Sound and vision blog

07 December 2007

The Secret History of the African Writers' Club

On our content information pages, we describe the African Writers’ Club recordings as “invaluable to students of African Studies, and in particular to students of the rich vein of creative writing in Africa in the middle of the 20th century.”  While this is true, it does not begin to explain the story of how these recordings came to be made, and why.

While the first broadcasts were made in 1962, the story actually begins in 1950, with the establishment in Paris of a body called The Congress of Cultural Freedom.  The Congress was the brainchild of the US National Security Council, which had recently shifted its European priorities from de-Nazification to anti-Communism.  One of the first fruits of this change of focus was the establishment of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and it was the CIA who would bankroll the Congress...

The Congress of Cultural Freedom was intended to be a meeting place for European intellectuals, in particular influential anti-Communists.  The Anglo-Hungarian novelist and political theorist Arthur Koestler was a charter member, as was the Italian writer Ignazio Silone.  Both had been interested in Communism before World War 2, but had renounced it completely in the light of the violent oppression being perpetrated by Stalin in the Soviet states.

And Communism appeared to be spreading.  China became Communist in 1949, and by the 1960s various types of Marxist/Socialist governance were being touted in African countries like the Congo, Angola and Mozambique.  The CIA believed that Soviet ideologues had infiltrated Africa, and began to take steps against them.  The Congress of Cultural Freedom was thus tasked with establishing a radio propaganda mission.

Leading the mission was Melvin Lasky, founder of the London literary magazine Encounter (itself CIA-financed), who discovered and established a workable recording studio in Dover Street, next to the original site of London’s Institute of the Contemporary Arts (ICA).  Lasky contacted a BBC Africa radio journalist called Dennis Duerden to conduct research into the viability of broadcasting English-language material from London to Africa, which would use existing African radio stations and even the BBC World Service as a conduit.

Duerden’s researches returned ambivalent results.  People in Africa questioned the bona fides of the Congress of Cultural Freedom, and distrusted its politics.  The Congolese war of 1960-61 had also introduced a strain of anti-Americanism into politics across the continent: it was widely believed to have been a proxy war, fought for American and Soviet interests.  Ironically enough, the very ambivalence of Duerden’s researches may have been an influential factor in the CIA’s decision to fund the eventual radio broadcasts at a shoestring level.

The African Writers’ Club corresponded in one key respect to the US National Security Council’s directives on propaganda: “the most effective form … is when the subject moves in the direction you desire for reasons which he believes to be his own.”  Very few of the contributors knew who was financing the broadcasts, or the covert aim of the station.  Conversely, it’s precisely because of this that the African Writers’ Club stands as a good deal more than propaganda.

The other key factor was Dennis Duerden himself.  As the 60s wore on, more and more African intellectuals began to seek exile in London, and Duerden was always on hand with support, advice and (in the case of the pianist Dollar Brand and his wife Bea, exiled from South Africa) personal financial support.  The recording studio in Dover Street – the Transcription Centre – became a drop-in spot for all sorts of African émigrés, and the Centre became an informal think-thank that would see African music and theatre being performed in England for more or less the first time.

Indeed, the work of future Nobel laureate, the Nigerian Wole Soyinka, was introduced to English audiences through the work and influence of the Transcription Centre team, leading to the world premiere of perhaps his most famous play, The Road, at the Theatre Royal in 1965.

But 1965 was also something of a turning point for the African Writers’ Club, and the material from this period seems more intensely political than at any other period of the recordings.  The main reason for this is the unilateral declaration of independence from Britain by Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and the fears this provoked about the political stability of the country and its immediate neighbours – South Africa and Botswana.  There are many recordings in the collection that explicitly discuss the immediate implications of Rhodesia’s secession, but there are many more that pick up a new theme of “governance” in general.

Thereafter, and particularly after 1968, the African Writers’ Club recordings become outwardly heavier (more politics), but inwardly slighter (less experimentation).  Some of this had to do with a cut in the station’s finances, which itself was influenced by another shift in the geographical emphasis of the Cold War (Europe and South-East Asia were now seen as the priorities).  Also, the Transcription Centre moved from the West End to Paddington, where few, if any, African émigrés were likely to just drop in.  Frustrated by the lack of support for the project, Duerden took an extended sabbatical in 1970.  While he returned, the African Writers’ Club never quite recovered from his original absence.

In the journal Research in African Literatures (Volume 33, no. 3, 2002), Gerald Moore writes that: “The irony of [the station’s decline] was that it thus missed the years of maximum opportunity.  The seventies were a relatively peaceful and prosperous decade for Africa (if one excludes the South).  More and new countries had emerged, radio and television stations were expanding, including several commercial TV channels, and the number of Africans with radio or TV sets of their own was expanding at a sharp pace … [The Transcription] Centre died right when it was most needed and most likely to prove its value.”

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