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

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor