Poet, writer, singer and presenter, Nairobi Thompson, has given the African-Caribbean communities a gift in Bayonets, Mangoes and Beads – her third collection. Sixty (60) poems conjure the thoughts and emotions, the parliamentary, political and private debate when colonial Europe turned their attention to recruiting more men for the frontline in the two Great Wars of 1914-18 (WWI) and 1939-45 (WWII).
Her mission is to bring our stories back to us and educate the world, using her extraordinarily expressive, accessible poetry.
She is mistress of many forms – sonnets, odes, haiku, beat, hymn or song, and colloquial – and by that, I mean that she can channel a number of Caribbean patois, conversational and RP (received pronunciation = posh) English.
So, when we heard that she was hosting an interactive salon of her latest collected works at the Whirled Cinema, Brixton, we saved the date.
With an introduction by hip hop artist Raggo Zulu Rebel and his rendition of a rapped/sung tribute to the memory of fallen soldiers (to the tune of What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted r. Jimmy Ruffin, 1966), Ms Thompson marched in skirted army fatigues to parade ground manoeuvres onto the floor. It was a poignant entrance, alerting you to the seriousness of the impending subject matter. But, true to her trademark, she ended with a turn from disciplined formation to a sensual Bogle, as the last phrases of Fallen Soldiers gave way to warm applause and resonant, knowing laughter.
Thompson had us.
She explained that she left school believing that black people had made no contribution to world affairs, without knowing that black people had committed good and heroic deeds, and was repeatedly faced with the adage, “My grandfather fought in the war. What did yours do?” Inspired by the WWI centenary tributes, she found herself on a path to find out. She researched archived and published material, and interviewed veterans and active soldiers, and found that our grand and great grandparents did plenty!
This selection, taken from her 2016 book of the same name, depicts the brutal acts of war, the unadulterated racism and lack of appreciation of their bravery and patriotism with stark veracity and not a little humour. It sets the record straight in 5 chapters – Warfare, Love, Politics, Aftermath and Service – with properly referenced footnotes and a patois glossary. The simple message is – we contributed. She set the scene for each mini-collection, of 2 0r 3 poems, with a slideshow containing facts from her endeavours, and followed on with her unmistakable performance poetry style.
Starting with the men, money and materials pledged to WWII from the Caribbean islands and colonial empire, Trinidad alone contributed 6.3% of its £30.6m 1940-45 GDP on war loans, 12% on ‘military and naval service’ and oil to fuel it; the 1.5m Jamaican population raised enough money to build eight (8) warplanes and a mobile canteen, and shipped better than 2 million tons of bauxite, the raw material for aluminium. West Africans contributed £1.5m to various war funds and 132, 000 heads of cattle to feed the British on their home soil. So, £23m in ‘gifts’, £10.7m in interest-free loans and £14m in interest-bearing or low-interest loans, totalled a £48m contribution between 1940-45 and today, these countries drown in debt to the West.
Thompson gave us Shattered Illusions – a voice from the trenches, continuing Zulu’s theme of obvious paradoxes and the harsh disillusionment of “… the first fallen, the first forgotten…”
Next, Mustard Gas – a morbidly voyeuristic description of the protracted nightmarish death from blistered lungs that African-Caribbean infantrymen suffered alongside the European during WW1 in particular.
Moving on to the political climate of the time and the much-had arguments rooted in a fear of retribution: Should black people be allowed to fight, taught to fight white men, only to then turn their weapons in their colonial masters? Based on parliamentary reports, The Great Debate depicted an exchange in Parliament when “… the stone that the builders rejected was sought.” It was the first interactive performance in which we, the audience shouted, “Hear, hear!” at evermore outrageous, racist viewpoints.
The next was dedicated to the memory of a 17-year-old Jamaican boy enlisted at 16 as #7429, a Private (Pte), into the 6th Battalion West Indies Regiment, and deployed into ferocious, bloody battle in Ypres, Belgium. He suffered untreated battle fatigue/ shell shock (now recognised as post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD). In his mother Ophelia’s voice, Herbert Morris opened with the line, “I cannot find my son.” She begins in hope that the British army will send him home, being foolish and brave, and too young for war. She is certain they wouldn’t shoot one of their own, and speaks with disbelief as his fate is sealed. He was the only Jamaican, along with 2 Ghanaians, one Sierra Leonean, Egyptian and Nigerian, 23 Canadian, 5 New Zealander and the rest British, making up 306 only symbolically pardoned of the conviction of desertion under Section 359 of the Armed Forces Act 2006, in 2006.
Moving on to bleaker tidings, Thompson explained the anti-black attacks and mob killings in the streets and on the doorsteps of black WW1 servicemen returning home to British cities. Another interactive poem, Riotous Indignation, is set in the pub as 3 demobbed soldiers share their account of how they successfully, violently defended their homes. We, the audience shouted “More rum!” on demand through the graphic, largely funny piece spoken with a Bajan accent.
Thompson is renowned for her sensual poetry, and in Furlough, she describes intimacy between a woman and an air forceman on leave. In the eye of Thompson’s rising sensual storm, it was at least 50 degrees up in thurrrr, ending with, “… She was the last good meal he ate.” Whoo!
As a musical interlude, we were treated to We’ll Meet Again, (1939), acknowledging that some servicemen fell in love and were parted from the object of that love, often never to meet again, and only sometimes remaining hopeful. Perhaps more importantly, it acknowledged that the WWII Dame Vera Lynn standard applied to us just as much as the Brits and the ‘Yanks’. It was a gorgeous version, but we couldn’t find an R&B, blues, jazz or reggae version anywhere! So, that needs to happen before 11th November 2018 and the end of the centenary commemorations!
The bittersweet Miss Pearl gave voice to infantryman Pte. Thomas’s yearning for his fiancé, the fine lady, Miss Pearl, to show black men at The Front loving and making plans to spend a life with someone back home in the Caribbean. It ends with our (and perhaps his) realisation that, as “… he spluttered and spat out the strength that should have seen him home…” these are his last thoughts.
France deployed African troops to the frontline in WW1. They were routinely subject to racist propaganda, particularly in terms of the absolute desirability of white women to the ‘most developed sexually of any race’ and ‘barely restrained bestiality’ of the African. In Rocks And Hard Places, the paradoxes of the fight underpinning a black soldier’s resolve and the manner in which he is treated, permeates strongly throughout.
Scramble For Africa told of another paradox as, in 1870, Europe controlled only 10% of the continent. By 1914, it had ballooned to 90%, with only Somalia (Dervish State), Ethiopia (Abyssinia) and Liberia remaining independent. Fighting Africans were unwanted in Europe, but were effectively left with nowhere to go that didn’t leave them despised and humiliated still by the global belief in white supremacy or returned to domestic turmoil caused by the redrawing of tribal and national borders.
To the Caribbean, and in the warm, funny, Riverside Songs, Thompson gave an account of the women left behind, going about their daily business and discussing their men, longing for their safe return. Yet, Caribbean women signed up for WWII, also! The exact number is unknown, but approximately 600 were known to have been recruited in the Autumn of 1943, into the Auxillary Territorial Service, which was rooted in WW1’s voluntary Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC). This was after Britain had expanded the enlistment age to 17-43 (up to 50 for WAAC vets) in 1941, and despite obstruction and misgivings. They are not currently mentioned on the ATS Wikipedia page, yet Leading Aircraftwomen Lilian Bader (née Bailey), a Caribbean-British woman, was among the first women in WWII’s Women’s Auxiliary Air Force to be trained as an Instrument Repairer at Melksham, Wiltshire.
To prepare their daughters to look after themselves far away from home, Admonition is a mother’s pre-deployment warning to her daughter about giving in to sin (men).
By the end of WW1, 2000 wounded were housed in Belmont Road Military Hospital, Liverpool, alone. Black soldiers were constantly taunted and riled by the white Americans and South Africans when using the concert room. So, the black soldiers were banned. A riot broke out when one black double amputee asked a guard if the rumour that the ban had been lifted was true. The guard threw him into a cell, and 10 black residents rallied at his cry. 400-500 white soldiers battled 50 wounded black soldiers that day with the yell, “The niggers are fighting the guard.”
Bedside Manners is told with voice of the crippled black soldier: “He beat me when I had no legs, I had given them to the war…”
Thompson ended with A Colonial Soldiers’ Hymn, set to original music in tribute to “the few who glory knew,” and whose price we can now celebrate and whom we will now never forget.
As an encore, Wha Gwaan? speaks of the indignation at the menial tasks and subjugation that the patriotism, gallantry and bravery of African and Caribbean soldiers were met with. But, ends with a most precious self-knowledge, “They’ll nevva find man dem brave like we.”
Colonel Oliver Stanley, Secretary of State for the Colonies, paid tribute to the manpower, resources and overall contribution of the colonial empire in 1944, whose quote Thompson includes toward the end of the book.
So ended this summer salon – 14 of 60 wonderful poems which should grace the bookshelf of every African, Caribbean and Diasporic home. It sets the record straight! Whilst the brutality and futility of war cannot be denied, what the Great Wars taught the British about themselves was that ordinary people could rise above and act with compassion, camaraderie and resilience, and that is always seductive. Between Nairobi Thompson’s Bayonets, Mangoes And Beads, and our previously reviewed Another Man’s War by Barnaby Phillips, plus the referenced texts and articles, and Strongback Productions’ 2017 play Chigger Foot Boys, we too have been given those gifts, both in historical context and significance.
This performance was particularly poignant for Thompson, because she had just recently discovered she is related to Walter Tull, a handsome cup-winning footballer who moved from top amateur football club, Clapton in 1908, to play professionally in the top division for Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town. Tull was the first black officer to serve in the British Army, and did so in the Footballers’ Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment during WW1. He fought in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 (depicted in the devastating closing scene of Blackadder Goes Forth, “Goodbyeee,”1989).
Commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in 1917, he was the first black army officer to lead troops – a company of 26 men – and was cited in dispatches for “gallantry and coolness” while leading a raiding party into enemy territory. He fought in Italy (1917–18), and was returned to France in 1918, where he died in action during the Spring Offensive, aged just 30. His body was never recovered. But, campaigners have called for a statue to be erected in his honour, and for a posthumous award of the Military Cross (2012-13). In 2014, one of 6 special £5 coins released by the Royal Mint bore his likeness as part of a five-year programme of commemorative coins in remembrance, for the centenary of the first World War until next year, 2018. Unfortunately, it is no longer available from that source.
Then, in February 2016, his story was featured on BBC’s Antiques Road Trip, when Tull’s biographer Phil Vasili (Walter Tull, Officer, Footballer, 2009) uncovered new evidence that suggested a reason for the army’s reluctance to recognise him. In a top-secret memo sent by head of recruitment in New York General White to the War and Colonial Offices a few weeks before Tull was killed in the battle which led to the Allied victory later that year, it was made clear that any “wooly [sic] headed niggers” were not wanted for the forthcoming spring offensive. “We now refuse to post coloured men to ‘white units… These ‘niggers’ must therefore go to native units if accepted. Can we take them for W Indies or other bns [battalions]?” – 19th February, 1918. Tull was commanding a unit whilst the Army Council was still insisting black people should not be enlisted into British army regiments. “If there is a commitment to a statue for him it should be in Whitehall alongside other soldiers of much less importance and bravery,” Vasili said!
So, Nairobi Thompson’s journey means that she can now specifically answer that question about grandparents and the wars and so can we all. For that, I personally, will be forever grateful.
Supporting the show in the audience were active servicemen; WRAC Veteran Gloria Herbert and Marjorie who helped with research; photographer and Black London documentarian, Charlie Philips, whose work can be found in the V&A, Tate and Museum of London; former editor of PRIDE magazine Sherry Anne Dixon who lectures in beauty, confidence building and assertiveness; researcher, historian, co-founder of the Windrush Foundation and the Equiano Society, Arthur Torrington CBE; author, poet and Media lecturer Milverton Wallace; actor Ellen Thomas; and actor-producer Paulette Harris-German. Ronnie Francis (cousin) acted as sound engineer and accompanist; brother and sister team Tassell (Special FX Media) and Tassiann (freelance events co-ordinator) Walker were the event management team.
Continue your centenary commemorative journey and buy Bayonets, Mangoes and Beads: African Diasporic Voices of WWI and WWII on Thompson’s website or on The Black Presence In Britain website (£9.99), along with other essential reading.