Why publish independently?

To answer this question, a fuller understanding of black writing in the post-war book market in Britain and the Caribbean is necessary. As has been well-documented, a number of foundational figures in Caribbean literature published their first books in Britain in the late 1940s and 1950s. The decline of the British empire, the rise of anti-colonial independence movements, and the “Windrush” generation of migration from the Caribbean to Britain in the late 1940s, was accompanied by a rise in interest in cultural expression from the colonised regions. Such interest continued, to a large extent, to be filtered through metropolitan institutions that selected, produced, distributed and funded literature in the post-war period. These included commercial, scholarly, and established literary publishing houses: Oxford University Press, Longman, Heinemann, Hutchinson, André Deutsch, Jonathan Cape, Faber & Faber and others. Gail Low describes this unprecedented interest on the part of British publishers and their readership as a combination of “curiosity, concern, exoticism and opportunism” (xiv). Authors in the “boom” included Sam Selvon, George Lamming, Andrew Salkey, Wilson Harris, Derek Walcott, John Hearne, Edgar Mittelholzer and V.S. Naipaul, all of whom, except Derek Walcott, also relocated physically to London in this period. Diana Athill, V.S. Naipaul’s editor at André Deutsch goes so far as to suggest that in the 1950s and early 1960s, it was probably easier for a young black writer to get his book accepted by a London publisher than it was for a young white person  (Athill, 102). Further research remains to be done on the ways in which writing by Caribbean writers was edited, selected and packaged during the 1950s and early '60s by mainstream publishers. Such work could explore further the complex structural relationships between political changes reflected in immigration policies, the position of Caribbean writing in the publishing field, and the emergence of black British literary traditions.

Many of the London and Caribbean-based writers benefited from the weekly Caribbean Voices radio programme, founded by the Jamaican poet and journalist, Una Marson in 1943, and subsequently edited by Henry Swanzy from 1946 to 1958, then, briefly by V.S. Naipaul. Caribbean Voices helped circulate the work of young Caribbean writers and nurture a literary culture and network of writers. Henry Swanzy provided an informal kind of literary mentorship, but also arguably promoted writing which reflected his preference for narratives of “local colour” (Low, 102). Gerald Moore has written of the parallel role played by the BBC Transcription Centre in the 60s as a meeting place and broadcaster for African writers visiting London. One of New Beacon’s early publications, Caribbean Writers: critical essays, was based on programmes broadcast by the Transcription Centre, confirming the importance of radio broadcasting in Caribbean literary production. Several critics have described and analysed the significance of this context of exile in creating a sense of regional identity (Kenneth Ramchand, C.L. Innes, James Procter). Less has been written about the institutional contexts for Caribbean writing in the late 1960s and 1970s, a period during which that regional label gained more fluid definitions, blurring into an expanding body of Black British fiction and non-fiction.

Critics have described the tensions between the regional identity and “local colour” fostered by Caribbean Voices and the ostensibly universal qualities championed by London publishers (Low, 114). New Beacon’s catalogue and radical black publishing space in the late 1960s and 1970s challenged the institutional annexation of black literature to a eurocentric narrative of literary modernism. New Beacon moved neither in the direction of championing the universal aesthetic value of Caribbean art, nor towards that of commodifying art that packaged restrictive versions of Caribbean identity. This point is confirmed by the range of its publications in fiction and non-fiction. One of the most significant characteristics of this radical black publishing space is the juxtaposition of genres: from poetry, to biography, history, and political philosophy.

A major sign of this shift towards greater critical autonomy in the late sixties, was the founding of the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM) in 1966 by Jamaican novelist and journalist, Andrew Salkey, Bajan poet and doctoral student in history, L. Edward (now Kamau) Brathwaite, and John La Rose. They, and like-minded writers and artists met frequently in London and organised readings, conferences and cultural events, starting with a landmark performance of Brathwaite’s Rights of Passage at the Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre in March 1967. Their aim was to foster an independent space for discussing and promoting Caribbean artistic and literary production and in turn alter the terms against which that work was to be judged and given value. Their work built on preceding examples of black cultural affirmation in the Caribbean (Cuban negrismo in the 1920s), the United States (the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s), and France (the négritude movement of the 1930s), as reflected in the scope of their subjects for discussion. CAM meetings were the first place where La Rose and Sarah White began selling their own publications and those of other small publishers. New Beacon’s bookshop thus began its life at this forum as a bag of books transported around London on Sarah White’s Honda 50 motorbike.

Sarah White distributing books on the Honda 50 (La Rose family archives)At this point it is necessary to widen the lens to include non-fiction and educational publishing. Specialist Caribbean books were developed at Longman from 1967 (with Anne Walmsley as editor) and at Heinemann, where James Currey launched the Caribbean Writers Series in 1970 (starting with A Year in San Fernando by Michael Anthony). Anne Walmsley had worked as an English teacher in Jamaica for three years after four spent working as secretary at Faber and Faber in the late fifties. She joined Longman as Caribbean editor after a stint working for BBC television on her return to London. She recalls approaching several other publishers proposing herself as a Caribbean specialist editor, before being offered the job at Longman over a glass of sherry in their Mayfair offices:

They told me they wanted to appoint their first Caribbean publisher and would I be interested? “You’ll have to meet lots of new people”, they said, “and you’ll have to travel to the Caribbean twice a year”. That was how I got the job, in 1967. I was sent on a “familiarisation tour” for three months whizzing up and down the Caribbean. After that I went twice a year – and travelled with local representatives in Trinidad and Jamaica. (Interview)

Walmsley worked closely with Longman’s representatives in Trinidad and Jamaica, Eastlyn Bynoe and Vivien Carrington, who subsequently managed Longman Caribbean offices on those islands. Meanwhile, in London, she attended early CAM meetings through her friendship with Kamau Brathwaite and Doris Brathwaite, where she made contact with writers and first met John La Rose and Sarah White. These discussions in turn informed her work for Longman, reminding us that the independent critical space forged by CAM was an open forum for developing ideas and responses to artistic creation across lines of race, gender and social class, rather than a militant political project.

Longman played an important role in providing Caribbean specific educational material through consultation with Caribbean teachers. It expanded the space for books by black authors in the Caribbean, though it had notably little distribution in Britain. One of the main aims of New Beacon’s book service was to make books by Caribbean writers about the Caribbean readily available in Britain. Larger publishers had recognised the commercial success possible through channelling of African literature into specialised paperback series in the 1960s, notably Heinemann's African Writers Series, edited by Chinua Achebe, and OUP’s Three Crown Series (Currey; Davis). Such series faced very different contexts in Africa and the Caribbean, though both encouraged new writing by providing a strong distribution network and catering for the expanding schools readership with large print-runs of economically priced paperback books. New Beacon’s publishing work emerged in this shared context, but with very different goals.