Obituary: John Figueroa

NOT EVERYONE appreciates that the West Indian spirit is by no means bound by its geographical limitations. John Figueroa was a sublime example of a spirit which revelled in the enjoyment of many cultures, beyond the boundaries of that chain of small islands which runs from Jamaica down to Trinidad but whose harvest can be counted in the wealth of the contribution which has been made from there to English literature and elsewhere.

Poet, educator, lover of cricket, a man always ready to engage the debate on life and literature, a giant who linked the West Indies with other cultures, other literatures, Figueroa is sometimes remembered as one of the first contributors to that remarkable series which Henry Swanzy produced for BBC radio, Caribbean Voices, the programme in which West Indian literary talents first found their voice, in the early 1950s.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1920, Figueroa never lost the interest and the ability to make an incisive comment on local customs - I remember laughing while listening to a comment in a piece he did from the West Indies for the BBC's From Our Own Correspondent in which he spoke of a certain minister who was "off the island". The phrase is a commonplace of West Indian speech; I had never thought about it before, until Figueroa lit upon its curiosity.

Large of life and size as well as vision, he was eminently suited to filling, in 1957, the chair of Professor of Education at the University College of the West Indies, as it then was, with special relations with London University before attaining full university status in 1962. He was the first West Indian to hold a chair at U(C)WI and brought a breath of Caribbean disregard for the pretensions of the English abroad to common rooms in danger of a debilitating stuffiness.

Never one to be intimidated by language, the study of which was always a particular interest of his, he also extended his contacts with the non English-speaking Caribbean when he took the post of Professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico. From there he went, as so many West Indians long to do, to Africa, joining the staff of the University of Jos in Nigeria in 1975 where he served as Professor of Education from 1976 to 1979. From Africa he completed the circle of historic connections, coming then to England, where he first set up the programme of Caribbean Studies at Bradford College before joining the Open University (1980-83) and later the Manchester Education Authority as Adviser in Multi-Cultural Education (1983-85).

While living and working in England since the 1980s he worked hard to bring to the West Indian diaspora as well as to the native English the importance of Caribbean literature, with contributions to the anthology African and Caribbean Writing in English (1982) and a book on the relevance of West Indian literature to people of Caribbean heritage living in Britain, as well as a more recent examination of Jamaican Creole as it exists in the UK.

His considerable record in the teaching of formal studies in education and language should not, however, blind us to his verse. John Figueroa was, above all, a poet and it is for his poetry that we should remember him and for which he would wish to be remembered. In his writing he explored the subtleties of his heritage but also ranged through the classics, displaying a love of literature and history, while constantly returning to his Caribbean, and more particularly Jamaican, reference points.

He was particularly interested in, and wrote about, the work of Derek Walcott, most recently on Walcott's magnum opus, Omeros, but he was also always interested in the work of many other West Indian writers and gave them unstintingly of his support. With his wife, Dorothy, a considerable influence and support throughout his life, he early on produced a book on Caribbean writers (Caribbean Writers, 1979) and continued to interact with them in conferences, seminars and anthologies right up until the end.

In The Chase (1992), a volume which collected his poems from 1941 to 1989, the title piece is a love poem, but others deal with religion, simple memories such as the "Christmas Breeze" which all Jamaicans know and love, and many other subjects - a piece on Chartres Cathedral is particularly popular.

A keen follower of cricket, he was to be found in the commentator's box at all the important matches, publishing in 1991 a book, West Indies in England: the great post-war tours.

John Joseph Maria Figueroa, poet and educationist: born Kingston, Jamaica 4 August 1920; married Dorothy Alexander (two sons, three daughters); died 5 March 1999.

Epitaph

The old man is gone

Him ded, sah, him ded!

(Where are the frigate birds?)

Absent from Jonkunoo Lounge,

Someone will miss him from

The Caribe Bar - but only long

After.

Him ded, sah, him ded!

In Santiago de los Caballeros

(O Spanish men on horses!)

They will remember when

It is too late how lively he

Could be.

Him ded, sah; se muri.

But Tavern on the Green

Will dance, and Tower Isle

And Myrtle Bank, so stupidly

Demolished.

(Him done ded, sah)

And wherever for a moment or

A night he used to cast the spell

Against death with dancing

A spell that works and does

Not work,

(Him ded, sah, him ded!)

A spell that did not last.

The frigate birds have soared away,

The hurricane clouds have left

The skies clean blue;

And in the silence he has danced

Away, away, across the bar.

Him no ded, sah ?

from The Chase, 1992

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