‘Black British writing… under what conditions?’: James Berry


I.

In July 1978 the poet James Berry applied for a grant of £1500-2000, enough money to cover a year’s work on two writing projects: a long sequence of poems based on Caribbean proverbs and a semi-autobiographical novel based on formative experiences in the USA and UK. Berry had arrived from Jamaica in 1948 and had worked for twenty-six years as a telegraphist for the Post Office while writing poetry, short stories and plays on the side. His landmark edited anthology Bluefoot Traveller: An Anthology of Westindian Poets in Britain appeared in 1976, followed soon after by Fractured Circles, Berry’s first collection of poems published by the independent publisher of African and Caribbean writing New Beacon Books.

II.

Berry’s application to the Arts Council attested to his growing literary reputation in Britain — attached to the application were poems he’d had published in the British literary magazines the BBC’s The Listener, Bananas and the centre-left weekly New Society. However it also stressed the urgency of state intervention in order for his literary aspirations to be fully realised. Laurence Baylis, Berry’s sponsor and an official at the Greater London Arts Association, emphasises this crucial timing. Berry was rapidly approaching the point in his writing career when he needed an extended period in which to write. Given time he would almost certainly produce something of enduring value. Producing a full-length work was important not only for Berry’s artistic development, Baylis observed, but also for his public career. Viewing Berry as pivotal to Britain’s Caribbean literary scene more generally, Baylis urged the Arts Council supporting him now would have a significant knock-on effect for future generations of black British writers because of the decisiveness of his role as a mentor and guide.

iiI.

Baylis wasn’t wrong about Berry’s creative promise or the significance of his contribution for what happened next. In 1981 Berry achieved significant literary recognition as winner of the National Poetry Competition, among the most prestigious single-poem awards, for the poem ‘Fantasy of an African Boy. The prize would be a turning point in his career.

However what Berry was up to at the time of the application was just as important to the larger story of his public contribution, not to mention his ongoing relations with the Arts Council. In the summer of 1978 Berry was finishing up a stint as C. Day Lewis poet in residence at Vauxhall Manor School, a comprehensive school in an ethnically diverse area of South London. Here he witnessed the dearth of books by black authors or featuring black characters in the school library — fewer than three and all of them in poor condition from constant use by children. His experiences at the school would become central to the debate around the conditions facing black writers in Britain.

Berry would evoke these raw experiences a decade later, when, at the request of Literature Director Alastair Niven, he publicly defended the Arts Council’s right to channel funds towards writers from socially disadvantaged groups. In his statement to the courts in 1989, he drew from his own experiences of doggedly pursuing a literary career against societal odds. Linking everyday racism with the structural disadvantages and deprivations anchored in the British school system, Berry articulately defended positive action schemes as creating a more level literary playing field. Arts Council bursaries targeted at black writers offered much-needed breathing space that could eventually enable the building of a new canon or the creation of a new literature. These larger concerns are evoked in Berry’s notebooks, partly digitised by the British Library, through suggestive headings like ‘Black British writing… under what conditions?’

IV.

Berry’s pointed remarks about his experiences in an overwhelmingly white publishing industry from the 80s continue to have a contemporary resonance. On 15 June 2020, partly prompted by the murder of George Floyd by police in the U.S., the newly-formed Black Writers Guild set out their concerns about the state of UK publishing:

The protest movement sweeping the world since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has forced an international soul searching to understand the pervasive racial inequalities that haunt most sectors of our society – including our own major institutions and industries. 

Publishers have taken advantage of this moment to amplify the marketing of titles by their Black authors and release statements of support for the Black communities who have been campaigning for equality for decades.  

 Although we welcome your support at this time, we are deeply concerned that British publishers are raising awareness of racial inequality without significantly addressing their own.

Open letter to UK publishing from the Black Writers’ Guild, 15 June 2020.

Following on from the revelations of #Publishingpaidme, in which writers revealed the scale of their advances, and the prevalence of non-disclosure agreements in publishing contracts, the Black Writers’ Guild letter took issue with tendency of publishers to capitalise on the cultural moment by promoting black-authored books (particularly about racism), without seriously attending to the longstanding structural issues of inequality affecting how black authors are identified, commissioned, edited, marketed and promoted.

You can read the full letter here: https://www.thebookseller.com/blogs/open-letter-black-writers-guild-1206765

See Chapter 3 for a longer account of Berry’s involvement, with Margaret Busby, Margaret Drabble, and others, in the landmark legal case surrounding the Arts Council’s funding of black British writers.

Archive references: ACGB/60/66 box 1, ACGB/59/15