In 1967 Sonia Orwell, Francis Wyndham and André Deutsch successfully nominated an elderly and near-destitute Jean Rhys for an award of £1,200. The campaign to channel support to Rhys took off just after the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea, which was submitted to the Arts Council Chairman Lord Goodman as evidence of her literary merit. (A bemused Goodman forwarded it to the Literary Advisory Panel for their consideration).
Wyndham was as emphatic about the quality of Rhys’ writing as he was alarmed about her depressed circumstances living off of £3 a week from the Royal Literary Fund. Although one member of the Panel confided to him that Rhys was precisely the kind of writer the Arts Council should be funding, such statements of support were undermined by the distinctly masculinist emphasis of Day-Lewis’s original idea of state ‘aid’. As he put it in 1966, the state was there to provide funds for the writer required to ‘take some months off from his regular job in order to devote himself to his writing’.
Archive reference: ACGB/60/15
The writer and filmmaker B.S. Johnson received several thousand pounds in grants from the Literature Department in 1969 and 1973. The applications, which stressed the potentially revolutionary nature of Johnson’s writing, as well as his fairly dire financial situation, successfully appealed to the Arts Council’s desire to sniff out the next generation of James Joyces. Johnson’s notorious book-in-a-box The Unfortunates (1969) and ‘geriatric comedy’ House Mother Normal (1971) were submitted to the Panel as evidence of his achievements.
Like Rhys, Johnson’s success partly rested on his ability to mobilize prestigious sponsors from the literary world. One person ready to vouch for Johnson’s creative promise was the writer and literary agent Peter Buckman, with whom Johnson had collaborated on the group novel London Consequences (1972). Another was Samuel Beckett. For Beckett, Johnson’s commitment as a writer rested not only on his ideas and technical innovations but the pursuit of his craft in difficult circumstances. Arts Council funding, Beckett observed, offered writers like Johnson a lifeline. Peer recognition and institutional belief ultimately acquired him crucial funding for the novel See the Old Lady Decently, published in 1975 after Johnson’s sudden death.
Archive reference: ACGB/60/20 box 2; ACGB/60/66 box 5.
The young writer Dambudzo Marechera shared Johnson’s interest in literary invention and his debt to Arts Council funding. Marechera was granted just over two thousand pounds in 1978 and 1981 to support the writing of a novel following the critical success of his prize-winning volume of short fiction The House of Hunger (1978). Although extremely well-versed in the literary canon, Marechera took a more unorthodox approach to literary writing, mixing autobiography and fiction to often oblique effect.
His applications to the Arts Council were initiated and pursued by James Currey, a key figure in the publishing of African writing. Currey contrasted Marechera’s promise as a writer with the financial uncertainty of his position, as Beckett had also done for Johnson, urging the Arts Council to provide Marechera with the financial support necessary for him to write a novel on the diasporic experience of living in Britain. Like Rhys, Marechera was near destitute at the time. However the forces driving Currey were not merely for ones of welfare. Rather, his larger quest was to see Marechera contribute definitively to the Heinemann African Writers Series by converting his several (sketchy) draft novellas into a full length novel. Unfortunately for him, Marechera’s writing belligerently evaded the conventional requirements of a sustained plot, coherent narrative, and clearly identifiable characters preferring what he called ‘literary shock treatment’.
See Chapter 2 for a fuller discussion of Marechera’s sponsorship history.
Archive reference: ACGB/60/20 box 6
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 New Beacon Books.
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 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.
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. 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 incessant use. 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?’
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
Archive references: ACGB/60/66 box 1, ACGB/59/15