British Library acquires archive of Caribbean poet and writer, James Berry


© Image by Caroline Forbes

The British Library has acquired the archive of the Caribbean British poet and writer, James Berry OBE. James Berry, one of the first black writers in Britain to be widely recognised for his work, came to Britain as part of the first major wave of immigrants from the Caribbean in 1948. He is now celebrated not only in the literary field, but also within communities encouraging and championing the work of new black writers in Britain. Held each October in Britain, Black History Month aims to promote Black history, culture and heritage; as part of which the Library has hosted a series of events. The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world’s greatest research libraries.

Berry’s archive includes poetry notebooks spanning the length of his career, along with manuscript and typescript drafts of his poetry and prose (including notes for an unpublished novel), diaries, photographs and audio visual material. Notes and heavily annotated drafts in the archive illustrate Berry’s creative process and the meticulous attention to detail in his writing. As well as revealing the complex processes behind the creative development of Berry’s poetry and prose, this unique material provides an illuminating first hand insight into the challenging circumstances that many immigrants to Britain faced in the 1940s and ‘50s.

James Berry was born in Jamaica in 1924. He worked as an international telegraphist until 1977 when he took early retirement in order to dedicate himself solely to his writing. The archive spans the length of Berry’s literary career from the 1960s to the present, including his early short stories and pieces written for radio broadcasts, including Women’s Hour, in the 1960s and ‘70s. Berry has published poetry collections for adults and children. His adult collections include Lucy’s Letters and Loving (1982), Hot Earth, Cold Earth (1995) and Windrush Songs (2007). His work has won accolades nationally: he has been the recipient of the National Poetry Award and the Cholmondeley Award, given by the Society of Authors. In the USA he has received the Horne Book Award and the Coretta Scott King Award for his children’s fiction. He was awarded an OBE in 1990 and has received an Honorary Doctorate from the Open University.

Much of Berry’s work explores the relationship between black and white communities; in particular, the excitement and tensions in the evolving relationship of the Caribbean immigrants with Britain and British society from the 1940s onwards. Windrush Songs (2007), perhaps Berry’s best known poetry collection, has at its heart the experiences of those who felt compelled by economic and social circumstances to leave their homelands in the Caribbean and seek opportunities abroad. As Berry explains in the introduction to the poetry collection, their decision to leave was often tempered by mixed emotions: ‘here we were, hating the place we loved, because it was on the verge of choking us to death’. Giving a voice to these communities, and the cross-currents – social, emotional, linguistic – between them, Berry’s poems are characterised by the juxtaposition of Standard English with the rhythms of the Jamaican language with which he grew up.

He has also edited a number of poetry anthologies, among them Bluefoot Traveller: An Anthology of  Westindian Poets in Britain (1976). His lifelong passion for and involvement with education, which has included a year spent as Writer-in-Residence at Vauxhall Manor School in London in 1978 and innumerable visits to primary and secondary schools, has developed out of a concern about the low priority given to multi-cultural education in British schools. He has stated his desire to demonstrate the vibrancy and beauty of poetry written in Creole (the West Indian vernacular) to black children both in Britain and in the Caribbean.

James Berry was one of the early members of the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM) which was founded by Andrew Salkey, John la Rose and Edward Kamau Brathwaite in 1966. The founders of CAM sought to increase recognition of West Indian art forms in Britain and to encourage and mentor burgeoning writers, poets and artists. Just as Berry’s writing and his anthologies have encouraged black children to read and enjoy West Indian poetry, his involvement with CAM enabled him to champion the work of younger black writers and poets, for whom he has worked as a tireless advocate.

The archive, which has been purchased by the British Library for £23,000, will be made available to researchers once necessary preservation, sorting and cataloguing work have been carried out. The archive joins the Library’s collection as Black History Month draws to a close and the Library hosts the conclusion of its Black History Month events series:‘Readers Research: Black in Renaissance Britain’ on 19 October examines the findings of two of the Library’s readers; Miranda Kaufmann reveals how the Library manuscript collection lead to her discovery of 135 Africans spending a week outside Bristol in 1590, whereas, Michael Ohajuru talks about his use of the Library to gain an insight into the making, location and viewingof a roodscreen featuring a black magus found in early 16th century Devon.

“I made my work for other people to read and I always hoped that readers would get something special out of it. So I am deeply satisfied that the British Library should have taken on my archive as a resource for students and for anybody interested in the writing of poetry and in the development of Caribbean British literature,” said Berry.

Helen Melody, Curator of Modern Literary Manuscripts at the British Library said, “The British Library is delighted to have acquired this significant archive, which provides researchers with a real insight into the life and work of one of the first black writers in Britain to gain widespread recognition. London has had a long history of welcoming waves of migrants from around the world and the inclusion of this material in the national collections will enable research into, and greater awareness of, the significant impact of the Caribbean Diaspora within the literary landscape of the UK.”

Dr Stewart Brown, Reader in Caribbean Literature at University of Birmingham commented: “One of the things that distinguishes James Berry’s work from that of other migrant writers who began to write about the experience of ‘settling in’ – to use a pretty euphemism – in Britain in the decades after the Second World War, is its essential quality of celebration. It is a celebration tempered by a consciousness of all in West Indian history and the migrant experience that would defy celebration, but his urge to find value and sometimes joy in both the remembered life of his rural Jamaican childhood and in his sojourn as a “bluefoot traveller” in Britain through the last sixty years, is the real motive force of his work.”

Listen to James Berry reading some of his poems:

Words of a Jamaican Laas Moment Them

Windrush Songs – Audio

James Berry and John Agard read a collection of their poetry

Discovering James Berry – ‘Someone Really Quite Special’ Passed the Way of Chiswick Village –

For more information contact:

Mel Rouse

Press and Policy Centre – British Library

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