Tribute to Gerry German from Errol Lloyd

I first became aware of Gerry German whilst a school boy in Jamaica.  Gerry was headmaster of Mandeville High, about 30 miles from Munro College, the school I attended.  He invited our school to stage a production of Macbeth in which I played the part of Malcolm.

I did not meet him formally however till a decade later in London in the early 1970s.  We were both engaged as part of a four or five strong team presenting various aspects of Caribbean culture to schools – mainly outside of London.  This usually took the form of a historical survey, followed by a focus on the art and literature of the region.  I gave an illustrated talk on Caribbean art, based mainly on slides of works in the possession of Jamaican art collector A.D. Scott, supplemented by other British based Caribbean artists.  Gerry spoke on the literature of the region.

I got to know him quite well over a two year period or so which involving trips to the North West of England and as far afield as the Isle of Wight and Ireland.  Gerry had a natural capacity to communicate with young people as mentioned by Norman Girvan in his piece, and managed to be both informative and entertaining.  He was never patronising in his tone or in what he had to say, and did not shy away from exposing the children – almost entirely white in those days- from the more militant aspects of literature coming from the region.  

There was one particular excerpt from a Kamau Brathwaite poem he invariably read in which he warned them in advance to expect a few four letter words.  They may have been shocked, but think they would have respected being treated as mature enough to cope. 

There was a moving V. S. Naipaul short story, B. Wordsworth, which he read like a trained actor, investing each character with convincing (non-condescending) Caribbean accents when direct speech was involved.  There was hardly a dry eye in the audience when he finished.  Norman referred to Vera Bell and her wonderful poem Ancestor on the Auction Block, and this was one of the poems that Gerry always featured, brings the historical aspect into sharp focus.

Ancestor on the auction block
Across the years your eyes seek mine
Compelling me to look…

Gerry seemed to have absorbed a good deal of  local culture during the time he spent in Jamaica, and would end his talk by singing one or two Jamaican mentos in a fine voice which probably owed something to his Welsh background. I remember one of his favourites was one which I had not heard before.  It was about a worker, ‘Uncle Sammy’, who was employed with a company of men laying water pipes which took them a long way from home. There was a flood and he was swept away and drowned, his body being eventually recovered some distance away.  

‘Poor Uncle Sammy
Him nuh have nobody,
Dem had to bury him in him wet clothes.’

I can hear him singing that song now, and for years after, whenever we met (too seldom, in retrospect) the conversation always got round to music and Jamaican songs, which he loved.

There was lots of time for socialising afterward the school events, and one got to see the humorous and mischievous side of Gerry.  One also got insight into his uncompromising opposition to racism or social injustice, and his readiness to cast in his lot with the poor and oppressed. He was the sort of person who was prepared to translate his views into action. Gus has drawn attention to the work he and Gerry and others undertook in challenging exclusions in the days when it was used disproportionately in relation to black pupils, without any concern it seemed for the value of keeping children in mainstream education or for examining the relevance of the curriculum to their needs. This was selfless work undertook in his retirement.

I last saw Gerry at the George Padmore Institute several years ago, but had some telephone contact with him afterwards.  Gerry was a cultured, vital and in essence a lovely human being who will be missed by all who knew him and appreciated his brand of humanity.
Condolences are due to Patsy, whom I met on several occasions, and had the pleasure of their hospitality at their home many moons ago.