BookBlast® was founded in 1997 to give voice to new or neglected writers, and to showcase world writing. The agency was one of the first in the UK to adopt online technology — the company website went live in 2000. It was selected by the curators of Bodleian Electronic Archives and Manuscripts, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford, as being of lasting research value and worthy of permanent preservation in the Web Archive of the Bodleian Libraries in March 2015.
At a young age, I was introduced to writers, stories and imaginary worlds from many lands. To cross cultural boundaries and explore alternate ways of seeing and being is a great gift to give a child.
Sorting through the BookBlast agency archive has thrown up happy and sad memories, not only in terms of the projects and writers I have been lucky enough to collaborate with, but also the visionary commissioning editors who backed untried-and-tested writers and projects.
How the landscape has changed! Not only in terms of book publishing and the brave new world of Amazon and Social Media, but as London becomes a ‘buy to leave‘ global investors’ haven and austerity digs in its claws, producing a toxic brew of economic and anti-immigrant discrimination. Britain may be a more relaxed, diverse society, and race relations better than in the US or Europe – in part due to its tradition of tolerance – but the ‘war on terror’ casts a long shadow. Advertising and the media have grown in influence, shaping political opinions and often skewing the discourse.
That the Empire Windrush arrived on the shores of Britain in 1948 carrying with it the hopes and dreams of young men and women from the Caribbean is now common knowledge. It is considered to be a major landmark in the history of modern Britain. But this was not the case when I was selling the first ever collection of writing charting the impact of the new arrivals on their hosts, edited by journalist and TV producer, Onyekachi Wambu, (now at AFFORD). The responses of commissioning editors at the major publishing houses ranged from sceptical – ‘it won’t find an audience’ – to puzzled – ‘its mix of genres is too unorthodox’. Mike Petty, at Gollancz – he first published Nick Hornby – had no such doubts and went for it. We clinched the deal in June 1997. The success of the anthology was such that it was picked up by Nick Weir Williams, then Executive V-P and Associate Publisher at Continuum in New York. The US title has resonance: Hurricane Hits England. Regrettably, in 1999, e-books had not yet taken off.
Empire Windrush: Fifty Years of Writing About Black Britain contains some of the finest writing from the brilliant group of Caribbean, Asian and African writers who accompanied the first wave of migrants in the 1950s, to the creative wave of the following generation which found its voice in the 1980s and 1990s.
The contributor list is superb roll call of talent: Diran Adebayo, Jean Binta Breeze, Merle Collins, Bernardine Evaristo, Paul Gilroy, Stuart Hall, Victor Headley, Kazuo Ishiguro, CLR James, Hanif Kureishi, Linton Kwesi Johnson, George Lamming, Colin MacInnes, S.I. Martin, Dervla Murphy, Shiva Naipaul, Grace Nichols, Ben Okri, Caryll Phillips, Salman Rushdie, Sam Selvon, Wole Soyinka . . .
While the arrivants’ labour was wanted, they themselves were often far from welcome. From endurance, to organised protest, and being fully at home. Race relations in Britain have come a long way. But there are many reasons not to get complacent. The mosaic may be a beautiful kaleidoscope, but beneath its strength there lies fragility.
There were many people of Asia and African descent living and working in Britain long predating the Windrush generation, but their heritage has largely been lost. John Blanke, the ‘blacke trumpeter’, was employed by Henry VII and Henry VIII from 1506–12. Fast forward to the Crimean War (1854-1856) when Mary Seacole went to nurse sick and wounded British soldiers. She has since been eclipsed by Florence Nightingale.
Saffron Alexander wrote in The Telegraph in June this year: ‘A recent petition garnered 55,000 signatures asking for black history to be taught in UK primary schools, and Patrick Vernon, [founder of Every Generation], says the Windrush Generation should be included in this: “Children learn more about the civil rights movement in America, than they do this. It isn’t even on the National Curriculum.” In an ideal world, he’d like for June 22 to be a public holiday, but he acknowledges that is unlikely to happen.’
Way to go.
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Empire Windrush: Fifty Years of Writing About Black Britain, Onyekachi Wambu (Ed.) | PB 448pp Gollancz, Weidenfeld & Nicolson | May 1998 | ISBN 978-0575065994