Linton Kwesi Johnson has been awarded the PEN Pinter Prize 2020. He will receive the award in a digital ceremony co-hosted by the British Library on 12 October, where he will deliver an address. To coincide with the award Sarah O’Reilly looks back at Johnson’s career through his life story interview for the National Life Stories oral history project ‘Authors’ Lives’.
Image credit: Maria Nunes Photography
For Linton Kwesi Johnson, the recipient of the 2020 PEN Pinter Prize, writing has always gone hand in hand with political activism. Widely regarded as the first artist to give a voice to second generation black Britons – the children of the West Indian migrants who travelled to England in the postwar period – his poetry articulates the struggle against racial and social injustice that has energised him for fifty years:
Linton Kwesi Johnson on poetry as the cultural side of politics (C1276/60)
Poetry has always been a way of articulating anger, and ideas about injustice and the struggle against it. It was always the cultural dimension of what I was doing on the streets, the demonstration, the picket line. It was always the cultural side of politics.
Whether protesting police brutality in poems such as ‘Sonny’s Lettah’, reacting to the National Front in ‘Fite Dem Back’ or celebrating the 1981 uprisings in Brixton, Liverpool and Bristol in ‘Di Great Insohreckshan’, Johnson’s work stands as an evolving account of race relations in the UK over the past half century. His subjects have included Blair Peach (a teacher killed by police at an anti-racism rally in 1979), George Lindo (framed for robbery in Bradford), and the New Cross Fire of 1981 in which 13 young party-goers lost their lives. For many, Johnson has been an alternative poet laureate, using his experiences to give voice to the pressures and alienation felt by a generation of young black Britons, expressed in a new form, ‘reggae poetry’.
Johnson was born in Chapeltown, Jamaica, in 1952 to Sylvena, a domestic worker, and Eric, a baker and sometime sugar estate worker. At the age of seven, after his parents’ separation, he moved to live with his grandmother, a subsistence farmer in Sandy River. He described the years spent with her as ‘the happiest time of my life’, recalling days spent tending his grandmother’s crops and nights outside in the yard under a full moon listening to her stories and folktales.
In 1961 Sylvena moved to England and two years later Johnson followed in her footsteps. Arriving in the country on a grey November day in 1963, the ugliness of the buildings and the cold were a shock:
Linton Kwesi Johnson on arriving in England (C1276/60)
From the books that you saw at school, you really didn’t know what England was like, but I’d have read the story of Dick Whittington, and you’d see pictures of horse drawn carriages and all that, and you’d imagine that England was something like that. Great big mansions and literally the streets of London paved with gold. It was a bit of a rude awakening when I arrived and saw these grey ugly looking buildings on the drive from the airport to Victoria station where my mother met me. And it was a grey November day. I came here the 8th November 1963 and it was one of those overcast, cold days. I thought to myself my God, is this England? My mother was there to meet me and when I saw her at first I didn’t recognise her. How long had it been since you’d last seen her? It seemed like a long time, but I don’t think it was more than two years. But it seemed like a very long time. And she looked as if she’d changed a lot over that time. But it was my mother. First thing she did was take me to Littlewoods and bought me a duffle coat. Because of the cold? Yeah.
In England, Johnson attended Tulse Hill Comprehensive where he was relegated to the bottom stream in spite of his academic achievements in Jamaica. He had ambitions to become an accountant, though in a sign of the school’s low aspirations for boys from the Caribbean, the idea was greeted with incredulity by his careers adviser. Johnson would later compare the elation of finishing a poem with the pleasure of balancing the books:
Linton Kwesi Johnson on "aspirations above my station" (C1276/60)
We all wanted to make something of our lives, cos we didn’t come to this country to... in Jamaica we say Me no come here for cow, me for come here to drink milk. So we didn’t come here to loaf, we all wanted to make something of our lives and try and get a good education, and me, well I always loved learning, you know, I had a very inquisitive mind, I wanted to know, I had this thirst for knowledge. So I can’t speak for anybody else, but for myself I wanted to become an accountant because I loved the figures. I was good at it, at school, and I was good at economics and commerce. I liked the feeling that you got when your books balanced. And later on, when I started to write verse, I realised that once you struggle with a poem and then the poem is finished it’s the same kind of feeling of elation, the same feeling that you get when you’re doing your accounts and your books balance [laughs]. Strange comparison but there you go. Anyway, within the schooling system, with maybe one or two exceptions, it was understood, it was the general understanding, I think, that boys from the Caribbean, from working class backgrounds, would do a similar job to their parents. Work in the factories, on the buses, in the hospitals and so on. So me wanting to become an accountant, I was having aspirations above my station, or at least that’s the impression I got from the careers teacher. I guess I am a second generation immigrant child, what am I talking about, accountant? The idea must have sounded absurd to him.
It was whilst he was a pupil at Tulse Hill that Johnson first encountered Altheia Jones-LeCointe, the Trinidadian research scientist who played a leading role in the British Black Panther Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The Panthers championed racial equality in housing, the justice system, immigrant rights and employment practices, and focused on educating their members in Saturday schools. It was here, in the movement’s Youth League, that Johnson discovered the work of Eric Williams, CLR James and Franz Fanon - ‘an astonishing discovery for me because I didn’t realise that black people even wrote books’. It was in the Panthers’ library that he found ‘the beautiful poetic prose’ of WEB du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. It ‘stirred something within me, and made me want to use language myself’.
If Black Panthers gifted Johnson an intellectual and political education, it was his experiences on the streets of Brixton that gave him something to write about. He recalled a ‘war against the Black youth’ up in the 60s and 70s, facilitated by legislation such as the ‘sus’ laws, which allowed for the arrest and punishment of anyone on the streets suspected of criminal intent. In 1972, he was wrongfully arrested himself, ‘thrown in the Black Maria, kicked all over’ by three police officers and taken to Brixton police station where he was charged with assaulting a police officer and Actual Bodily Harm. His crime had been to note down the details of two officers who were harassing acquaintances from his local club in Brixton Market. The experience ‘certainly didn’t endear the police to me.’ Though the charges against him were later dropped, the experience has a long-lasting impact: ‘Perhaps that’s why I’ve spent a substantial part of my life campaigning against injustice.’ He would later become involved in organising watershed events such as The Black People’s Day of Action in 1981, and working as a campaigning journalist with The Race Today Collective and Channel 4’s Bandung File. Alongside this activism, poetry became his ‘cultural weapon’.
Inspired by the Caribbean poets he discovered in the magazine Savacou 3/4, whose writing was powered by the use of non-standardised English, as well as the music of The Last Poets, Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari and the reggae DJs in Jamaica who declaimed their spontaneously improvised lyrics over dub music mixed down with sound effects, Johnson began writing ‘Jamaican English’ verse. Replacing iambic pentameter with the beat and bassline of reggae music, he created a new poetic form in which to describe the Black experience as he perceived it: ‘I’m writing about the Caribbean experience in Britain, black people’s experience in Britain. Why should I try and do so in the rarified language of English poetry?’:
Linton Kwesi Johnson on finding a language for poetry (C1276/60)
What I took from music was beat and rhythm, I guess the closest thing one gets to beat and metre. And by the time I began to write Jamaican verse, it was the bassline in the reggae that did it for me. I tried to write words that worked against the bassline or words that sounded like a bassline in reggae music, you know? I mean there was this whole idea of ‘blues poetry’ and ‘jazz poetry’, I wanted to write ‘reggae poetry’, so the one drop beat of reggae came into my verse and the bassline, how the bass sounded. And I guess those things, those two things, beat, bassline, determined the structure of the verse I wrote, and that came out of the language itself. I guess what I was trying to do is find the reggae in the Jamaican speech when I was writing the verse.
To critics who accused him of inciting violence in the streets, Johnson’s response was that he was ‘describing reality as I see it’: ‘I was an activist, I saw myself as being part of a radical and revolutionary struggle of resistance. It was part and parcel of that.’ In the words of Fred D’Aguiar, his poems were ‘a call for fair play on the political level with an accurate rendition of the mood among young people on the psychological level’.
Dread, Beat and Blood, published by Bogle L’Ouverture
Johnson’s first collection of poems, Voices of the Living and the Dead, came out in 1974 and was followed a year later by Dread, Beat and Blood. The latter became a bestseller for its publishers, the radical publishing house Bogle L’Ouverture, and was assisted by Johnson’s growing fame as a recording artist and performer. In 1977 he released The Poet and the Roots through Virgin Records, followed by Dread, Beat an’ Blood, Forces of Victory, Bass Culture, LKJ in Dub and Mekkin Histri with Island Records, before establishing his own record label in 1981. The performance of the work in front of an audience – delivered in a gravelly voice, almost monotone – became an important part of the creative act:
Linton Kwesi Johnson on the importance of reciting poems aloud (C1276/60)
When you write a new poem, you know, it’s the saying of it. Although it’s a finished poem it’s not really finished until you hear it properly. When you can hear it properly, all the nuances of inflection, of breathing, of pauses - cos that’s all a part of it you know, it’s not just simple words strung together - it’s the saying of the poem. And for me, poetry doesn’t come alive anyway unless it’s read aloud. It’s just dead words on the page... the hearing of the poem is important.
In subsequent years, Johnson would address increasingly personal subjects in his poetry, from the end of a relationship in ‘Hurricane Blues’ to elegies for his nephew and father, and friends May Ayim and Bernie Grant, a change in direction that reflected both an evolution in race relations in the UK, and his own shifting relationship with his writing:
Linton Kwesi Johnson on moving to the centre ground of poetry (C1276/60)
It’s just what comes along with getting old, it’s the age thing.... I mean in the political poems you want to convey anger, you want to capture the vibes, the mood, the sense of the period and the rage people feel. With the later poems now it’s about remembering, it’s about reverence, it’s about love. Perhaps it’s a way of dealing with your own sadness, a way of coping with one’s own sense of loss and feelings of sadness, or even guilt. It’s a long time now since I’ve understood that that’s the centre ground of poetry, really – it’s the personal.
In 2002 Johnson became only the second living poet to have work published in the Penguin Modern Classics series. With his unique form of language and body of work he has provided a commentary covering over three decades of contemporary history, and used, in the words of Harold Pinter’s Nobel speech, his ‘unflinching, unswerving’ gaze upon the world to ‘define the real truth of our lives and our societies’ - a force to be reckoned with.
Sarah O’Reilly interviewed Linton Kwesi Johnson in 2014-15 for National Life Stories’ ‘Authors’ Lives’ oral history project at the British Library. The interview can be found by searching the catalogue reference number C1276/60 at sami.bl.uk