Journey back to February 1970 : via GEORGETOWN JOURNAL Preserving our literary heritage
By Petamber Persaud
Guyana Chronicle
March 5, 2006

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THERE are numerous books written on or about Guyana by non-Guyanese, some good, some indifferent, others awful.

Edgar Mittelholzer, in the foreword to his travel book, `WITH A CARIB EYE’, succinctly dealt with the indifferent and the bad books that only set out to ‘cover’ the ‘exotic’, failing to capture the true spirit of a place.

This article (not a review) will take a look at one of the better books on Guyana for a number of reasons including the fact that it dealt with a conference of writers and artists and marked (in a way few other publications achieved) the founding of Cooperative Republic of Guyana in February 1970.

Another reason could be found at the beginning of the journal, where the author quoted Guyanese historian, Elsa Goveia as saying, “the road to hell is paved with authoritative half-truths”, signalling his intention to be somewhat balanced in his report; perhaps, also cognisant of the remark by Mittelholzer.

The name of this book is GEORGETOWN JOURNAL. It was written by Andrew Salkey, a Jamaican citizen born in Colon, Panama, now writing out of London, and published in 1972 by Trinidadian, John La Rose, founder-publisher of New Beacon Books Limited, London.

The Caribbean Writers and Artists Convention which opened on Tuesday February, 24, 1970, at Critchlow Labour College, was fraught with problems from the beginning. There was a rumour that there would be a boycott if Mark Longman, Chairman of Longman Publishing Group, addressed the gathering. Black Power was in the air and Ascria was holding a seminar of Pan-Africanists and Black Revolutionary Nationalists.

But the convention was able to deliberate on its main business – preparing for the Caribbean Arts Festival in 1971 or 1972 which was in effect CARIFESTA 1972.

It was indeed an august gathering including Aubrey Williams, Milton Williams, Ivan Van Sertima, Wilson Harris, Andrew Salkey, Sam Selvon, Austin Clarke, V. S. Reid, Jan Carew, Edward Brathwaithe, Earl Lovelace, O. R. Dathorne, Robin Ravelas (R. Dobru), Beryl McBurnie, Karl Parboosingh, Ken Corsbie, Donald Lonke, Ray Luck, Ron Savory, Philip Moore, Henry Josiah, Sheik Sadeek, A. J. Seymour, Martin Carter, Mitzie Townshend, and Jessica Huntley.

At the time of the convention, I was already into books especially Guyanese and Caribbean literature. I read avidly becoming a bookworm and book collector; glorying in weekly visits to the National Library and the bookstores. And I found money (perhaps appropriating bus fares, snack allowances depriving myself the delicacies form Fahraaz) to buy books.

I recall with much fondness now the love gift I made then in the 1970s of two rare books by Edgar Mittelhozer, `CORENTYNE THUNDER’ and `A SWARTHY BOY’, to the lady who is now my wife for almost thirty year!

I’m not too sure from where I purchased the books, but I feel strongly they came from Fogarty’s book centre which is now Rose Bud Cafe. The bookshop in Guyana Stores was not as welcoming as the first mentioned. Incidentally, Salkey mentioned in his journal visiting the bookstores at Fogarty’s, SPCK, and Michael Forde and was incensed at finding only a few books by Caribbean writers while the custodians of the businesses tried to cover their embarrassment.

For all my interest in literature, I was unaware of such an important meeting of recognised authors and artists and publishers. I may have missed the occasion due to poor publicity which Ivan Van Sertima vehemently complained about at the poorly attended second Edgar Mittelholzer Memorial Lecture given by Wilson Harris.

At the beginning of the journal, the beginning of the journey from Timehri airport to Georgetown, Salkey mentioned Zahra Freeth’s `RUN SOFTLY, DEMERARA’, labelling it a ‘silly and hostile little travel book’.

Just before the party reached the city, you would find some elucidating notes on Wilson Harris’ `ASCENT TO OMAI’ to be released later that year. That discussion took place as Harris, with wife, Margaret, Sam Selvon and Salkey, were passing through Albouystown, the setting of the novel.

Arriving in Georgetown, you would discover or re-discover, from the book, that the National History and Arts Council was set up in 1965, incorporating the History and Culture Council, the Council of the Arts and the History and Culture Week Committees founded by the previous administration.

You would also find Martin Carter singing, ‘Where have all the flowers gone’ and Austin Clarke in African toga. You would learn about soft water (that the author was enjoying in Station Street) and hard water in a land of many waters where we show scant regard for the difference. Talking about water, he mentioned a most refreshing local beverage, Puma. Salkey also mentioned that local shoes to go on sale shortly, Cheddi Jagan’s revolutionary dress, the ‘sports shirt’, and the revolutionary dress of the time, shirt jac and dashiki.

The book also afforded you a tour of Sheik Sadeek’s home in Newtown and the home of Derek Bickerton in Bel Air Springs. Bickerton is more known for `DYNAMICS OF A CREOLE SYSTEM’ but also wrote `THE MURDERS OF BOYSIE SINGH’ and `TROPICANA’.

It would be useful to know that there was a discussion on establishing a local publishing house among John La Rose, Sheik Sadeek, Henry Josiah, Michael Gilkes and Jocelyn Hubbard.

In closing, let’s go back to the main reason for this literary adventure – the founding of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana. We learn from the journal that that event was also marked by the performances of ‘My Name is Slave’ at the Theatre Guild and ‘The Legend of Kaieteur’ at Queen’s College. A truly symbolic gesture to the founding of the Republic was Mr. Forbes Burnham’s visit to Plantation Magdalenburg, Berbice River, “the place where the most significant Revolution is believed to have started in 1763”.

GEORGETOWN JOURNAL is a researcher’s delight and more….