TAKING THE PLUNGE 

 

44 Kilmore Road
Forest Hill
April 1973 – March 1975
42 Holmsdale Grove
Barnehurst, Kent
March 1975 – June 1976
 

My intention to make a clean break with the civil service and my writing was sincere. I gathered up the remaining photographs taken by Eddie Grant, David Cole and others, and sent them to the Jamaica Gleaner with a valedictory note suggesting that they could be used as the basis for a history of West Indian beauty contests and entertainment in the United Kingdom. The Gleaner gave it a double-page spread. More than that, as happened when I had submitted my report on Millie Small, the group editor, Theo Sealy, cabled that he would be in London the following week and would like to see me. 

There, at the New Howard Hotel overlooking the Thames, he went straight to the point. His newspaper wanted me to continue writing for them. Chris Francis, the recently-appointed official correspondent, was satisfactory in reporting from the High Commission and other formal occasions, and new freelance reporters had other topics covered adequately. They were all conscientious, serious writers. That was the problem. The content was too serious with the leavening of humour, personal interest and off-beat stories I had pioneered. Without them the Gleaner risked being outflanked by the Westindian World. 

Ah, the Westindian World ….. I had met the publisher Arif Ali first when we were on a beauty contest judging panel at the Midland Hotel in Bradford. Since then I had written a few pieces for his pocket-sized, irregularly published West Indian Digest. Arif was a workaholic. He wrote most of the articles, edited and produced the magazine, delivered copies on his van, obtained advertising, and did everything – using different names which gave the impression that he had a varied staff. I liked Arif. It was not in the same way that I liked and looked up to Aubrey Baynes as a junior to his mentor because I was different now, more mature, but there was much in Arif that I could admire. As early as 1973, when I thought that I was about to bow out of the business, he was the first person to describe me as an “adopted West Indian” in the initial edition of Who’s Who of West Indians in Britain which he published. 

Now Arif, too, asked me to continue writing for the Westindian World. As an avid cricket fan himself, he wanted me to concentrate on sport. That suited me well because there would be no clash of interest or loyalty with what I was to send to the Gleaner. 

One human story that came my way almost immediately was a request to interview a woman in south-east London whose railway-worker husband had just been killed by a train only a few hours earlier. Her grief was immense and intimate. It was one of the few occasions that I have made my excuses and left. 

Arif commissioned me to send regular reviews of the sun-drenched matches played in the West Indies cricket tour to Australia in 1975/76. I did so from the biting cold of the Kent marshes. Then Arif found in the Guyana government the sponsor he wanted for his West Indies cricket history special supplement. 

Was I interested in writing it? Of course, I was. It wasn’t as if it was a serious effort to get me back into journalism. Since the printers’ strike had derailed me in 1966 I had become ultra-cautious. There was no way I would even think of becoming self-employed again unless I had saved enough money on which we could live for at least three months until the payments started to come through. With a now growing family where I was likely to find that amount?  

All the same, it would be fun to keep my hand in. 

Arif offered to pay me what worked out as being the equivalent of a month’s salary. It was enough to give us a decent family holiday. Once I got down to writing about runs and wickets again a life in asbestos and bitumen lost any appeal it may have had.  

The history didn’t take all that long to put together. The statistics were to hand in Wisden Cricketers Almanack, and I could capture a flavour of the games and characters from the pages of such books as Through The Caribbean by Alan Ross and those by S. Canynge Caple and G.D. Martineau, and could remember the successful tours of 1950 and the 1960s (as well as the disasters in 1957). There were a few interesting historical perspective articles in back numbers of the Gleaner in the library of the Jamaica High Commission, and some elderly West Indians shared their first-hand recollections of England’s tours to the Caribbean in 1948 and 1954. A couple of them could even remember 1935! My mother’s recollection of the Oval Test match of 1939, the only one she ever attended, stimulated my research into that series. 

The copy was ready well before the appointed deadline. Thank goodness for that, because were soon to appreciate that there is many a slip between the cup and the lip. I can report only as I remember how it was told to me. To give my history his full attention, Arif Ali stayed on late at the Westindian World’s office on Mathias Road, Islington. Overnight he left the script on the top of the waste-paper basket to keep it separate from routine papers and the newspaper’s other documents. In the morning it was gone. Somebody had taken the pages to have been rubbish (not the contest!) and thrown them out. The first draft of Dr Johnson’s famous dictionary, I believe, suffered a similar fate. 

With Forbes Burnham, the near-dictatorial president of Guyana, breathing down his neck (if only figuratively), and, more importantly, unlikely to pay if the script wasn’t delivered on time, the history had to be written again – and quickly. There was no such thing as computer story back then. Every page had to be typed afresh. For that Arif paid the equivalent of another month’s wages. Hopelyn’s fingers worked overtime on the typewriter in the hours that I was at British Uralite. Once again the script was handed over within the deadline. That, surely, was that.  

Not trusting to leave the script in the office again, Arif took it with him everywhere. Here, too, I have to rely on the story as I heard it. It was a hot spring day, the prelude to an exceptionally hot summer. Arif wound down the window of the car in which he was travelling to let in some cooling air. He had to make a business call, somewhere around Finsbury Park, I believe. It didn’t take long but by the time he got back to his car the script had gone. Somebody had put their hand in through the open window and made off with his briefcase. He asked me write the whole thing again. This time triple-quickly because deadline was already on him. 

It was so important to him that Arif paid the equivalent of yet another month’s salary. That was three months’ salary in all. The Guyanese government were waiting. Hopelyn and myself hammered the type-writer into submission in our haste. Arif set the wheels in motion – this time the copy was not mislaid – and the supplement came out on time. And Arif paid me on the dot! It was not a moment too soon because shortly afterwards he fell out with Burnham. 

Now I could really consider the prospect of freeing myself from the day job. As Aubrey Baynes had brought me fully into the fold of the West Indian heritage press, so his successor, Arif Ali, gave me the opening to stay there on a full-time basis. Not that my decision was taken lightly. There was some hesitation before I made up my mind. I couldn’t pass up on this longed-for opportunity without giving it my best shot. With a West Indies cricket tour in the offing, I had a realistic chance of picking up several commissions, especially on the back of this supplement. 

I decided to take the plunge. Hopelyn supported me all the way. 

Others were less certain. My parents, who were now convinced that I had settled down at an office-desk, considered that the move would be detrimental to my own best interests. They did not consider my journalism to be proper work and for years afterwards my mother spoke of me as failing for having walked out on a good job. The silence of our friends and neighbours said more than any overt criticism. It is reported that John Dudley, the Due of Northumberland knew his attempted coup to put his daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, on the English throne had failed when the people watched him ride out to suppress the counter-claim of Mary Tudor. They came out in their numbers but “nobody wished us God’s speed”. I knew how it felt. It would not be long, my critics reasoned, before I would be back at British Uralite asking for my old job back. Indeed, that image haunted my night-mares for many nights to come. 

They were right …. to a point. I did go back to British Uralite. However it wasn’t until 1985 and it was at the invitation of Nick Lance, the then managing director – whom I had known and admired when he was company secretary, to edit the firm’s house-magazine. Going back to Higham then after nine years was a strange experience. At first sight the people and the buildings were the same, but something was different. I was different. The appointment lasted for only one issue before, after existing for a hundred years, British Uralite went out of business. If I had resisted my instinct and I had stayed on there I would have been out of work at 44 years-old with very dismal prospects of getting further employment. 

My second spell of self-employment began on 1st June 1976. It was a record hot summer in which the West Indian cricketers steamrollered through the country. There was all the work I could handle. It didn’t matter that I had made my decision too late to apply for press accreditation to the matches. It was enough that I sat in front of the television with a scorebook recording each ball, surrounded by every reference book on which I could lay my hands. 

This was the summer in which Viv Richards proclaimed his greatness with two double-centuries and a single-century in the four Test matches in which he played. Opening batsman Gordon Greenidge, in scintillating first-wicket partnership with left-handed Roy Fredericks, was close on his heels. Young Michael Holding, whose fast bowling on a pluperfect pitch for batting at the Oval was one of cricket’s outstanding feats, Andy Roberts and Wayne Daniel provided as dynamic and destructive attack as had ever been seen. There was also Clive Lloyd – the captain, Alvin Kallicharran, Deryck Murray, Collis King, Vanburn Holder, Bernard Julien and Lawrence Rowe as “as familiar in our mouths as household words”. 

When West Indies fared well, all things West Indian prospered. Mr Euel Johnson’s small JAMA record label rode the crest of notoriety of England captain Tony Greig, a white man born in South Africa, saying that he would make the West Indians “grovel” by issuing a track Who’s Grovelling Now? As the tourists made him rue his words. 

My assignments were varied. For example, a national newspaper asked for my help with a piece about Bertie Greene’s Ocho Rios Rooms, the leading West Indian restaurant in the country, not far from Baker Street, and Julie Watson requested me to report the fashion shows and dances she promoted in west London for the GEMS agency. Throughout the community interest in beauty contests picked up. There were also several short-lived attempts, such as those by Len Renwick and Frank Bynoe, to bring out an alternative newspaper to the Gleaner and the Westindian World. 

The very first assignment on the day I became self-employed was to have been at interview with talented amateur boxer Clinton McKenzie who was about to turn professional. It was to have been at the Sir Philip Game boxing club in Croydon, but I do not drive and the Greenline bus service there was cancelled without notice, leaving me frustrated at the bus-stop. 

Welcome to the sharp end of the business. 

It didn’t matter. The summer was long and hot, and there was an apparently endless supply of stories. 

Arif Ali had described me as being a writer and an “adopted West Indian” … now was the time to prove it.   

 

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