American Collections blog

139 posts categorized "Eccles Centre"

09 June 2021

Anselm Berkeley: From Field to Shelf to Plate

This is the sixth in a series of blogs coming out of the Eccles Centres’ Caribbean Foodways oral history project. Identifying connections between participants’ stories and collection items, each blog explores one of the nine oral history interviews that will be deposited in the Sound Archive.

*** Please note that certain browsers do not support the audio clips - read and listen on Chrome or Internet Explorer to ensure that the clips play in full ***

This blog is about Anselm Berkeley who was born on the island of Grenada in 1936. Moving to England in 1960, Anselm worked at Macfarlane Lang, the biscuit company, for 22 years before setting up a shop that sold West Indian produce in Shepherd’s Bush Market. When rent increases pushed him out of the market, he returned to Grenada in semi-retirement where he exported fresh produce to Britain. This blog focuses on Anselm’s memories of Grenada, his shop in Shepherd’s Bush market and his extensive experience of working in the business of supplying food, but you will soon be able to listen to his full interview via the British Library’s Listening and Viewing Service.

Spice Island

grow … and sell nutmegs all his life

Family Land

Colourful drawing
'Myristica Fragrans' Hout. (Myristicaceae). Nutmeg Tree. From an album of 40 drawings made by Chinese artists at Bencoolen, Sumatra, for Sir Stamford Raffles. Watercolour. 1824. British Library Shelfmark NHD 48/23

The small, brown, hard balls that we buy at shops in Britain, and grate into marinades and cakes, were once luscious greeny-yellow seeds growing on a tree, most likely, in Grenada or Indonesia.1 Known as ‘Black Gold’, nutmeg (which appears on the national flag) denotes Grenada’s identity as the ‘Island of Spice'. The largest producer of nutmegs in the Western Hemisphere, this nutty and aromatic spice features heavily in Grenada’s histories of flavour, imperialism and revolution.

Anselm Berkeley’s grandfather owned 15 acres of nutmeg land and before school, Anselm would ‘go up in the mountain … and pick up nutmegs and tek it back down to the village’. Later in the day, his parents would ‘go to the association and sell our nutmegs’. The ‘association’ refers to the Grenada Co-operative Nutmeg Association that was set up as the sole exporter of nutmegs from Grenada in 1947.

Brought to Grenada in 1843, nutmeg required ‘less land, capital and labour’ than sugarcane.2 As the price of sugar fell, abandoned plantations, that were ripe for ‘cultivation and settlement,’ were bought, leased or squatted by ‘Emancipated Africans and former indentured migrants.3 By the late 19th century, nutmeg had replaced sugar exports in Grenada. Perhaps Anselm’s ancestors were some of the original ‘Black Gold’ farmers on the island.

Book cover with photograph of Maurice Bishop and a crowd people
Maurice Bishop, Forward Ever! Three years of the Grenadian Revolution: Speeches of Maurice Bishop (Sydney: Pathfinder Press, 1982) British Library shelfmark YA.1987.a.16402

In 1979, When the People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG) came to power in Grenada, this small yet potent seed became a symbol for imperial control that extracted profits from the region:

‘A sister cracking nutmegs at a receiving station in Grenada receives a small wage of $7.10 a day, and that sister would need to crack about 150 pounds of nutmegs in order to earn that $7 for the day. Those same nutmegs are sold to a broker – a middleman – and taken off to Europe. Then they are resold to a miller, cleaned, blended, and packaged, and put on the shelves of European supermarkets. And when one of our sisters or brothers or aunts living in Shepherd’s Bush or Brixton or Hammersmith in London goes to buy a one-ounce carton of Grenada nutmeg, the price of that ounce of nutmegs is about 20 pence or one of our dollars. One ounce for $1, but 150 pounds of cracking for $7. … the real value of the nutmeg worker’s labor is 300 times what she receives in a day’s wage. That is what we mean by imperialism at work.’

Maurice Bishop, ‘Three Years of the Grenada Revolution’, 13 March 1982, Rally at Queen’s Park, St. George’s

Bishop’s speech was reflective of the PRG’s broader Agro-industrial policy, in which questions about crops and food reliance became a critical part of political debate.4 Interestingly, Anselm’s journey, from picking nutmegs in the mountains to running his own export business that shipped fresh Grenadian produce to Britain, represents a politics of independence that took ownership of foodways between Grenada and Britain.

Shepherd’s Bush Market: ‘one of the first shop fronts’

Black and white advert with palm tree and lists of produce e.g. Guava jelly
Tropic, September 1960. British Library shelfmark: P.P.7615.kf
 
Black and white advert with photograph of a food shop and list of locations and supplies
Flamingo, November 1962. British Library Shelfmark: P.P.5109.bq

Market Day

‘Some enterprising West Indians went to the importers and got the stuff, eliminating the middle man. These stuffs were sold from street to street wherever they could find West Indians and Africans. Later they bought out the shops.’

Donald Hinds, Journey to an Illusion (1966)

In the mid-1980s, Anselm took over one of the first permanent shopfronts selling West Indian food in Shepherd’s Bush Market. Much like these adverts for Edwin McKenzie and 3 Star Stores, Anselm’s shop sold fresh and dry produce. One of the earlier Caribbean-owned Caribbean food shops, Anselm’s story is part of a broader history of Caribbean people establishing their own supply chains in post-war Britain.

On a typical day, Anselm would arise from the family home in Thornton Heath at 4am and drive to Spitalfields Market to buy produce. Arriving in Shepherd’s Bush by 7am, he then unpacked the goods and arranged fresh produce on a bench outside of the shop. Fridays and Saturdays were the busiest days because that 'was the time that the majority of people get paid', so on Friday evening when the 'women come from work, they pass in the market' and bought food from his shop. Anselm recalls spending long days in the shop alone with no break until his children were old enough to lend a helping hand. Running the shop was ‘very hard work’; Anselm would get home at 7pm – meaning he was working 15-hour days, 6 days a week, with Sundays spent bookkeeping.

Chatting at the shop

Anselm’s shop was also a social hub, people ‘would come to chat’ and meet their friends and fellow customers there. Next door to Websters’ record shop, Anselm’s had a unique atmosphere that drew custom from across London. This reminds me of Sam Selvon’s Lonely Londoners, ‘the iconic chronicle of post-war Caribbean migration to Britain.’5 Tanty, an elderly aunt in the novel, makes frequent visits to the grocers:

‘Well Tanty used to shop in this grocery every Saturday morning. It does be like a jam-session there when all the … housewives go to buy …. They getting on just as if they in the market-place back home: “Yes child, as I was telling you, she did lose the baby … half-pound saltfish please, the dry codfish … yes, as I was telling you … and two pounds of rice please, and half-pound red beans, no, not that one, that one in the bag in the corner” … She too like the shop, and the chance to meet them other women and gossip.’6

Selvon’s description reconstructs the social vibrancy of the grocers as a place for conversing, gossiping and shopping. A public space of domesticity where the ‘market-place [of] back home’ could be recreated to produce feelings of familiarity and comfort. Anselm’s son, Rob Berkeley, describes how ‘Food traditions from across the Caribbean were exchanged, recipe secrets passed on, new fusions created, and old friendships rekindled.’

Fire in the market

During his 14 years at Shepherd’s Bush Market, there were four arson attacks at Anselm’s shop. This disturbing and upsetting part of the story speaks to the struggles that Anselm faced. Speaking about the first fire, that was done ‘deliberately from outside of the shop’, he recounts how the shop and shuttering were burnt out and all of his produce – most of which was uninsurable – was destroyed. Anselm explains that it is ‘hard to describe how he felt … there was nothing I could do.’ While the shop was being repaired, Anselm had a temporary stall on the market. On the Saturday after the fire that had happened two days prior, Anselm recalls how his customers refused to walk down Shepherd’s Bush Market and queued, waiting to buy from him, at his temporary stall. No one was ever charged with starting the fire and Anselm explains that he never received any information from the police about any suspects or the wider case. Whilst the state failed to respond effectively to the fire, the community rallied around Anselm. This dynamic, of state failure and community mobilisation, has been a defining characteristic of Black British history.


Coming full circle: farming and exporting 

Sketch of breadfruit growing on a tree
William Elwood Safford, The Breadfruit … Together with a biographical sketch of the author (Washington: H. L. McQueen, 1904) BL Shelfmark 7031.bbb.4.

Export business 

Anselm left the market in 1996 mainly due to sharply rising costs of running a shop there. Returning to Grenada with his wife, Rita, they started exporting Caribbean food to British markets from a farm that they created back in Grenada. They sent fresh produce, like mangoes and breadfruit – a favourite of Anselm’s – by air, to agents in the UK. Anselm’s circular journey from Grenada to Britain and back again (him and Rita recently returned to the UK) embodies the fluidity and connectivity of Caribbean foodways.

Thank you Anselm Berkeley for sharing your memories and thoughts with me.

Naomi Oppenheim is the project lead on Caribbean Foodways in her role as the Caribbean Collections and Community Engagement Intern at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library @naomioppenheim

References/Further Reading

  • Anselm Berkley interviewed by Naomi Oppenheim, Caribbean Foodways Interview, March 2021 (uncatalogued)
  • Claude J. Douglas, The Battle for Grenada’s Black Gold (St. Andrew: Maryzoon, 2004) British Library Shelfmark YD.2006.a.4718
  • Donald Hinds, Journey to an Illusion: The West Indian in Britain (Heinemann: London, 1966) British Library shelfmark W49/3312
  • Flamingo, November 1962, British Library Shelfmark: P.P.5109.bq
  • Grenada, The Future Coming Towards Us, directed by M. Carmen Ashurst, John Douglas and Samori Marksman (1983). Available to watch on YouTube
  • Maurice Bishop, Forward Ever! Three years of the Grenadian Revolution: Speeches of Maurice Bishop (Sydney: Pathfinder Press, 1982) British Library shelfmark YA.1987.a.16402
  • Pure Grenada 
  • Samuel Selvon, The Lonely Londoners (London: Allan Wingate, 1956) British Library Shelfmark2013.a.2
  • Susheila Nasta, ‘The Lonely Londoners: a new way of reading and writing the city’, British Library, 2018
  • Tropic, September 1960. British Library shelfmark P.P.7615.kf
  1. Grenada produces approximately 23% of the world’s nutmeg, ‘second only to Indonesia, which accounts for 73%of the world’s production’, Claude J. Douglas, The Battle for Grenada’s Black Gold (St. Andrew: Maryzoon, 2004). 
  2. Ibid p.1.
  3. Ibid p.1.
  4. Grenada, The Future Coming Towards Us, directed by M. Carmen Ashurst, John Douglas and Samori Marksman (1983) 
  5. Susheila Nasta, ‘The Lonely Londoners: a new way of reading and writing the city’, British Library, 2018
  6. Samuel Selvon, The Lonely Londoners (London: Allan Wingate, 1956).

26 May 2021

Ranette Prime: Food and Identity in Britain

This is the fifth in a series of blogs coming out of the Eccles Centres’ Caribbean Foodways oral history project. Identifying connections between participants’ stories and collection items, each blog explores one of the nine oral history interviews that will be deposited in the Sound Archive.

*** Please note that certain browsers do not support the audio clips - read and listen on Chrome or Internet Explorer to ensure that the clips play in full ***

This blog is about Ranette Prime, a London-based lawyer and food enthusiast who set up her own supper club. Ranette’s parents, Randolph and Lynette Prime, travelled from Trinidad and Guyana to England, in the 1960s, and they have both shaped her love of food. This blog focuses on Ranette’s memories of family trips to Brixton market and life in Sheffield, but you will soon be able to listen to his full interview via the British Library’s Listening and Viewing Service.

Sundays at Brixton Market

Brixton Market

On Sunday mornings, Ranette’s family would pack into a car and drive from West Sussex to Brixton Market, where they would spend the whole day stocking up on supplies of food, beauty products and incense. Ranette’s memories of the market speak to Brixton as a hub of Black Britain – a place where were nods and smiles were signs of ‘community acknowledgement’. Trailing round the market for hours, getting the best eddoes or the cheapest sarsaparilla, and make-up from Island Beauty, Ranette and her siblings were rewarded with patties at the end of the ‘marathon’ shopping trip. Ranette’s recollection that she ‘felt very at home in Brixton’ echoes Brixton’s history as a place of Caribbean settlement, political activism, commerce and leisure.

Article about living in Brixton, B&W photos and text
Tropic, August 1960, British Library Shelfmark P.P.7615.kf.
 
B&W article about Brixton Market with photos and text
Flamingo, July 1963, British Library Shelfmark: P.P.5109.bq

These articles from the 1960s reflect this sense of Brixton as the heart of Black Britain at the time. Founded in 1960, Tropic magazine was a popular glossy magazine that described itself as the ‘voice of 250,000 coloured people in Britain.’1 ‘Living in Brixton’ tells its readers that if you ‘Walk through the famous Brixton market any Saturday and you are bound to hear the lilt of West Indian and West African voices mingled with cockney accents.’ On the next page, the article pinpoints the highlights of living in Brixton, including a photograph of Claudia Jones at the West Indian Gazette offices that were housed at 250 Brixton Road – above Theo Campbell’s record shop – and Leslie and Chris Morgan’s Caribbean Bakeries Limited. Founded a few months after Tropic’s demise, Flamingo magazine was similar in terms of content and style. This 1963 article, ‘West Indians in Brixton Market’ explains the increasingly profitability of ‘West Indian food, vegetables and tinned goods’ alongside recognising its importance as a ‘meeting place’. As Ranettes’ interview reveals, her memories of Brixton market in the 1980s and 1990s are in dialogue with these longer histories that have been documented in Britain’s Black magazines.2

Moving to Sheffield

Over the years we established a bit more of an identity in Sheffield … we had pockets … but it took a while

Martin's Deliveries

At the age of 11, Ranette and her family moved to Sheffield. As they built a new life, they sought out ‘parallels’ to what they had in London. Interestingly, the parallels that they were seeking were often food-based – they searched for familiar ingredients and flavours. In this clip, Ranette remembers a man called Martin who delivered Caribbean food to families across Sheffield. His van was an ‘Aladdin’s cave’ that was filled with fresh and dry foodstuffs, such as plantains, cakes and hardo bread. By the early 2000s Martin had opened a ‘massive’ shop in Pitsmoor, on the outskirts of Sheffield. This story of Martin’s evolution from his travelling van to a permanent shop captures Ranette’s broader reflections on adaptation and community-building, as Sheffield’s Black Caribbean communities established themselves.

Poster with different blue fonts
J. Crossley, Fried fish and chipped potatoes (Leeds, 1906) British Library Shelfmark HS.74/1588

Establishing a sense of community in Sheffield was a gradual process and one that was at times complicated by questions of food and identity. ‘Surrounded by fish and chip shops’, Ranette expresses a sense of fascination with their signification of Britishness. This beautiful ‘Fried Fish and Chipped Potatoes’ rhyme, that was printed on greaseproof paper and published in Leeds, in 1906, embodies this quintessential ‘British’ fish and chips narrative that Ranette speaks of. However, these positive, wholesome and British connotations were a relatively recent development in the early 20th century. In Fish and Chips: A History, Panikos Panayi explains how Sephardic Jewish refugees brought traditions of frying fish to Britain in the late 19th century. Panayi interprets records of people complaining about the “nauseous odour”, as symbolising denigrating associations between fried fish and London’s poor areas, where Jewish communities settled.3 So, interestingly, Britain’s ‘national dish’ tells a history of migration, othering and adoption.

Fish fingers and peas

As well as eating fish and chips, Ranette remembers asking her mum to make that ‘British stuff … peas and fish fingers’, when her school friend came over to the house. Reflecting on her associations of certain foods, like shop bread and fish and chips, with British culture, Ranette remembers her young self, feeling a need to identify with these foods. This anecdote of culinary elasticity signifies the multiple ways in which people, especially children, self-consciously shape their identities.

Photograph of phoulorie
Trini Phoulorie, photograph courtesy of Ranette Prime

I lived in little Trinidad as it were, and little Guyana at home

As Ranette explains, her approach to cooking, whether at home or for her supper club (Eats and Beats), has been profoundly influenced by the food of her parents i.e. the food of Trinidad and Guyana. However, other cuisines, from Turkish to Korean, have also shaped Ranette’s tastes and cooking style. Speaking about the her parents, she describes a ‘common ground in their culture that Guyanese and Trini … complement each other really well’ – a harmony of tastes that is born out the region’s complex history. Phoulorie, which is widely eaten in Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana, reflects this ethnic and culinary crossover that is in part a result of their respective Indo-Caribbean populations. There is a basic recipe for phoulorie in E. Phyllis Clark’s West Indian Cookery book , but I think that Ranette’s recipe, which she has generously shared, sounds far tastier than Clark’s version which seems under spiced. Why not try it at home this weekend?

Page of text recipe for phoulorie
E. Phyllis Clark, West Indian Cookery (Edinburgh: Published for the Government of Trinidad and Tobago by Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1946) British Library Shelfmark 7948.a.66.

text

text
Phoulorie Recipe, courtesy of Ranette Prime

Thank you Ranette Prime for sharing your memories and thoughts with me.

Naomi Oppenheim is the project lead on Caribbean Foodways in her role as the Caribbean Collections and Community Engagement Intern at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library @naomioppenheim

Read the sixth blog in the Caribbean Foodways series here - Anselm Berkely: From Field to Shelf to Plate

References / further reading

  • Black London Histories http://www.blacklondonhistories.org.uk/
  • Caribbean Market, Brixton, 1961, British Pathé
  • Conversation in Sheffield about accent, dialect and attitudes to language, BBC Voices, British Library Shelfmark C1190/28/05
  • Flamingo, July 1963, British Library Shelfmark: P.P.5109.bq
  • Crossley, Fried fish and chipped potatoes (Leeds, 1906) British Library Shelfmark HS.74/1588
  • Loretta’s Kitchen
  • Naomi Oppenheim, ‘Popular history in the Black British press: Edward Scobie’s Tropic and Flamingo, 1960-64’, Immigrants & Minorities (2020), 136-162
  • Panikos Panaya, Fish and Chips: A History (London: Reaktion Books, 2014). British Library Shelfmark 2016.a.1892
  • Sahar Shah, Fish and chips are uniquely British, and so is its hidden migrant history, gal-dem, 1 December 2020
  • Shopping, Brixton, 1975, British Pathé 
  • Ranette Prime interviewed by Naomi Oppenheim, Caribbean Foodways, March 2021 (uncatalogued)
  • ‘The Hyper-Regional Chippy Traditions of Britain and Ireland’, Vittles, 30 October 2020
  • Tropic, August 1960, British Library Shelfmark P.P.7615.kf.

1. Tropic, March 1960, p.1

2. Naomi Oppenheim, ‘Popular history in the Black British press: Edward Scobie’s Tropic and Flamingo, 1960-64’, Immigrants & Minorities (2020)

3. Panikos Panaya, Fish and Chips: A History (London: Reaktion Books, 2014); Sahar Shah, 'Fish and chips are uniquely British, and so is its hidden migrant history', gal-dem, 1 December 2020

20 May 2021

Sandra Agard: An Ode to Ridley Road

This is the fourth in a series of blogs coming out of the Eccles Centres’ Caribbean Foodways oral history project. Identifying connections between participants’ stories and collection items, each blog explores one of the nine oral history interviews that will be deposited in the Sound Archive.

*** Please note that certain browsers do not support the audio clips - read and listen on Chrome or Internet Explorer to ensure that the clips play in full ***

This blog is about Sandra Agard, a storyteller and author who is currently based at the British Library. Sandra’s parents travelled from Guyana (British Guiana at the time) in the early 1950s and infused their London home with the flavours of Guyana. A life-long Hackney resident, this blog focuses on memories of her parents’ cooking and trips to Ridley Road market but you will soon be able to listen to her full interview via the British Library’s Listening and Viewing Service.

Delicious, magical, sumptuous … it’s about stories, journey, tradition … a melting pot of so many influences coming together to make the Caribbean, and that’s what Caribbean food is, it’s history, it’s us, it’s me

Caribbean food is

Capturing the magic of Caribbean food, Sandra connects her own life to that of her parents, and the wider history of Guyana and the Caribbean, through recollections of freshly baked bread, chow mein and Guinness punch with hot milk. Dishes like chow mein speak to what Sandra calls Guyana’s ‘melting pot’ history. Those fried noodles stretch back to the period of indentureship, when Chinese labourers transported ingredients, tastes and cooking techniques, as they arrived on ships from Hong Kong, to supplement labour shortages following the abolition of slavery.1

Legacy

Sandra’s sumptuous memories of delicious and comforting meals speak to nourishment as a form of community building. Throughout the interview, Sandra spoke tenderly about her parents, Evelyn and Cecil Agard. She thanks them for instilling the family with a strong sense of Caribbean identity. From Cecil’s Black Cake – which he laboriously made at Christmas time – to Evelyn’s curries, duffs and roti, interspersed with parties and trips to Speakers’ Corner, the family was raised on a diet of Guyanese delicacies, culture and politics. Families like the Agards are revealing of a bigger story about food, migration and identity. A storyteller herself, Sandra avows the importance of maintaining stories and legacies because these ‘mothers and fathers, grandparents, they sacrificed too much to become invisible’. Her memories of Ridley Road market are just one part of this legacy, and they echo Hackney’s working-class and multicultural heritage.

Memories of Ridley Road

Ridley Road Market, as a child, it was the boom

Red, white and green painted flyer with text
Save Ridley Road sign on Colvestone Crescent, collect by the author

Sandra remembers when Ridley Road Market was so busy that ‘you couldn’t move … it was just chock-a-block’. She would go on Saturday mornings with her mother, Evelyn, who was constantly bumping into friends, stallholders and fellow nurses – you could not go ‘two seconds without meeting somebody and standing up for years and talking and talking’. These memories capture the community spirit of one of London’s oldest markets. Whilst official records of Ridley Road date back to 1926, Freddie Sherrif – who was once the market governor – explains that this date refers to the time when stallholders asked the council to regulate it and that the market long predates this. Recorded for the Millennium Memory Bank, Sherrif traces the history of the market, from his grandfather who fought against Oswald Mosley (founder and leader of the British Union of Fascists, 1932-40) to the changing demographics of the surrounding area in the post-war period.

‘that’s why this market’s survived, basically we’ve got a catchment of customers that come from cultures that are market-based … we realise that and we’re very grateful. Where other markets, great markets within London have failed … Ridley Road’s still thriving because of that one reason … The whole world meets here and there’s never any trouble … no more than you would in Harrods’

Freddie Sherrif interviewed by Matthew Linfoot - Millennium Memory Bank BL Shelfmark C900/05075

Both of these interviews – with Sandra and Sherrif – depict the market as a hub of trade, nourishment and comradeship, with its comparative success and longevity resulting from the rich composition of Hackney’s population.

Page from the book
Great Domesday Book, 1086. National Archives Shelfmark E 31/2/2

Markets have existed for millennia, to provide goods and services to the surrounding locality and as a space for farmers and artisans to sell their wares. Commissioned by William the Conqueror, in 1085, the Great Domesday Book (1086) recorded details of 13,418 settlements in England – including 50 market towns. From the 12th century, the number of market towns in England increased rapidly; between 1200 and 1349 thousands of new weekly markets were licensed by the Crown.2 These markets are a part of our national heritage, that speak to the everyday histories of food, trade and of family life. Even as the prevalence of street markets decline (in the UK), they continue to be an important part of daily life for many people and cultures across the world. In fact, ‘The Market’ was one of the topics included in Going to Britain?, a guide for prospective Commonwealth voyagers from the Caribbean. Published by the BBC in 1959, the pamphlet was authored by a combination of Caribbean men who were already living in London (including Samuel Selvon, the Trinidadian novelist), political figures and civil servants. It covered several topics, such as the journey, housing and work, in a sometimes humorous but generally stern and condescending tone.  

Front cover, black and white photo and page of text
BBC Caribbean Service, Going to Britain? (London: British Broadcasting Corp., 1959) British Library Shelfmark Andrew Salkey Archive Dep 10310. Box 17. Available to view online

Nurses shopping in the market

A.G. Bennett’s section on shopping warned future settlers that ‘Fruit dealers hate buyers handling and squeezing things on display.’ This reminds me of Sandra’s anecdote about nurses shopping for provisions – ‘plantains, sweet potatoes and yams’ – on Ridley Road after they had come off the night shift. When the shopkeeper told the nurses off for touching the produce, Sandra thought ‘how dare he?!’ These feelings of anger prompted her to tell ‘him what’s for’ and demand that he show these women, nurses, mothers and customers more respect. These were women that had been recruited by the newly-formed NHS to come to Britain and train as nurses in order to meet the health needs of post-war Britain.3 Sandra remembers that everyone else started to join in, which ‘was just so brilliant’ – it was part of a process of ‘finding their own voice and standing up for themselves’. This is why recording and archiving stories like Sandra’s is so important, because it speaks back to the archive and, in this case, to the politics of assimilation that publications like Going to Britain epitomised.

Article 'Black Angels' with text and photographs
'Black Angels: Coloured doctors and nurses are saving Britain's hospital services from breakdown', Flamingo, October 1961 British Library Shelfmark P.P.5109.bq.

How the market's changed 

Nostalgic for the market’s ‘vibrant’ and ‘electric’ feel, Sandra explains that there is now ‘something missing’, which has only been intensified by the global pandemic. Acutely aware of the forces that have intensified the market’s decline, she comments on the fact that Ridley Road is ‘prized land’, as much of Hackney is now. Listing some of Hackney’s diminished or lost markets, like the Waste along Kingsland Road and Roman Road Market, in comparison to thriving Broadway Market, Sandra provides a window onto the fast-changing gentrified landscape of Hackney, through the lifecycle of the market. Much like the Save Ridley Road campaign – for which you will see beautifully painted and printed signs on display in the surrounding area – Sandra proclaims ‘We need our markets’!

Photograph of a red, white and green sign surrounded by leaves
Save Ridley Road sign on Colvestone Crescent, Dalston, taken by the author

Thank you Sandra Agard for sharing your memories and thoughts with me.

Naomi Oppenheim is the project lead on Caribbean Foodways in her role as the Caribbean Collections and Community Engagement Intern at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library @naomioppenheim

Read the fifth blog in the Caribbean Foodways series here - Ranette Prime: food and identity in Britain

References / further reading

  • 'Great Domesday Book', Anglo-Saxons Collection Items, British Library 
  • BBC Caribbean Service, Going to Britain? (London: British Broadcasting Corp., 1959) British Library Shelfmark Andrew Salkey Archive Dep 10310. Box 17
  • ‘Black and white photos of pre-gentrification Hackney’, Huck, 12 February 2020
  • Flamingo, October 1961, British Library Shelfmark P.P.5109.bq.   
  • Freddie Sherrif interviewed by Matthew Linfoot - Millennium Memory Bank British Library Shelfmark C900/05075
  • Future Hackney
  • H. Britnell, ‘The Proliferation of Markets in England, 1200-1349’, The Economic History Review, 34 (1981). 209-221
  • Linda McDowell, 'How Caribbean migrants helped to rebuild Britain', Windrush Stories, 4 October 2018
  • 'Local storytelling collective to stage public exhibition celebrating Ridley Road', Hackney Citizen, 13 October 2020
  • William Lobscheid, Chinese Emigration to the West Indies. A trip through British Guiana undertaken for the purpose of ascertaining the condition of the Chinese who have emigrated under Government contract. With supplementary papers relating to contract labor and the slave trade (Demerara: Royal Gazette Office, 1866) British Library Shelfmark Digital Store 8155.ee.9.(6.)
  • P. Lee, Chinese Cookery. A hundred practical recipes with decorations by Chiang Yee (London: Faber & Faber, 1943) British Library Shelfmark 7946.df.32.
  • Sandra Agard interviewed by Naomi Oppenheim, Caribbean Foodways, March 2021 (uncatalogued)
  • Save Ridley Road
  1. William Lobscheid, Chinese Emigration to the West Indies (Demerara: Royal Gazette Office, 1866)
  2. R. H. Britnell, ‘The Proliferation of Markets in England, 1200-1349’, Economic History Review, 34 (1981). 209-221
  3. Linda McDowell, 'How Caribbean migrants helped to rebuild Britain', Windrush Stories, 4 October 2018

17 May 2021

Digital resources on the 17th, 18th and 19th century Caribbean

Imaobong Umoren is the co-winner of the 2021 Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer’s Award. Here she explores some of the digital resources which have supported her research so far.

________________________________________________________________

With access to the British Library restricted due to lockdowns, taking advantage of the wealth of primary source material available electronically has offered me the chance to work on my current book project, Empire Without End: A New History of Britain and the Caribbean, which explores the entangled connections between the Anglophone Caribbean and Britain from the 1600s to today. I trace the history of colonialism and neo-colonialism considering especially the role they play in shaping structural and persistent inequalities facing both Britain and the Anglophone Caribbean.

BAO Slavery resource online landing page
British Online Archives, landing page for the Slavery in Jamaica, Records from a Family of Slave Owners, 1686-1860 collection

My focus, for now, is centred on the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. The British Library’s subscription to the British Online Archives (remotely accessible for registered BL Readers) have provided me the chance to dig into rich collections that document the history of slavery and the post-emancipation era. I have found a wealth of material in collections such as Slavery in Jamaica, Records from a Family of Slave Owners, 1686-1860; Antigua, Slavery and Emancipation in the Records of a Sugar Plantation,1689-1907; Caribbean Colonial Statistics from the British Empire, 1824-1950; Slave Trade Records from Liverpool, 1754-1792; The West Indies in Records from Colonial Missionaries, 1704-1950; and The West Indies: Slavery, Plantations and Trade, 1759-1832.

E-books and digitised pamphlets relating to pro- and anti-slavery debates have also been valuable. Many of these can be accessed freely online without a British Library Reader’s Card. I have found the following especially useful: James Ramsay’s, An Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Slave Colonies (1784) [BL Digital Store RB.23.a.1199], Elizabeth Heyrick’s ‘Immediate, not Gradual Abolition’ (1824) [available in the Reading Rooms as part of the ‘Slavery and Anti-Slavery: A Transnational Archive Part I’ e-resource; also available on Google Books], Thomas Cooper’s Facts illustrative of the condition of the Negro slaves in Jamaica (1824) [BL Digital Store 8156.c.30.], and Joseph Sturge and Thomas Harvey’s The West Indies in 1837 (1838) [BL Digital Store 1050.l.22.]. (The British Library’s digitisation collaboration with Google Books has made nearly 470,000 volumes, including these, available for free online. Find out more on the Google Books project page of the British Library website.)

Readex Caribbean Newspapers online landing page
Readex, landing page for the Caribbean Newspapers, 1718-1876 digital resource.

Useful too has been the Caribbean Newspapers Collection (also remotely accessible for registered BL Readers) which has afforded me insight into the broader context of this period from the perspective of elites especially the St Lucia Gazette, Bahamian, Nevis Guardian, Dominica Chronicle, Bermuda Gazette, and the Port-of-Spain Gazette. These newspaper collections span, for the most part, the period 1786-1876. I have also explored fascinating material in the African American Newspapers, Series 1 and Series 2 and the South Asian Newspapers collection, all available via remote access for registered Readers.

The Endangered Archives Programme has also given me access to a wide range of sources, freely available online, related to the history of the Turks and Caicos Islands, St Kitt’s and Nevis, Montserrat, and material from The Barbadian Newspaper, The Barbados Mercury Gazette, and the Deed Books in St Vincent during slavery.

All of these sources have proved rich and fruitful and once the British Library’s doors begin to open wider I am looking forward to diving deep into non-electronic sources especially on Black British political and artistic movements.

-- Imaobong Umoren, May 2021

11 May 2021

Charlie Phillips: The Story Behind Smokey Joe's Diner

This is the third in a series of blogs coming out of the Eccles Centres’ Caribbean Foodways oral history project. Identifying connections between participants’ stories and collection items, each blog explores one of the nine oral history interviews that will be deposited in the Sound Archive.

*** Please note that certain browsers do not support the audio clips - read and listen on Chrome or Internet Explorer to ensure that the clips play in full ***

This blog is about Charlie Phillips AKA Smokey, the Jamaican-born photographer and restaurateur, who arrived in Liverpool on-board the Reina del Pacifico in 1956 before settling in Notting Hill. This blog focuses on Charlie’s early years in Jamaica and his restaurant, Smokey Joe’s, in Wandsworth, but you will soon be able to listen to his full interview via the British Library’s Listening and Viewing Service.

Chicken soup

The marriage of the Jewish classic, chicken soup, with the African, Caribbean and Latin American staple, cassava, all in a humble bowl of goodness, cooked by Charlie’s grandmother, captures traditions of blending and nourishment that are central to Caribbean cooking.1 As Smokey explains, this bowl of soup is part of Jamaica’s ‘hidden history.’ The earliest Jewish presence in Jamaica dates back to 1530, as it became a place of refuge for Jews that were fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. By 1720, 18% of the island’s population were Jewish.2 Whilst the Jewish presence has all but disappeared (there were less than 15 people at a Shabbat service that I attended at Shaare Shalom Synagogue in Kingston, in 2019) some culinary influences have survived. The parallels between Charlie’s description of his grandmother's cooking in the hills of St Mary, Jamaica, and the following excerpt from an interview with Jewish East-ender, Carol Matthews, are striking. From the salting of beef to the pickling of cucumbers, quintessential Jewish flavours and textures – which are themselves the product of multicultural diasporic culinary evolution – formed a nourishing cornerstone of Charlie’s childhood.

‘well … you’ve not had a real meal unless you’ve ‘ad Jewish chicken soup. Now, they call it the penicillin, of the Jewish world, and trust me, you’ve not lived until you’ve ‘ad Jewish chicken soup and lokshen and kneidlach balls … also, I make new green cucumbers, which is basically cucumbers in acetic acid with some spices thrown in and some garlic, salt beef … fabulous fabulous, hot salt beef sandwiches with mustard’

Carol Matthews interviewed by Anton Jarvis (Singer, Taxi Driver, Pub Compere) - Millennium Memory Bank British Library Shelfmark C900/04026

‘Matzo Kleis’, as they are called in this cookbook from 1895, are typically served in a broth – generally chicken soup – for the Jewish festival of Passover. This Jewish dumpling-of-sorts was just one of the many types that Charlie loved to eat as a boy (and still does), from Johnny Cakes to cartwheels. Blanche’s Jamaican twist on matzo balls made with grated cassava, also known as manioc, manihot, yuca and tapioca, points to the multiple roots and routes of Caribbean foodways.

Text recipe for passover dishes
Miss M. A. S. Tattersall, Jewish Cookery Book: Compiled for use in cookery centres under the School Board for London (London: Wertheimer, Lea & Co., 1895) British Library Shelfmark A.2003.a.43999
 
Front cover of pamphlet
Jean S. Ingram, Cassava processing: commercially available machinery (London: Tropical Products Institute [Foreign and Commonwealth Office], 1972) British Library Shelfmark 9056.510

Coronation market

Ships leaving KingstonHigglers in Coronation Market 

A ‘country boy’, Charlie begrudgingly moved to Kingston aged 10. This is where Smokey’s enterprising character blossomed – he would run ‘last minute errands’ for emigrants leaving Jamaica onboard ships like the SS Ormonde and Reina Del Pacifico; help out higglers in Kingston’s famous Coronation Market; and carry stale bread from the bakery to a fishing village called Greenwich Farm. In these clips, Smokey remembers buying packets of Zephyr cigarettes and pickapeppa sauce for the hopeful voyagers who had learned from earlier sojourners to douse the bland food onboard in hot sauce.

Fishermen and bulla cake

The term ‘higgler’ or ‘higglering’ signifies the ‘informal economic activity of small-scale street vending dating back to the days of slavery, and is dominated by black, lower class Jamaican women.’3 Charlie fondly remembers one higgler in particular, Miss Gladys, who used to look out for him. Much like the higglers that Charlie ran errands for, he was creatively responding to the precarity and poverty that shaped the lives of working-class people in Jamaica. Recalling some of his favourite things to eat as a boy, Charlie describes picking up left over avocados when the market was finished and eating these with bulla – a spiced cake that was made with molasses – that he would get when he collected bread for the fishermen.

Las Palmas to Smokey Joe's

Photograph of a crowd of people on the street by a green food truck
Smokey Shack, photograph courtesy of Charlie Phillips

Before Charlie’s family opened Las Palmas, a food ‘shack’ on Portobello Road, which was one of London’s earliest Caribbean eateries, they had an unlicensed cook shop where his stepmother would cook for 15-20 people a day. Cook shops were fairly common in the 1950s and 1960s, offering a slice of home for mostly single men that had settled in the UK. This blurring of private and public space was a pattern that characterised many post-war Caribbean leisure and commercial practices, from blues parties to hair salons. Charlie’s early introduction to the business of selling food, combined with cheffing experience at restaurants like the Grosvenor House Hotel and travelling around Europe, led him to set up his own food stall in the 1970s. He started selling barbequed corn on the cob and became known as liking to ‘smoke up the whole place’, which is how he got his nickname – Smokey Joe. After doing fairs and festivals for some years, Smokey decided to set up a diner in the 1980s.

Newspaper article with text and images
New York Times, 18 January, 1993. British Library Shelfmark MFM.MA3

A barbeque-style Jamaican fusion joint, Smokey Joe’s diner was a popular spot. In 1993, the New York Times praised its standout jerk chicken and pork. It was featured alongside the still standing Beigel Bake on Brick Lane (one of Charlie’s favourite spots) and Mangal Ocakbasi in what was then the ‘gritty East End’ where tourists were ‘unlikely’ to venture!4 Smokey Joe’s was a success in spite of the obstacles put up by bank managers that refused to loan Charlie money, who according to him had no understanding of what a Caribbean restaurant was or might become. While there are many more Caribbean food outlets, restaurants, supper clubs etc. across the UK today, there are still gaping inequalities and injustices in the food industry. From a lack of investment, to the whitewashing of recipes, names and décor, processes of racism, othering and exclusion are still very much present in the commercial British food landscape.5 This is why it is so important to highlight ongoing and historic stories of delicious defiance, like Smokey Joe’s!

Cartoon style logo of man grilling meat and corn
Smokey Joe’s Diner, photograph courtesy of Charlie Phillips

Thank you Charlie Phillips for sharing your memories and thoughts with me.

Naomi Oppenheim is the project lead on Caribbean Foodways in her role as the Caribbean Collections and Community Engagement Intern at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library @naomioppenheim

Read the fourth blog in the Caribbean Foodways series here - Sandra Agard: An Ode to Ridley Road

References / further reading

  • ‘A Week’s Worth of Budget Dining’, New York Times, 18 January 1993. British Library Shelfmark MFM.MA3
  • B. W. Higman, Jamaican Food: History, Biology, Culture (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2008), British Library Shelfmark YC.2009.b.918
  • Brown-Glaude W.R. 'Spreading Like a Dis/ease?: Afro-Jamaican Higglers and the Dynamics of Race/Color, Class and Gender'. In: Cook D.T. (eds) Lived Experiences of Public Consumption. Consumption and Public Life (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) British Library Shelfmark YK.2008.a.10168
  • Carol Matthews interviewed by Anton Jarvis, Millennium Memory Bank, British Library Shelfmark C900/04026
  • Charlie Phillips interviewed by Naomi Oppenheim, Caribbean Foodways, March 2021 (uncatalogued)
  • Charlie Phillips Heritage Archive
  • Jean S. Ingram, Cassava processing: commercially available machinery (London: Tropical Products Institute [Foreign and Commonwealth Office], 1972) British Library Shelfmark 9056.510
  • Harriet Sherwood, 'Revealed: how the Caribbean became a haven for Jews fleeing Nazi tyranny', Guardian, 7 December 2019 
  • Miss M. A. S. Tattersall, Jewish Cookery Book: Compiled for use in cookery centres under the School Board for London (London: Wertheimer, Lea & Co., 1895) British Library Shelfmark A.2003.a.43999
  • Riaz Phillips, ‘In The Food Industry, The Odds Have Always Been Stacked Against Black People’, Resy, 12 June 2021 
  • Steve Rose, 'Charlie Phillips: why did it take so long for one of Britain's greatest photographers to get his due?', Guardian, 25 March 2021
  • 'Who the F*** is Charlie Phillips’, MrFeelGood

1. Taino peoples subsisted on, from B. W. Higman, Jamaican Food: History, Biology, Culture (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2008), pp. 61-6

2. Rebecca Lambert, ‘Jews in Jamaica’, 13 October 2020, Jewish Museum

3. Brown-Glaude W.R. 'Spreading Like a Dis/ease?: Afro-Jamaican Higglers and the Dynamics of Race/Color, Class and Gender'. In: Cook D.T. (eds) Lived Experiences of Public Consumption. Consumption and Public Life (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)

4. ‘A Week’s Worth of Budget Dining’, NYT, 18 January 1993

5. Riaz Phillips, ‘In The Food Industry, The Odds Have Always Been Stacked Against Black People’, Resy, 12 June 2021

 

07 May 2021

Joe Williams: ‘the need for flavour’

This is the second in a series of blogs coming out of the Eccles Centres’ Caribbean Foodways oral history project. Identifying connections between participants’ stories and collection items, each blog explores one of the nine oral history interviews that will be deposited in the Sound Archive.

*** Please note that certain browsers do not support the audio clips - read and listen on Chrome or Internet Explorer to ensure that the clips play in full ***

This blog is about Joe Williams, the Leeds-born arts and heritage activist who researches the historic African presence in Yorkshire. This blog focuses on Joe’s memories of Leeds West Indian Carnival and his historical perspective on Caribbean food but you will soon be able to listen to his full interview via the British Library’s Listening and Viewing Service.

Book cover with title and red etching of a face surrounded by
Lorna Goodison, Tamarind Season: Poems (Kingston: Institute of Jamaica, 1980) British Library Shelfmark X.950/14241

In Jamaica, tamarind season refers to a period of scarcity and hardship before the harvest. Invoking this in her first published collection of poetry, Tamarind Season (1980), Lorna Goodison expresses strength and optimism in face of suffering. Joe Williams echoes this motif of struggle and resilience throughout this recollections and understandings of Caribbean foodways, from Yorkshire to West Africa.

Tamarind

The fruit itself – what Joe calls ‘packaged sweets in nature’ – also connects Joe’s story to Goodison’s poem. In this clip, Joe recalls his sister joining the family in Leeds, from Jamaica, in 1969 and bringing fresh tamarind pods wrapped in newspaper. Joe’s evocative description of the lip-pursing – ‘makes you stand up’ – dark reddish-brown fruit provides a window onto the numerous delectable, novel and familiar items that would have been pulled out of tightly packed suitcases and trunks, as people came to join already-settled family members and friends in Britain.

The occurrence of siblings joining partially established families in Britain was common; families that been separated by the Atlantic’s economic and historic waves, what some historians have referred to as the ‘second Middle Passage’.1 Joe’s mother, Betty Williams, a seamstress from Jamaica who had 10 children in Trench Town, Kingston, came to Britain alone in 1960. Joe locates his mother’s story as a ‘rare insight into the Windrush narrative’ that puts a spotlight on those women who bravely travelled alone ‘to create opportunities for their family’. Throughout the 1960s, Betty’s husband and children joined her and Joe in Leeds – realising her dream ‘to get her children out of terrible conditions in the ghettoes of Jamaica, which were a legacy of the Transatlantic Slave Trade’.

In Andrea Levy’s Small Island (2004), the award-winning novel about post-war Caribbean migration, there is a similar narrative around food and arrival. When Hortense arrives in London to join her husband Gilbert, Kenneth – a fellow Caribbean settler – enquires about the contents of her luggage:

‘So you tell me she jus’ come from home? You know what she have in that trunk?
‘No, man.’
‘Come, let us open it. Mango fetching a good price. You think she have rum? I know one of the boys give me half his wage to place him tongue in a guava.’2

Whilst this conjures senses of yearning for the familiarity of home through foodstuffs, like Joe’s story, it evokes the personal and small-scale journeys of Caribbean produce, in pockets and suitcases.

Leeds West Indian Carnival

Open book with a photograph of a carnival crowd in 1968 and a woman dressed in a costume from 1970
Harriet Walsh, Leeds West Indian Carnival, 1967-2002 (Leeds: Pavillion, 2003) British Library Shelfmark YK.2004.a.1560

The longest running West Indian outdoor carnival started in Chapeltown, Leeds, in 1967. As Joe explains, Leeds’ West Indian population has a majority of people from St Kitts and Nevis – so Leeds Carnival reflects the unique cultural practices of these islands, such as Christmas Sports.3 Becoming more conscious as a teenager, Joe found his own way to carnival, describing it as a ‘welcoming and inclusive’ space where eclectic Caribbean cultures were shared.

Food at Leeds Carnival

Carnival marked an ‘opportunity to introduce people to the food of the West Indies’ from roasted corn to homemade patties. Evoking the sights, sounds and smells of carnival, Joe recalls a man with a machete chopping green coconuts. The journey of the coconut from Southeast Asia to the Americas, and its symbolic place at Leeds West Indian Carnival, reflects the complexities of Caribbean foodways. The coconut was introduced to the Americas as part of the Columbian exchange in the early colonial period, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. J. W. Bennett’s The coco-nut palm, its uses and cultivation (1836) speaks directly to the transportation of certain plants and foodstuffs across the British empire – a point that Joe echoes in his critical discussion of Kew Gardens' colonial legacies. Bennett’s book embodies practices of extraction, exploitation and disavowal. From the exoticizing narratives of indigenous practices in ‘Ceylon’ to carefree recipes for coconut cocktails, it is, essentially, a planter’s manual for the production of capital, luxury and indulgence during an era of apprenticeship – which was, in practice, an extension of slavery. As Joe’s interview explores, Caribbean food cannot be disentangled from histories of slavery and resistance.


Coco 2

Coco 2

Pages from a book, including the title page, a painting of coconuts and a cocktail recipe
J. W. Bennett, The coco-nut palm, its uses and cultivation: as adapted for the general benefit in our West Indian and African colonies (London: Sherwood, Gilbert and Piper, 1836) British Library Shelfmark Digital Store RB.23.a.25211

Hospitality in the home

Homes as spaces of commerce

Black and write scan of a magazine article on the 'Colour Bar in Public Places'
Tropic, June 1960, British Library Shelfmark P.P.7615.kf.

Throughout Joe’s descriptions of culinary commerce, there is a strong sense of resourcefulness, of what he calls ‘the culture of … survival’. This self-sufficiency was manifest in the houses that became social hubs for eating, drinking and playing dominoes, and by the creation of shebeens and blues parties. Drawing links between South African apartheid and the ‘colour bar’ in Britain, this editorial from Tropic highlighted the state’s failure to ‘put an end to the practice of racial discrimination in … public places.’ The exclusion from mainstream opportunities to engage in commercial and leisure practices meant that Caribbean communities had to construct their own spaces of enjoyment and commerce, to make money and experience joy, wherever possible. The fact that food simultaneously produces pleasure and capital means that it is an important arena for diasporic and migrant cultural-commercial production.

Caribbean food is...

What Joe terms as a ‘need for flavour’ in this final clip, helps us to understand why and how the ‘brutality’ of Caribbean history has been ‘made into something beautiful that can be shared with others.’

Thank you Joe Williams for sharing your memories and thoughts with me.

Naomi Oppenheim is the project lead on Caribbean Foodways in her role as the Caribbean Collections and Community Engagement Intern at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library @naomioppenheim

Read the third blog in the Caribbean Foodways series here - Charlie Phillips: the story behind Smokey Joe's Diner

References / Further Reading

  • Andrea Levy, Small Island (London: Review, 2004) British Library Shelfmark Nov.2005/1369
  • Frank L. Mills, Christmas sports in St. Kitts-Nevis: our neglected cultural tradition (F.L. Mills : S.B. Jones-Hendrickson, 1984) British Library Shelfmark YA.1988.a.9251
  • Gabriel Noble, ‘To what extent is the colonial history of botany realised at Kew Gardens today?’ Medium, 15 May 2015 
  • Guy Farrar, Tim Smith, Max Farrar, Celebrate! : 50 years of Leeds West Indian Carnival (Huddersfield: Northern Arts Publications, 2017) British Library Shelfmark LC.37.a.1666
  • Harriet Walsh, Leeds West Indian Carnival, 1967-2002 (Leeds: Pavillion, 2003) British Library Shelfmark YK.2004.a.1560
  • Heritage Corner
  • Hilary Beckles, ‘British Trade in Black Labour: The Windrush Middle Passage’, British Library, 15 June 2018 
  • Joe Williams, interviewed by Naomi Oppenheim, Caribbean Foodways, March 2021 (uncatalogued)
  • J. W. Bennett, The coco-nut palm, its uses and cultivation: as adapted for the general benefit in our West Indian and African colonies (London: Sherwood, Gilbert and Piper, 1836) British Library Shelfmark Digital Store RB.23.a.25211
  • Lorna Goodison, Tamarind Season: Poems (Kingston: Institute of Jamaica, 1980) British Library Shelfmark X.950/14241
  • Tropic, June 1960, p.1 British Library Shelfmark P.P.7615.kf.
  • ‘From Caribbean Isles to the British Isles: Home to Home’, The National Caribbean Heritage Museum
  • ‘Complete Archive of aware-winning novelist Andrea Levy acquired for the nation’, British Library, 6 Feburary 2020 
  • Hannah Lowe, ‘An introduction to Andrea Levy’s Small Island’, British Library, 4 October 2018 

1. Hilary Beckles, ‘British Trade in Black Labour: The Windrush Middle Passage’, British Library, 15 June 2018 

2. Andrea Levy, Small Island (2004), p.22

3. Christmas Sports is an African-derived creolized tradition that begins on Boxing Day and culminates with a carnival on New Year’s Day in St Kitts and Nevis. See Frank L. Mills, Christmas sports in St. Kitts-Nevis: our neglected cultural tradition (F.L. Mills : S.B. Jones-Hendrickson, 1984) 

06 May 2021

Finding the Humor in 'Sappho'

Louise Siddons is an associate professor of art history at Oklahoma State University and a Fulbright Scholar at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library. She is writing a book about the photographer Laura Gilpin that examines the intersection between mid-century lesbian liberation and Navajo sovereignty politics in Gilpin’s photographs and related visual culture. As part of that research, she has been taking a closer look at the transatlantic lesbian press and the construction of lesbian identity. In this post, she shares the unexpected pleasure she discovered in the pages of Sappho, a British magazine that, unlike the American counterparts which advertised in its pages, routinely included comics and cartoons.

Louise will be talking about transatlantic lesbian visual culture and the lesbian gaze in a free online lecture on Monday 10 May at 19.00, Looking Like a Lesbian.

_______________________

“Every group has its share of jokes,” announced “Robyn’s Page,” a regular feature of Sappho. Founded in 1972, Sappho’s mission was to build a meaningful community among lesbian women both as readers and in person. Early in its run, Robyn worried that humor was troublingly absent from lesbian culture.1

In this blog post, I’m taking a close look at the cartoons and comics that appeared in early issues of Sappho. Why should we take humor seriously? Robyn argued that, “Jokes are … a spontaneous endorsement of what’s happening where it matters most – that’s at grass root level.” The lack of lesbian jokes, she suggested, revealed a lack of group identity among lesbians. Eager to change this, she invited readers to come up with “the great lesbian joke.”2

Studies in the psychology of humor have historically focused on the role that “out-group disparagement humor” reinforces in-group identification; in other words, people mark their status as insiders by making fun of outsiders.3 But, as Robyn pointed out, in 1972 lesbian humor was still struggling to locate the notion of “lesbian.” The visual comedy published in Sappho’s early years is almost all about defining the in-group: what does it mean to be a lesbian, and how can humor help that definition cohere?4

If a brief survey of my friends last week is any indication, lesbian humor has achieved the status of a common culture, even if the jokes aren’t always great. Universally, when I asked for a lesbian joke, the first response was: “What does a lesbian bring on a second date?” (Is there any point to pretending we don’t know the punchline?) “A U-Haul.”

Groan-inducing though it is, the U-Haul joke echoes the humor presented in Sappho a half-century earlier, which overwhelmingly took couples as its subject and often poked fun at the intensity of new attachments—sometimes to make a serious point about healthy relationships. My informal friend survey, utterly unscientific and drawn largely from the same “militantly middle-class” audience to which Sappho addressed itself a half-century ago, points to the magazine as a foundational source for long-lasting tropes of lesbian comedy.5

In this 1990 interview, Sappho’s editor, Jacqueline Forster, described the board’s decision to include “photos, cartoons, articles, news stories, poems, and a list of places where lesbians can meet or contact.” As her inclusion of “cartoons” makes clear, there was an expectation that the magazine would include humor, at least some of which would be visual, under the direction of art editors Jay Francis and Murray Marr.

Sappho magazine cover. Yellow with the magazine name in large black letters and a small Venus symbol in black with two faces in profile inside the circle.
Cover, Sappho 1, no. 1 (1972)

An initial encounter with the magazine does not promise comedy: in the first few issues, the discreetly monochromatic panel of the cover is disturbed only by the title of the magazine in a typeface reminiscent of Westminster, the 1960s machine-readable typeface designed by Leo Maggs, volume and issue information, and a small logo—the Venus symbol with two facing, vaguely feminine profiles inside its ring. Reminiscent of the optical illusion in which our perception shifts between two faces and a vase, the logo hints at the semiotic slippage that characterizes queer, and especially lesbian, identity throughout the twentieth century—without making us laugh.

Once inside, however, the conservative, technologically savvy design gave way to a hand-drawn aesthetic reminiscent of earlier lesbian magazines like the British Arena Three and the American The Ladder, inviting intimacy and openness in the reader. The first cartoon appeared on page 7 of the very first issue, and introduced “Mabel and Mildred,” a quirky, naked couple who venture out into the world with varying degrees of success. Although their adventures are slightly surreal, they offer a slice of lesbian life to Sappho readers.

Line drawing of a naked woman holding an axe running off a ledge with a smaller naked woman sat below the step with a speech bubble saying 'Now Mildred, look out for that first step!'
“Mabel and Mildred,” Sappho 1, no. 1 (1972): 7

In each episode, the rendering is rudimentary: Mildred, slightly stockier than her counterpart, is perennially armed with an axe, which seems as likely to endanger Mabel as protect her. Mabel, in turn, is all knees and elbows, with a shock of unruly hair. In this first cartoon, Mildred is at the top of a precipitous set of steps, while Mabel sits at their foot, badly dinged by an apparent fall. “Now Mildred,” she warns, “look out for that first step!” Is this a commentary on Sappho’s inauguration—or on the dangers of coming out in public, as lesbians?

As a reader, I find myself less worried about Mildred than on the effect her outstretched axe will have on Mabel as she falls—a fear exacerbated by this cartoon, just a few pages later, in which Mildred has apparently chopped off Mabel’s head. The joke here is similarly dark: “For heaven’s sake Mildred,” chastises Mabel’s severed head as it floats above her fleeing body, “don’t lose your head!”

Line-drawing of two naked women. The woman on the right holds an axe and is running towards the woman on the left who is running away. With her head detached from her body she has a speech bubble saying 'For heavens sake Mildred, don't lose your head!
“Mabel and Mildred,” Sappho 1, no. 1 (1972): 12.

By the second volume, the two are clearly gendered as a butch/femme pair, thanks to the artist’s pointed application of a decorative bow shape: as a bowtie on Mildred (and her axe), and as a hair accessory on Mabel. It affirms the physical stereotyping already in place: Mildred is relatively stout (and violent), while Mabel is slim, with substantial breasts that occasionally overshadow her knobbly knees and elbows.

Line drawing of six people queuing for an opera performance.
“Mabel and Mildred,” Sappho 1, no. 5 (1972): 18.

With sly humor, this unusual level of clothing for the pair is featured in a cartoon in which the pair have joined a queue for a performance of Richard Strauss’s opera, Elektra. The four characters in line ahead of them represent various characters comically typical of performing arts audiences, all carefully disregarding the naked women behind them. Mildred, facing the viewer and thus seen frontally rather than in profile, explains to Mabel that “It’s about a disturbed nuclear family.” In Strauss’s opera, Electra is armed with an axe with which she avenges her father’s death at the hands of her mother; the myth was taken up by Carl Jung as the basis for a psychoanalytic model of the feminine psyche in 1915.

As an early example of humor in Sappho, “Mildred and Mabel” reflected the middle-class values of the editors in its expectation that readers would recognize references to Strauss and Jung, as well as in the types of activities in which Mabel and Mildred participate. At the same time, the cartoon couple embodied—literally—the paradox of middle-class lesbian existence. Asserting their cultural savvy in their choice of outings, yet persistently appearing naked in public, they thematize the struggle of queer visibility and social acceptance with irony and self-deprecation.

With the caveat that it’s outdated, a friend offered me: "What's the difference between a lesbian and a dyke?" "About $30K a year."

Class was a persistent discussion in Sappho despite its declared affinity with the middle class. In an early issue, Forster refuted the Union of Women for Liberation’s claim that the lesbianism of “a few petty bourgeois women” was “irrelevant to the economic needs of working-class women.” She regularly published letters from readers who asked for more working-class representation, and class struggle came up regularly throughout the magazine’s pages.6

In 1974, cartoonists Kate Charlesworth—now well-known, but in her early work for Sappho credited as “Kaye”—and Sue Neumann joined the masthead of Sappho as artists. They both created witty, many-layered comics for the magazine that draw on art history, public schools, tourism, fashion, and other features of middle-class lesbian experience. Alongside their carefully crafted images, a series of relatively simple images began to appear. Created by a variety of artists (none credited, although a few of the images are signed with initials), they transformed the Venus symbol familiar from the Sappho logo into an anthropomorphic character.

This had two important effects: first, it largely eliminated class-specific references—as well as racial or ethnic markers, which provoked less specific comment at the time, but are striking to contemporary readers. And second, by making visual puns that relied on the formal qualities of the Venus symbol rather than the cultural specificity of a human character, these apparently minor cartoons became surprisingly conceptual in their comedy.

Line drawing of two Venus symbols
“Stop acting butch,” Sappho 3, no. 11 (1975): 19.

The first to appear was this small bit, tucked into the corner of a page about halfway through the magazine. Two Venus signs are side-by-side: the one on the left is oriented in the expected way, but the one on the right is rotated so that the cross that should be beneath the circle is pointing up at a forty-five-degree angle, mimicking the position of the Mars sign typically used to signify male identity. The circle of the Venus on the left cracks into a speaking smile: “Stop acting butch,” she says. How are we supposed to interpret this directive?

Although Steven Dryden has noted elsewhere on the British Library blogs that the scholarly consensus is that “there was a class dimension to the hostility towards butch lesbian identities,” the illustrations in Sappho normalized butch-femme pairings. Along with “Mabel and Mildred,” “The Gailies,” for example, was a recurring strip by Jay Francis that featured a butch-femme couple, and a comic by Charlesworth replaced Tarzan with a butch Jane as she rescues a hapless femme damsel.7

The difference between “Stop acting butch,” and these other examples is that the former is stripped of any extraneous cultural markers, thanks to the reduction of our protagonists to symbols. In other words, the visual humor is based not on our ability to recognize a human type from their class/race/gender markers, but rather on a visual pun: the Venus symbol is acting out of character by rotating itself 135º anticlockwise—thereby mimicking the appearance of a different symbol.

The cartoon is immediately funny, but it also rewards sustained attention. Consider the effectiveness of the symbol’s transgressive resignification of itself: acceding to the anthropomorphism of the artist, we understand perfectly what the Venus symbol intends to represent—masculinity. At the same time, we understand the artist’s intent: to represent masculinity with a symbol that signifies femininity. The humor comes from our ability to comprehend both meanings at once, almost instantly, without this pedantic explanation. And then we realize that the artist is inviting us to transfer that awareness onto our understanding of gender: in the semiotic space of the tilted Venus, one sign signifies twice, equally effectively, because signs—and genders—are both arbitrary cultural constructions.

Louise Siddons, May 2021

_______________________
Endnotes
1 “Robyn’s Page,” Sappho 1, no. 5 (1972): 12; “About Sappho,” Sappho 1, no. 1 (1972): 3.
2 “Robyn’s Page,” Sappho 1, no. 5 (1972): 12.
3 Rod A. Martin and Thomas E. Ford, The Psychology of Humor: An Integrative Approach (Academic Press, 2018).
4 Not exclusively, though: there’s a cartoon with two Venus symbols sharing a snide comment as the Mars sign bumps his arrow into a doorframe—and even Mildred gets an opportunity to turn her nose up at the thought of a man as a potential mate.
5 “About Sappho,” Sappho 1, no. 1 (1972): 3.
6 “Militant Madams,” Sappho 1, no. 5 (1972): 9-10; Jackie Forster, untitled editorial, Sappho 4, no. 1 (1975): 3.
7 Steven Dryden, https://www.bl.uk/lgbtq-histories/articles/arena-three-britains-first-lesbian-magazine; “The Gailies” first appear in Sappho 1, no. 7 (1972); Kate Charlesworth, “Me Jane!,” Sappho 2, no. 11 (1974): 20.

30 April 2021

Ann Husbands: Black Pudding and Roti at Notting Hill Carnival

This is the first in a series of blogs coming out of the Eccles Centres’ Caribbean Foodways oral history project. Identifying connections between participants’ stories and collection items, each blog explores one of the nine oral history interviews that will be deposited in the Sound Archive. 

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This blog is about Ann Husbands, who was born in Grenada in 1955 and travelled to England in 1972 to pursue a career in nursing. Later on, Ann started her own catering business that has supplied food for high-profile events, such as the celebration for 50 years of Independence at the High Commission for Trinidad and Tobago, in 2012. This blog focuses on Ann’s stories of her parents’ restaurant and trading at Notting Hill Carnival but you will soon be able to listen to her full interview via the British Library’s Listening and Viewing Service.

Green lantern breakfast

From bacon and eggs to saltfish souse, the breakfast offering at Green Lantern – the restaurant owned by Victor and Eloise Husbands – signified Grenada’s complex colonial history of domination, exchange and resistance. As Ann Husbands explains, the influence of the ‘English system’ was felt in the classroom and the kitchen, with English nuns for teachers and black pudding for breakfast. Through descriptions of her parents’ restaurant, Husbands evokes a sense of culinary grounding and independence in spite of the English influence, with a strong emphasis on local foods, from fried breadfruit to freshly caught fish – a ‘main staple’ of the Grenadian diet.

Growing up in St. George’s, the capital of Grenada, Ann describes a happy and delicious childhood. She also recalls the joys of eating and learning about roti when staying with her grandparents in Trinidad during the summer holidays. Ann’s eclectic approach to Caribbean cookery, as evidenced by Zenith Cuisine’s impressive list of events, from serving Oil Down at a London 2012 Olympics party1 to Diwali celebrations at the High Commission for Trinidad and Tobago, was in part ‘born out of going to Trinidad on holidays.’

How to make a roti

Recipe card with photographs of the dishes at a catering event
Recipe for Green Banana Salad and Saltfish Souse, photograph courtesy of Ann Husbands

In 1972, Ann travelled to London to train as a nurse at St. Ann’s hospital in Tottenham. Recounting memories of ‘insipid’ food in the canteen, Ann started to cook her own food, using her first wage packet to buy utensils and ingredients. When I asked Ann about the increasing role of food and cooking in her life and her career, she described it as an organic process:

‘in between working and bringing up a family, on my days off I’ll do cooking, and if there was a party at the weekend they’d ask me to come and cook … and so it started that way, gradually and gradually and it just increased.’

Black pudding and roti

Magainze cover with image of a carnival goer in a headdress
Notting Hill Carnival Magazine and Programme, 1985 British Library Shelfmark P.525/715

In 1980, her Auntie Nellice suggested that they do the Notting Hill Carnival together, which ended up becoming a decades-long endeavour, with Ann having a stall until 201e. They would sell black pudding and roti, which was ‘very popular with Grenadians and Trinidadians, they love black pudding!’ The blood was sourced from the East End and it would then be mixed with barley and seasoning before being stuffed into the ‘runners from the cow’. As the go-to spot for black pudding and roti, and being one of the only traders that was rolling out roti on the spot, customers came ‘year after year’. Therefore, I think it is very likely that the ‘highly seasoned’ black pudding mentioned in the following article, from the 1986 Notting Hill Carnival Magazine and Programme, was referring to theirs. Comparing it to the those ‘purchased at British supermarkets and English summer fetes which makes a mockery of the real thing’, the article warned that ‘Black pudding, Caribbean style, is not recommended for those with weak digestive parts’! Whilst the article’s headline, ‘Exotic Caribbean Foods at Carnival’, is outdated, the article itself provided a broad description of the edible offering, giving credit to the Caribbean’s ‘unique taste’ as a key, though perhaps lesser-recognised, part of Carnival’s appeal.

Article text with a black and white photo of a stall selling sugarcane and Red Stripe beer
Notting Hill Carnival Magazine and Programme, 1986 British Library Shelfmark P.525/715

For years, the black pudding and roti stall was on Thorpe Close, which you can see on the carnival map is between Westway and Tavistock Road. After trading at Thorpe Close for years, the pitch was moved to Cambridge Gardens, which Ann protested. Following this, they were continuously moved – which was just one of the reasons that Ann decided to stop trading in 2014. In response to these forced relocations, Ann’s children, who she describes as ‘growing up’ at carnival, would stand at the old pitch on Thorpe Close and send customers, who were insearch of Ann’s famous black pudding and roti to the new spot. Growing up in Grenada, one of the closest islands to Trinidad – the home of carnival – this culture was part of Ann’s upbringing and heritage, so trading at Notting Hill created a ‘feeling of nostalgia’, it was ‘something that I yearned to hear and to be part of.’ Ann is still a part of Notting Hill, she cooks food for Mas Bands – groups that wear matching costumes and parade through the carnival.2 Driving down early in the morning, she hangs around for a few hours to ‘get a feel, a smell and a taste of what’s going on.’

Street map of carnival with a colourful key for sound systems, transport, toilets
Notting Hill Carnival Magazine and Programme, 1985 British Library Shelfmark P.525/715

In crediting the various influences that have shaped her approach to cooking, Ann explains how she authentically navigates the multiple communities and cuisines that make up the Caribbean. Both the settings and flavours of Ann’s food reflect the important relationship between food, diplomacy and celebration. As we can see from her eclectic catering repertoire and the recipes she has generously shared, the tastes of Ann’s childhood continue to shape her cooking and business. Why not try making Ann’s Saltfish Souse at home, or if all the talk of blood sausage is making you feel uneasy why not try Rosamund Grant’s inventive recipe for ‘Vegetarian Black Pudding!

Recipe - text only with a small drawing of a lemon in black and white
Rosamund Grant, Caribbean and African Cookery (London: Virago, 1989) British Library Shelfmark YK.1989.a.5313

Thank you Ann Husbands for sharing your memories and thoughts with me.

Naomi Oppenheim is the project lead on Caribbean Foodways in her role as the Caribbean Collections and Community Engagement Intern at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library @naomioppenheim

Read the second blog in the Caribbean Foodways series here - Joe Williams: 'the need for flavour'

References / further reading

  • Andy Bull, ‘London 2012: Kirani James wins Grenada’s first Olympic gold medal’, Guardian, 7 August 2012 
  • Ann Husbands interviewed by Naomi Oppenheim, Caribbean Foodways Interview, March 2021 (uncatalogued)
  • Kwesi Owusu and Jacob Ross, Behind the Masquerade: the Story of Notting Hiss Carnival, photographs by David A. Bailey, Jacob Ross and Ian Watts (Edgeware: Arts Media Group, 1988) British Library Shelfmark YC.1989.b.671
  • ‘Mas Bands’, Notting Hill Carnival
  • Michael La Rose, MAS in Notting Hill: Documents in the Struggle for a Representative and Democratic Carnival in 1989/90 (London: New Beacon in association with Peoples War Carnival Band, 1990) British Library Shelfmark YK.1991.a.8850
  • Notting Hill Carnival Magazine and Programme, 1985 British Library Shelfmark P.525/715
  • Notting Hill Carnival Magazine and Programme, 1986 British Library Shelfmark P.525/715
  • Rosamund Grant, Caribbean and African Cookery (London: Virago, 1989) British Library Shelfmark YK.1989.a.5313

1. Andy Bull, ‘London 2012: Kirani James wins Grenada’s first Olympic gold medal’, Guardian, 7 August 2012 

2. ‘Mas Bands’, Notting Hill Carnival

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