June 22nd – 72 years since the start of the “Windrush Generation” in Britain: a reflection on The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon.

“Now Moses don’t know a damn thing about Jamaica – Moses come from Trinidad, which is a thousand miles from Jamaica, but the English people believe that everybody who come from the West Indies come from Jamaica.”
― Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners

On June 22nd 1948, as George Orwell sat writing 1984 on the remote Scottish isle of Jura, a ship named the SS Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury, Essex and 492 West Indian immigrants disembarked, the first travellers of what became known as the ‘Windrush Generation’. In 1950, Sam Selvon and George Lamming (both from Trinidad) came on the same voyage to Britain where they later developed notable careers as writers, publishing novels which were to form the bedrock of Black literary culture in the UK. Their novels gave voice to an emerging Black British community as well as educating an ignorant British readership regarding the harsh economic and social realities these people faced. Sam Selvon’s characters in his seminal novel The Lonely Londoners are placed on one of in these early waves of West Indian immigration to Britain.

West Indians were being encouraged to come to the UK under the ‘Nationality Act’ which had just been passed, partly inspired by Indian independence the year before. The Nationality Act indicated that subjects of the British empire and its former subjects (the Commonwealth) were able to come to Britain to live and work more easily than before in order to fill the shortage of labour after the loss of life and destruction of WWII. Jamaica was still under British rule at this point and remained so until 1962. According to the propaganda spread through British Imperial rule around the globe, Britain was a place of plenty, fairness, power, influence and education. Many colonial subjects, and those of newly independent nations, saw a life in the ‘Motherland’ as a way to a progressive future. The people who came to fill this post-war shortage of workers provided cheap labour (connotations of slavery and exploitation abound) and found themselves locked out of that centre of power and influence even while they lived and worked within it.

On the day after the arrival of the SS Empire Windrush, The Evening Standard’s front-page headline was “WELCOME HOME!” – the implication being that these West Indians had come to their Mother-country. Yet the people who disembarked were not welcomed into a society which had lived for generations under the idea of colonised people as their social inferiors. Signs saying “No blacks” went up at the doors of many boarding houses, only the most menial poorly paid jobs were offered to these immigrants (despite any qualifications they may have had) and problems of integration began. Sam Selvon captures this moment in The Lonely Londoners, which uses a defiantly Caribbean third-person narration throughout and focuses on a set of friends who are all connected through Moses Aloetta, a guide of sorts who attempts to ‘part the waters’ and help settle his people in the ‘promised land’.

“It have people living in London who don’t know what happening in the room next to them, far more the street, or how other people living. London is a place like that. It divide up in little worlds, and you stay in the world you belong to and you don’t know anything about what happening in the other ones except what you read in the papers.”
― Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners

English and Creative Writing Students share award

English and Creative Writing were really proud to contribute to Stoke’s Big Read, with the Stoke Sentinel sending books to every year 7 in the city to encourage reading and promote literacy.

Students from Cartoon and Comic Arts produced an amazing book of illustrations of their own favourite younger reads.

Romisa and Jordan put on a Creative Writing Master Class for all the pupils who attended the prize giving at Staffs Uni.

The team which put together the Big Read received a Staff Achievement Award for community engagement.

Mark, Gareth, Maria and Helen receive the award for Connected Communities

Here are Romisa and Jordan receiving their vouchers. My personal thanks go to them both.

Toni Morrison, 1931-2019

The Nobel Laureate, Toni Morrison, has died at the age of 88. She was educated at Howard and Cornell Universities​, going on to work as an academic, critic and activist as well as one of the most influential novelists of her own and subsequent generations. For her writing, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1988​ and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

Morrison’s body of work is concerned with how the unvoiced, the silent and the invisible of history bear witness to and give testimony about their suffering and oppression.

This leads us to consider how subsequent generations incorporate the memory of their ancestor’s suffering into their own histories and how they make sense of the present with those histories in mind.

Morrison’s best known novel is Beloved, published in 1987.

That Beloved has at least two presents prompts the reader to consider how the past acts on the present and how the traumatic events experienced in one can be both supressed and revealed by memory in the other.  

Throughout the novel, Sethe struggles with memory as a site upon which the horrors of slavery must be both ‘beaten back’ and negotiated in the present. 

The horrors of slavery are inscribed upon the bodies of slaves, and so their corporeal, bodily presence in the world stands as its own testament to their suffering. 

The beating that Sethe receives for sending her children to safety, the tree that is inscribed on her back by the whip, is a physical manifestation of the scars of slavery. Many other physical scars – including where the saw cut Beloved’s throat – manifest themselves in this narrative. 

But it is the mental and emotional scars that are Morrison’s primary concern and the capacity of the tramautised individual and community to come to terms with brutality and suffering. 

A book about slavery read by millions of people, studied on a majority of English degrees across the world, puts slavery at the centre of a cultural debate in a way that politicians and campaigners had not been able to.

It does so by humanising the suffering that had affected so many millions of people. The novel tracks the individual experience of an institution that was industrial in its scale, economic in its organisation and supported by federal legislation 

The novel itself emerged from a fragment of history that Morrison encountered while researching a book of blacks on record – in print, song, newspapers, photographs – a sort of informal history. 

She found newspaper accounts of Margaret Garner who killed her child to prevent her being returned to slavery by vigilante slave hunters. The event was immortalised in Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s 1867 painting, The Modern Medea.

The book is almost symmetrical, balanced around the revelation of the incident at the very centre of the narrative – the infanticide  

Morriosn doesn’t use partial revelations, hints and subtle developments as conventional aspects of literary suspense, though. Instead, she uses these evasions to signal both the unimaginable sadness of the event and the nature of Sethe’s subsequent relation to it – she can neither forget what she has done to her child, but neither can she bring herself to recall it. Memory must be a battle between supressing and memorialising. 

There is another motivation to this structure of repetitions and developments. One of the ways in which the slaves communicate with each other is through song. Owners and overseers see these songs as the rhythms of work and a sign of a happy slave population, but they are radical challenges to the authority of the oppressor, carrying messages of potential escape as well of support for those who can bear their condition no longer.

Slave spirituals, as the songs became known, have a pattern of repetitions and developments, of call and response. It has become a signature for expression and representation in African American culture. You find the cadences of call and response everywhere in black American culture; from gospel and blues, to preaching, to the rhetoric of black political leaders.

Morrison did a great deal to raise the voice of African Americans through difficult times, but her presence at Obama’s inauguration demonstrated how influential her own has been in giving voice to the unvoiced. Her novels remain as a lasting testament to her influence and genius. 

Faber Short Story Review – Mrs Fox by Sarah Hall

“She is standing on the kitchen table, an unmistakable silhouette, cut from the wild” (Hall, 2019, pg.17). Hall’s prize-winning, magical realist short story Mrs Fox (2013) is based on the short novel by David Garnett Lady into Fox (1922), published just seven years after Kafka’s famous story of human-to-animal transformation, Metamorphosis.  Like the texts of a century earlier, Hall’s story is set within the mundane domestic realm and raises many questions about the status of our humanness, our humanity, and our animality.  However, it offers an update insofar as it also raises pertinent questions about our relationship with the natural realm, and our position as animals within a global ecosystem undergoing rapid alteration.  These themes permeate the work of Sarah Hall (b.1974, Cumbria) who has written five novels and two collections of short stories. Mrs Fox is an excellent avenue into Hall’s work as the 36-page story represents not only her skill and writerly tone but also her recurrent themes: nature and our place within it, the wildness within, and the experience of living in a female body (in this case, one which is not even human). Following on from reading Mrs Fox, you might consider reading one of Hall’s short story collections, or one of her novels: in particular, the eco-dystopian The Carhullan Army (2007) or her historical debut novel, Haweswater (2002), are highly recommended. 

Dr. Melanie Ebdon.

A standing ovation for a musical tale of industrial strife and brass bands

The New Vic Theatre in North Staffordshire has a proud tradition of politically and socially engaged drama that reflects the lives of the communities it serves. Under its founding artistic director, Peter Cheeseman, the theatre has created a series of original productions which both documented and dramatised the industrial struggles of the area. The Knotty, their first documentary theatre production, traced the lives of railwaymen on line which served the 6 towns of the Potteries. Later documentary plays, employing what became known as the Stoke Method, sent the cast out into the community to interview people directly involved in the events being portrayed. I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire recorded the lives of the Roses of Swynnerton working in a local munitions factory in WW2. The Fight for Shelton Bar, perhaps the most innovative documentary, traced the battle between British Steel and the workers over the future of a steel works in the city as it happened, with updates from the unions committee at the end of each show. The struggles over the mining industry in the area were portrayed in Nice Girls, the account of 4 women occupying Trentham Colliery a decade after the strike of 1984. More recently, Maxine Peake’s Queens of the Coal Age dramatised similar events in the Lancashire coalfield.

The Vic’s current production is a stage version of the hit 1994 film, Brassed Off. A decade after the strike, the miners of Grimley face an existential threat to the their livelihoods and their community as the Coal Board offer them £23000 each to accept closure now, or take a lesser payout later on. At the same time, the colliery band are on the verge of their greatest achievement ever, with the chance to play in the National Finals at the Royal Albert Hall. But can you have a colliery band without a colliery? The play traces the effects of community divisions and poverty on real people in an environment that they can neither predict nor control, as well as the solidarity and identity that music and community can generate.

Images courtesy of the New Vic

Director Conrad Nelson expertly blends the cast with the amazing TCTC brass band and community actors. The cast is so strong that its is impossible to pick one out for particular praise. I remember The Daily Mail describing the film as (something along the lines of) over-sentimental, anti-Thatcher propaganda – now that’s the sort of thing that gets an audience on their feet round here.

English Graduate Launches His New Play

Staffs Uni English graduate, Ed Hilton, is launching his play, Pit Boy to Prime Minister, at the New Vic Theatre on May 25th.

The play follows the life of Staffordshire miner, Joseph Cook, who left Silverdale for Australia in 1885. After working in mining there, he became involved in Labour Party politics and progressed from the New South Wales State Assembly to become Prime Minister of Australia in 1913.

Ed is seen here with Malcolm Henson from North Staffordshire Press and the script.

Ed graduated from Staffs in 2017 before going on to do a Masters at Keele. Once his play has been realised on the stage, Ed intends to go in to teaching where his background in both English and Creative Writing will help to enthuse a whole new generation of literature scholars.

Our warmest congratulations go to Ed.

Alumni news

English graduate, Jack Hawkins, recently met Bret Easton Ellis at the book tour to promote his new novel, White. Jack got his taste for BEE reading American Psycho on the Contemporary American Fiction module.

Jack writes: “I’m enjoying White. It’s part memoir, part diatribe against political correctness, safe spaces and the ‘cult of likability’. His perspectives on film and writing American Psycho are interesting, too. A lot of it has been taken from his Patreon podcast.

There’s a great article in The Guardian about the publication of the recent book. It’s interesteing to read about the circles Ellis was moving in during the 1980s. He knew Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City), Tama Janowitz (Slaves of New York) and Jonathan Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn) – all great writers and books.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/apr/28/bret-easton-ellis-millennials-white-interview

Let us know your news.

The Big Read

Students from Stoke on Trent high schools visited the university to celebrate their entries to the Sentinel Big Read competition. All year 9 pupils in the city received a book of cartoons inspired by childhood reads, and the Big Read competition continued the theme.

Pupils visiting the uni for the presentation of prizes took part in Masterclasses from Comic Arts and Creative Writing. Thanks to 2nd year students Jordan and Romisa who helped the pupils create characters for new stories.

Congratulations to everyone who took part, was nominated or won a prize.

Read more here https://www.stokesentinel.co.uk/news/stoke-on-trent-news/meet-prize-winning-comic-strip-2745293