Austin Clarke: Defying the Silence

by John Harewood

John Harewood spent his career at the University of Ottawa where he served both as an Assistant Professor of Classics and an Academic Advisor. He has written several articles on Austin Clarke and presented papers on his work at the universities of McGill and Ryerson.

Don’t do muh so!

I can hear Austin’s voice issuing the reprimand, tongue in cheek, from his study as he looks through the window on to Moss Park which inspired Where The Sun Shines Best, one of the last three books he published.

Immediately afterwards, I can hear him adding, “God don’t like ugly.”

Those of us who knew him well might justifiably argue that he would have reacted in this way on hearing the news that a special edition of the magazine The Puritan was being published in his honour. He would have reminded us that he had been called many names in his lifetime, but none was ever connected with anything “Puritan.” Such an eventuality could have occurred only after he had departed for Heaven or Hell.

I was a junior to Austin at high school in the early ’50s and, like most of his contemporaries, admired his outstanding achievement as an athlete when he won the Victor Ludorum trophy for two consecutive years. Those were the days when you were expected to run the 100, 220, 440, and 880 yards in one afternoon. The idea of being a specialist just in one or two races on the track simply didn’t exist and Austin would in later years look contemptuously at those athletes who thought that they were “special” because they could perform brilliantly in only one race and spent all of their time training for the grand occasion.

Screen Shot 2017-07-30 at 11.43.23 PM

I had seen him run, had witnessed the scene when he received the trophy in one of his years of triumph, but I had never heard him speak .Indeed, I had never heard his voice until he sang the part of King John in the production of 1066 and All That by the Harrison College Dramatic Society in 1952.

You couldn’t miss his rich baritone, resonant with a touch of huskiness as he crooned,

I and Richard played as boys together
Best of friends for many years were we
I was always nervous as a kitten
Richard lionhearted as could be
Unlucky John, always sat upon,
Unlucky John, je ne suis plus bon.

Richard died, I took his crown and sceptre
Then, one day when I was forced to flee,
I was washed into the wash at washpool
Then I lost my washing in the sea.
Unlucky John, all my clothes have gone,
Unlucky John, I’ve got nothing on.

I am wondering now, whether in later years, he ever saw the last line of that song as a metaphor for his life, that somehow he was often stripped and laid bare for all to see. And ironically, this latest effort to celebrate him and his work , however justified, might appear to some of his admirers to be yet another stripping, if not an unmasking. For Austin, despite his very public persona, was a very private person. While visiting him in August 2015, I was disturbed by his increasing frailty, the fact that he was living alone and there was no one with him during the night. When I questioned him about this, he replied that he liked being alone and had a device which would enable him to call in an emergency.

He would have said that the first stripping had occurred before he entered Harrison College, when one of its cadet officers humiliated him by removing him from the rank of Sergeant Major as punishment for breaking camp. The next was administered by the Headmaster of the same Harrison College, whose supposed “letter of recommendation” of him as a “transfer from Combermere” suggested that he had no real identity as an authentic college boy.

The feeling of rejection continued two years after his arrival in Canada in 1955. Not at all excited by the Politics and Economics program in which he had registered at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, he withdrew and, in quick succession, worked as a janitor, security guard, Christmas letter carrier, paint factory worker, sculptor, reporter and stagehand. Tired of being fired, he decided to become a writer, vowing thereafter “not to work for a black or white boss.”

Screen Shot 2017-07-30 at 11.27.37 PM

It was now the ’60s. Austin had grown up in a colonial setting where the presence of a foreign master, paradoxically, was both resented and courted. He had left that milieu when the emergence of a third force in world politics became apparent as formerly colonized peoples were asserting their right to self-determination and demanding a new international order based on human rights. In North America, especially the United States, that demand for change manifested itself in the Civil Rights Movement. Canada was not immune to its influence and Austin was soon attracted.

Confident in his abilities, although lacking in experience, he persuaded the then-executive producer of CBC Radio to send him to New York for an interview with the writer James Baldwin, already recognized, alongside the likes of Dr.Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, as one of the most persistent critics of racial discrimination against American Blacks and the shameful denial of their civil rights. Clarke did secure an interview, but with Malcolm X, and for 63 minutes. The documentary aired across Canada and its success persuaded him to launch a career in freelance broadcasting, a more reliable profession, thought he, for a man already the father of two daughters.

But that window of opportunity seemed to close for him, almost immediately. He participated in the Canadian Apartheid Committee, boycotted South African goods, picketed Loblaw’s supermarkets, wrote columns in the Toronto Telegram and Toronto Star protesting their hiring practices and blatant racism. Very quickly, he began to be described as an “activist,” a word whose negative connotation labelled its bearer more frequently as a troublemaker than an agent for positive change. So an article which he wrote denouncing the discrimination which he had personally suffered between 1955 and the mid-’60s earned him the title of “Canada’s Angriest Black Man” from Maclean’s magazine.

Screen Shot 2017-07-30 at 11.35.40 PM

I myself was among those Toronto Blacks who were uncertain as to whether we should be embarrassed or offended by his notoriety. We hailed the publication of his first novel, The Survivors of the Crossing, in 1964, but thought that it wasn’t about us, the experience we were living. Set in the Caribbean with Rufus as its dubious hero, whose desire for socioeconomic change motivated him to an unsuccessful attempt to lead a rebellion against the established order of “the plantation,” it still evoked some empathy, at least from those of us with Caribbean roots. It signalled the presence of a new voice. We could partly identify with it, but we weren’t willing to accept its bearer as our leader or spokesman. We suspected that he had an alternative agenda.

Amongst Thorns and Thistles, published the next year, indicated that he was still preoccupied with his Barbadian experience, especially the brainwashing resulting from colonization and exemplified by Mr. Blackman, the domineering Headmaster who brutalizes his students in the belief that corporal punishment is the key to proper discipline and educational achievement. At the same time, he is embarrassingly slavish when the British Inspector visits the school.

But Austin could not continue to ignore the reality around him, right there in the city of Toronto. With increased immigration from the Caribbean, the demography had changed. However, these new immigrants weren’t being reflected in the literature. Like himself, they were invisible, although conspicuously present. No writer was addressing their experience of displacement, racial discrimination, alienation, loneliness, or unemployment. He was determined to make them visible, to give them a voice, and emphasize the significance of their presence.

Except that there was no obvious model in the Canadian literary establishment, nor did he think that Dickens, Chaucer, Eliot, and Shakespeare—with whom he had grown up—could be imported to meet the challenge. Rather, he chose to describe the new social reality by introducing a new way of seeing, through a different lens and a language rich in the sounds, rhythms, colour, smells, and humour of the Caribbean. And so were born the now famous Toronto Trilogy, The Meeting Point (1967), Storm of Fortune (1973), and The Bigger Light (1975), featuring Dots, Bernice, and Boysie.

Under his pen, they are Black immigrants from the Caribbean, but nonetheless, they possess all of the aspirations common to any immigrant, as well as the determination to achieve their dreams despite the occasional racism they suffer because of the colour of their skin. Boysie is the prototype; he has achieved the goals pursued by every immigrant—job security and financial success. Yet, his enjoyment of his new status is jeopardized by an increasing alienation from his wife and the West Indian community towards which he develops a troubling antipathy. This accounts for his constant uncertainty, his preoccupation with a world of fantasy, and a relentless search for “the bigger light.”

About the same time in the ’70s, Austin joined the editorial team of Contrast, the newspaper then widely recognized as the “voice” of the Black community nationally. Whether this was his objective or not, the decision, together with the publication of the Trilogy, enhanced his profile and credibility.

I had seen him briefly on the street one day in 1964 when he informed me that he had published his first novel. I met him again shortly after Storm of Fortune appeared. The first page still bears his autograph with the words “For John Harewood from the homeland with love, Toronto, 7 July, 1973.” He had already persuaded me by letter, in his trademark style of calligraphy, to write for Contrast.

He wrote:

23 October, 1972:

Harewood!

Send some papers fuh we, nuh? And keep in touch, yuh hear. You want to review books for we? Well, ok, buy the kiss-me-arse book, then and write the review. We don’t pay. I working free, so you understand!

This letter, the first of approximately 150, was the beginning of our 44 years of correspondence and a very close friendship.

Screen Shot 2017-07-30 at 11.39.55 PM

 

Clarke’s two memoirs are informative but limited. Growing up Stupid Under the Union Jack (1980) presents a picture of his happy, if humble childhood, together with an authentic testimony of the fundamental features of life in a Barbadian and Caribbean agricultural community. ’Membering (2015) reveals, as he tells us, selective details of his struggles, financial and emotional, with his “personal demons” when he lived in a basement apartment with sweaty pipes, collecting 28 dollars every Friday and doubting his writing abilities; how he is saved by remembering his mother’s precepts of hard work, discipline, and the conviction that first always precedes second and guts is the ultimate resource of the winner.

All well and good, but if you have read them, you will still think  there is more about Austin the man than you found there. After all, here was man who enjoyed a multi-faceted career, as writer, but also as diplomat, politician, teacher, professor, and bureaucrat. He was also a father and he loved women, albeit between intervals of his work. So, what more do the letters tell us about him that isn’t in the memoirs?

Over the years, he wrote to me from wherever he happened to be living or working. I was his confidante, and he mine. We discussed freely whatever was happening in our lives professionally and personally. No topic was off limits. We cultivated our friendship through a regular exchange of letters, informal sessions, and phone calls.

In the letters, invariably, he is brutally frank, uninhibited, irreverent, and unapologetic, but at the same time charming, humorous, and empathetic. His correspondence would include, from time to time, manuscripts on which he was working. I felt honoured that he respected and trusted me enough to ask for my critical comments on An American Dutchman (still unpublished) , a work of nonfiction which he was turning into fiction, ’Membering, Her Hair is Plaited Tight (still unpublished), and Where The Sun Shines Best. As well, there were invitations to attend events at which he would be honoured, such as the conferral of Honorary Doctorates and his investiture into the Order of Canada.

In general, Austin didn’t assign titles to his letters, but he seems to have reserved his strongest opinions and most graphic and colourful language for certain topics, which I have tried to reflect in the excerpts which follow.


Love, Women, and Marriage

Perhaps the first guideline to knowing Austin appears in a letter which he wrote on 26 March, 1974, when he stated bluntly:

I is a writer and a lover. And I doing all two to the best of my anatoemee.

He confirmed it, even 26 years later:

1:20 p.m.Wednesday, 27 December, 2000.

I here, Harewood, on this nice bank holiday, listening to calypsoes from the 1990s and really enjoying them … But there is a reason that I so happy these days, Harewood. Woman. Harewood, when I tell you “woman,” Harewood, um is the first time in my life, that I actually fall in love with a woman … I mean a woman-and-a-half. I never knew love could be so sweet. Man, she have me doing things I never do before in my life. Things that sweet. Things that bring-out the man and that bring-out the woman. The things that true love made of. But more than anything is the peace that she bring into my life. Peace and security and sure-ness. And confidence.

A few years earlier, in a letter dated March 15, 1998, I had said, among other things, that “man needs woman.” He had replied on March 16, 1998:

I suppose most women understand this dependency factor that exists in men, especially men who use their brains to make a living. (Perhaps, they decide we are soft, softer than a lighterman) and they tend, as your experience shows, to blame the intelligence for their own shortcomings. All women are demanding. The older, the more demanding. I don’t know what the answer is, if there is ever an answer. Perhaps, an answer is, love them and hope for the best.

Despite our long friendship and trust in one another, I would have considered it indiscreet and inappropriate to enquire as to whether or not he had ever been officially divorced. Nor did he ever raise the topic. However, I noted that, in later years, when he did confide that he was considering marriage, first with one and later, with another woman, neither of them was the woman for whom he had expressed the love which had brought him peace, security, confidence, and sureness.

3:37 p.m. November 20, a Thursday,

It was not quality that we sought. It was just time. And we did have time. And time to talk. And time to lay out plans for our marriage. And agree that we shall have, what she called “a modern marriage—both of us living in Calgary and in Toronto, as the spirit move, to suit our whims.” She is determined and settled on this.

She called me last night … and did not neglect to send you regards. She did pick up, with no coaching from me that you seem a bit less “ spirited” than you were in Barbados when we spent so much time together. I did not reveal a probable cause. Do you see how precisely women define our moods and dispositions?

 

Weather

If Austin used letters as the medium for expressing his strong feelings about women, he is no less emphatic about the weather and how it affected his mood and interpretation of life and society.

10:15 a.m. 5 July, 1982

I have not been able to get much done in July and August for years now and I no longer worry about it. I put all of that out of my mind until the cold or cool weather comes. I’d like to experience living in a place with Barbados’ year round climate to see whether I can stomach that unrelieved humidity again … Bluntly speaking, I do not love warm weather. It makes me drink and relax and dipsy-doodle and behave like a tourist.

On the other hand, he was not enamoured with the cold. Here he is, at 3:05 a.m. 20 December, 1983 , describing Winnipeg:

Harewood, um cold? Be-Christ, before I step off the plane, I tremble and make a shiver and my blood turn to spirits that we uses to put in lamps back home. Thin thin thin. The first day, 27 minus. The second day, 32 minus. The third day 35 minus. No wonder they was pouring scotch in my system as if my system was a gas tank! I had on three pair o’ thick socks; thick thick thick gloves; two pairs o’underwears; a undershirt, a shirt ’pon top o’ that; a sweater; a waistcoat, a tie, a scarf; a jacket and a winter coat, and the boots I was wearing reach me all up to my kneebones, and I still cold …

Screen Shot 2017-07-30 at 11.45.50 PM

Next, a word about PEI at 10:10 a.m 14 March, 1984.

… I just come back from PEI down by Reshard ’pon a four day writer-in-residence thing, which had me cold cold cold, because Reshard playing he is this farmer, can’t get the blasted stoves light, so the house remain cold as shite, and he and he wife playing they is nineteenth century artisses, and I so cold, Harewood, that when I went to number-one, the thing freeze-up before um reach the bowl. Cold? He and he wife drinking gin and keeping warm inside, and I sipping brandy and getting more colder outside. I glad as shite to be back in Toronto. Cold?

The weather is also a metaphor for the Black experience at home and abroad.

7:17 Tuesday, the 25th, 2005.

But with this white bleakness, there is a bit of romantic embracing of snow, a kind of ambivalent affection for the sadness that the snow and that “whiteness” suggest. Perhaps this is the meaning of being an immigrant—and not only in a country of snow. The snow here is the same as the brutality of police in Brooklyn; or the white employer in South Africa, or the overseer in Barbados, back then …

 

Writing, Other Writers, and Friendship

On the topic of writing, his was not at all a romantic point of view. Even after he had published five books and won two prizes, he wrote, on March 26, 1974,

Man, if I had was to begin life all over again from the beginning, I would cram scientific phrases and be a kiss-me-arse psychiatriss. But to want to be a writer and nobody ain drive some blows in your clothes to mek you one, and you choose that by yourself, man that is suicide of self, man. Writing hard as shite. I just finding that out.

Admittedly, he did have periods of self-doubt, but in the end, wasn’t lacking in confidence.

In reporting on Clarke’s winning of the Giller Prize in the November 6, 2002 issue of the Citizen, Paul Gessell wrote that “Yesterday’s triumph means Mr. Clarke has been elevated to the A-List.” Earlier, he had referred to the announcement as a “surprise.” But Austin had held a much higher opinion of his status and merit as a writer 17 years before Gessell wrote his piece. At 12:15 a.m. 22 January, 1985, he had written:

Harewood!

The new book, When Women Rule, is due to be published any week now by McClelland and I anxious to see what the reviewers shall do about it. I would want the book to get good reviews because I want to see what will prevent it from receiving the Governor General award, which is now overdue since Meeting Point was published in 1967. It will also stand a chance of getting the Toronto Prize.

And also, just two years before, when he had half-expected to win for The Question, given that Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood were the prominent nominees, he wrote at 1:20 p.m. Wednesday, December 27, 2000:

And next year, I going for them. I am going to be like a horse with a tight reins, tug-tugging at the bit, and when the starter say, “Off.” I going be the first that leff the gate. I intend to win everything. All.

Screen Shot 2017-07-30 at 11.48.06 PM

The letter of January 22, 1985, also speaks about Penguin’s interest in bringing out Nine Men Who Laughed, which he describes as follows:

It is about us: in the sad days when we were at university and having no money and no fun, apart from the weekend 50 cent dances and the few women who came into our lives. I enjoyed writing that collection, and you are one of the few who know that this collection was written in about four weeks.

In fact, describing or commenting on a work completed or in progress is a regular feature in his letters. Here are some of his thoughts about Proud Empires (1988):

12:45 p.m. 23 April, 1988.

And I uses to dream o’ days when I too, couldda be in my barrister silks, and walk with a limp o’ style, always pulling up my trousers, and looking as if I have in rums and talking pure big words and legal phraseologies … and hold over the railing and look down ’pon lesser mortals … My dreams did always big dreams. And when I hit ’pon that idea in Proud Empires, at the very beginning o’ the novel, I was real proud , and did in fact, to some degree, writing about my own-own fantasies.

At 11:06 a.m. 9 January, 1997, he had this to say about The Origin of Waves:

If you siddown beside a lake too often, and in particular ’pon a dark night , the only intellectual thing for you to do, is jump in the blasted lake, yuh! Suicide must come in your mind. Um is as if the water is the water you was contain in, when you was in your mother’s womb, and now that you born, and is even a man, the realism of this lake is to suck you back In water, have a compelling force like it want to suck you back in … So, in a sense, it isn’t suicide in the normal sense, but a kind of enforce re-entry inside the womb.

I write the book, yuh! I write the book saying this, but didn’t know what the arse I was saying when I write um. And continuing the metaphor, I see my life as a kiss-me-arse lake …

Regarding More, his last novel, at 5:50 p.m. on Sunday, 8 October, 2006, he was more expansive:

The structure of this novel is different from all the rest I have written; and I am trying out a new idea of not making the narrative follow a line that is straight, but one that stops abruptly and then may continue with a flashback … and then reconnect with the beginning of the narrative … I have the same feeling of excitement writing this novel, as I had when I was writing The Polished Hoe.

On the last day of the year, he is both regretful and excitedly hopeful.

1:00 p.m. 31 December, 1985

My Dear Harewood,

Yesterday was a sad day for literature and people who work in literature; Jack McClelland sold his firm; but as you may know by now, he will remain the publisher for at least five years. All the big shots in the whirl of literature were there at the Royal York, in the library room. And once again, I had to say that it is a pity that I am the only black writer who has that profile … And I suspect that since there were so few of us writers, Atwood, Gibson, Berton, and Templeton, invited to that important and significant ceremony, that my stars must be pitching, at last.

8:09 a.m. 12 January, 1996.

Harewood! And after all these years I been writing, I never know that um was wise to have a Canadian agent. I got one now. Denise. Bukowski. A mob o’ton o’ woman. Quick. Keen. Wise. Perspicacious. Sense of humour and hardworking.

Austin maintained life-long friendships with fellow writers and was very generous to them. He regarded George Lamming as a mentor, Barry Callaghan as a friend, Samuel Selvon as a very dear friend, called John Hearne, the Jamaican novelist, erudite and “the one and only”; Jan Carew “a genius” and “gorilliphant,” Norman Mailer a “smash” after a successful Toronto visit; admired Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and rejoiced in the success of Dionne Brand and Kwame, a young Ghanaian poet whom he described as “damn bright. I want to read he poetry. He might be tekking bread from out o’my mouth. Don’t let he tek bread from out o’ your mouth, too, yuh … He just call Walcott and Eddie-braff the two giants o ’modern poetry. He good as shite …Watch–he!”

Screen Shot 2017-07-30 at 11.49.40 PM

And when once Andrew Salkey, “one of the pioneers o’Wessindian Literature” visited Toronto with Kamau Brathwaite and Paule Marshall, Clarke was ecstatic.

2.57.p.m. February 27, 1981

Man, Harewood, Man,

Braff and Handrew Salkey and Paule Marshall, did here. Man, they get on bad bad bad. Paule Marshall put a reading ’pon de people up at York, that had them bawling fuh murder. And Braff read “Negus” from Masks, with the thing that does go “it, it, it, it is not, it is not, it is not enough to be semi-colon, semi-colony” and Jesus Christ, Harewood, I telling you um was pure po’try and fire and brimstones and rockstones he pelt- bout in that auditorium. Pretty pretty pretty fuh so! … Then, Handrew Salkey face the new ball … He slam Naipaul to the boundary for selling out. Plam.

 

Diplomacy

He relished his life as a diplomat, but quickly became aware of diplomacy’s double-barreled realities.

26 March, 1974 :

Harewood!

What has I gone and get myself in? But life nice. Is one thing to mek conclusions ’pon news events and things you read in the papers, and a next thing to know that there is a next kind o’ truth and fact laying down underneat that streamline of facts and figures that you might hear about. You following muh?

1:30 a.m. 7 June, 1974:

Harewood … the job is killing me, man. It killing me sweetly, like the song say. It blasted interesting too; and I feel this is what I did always want to do, now that I in it; but before I get in it, I didn’t or couldn’t know; but now that I understanding the long and short and the various ins and outs, it sweet as shite! I don’t know if I mekking the right kind o’diplomack for Barbados, but I doing the best that I can; and they can’t kill me for trying.

24 September, 1974:

Being a diplomat demands more diplomatical attitudes than I am wont to dispense. There are persons here whose mentality is to be measured by their Civil Service status: and status to them is the spiteful imposition of personality on those with less official status.

 

Ambivalence, Despair, and Elation

Many a time Austin was ambivalent about living in Toronto. While on a stint at the University of Texas at Austin, he contemplated staying there although he was disgusted and frustrated by the apathy of the African-American students who often refused to turn up to hear guest speakers. He regretted, only wistfully, his decision not to take up an offer to attend Oxford in 1983. He excused himself by arguing on 20 November, 1987:

first things first: parental duty must take precedence over the eccentricities of middle age and egotism.

Clearly, he had reached a low point emotionally in the summer of 1996. At 2:19 p.m. 26 August, 1996:

I have two dollars and twenty-something cents to my name. Um can’t buy coffee. Um can’t buy a stamp. Um can’t buy a butter-tart. Um can’t buy a return ticket ’pon the subway, in case I want to go down by the lake and jump in; or, if I change my mind concerning the jumping in, crawl-back here. Um can’t buy a beer not even a draff-beer. And um sure can’t buy a pack o’cigarettes … So, I have to wait and see if there is a God, and if he have any mercy ’pon writers. Sometimes, I don’t think so. This is one Monday morning when I know-so.

Screen Shot 2017-07-30 at 11.50.48 PM

And, in the summer of 1997, at the very moment when the first tribute to him was organized at Toronto’s Harbourfront and he was thinking about attempting a new start in Italy, he wrote at 11:16 a.m. 21 July:

I feel like a new immigrand, just land, and facing this big city, not knowing where the next kiss-me-arse meal going come from. And all this realism in the midst of praise! … I can’t even walk and lick-bout two brown pennies inside my fob-pocket. I asking myself, what this mean? I asking myself, I do somebody something, that God like he forget me? I asking myself, if I in the middle of a cycle o ’blows, that have to run its revolution before I could come up for breath, before I drown? I asking myself, if this is the end? I asking myself, if I on the cusp or the crust o’ something more bigger than me-myself?

Something big did happen, and he was highly gratified to have received The Order of Canada.

1:29 a.m. Friday, October 2, 1998.

Harewood, Boy, I sorry that I didn’t get this Order o’Canada thing more earlier, to enjoy lil living like the rest of people, as if I is people, too. But God don’t like ugly and yuh can’t kick against the pricks.

In preparation for the ceremony, at 8:41 a.m., Wednesday, 21 October, 1998 on the subject, Order and Order:

As man, Doctor, I looking for a pair o’ black shoes, not necessarily “patient- leather” to wear ’pon my two foots, ’cause all my things still in storage, and after tramping-bout Toronto all yesterday afternoon, I only come up with shoes that is size seven and eight …

If you or Taylor have a spare pair, no matter how old and beat-up, wunnuh could lenn me for Saturday?

I gone

Austin

He won The Commonwealth Prize for Best Book, The Polished Hoe, in 2003 and thereby earned the traditional audience with the Queen.

On meeting the Queen. 12:40 p.m. 29 July, 2004.

Man, when I enter Buckennam that morning in March, the eighth at 12:40 p.m., the exact hour that I happen to address this letter to you … I never, in my wildest dreams thought that me and Her Majesty would one day, in Buckennam, shake hands; and that she would smile in my face and axe me, “And what tie are you wearing, Mr. Clarke?” When I tell she um was Harsun College, in Barbados, she eyes light up, and she tell me, “Oh yes! My trainer is a Barbadian, Stoute. I think his father was a Commissioner of Police in Barbados … And that cause me to chirp-in and tell bout my step-father; bout 434 Luke driving the Commissioner car; bout Stoutie youngest brother being the Dean of my cathedral church … and thing and thing … and we end up like two old friends, discussing the advantages and multiple disadvantages of the computer … Harewood, when I tell you that it was sweet, sweet, sweet, then …”

 

Travelling

He loved to travel and often created a story about the journey.

11:15 a.m. Tuesday, 10 March, 1998

Man, I looking forward to the journeys and the travelling that in store for me … in Barbados, I going drink one rum; and tek one seabath. In Philadelphia, I goin drink one martini. In Buffalo, I goin eat two pounds o’chicken wings, whichin are the best wings in the world. And when I reach Italy, I benning down and kissing the earth, and when I get back up, if I get back up, um is pure Italian grapes, and “dolce vita” like the Senators uses to do. I may even remember, by heart, all the Virgil and Horace and Livy that I didn’t remember in Joe Clarke class! An run for Pope.

Actually, in Vicenza, Italy, he reported that he found:

9:23 Martedi 2, Giugno, 1998

in the battlements of a palazzo … a porcelain potty, for number-one-ing in, and a more prettier porcelain potty , for numbert-two-ing in … Foster have a bid on the potty for number 2. You want a piece of the action.

12:40 p.m. 29 July, 2004

I leffing on the 2nd August for India! Hyderabad! Passing through Amsterdam to talk to the Dutch colonizers, and see how the translator turning The Polished Hoe into Papiemento, or brek-up Dutch that they does speak in Curacao. Spenn two days drinking a Heineken or two, and then continue on my “passage to India,” sahib. When I come back, you not going recognize me. I going be wearing long white beard, long white cotton robes, and tight-tight-tight pantaloons, a piece of red cloth tie-round my head, Clark leather sandals , some beads brekking-down my neck, and ‘nough-nough gold and silver brass bangles rackling-bout on my two hands. I going be real Eastern. And chanting like shite. And burning incense. And myrrh, too. And I not talking no more. Is pure silence.

 

Family

If I asked, he would tell me, but Austin didn’t usually initiate conversation about his family, even with me; so I would often wonder what place they had in his life and heart. I found the answer, spontaneously and often effusively given in some of his letters.

Here he is, announcing the birth of his last daughter.

9:10 a.m. 1 March, 1984:

Harewood! Harewood?

If it tek me almost one month to tell you that the waiting is no more waiting; and if the time seem long to explain in view of both the end of the waiting and the event in question, ascribe um to the fact and the feeling that because of the nature of the waiting itself and the result that singularly is synonymous with that very waiting, is responsible for this delay in telling that the waiting is done. Um is a girl. The Waiting I mentioned ended at 11:07 a.m., February the 2nd; and the physicality of the waiting was symbolized by eight pounds, seven ounces. So far as the nomemclatures and entitlements are concerned, she is to be called Jordan Patricia Armour Clarke, with no hyphen! There are three family names involved: “Jordan,” one of mine; “Armour,” one of Patricia’s; and Clarke (which is almost the same as Clark) is the other.

He occasionally welcomed, as a refreshing excursion from Toronto, his trips to Brooklyn and New Jersey to visit his mother, stepfather and the Lukes, his brothers. Sometimes the circumstances were difficult.

1:31 p.m. 28 July, 1987:

uddear, Harewood! Don’t do muh, so! I leff Toronto pon the 4th of July, because the Old Man, poorly. I get back last night, at midnight. Anytime now, that call will come, and I gotta bound-back to Willingboro, NJ, to liff the head. Cuddear! Um didn’t rudeness. Um did grief and sufferation. So you going hear from me soon, hear? Austin

But, here is a more cheerful recollection of another visit, this time to the University of Buffalo for a talk to the Caribbean Students’ Association:

8:40 p.m. 12 November, 1985

I took Betty on the excursion: and should have done so many times in years gone by. She took it as an expression of great kindness. We spent the afternoon eating chicken wings at a place, Anchor Bar, famous even in Toronto for those culinary delights. Betty ate twenty-something wings; Keith Henry, my host, ate 15, and I demolished the rest, in the vicinity of thirty-something. A fine time was had by all.

And later, some time with his first two daughters.

26 January, 1974

I tek Loretta to Barbados wid me … and now Janice down here wid me for a week and be-Christ, this cossing me my life all over again. But they is good girl thrildrens, and since I have a piece of change now, well, the change versus the experience ain’ in favour of the change, so I settle ’pon the experience for them, and in return, one of these days when I falling bout the gutter of Toronto, they might stop their Rolls Royce and pick up the old man, and drop a dollar bill inside muh hand and give me a night lodging.

Screen Shot 2017-07-30 at 11.52.07 PM

And he didn’t hesitate to poke some good-natured fun at me when he heard that my family was expecting twin-daughters.

12:03 a.m. 8 March, 1982

Man, Harewood–Harewood! Two-man!!

But, Harewood, wha’ you going do with twins? You only getting on ignorant, saying you is the father o’twins.You coming on strong strong, man … Twins, Harewood? …. just so? Nuh dipsy-doodling? Nuh neem? Nuh Breadfruits? Nuh green bananas? Just by your one? Man, Harewood, I tekking off the gorilliphant crown and putting it ’pon your head, man. You is a gorilliphant and a half! … Twins, Harewood? Looka you, though, nuh! Not one? But two? At one time? You mean that every time you buy a shirt, you gotta buy not one, but two? Every time you sharing licks, you gotta lick two bodies? Every time you cleaning up the “jobbie,” you gotta clean up two “jobbies?” Everything you uses to do one time, you gotta do two times now, including Christmas presents? And school fees? Man, invite muh up there when the twins coming, man. I going drink yuh out, ’cause in a lil while, you ain’t goin got one shite to give your friends, yuh.

 

Politics in Barbados, the United States, and Canada

After his experience as a diplomat in Washington, Austin must have anticipated another successful interlude when he was recruited by Prime Minister Errol Barrow himself for the position of General Manager of the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation in Barbados, in 1975. His management style and efforts to Barbadianize the corporation provoked a hostile reaction. As a result, he was fired by the same Prime Minister. On his return to Toronto, he reflected on his brief tenure in a letter which would probably have been even more offensive to Bajans.

10 p.m. 10 March, 1976

I find myself assisting a Government which I love. The Prime Minister is the most able person in this part of the world. I have a deep personal regard for him. But the rest of the Government; Harewood, and you may quote me or not, I don’t give a fuck! … the rest are like leeches crossbred by pimps … They say that I am a dictator. I should not push people so hard to do an honest day’s work. And everybody is trying to give me advice …

To have come home was to have made the supreme mistake. Nobody here wants to live with a man who has spent such a long time abroad; and there is more than just suspicion … I think the feeling is derived from the history of former colonial days when the only person who came to Barbados without having been born in Barbados was the white Englishman; Barbadians are not disposed to exchanging the black man for the white man.

It would appear that his return for a reading 12 years later offered some reprieve.

10:25 a.m. 31 May, 1988.

Harewood, Harewood, Harewood,

I have done it! I sneaked in to Barbados on the 22nd of this month; and judging from the reports, I came out loud and conspicuous, and most uninvisible! … Well, that was the boldest step I have taken in years, going back; and coming out alive, criticisms-wise. The reading went off extremely laudatory; everybody is still talking about my re-entry and about the way I “conducted” myself, knowing Barbadians the way you do, with their insistence upon good conduct on the part of others! It was a good crowd. The reading lasted three short hours. Reception and reaction noisy and applauding …

Having lived in the United States as a diplomat and academician and witnessed, to boot, the challenges to the Civil Rights Movement, Clarke could not ignore American politics at home or abroad.

On the Reagan Presidency: 9:28 a.m. 10 February, 1982

The world coming to an end. Reagan getting the Amercans to mek nerve gas again; he getting ready to invade Salvador; he putting he hand in Russia face; he tekking from the poor and giving to the rich; he going to Barbados in April for five days, and already a thousand FBI’s, CIA’s and diverse marines down there; he supporting South Africa, and he got Manningheim and Sharguh in Jamaica, in he back pocket.

On the George W. Bush Presidency: 1:20 P.M. Wednesday, 27 December, 2000.

Is a bad day that Bush become President. But I feel that Amurca deserve Bush, although I am convinced that Gore is a blasted bad strategist to have thought that he could get the White House, without the help of Clinton. In that, Gore was ill-advised. And to have lost Tennessee, and Clinton’s state, to-boot. He don’t deserve to be sleeping legitimately, in the White House.

In all our years of conversation, Austin and I never discussed his flirtation with Canadian politics, not to mention his candidacy for the Toronto Mayoralty in 1969 and for a seat in the Ontario provincial legislature in 1977. And perhaps his connection to the Progressive Conservative Party may be explained, in part, by his life-long friendship with Roy McMurtry, who himself held a seat in the provincial parliament before leaving politics to pursue his career in law, subsequently heading the Judiciary as Chief Justice of Ontario.

Screen Shot 2017-07-30 at 11.53.16 PM

A part of the following letter makes Clarke’s political preference clear.

4:45 p.m. September, 1990.

Now that the NDP and the remnants of the Liberals are pelting such big-rocks at my prime minister, it would not be prudent of me to be seen in that place. And as we have socialisses governing us here in Ontario, to leave my place of abode, for one day, might prove disastrous. On my return I might find that my house has been expropriated and given to a member of the rabblement.

If ever, as a Black activist or otherwise in the ’60s and ’70s, Austin felt pressured to swear allegiance to any ideology, such as Pan-Africanism, the Black Panthers, the Black Power Movement, Rastafarianism, and the like, his statement in this letter leaves no doubt regarding his own sense of identity.

9 February, 1974.

But to go back to the Africa thing: I ain’t too fussy ‘bout going there, yuh know. I is one man who godblindyou don’t give too much o’ going back there, or linking up too much with Africa, cause I feel, be-Christ, that them Africans don’t like me, and never did have a good bone in their heart in regards o’ me , and people like me; only now that the outside world saying something in their behalfs that they remember they have some loss rass-hole brothers this side o’hell. Uh mean, I ain’ have nothing ’gainst the Africans, but iffing it mean that I goin leff one hell for a next one, well leff me out! That kind of talk might surprise you, but is true. I are not even a black man. I is a fucking Barbadian.

 

Athletics, Field, and Track

Austin never lost interest in athletics, especially in track. His defeat in the 880 yards at the Interschool Sports in Barbados in 1951 ended his track career. Ironically, the memory of his stellar performance in earlier years was never powerful enough to erase the trauma caused by the loss, the constant reminder that he had let down his school when its championship of the games rested solely on his shoulders. A part of the following letter shows his plan to deal with the albatross.

11:40 a.m. 20 March, 1988.

I am at the point of examining, in fiction, the last 880 I ran for Harrison College, and its disastrous results; and this is something I have carried for years, all those years: and suddenly, in the working out of this novel (MORE), I had to make the man face “something” and then move on in his life.

Screen Shot 2017-07-31 at 12.01.35 AM

Perhaps that’s why he can identify so strongly with Ben Johnson, who as well, had moved rapidly from triumph to disgrace.

6:30 p.m. 17 February, 1992.

Be-Christ, ’twas a time when we knew beforehand, that Ben Johnson did-bound to come first. Now, he gone … I have not relegated him to no heap o’ failures …

My hero is Ben Johnson. I still think that he is the best ever to benn-down in starting blocks.

At the same time, he wonders about Michael Smith’s lack of success in the Olympic Games.

I didn’t tummuch interested in the Olympics, this time. The Amurcans mash-um-up; I agree with you that they turn things upside down, leffing out a lot of events because they didn’t had in no Amurcans. Whilst yuh can’t tek nothing from the Johnson-boy, who does run the wrong way, straight up, they coulda still show a lil more of the boxing, wrestling and the pole vault. But, wha’happen to the Smitt-boy? Yuh know he is Cammie-smitt nephew! I think he put-on tummuch weight; and he look heavy and sluggish. Perhaps, he don’t have the right mental attitude to competing in a’ Olympics, ’cause he does-do good in the Commonwealth and whirl Championships.

 

Food and Drink

But any attempt to know Austin would fall short without reference to his love of drinking, eating, and music. For him, these activities were interdependent, regardless of whether he was alone or had company. And his tastes were eclectic.

12:45 p.m. 4 February, 1983

… I could tell you that last night I cook the following, for a party held here for Greame Gibson, Margaret Atwood and Austin Clarke:

souse, gorblummuh, more prettier than wha’ Fredrica does –mek;
breadfruit cou-cou, with pig-tails turn
up in um, and with beef-stew sauce;
chicken cook with peanut butter, and serve with rice.

And when the last man did done eat, he fall down ’pon the people floor, and we had to rub-down he belly with coconut oil, and grease he down, and roll he ’bout ’pon the Persian rug! A good time was had by all and sundry and gentry.

3:37 p.m. 20 November, a Thursday, cold as shite!

You might very well become distraught when I tell you what I am doing at this time. I am sipping a cold, dry, very dry Bombay Sapphire martini, made by my own two hands, with a thick slice of the skin from a grapefruit; in a very chilled glass; and eating slices of French brie cheese.

And guess what? Don’t kill me when I confess what I doing , in addition to sipping a Bombay Sapphire, and eating a little good cheese. I cooking …

Basmati rice and Jamaica red beans, boiled down in some juicy pig tails; with a gravy and a sauce of beef short ribs that I buy from the Sin-Lawrence Market; braizing in a gravy with red wine, onions, fresh tomato, Jamaican jerk seasoning, and the usual condiments. My God, Harewood, I too-glad you ain’t here, so I have to share this “Bittle” with you, don’t mind you is my best friend! Some things friendship can’t come betwixt—and-between, and don’t  mind the “longtitude” and the “latitude” o’ that friendship.

Subject: THE HAM SOAK? THE JOINT O’ PORK SEASON?

5:05 p.m. 18 December, 2010:

Man, Harewood, My Christmas this Christmas going be quiet … I have- not- even make plans to eat a slice o’ Christmas ham with a friend; and Coxie’ wife who does- make great- cake, sponge cake, and sweet bread, for me, every Christmas, ten years running now, pick up sheself, and gone-long with Coxie down in Barbados! But God don’t like ugly! God is love!

 

The Sessions

We called them sessions! Informal get-togethers! There might have been two of us, three of us, or four of us.

A session was held in Toronto, at 62 McGill or 150 Shuter; in Ottawa, at Carl Taylor’s, Gregg Edwards’, Charles Skeete’s or my place. A session might begin at the Grand Hotel, but, while that venue was highly favoured, it was really a warm-up. The real thing occurred at a house, at no fixed time, and it was understood that it could continue indefinitely. Only three components were predictable: conversation, food, and drink.

Sometimes, I would call ahead to let Austin know that I was coming to town or he would inform me, by letter, that he would be coming to Ottawa to be a part of the jury to select a winner for the Governor General’s prize for fiction, or for some other assignment. He would express a wish to see Taylor, whom he often described as leading the life of Riley, Edwards, and, he would say, young Skeete, each retired with a Trinity or Harrison College connection.

Alternatively, I would call from Union Station when I arrived in Toronto or later, from my brother’s, in Brampton. If he happened to be at home, which was often the case, Austin would invite me to come over. His hospitality would start as soon as I entered the house. He would offer a beverage of choice or tea and something to eat. We would talk , perhaps about a current news story, what was happening in our lives, or what he was working on.

On occasion, I would stay overnight, bunking on the sofa on the second floor, amidst shelves of books with Miles Davis or John Coltrane in the background, while Clarke sat at work in his study until dawn, often preferring his faithful Bertha, an old IBM typewriter, to his laptop.

Shortly after he returned from a reading trip to Australia in 2004, we met in the Grand Hotel, his watering hole. As usual, he was the last to leave and, to quote him, “We closed it.”

We then retired to 150 Shuter and held session, sipping tea as he recalled the warm reception given to him by some white Bajans who had migrated “down under.” He was pleasantly surprised by their familiarity with his work.

Morning broke, whereupon he suggested that we return to the Grand for breakfast, still clothed as we had been the previous evening. This was unusual, for after a session like that, he would normally prepare breakfast as he did once when I overnighted. I had come down to attend “Honouring Austin Clarke,” an event organized by the Caribbean Consular Corps and the Caribbean Canadian Literary Expo at the Toronto Reference Library. On that occasion, he offered me his bedroom in the attic while he toiled through the night working on a short story.

Screen Shot 2017-07-31 at 12.04.40 AM

On one even more memorable afternoon in 2006, we held a session in Barbados where we both happened to be visiting. Although suffering from gout, Austin still managed to walk from midtown to Harrison College. We sat on the rectangular wall surrounding the College clock which bears a plaque with the names of Harrisonians killed in the First World War. As we so often did during our schooldays, we took care not to touch the grass protected by the enclosure. A student, female, took a picture.

In a letter dated 12:45 p.m. 4 February, 1983, he had written:

Harsun College adopt me, as a son o’ the soil. You ever see anthing so?

He was no longer “a transfer.”

For years, I had called him at least once a month. I called more frequently ever since he was hospitalized with a prostate problem and mild dementia shortly after Christmas 2013. I visited him early in the new year (2014). He recognized me but would have lapses of confusion as to where he was and why he was there.

Released from hospital after a three-week stay, he had become quite frail and relied on a cane to steady himself . However, his dementia had waned; he was able to continue the revision of ’Membering and celebrate his 80th year in July, in typical Clarkeian fashion.

I last saw him on November 1, 2015. The Toronto International Authors’ Festival had included a tribute to him to coincide with the publication of ’Membering. He was too weak to attend, but after the proceedings, a number of us trooped over to 150 Shuter for a session. The protocol was familiar. Much to eat and drink. Lively conversation. He was quiet, sometimes amused, ever attentive.

I increased calling on my return to Ottawa but reached him only twice in the new year. On the morning of June 27, 2016, his daughter, Darcy, called to let me know of his passing. She asked me to be one of the pallbearers.

8:09 a.m. 12 January, 1996

But Harewood!

And talking ’bout time, why am I at this early hour this morning spenning time ’pon you, you brute-beast who negleck me all them months when you was mekking hay in hay-loffs and haywoods and laughing? Because we is friends. And was friends from long. And, gorblummuh, going- remain likewise till I sing “The Day Thou Gavest” over you or you sing The Day Thou Gavest over me, meaning till one o’ we dead. Or, in other words, lifelong friends.

“The Day Thou Gavest” was the second hymn at the funeral service held for Austin Ardinel Chesterfield “Tom” Clarke at The Cathedral Church of St. James in Toronto, on Friday, July 8, 2016.

I sat behind Loretta and Darcy, and beside Jordan and her husband. I sang.


John Harewood spent his career at the University of Ottawa where he served both as an Assistant Professor of Classics and an Academic Advisor. He has written several articles on Austin Clarke and presented papers on his work at the universities of McGill and Ryerson.

☝ BACK TO TOP