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Bethena, memory and Scott Joplin

I played the piano for years, but was never really good, only competent. I played watered down versions of the classics for my piano lessons, but left to my own devices, there were two composers I loved and wanted to master – one was Eric Satie, whose Gymnopedies I staggered through for my GCSE music exam. The other was Scott Joplin – the 19th Century composer probably known best for ragtime melodies like The Entertainer, which featured in the film The Sting.

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I’m sad to say I’ve never managed to play a whole Joplin piece through with any fluency. I was defeated by the key signatures and great two-octave leaps of the left hand. But my mum could play really well, and it was through her, that I first heard his music, when she used to play his beautiful waltz, Bethena. I must have been quite young because somehow I conflated the name of the piece with my mother’s name which is Betony. I remember thinking for a time that the piece was  written for her, possibly because my dad had bought home a gift of two anthologies of Joplin’s music.

These were Joshua Rifkin’s arrangements, which I now know were instrumental in the Joplin revival of the 1970s.  I used to flick through the pages of those books, just loving the titles – Elite Syncopations, Sunflower Slow Drag, The Strenuous Life.

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Bethena is such a brilliant and sorrowful piece of music – the main theme is a haunting, syncopated melody, accentuated by the deep oom-pah-pah bass line. You can hear it here.

Joplin wrote it after his second wife, Freddie Alexander, died. By that time, Joplin had already suffered the death of a child from his first marriage. Freddie was only nineteen when they wed, but died ten weeks after their wedding of pneumonia.

Although Joplin had at one time made money from the publication of Maple Leaf Rag (probably his most famous rag –very difficult to play!), he was in hardship by the time Freddie died, and Bethena didn’t sell and was eventually forgotten. Only now is it considered to be one of his best compositions – music that showed he was both a ragtime composer and a classical composer, which is what he wanted to be. Ragtime, though technically difficult, was never taken seriously by critics. Joplin refuted this, saying, “syncopations are no indication of light or trashy music, and to shy bricks at ‘hateful ragtime’ no longer passes for musical culture.”

What a life Scott Joplin had – he grew up poor in a large family in Texas, taught himself the rudiments of piano in the house of the white woman his mother worked for, became a rail-road labourer, a travelling musician, a pianist in various red-light districts before settling in Sedalia, Missouri.

As a child, I remember reading – or think I remember – that Joplin had died in an asylum of a broken heart when his opera, Treemonisha, was not given any attention.  I’ve always carried that story with me.

downloadTreemonisha was really Joplin’s magnum opus, but was never produced in his life time, and in fact, he had to self-publish the score, and the only public airing it ever had was a read-through he also payed for, with him playing the piano throughout. Set on a slave plantation near where Joplin grew up, the plot focuses on an 18 year old black woman, Treemonisha, who leads her community towards salvation, through education.

The score of Treemonisha was lost, and not rediscovered until the 1970s, when it was put on in New York. Since then it’s been produced a handful of times, and its worth as a serious piece of music is finally established. Again, although known as a ragtime opera, it draws on a whole range of American musical idioms – black folk songs, pre-blues music, spirituals, classical music and ragtime. Biographers think Joplin wrote it for Freddie Alexander.

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The story of Joplin’s breakdown had always haunted me, so it was strange to read more recent accounts that claim he actually died of insanity related to syphilis. This says something about the amorphous nature of “truth” and biography, because the first version, absorbed as a child, certainly feels more true to me, and I can’t help wonder about the effects of Joplin’s mind of his own “strenuous” life.

Joplin was 49 when he died. He was buried in a pauper’s grave, which finally got a marker in 1974, the year The Sting was released. He died on April 1st 1917.

 

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The Willing Stowaways?

There were eleven stowaways on board the Ormonde – all men who’d boarded the ship in the Caribbean, unnoticed, and hidden on board for the three week voyage. All were arrested in Liverpool and imprisoned. But their appearance in court was met with understanding from the judge who sympa thised with men “who wanted work and would go to such lengths to get it”. They were immediately released from custody.

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That word “stowaway” has almost romantic connotations, but of course the reality of stowing-away is desperation. Modern day stories of stowaways include those who stash themselves in the undercarriages of planes and suffer hypothemia, often freezing to death or falling from the hatch when the compartment opens. In 2012 a young African man’s body was found on a leafy street in Mortlake – he had probably fallen from a plane on the way to Heathrow.

As for the stowaways travelling to Britain from the Caribbean in the late 40s and 50s, some of those that avoided detection during the voyage, jumped into the cold sea and swam to shore when land came into sight, in order to avoid the authorities.

The Evening Standard headline calls the Ormonde’s stowaways “willing” – a reference to their willingness to work, I assume. But the idea of willingness also resonates in regards to the “decisions” people make to leave their homes. I think about how much real freedom is held by people who have to weigh up the physical and punitive risk to themselves, with the opportunity for a better life, and what the poet Lawrence Sail calls “the danger of not leaving”.

Writing about those eleven stowaways, I kept thinking of a newspaper article I’d read about “La Bestia” or “El Tren de la Muerte” (the Train of Death) – the network of locomotives which thousands of Central American  migrants board every year to travel the length of Mexico, bound for the US – willing to risk their lives to escape poverty and other threats. Many are killed or lose limbs making that treacherous journey.

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Here’s Sail’s poem “Stowaways” that draws together these separate stories of border crossings – where stowaways, whether they make it to their destination or not, are “insistent phantoms”. Crossing a border is no guarantee to inclusion or belonging.

Stowaways

Blind passengers, reduced
to pure anxiety, their spirits
rise and fall with each lift
and plunge of the butting hull:
bracing themselves, they test
the strength of their old visions.

Some, discovered after food
has gone missing from the galley,
or given away by a whiff
of tobacco seeping through a bulkhead,
are simply tipped overboard
as if they were so much trash.

Others, airborne, are undone
by cold – cold which unpicks,
finger by numbed finger,
their hold on a strut, slides them,
helpless, out from the wheelbay
into a shroud of thin air.

Falling through cloud or water,
perhaps their last recall
is the iron taste of blood,
the danger of not leaving,
or the far horizon bright
and burnished as New Jerusalem.

What is certain becomes so
only late on, when the stowaways
re-emerge, insistent phantoms,
at the point where memory rounds
on experience, and well within sight
of the dark relief of land.

Postcards to Nowhere?

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One of the things I love about the culture of writing is the use of the post. By which I mean good old paper, stamps, envelopes…sending poems out into the world with an SAE and a good luck wish, and then waiting for the word back; the convivial exchange of books through the post; the thud of a magazine on the door mat; occasionally a real letter from another writer.

This week I put Royal Mail to another use by sending postcards to some of the addresses listed on the passenger list of the SS Ormonde’s 1947 voyage from Kingston, Jamaica to Liverpool.  All passengers were required to give an address before embarking the ship, though many, like my dad, didn’t have addresses since they were coming to England for the first time. Like others, he gave the name of the Colonial Office on Wimpole Street, Some listed the Central London YMCA.

Why am I sending out these postcards? I’ve been writing poems in the voices – imagined voices – of some of those passengers, and it occurs to me that some of them might well still be alive. It’s not their permission to represent them I’m after exactly – since the poems make no claims to telling the truth – but something in me feels unsettled about using their identities, and another part of me is thrilled by the idea that I might hear back – if not from the passengers themselves, perhaps from someone who knew them.

Of course, I might well hear nothing…especially since some of the addresses no longer seem to exist. One address is given simply as “New Houses, Pontypridd, Cardiff”. I sent a postcard anyway.

The Ormonde travelled from Kingston to Port of Spain to Bermuda, then onwards to England. My dad travelled Cabin Class (C class), as did most of the colonial migrants, but there were plenty of passengers in A and B Class – not all of them were travelling to find work. The next part of my research might be to find out about some of those passengers.

ormonde ship

I’ve only sent postcards to the people I’ve based poems on – two boxers who listed their address as Hallam Mews, WC1;, a young dressmaker who embarked at Kingston; a nine-year old schoolboy, and the six “distressed seamen” who hitched a ride home on the Ormonde. That term applies to any seaman who finds himself at port without a ship. In wartime, this might be because his ship has been sunk, but at other times, the sources I found suggest drunkenness, “womanising” and imprisonment as more common reasons. I had fun writing those poems.

postcard

The names of eleven stowaways must have been added to the passenger list when they were found out – and I know they were found out, since the Evening Standard of that week carries a news item about their trial in Liverpool. The address column by their names is empty – not even the Colonial Office or the YMCA are listed. That blank space seems to make their stories more poignant to me, since in my imagination a man with no place to go, might well take his chances.

stowaways bigger

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As for me, I’m waiting for the postman.

The Writing Process – Blog Tour

ormonde picWhat am I working on?  I’m working on a new pamphlet, entitled Ormonde.  It will be published by Hercules Editions, hopefully later this year. It explores the journey of the HMS Ormonde, which sailed from the Caribbean to Britain in 1947 carrying some of the first West Indian migrants in the post-war period. The Ormonde came the year before the Empire Windrush, but very little is known about it – it’s like a ghost ship – but my father was a passenger on the boat. The poems assume the voices of different passengers expressing their hopes and anxieties about the journey. I’m really enjoying the challenges of ventriloquizing like this. It raises lots of questions about the politics of assuming a collective voice and the voices of real people.

I’m also finishing up the permissions for my memoir Long Time No See, due out in Jan 2015. It maps my childhood growing up in Thatcher’s Britain, increasingly aware of race and racism, with my father’s early years in Jamaica, his involvement in independence politics and his migrations to the US and England.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

I think that’s a reader’s job to decide. I’m not sure I’m doing anything new in general, but the specifics of the subject matter might be. My mixed race background is unusual because I’m not immediately identifiable as mixed race. I think that creates a tension in my work that addresses race and mixedness as a subject matter. I’m increasingly fascinated with those in-between spaces, the difficulties in classification, with things not appearing as they are. I’m beginning to explore these through formal choices in my poetry.

Why do I write what I do?

There was definitely a therapeutic impulse to my writing when I started, but I think that’s faded now. Chick was a cathartic book and looking back the writing of it was a much delayed grieving process. I’m glad it’s done and I’ve been very happy with the response to the book.

Now I’m partly writing from a political perspective, a left-wing, anti-racist stance, trying to explore the history and present of Britain’s multiculturalism. I’m also writing for the love of a good story – the narrative impulse is very strong in my poetry, but I’ve begun to see how you can convey a narrative across a sequence and allow a lyrical style to emerge in places.

How does my writing process work?

I used to carry a notebook and constantly jot things down, then type them up and work the text into a poem. Now I have a five month old baby, I write in snatches when he’s asleep, and usually straight onto the computer. Often I use metre and rhyme to bring about new ideas and images – so I might only write two lines at a time.  Much less rarely do I write in free verse, and when I do, I’ve usually been reading some good examples of it beforehand. Most of my writing comes out of reading – either other peoples’ collections or often, I have an idea and search around for how other poets have tackled it.

I hope you enjoyed this stop on the blog tour – please check out Richard Scott’s blog next week

Richard Scott was born in London and has won The Wasafiri New Writing Prize, been selected as a Jerwood/ Arvon Poetry Mentee and as a member of The Aldeburgh Eight by The Poetry Trust. His poetry has been published widely in magazines, including twice in Poetry Review and twice in Poetry London. Most recently his poetry has been included in The Poetry of Sex, A Penguin Anthology, turned into the film Dog, which was shown at The Southbank Centre and The ICA, and also set to music by the composer Maxim Boon, to be premiered by the London Symphony Orchestra in July.

 

Leaving Jamaica, Bocas Lit Fest, Shark and Bake

kenMy last two days in Jamaica for a rush to see family, especially Auntie Gloria and Uncle Ken. Ken is 79 but still racing around the island in his bright red Mini Cooper. “If I stop work, I’ll die” he told me, and indeed, something is keeping Ken sprightly. He’s my dad’s half-brother, ten years younger. When my grandfather told an 11 year old Ken he had to leave the house because his new wife didn’t like him, Ken caught the bus to Kingston. “I was on my own since then” he said.

I didn’t have a number for Gloria until the day before my visit, and then only vague directions – “Go to Stirling Castle and ask for me” she said, and surprisingly, everyone at Stirling Castle knew where my Auntie lived. Gloria is 85 but she had her walking shoes on and had already been out for a ramble that morning. If anyone knows what this flower is, please let me know. It’s driving Gloria mad.

me and gloria

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I flew to Trinidad, 1150 miles from Jamaica, for the Bocas Lit Fest on Thursday. It’s been a brilliant few days. Colin Grant and I read work and discussed father figures at the opening session. Colin’s dad was “Bageye”, a larger than life gambler with um, baggy eyes, who I reckon might well have known my dad at some point. “Bageye at the Wheel” is a very funny and very sad story of Colin’s childhood growing up with Bageye in the Caribbean Luton of the 60s and 70s.

Another favourite author of mine is here too – Kerry Young – who’s new novel “Gloria” follows on from “Pao”, loosely based on the story of her Chinese gangster father living in Kingston.

Here’s a pic of me Colin and Margaret Busby, the first black woman publisher in the UK, founder of the influential UK publishers Allison and Busby. Oh and here’s another with Irvine Welsh…one day it’s me and Jimmy Osborne…now Irvine Welsh – whoever next?

colin margaret

Irvine

Bocas is in its third year. This year had an amazing packed programme of readings, panels and conversations with writers, and the The Edinburgh World Writers Conference had chosen Bocas as one of 14 platforms for international literary conversations to take place. I was involved in the panel discussing A National Literature? yesterday and in the audience for today’s panel, Should Literature Be Political?

Bocas has been so busy, I can’t say that I’ve seen much of Trinidad. But I am struck by how different it is from Jamaica – there’s far much more wealth here for one. The population is also incredibly diverse – visible different from Jamaica with people whose origins are East Indian, African, European, Chinese and Syrian.

I have been fortunate enough to try some of the local cuisine, rotis and doubles. “Doubles” is a Trini speciality, born when schoolboys asked to double up on the bread for the chana snack sold by street vendors. I might try and introduce the word in the UK, as a new term for sandwich. “Tuna Doubles”, “Ham Salad Doubles”…you get me.

doubles

Tomorrow I’m on the hunt for “Shark and Bake”. Not “Shake and Bake” as I mistakenly said today. This is, well, shark, and bread, and can only be found on Maracas Beach. I’m going to brave the torrential tropical rains we’ve been having to make it a Trini food hat-trick, before catching a plane home….

Redmen, Fishermen, Higglers and Gigolos

This is the view from the end of the garden of Calabash House, the guest house I stayed at in Treasure Beach. You can imagine it was hard to move. I did make it to Jack Sprat’s restaurant, just a mosey down the bay. They had a wicked jukebox playing lots of reggae I know in England, from my Trojan box sets.

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Treasure Beach is an unusual place. Way off the beaten track and a far cry from the resort tourism of the north coast, it has a rustic, hippy feel.  Many of the residents are fishermen and occasional tour guides, taking tourists up the Black River to look at crocodiles .  Many of them have an unusual look – red or blonde hair, green or blue eyes, light skin and freckles. Legend has it that a Scottish ship sunk off the coast in 1600s, the survivors swam to shore and settled, and the intermixing of Scots and locals led to this distinctive appearance. This all sounds harmonious, but in fact Jamaica was a slave colony in the 1600s and Scots were common in Jamaica as slave-masters and owners – a slightly bleaker account of this racial intermixing.

redman
Redman of Tresure Beach

Treasure Beach is engaged in community based tourism and committed to sustainable local development. Still, I felt very sobered by my long conversations this week with the delightful Roy Reid, Kingston taxi driver and wise man, who told me how most Jamaican workers cannot afford  holidays on their own island, how many have never visited the resorts but only heard of them.

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According to Polly Thomas, author of the Rough Guide, a woman traveling alone in Jamaica may well be propositioned by the “gigolos” that work the resorts, who might rightly assume they’ve come, as many women do, for an “exotic” encounter. This, of course, is another side of the poverty of this island. I’ve been accompanied for most of my time here, but even sleepy Treasure Beach has its Lothario, who this morning, offered to….no, honestly, I can’t say. Really.

But it did make me reflect on traveling alone, and specifically traveling alone as a woman, and what it means to visit a country as poor as Jamaica. The subject of the economy is worthy of a separate blog post, but just to relay an anecdote from this morning: two higglers approached me while I was lounging on the beach – one selling wood carvings, the other mangos. I was honestly interested in both, but I was so apprehensive, I told them I didn’t want their goods, not only because I had no money on me (I could easily have run inside to get my purse), but also I felt vulnerable in my bikini, and felt a wariness of strangers, of engaging in haggling, that I know I wouldn’t have felt if I’d been with someone else.

The guy with the carvings looked forlorn as he wandered off, polishing his carved bird as though I’d insulted it, and the guy with the mangos looked at me disdainfully and then up towards the (American-owned) guesthouse and said “you only give money to rich folks, not locals”.

I felt a mix of feelings, among them guilt, that these men really did rely on the money made along the beach from tourists.  But another was injustice – if I hadn’t been alone and nervous, I’d have bought a mango and a carved bird. And it wouldn’t have been out of guilt – I wanted both!  – and lucky me, for being able to buy both, and articulate this  particular “dilemma”.

Lastly, on the way back to Kingston, I saw a few bananas hanging at the roadside fruit stalls, – it seems, not all the bananas in Jamaica are gone, and, according to Roy, they’ll be plenty more in a couple of months…

bananas

Gunshot at the Chinese Cemetery, 87 Alpha Boys

CHINESE CEMETERY APRIL 14, 2013 010This is me standing beside my grandfather’s grave at the Chinese Cemetery in Whitfield, Kingston. I didn’t even know there was a Chinese Cemetery until this visit, and had no idea my grandfather was buried there. Thanks to David Chang and Robert Hew working with the Chinese Benevolent Association who traced the grave in minutes of knowing my grandfather’s name, Lowe Shu On. This morning, I went down with those two and other members of the CBA  who are attempting to clean up the graves and record the names of who is buried there. Vandals have stolen most of the marble headstones so many graves are unmarked.

Whitfield is notorious for gang violence, with the Stinger and Rat Back gangs based on either side of the cemetery, making the grounds the sight of gang battles and shoot-outs. We were there at 9.30am with security and what I thought was a car backfiring turned out to be gunshots not too far away. There’s a huge contrast between the cemetery with its white graves covered in a pink bindweed called “Rice n Peas”, and the ghettoes that lie just beyond its walls.

These gangs are involved in all kinds of crime, from gun and drug running to robberies to turf protection. Apparently the Rat Back laid down arms a year ago, but some think they are still deeply involved in crime and violence.

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There are currently 87 boys living at the Alpha Boys home, where my second cousin Joe Harriott grew up in the 1940s after his mother died. It was here that Joe learnt to play the sax, and an astonishing number of musicians came up through Alpha, including Don Drummond, Dizzy Reece and Harold McNair.

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Don Drummond, ska legend

Some of the current Alpha boys are orphans; some are at risk from abuse; others have witnessed gang-related crime and have had to come to Alpha for protection. Most often, they’ve seen a parent or protector murdered. The youngest boy here is 10. Alpha still runs it’s band with twice daily rehearsals, but the nuns and staff there are trying to bring Alpha into the 21st Century. There are plans afoot to build a recording studio where the boys can learn studio skills and get to know the ropes of the music industry. The aim is to equip them with skills for employment where the leave the home at 18.

The 50 acres of land at Alpha seem like a peaceful sanctuary from the brutalities of gang existence, reflected in the murals around the place.

i love you

Alpha need money to see the vision through. A recent logo competition resulted in this rather lovely T shirt – they’ve got them in all colours and sizes, just in case you fancy one. Contact Alpha here

tshirt

I’m leaving Kingston tomorrow, heading for the wilds of Treasure Beach to reflect on all I’ve seen and done this week, and maybe have a drink or two at the intriguing off-shore Pelican Bar…

pelican bar