I loved George Lamming’s novel In the Castle of my Skin, but wasn’t so impressed by this collection of essays. There were some wonderful ideas in here, but the book as a whole felt disjointed.
First of all, for those of you who don’t know George Lamming, he’s Barbados’s most famous writer. Austin Clarke mentioned In the Castle of my Skin in a recent talk as “the Barbadian novel.” He was recently honoured with a lifetime achievement award at the Bim Literary Festival. I went to see Lamming give a talk on “The Politics of Reading” a couple of years ago – see my report for more information about him and his ideas.
This book wasn’t bad at all; in fact, there were parts that I enjoyed immensely. In fact, as I write the review, I’m wondering if my criticism is fair. Should a book of essays be tied together, really? I was looking for some kind of overall conclusions on the state of a writer in “exile” and on the post-colonial condition, but maybe that’s not what Lamming set out to write and maybe that’s OK. The cover blurb and the foreword led me to expect something more cohesive, but that’s not Lamming’s fault either.
In any case, there is some attempt to tie the essays together, through the recurring mention of the characters Caliban and Prospero from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. But that’s about it. Otherwise what we have are fairly random essays on disparate topics. There’s a long chapter on CLR James’s The Black Jacobins, for example. It was fascinating, but only because James’s book, and the subject of Haiti’s liberation itself, is fascinating. Lamming’s essay is little more than a description of events, a condensing of James’s book. I enjoyed reading it, but didn’t see how it related to exile or to Lamming’s situation in England or to the other essays in the book. Another essay is an account of a trip to Africa, with a few acute observations mixed in with quite a bit of bland travelogue.
The strongest parts of the book, for me, were those which dealt with Lamming’s experience of arriving in England in the early post-war period, particularly his essay “A Way of Seeing”. A couple of anecdotes in particular stuck in my head. The first was of Lamming and his West Indian friend Polly expecting some important letters but not receiving them. Instead they got a letter addressed to a neighbour called Singleton. They went down the street to Singleton’s house and knocked on his door, to give him the letter and ask if perhaps the letters they were expecting had been delivered there by mistake. The old woman who answered was scared of them but in the end went to look for the letters, and came back saying:
So sorry. I’ve looked at all the envelopes that came in for the last few days; and I didn’t notice any black stamps.
Lamming follows up:
We must be clear about here meaning. She didn’t simply mean Negro; she meant stamps marked Africa or India, China, or the West Indies. One kind, honest and courteous old woman had fixed almost two-thirds of the world’s population with one word. You will say that the old woman is a simple example of ignorance. But I maintain that ignorant or not, it has fundamentally to do with a way of seeing.
In another anecdote, Lamming is reading a poem at a special event for young poets at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in 1950. Although he was at the time an anonymous poet with no reputation, just like the others, he received an ovation before he even started reading, and another when he finished. He asks:
What made those highly contemporary intellectuals clap? Why? … I do not claim to know the final answer; but I am convinced that it has something to do with a way of seeing. The eyes that rejoiced down on that floor were looking up at a black man who had the audacity to make a poet’s journey in public, and apparently unashamed.
It was the same kind of judgement the old woman had made, but expressed differently.
On the other side of the coin, I was fascinated to read the impressions of the West Indians arriving in Britain for the first time in those early years of immigration. They came, don’t forget, as British subjects, part of the Empire, having been taught by British teachers using British textbooks and British ideas. They were shocked to discover not only that the British viewed them differently, but also that the Britain they saw was not the one they’d been brought up to believe in. Lamming tells the story of a middle-aged Trinidadian civil servant arriving on the ship from the West Indies and seeing the small tug boats coming alongside. He looked down at the tugs in consternation.
‘They do that kind of work too?’ he asked.
He meant the white hands and faces on the tug … This man had never really felt, as a possibility and a fact, the existence of the English worker. This sudden bewilderment had sprung from his idea of England; and one element in that idea was that he was not used to seeing an Englishman working with his hands in the streets of Port-of-Spain.
It’s this kind of observation, and Lamming’s insightful analysis of it, that I loved about the book. I suppose the reason for the slight air of disappointment with which I’ve written this is that I wanted more of it, but got something else. The quality of the essays felt too variable, and their subject matter too disparate. If you haven’t read anything by Lamming before, I’d recommend reading In the Castle of My Skin rather than this.