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Publishing Diversity in South Africa and the United Kingdom

Laying The Foundations: New Beacon Books, Bogle L’Ouverture Press and the Politics of Black British Publishing

Philippa IRELAND


S'appuyant sur des entretiens inédits avec Sarah White, Eric et Jessica Huntley, cet article compare New Beacon Books et Bogle L’Ouverture Press, deux maisons pionnières de l’édition noire en Grande-Bretagne dans la deuxième moitié du XXe siècle. Leurs activités, ainsi que la sélection de textes spécifiques, sont ici replacées dans le contexte des mutations culturelles et politiques survenues au cours d’une période de profonds changements au sein de l'édition britannique.
Tout en fournissant des exemples de leur participation conjointe et parallèle à des événements culturels et politiques, l’article met en lumière ce qui distingue aussi ces deux éditeurs, révélant ainsi que depuis les années 1960, le milieu de l’édition en Grande-Bretagne a permis l’arrivée d’éditeurs de livres « noirs » aux styles différents. Les activités de New Beacon Books et Bogle L’Ouverture témoignent d’une histoire ininterrompue de l'édition noire en Grande-Bretagne depuis près d’un demi-siècle. Comme nous le verrons, cette histoire de l’édition noire se caractérise par les approches non-conventionnelles, et souvent controversées, adoptées par chaque éditeur.

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1In ‘Material Factors Affecting the Publication of Black British Fiction’ I introduced the field of black British literature to Book History through an examination of the interrelationships between literature, publishing and the wider economic, social, intellectual, and political landscape. This article is a variation of a chapter in this thesis which compares the work of two pioneering black publishers in Britain in the latter half of the twentieth century: New Beacon Books and Bogle L’Ouverture. It positions the activities of each within the framework of shifting cultural and political agendas, and explores their motivation for publishing selected texts.

  • 1 Margaret Busby was born in Ghana of African-Caribbean parents. She co-founded the publishing firm o (...)

2It is impossible to consider the history of black publishing in Britain without reference to either of these publishers. These, along with Margaret Busby – co-founder of Alison and Busby in 1967 and the first black woman publisher in Britain – broke new ground when they entered the white, upper-class, male dominated world of British publishing in the 1960s.1 New Beacon was founded in 1966 by John La Rose and Sarah White. It was followed two years later by Bogle L’Ouverture, set up by Eric and Jessica Huntley. The founders of both publishing houses were already well known to each other and shared a history of co-operation and alliance. Yet, despite being established as family concerns within a short space of time of each other against the same backdrop of black political struggle, their origins were slightly different, as John La Rose described:

In the first instance we, New Beacon Books, were established in 1966. We preceded the formation of the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM) by a number of months. Then there came the action in 1968 on the part of the then government of Jamaica to refuse Walter Rodney the right of re-entry into Jamaica on his way back from a Black Writers Congress held in Canada in 1968 and we participated in struggle around that issue. Out of that struggle Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications was born (in White, Harris, and Beezmohun 3).

3Before returning to their shared history, it is important to first consider each organisation separately in order to establish the rationale of their respective founders, and to examine the manner in which both carried out its own publishing activities.

4The creation of New Beacon Books was part of John La Rose’s life-long ambition to achieve long-term change for Caribbean people in Britain. His interest in publishing was driven by a powerful intellectual desire to confront what was perceived as the withholding of information from Caribbean people by colonial policy makers and to bring about lasting social, political and cultural change. After moving to England in 1961, he set up the specialist Caribbean publishing venture, New Beacon Books, in 1966. In the New Beacon Books Publishing Catalogue 1991, La Rose describes how its activities were intended as a vehicle by which to ‘give an independent validation of one’s own culture, history and politics – a sense of self – a break with discontinuity’ through the publishing of and reprinting of affordable texts for black people, in Britain and across the globe. To this end, he began by publishing books about Caribbean history, politics and literature. The first book to be published by New Beacon was a personal one, being La Rose’s own collection of poems, Foundations in 1966. This was the first of many anthologies by poets from the Caribbean and Africa, as well as by black British poets, to be published by New Beacon. New Beacon’s next book, published a year later in 1967, was a short biographical history of Marcus Garvey. As Sarah White recently recalled in an interview,

5In those days, very little was known about Marcus Garvey. There was about one book available. So John thought it would be worthwhile to republish [a talk by Adolph Edwards] in a small booklet to introduce people to the ideas of Marcus Garvey. So we did that and it sold very well.

6In New Beacon’s 2007 Publishing Catalogue, La Rose’s son, Michael La Rose, elaborated upon the importance of this early publication and how it corresponded with New Beacon’s publishing strategy:

The emerging Rastafarian movement, along with black youths influenced by reggae music, used this book extensively for factual information about the life and achievements of Garvey. New Beacon was assisting the black consciousness movement as well as providing continuity of important ideas to a new generation (4).

7For John La Rose it was imperative that the books he published be placed in their appropriate historical, cultural and political contexts. In 1967 and 1968 respectively he published two books of literary criticism: Wilson Harris’s Tradition, the Writer and Society and Caribbean Writers: Critical Essays by Ivan Van Sertima, both of which realised his vision to publish critical material on Caribbean literature that had been written by Caribbean people. New Beacon then began the important process of reprinting books, including two books in 1969, both by John Jacob Thomas, which were reprints from the nineteenth century. One was his grammar of the Creole language in Trinidad, The Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar, which was perhaps the first recognition of origins of the Creole language; the other was Froudacity: West Indian Fables Explained. Practically speaking, for a small publisher like New Beacon reprinting texts was a way of disseminating information quickly and relatively cheaply, rather than waiting for an author to write something original and creating a new publication from scratch. However, New Beacon was different from other contemporary publishers involved in reprinting Caribbean publications, such as Frank Cass, who produced hardback copies of texts which had been previously printed by colonialists living in or visiting the Caribbean in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As Sarah White explained, each New Beacon reprint was placed in its historical context with an up-to-date introduction which formed an important part of contextualising the publication.

8La Rose’s varied interests drove other parts of his publishing agenda. He was very engaged with the history of ‘The Beacon Period’ which took place around the literary magazine, The Beacon, which published 28 issues of creative writing and political commentary in Trinidad during the 1930s (Breiner 70), and from which New Beacon derived its name. Three novels from this era that had been written by early contributors to The Beacon were subsequently reprinted by New Beacon: Minty Alley by C.L.R. James in 1971 and two others by Alfred Mendes, Pitch Lake in 1980 and Black Fauns in 1984. New Beacon’s reprinting programme also included Labour in the West Indies: the Birth of a Workers Movement by William Arthur Lewis in 1977, considered to be a key political pamphlet in the history of the trade union movement in the Caribbean. Its publication reflected La Rose’s personal interest in this specific area of Caribbean politics, one which was built upon his own experience of active trade unionism in his native Trinidad prior to his migration to London in 1961.

9 New Beacon’s publishing strategy continued to be motivated by a cultural and political agenda, as attested to by the publication of texts such as David Rudder’s Kaiso Calypso Music in 1990, Trinidad Carnival: Mandate for a National Theatre by Errol Hill in 1972 and Mas in Notting Hill: Documents in the Struggle for a Representative and Democratic Carnival 1989/1990 by Michael La Rose in 1990 (M. La Rose 5). The struggles of Caribbean people in Britain were another aspect of La Rose’s publishing. The 1971 publication of Bernard Coard’s How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System being an example of a New Beacon publication with a very specific agenda; in this instance, to challenge the apparent racially-motivated disregard of many West Indian children educated in Britain. Ten years on, Roxy Harris’s Being Black: Selections from “Soledad Brother” by George Jackson and “Soul on Ice” by Eldridge Cleaver: with Questions and Notes which was based on Harris’s own experience in British schools and sought to expose young black people to contemporary debates around identity. This publication featured a question, answer and discussion format purposely designed for use in schools, and it was, Sarah White said, one of a small number of New Beacon publications that were aimed specifically at the educational market.

10In the 1980s, New Beacon also began to publish novels by emerging black writers in Britain. These included second generation black Briton Norman Smith, author of one of the first novelistic representations of the black British experience, Bad Friday which was published in 1985, and Ruel White, whose novel Heroes Through The Day was published by New Beacon in 1990. It was becoming increasingly clear around this time – not only to John La Rose, but to teachers, librarians and many others – that there was a gap in the market for literature that spoke to a new generation of black Britons: those whose parents had arrived in Britain from Africa and the Caribbean from the late 1940s onwards; who had been born and educated in Britain and whose life experiences were very different from those of earlier generations.

11Indeed, one of the many outcomes of the race riots of the early 1980s – albeit perhaps one of the least well documented – was an increased demand for books about the black people who were making their permanent home in Britain. As Eric Huntley noted,

there’s nothing like a revolutionary upsurge to create demand because people want to know. There is a demand for knowledge and for information: who were these black people, where are they from, what are their aspirations? […] It was a good time for bookselling.

12It was, in Sarah White’s words, a bonanza period for minority publishing, as acknowledged not only by black publishers and booksellers, but also by librarians. In the 1980s, the library service was one of the first to identify a readership comprised of first, second and third generation black Britons, in the 1980s. After the Brixton Riots in 1981, it became apparent that, by asserting their rights and by making demands upon public services, younger generations of black Britons presented a fresh challenge to the library service, and to the book industry as a whole. As Gloria Lock explained,

There is a growing demand for books, for children and teenagers, which feature British, or at least Western, experiences of settings involving black characters. Publications by Longmans, Macmillan, Nelson and Cambridge University Press and Bodley Head tend to portray only African or Caribbean culture and backgrounds. These are less relevant, and less popular, than the handful of books by Buchi Emecheta, Andrew Salkey and Rukshana Smith which deal with a British milieu, and even those by American writers such as Rosa Guy and Mildred Taylor (54).

  • 2 The first International Book Fair took place in 1982. It was initiated by New Beacon Books, Bogle L (...)

13Lock’s reference to certain educational publishers emphasizes the fact that, aside from minority publishers, mainstream houses such as Longman and Heinemann were the main publishers of black writers and writing at this time. Links between such writers, readers, publishers and libraries were fostered at events like the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books, established and run by John La Rose, Eric and Jessica Huntley and the Race Today Collective from 1982 to 1995.2 A series of twelve Book Fairs took place over the course of thirteen years. These were a cultural manifestation of heightened black awareness, providing a venue where which black cultural activity was exhibited, deliberated upon and celebrated. They occurred at a particular moment in black British history when the politics of black representation transferred from an emphasis on rights of access and the contestation of racism, to confronting notions of identity and the recognition of the heterogeneous nature of the category ‘black’. At the same time they challenged the prevailing notion that the black community comprised a lawless, intimidating and threatening body of radical activists. Rather, the Book Fairs were a peaceful exemplification of black creativity. In A Meeting of the Continents: The International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books – Revisited (White, Harris, and Beezmohun) the editors describe the space that the Book Fairs created for the expression of black cultural creativity:

These Fairs represent a significant period in the cultural and political history of Britain’s black population: they operated as an interface between culture and politics and provided opportunities for cultural expression and discourse on local and international issues (2).

  • 3 The programme of events for each Book Fair timetabled a number of political forums and points of di (...)

14The Book Fairs have been described by Linton Kwesi Johnson as more than a marketplace where people could buy and sell books. Rather, they were a place where culture and politics synthesised.3 Yet, despite their heavily political agenda, these Fairs did not appeal to political radicals and activists alone. They were attended by thousands of people representing both the black and white communities, in Britain and from around the world.

15Among the hundreds of publishers who had bookstalls at and visited the Book Fairs between 1982 and 1995 educational publishers like Longman, Heinemann and Oxford University Press were all regular attendees. The feminist publishing industry was also represented. In 1986 Virago and the Women’s Press, publishers of Maya Angelou and Alice Walker respectively, exhibited the work of these prominent black American women writers alongside lesser known black British writers, Grace Nicholls and Joan Riley. Verna Wilkins, managing director of Tamarind Books, a publisher of children’s books and puzzles, recalls that from the moment that she first attended the Book Fair in 1987, she was delighted ‘to find so many books from all over the world’. The Fair was, she remembers, ‘a brisk and buoyant marketplace, full of atmosphere and excitement, discussion and celebration of black literature and talent’ (in White, Harris, and Beezmohun 69). Wilkins acknowledges that her publishing business was boosted by the Book Fairs, which provided a platform for her books and enabled her to meet other black publishers and to share experiences. As Margaret Busby tells us, the Book Fairs were also:

places where you saw a kind of person engaging with literature who wouldn’t have gone to a mainstream British bookstore. Black working-class people were not viewed as readers of literature by the British literary establishment and they were not treated as such: mainstream bookstores and publishers did not cater for their needs and did not make them feel welcome. At the book fairs, however, these people would be there in their hundreds, browsing and buying and meeting the authors (in Alleyne 59).

16Sarah White alluded to the positive response of the black community in Britain to this timely creation of a space in which they could celebrate their literature, films, music, performance, and art, when she recalled this community’s ‘tremendous enthusiasm for the first book fair’ (in Alleyne 59). This enthusiasm is evident in the memoirs provided by some of the Fair’s regular attendees in A Meeting of the Continents, which evoke a sense of camaraderie that enveloped the Fairs, and stress their significance as a focal point for literature, culture, politics and teaching.

17The reaction of the black community to the Fairs as described by White, and the fact that the Fairs in London spawned others in Leeds/Bradford, Glasgow and Manchester, can be seen as a form of collective defiance against the marginalisation of black culture by British society, and as further evidence of a growing readership for black interest books. As Verna Wilkins has described, the Book Fairs provided ‘under one the one roof, [a] selection of literature that was not available in the shops in England’ (in White, Harris, and Beezmohun 69). For the most part, in the 1980s and 1990s this readership was supplied, instead, by specialist independent publishers and booksellers like New Beacon Books and Bogle L’Ouverture, either directly through their own stores or via other community and specialist bookshops.

18There had, of course, been some prior mainstream publishing interest in black writers and writing. During the 1930s and 1940s, for instance, books written by a number of notable black and Asian authors living in Britain were published by Secker and Warburg, Aldor, and the Fortune Press in the UK. This included work by the Trinidadian C.L.R. James; Una Marson, poet, activist and playwright from Jamaica who first conceived the idea for the BBC radio programme, ‘Caribbean Voices’; author G.V. Desani, born in Kenya to Indian parents; and the poet and editor of Poetry London from 1939 to 1951, Thurairajah Tambimuttu, from Sri Lanka. In fact, the history of black and Asian writers and writing in Britain dates back to the eighteenth century, and has been well documented elsewhere (Innes, for example). Later on, during the 1950s and 1960s several small, independent family-run businesses were responsible for publishing the early work of a number of Caribbean, African and Indian writers, residing in both Britain and abroad, many of whom went on to achieve great literary prominence and standing. Bruce King notes three specific examples as being particularly welcoming to new, international writers in the 1950s and 1960s: Michael Joseph, Andre Deutsch and Faber (323). Michael Joseph was the first to publish George Lamming and Sudhindra Nath Ghose; Andre Deutsch published V.S. Naipaul, Michael Anthony and Wole Soyinka; and Faber & Faber were the publishers of most of Wilson Harris and Amos Tutuola’s oeuvres. They also published work by the South African writers, Ezekiel Mphahlele and Peter Abrahams.

  • 4 There has been scholarly interest in the publication of South Asian literature in Britain specifica (...)

19One can add here the publishing houses of Allan Wingate (Sam Selvon), MacGibbon and Kee (also Sam Selvon), Chatto & Windus (Attia Hosain and Aubrey Menen), Jonathan Cape (Roger Mais), New English Library (Edgar Mittelholzer) and Hogarth Press (also Edgar Mittelholzer). This roll of British publishers is by no means comprehensive.4 Other writers of note came to Britain from the Caribbean and elsewhere during the 1950s and 1960s, and later published their work here. E.A. Markham (Montserrat) and Roy Heath (British Guiana), for example, both had work published in Britain from the 1970s onwards.

20The breadth of this list signals a definite interest in the publication of writers from the Commonwealth on the part of British publishers. Yet as the century progressed, this interest began to wane. From the 1970s onwards the publication of fiction by writers from Africa and the Caribbean was, on the whole, undertaken by educational publishing houses like Heinemann, Oxford University Press and Longman. Thinking in terms of the development of black British book publication, it is important to note that these publishers tended to portray only African or Caribbean culture and backgrounds. The most prominent example of such publishing was perhaps the highly important and very successful African Writers Series, which was created by Heinemann in 1962 and is still available online today. The role played by this particular series in the development of African Literature cannot be understated, yet – with the exception of books by Buchi Emecheta – the books in this Series were deemed less relevant to young black Britons at this time than the handful of books in print written by Salkey, Gurnah and Riley which dealt with a distinctly British milieu (Lock 54).

21This tendency did not go unnoticed by John La Rose. As Sarah White explained, La Rose recognised that there was a mass of material worth publishing by, for and about black people in Britain. Whilst he accepted that one publisher could not do it all, when the opportunity arose, New Beacon was keen to publish a novel written by a young black author who was born and grew up in Birmingham, England. This novel was Bad Friday by Norman Smith. It depicted the dreams and dilemmas of five black teenagers in 1980s Britain. Originally published in 1982 by Trinity Arts, a community publisher based in Birmingham, England, it was shortlisted for the Young Observer Fiction Prize that the same year. Revised and republished by New Beacon Books in 1985, it was later adapted into a play and remains in print to this day.

22The small selection of books published by New Beacon over the course of twenty years referred to here reveals how John La Rose’s sense of purpose and commitment determined the course of New Beacon’s publishing activities. His vision was shared by others, in particular by members of the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM), which La Rose co-founded with Andrew Salkey and Edward Brathwaite in 1962. From the beginning, CAM and New Beacon were inextricably linked. Not only was John La Rose central to both organisations, but some of New Beacon’s very early publications were part of the joint vision which La Rose and other CAM members shared in making it possible for Caribbean people to criticise their own literature, history and politics. The Movement also became a catalyst for the bookselling activities of New Beacon Books. The current New Beacon bookshop was established in Stroud Green Road, London in 1973. Prior to this, John La Rose and Sarah White sold their books on a much less formal basis in response to demand generated for cultural and political books at CAM and at Black Power meetings. Sarah White described the early days of New Beacon’s bookselling activities as follows:

We were asked to do a bookstall for that. We wrote to various publishers and asked for copies of books on sale or return, they supplied them and we never returned them! That started it and we just carried on. That was the nucleus and then we gradually established accounts with different publishers and started ordering different books…

23Author Alex Wheatle has also described how New Beacon provided ‘an essential and crucial service to the black communities [… during the Black Power era]’ through their book service (36).

24Recently, the focus of New Beacon’s activities has been on bookselling rather than book publishing. The timing of this shift coincided with La Rose’s retirement in the late 1990s and his death in 2006. Since then, New Beacon Books has co-published a number of books in association with the George Padmore Institute (GPI), an organisation that was also founded by John La Rose and intended as an archive, an educational resource and research centre to house materials relating to the black community of Caribbean, African and Asian descent settled in Britain and continental Europe. New Beacon/GPI publications represent a shared agenda to record the contribution made by the black British community in Britain, and to carry on La Rose’s original vision. They include Changing Britannia: Life Experience with Britain by Roxy Harris and Sarah White and White, Harris, and Beezmohun’s A Meeting of the Continents: The International Book Fair of Radical and Third World Books – Revisited.

25Unlike New Beacon Books, which continues to operate a bookselling and to a lesser extent a publishing business, the publishing and bookselling activities of Bogle L’Ouverture have ceased entirely. In its heyday however, Bogle L’Ouverture was one of the most prominent and radical black publishers on the scene. Founded by Eric and Jessica Huntley in 1968, it was initially intended as a short-term initiative, created in order to give a voice of protest against the banning of the political activist and scholar, Walter Rodney, from re-entering Jamaica after he attended a Black Writers Conference in Toronto, Canada. During a period of political ferment in the late 1960s, the political impact of this ban reverberated across the globe and into Britain. A group of West Indians in London held meetings and demonstrations in support of Rodney, and after one protest it was decided that Rodney’s speeches and articles should be published in pamphlet form. The outcome of this was the creation of Bogle L’Ouverture Publications. The pamphlet was a copy of a single talk given by Walter Rodney. A collection of his lectures was subsequently published as The Groundings with my Brothers in 1969. This first publication set the tone for all of Bogle’s later publishing activities. It was first and foremost a political publication, and it was organised and funded by the black community. It reflected the spirit of self-reliance and independence that epitomised Bogle L’Ouverture’s activities for over twenty years. In the Publisher’s Note to the first edition of The Groundings with my Brothers, Jessica Huntley reinforced the unconventional nature of Bogle’s activities, writing that ‘the founding of Bogle L’Ouverture Publications was based on a corporate decision to make a total break with the usual tradition of publishing: that of black people passively providing the human material to be written up and published by other people’ (i). Like John La Rose, the Huntleys adopted an independent approach to publishing in order to validate the black experience. Together, these publishers revolutionised black publishing in Britain. After conversing with the founders of both, it is clear that despite their different origins, they had much in common in that they shared the same sense of purpose: to give a voice to black people through publishing.

26Bogle went on to publish a second Walter Rodney book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa in 1972. Like The Groundings with my Brothers, this was a Black Power publication, and one which put a particular, radical stamp on Bogle’s publishing activities. The Black Power movement originated and became popular in America in the second half of the 1960s. It was articulated as a slogan by Stokely Carmichael in 1966, intended, he argued, to unite black people living there. The ideologies associated with the movement were endorsed by black people around the world, including in Britain, and were naturally embraced by the Huntleys. The movement emphasised racial pride and nurtured black interests, and its style of politics tended to be radical and confrontational. Stokely Carmichael himself first visited Britain in 1967. Two years later, the first Black Power march was held in Britain. Edward Kamau Brathwaite has argued that the emergence of Black Power in 1966/67 (and, concurrently, the formation of CAM) was ‘of central importance to the growth and direction of the West Indian imagination’ (in Owusu 46). Bogle L’Ouverture’s publication of The Groundings with my Brothers was an important intervention in the raising of revolutionary black consciousness and the development of Black Power. It made two specifically Black Power speeches – ‘Black Power, a basic understanding’ and ‘Black Power – its relevance to the West Indies’ – available to an increasingly receptive audience. The publication of these texts also had resonance with New Beacon’s contemporaneous publication of Adolph Edward’s book about Marcus Garvey.

  • 5 Conversation with Eric and Jessica Huntley [Personal interview]. (2007, January 9). This was echoed (...)

27 Common to both publishers was the fact that, like other small independent publishers, neither had their publications reviewed in the mainstream literary press. Small minority publishers without the means for self-promotion were easily overlooked in the regular roundup of books that appeared in the national newspapers (Niven in Davis 325). Both houses resorted instead to alternative means by which to promote their titles, and despite their unorthodoxy, these measures were often effective. At the launch of the Huntley archive (held at the London Metropolitan Archives in February 2006) Eric and Jessica Huntley described how How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, for example, sold a staggering 40,000 copies without the assistance of the national reviewing media. Jessica Huntley has recalled on more than one occasion how Bogle ‘never relied upon the media to sell [their] books’.5 Some of the alternative methods employed by Bogle in order to market and distribute their publications included drumming up interest in clubs and at parties, local advertising and book launches, promotion in black interest magazines and newspapers, as well as word of mouth. Later generations of black British publishers followed in Bogle’s footsteps. In 1992, for example, X Press publisher, Steve Pope, was quoted by Wansell in The Times as saying ‘“we’ve never had a review, just pieces in magazines”’.

  • 6 This comment was made with reference to Railton Blues by Carolyn Cooper, a lecturer in English at t (...)
  • 7 Jessica Huntley to Edwina Johnson, unpublished letter dated 2 September 1983 (LMA/4462/E/01/051: Da (...)
  • 8 David Simon to Jessica Huntley, unpublished letter dated 15 July 1987, LMA/4462/E/01/051: David Sim (...)

28 Bogle L’Ouverture’s publication of Rodney’s books was, without a doubt, a political statement. It was followed by the publication of other material about Africa and people of African descent; fiction and poetry of the Caribbean; and books by, for and about British-born Afro-Caribbeans, like their publication of Railton Blues by David Simon in 1983, which alongside Bad Friday, was one of the first to reflect the black British experience. A novel about a West Indian family in Britain and set in South East London, the story centres on preparations for a community street party. Unfortunately, despite it being seen as a ‘promising start’ to David Simon’s literary career, it did not achieve any degree of critical or commercial success.6 This may be due in part to the limitations commonly associated with independent publishing, as well as the fact that resolutely self-reliant, fiercely independent publishers such as Bogle L’Ouverture did not always have the necessary resources available to produce a quality product nor to market and distribute that product effectively. The publication of Railton Blues was, almost inevitably, a low-key affair. The novel was rushed through in order to make it available at the second International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books, in 1983. Regrettably, this resulted in a number of glaring editorial errors remaining in the final copy that were detrimental to both the author and publisher. This was acknowledged by Jessica Huntley in a letter to Edwina Johnson (the publisher’s reader), in which she wrote that ‘this particular title [Railton Blues] was done very hurriedly so that copies would be available for the second International Book Fair’.7 In the same letter, Huntley denied that these errors were representative of other of Bogle’s publications: ‘we can assure you that we are committed to producing a body of literature which is excellent in quality as well as content’. Nevertheless it is these errors that were picked up by Louis James in the ATCAL Reading Guides: African, Caribbean and Indo-British Literature for the Classroom. James suggests that, whilst the themes and style of novel might appeal to secondary school readers in particular, Bogle L’Ouverture’s 1983 edition was let down by its ‘many spelling and typographical errors’ (in Stephens 46). The poor production quality of this publication must surely have lessened even the slimmest chances that the novel had of critical or commercial success. Although production of the first copy of Railton Blues was clearly a rushed affair, it appears from archival records that moves were made at some point to reprint the book; yet Bogle L’Ouverture did not, in the end, do so. Rather, the relationship between writer and publisher was put under considerable strain by the latter’s strategy with regards to this particular novel. Indeed, Simon wrote to Jessica Huntley in 1986 of his hopes that the republication of his novel would ‘erase any disagreements that have existed between us in the past’.8 Yet, since this republication did not take place, it must be assumed that the relationship between Simon and his publishers foundered completely. Instead, in 1986, David Simon went on to publish a second novel, this time with Akira Press.

29Without the necessary resources to produce and promote the book properly and without access to the mainstream reviewing media, Bogle did not succeed in launching a young black British author on the literary scene or kick-start a wave of black British novelists. Crucially, however, with Railton Blues, Bogle L’Ouverture did invest in the production, marketing and circulation of one of the first books to deal with the black British experience. Taking into account the fact that, according to Adams and Barker, it is the decision to publish that is the first step in the history of a book (18), there is now a case to suggest that it was this particular act of publishing Railton Blues, and the motivation behind it, that was more significant than either the content or the final appearance of the actual book.

30It was unfortunate that it was shoddily done, when the publication of Railton Blues might have had the potential to achieve so much more. Neither Bogle L’Ouverture nor New Beacon Books, however, should be judged on their publication of a single book; to do so would be a travesty, would belie their role in the struggles of the black community in Britain, and would fail to recognise their influence upon later generations of black Britons.

Political and publishing comrades

31John La Rose and the Huntleys were political comrades even before they entered – independently – into book publishing and book selling. They were part of a network of cultural and political activists that have been collectively labelled by Brian Alleyne as the ‘New Beacon Circle’ (1). Both ran bookshops alongside their publishing activities. These outlets were more than just about selling books. Bogle’s bookshop, renamed in honour of Walter Rodney after his death, distributed the titles published by Bogle L’Ouverture, and provided a mail-order service to schools, libraries and other institutions. Like New Beacon’s bookshop, it was the hub of the community: a location for cultural and community-based activities, for book readings and performances, for workshops, and for schools to visit.

  • 9 ‘Bookshop Joint Action: History’, Description of Holdings in the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA/ (...)

32Both shops were the targets of a series of racist attacks in the late 1970s and early 1980s that were specifically against black community, independent, and socialist bookstores. Sarah White has recalled that New Beacon got off relatively lightly. In contrast, Jessica Huntley recollects that the attacks on the Walter Rodney bookshop were more threatening and included intimidation and violence carried out by members of the National Front and the Ku Klux Klan. In response to these attacks, the Bookshop Joint Action Committee was formed in October 1977. The purpose of this committee was to resist the increasing number of attacks against black bookshops, both in London and throughout Britain (attacks were also made on black-led organisations and bookshops in Leeds, Bradford and Nottingham).9 Dissatisfied with the lack of police response to multiple attacks on the bookshop, Jessica Huntley hosted Bookshop Joint Action, organised public meetings, participated in the picketing of Ealing Police Station, and sent letters of protest to the then Home Secretary and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. The situation generated some national press coverage, with The Times, for instance, reporting the booksellers’ protest. Under the heading, ‘Booksellers protest on race attacks’, John La Rose’s criticism of the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police force was reported at some length and allegations of its lack of interest in the attacks on black book shops were made: ‘[La Rose] said that no arrests or charges had been made, and in individual cases the police did not appear to take the attacks seriously’, and despite action being taken on the part of bookshop owners and the community, and the resultant publicity, the attacks continued (Tendler 3). The programme for the second International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books describes eleven attacks on the Walter Rodney Bookshop between 1977 and 1983. Attacks such as these on black community bookshops were seen as further manifestations of racist and fascist activity that targeted homes, businesses, meeting places, property and people in the late 1970s and early 1980s (see Beckles and White, Harris, and Beezmohun).

33Over the years, Eric and Jessica Huntley participated in – indeed were at the forefront of – a number of wider activities involving the black community in Britain. In the Publisher’s Note to The Groundings with my Brothers, Jessica Huntley describes how she and her husband helped with the formation of the Black Parents’ Movement in 1974, and later became part of a broader alliance of the Black Youth Movement and the Race Today Collective (xi). Later they were involved with the New Cross Massacre Action Committee and helped to bring about the International Book Fair of Radical and Third World Books. The first Book Fair attracted over 100 publishers from Africa, the Caribbean, North America, Asia and Europe as well as Britain. Hundreds of librarians, booksellers, educational institutions, artists and writers attended the event, and it was attended by over 6000 people (White, Harris, and Beezmohun 110). The success of these Fairs was due to the fact that the organisers were able to build upon alliances that had been forged as a result of political struggles and black intellectual activity, both locally in London and across the world.

34John La Rose in particular was a distinguished figure in the struggles of the black community. As his comments to The Times concerning the racist attacks on Britain’s black bookshops reveal, he frequently emerged as spokesperson for this community in Britain and for black people around the world. He chaired the Institute of Race Relations between 1972 and 1973, and in the 1980s he was Chairman of both the Association of Supplementary Schools and the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya, founded in 1982. As a writer, publisher and activist he helped to articulate the struggles of black people and to develop black writers and writing. The novelist, playwright and critic, N’gugi wa Thiong’o spoke thus of La Rose’s considerable influence upon black writers in Africa, the Caribbean, Europe and America: ‘John La Rose [was] immensely aware of the revolutionary potential of literature and culture. […] [R]arely has anybody come into contact with this without being affected by his generous, searching, modern renaissance spirit’. In an obituary published in the British press after John La Rose’s death in 2006, he was portrayed by Linton Kwesi Johnson as the ‘elder statesman of Britain’s black communities […] he could have been anything he wanted, but he was without ambition. He preferred to stay in the background and make things happen. He was a man who dreamed of changing the world’ (Johnson 39).

35Commendation of John La Rose for his contribution to black literature and culture had come even before his death. Both he and the Huntleys have been held in high regard for many years as pioneering publishers, and as the founders of premier black bookshops. In a 1988 letter to the Washington Post, the radical black political activist, Amon Saba Saakana, himself an author and director of a publishing venture, Karnak House, applauded their efforts, and those of other black presses in London. These houses were, he said, responsible for injecting an imaginative and dramatic body of diverse literature into the mainstream, for stirring the imagination of the mainstream, and creating an atmosphere, through conferences, forums, book fairs and so on, in which the black writer might be seen as an economic asset to the British publishing industry (Saakana X15). The years between the late 1970s and early 1990s were perhaps the most stimulating for many black-led independent and community publishers in Britain, if not the most precarious.

36The efforts made by John La Rose alongside his partner, Sarah White, and Eric and Jessica Huntley stand out as being particularly groundbreaking. In the first instance, in the words of Eric Huntley, black working class people proved themselves capable of publishing, in an industry which had been dominated by white, middle-class people for over 70 years. Bogle L’Ouverture, New Beacon Books and other black-led publishing organisations were responsible for dispelling the ‘aura of mystique’ which had hung over the traditional mode of publishing in Britain (Huntley in Harris 10). The fact that Bogle’s and New Beacon’s publishing and bookselling business survived over thirty years bears witness to their resilience. They were truly independent in every sense of the word. Both La Rose and the Huntleys adamantly refused to apply for financial assistance from the Arts Council for example, distrusting all that it represented and rightly concerned about their viability should any source of government funding be removed.

37Whilst there were strong links between the New Beacon and Bogle, and it is true that both were successful in bringing out and disseminating a wide range of black literary material, it is evident that the motivation for their publishing activities and the contexts within which they operated were slightly different. What these differences reveal is the space available for more than one kind of publisher of black interest books in Britain. This was true in the 1960s, and continued to be the case throughout the rest of the twentieth century, as the creation of the X Press in 1992, Black Amber in 1998 and Brown Skin Books in 2003 attest to. The X Press, established by former journalists, Dotun Adebayo and Steve Pope, quickly earned a reputation for publishing sensationalist paperback books that became known as ‘Yardie novels’: a form of gritty pulp fiction that apparently epitomised the speech and lives of young black Britons. Later on, Black Amber was established by Rosmarie Hudson with the intention of adding another dimension to black British literature; as was Brown Skin Books, a publishing house devoted to the publication of erotica written by black British women, launched by Vastiana Belfon.

38These examples demonstrate how, for nigh on fifty years small black presses consistently carved out a niche for themselves on the fringes of the British publishing industry as specialist publishers of a wide range of black interest books. The existence of each is testament to the continued involvement of black publishers in British cultural and political life.

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1 Margaret Busby was born in Ghana of African-Caribbean parents. She co-founded the publishing firm of Allison & Busby with Clive Allison, and was editorial director there for more than twenty years. She has been an editor, publisher, writer, literary critic, broadcaster and mentor for aspiring publishers. She has been on the panel of judges for a number of literary awards, including the SAGA Prize and the Orange Prize. She has worked on several cultural committees and has been a member of steering groups involved in campaigning for greater representation in publishing. She talked about her involvement in the British book industry during a conversation with Philippa Ireland which took place at the British Library, London on 25 April 2006.

2 The first International Book Fair took place in 1982. It was initiated by New Beacon Books, Bogle L’Ouverture and the Race Today Collective. The latter organisation grew out of a break-away faction from the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) in the 1970s and put out a journal of the same name. Prior to the Fairs, these organisations had a shared a history of alliance. In 1975, John La Rose and other concerned parents had founded the Black Parents Movement. By then the Race Today Collective had broken away from the IRR. The Black Parents Movement allied with them and with the Black Youth Movement. This alliance became a powerful cultural and political movement, being the same alliance which formed the New Cross Massacre Action Committee in response to the arson attack which resulted in the deaths of 13 young blacks in 1981.

3 The programme of events for each Book Fair timetabled a number of political forums and points of discussion concerning national and international issues. The first Fair, for example, included a forum on ‘racist and fascist attacks on black, left-wing and community booksellers and other institutions in Britain’, presented by Jessica Huntley. Subsequent forums covered the following themes: ‘the resurgence of barbarism’ (in 1983), moderated by Darcus Howe; ‘migrant struggles in Britain and Europe’, ‘the women’s struggle: the way forward’ and ‘current struggles in the Caribbean & the way forward’ (in 1984); and ‘India: the crisis to come’, ‘black, radical and third world women and their current struggles’, ‘Caribbean in ferment’ and ‘Malcolm X and social liberation’ (in 1985). This trend continued, with national and international political issues being tabled for discussion and debate at later Fairs.

4 There has been scholarly interest in the publication of South Asian literature in Britain specifically, as well as the general publication of writers from the Commonwealth in post-war Britain. See Ranahsina, Ruvani. South Asian Writers in Twentieth Century Britain: Culture in Transition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007 and Low, Gail. “‘Finding the Centre?’ Publishing Commonwealth Writing in London: The Case of Anglophone Caribbean Writing 1950-65.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 37.2 (2002): 21-38, for example.

5 Conversation with Eric and Jessica Huntley [Personal interview]. (2007, January 9). This was echoed by Margaret Busby during an interview with her in 2006 (Conversation with Margaret Busby [Personal interview]. (2006, April 25).

6 This comment was made with reference to Railton Blues by Carolyn Cooper, a lecturer in English at the University of West Indies in Jamaica, in a Reader’s Report of the novel (LMA/4462/E/01/051: David Simon: ‘Railton Blues’).

7 Jessica Huntley to Edwina Johnson, unpublished letter dated 2 September 1983 (LMA/4462/E/01/051: David Simon: ‘Railton Blues’).

8 David Simon to Jessica Huntley, unpublished letter dated 15 July 1987, LMA/4462/E/01/051: David Simon: ‘Railton Blues’, London Metropolitan Archives.

9 ‘Bookshop Joint Action: History’, Description of Holdings in the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA/4462/J).

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Philippa IRELAND, « Laying The Foundations: New Beacon Books, Bogle L’Ouverture Press and the Politics of Black British Publishing »e-Rea [En ligne], 11.1 | 2013, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2013, consulté le 16 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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