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The Caribbean Voice of George Lamming

By Philip Nanton


George Lamming, who has died in Barbados at the age of 94, is regarded as one of the foremost writers of the Caribbean.  Born in 1927, he was the son of a single mother and grew up in a poor black village community, Carrington. Later, as an established novelist and academic, he lived a secluded life at the Atlantis Hotel on the wilder, east coast of Barbados, where I was fortunate enough to visit him. The first occasion was for a BBC Radio 4 programme What does Mr. Swanzy want? that I presented in 1998,  and then several times again, once I had relocated to Barbados. It was not a good idea to visit without a formal, prior appointment. He had a shrewd, penetrating gaze and reserved presence. His shock of white hair and clearly enunciated, anglicised accent were legendary, as was his love of reading, which he described as his required daily ‘oxygen’, and opera. Less well known was his willingness to accept, when offered, a gin and tonic, or two. Superficially, these features appear to place him at a considerable distance from any conventional notion of a Caribbean personality’, but they hint at the importance of ‘style’ for Lamming. Style, for him, was an index of an individual’s entire personality and his or her impact in society.

For Lamming, the issue of style is also fundamental to his art. It implies the ability to consciously choose and the scope to make and remake in an ongoing process of self-definition. It declares a form of personal sovereignty and contains highly individual and even maverick elements. It can also be an elective expression of commitment to community. His style was influenced by a range of metropolitan experiences, both Caribbean and British. But this came at a price.

Port-of Spain and London

In 1946, Lamming took up a teaching post at the Colegio de Venezuela, a private boarding school in Trinidad. Along with being a larger country, Trinidad’s freedom from rigid colour and class structures at that time offered a kind of metropolitanism not to be found elsewhere in the southern English-speaking Caribbean. For Lamming, these were heady days, characterised by access to leftist literature and a flourishing arts scene. The Belmont district of Port-of-Spain, where he lived surrounded by many first-generation migrants from the islands of the eastern Caribbean, gave him an appreciation of the ‘Caribbeanness’ of urban Trinidad society which foreshadowed his later commitment to regionalism.

London, however, to which he emigrated in 1950, and as seen through the perspective of his London novel, The Emigrants (1954) and essay collection The Pleasures of Exile (1960), was a very different proposition. Misunderstanding and division, failure and disillusionment dominated the lived metropolitan experience of the migrant. This perspective is developed further in Water With Berries (1971) which explores the separateness of exile, the sense of rejection, and growing hostility to Britain and its colonial past.

That said, the social and intellectual milieu of London, the opportunities it presented for him as a politically conscious novelist, essayist and broadcaster, were far from the grim experience presented in his novels. He clearly welcomed and put to good use the diverse influences that came from living in the post-war city, including those that came from Europe. He was exposed in London to the range of anti-colonial ideas being formulated and discussed among both West Indians and Africans, present in large numbers as students and leaders-in-waiting of their countries. By 1956, he was a delegate at the First International Conference of Negro Writers and Artists held in Paris. He absorbed all these influences, and they became an intrinsic part of the style that he then presented to the Caribbean region through his work.

Mavericks and vocations

Lamming has acknowledged in different interviews those Caribbean writers whose maverick influences he admired and emulated. Most of them were encountered in London, including novelists Roger Mais from Jamaica and Edgar Mittelholzer from Guyana, and the political thinker from Trinidad, C.L.R.James. A key influence on his early life and work was Frank Collymore, legendary Barbadian editor of Bim magazine, as well as a renowned stage actor, writer, artist and secondary school teacher. A gentle and informal personality, he taught the young Lamming at the Combermere School in Barbados. Lamming was a self-confessed handful for most of the teaching staff, and in exasperation the headmaster turned over responsibility for his discipline to Collymore, in whom Lamming found a longterm friend and mentor. Collymore channeled Lamming’s rebelliousness, by opening his personal library to the young boy and winning him over by force of personality. In the Castle of My Skin (1953), Lamming’s first book, is dedicated both to his mother and Frank Collymore. He describes the importance of Collymore’s literary example in this recollection: ‘I was seeing someone I would like to be (his emphasis) in relation to books most of my favourite reading had come from his library the example of him in relation to books was more powerful than any kind of guidance.’ 

When in 1950 Lamming went to London,  he was introduced by his old mentor Collymore to Henry Swanzy, the BBC radio producer of Caribbean Voices from 1947 to1954.  Lamming described Swanzy as ‘a kind of maverick really, very brilliant. He was an Oxford historian, Irish, who had worked in the Africa service, radio as well, before coming to the Caribbean.’ He acknowledged how Swanzy opened various avenues, helping him find a London publisher. Swanzy also provided an informal training in broadcasting, which supported Lamming financially while he wrote his first novel. However, the experience of working on the Caribbean Voices programme gave rise to some ambivalence for Lamming. While it offered an economic lifeline to many Caribbean writers in London, Lamming also recognised that its context reflected a colonial landscape with London in control of the politics and of language.

Those other writers with whom he rubbed shoulders in London also influenced his style. He absorbed Edgar Mittelholzer’s dedication to writing as a duty, undeterred by ridicule or criticism. In Roger Mais he recognised a writer of undiluted passion, and C.L.R. James gave him an awareness of ‘the interconnectedness of all enquiry’. Despite profound political differences in relation to each of these mentors, what impressed Lamming about them was not simply that they took their writing seriously, but they had fearless dedication to a life lived on the edge. In his own way, Lamming had begun to emulate these role models. Beyond London, another major literary influence was Richard Wright, parts of whose novel Black Boy (1945) Lamming, in his youth, found so engrossing that he had simply copied into his notebooks. They later established contact and Wright wrote the introduction to the American edition of In the Castle of My Skin (1954). Lamming’s later novel Natives of My Person (1972)  was dedicated to Margaret Gardner and in memory of Richard Wright. For a struggling, black workingclass Barbadian migrant to attempt to earn a living as a full-time writer in midtwentieth century Britain was a step into the void. Unlike contemporaries V.S. Naipaul and Kamau Brathwaite, with their scholarships to Britain’s most prestigious universities, he lacked any institutional support beyond the BBC; factory work helped him eke out a living for his writing. For him, then, migration was in a very peculiar sense a process of self-formation.

Community and the individual

As a result of growing up in a poor black village, Lamming recognised that he had lived the class experience he later found described in Marx, whose writings enabled him to place labour at the centre of his understanding of culture. This world view influenced his analysis of both community and class in the Caribbean context, both of which are central to narrative structure and characterisation in all his novelsthe working-class Powell in Season of Adventure (1960) who assassinates the Vice-President, or Ma and Pa in In the Castle of My Skin who represent the cumulative experience of the village community. In The Emigrants, on the other hand, bonds formed by West Indian immigrants on the ship fragment soon after they reach England, dramatising the dissolution of community.

The preoccupation with class as a writer also drove Lamming the public intellectual. In the Caribbean, his support for left-leaning administrations and opposition movements is well documented – in Guyana under Cheddi Jagan, Grenada under Maurice Bishop and Cuba. Under Fidel Castro.

The influence of Jean Paul Sartre.

From Sartre’s extended essay What is Literature? (1948) Lamming took up the question: ’For whom does one write?’ He saw that in societies like those of the Caribbean, with deep divisions of class and race, the work has to respond to a culturally split public, united only by a grasp of the English language. The role of the writer is to give his or her society, in Sartre’s words, a ‘guilty conscience’; antagonism to the conservative forces that wield power is the original conflict that defines the artist’s condition. In his novels, Lamming employs the technique of shaming by the juxtaposition of different communities and social classes, combined with explicit attacks on privilege. He is a Caribbean exemplar of the engaged writer, with no separation between the man of culture and the man of public affairs. He has a public task to perform: to shape national consciousness and offer society a different direction.

Given the cultural diversity of the Caribbean, there was no fundamental distinction in his world view between the global and the local; he saw himself as writing for readers from any part of the Englishspeaking world. He once observed: ‘If a Caribbean writer is talking about the predicament of a fisherman, that is a very universal theme. The fisherman happens to be a West Indian fisherman.’

The Price of Style

Long before he reestablished a base in the Caribbean in the 1980s, Lamming recognised that to pursue the privileged role of an artist would come at a price. The high value he placed on freedom of thought and his critical stance towards both the mainstream (‘political directorates’, as he called them)  and the oppositional left,  inevitably left him isolated. In carefully maintaining distance from established bodies of thought, whether on the left or right politically, he chose a maverick or ‘loner’ role. On the one hand, he critiqued the privilege of the right, on the other, he identified a ‘colonial left’ who worked from ‘the book’ and lacked any organic connection with the masses. While he championed the fundamental importance of culture as a political tool, he was disappointed to discover that in the Caribbean, far from the fundamental role that he perceived and articulated for it, culture was seen as ornamental.

Lamming’s ambivalent relationship with mainstream politics was exacerbated by his commitment to regionalism, which differed considerably from the territorial nationalism of the region’s political elites. He openly acknowledged that, ‘My tendency is always to respond to any project of a regional character that reinforces the unifying, the integrating of the region.’ He advocated for the regionalisation of the media alongside the development of second languages to enlarge communication, seeing them as fundamental, ‘mind shifting’ changes needed for effective Caribbean integration. In contrast, he observed that local politicians were consumed more by structural gains achieved through the gradualist institutions of CARICOM (established in 1973) and the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (established in 1989) with its focus on regional goods and services.

The weight he gave to his political commitment was borne out when, in the latter part of his life, Lamming abandoned the role of novelist for that of essayist and lecturer. He apparently saw the language of public address as a more effective vehicle than fiction for his message. In later life, he held a series of residences at various universities in the USA as well as at the University of the West Indies, and that university’s George Lamming Pedagogical Centre at Cave Hill, Barbados was named in his honour.

The price he had to pay for his political stance and the language he used to express it was the coolness with which, for the most part, his message was received by the public that he most valued not the region’s intellectuals or elites who, over the years, showered him with honours, but the general population. His literary style – elaborate, convoluted sentences and formal diction – has become harder for contemporary readers to relate to. His acceptance of this price is implicit in his own definition of style, one that ultimately approaches the idea of destiny: ‘the work that chooses him and for which there is no alternative, no other instruments he can select to fulfill that choice: these constitute the style of the man.’ While Barbados prepares to honour him with a state funeral, this would no doubt be his own preferred epitaph.

Photo from the Africa World Documentary Film Festival (UWI, Cave Hill) 2009 Archive