Words from Brother Devon Thomas

the Brixton Griot

 

Archived articles from 5th Dec 2011

to 27th Feb 2012

 

 

5th Dec 2012

 

Greetings and best wishes for the New Year

 

I have recently been away on a hard earned break, cruising around the eastern Caribbean with my friends and family celebrating a milestone and rite of passage, a family member’s 50th earthday.

I was also acquainting myself with a part of the African diaspora that I hadn’t had the opportunity to visit but with which  I am intimately aware and connected.

The warmth of the climate and the people that we met on our travels around the nine Caribbean countries/territories that we visited, was balm to the soul and re-inforced my feeling that my time remaining here in the UK, as my main place of abode is limited.

My experiences since my return and the slightly hysterical tone of this debate, reinforces the feeling that our presence in this society has and is endangering not only our collective physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing but is changing us collectively, so profoundly and  in such negative directions, that radical actions will be needed if we are to ‘turn the ship around’!

As you are all aware, I have been active in the interest of the communities of African heritage, since the 1960s and in addition, currently am working to establish cultural, historical, social, spiritual and economic institutions to serve our communities into the long term future. My circle of family and friends are extensive and I am an elder with children and grand children of whom I am most proud.

Additionally, the network of organisational structures in which I am engaged are also substantial.

In the year just passed I was involved in helping to organise commemorations of our sites, times and places of struggle such as Liverpool 1919, New Cross 1949,’77, ’81,  Notting Hill 1958,’71,’76 et al. Bristol 1963, Brixton 1973,’76, ’81,’85’ ’93 et al, 1985 in Tottenham and 1979 in Southall among many many others.

We also remembered some of the individuals who played critical roles or suffered fatally, during these previous times,  and at these sites and places of struggle  such as: Charles Wootten in Liverpool, Paul Stephenson in Bristol, Kelso Cochrane in Notting Hill, Claudia Jones and her associates and organisations, based in Brixton but active across the country,  CLR James and George Padmore who had been building organisations in Britain since the 1930s and who were instrumental in laying down the plans along with a generation of leaders who fought to free our countries of origin from colonialism.

The great forerunner and person who I most derive inspiration, Marcus Garvey, his two wives Amy Ashwood, who would later be the major shareholder in Claudia Jones’ publication, the West Indian Gazette and Amy Jacques who ensured through publishing his writings and biography, that his contributions to our liberation struggles would not be forgotten.

We will be celebrating this year, the centenary of Brother Marcus, coming to London, where he undertook studies at London University and worked with the radical organisations of the early 20th century, that deepened his understanding of the struggles that people including minorities and women in general, were undertaking to free themselves from the shackles and exploitation in place at that time. He ultimately took that knowledge and experience to America with him, first to examine he Tuskegee model and meet the leaders of the struggle there, including WEB Dubois one of the founders of the Niagara Movement and founding member of the NAACP.

After reflection he decided that what was being attempted by these leaders, was inadequate to the task and then went on to build the largest African centred movement ever seen, that has influenced every liberation and civil rights movement since those times, including the ANC in South Africa, the independence struggle in Africa, initiated by Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, who named his country’s state owned shipping line, the Black Star line in honour of Garvey.

Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya and even the younger leaders such as Julius Nyerere, Robert Mugabe, Samora Machel inter alia, claimed inspiration from his methods and philosophy.

Now when I review this illustrious history of struggle and on the day that two of the killers of Stephen Lawrence have finally been brought to justice as a consequence of one of the most outstanding examples of struggle anywhere in the world, right here on our doorstep by people that we all know, and while still holding that we are in trouble collectively, I  must say that I don’t go along with the analysis that claims that we haven’t built, achieved or created structures. That position underestimates the scale of the task that has to be undertaken and the ubiquity of the capitalist system in which we are all embroiled and which is the real basis of all our ills.

It nurtures us from cradle to grave, deeply instils in us all its corrosive values and sets us against each other, to compete for economic and political power and value. In this situation the idea that you can achieve respect, spiritual peace and social harmony within it, is a delusion.

It has ultimately turned most of our struggles into their opposite, from liberation to co-optation and subservience. Unless we identify the root causes of our subjugation we will be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Our measures of success can not be how many professionals, barristers or business people we have in our community or what our average income is! It is the futile pursuit of the system’s empty values and goals that is defeating us.

We have to have the courage to look outside it, and develop new paradigms that don’t measure us against Europe or white people or Western values.

In my tour around the Caribbean and I’ve had this experience in Africa and other parts of the developing world, without knowing it, people are living out their every daily lives, working with each other, loving each other, nurturing each other, giving succour, support and advice to those close to them and to strangers.

We only lose these values when the market systems, so invades our beings, that we replace human values with market ones and every relationship becomes a calculation.

It is this, that I think is at the root of the problems and the challenges that we face. We are so corroded with thinking about ourselves in relation to things and the acquisition of things and what we don’t have to make us something else, that the quality of the connections between people becomes so reduced that life or friendship is no longer really of any value.

We need to focus on building the quality of the relationships between ourselves, this includes that between parents and their children, between family members, between members of our local communities and our social, spiritual and work institutions.

This has to be informed by values that put human beings at the centre of our thinking and organisational effort, not money or economic advancement. If you examine the detail of what happened within the most successful of our liberation or independence movements it was the sense of deep commitment and sacrifice to a cause bigger than oneself and the sense of achievement that was then derived from the successes after long periods of struggle against the oppressor.

I remember what independence night for Jamaica was like in 1962, as while we were in Brixton and not Kingston, my family had been deeply involved in organising and agitating for freedom, so we held a party in our house and played the celebration records that had been recorded by people such as Derrick Morgan, about the new stage we were embarking on while having to engage in a new struggle in London against racism and marginalisation. It is this dialectical relationship between overcoming and ongoing struggle that should inform us today.

I remember when Muhammed Ali beat Sonny Liston and any  number of other opponents, to show the system that we could do it on our own terms.

I remember the 1968 Olympic protest by Tommy Smith and the members of the US 100m sprint team, in the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City.

I remember the freeing of the Mangrove 9, after their history making trial at the Old Bailey in 1972.

I remember the liberation of Mozambique, Angola and Guinea in 1975 from the Portuguese colonialism and the satisfaction that it also helped to overthrow fascism in Portugal itself. I remember the style and manner of the success of the West Indies cricket team throughout the 1970s and ‘80s and the pride and satisfaction it bought to all people of African heritage in Britain. Similarly, Brazilian football played a parallel role. As mentioned above, athletes of African heritage have also fulfilled the same function and this Olympic year I’m sure will unearth more Usain Bolts. Do you remember his amazing Olympic triumphs and their immobilising effect, out of amazement at his prowess!

These symbolic triumphs were as important as the empirical ones. I remember viewing the film of Bob Marley and the Wailers, playing at the National Stadium in Harare, signalling the end of British rule in Zimbabwe. I remember precisely where I was and what I was doing, when Nelson Mandela walked out of 27 years of incarceration in the apartheid state and in four short years became president of the Republic of South Africa and the proud day two years later when we welcomed him to Brixton, symbolising our collective victory over the forces that had been holding us down. He played an important role in helping us here, not only symbolically and psychically but practically, when he intervened to support the Lawrence family in their thankless struggle.

I know the relief and empathy I felt for them when I heard the verdict earlier this week but  note Doreen and Neville’s comments on the courthouse steps.

At such a crucial moment of history, what satisfaction can one derive? A son is dead, where are all the comrades that fell in battle who should be with us, here at the moment of victory?  Their bodies are in the ground and whither their souls?

We have had a profound effect on this society and our people of African heritage have had a profound effect on the world. We have signalled a new way of being and new styles and methods of being human.

Even Barrack Obama has opened up a new dimension to being a president, unfortunately he is trapped between a rock and a hard place and while I’m sure that he’ll win a second term but for what end? To improve the efficiency of American capital! Unfortunately the market place captures these essences and turns them into products that others derive the benefit from!

The fact that we lag behind in the economic race however and suffer the consequences, is no co-incidence. Haiti’s groundbreaking role of liberating themselves from slavery over 200 years ago, has damned them to economic isolation and a marginalisation that continues up to today but we will not recover ourselves solely by becoming more effective in the economic race. In fact it is there, where we have most lost ourselves, as we get caught up in the corruption that accompanies it.

Witness what has happened in all the countries that I cited above during their liberation period and what has happened since and their having to compromise with the globalised system for a subservient place at the table.

 

Values of humanity and collective advancement must lead or all else fails.

 

Ajomase’

 

 

D. Thomas

Devon C Thomas

The Griot

Dec 5th 2012

 

9th Dec 2012

 

Old stalwarts of the London scene such as Bernard Witshere, who returned to Dominica in the 1990s after having been deputy leader at the Inner London Education Authority up to abolition, sends his love and sympathies, as he says his quality of life has been improved immeasurably since getting out of the London rat-race, even though he is still one of the leading attorneys in his home country and works hard. Since his return he has pioneered the establishment of a nature trail through the rain forest and helped raise the $20m to help it get it completed. He now spends every opportunity he gets rambling round it and discovering the beauty of the natural environment in his home country. He certainly doesn't have to get involved in debates about the nature of racism and people of African origin's capacity to exercise it!


I would recommend that you all consult the work of the Institute of Race Relations and its in-house journal, Race and Class, that has spent many years researching and analysing the phenomenon  and has helped to develop languages and concepts to understand it.
My understanding is that all human beings have the capacity to like or dislike others, both individually and collectively but Europeans in particular, have built up a massive structure of belief rooted in their enslavement and colonisation of the rest of the world, that argued that they were the pinnacle of human civilization and everybody else lined up in descending order with Africans and Africa at the foot of this social Darwinian edifice. While this conceptualisation was demolished following the Second World War that was foisted on the world by Europeans and their allies competing for world domination derived from this ideology, it is still a large subliminal part of how Europe and its derived cultures see the world. This arms their prejudices with a particular power to oppress and exploit other peoples and cultures due to their social, economic and cultural power over the control and dissemination of resources and information. Consequently no matter how much a 'Black person' may dislike or have 'irrational feeling' about white people', they don't have the intuitional power to do anything but a personal act. So the invidious position is that even if a white person is actively anti-racist they still benefit from the unequal power relations that the state and other institution maintain. This is what McPherson hinted at and was vilified for, when his report was first published. Unlike Scarman, who couldn't bring himself to cross the Rubicon and name 'institutional racism'! His report claimed that Black people's experience of racism was a 'perception'!

Other forms of oppression have similar modalities including gender and class. For a working class person to transcend their position they have to leave their class and socially and economically swim in the bourgeois pond. Racism is so ubiquitous that it is almost impossible for a 'Black person to escape it, hence the need for the crude categories of Black and white that Diane unfortunately tried to articulate, to form political alliances to combat it.
As Stuart Hall so carefully formulated, 'Black people live their class through their race'. Additionally the cultural price that someone from an ethnic minority has to pay to join the mainstream in the 'West' can be so painful as to drive a disproportionate numbers of those who experience it, into mental health difficulties; hence Bernard's satisfaction with his return to his roots and the continuing difficulty that young people trying to make the transition into Black Britons face.

The experience of the Lawrence family explores this terrain painfully but appositely. A young 'Black Family' moves out of the inner city to the suburbs of Eltham, trying to better their prospects and those of their children. Better access to schools and other social amenities and the ability to acquire better quality housing at a lower price. When you arrive there instead of the seamless progress up the social and economic ladder you find hostility and social and actual death. Many have tried to embrace the Thatcherite dream and with all the rhetoric about how much race relations have improved since 1993, I remember the images of residents from Eltham last August, fighting the police to get to Catford and other neighbouring areas of Black settlement, to 'show the niggers that they should behave themselves'! Not much different to when a branch of my family first moved to Catford in the 1950s and was painfully acquainted with these racial realities. I would be given a detailed talking to whenever I came to stay with them in my holidays, as I was sent to the 'country', as my parents used to refer to these districts, compared to our hometown in Brixton! I was entreated not to go any further up Brownhill Road, than the railway bridge and no further up Bromley Road, than the big pub, now thankfully closed and is being redeveloped as residential apartments.

It is invidious to judge whole neighbourhoods but even up to recent times when I was invited to make presentations or attend meetings in areas such as Downham and Bellingham I was still had extreme misgivings and steeled myself for the experience. This also applied to large swathes of the East End, many provincial cities and the rural parts of the UK.
Now I've travelled around this country extensively and spent much time in Wales, Scotland and Northern and Southern Ireland but still feel most wary in the outer parts of London.
This is something we need to consider carefully because in addition to having to deal with the healing of the psyches of sections of our youth, I firmly believe that the situation will become extremely difficult as the recession worsens and those of us who have moved to more affluent areas may find that their neighbours may become less charitable and multi-cultural when their life prospects start to get squeezed and the school place  they coveted is no longer available or the job they wanted has been taken by someone of colour. I'm sure that the political parties will also collude with this also as they've always done and continue to do, by using coded language and innuendo.


So racism is very much alive and will change its form as the times change.
 
I think that the UK is in for a rough time economically and socially and better prospects may well lie elsewhere as advised by my old mate Bernie!
 
Ajomase' (May peace be with you)

Devon C Thomas
The Griot

 

24th Jan. 2012

 

Greetings 
 
 
I attended two obsequies last Friday the funeral of Ras Lloyd, a leading figure in the 12 Tribes movement, chair of the Pan African Community Support Foundation and an important figure in the Brixton community. Lloyd was a brother of great equanimity, who was not easily roused to ire; a man with a great love of music and who spread knowledge and wisdom in his wake.
I saw a number of old confederates at his funeral, at St Andrew's Church, Brockley, recently famous for the funeral without a body!   I hadn't seen many of them for ages, including Mikey Campbell of Ken Livingstone's time at the GLA on the culture team and Johnnie Lawes, instigator of the refurbished, Brixton Academy in the 1980s.

I also attended Selwyn Baptiste's wake on Friday evening at the Tabernacle, Powis Square where again, people such as Chris Boothman last year's NHCCC chair, Margaret Busby of publishing renown and of course, Pepe Francis of Ebony Steel Band who apparently organised and mc'd the affair, were in attendance.  Much is afoot in the Grove, with all the old timers in attendance, opining the current state of dishevelment in the organisation of the Notting Hill Carnival with the old timers passing and no new cohort to take their place. There is controversy at the Tabernacle and the Yaa Asantewa with their director, Shabaka Thompson, suspended on unspecified grounds, and not in attendance. I also attach information about John Akomfrah's new film, the 'Nine Muses', as I heard that it is quite something! I appeared in an early part of his oeuvre, 'Handsworth Songs', leading a march that we, the Brixton Defence Committee, had organised from Brixton and Tottenham to Hyde Park, in November 1985 to protest the shooting of Cherry Groce and the killing of Cynthia Jarrett.

There is a Ubele Women's Conversation this Saturday, at the Women's Resource Centre, the first major conversation that's come out of our initiative that began last year to create dialogue in the African/Caribbean community in order to help nurture a new age of activism and leadership, to fill the gaps identified in places such as those I mention above.  I'm  planning to hold a men's conversation later in the year to complement the one happening on Saturday and hope that out of these small acorns, mighty oaks will grow!

Meanwhile the elders pass, in unending stream. Selwyn's funeral is this Thursday in The Grove. Comrade Dudley's Thompson, Jamaica's great stalwart passed serenely in his sleep last Friday.  I knew him quite well, as he worked with my father in the early days of the PNP in the 1940s and acted as defence counsel for Jomo Kenyatta during the Mau Mau trials in Kenya in the 1950s. He was Minister for National Security in Jamaica during the dark Michael Manley years in the mid 1970s, when the country was in political, social and economic turmoil with intense competition for power between the forces of progress and regress. Tragedies such as the elderly being burned to death in their beds and Brother Bob Marley being shot at his home and studio in Hope Road, characterised those times in Jamaica.

These were truly revolutionary times with Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea freeing themselves from the yolk of Portuguese colonialism, industrial and political unrest in Britain with a minority Labour government reeling from crisis to crisis. But the summers were blazing  and brilliant West Indies victories in the new one day cricket world cup and in Test matches against England,  Muhamed Ali beating Joe Frazier in the 'Thrilla in Manila' was more painful than death as he described it. Smoking Joe, another old stalwart who has recently passed over to the ancestors and good old Muhamed, reaching his three score years and ten, once confederate of Brother Malcom!

The blazing summer of 1976 was also when we in Brixton founded the Brixton Beehives Cricket Club, after the enthusiasm engendered in us Brixton youth, by our winning the Cricket World Cup and me being asked to provide stewards for the games at the Oval, as the authorities were afraid of the 'enthusiasm of the West Indies crowds'! Acquire a copy of 'Fire inna Babylon' if you want to get a flavour of the times or wait till we show it in our film club to celebrate Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago 50th Anniversary of Independence, later this year! The mid seventies also witnessed the Soweto Uprising, and the coming onto the stage of a new generation of young people who took on the mantle of leading the freedom struggle, unfortunately, Brother Steve Biko didn't make it through, but he inspired a new generation. The youths in Notting Hill decided that they weren't having it any longer and fought with the police on the streets of the Grove and the Carnival, led by people like Selwyn and other surviving elders, such as, Louis Chase and Alex Pascall, who had to fight for its survival on the streets of London.

Brother Dudley Thompson, coined the term, 'Under Heavy Manners' and was instrumental in establishing the 'State of Emergency' in 1976 in Jamaica during which the second Michael Manley administration was re-elected by a landslide, in the teeth of an insurrection and bloody election campaign, some say that was financed by the Americans, to sweep away 'the communists'! They achieved that the next time round in 1980, when nearly 800 people died in another bloody election campaign that brought Mr Edward Seaga to power for the first time and where a cabinet minister was gunned down in a hail of bullets while campaigning. It may be that we've matured as the recently held general elections in Jamaica saw the return of Portia Simpson's PNP, in another landslide without a single casualty; much I'm sure, to Dudley's satisfaction. I hope however that the new government is mature enough to retain our current High Commissioner in London, His Excellency Antony Johnson, who while being associated with the previous governing party, the JLP, has shown how to fulfil that role in London and get the local diaspora on board.

Dudley stood firm during all these life threatening years and he stood toe to toe with the opposition JLP, even more than Michael did. He acted as a mentor and father figure to Michael, as he'd worked as a young man with his father, 'Norman Washington'. NW had been Dudley's hero and role model and motivated him to become a lawyer too, in a similar mode to NW, to defend the interests of the poor and exploited sufferers. He later served as Jamaica's ambassador in Nigeria and represented the country around the African continent and was a staunch Garveyite and Pan Africanist. He sought to get membership for Jamaica and the diaspora on the African Union and encouraged people of African heritage to unite and work in alliance against the exploitative system established by the western powers.
 
He led a long and productive life and may the ancestors lead him to everlasting peace and rest.
Over the weekend another great contributor to our collective African Diasporan cultural legacy, Etta James, was escorted to the afterlife by the ancestors. She sang out the pain and tragedy faced by our people over past 400 years. Her style was so profound that it has influenced a whole new generation of women singers from the tragic Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse to Adele who claims that she was struck dumb when she was introduced to her.
 
Give praise to these great forerunners and may their example be never forgotten.
 
Ajomase'
 
D. Thomas
Devon C Thomas
The Griot

 

 

 

Jan 27th 2012

 

There was a group that proceeded the formalisation of CARD, which was called the Co-ordinating Committee Against Racial Discrimination (CCARD) which was establish in the aftermath of the 1958 Notting Hill Riots, and the murder of Kelso Cochrane in 1959. Claudia Jones and her organisation that included the West Indian Gazette were very involved in this and much of their early work was mainly focussed on opposing the 1962 Immigration Acts and the ‘Colour Bar’. While these bodies were broad based coalitions with black and white members, alongside grew the West Indian Standing Conference which was a Black organisation that attempted to consolidate the array of small local groups that had been established in the Black community to cater for their needs during settlement following the arrival of the Windrush after the 2nd World war and up until the middle of the 1960s.

In the latter part of the 1960s after the death of Claudia Jones and the rise of the Black Power movement in the USA, similar groups developed here starting with the United Coloured People’s Association, which paradoxically, was a very black nationalist formation. The catalyst for this was the visits of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X just before his assassination in February 1965.  Michael (X) Defreitas met Malcolm on this visit and soon after founded RAS, the Racial Adjustment Society. He also then set up ‘The Black House’ with resources donated by people like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, and due to his previous associations with Peter Rachman in Notting Hill, gained high profile media coverage for himself and the issue of race and immigration. This culminated in him being the first person prosecuted under the 1965 Race Discrimination Act for making a speech denigrating white people! Thereafter there was a proliferation of radical Black groups, including the Black Panther Movement in which Darcus Howe was prominent and the Black Unity and Freedom Party with Cecil Gutzmore and Ricky Cambridge, who had previously worked with Claudia Jones and of course many others followed. There were also a burgeoning number of ‘Community Relations organisations’ in local areas, funded by the Home Office, after the 1965 act to foster better community relations and a Race Relations Board to monitor and prosecute a very vaguely defined ‘ racial discrimination’. Many of those involved in CARD became increasingly involved in these bodies which lead to the development of the ‘Race Relations Industry’ as it was dubbed by the right wing newspapers.

Details on this period are voluminous at the Institute of Race Relations, 2-6 Leeke Street, Kings Cross and web site. Anne & Michael Dummett, two activists at the time, set out their experiences in ‘A portrait of English Racism’ and others such as Staying Power and the Making of the Black Working Class add detail. Other centres of knowledge and information on this period include, the Black Cultural Archives that now has a substantial collection of the journals and publications of these groups and also has the collection of the Runnymede Trust another one of the organisations established around this time. The George Padmore Institute in Finsbury Park and London Metropolitan Archives, which has established the ‘Huntley Room’, with the papers deposited by Eric and Jessica Huntley are also great resources (see notice attached). My own organisations, the Black Heritage Group and our new, Pepys Heritage Centre in Deptford, may also be of value.

I mainly recount a lot of my own memories and that of my family, community in Brixton and the succeeding organisations in which I have been involved ever since. This all seems very timely as I was in Notting Hill yesterday, at All Saints Church, Powis Square, to participate in the funeral of Selwyn Baptiste, pioneering carnivalist and chair of the Carnival Development Committee at the height of the struggle for the Notting Hill Carnival in the 1970s. A large contingent of old protagonist were in attendance including Darcus, who’d helped to organise the funeral and who gave a stirring oration for his old comrade to Chris Boothman, the organiser of last years Carnival, Charlie Phillips, veteran photographer and restaurateur, Barbra Beese and Rhodan Gordon, members of the Mangrove Nine, with Darcus and proprietor of the ‘Back-a-Yard Restaurant and the Black People’s Information Centre with Cecil Gutzmore, at 301-303 Portobello Road, during those tumultuous years.

I got to know this area through my old friend Don Kinch, writer, theatre man, father of Soweto and activist, helping to found the Black Media Worker’s Association, in is front room with Diane Abbott, Mike and Trevor Phillips and many others in the early 1980’s. Don worked at the Notting Hill Adventure Playground in the early 1970s, while I was at Angel Town in Brixton and we affected a swap as we wanted a change of scenery! I got to learn about this curiously bohemian quarter of London that was starkly different to what I was accustomed to. Selwyn’s steel band was based at the playground and they both made pans and practised there most nights. I was also introduced to ‘Carnival Culture’ and participated in it for the first time. My friends were amazed by this different milieu, when they came to visit me ‘at work’ from Brixton.

I made lifelong friendships with people like Don and Courtney Tullock, founder of the pioneering community newspaper, ‘The Hustler’. Menelik Shabazz, maker of films such as ‘Burning an Illusion and his recent ‘the Story of Lover’s Rock’, who was then involved in Grass Roots Storefront, another radical Black community organisation of the time, that had a bookshop on Golbourne Road near to the Venture centre. On my way from the Tabernacle, where Selwyn’s funeral reception was held with many dignitaries in attendance including the High Commissioner of Trinidad and Tobago and his driver, my old schoolmate, Henry Griffiths, I received another sad telephone call from a close friend and colleague Marcia Bogle-Mayne, deputy head of Libraries and Archives in Lambeth, telling me that her husband and another old schoolmate of mine, Henry Mayne, had passed over to the ancestors that morning after a long struggle with cancer.

 

It seems as if this deluge of bereavement is coming ever quicker. All the more work for historians!

 

All the best to the detail and accuracy checkers!

 

Ajomase’

 

D. Thomas

Devon C Thomas

The Griot

 

Contact the Griot at: devon.thomas@btinternet.com

 

 

7th Feb 2012

 

Greetings All,

 

In my usual Griot fashion I’m contacting you on this extremely cold February Saturday morning to convey sad news. Two of my close friends, firstly Tony Sinclair, schoolmate and cricket colleague, is still seriously ill in Trundle Ward, King’s College Hospital, with an undiagnosed condition, that is making him waste away. We are trying to keep up his spirits up but the medical people don’t seem to be helping much. I must also report that Mr Hall, my daughter Aisha’s grandfather has just come home from West Bromwich Hospital with terminal cancer and is not expected to have a long period left.  Finally, last night I attended the Nine Night of Henry Mayne, schoolmate since Effra Primary in the 1950s when I first came to England and Tulse Hill comprehensive, in the 1960s, along with the other T.H.U.G.S., acronym for our old boys association! He left to join the ancestors last Thursday 26th January at home in South Norwood after a long struggle with cancer. He was husband to Marcia Bogle-Mayne and father to Mahalia, with brothers, sisters and friends of all types. He had recently celebrated his 60th birthday on the 8th January and was in good spirits and moving around as if he was in fine fettle, when the host came to escort him away. We never know when our time is coming!

 We gathered at the family home last night to witness his spirits return to the motherland, that is the purpose of Nine Night!  We played the music he loved, Studio One, Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaac, inter alia, selected by Marcia. We shook two foot, told stories about him and his life and reconnected with each other after not seeing much of each other over recent years. Curiously, while the dominos were in their box on the dining table, we didn’t rub dem! Bereavement always brings people together and the house was caulked, like dem ol’ time house party, when we used to put what furniture we had, out inn di garden and pray seh rain no fall!

Henry was one of the most pleasant and sociable men ever to live. I don’t think I can remember hearing him have a cross word with anybody. He was the first ‘Black Cockney’ that I ever heard because he must have been one of the first post Windrush children to be born in Brixton. His parents arrived in Brixton in 1948 and settled in the heart of the fledgling African-Caribbean Community in Somerleyton Road. He was born in Lambeth Hospital, Brooke Drive, a couple of years later and developed playmates such as Clemmie Lambert and Milton Myrie who also lived on the same road.

While I never lived in the neighbourhood myself but a couple of streets away on the other side of the railway line, our community revolved around these few streets in those early years. My barbers were in a basement of one of these large Victorian villas and I remember on one particular occasion, when the barber, who used to energetically dig the manual shears, inna mi headback, nipped a piece out of my earlobe and drew copious blood, upon which they literally had to scrape me off the ceiling and my Dad duly laid out the barber with a right hook, for spoiling up ‘im son countenance’! My dad was very handy with himself and while never being a rough house and only being 5’6” tall, was also that dimension wide and had been a steam engine engineer and could carry a house! He was an activist back home, who’d helped to found the Jamaica Railway Worker’s Trade Union with characters such as Richard Hart, in the upheavals of the 1930’s, when he met my Mum at meetings at Marcus Garvey’s UNIA at Edelweis Park and Liberty Hall.  His ability to handle himself was developed on the streets of Kingston during his trade union days, when they then formed the People’s National Party and he acted as a body guard to Norman Washington Manley, during election campaigns, which as most people know are very lively affairs! He would have sorely mourned the recent passing of his co pee, lion hearted defender and Manley protégé, Dudley Thompson, who also recently passed over to the ancestors at the grand old age of 95.

Henry attended Effra school on Barnwell Road, which is now ‘luxury apartments’, with a stern old school headmaster, Mr Nicholson and form teacher Mr Collins.  This is where we met and while not being close buddies we were always affectionate friends who grew up in the same neighbourhood attended the same secondary school, Tulse Hill, which was also a tough environment to survive in, and youth clubs, that we helped to establish, such as the Allardyce on the eponymous street and the nefarious venues such as the Ram Jam Club and the house parties and blues, which we used to creep out of our homes to frequent. Henry, was always very particular about his appearance and the styles of the 1960s, two tone mohair suits, cut by local tailors from home and the network of Jewish establishments such as Rose’s and Roseman’s that were numerous in the shopping centre of the time, suited him down to the ground. He always sported a highly polished pair of brogues, most probably purchased from the Village Gate boutique just off Carnaby Street.  He stuck with these styles throughout his life and wasn’t much for the flairs and Cuban heels that followed it in the 1970s. It was during this decade when he met his life time partner, Marcia and later wife who was originally from Battersea but who was closely related to the Brixton community through the Laws family.  They settled down to married life and had a family, taking the route south, as most of my contemporaries did, when they had to acquire family homes. My dearly departed friend Eric Knight and his wife Leslie, now respected head of St Martin’s School, were the first ones of my group to head down this way to West Croydon, soon followed by Errol Young to Thornton Heath and most others over the succeeding years.

The family led a respectable an honourable but most enjoyable life until illness came in to intervene. Unfortunately at Henry’s wake last night, Marcia was taken ill, as the strain of the past few days, lack of sufficient rest and irregular meals led to her collapse. She has been taken to hospital and with our prayers will have a couple of days rest in the care of Mayday Hospital.  

 

Henry's body will be laid to rest in Beckenham Cemetary, South East London.

May the Creator, take him, graciously and peacefully to his well earned rest and repose.

Ajomase’

The Griot


Pouring libation

 

 

14th Jan 2012

 

 

 

 

 Over the last two weekends myself and the wife managed to take in D’Angelo and the newly dubbed, Sir John Holt, which included Freddie McGregor, Jimmy Riley and some extremely professional presentation and harmonisation, all at the Brixton 02 Academy.

Nevertheless, we couldn’t escape the tragedy, with the death of Whitney Houston, knocking everyone back off their stride and having to observe a minutes silence for an outstanding expression of Black culture, who has been consumed by the celebrity that goes with ‘showbiz’!

Yesterday had to rouse myself early, as its was the day of the final rites of Henry Mayne, my school days friend and contemporary. It was a surreal morning, setting out a suitable outfit from the wardrobe, finding an appropriate pair of shoes to deal with the London clay that is, inevitably going to weigh down the feet, once we arrive at graveside.

Due to too many things to complete before we could set off, we arrived a little later than planned and arrived at a packed church while the wife had to tour South Norwood to find a parking space.

On entering the hallowed walls of an extremely attractive stone church, sitting on an island in the middle of Albert Road, which had obviously been a monastery of some kind in a previous era but now only had the church and a primary school and other buildings that had housed a religious community.

The interior of St Mark’s is a classic boat design, with a high roof, designed to emotionally transport you to heaven. It was filled with old friends and confederates, all there to aid Henry on his final journey.

We had rousing tributes and sang our hearts out, to float him on his journey. In no time at all it was time to view him for the last time and as I had been at the back of the church was ushered forward to start the process. On reaching the casket, the weight of the years seemed to fall upon my shoulders and a vision of them scrolled back in front of me and I discerned vignettes of Henry saying to me, ‘Alright, Charlie? Don’t worry it’ll be alright’, in his inimitable cockney cadence. In fact he was the first Black Cockney that I ever really knew, until I became one, after having come here and lived in Brixton for a couple of years, in the late 1950s.

Henry’s parents were pioneers, coming in the lee of the Windrush and settling at the heart of the mainly Jamaican community that arrived here in the late 1940s-50s, seeking opportunity after the 2nd World War.

So he was a veteran of the community by the time I arrived and joined him at Effra School. Negotiating your way through school, the streets and society generally was no easy thing, and Henry always had little words of encouragement, when one seemed to be under pressure. He retained this equanimity throughout his life and here we were, shedding a tear at his coffin-side and preparing to put him away.

In a blink of an eye the formalities at the church were completed and we were there, chatting away to each other, re-discovering people we hadn’t seen in an age, such is the nature of funerals!

We also arrive at the cemetery in a trice, as I was expecting a relatively long drive but just went a few chains and hey presto, cross the light tram line to Beckenham from Croydon and we are through the entrance.

He was borne to the grave side and with a few perfunctory words from the minister we set to the task of ‘moiling him up’! The gravediggers attending, were not over officious as sometimes they can be, but left us to our own devices which is important to us, as we like doing things our own way, and the men started to put their backs into the job of moving the heavy London earth, which was thoroughly sodden by the last few days of inclement weather.

We made a good job of it and then the flowers were laid tastefully and lovingly around him, mainly by his wife, daughter and sister and the women of his family. I poured a quiet libation, to help connect him to the ancestors and then we had to de-clod our boots and get to Thornton Heath for the reception.

St Paul’s, as can be gleaned from its title, is another ecclesiastical building of the Victorian era at the back of the local community in the Thornton Heath/South Norwood area, where many of us have repaired, since our place of initial settlement in Brixton and inner south London, became too expensive to purchase.

The atmosphere at this gathering was incredibly joyous with greetings and fraternity overflowing. I ‘bucked up’ a number of people from my childhood who were my father’s contemporaries and lodge brothers, who I hadn’t seen for many many years, largely as they had returned to reside in Jamaica and/or America.

Most however, were old Tulse Hillians, Allardyce and Shepherd’s youth clubs members and generally Brixtonians.

After a tasty repast, provided by the ubiquitous Pierre’s catering service, and hearing some Studio One and other tunes from my formative years, it was time to hit the road, after all it’s Tony Sinclair’s, ‘Nine Night’ tomorrow and I’ve got a days work in between!

 

Ajomase'

Devon Thomas

The Griot.

 

 

27th Feb 2012

 

Greetings,

It was a sad and yet beautiful week that has just past.

On Monday we launched our ‘Pass the Baton’ initiative in conjunction with RAFFA in the Brixton Tate Library. An audience of the exalted and the ordinary watched our young talent, showing what they are bringing to the world.

The Black Cultural Archives reported on the progress of the New National Heritage Centre that is being constructed next door. Young athletes were in attendance who hope to reach Olympic standard in the future and an old Brixton stalwart, George Walters, called for dominos to be designated an Olympic sport!

The highlight of the evening, however, was Lorna G’s newly established G-Up Theatre Company, who performed extracts from their new production of Romeo and Juliet. They have now established a new base at the Lost Theatre, Wandsworth Road, in the newly refurbished building, that used to house South Bank University. Many, who didn’t think that they liked or could understand Shakespeare, were learning to appreciate new kinds of cultural production.

‘Pass the Baton’ is a vehicle that is trying to ensure that we don’t squander the opportunity that having the Olympics here is providing, to show case the talents in the community and provide a base for them to continue to flourish after the three ringed circus has long gone.

On Tuesday, I made a presentation to a large group of students at Brixton College under the tutelage of Dr Colin King, a Tulse Hill School graduate, who maintains, that it is because he was expelled from that illustrious institution as a youth that has motivated him to his current string of academic achievements and community activism!

The symposium was about the role of uprisings in our community and whether last August’s were any different from those in the 1980s. The young people are very astute, well informed and eager to understand and connect with what happened before they were around.

Paradoxically another young Black man was shot by the police in Forest Hill a little earlier and we still await further information on the circumstances.

Apart from the hectic schedule I maintain running my own organisation and attending business meetings and networking events, as you know recently I’ve been inundated with my contemporaries, passing over to the ancestors.

Last Saturday we witnessed the funeral of my close friend and schoolmate Tony Sinclair. On the same day a farewell party was held for our popular High Commissioner, His Excellency Anthony Johnson at the Jamaica High Commission (see clip below generously provided by Kwame Mahlangu) and the Voice newspaper held a community outreach day at Lambeth Town Hall which we helped to facilitate.

Tony’s funeral was quite an event, as you can imagine. Claudette, Tony’s wife and the rest of us tried to make it something fitting of the man.

He wasn’t one for bullshit or boasting but wasn’t shy of sharing his opinions. We had a lifelong friendship and latterly, mainly kept in touch by phone, as he was in charge of Lambeth’s night duty social work, and so worked at nights and slept during the day.

As a man famed for his love of sleep, it meant that you only ever got hold of him about once a month but we’d talk for hours when we did!

Peggy, as Claudette is known, suffers from chronic kidney trouble and so he had been caring for her for some time.

I only found out that he was ill just after Xmas as I was phoning round to invite people to our abode for a small ‘at home’ that we’d planned at the last minute for New Years Day.

When I got through to his home, his daughter, Shereen, informed me that he’d been ill in Kings College since September with an undiagnosed condition!

I made my way straight there, to find the old boy in a side room barely able to recognise me. I was so shocked that I had to take a step back and a deep breath and gather myself to deal with the situation and speak with him. He did recognise me and I used what words I could to rally his spirit and get him to rise to the massive challenge that his health was posing him.

I spread the word about his circumstances to the Old Tulse Hillians, Brixtonites and work colleagues of his that I was in touch with and we got relays of people going to see him, encouraging him and praying for him. He did rally and we got him some niceties such as a telly and got him up and talking to us. While this was going on other old boys such as Henry Mayne, were passing over to the ancestors and in fact I’ve had five close friends die since the New Year!

Finally, a few Saturdays ago I went along to visit him and they’d moved him out of the room that he’d been in for some time into the main ward. This I think caused his morale to fall again and he never came back up. Fortunately I met his eldest daughter there, Fema, whom I’d never met before and she called me a couple of days later to tell me that he’d gone.

I felt it sorely. I’ve had to deal with much bereavement through my life, firstly with my Dad passing in June 1970 but this reminded me of Eric Knight’s death. This was because, his was the first of our generation after Harryburg St Aimee and the group who died in the car crash on the Eltham by pass in 1975 but  Eric was one of the inner circle.

We’d all been to school together, helped to found the  Allardyce youth club together, met our partners and got married, all around the same time. While Eric’s death signified to me, the end of our youth, Tony’s signifies our coming to the status of elders! My daughter, Nina, rang me last night to say that my son Owen, has just had his second child, a daughter, with his current partner, so as one light goes out, another is lit!

My wife Anne said straight away that I must watch him, as he may be Tony’s re-incarnation!

Anyway, he had a tremendous send off on Saturday, on a beautifully sunny day and I played all the old tunes at his reception to speed him on his way. There were only two blemishes. The authorities at Grove Park Cemetery managed to dig his grave in the wrong spot and things were delayed for an hour. This helped me however, as I had to go and set up the sound equipment in the hall and it afforded me vital extra time that allowed me to achieve my onerous responsibility on time. Unfortunately one of our amps decided to malfunction during the evening but we were able to soldier on, that’s what 50 years experience does for you! In fact my ex partner Connie, who’s my youngest daughter’s mother, is getting married to her partner on Good Friday and she’s asked me to do the music and my wife Anne to do the catering? I think that says everything about the age we live in!

Tony’s wife held up stoically throughout the day’s proceedings but when I put on my signature tune to wish every one, ‘Good night My Love’ by Jesse Belvin, the tears flowed in recognition of their time together and the fact that he was now gone. The family closed around her and shared her burden and by the last sax riff that concludes the song, she had recomposed herself and we finished tidying up the hall, ready for their next function.

 

So, a week of funerals, goodbyes but hope for the future!

 

Ajomase’

 

D. Thomas

Devon C Thomas

The Griot