In 1943, the BBC World Service began an extraordinary experiment, launching a programme, Caribbean Voices, which is now credited with kickstarting modern Caribbean literature. Previously, the few outlets for writers in the region meant there’d been little by way of locally produced literature.
Readers in the British West Indies had absorbed the internal colonialism of the British education system. Rather than a focus on the islands’ natural beauty, the poems learned by rote in schools were likely to be about snow or daffodils – which West Indians couldn’t really relate to.
Caribbean Voices presented its regional audience with references and imagery reflecting their own life experiences: sudden steamy showers on tin roofs; malarial swamps; hurricanes; and fried fish on the beach. Over its fifteen years of broadcasting, fledgling writers such as V.S. Naipaul, Sam Selvon and Derek Walcott took significant steps towards making a living with their pens.
In its first iteration, the programme was designed to boost the morale of the Caribbean colonies in the midst of World War II, in part relaying reassuring messages from West Indian servicemen in the Mother Country to anxious folk back home.
After the war, Caribbean Voices evolved with the migration of the Windrush generation, which saw a number of unknown writers transported from an outpost of Empire to HQ in London. Key to the programme’s development was the Irish editor, Henry Swanzy, a serious and kind-hearted man who insisted that commissioned work – readings from short stories, poems, talks – did not fall short of the BBC’s high metropolitan standards.
George Lamming from Barbados and the Trinidadian Selvon came to Britain in 1950 on the same ship, arguing over the use of a shared Imperial typewriter; typical of all literary ambitious West Indians, they headed straight for Swanzy.
Swanzy became a father-figure to these mostly twenty-somethings. They may have lacked writing experience, but they had one great advantage: there was nothing to compete with the originality of their location in the Caribbean because it had not been written about. Caribbean Voices provided a platform and on-the-spot training for writers to work out, through experimentation, the balance between standard and dialect English, dialogue and narrative, and when to exaggerate or dampen their compatriots’ buffoonery.
Hunched over a typewriter in the freelance room of the old Langham Hotel, Naipaul began to tap out what would become Miguel Street, short stories about the life of a street in Port of Spain. Sometimes Walcott came up with a couple more sonnets than intended, because the programme paid contributors a guinea a minute. Selvon recalled that he wrote The Lonely Londoners in between welcome BBC freelance work and “swabbing out the shithouse” of various private clubs.
Swanzy regularly commissioned critical reviews from English writers such as Roy Fuller and Arthur Calder-Marshall, but there were, at times, cultural difficulties. Caribbean literature dealt with societies whose relation to language differed from the dialogue spoken in England; so an English critic may not have appreciated nuances, leading to misplaced judgements. The West Indian writers were also ambivalent about the BBC as an arm of a colonial experience.
Nonetheless, they owed Caribbean Voices a debt for the opportunities it provided. By 1958, when the programme came to an end, the BBC hierarchy determined the strength of West Indian literature was such that “the children had outgrown the patronage of the parent to lead a strong and distinct life of their own”. The Windrush had delivered a rush of words.
Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill