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Roy Heath’s sons remember their father

The Accidental Anthropologist

Roy W. Heath

(To avoid confusion, my father is Roy A. K. Heath and I, the author of this piece, am Roy W. Heath)


My father arrived in London by boat in December 1950 – on a sabbatical from the colonial British Guiana Civil Service, where he was treasury clerk – in the middle of a freezing English winter. He had taken the opportunity to improve his French crossing the Atlantic, whiling away the hours and days playing cards with Martinican friends who had joined the ship after Trinidad. He was still receiving a salary, but he had to eke it out to survive in London for what he expected to be a short stay before returning home, yet within a few months dad had enrolled on a degree course at London University to study French. He had initially wanted to study Anthropology, but the panel wouldn’t let him enrol on that course, so he chose Modern Languages instead. Why he was denied entry onto the anthropology course remains a mystery but, for context, it was only in 1950 that UNESCO finally published a statement by scientists in the fields of biology, genetics, psychology, sociology and anthropology rejecting the bogus theories of racial superiority. This statement had originally been conceived in 1935, in a bid to counter the rise in racist propaganda. I can imagine that the London University admissions staff, despite perceiving themselves as broadminded, would have struggled with the notion of sending a black man into the field to study other black and brown people – surely that was the province of Europeans who had the intellectual objectivity to do it properly. So, French it was. However, Roy was also an accomplished classical pianist and in later interviews he said his dream had been to study piano in Paris, and he did indeed go off to Paris in 1951. He stayed in the flat of a French couple he knew from a Marble Arch social club, set up to make immigrants feel welcome. Once in the French capital he soon discovered he felt much more at home amongst the French, the city’s architecture and its intellectual and cultural life, compared to wintery, grey London. 

Fast-forward three decades and dad is an established author living with my mum in a large, white bungalow surrounded by a thick privet hedge in the London suburb of Wembley. Dad was quite reclusive, but occasionally, academics or critics would come to interview him about his writing. A few were English, but more were German or Swiss (he liked the opportunity to practise his German), and they often came with preconceived ideas that got the interviews off to an awkward start. One Swiss visitor presented Roy with a Swiss delicacy called a Mohrenkopf, or ‘Moor’s Head’ – a cranium-sized cake with a chocolate coating and a gooey white interior. Neither he nor my dad seemed to notice the irony until my mother, who hailed from Switzerland, pointed it out, much to the embarrassment of the guest. She and I recently roared with laughter when we thought about the offensiveness of the gift. Being generous, it could be seen as a clumsy but innocent mistake in less enlightened times, but a pattern was emerging. Some academics turned up with their heads full of the latest psychological theories and used them as a lens through which to view colonials and make pronouncements about them. I remember on one occasion sitting in on an interview, gawping at the sandy-haired German academic perched incongruously on our chaise-longue. His opening gambit was that the Guyanese (I’m using post-independence spelling here) were confused about their identity and lacked their own culture. ‘Game On!’ I thought, as I looked to my father for a sharp response. There was a pause and then, with great courtesy and charm, dad set about disabusing the Herr Professor of his misguided ideas. He explained that, on the contrary, the Guyanese with their different ethnic origins formed a rich tapestry of cultures and traditions that intermingled yet remained distinct, whereas he had found that many Europeans had lost their everyday cultures as they had been eroded by too much television and consumerism. Fist-pumps weren’t a thing back then, but had they been I would have calmly left the room before doing a silent Joe Frazier flurry in the wide hallway outside. With the German schooled and accepting that he was there to benefit from the insights of a brilliant and unusual mind, the interview settled down into a reasonably good-natured and wide-ranging discussion. 

At some point during the interview, they focused on my father’s novel The Murderer (1978), exploring the reasons for the mental breakdown of Galton Flood, the novel’s anti-hero. Roy agreed that this character was schizophrenic, but also suffered from depression. Were there some autobiographical elements, I now wonder, in The Murderer? In the first few pages, readers are introduced to a key pair of characters for whom two sets of circumstances are sketched out that are based on traumatic events that dad had himself experienced. Firstly, his mother, my grandmother, Jesse, was a fierce matriarch who tightly controlled all aspects of Roy’s teenage years. This was done partly out of a Victorian prudishness around sex, reinforced by the prevailing Christian values amongst the ‘coloured’ middle-classes at the time. In addition to this, Jesse was a widow struggling to raise four children; she may have felt the need to keep everything under control, including her own anxieties, to ensure the family’s survival. At the end of each month, she was so desperately short of money she would sit on the stairs and weep, and the children, dismayed that their rock appeared suddenly fragile, would crowd in and start bawling too. The second circumstance, a critical incident, is the mental breakdown of Roy’s older brother, Sonny. Sonny had been sent off, against his will, to live with his grandparents; when it all became too much, he finally snapped and was sent to an asylum. On his first visit home he fixed my father with a piercing gaze and then, without warning, accused his brother of somehow being to blame for his illness. Dad was devastated and confused – he had always idolised his brother. The fractured psychological landscape of The Murderer was set in Roy’s mind.

As well as the psychological acuity gained through Roy trying to analyse and come to terms with what had happened within his own family, my father had an almost preternatural radar for the fine detail and texture of each of Guyana’s ethnic and religious groups – especially those of African, East-Indian and Amerindian descent. Here was a man who absorbed culture through the pores of his skin, an accidental anthropologist, if you will. I believe this stew of early trauma and the peculiarities of a traumatised, colonial society created the unique insights that characterise my father’s writings. 


Memories of my father: The Guyanese writer, Roy Heath

By Rohan Heath

At home, on my desk, I have an unpublished manuscript written by my father entitled Emigrés. In it he describes the experiences of a handful of immigrants during their first few months of coming to England in the 1950s. His voice, turn of phrase and sense of humour are so familiar to me that to read it now – even fourteen years after his death is to have him sitting in front of me once again, in his rocking chair, reciting the words with his own lips.

The manuscript includes a very moving account of his own experience, which starts on the rum-soaked day of his departure from Georgetown, Guyana. From there, after flying to Trinidad, he describes his passage to England by boat, via the Caribbean islands of Barbados, Martinique and Guadeloupe. It is only whilst on this journey that he confronts his doubts and motives for travelling to a country that he knows very little about – a journey that he intends to repeat in reverse six months later, when he returns to Guyana and his job there in the Civil Service. 

Like so many, he never did return. It seems that England – like the bitter, unfathomable cold of his first winter – got beneath his skin. Yet his psyche would forever remain in Guyana. Even as the snow fell and blanketed the ground during that first winter, he described how he looked upon the denuded London plane trees and saw in them the ghosts of the silk-cotton trees back home. 

My father had already started to write poetry before he came to England. But it was only after nearly two decades here that he, by his own admission, found and inhabited his true voice. That all of his novels were set back in the country of his birth, however, is telling: further evidence that it was to his homeland of Guyana that he would forever remain umbilically connected. 

One of the abiding memories of my childhood is that of my father lying in bed, fervently writing, sometimes for days or weeks on end. When occasionally he did emerge from the bedroom, it was usually in his pyjamas and to eat with us. The only other things that might coax him away from his writing were a game of chess or playing the piano, both of which he excelled at. Indeed, it was he who taught me how to play the piano and improvise on it, laying the foundations for what would become a successful career for me as a touring musician and songwriter. Sometimes, if I was lucky, he might also take me to play cricket in the local park in Wembley, his pyjamas still peeping out from beneath the hem of his trousers as he bowled me out. Other kids – usually of Indian, Pakistani and West Indian descent – would invariably come and join us, often until it was too dark to see the ball anymore. 

Like most men from the Caribbean back then, my father was cricket-mad. For migrants, it was – along with drinking rum – a way of bonding. So unlike the households of my English friends, for whom the soundtrack to Saturdays was generated by the high-energy football commentary of a nearby TV, in our house it was the languid voice of a cricket commentator that drifted with a sun-drenched ease from our second-hand radio. 

The first novel that my father wrote was A Man Come Home, published in 1974. Proudly presenting my mother with a finished copy of the book, he encouraged her to read it and tell him what she thought. A couple of weeks later, she reported back that she had found it ‘somewhat boring’. Instead of taking offence, my father asked her what kind of novel she might enjoy reading. ‘How about a murder story?’ she replied. And so was born the novel for which my father became best known, The Murderer (1978). It took him only six weeks to write.

For my father, writing served as a touchstone for the Guyana of his youth. He used it to bask in his past; to embody what – as an émigré – he had left behind. His pen was the conduit through which he channelled memory, serving it up to the reader as a muscular blend of comedy and tragedy. 

When, in his later years, he revisited post-independence Guyana, he complained to me that it was a country much changed. I would therefore argue that his stories serve not just as a chronicle of personal memory, but also as one of that time and place that was British Guiana of the 1930s to 1950s. 

For me, my father’s novels were a portal through which to access the country of his birth and to glimpse the inner workings of his mind; he was a very private man, so these insights served as valuable gifts to me. Through them I was able to step into a humid world of tropical myth, hilarity and murder – into a world populated by characters so vividly drawn, yet at the same time so understated, that as a reader it was impossible not to believe that they actually existed. And all this from the comfort of our small north London semi. 

Even now, after all these years, as I re-read The Murderer, I am struck by the brevity of its prose; every sentence counts, not a word is wasted. Galton Flood – the protagonist of the story – was a character brought to life and immortalised by the swirl of my father’s hand. The same hand that so often checkmated me or hit a six in cricket.

When, as an adult, I finally visited Guyana, it was a country that I immediately recognised and with which I felt intimately familiar. A country that resonated in me.

And for that I am forever grateful.


Rohan Heath is a songwriter, musician and founder of the pop group Urban Cookie Collective.

Roy W. Heath is a documentary maker, screenwriter, essayist, and Film and TV lecturer.