Building the catalogue of a “publishing maisonette”

La Rose was already working on a never-published anthology of Caribbean poetry when New Beacon Books (first known as New Beacon Publications) began. He was an avid reader and writer of poetry. In London, La Rose was connected to events in the British literary scene partly through Sarah White’s father, Eric Walter White, Literature Director of the Arts Council from 1966 to 1971. Though New Beacon did not benefit from any grants and La Rose was adamant that they maintain professional distance, his early steps into publishing were shaped by the poetry pamphlets he encountered at the Whites’ family home and informal conversations with emerging literary figures, including the young Ted Hughes, in that setting. Hughes wrote to La Rose praising an early New Beacon publication and offering some advice:

I have at last had time to read the exceedingly interesting pamphlet TRADITION AND THE WEST INDIAN NOVEL. It made me wonder how your publishing venture is going, and how much of a chance it would have of developing into an outlet in England for West Indian Writers. Do you ever think of doing limited and signed editions---that seems to be the way to flourish, as a small publisher, if the thing can be made attractive to collectors, as a special, numbered series. Are your own poems printed yet? (18.12.66 TH to JLR, LRA/01/0395)

Sarah White recalls La Rose’s encounters with the productions of small poetry presses in London: “I think John had in his mind to publish his poetry from way back, but looking at these booklets, seeing possibilities, he wanted something well done” (Interview). Her father had formed the Poetry Book Society and was well-connected with such publishers in London, many of whom were supported by the Arts Council. The couple gleaned this emphasis on quality and sought out one of these same printers: John Sankey of Villiers Press, based in Tufnell Park. Sankey’s press was part of the avant-garde City Lights movement in California, for whom he had printed works by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and an early edition of Howl by Allen Ginsberg. Sankey also printed books for Bogle L’Ouverture and Allison & Busby.

Letter to John La Rose from John Sankey of Villiers Press. Archive Ref: GB 2904 NBB/1/14 (uncatalogued)  [Poetry of Nicholas Guillen]

The logistics of publishing were explained to La Rose and White by a family friend, James MacGibbon, then of MacGibbon & Kee publishing. Described in an obituary as “a romantic communist and first publisher of Solzhenitsyn; dandy, ardent sailor, a terrific charmer with a serious interest in labour history” (Webb, WE, The Guardian, 4th March 2000), MacGibbon’s authors included Doris Lessing and Witold Gombrowicz. Sarah White recalls:

I always remember James sitting us down in a pub in Covent Garden, and on the back of an envelope saying, you know, what the percentages are, you know, so much for royalties, so much for discounts, so much for printing costs, your unit costs, and then the rest is profit if you manage to sell enough! I remember him saying ‘you’re not going to make any money, but you might enjoy yourselves’. (Interview)

New Beacon always provided contracts and ensured royalties were paid annually to authors (or, as was often the case, off-set against book purchases). This knowledge was in turn shared by John La Rose with other publishers, such as Bogle L’Ouverture in Britain and Savacou in the Caribbean.

New Beacon’s catalogue began with poetry and literary criticism, but its remit soon moved beyond these centres of interest that had been central to the Caribbean Artists Movement. The catalogue developed organically in the early years, reacting to some projects as they arose and fulfilling other goals envisaged from a much earlier date. Adolph Edwards’ short biography of Marcus Garvey began life as a paper given at a study group organised by C.L.R. James, while a chapter from Kamau Brathwaite’s PhD thesis was published in an economical paperback edition as Folk Cultures of the Slaves in Jamaica. New Beacon reprinted important early titles, such as the work of nineteenth-century Trinidadian teacher and writer, John Jacob Thomas (Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar and Froudacity). La Rose also planned a reprint of The Origins of the Taino Culture (1935) by Sven Loven, but the project was not completed (the book was reprinted by the University of Alabama Press in 2010).

The early 1970s were dominated by the growth of protest and community organising activity focused in particular on discrimination against young black people by the police and in schools. New Beacon’s first “best-seller” was Bernard Coard’s polemical How the West Indian Child is made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System (1971), a publication undertaken on behalf of the Caribbean Education and Community Workers’ Association (CECWA). This period also saw the founding of supplementary schools, including one in John La Rose and Sarah White’s home. Some of these schools continue to exist across Britain today. The movement expanded in the mid-1970s with the founding of the Black Parents Movement and the Black Youth Movement (archives of both are housed at the George Padmore Institute). In parallel to this activity, New Beacon published more poetry: The Pond by Jamaican writer Mervyn Morris and Poems of Succession by Guyanese writer, Martin Carter; a reprint of an early history of the West Indian Labour Movement by Arthur Lewis; Andrew Salkey’s Georgetown Journal; and an introduction to the work of Nicolás Guillén by Dennis Sardinha.

New Beacon’s emphasis lay on producing accessibly priced yet high-quality paperback books. A shorter run of hardbacks was produced for some books, for distribution to libraries. Most editing and proof-reading was done by John La Rose in the early years as Sarah White was completing her thesis. In later years White took on much of the proof-reading work as La Rose’s commitments to other political campaigns, such as the Black Parents Movement, increased. The majority of New Beacon’s early book covers were illustrated with original art by Caribbean artists Art Derry and Errol Lloyd. Their work was often abstract or not directly related to the books’ content and it avoided the exoticising or stereotyping tendency visible in the packaging of earlier Caribbean writing by other publishers. New Beacon Books was concerned with opening out the notion of Caribbean and black identity by showing new possibilities and scope, rather than creating neat packages for easy consumption.