James Berry (poet)

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James Berry, OBE (1924 – 20 June 2017), was a black Jamaican poet who settled in England in the 1940s. His poetry is notable for using a mixture of standard English and Jamaican Patois.[1] Berry's writing often "explores the relationship between black and white communities and in particular, the excitement and tensions in the evolving relationship of the Caribbean immigrants with Britain and British society from the 1940s onwards".[2] As the editor of two seminal anthologies, Bluefoot Traveller (1976) and News for Babylon (1984), he was in the forefront of championing West Indian/British writing.[3]

Biography[edit]

Berry was born and grew up in rural Jamaica. He began writing stories and poems while he was still at school.[1] During the Second World War, as a teenager, he went to work for six years (1942–48) in the United States, before returning to Jamaica. As he has written:

"America had run into a shortage of farm labourers and was recruiting workers from Jamaica. I was 18 at the time. My friends and I, all anxious for improvement and change, were snapped up for this war work and we felt this to be a tremendous prospect for us. But we soon realised, as we had been warned, that there was a colour problem in the United States that we were not familiar with in the Caribbean. America was not a free place for black people. When I came back from America, pretty soon the same old desperation of being stuck began to affect me. When the Windrush came along, it was godsend, but I wasn't able to get on the boat.... I had to wait for the second ship to make the journey that year, the SS Orbita."[4]

Settling in 1948 in Great Britain, he attended night school, trained and worked as a telegrapher in London, while also writing.[5] He has been reported as saying: "I knew I was right for London and London was right for me. London had books and accessible libraries."[6]

In 1976 he compiled the anthology Bluefoot Traveller and in 1979 his first poetry collection, Fractured Circles, was published. In 1981 he won the Poetry Society's National Poetry Competition, the first poet of West Indian origin to do so.[7] He edited the landmark anthology News for Babylon (1984), considered "a ground-breaking publication because its publishing house Chatto & Windus was 'mainstream' and distinguished for its international poetry list".[7]

Berry wrote many books for young readers, including A Thief in the Village and Other Stories (1987), The Girls and Yanga Marshall (1987), The Future-Telling Lady and Other Stories (1991), Anancy-Spiderman (1988), Don't Leave an Elephant to Go and Chase a Bird (1996) and First Palm Trees (1997).

His last book of poetry, A Story I Am In: Selected Poems (2011), draws on five earlier collections: Fractured Circles (1979), Lucy’s Letters and Loving (1982, Chain of Days (1985), Hot Earth Cold Earth (1995) and Windrush Songs (2007).[8]

In 1995, his "Song of a Blue Foot Man" was adapted and staged at the Watford Palace Theatre Theatre.[3]

In 1990, Berry was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to poetry.[9][10][1] In September 2004 he was one of fifty Black and Asian writers who have made major contributions to contemporary British literature who featured in the historic "A Great Day in London" photograph at the British Library.[11][12] His archives were acquired by the British Library in October 2012.[13][2] Among other items, the archive contains drafts of an unpublished novel, The Domain of Sollo and Sport.[13]

He died on 20 June 2017 after suffering from Alzheimer's disease.[14]

Selected publications[edit]

  • Bluefoot Traveller: An Anthology of Westindian Poets in Britain (editor), London: Limestone Publications, 1976; revised edition Bluefoot Traveller: Poetry by West Indians in Britain, London: Harrap, 1981
  • Fractured Circles (poetry), London: New Beacon Books, 1979
  • Lucy's Letters and Loving, London: New Beacon Books, (1982)
  • News for Babylon: The Chatto Book of Westindian-British Poetry (editor), London: Chatto & Windus, 1984
  • Chain of Days, Oxford University Press, 1985
  • A Thief in the Village and other stories (for children), London: Hamish Hamilton, 1987
  • The Girls and Yanga Marshall: four stories (for children), London: Longman, 1987
  • Anancy-Spiderman: 20 Caribbean Folk Tales (for children), illustrated by Joseph Olubo, London: Walker, 1988
  • When I Dance (for children), Hamish Hamilton, 1988
  • Isn't My Name Magical? (for children), Longman/BBC, 1990
  • The Future-Telling Lady and other stories (for children), London: Hamish Hamilton, 1991
  • Ajeemah and his Son (for children), USA: HarperCollins, 1992
  • Celebration Song (for children), London: Hamish Hamilton, 1994
  • Classic Poems to Read Aloud (editor), London: Kingfisher, 1995
  • Hot Earth Cold Earth, Bloodaxe Books, 1995
  • Playing a Dazzler (for children), London: Hamish Hamilton, 1996
  • Don't Leave an Elephant to Go and Chase a Bird (for children), USA: Simon & Schuster, 1996
  • Everywhere Faces Everywhere (for children), Simon and Schuster, 1997
  • First Palm Trees (for children), illustrated by Greg Couch, Simon & Schuster, 1997
  • Around the World in 80 Poems (editor – for children), London: Macmillan, 2001
  • A Nest full of Stars (for children), London: Macmillan, 2002
  • Only One of Me (selected poems – for children), London: Macmillan, 2004
  • James Berry Reading from his poems for children, CD, The Poetry Archive, 2005
  • Windrush Songs, Bloodaxe Books, 2007
  • A Story I Am In: Selected Poems, Bloodaxe Books, 2011

Awards[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Channel 4 Learning.
  2. ^ a b Zoe Wilcox, "British Library acquires the archive of poet James Berry", Group for Literary Archives & Manuscripts, 18 October 2012.
  3. ^ a b National Theatre Black Plays Archive.
  4. ^ "Coming To England", BLACK HISTORY 365, Vol. Two, Issue One, Summer 2008.
  5. ^ Elizabeth Shostak, "James Berry", Gale Contemporary Black Biography.
  6. ^ Interview quoted in Onyekachi Wambu, Black British Literature since Windrush, BBC History.
  7. ^ a b David Dabydeen, John Gilmore, Cecily Jones (eds), The Oxford Companion to Black British History, Oxford University Press, 2007, "News for Babylon", p. 343.
  8. ^ James Berry page at Bloodaxe Books
  9. ^ "No. 52173". The London Gazette. 15 June 1990. p. 9. 
  10. ^ "James Berry". Poetry Archive. Retrieved 16 October 2012. 
  11. ^ Andrea Levy, "Made in Britain. To celebrate the impact of their different perspectives, 50 writers of Caribbean, Asian and African descent gathered to be photographed. Andrea Levy reports on a great day for literature", The Guardian, 18 September 2004.
  12. ^ Kevin Le Gendre, "Books: A great day for a family get together; Who are the movers and shakers in black British writing? And can they all fit on one staircase?", The Independent on Sunday, 17 October 2004.
  13. ^ a b "British Library acquires the archive of Caribbean British poet and writer, James Berry", British Library press release, 16 October 1912.
  14. ^ James Berry 1924-2017
  15. ^ British Council, Literature
  16. ^ "Current RSL Fellows", The Royal Society of Literature.

External links[edit]