,000 customers in first week
- 5 Angelina Jolie confuses everyone with 'ay up me duck' East Midland's greeting to Derby actor Jack O'Connell at awards show
Lee Evans announces retirement from comedy on The Jonathan Ross Show
Willow and Jaden Smith talk duality of apples, holographic realities and the melancholia of the ocean in incredible New York Times interview
Winnie the Pooh banned from Polish playground for being an 'inappropriate hermaphrodite'
I'm A Celebrity 2014: Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie confirmed to enter jungle
Drawn Blank: Bob Dylan exhibition showcases the musician's bold and vibrant paintings
G20 summit: Enter Putin. Accompanied by four warships. To the sound of mockery
'Muslims pre-date Columbus in discovering America,' says Turkish president Erdogan
David Cameron 'compares Vladimir Putin’s Russia to Nazi Germany' ahead of tense meeting
Former Tory PM Sir John Major says 'we would not have an NHS without migrants'
France 'blocks' Russian sailors from boarding a warship
G20 summit: David Cameron warns Vladimir Putin that Russia's relationship with the West is at a 'fork in the road' over Ukraine