Sarah's Backchat from the Bocas Litfest

Trinidad April 2013 – my first trip for 14 years, and my first visit without John. I have been invited down by the Bocas Litfest to receive an award on behalf of New Beacon Books. I am combining this honour with a long needed visit to John’s family in Arima.

The Bocas Lit Fest, founded in 2011, aims ‘to promote the joys of reading and to support and celebrate those who toil for our pleasure’.  The Bocas Henry Swanzy Award for distinguished service to Caribbean Letters is named for the late BBC radio producer (1915-2004), who created a landmark platform for Caribbean writing in the 1940s and 50s through the Caribbean Voices programme, which broadcast fiction and poems by West Indian writers across the region.

The award ceremony turned out to be very enjoyable though I had to sit by a low table in order to operate the computer with my images and the result was all my notes fell off my lap to the floor! Despite that people seem to have enjoyed the talk, or at least were kind enough to say so.

Marina Salandy Brown, founder and festival director of Bocas Litfest, introduced the proceedings. She is a prize winning former BBC programme maker with a publishing background and was also a member of the Arts Council’s Literature Panel before returning to Trinidad. Although only in its third year – the first one took place in 2011 - it is recognised as one of the leading literary festivals in the Caribbean, if not the leading one, and has four days of packed events and a number of awards to encourage publishers and writers alike.

After Marina, Philip Nanton, a sociologist by training but also works as a freelance writer, poet and producer of radio documentaries, spoke about the work of Henry Swanzy. His Caribbean Voices programme had been instrumental in encouraging new writers from the Caribbean and in introducing them to an international, particularly British, audience. For many of them the programme was their first step to being published – names such as Sam Selvon, George Lamming, V.S. Naipaul, Andrew Salkey, and many others.

Susan Craig James, leading social historian, a friend of New Beacon since the late 1960s, when she was a student in Edinburgh, and one of our authors, then provided a short but detailed and thoughtful assessment of New Beacon.  I followed Susan with an illustrated presentation of New Beacon, some images from our early years including the motorbike on which we used to carry our books around to meetings, and where we are now, in particular about the development of the George Padmore Institute as a natural progression out of the publishing and bookselling activity and using material from the archives to illustrate my points.

Finally David Abdulah, who is the General Secretary of the Oilfields Workers Trade Union, for which John was the European representative, the political leader of the Movement for Social Justice, and also a very old friend of John’s, presented the award. This was a beautiful tooled seemingly two-volume set of books, bound in the 17th / 18th century style, but opening out to reveal a box inside. The name of the award was engraved on the front and my and John’s names appear on the spine with New Beacon on the bottom of the spine. It will be much treasured.

The evening was rounded off with a delicious meal where we were joined by John’s niece, her son and his partner, as well as a number of old friends from London and the Caribbean. Meeting family and old friends, many whose friendships dated back to the 1960s was one of the highlights of my trip. In addition, the four days of the festival were packed with events and provided an opportunity to hear writers whom I hadn’t met before and to put faces to many of the authors that we sell in the bookshop. I would encourage anyone who has the time and facilities to make it down to a Bocas Litfest for a stimulating, friendly and fruitful time.

The Henry Swanzy Award 2013

The Henry Swanzy Award 2013