London calling

One of the key figures in the eruption of West Indian literature in the 1940s and 50s was an Irish-born BBC producer named Henry Swanzy.

  • Henry Swanzy in 1992. Photograph by Anne Walmsey
  • John Figueroa. Photograph by Bruce Paddington
  • Sam Selvon. Photograph by Bruce Paddington
  • Derek Walcott. Photograph by Bruce Paddington
  • Swanzy in the studio with (from left) George Lamming, Andrew Salkey, Jan Carew, and Sam Selvon. Photograph by BBC Photograph Library
  • Henry Swanzy. Photograph by BBC Photograph Library

When we think of the surge of literary creativity that occurred in the English-speaking Caribbean immediately after World War Two, the names that come to mind are, obviously, those of the young writers whose first books were to become the classic texts of the West Indian canon. But another name, that of a relatively unknown Irishman, also belongs in the vicinity: Henry Swanzy, the BBC radio producer who in the crucial eight-year period from 1946 to 1953 did as much as any other person to win early West Indian literature a forum and an audience.

Swanzy was born near Cork, in south Ireland, in 1915. His family moved to England when he was still a young boy. After a short spell in what is now the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, he joined the BBC in 1941, staying till he retired in 1975. As well as producing programmes about the Caribbean and West Africa, he had considerable academic expertise, becoming editor of the journal now called African Affairs. But it was the weekly radio programme Caribbean Voices, broadcast by the BBC World Service, which made him an institution among post-war Caribbean writers.

Caribbean Voices, merely 20 minutes at first, later 29 minutes in length, became the first significant launching pad for the development and promotion of the region’s literature. Over the 15 years of its existence, some 400 stories and poems were broadcast, along with plays and literary criticism from around the region. There were 372 contributors in all, of whom 71 were women. Many writers, artists, and musicians who cut their literary teeth on the programme went on to achieve international fame, notably the Nobel Prize-winners Derek Walcott of St Lucia and Trinidad-born V.S. Naipaul; but also George Lamming and Kamau Brathwaite from Barbados; Sam Selvon, again from Trinidad; Edgar Mittelholzer, Wilson Harris, and Ian McDonald from Guyana; and Andrew Salkey, Gloria Escoffery, and John Figueroa from Jamaica.

The immediate post-war years were the period of Swanzy’s greatest influence, coinciding with a peak of nationalist sentiment and activity across the English-speaking Caribbean. In 1944, Jamaica obtained home rule. Trinidad was granted universal adult suffrage in 1945. The short-lived West Indies Federation commenced in 1958. By the early 1960s, the larger territories, starting with Jamaica and Trinidad, were finally achieving independence.

In these circumstances, Swanzy could easily have been written off as a white male colonial interloper, an outsider imposing his alien BBC standards on a region with which, at the start of his appointment, he was unfamiliar. Instead, Swanzy’s departure from Caribbean Voices brought many messages of appreciation from writers across the region and in London.

In 1955, soon after he left the programme, the Times Literary Supplement noted that “West Indian writers freely acknowledge their debt to the BBC for its encouragement, financial and aesthetic. Without that encouragement the birth of a Caribbean literature would have been slower and even more painful than it has been.”

Kamau Brathwaite has claimed that Caribbean Voices was “the single most important literary catalyst for Caribbean creative and critical writing in English.” And of Swanzy in particular, in 1960 George Lamming wrote in The Pleasures of Exile, “At one time or another, in one way or another, all the West Indian novelists have benefited from his work and his generosity of feeling . . . If you looked a little thin in the face, he would assume that there might have been a minor famine on, and without in any way offending your pride, he would make some arrangement for you to earn . . . by employing you to read.” V.S. Naipaul argues that Swanzy brought to the programme “standards and enthusiasm”, adding, “he took local writing seriously and lifted it above the local.”

During World War Two, the Jamaican poet Una Marson, stationed in London and working for the BBC, had been producing what was, in effect, a letter-request show for lonely West Indians in the armed forces, far from home. When the war ended, the letters stopped. In stepped Swanzy as the new producer. At this time, budding writers in the Caribbean were isolated, with few opportunities for communication with one another or for the publication of their work. There were no local publishing houses, and the only outlets available were small literary journals, Kyk-Over-Al in Guyana, Focus in Jamaica, and Bim in Barbados. The BBC, which at that time was considered “not as high as the Archangel Michael, but high, very high,” according to John Figueroa, then began soliciting scripts.

Under Swanzy’s editorship, Una Marson’s old programme took on a new form: a half-hour creative workshop around the craft of writing. He offered writers three invaluable things: encouragement; payment, if their contribution was used; and criticism of their material. It worked like this. Each week creative writing from as far south as British Guiana (now Guyana), from along the arc of islands, and from as far west as British Honduras (now Belize) poured into Jamaica, where the regional BBC agent, Gladys Lyndo, collected great fistfuls of material and sent it on, by boat, to Swanzy in London. Each programme took about two and a half days to prepare. Swanzy chose the material, selected readers and critical commentators, rehearsed, and then broadcast the programmes back to the Caribbean on the short-wave band, always opening with the famous remark, “This is London calling the Caribbean.”

By this relatively simple process, and thanks to his forceful personality, Swanzy became a struggling writer’s dream. A few years ago I interviewed George Lamming, who had worked with him in the making of Caribbean Voices. He remembered “a short man with a loud voice. When he entered a room you would immediately notice him. His hands were flapping about the place. He walked too fast. He talked too fast. When he went into the BBC canteen everyone would hear what he was ordering. He was of course, a product of Empire, but he could not have been a colonial administrator . . . at anything like that he would have been a disaster. He was interested in books and culture . . . the intellectual product of Empire.”

His late friend John Figueroa noted that he was “direct, honest and opinionated. He made writers feel that their work was worth consideration.” For Swanzy, a sense of discovery of these writers and the region they wrote about was a great satisfaction. He thought that writers were important and needed to be nurtured, because though they did not necessarily create a culture, they represented the expression of the best thought of the age. He became their educator, advocate, collaborator, and friend. He tried to be as aware of the needs of those who, he said, “shone for a season as most people do who are not pretentious and write of what they know” as he was of the needs of the “stars”.

Swanzy wanted Caribbean Voices to be filled with “local colour”, as he called it, to show the diversity of the region. In 1956, reviewing the achievements of the programme, he wrote, “The listener has visited every kind of home in town and village, sat with the fishermen hefting sea-eggs, gone with the pork-knockers into Guyanese jungles, followed the saga-boys and the whe-whe players, heard the riddles, the digging songs, the proverbs, the ghost stories, duppies, La Diablesse, Soukivans, zombies, maljo, obeah, voodoo, shango. He has agonised over the waifs, the unemployed, the mental patients, scoundrels, fallen women, the rich and comfortable in their halls of privilege.”

When Swanzy was interviewed a few years ago by a BBC colleague, Genevive Eckenstein, he recollected that one of his favourite contributions was a poem called “In Our Land” by the schoolmaster Harold M. Telemaque, from Fyzabad in south Trinidad. The poem defined the Caribbean directly and variously, approaching Swanzy’s search for authentic statements about the region. In the last stanza the poet reflects:

In our land,
We do not breed that taloned king, the eagle,
Nor make emblazonry of lions:
In our land
The blackbirds
And the chickens of our mountains
Speak our dreams.

The sense of community that he fostered took shape in many ways. In London, as a coterie of West Indian writers grew during the 1950s, Swanzy held informal evenings of literary discussion at his home. West Indian writers from across the region could, for the first time, meet and talk to one another. Andrew Salkey said of these gatherings that “Henry not only became our patron but our friend. He held tutorials at his house in Hampstead. He helped us a great deal to meet critics of the day. He suggested books . . . and a very close compassionate look at our work . . . Because of Henry’s influence we got to know one another. We looked at each other’s work, we all threatened to write the West Indian novel. And of course there was always Henry Swanzy there to make us realise that there was more than just passing responsibility to him, the BBC, and to our area.” Also characteristic of Swanzy’s style was his continuing interest in writers who contributed to the programme. Not only did he provide much- needed employment, it was not unusual for him to provide a temporary roof for those in crisis, or to visit and encourage those who fell ill or faced other setbacks.

A wider sense of community grew out of a close working relationship with Frank Collymore, the long-standing editor of Bim in Barbados. Collymore and Swanzy corresponded regularly between 1948 and 1956, exchanging views about Caribbean Voices and new writers from the region. Collymore provided introductions to Swanzy for many writers who were leaving the eastern Caribbean and taking their first steps in London. He also identified new talent. In 1949 he excitedly commended a new discovery he had just made.

“Now I think that I have made an important discovery. Last Monday Harold Simmons of St Lucia sent me a recently published volume of poems by young Derek Walcott. Have you heard of him? Walcott, who is 19 years old tomorrow, writes with remarkable fervour. His literary forbears are obviously Hopkins, Auden, and Dylan Thomas, especially the latter, but his work is obviously sincere and wonderfully mature . . . I do not know when I have read anything so exciting.”

As their friendship developed, Collymore also offered Swanzy, through his letters, glimpses of his life in school teaching and amateur theatre, and of Barbados. “Our strange tropical spring is here,” he wrote in 1950, “with its parched soil and all the many flowering shrubs blooming in a variety of reds and yellows, the sea is sparkling, the skies blue, and the trade winds blowing . . . ever recurrent joys.”

Swanzy recognised that his intervention in the world of Caribbean literature could be only temporary. He felt that the real work of literary development remained to be carried out in the Caribbean itself. But in his eight years with Caribbean Voices, he made a definite clearing for Caribbean writers by championing local and specific ways of saying and writing. One result was that the region’s best writers have broken through into what has since become the international world of literatures in English. Another has been the accessibility of regional writing from the English-speaking Caribbean, first to Britain, then to the world’s reading public — on a par with West Indies cricket and carnival.

In later life, Swanzy claimed, partly as a result of his Irish roots, that he felt like a fellow colonial with Caribbean writers. The key to what he has called his “odd passage through life” was, he claimed, his “sympathy with people brought into contact with an imperial culture, perhaps too much by economics and politics and not enough by art and culture.”

This begins to explain why, on the flyleaves of many books by internationally known Caribbean authors, it is not uncommon to find a dedication to Henry Swanzy.

Swanzy on Caribbean Voices

“The thing that interested me in the Caribbean always was the actual projection of poverty and the underprivileged . . . one always found the bourgeois writing of the short stories not half as interesting as the people like the saga-boys.”
(Interviewed by Anne Walmsley, 1987)

“I realise that in our yoked chariot, the BBC represents Mammon and cash, the magazine [Bim] the spirit and credit.”
(Letter to Frank Collymore, 6 June, 1950)

“The purpose of the programme, in so far as it has a purpose, is to attempt to build up some kind of contemporary tradition by the exchange of writings between the islands and at the same time to give the writers the benefit of some of the critical standards of Europe. Of course the relationship is temporary, the real work can only properly be done in the Caribbean itself.”
(Letter to Roy Fuller, 3 May, 1948)


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