Review: Unending Journey: Selected Writings 1966-2000 by John La Rose

The Sharp Edge of Hope

Within eighty six pages, consisting of one poem and fifteen essays, John La Rose explores what Linton Kwesi Johnson calls in his introduction “the conjunction of the personal and the political”, to give an alternative global history where “the writer and the crowd have emerged to play their roles on the stage of the world.”

In his wide-ranging and deep understanding of the importance of politics, history and “social creativity”, La Rose transcends the boundaries that usually separate the historical, the artistic, the philosophical, the autobiographical and the political. Presented chronologically, these essays traverse complex subject matters with clarity and ease: from slavery to anti-colonialism, from music to poetry, from oppression to fights for liberation. The compartmentalisation of life is done away with here, everything is inter-related. Neither is it over-simplified, however, or mythologized to the point where conflict and difference disappear. La Rose’s powerful struggles for peace, equality and creative freedom call out to the reader to be engaged with. These essays describe how to engage well and without bitterness in such struggles. Broadly speaking La Rose maintains an anti-Colonialist and anti-Capitalist outlook, but his Caribbean sensibility and attention to detail act as an optimistic bulwark against dogma.

The first two pieces ‘Negro Theatre Workshop’ (1966) and ‘Back Into Time’ (1968) give distinctive insights into the UK’s Afro-Caribbean Diaspora and its historical roots. The opening essay deals with how new black communities in London developed their own theatre and forms of entertainment,

“Mostly there is the weekend party – a blues or blue beat party, since Jamaican mores predominate and calypso runs a distant second.”

In ‘Back Into Time’ – a beautiful meditation on culture and place – La Rose explores his childhood in the Trinidadian town of Amira where he was born in 1927. It is written in a style akin to the “marvels of reality” found in the works of Alejo Carpentier and Garcia Marquez,

“The pitch road which, leaving the Savannah, I crossed into Malabar, was a strange divide. Its strangeness always affected me; like a cow, I chew over the meanings of these images which struck my retina. The roads were dirt… …Here the Middle Passage landed its indigestible cargo.”

Subsequent essays alternate between specific anti-racist campaigns in the UK and anti-colonial struggle in Nigeria, Grenada and Kenya, with philosophical links to the Scottish Enlightenment and the Haitian Revolution of 1791. Yet the essays never lose their direct focus on the actuality of “politics where you live and politics where you work”. That La Rose was himself an active trade-unionist, poet, publisher, and campaigner for Salman Rushdie and the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, is a fitting testament of this principle. La Rose was also key in bringing “The Radical Black and Third World Book Fair” to Glasgow.

The essay ‘Unemployment Leisure and the Birth of Creativity’ from 1996 states that the “Old spectres of fascism and nazism, religious and ethnic conflict and terror haunt us, even in Europe, once again” but provides the hope that “out of the womb of originally unwanted leisure also emerge the prodigious marvels of creativity”. The journey between these two statements makes fascinating reading. There is always some good to be found, as his essays on C.L.R. James and Guyananian poet Martin Carter argue – creativity, equality and hope must always be held dear. Even when life seems bleak, “journeys begin and end / with another journey / on the rivers of a time”.

The essential message, travel with hope.

Towser

Unending Journey: Selected Writings 1966-2006 by John La Rose

New Beacon Books, RRP £5, 86pp