The beginnings of New Beacon Books

The idea of founding a publishing house had been in gestation since the early years of John La Rose’s political activism in Trinidad and Venezuela. La Rose was born in Arima, Trinidad in 1927 where his father was a cocoa trader and his mother a teacher. He won a scholarship to St Mary’s College, Port of Spain, and became an insurance executive after leaving school. He was active in the Workers Freedom Movement in the 1940s as editor of their journal, and a trade union activist, particularly in the Oilfield Workers Trade Union. During this period he became acquainted with Marxist thought, through the guidance of older colleagues Neville Giuseppi and Arnold Thomasos (Gus John). As the struggle for independence heightened, La Rose helped found the West Indian Independence Party in 1956 and stood (unsuccessfully) in that year’s general election. In 1958 he moved to Venezuela to escape from the discrimination he experienced in Trinidad because of his political activism. He arrived in Britain in 1961, intending to study Law before returning to the Caribbean to continue the struggle to secure the region’s future. The cover of Atilla's Kaiso by Raymond QuevedoBy this point he had already published widely in Caribbean newspapers and magazines, and co-authored a book on Kaiso with the great calypsonian Raymond Quevedo (republished in Trinidad in 1983 as Atilla’s Kaiso). La Rose's first wife, Irma, and two sons, Michael and Keith, moved to London shortly after this date. La Rose continued to campaign as European representative of the Oilfields Workers Trade Union, and became fully committed to the idea of founding a publishing house after meeting Sarah White, Andrew Salkey and Kamau Brathwaite. 

Publishing required more than a good idea and some willpower: as for any business, a certain amount of money would also be required. After abandoning his legal studies, John La Rose worked variously as an agricultural labourer, a hotel porter, in the canteen at Selfridges, and as a bricklayer on a site by Moorgate Station, in central London. During the latter job he became active as shop steward for the building trade union. He enjoyed the work and built on his wealth of experience in the labour movement in the Caribbean. This experience informs a poem in La Rose’s first volume of poetry, published by New Beacon: “On the site” which celebrates the comradeship among members of the building trade union.
On the same day that Nkrumah was deposed in Ghana (24 February 1966), La Rose suffered an accident on site, falling from a weak scaffold and injuring his back. He was well placed to pursue a successful claim against his employers and published New Beacon’s first book with a few hundred pounds as a direct result of this payout. The first publication was Foundations, La Rose’s volume of poetry. This was soon followed by a collection of essays by Wilson Harris, Tradition, the Writer and Society and a short biography of Marcus Garvey by Adolph Edwards. The company was registered as a private limited company on 1 August 1967 with La Rose and Sarah White as equal share-holders. It was named after The Beacon, a ground-breaking journal and literary group formed by C.L.R. James, Albert Gomes and Alfred Mendes in the early 1930s in Trinidad. 

Sarah White grew up in West Hampstead and attended school in Bristol. Her mother, Edith Dorothy (known as Dodo) came from a Newcastle ship-engineering family and after the war was politically active as a secretary with the local Liberal Party in Hampstead. Her father, Eric Walter White, was involved with the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) during the war and later joined the newly formed Arts Council. He subsequently became its first Literature Director. Sarah White attended Leeds University, initially to study Chemistry, but switched to History of Science and Russian after her first term. This interest stemmed from a period spent learning Russian between A-levels and university after a summer holiday in Yugoslavia. White’s political activism began at university, where she joined the Communist Party and became involved in local campaigns in Yorkshire and the anti-Apartheid campaign. After university she spent a year in Moscow on a course for teachers of Russian as a foreign language. She recalls her changing attitude to Communism during that period:

The thing about the Communist Party, it was well-organised, it gave you a sort of structure to be active on, but it was very prescriptive in the sense of, you know, this was the right line or that was the right line, rather than exploring ideas. And I always remember, I got to Moscow for that year, which was really interesting. That was 63/64. I remember going to schools, because we did a lot, we went into schools, we went all over the place, we used to go to the theatre a lot, and listen to the teachers talking to the kids, and teaching in a way that there was only one answer. It was quite interesting. At the same time, they were so much better educated than us! (Interview)

On her return to London, White decided to undertake a PhD at Imperial College on the reception of Darwinism in Russia while living with her parents in Islington. It was during this time that she became involved with organising an anti-colonial exhibition and doing voluntary work for the ANC at the Africa Centre, located round the corner from the West Indian Students’ Centre. Both Centres were the base for anti-colonial movements in Britain. It was here that White first met La Rose, at a meeting where Paule Marshall was speaking, and after having read the West Indians’ Bulletin that he edited:

He was there and we were introduced, and I thought “Oh, what a lovely smile” […] He’d sent this West Indian newsletter or whatever it was called. West Indians’ Bulletin […] this thing arrived at the house and I was looking at it and I couldn’t quite make it out. Because you know, when you’re in the Communist Party […] things have a line, they have a particular line, and if you’re a Trotskyist they have another line. And never two lines shall meet. But, I was looking at this thing, and it was radical, sort of seemed Marxist and all the rest of it, but it didn’t follow a line, so I was slightly intrigued by it. And I didn’t know quite how I’d got onto this mailing list so then I met him and discovered he was the person doing it! But then where we really met properly was when the Americans invaded the Dominican Republic and a small committee was set up, and, this is 65 we’re talking about, and we both landed up on the committee. That’s how it all took off.

After defending her thesis successfully, White began work at the New Scientist as a science journalist at from 1967. This helped fund the work of New Beacon and family life with a regular income. Her and John’s son, Wole, was born in 1969, and White continued her journalism on a part-time basis until the early 80s, alongside her commitments to the publishing house and the book service. She still works full-time for New Beacon today and is a trustee of the George Padmore Institute.