Why write an autobiography? Setting aside the ‘celebrity’ memoir, it is generally undertaken in a person’s later years, usually to give insights into how experiences have shaped them as a person . . . to preserve their life story for future generations . . . to shed light on an important moment in time . . . or to set the record straight.
Alastair Niven starts his engaging memoir, In Glad or Sorry Hours, in his early childhood, ending in the present, spanning a period of social and cultural innovation. He played an influential role, contributing to shaping the evolution of culture in England for over three decades: at the Africa Centre, the Arts Council, the British Council, as President of English PEN and at Cumberland Lodge. For twenty years he was Chairman of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Discerning and generous in using his power, he clearly deeply cares about the value and wellbeing that literature and culture bring to individuals and to society.
We learn that his family was Scottish and settled in London. His warm, gregarious, aspirational, intelligent mother was the daughter of Professor of Greek at Edinburgh University, and the second of thirteen children. His father “enjoyed cross country running, rugger and particularly golf, which at his best he played to a handicap of four. He ran a sports car when he was only eighteen. He went briefly to Edinburgh University, then to Cambridge, but he hit the buffers with a jolt on realizing that life with well-to-do parents funding his lifestyle from overseas had come to an abrupt end with his father’s death . . . He joined the City of London police, part of its fast track recruitment of graduates in the mid-1930s.”
By the time war broke out in 1939, his parents lived in a pleasant semi-detached house near Denmark Hill in south London. “There followed eight years of disruption and later of illness which perhaps no marriage could have withstood.” Yet it does, somehow.
“Growing up in London in the 1950s and early 1960s meant frugality and simplicity.” Yet there was freedom and fun to be had with his brother, exploring “grassy bomb craters, before the blocks of red brick council flats went up.”
Niven loved his paternal grandmother, whose house “was full of mementoes of her time in Burma, and she let me play with the contents of ‘the cabinet’ – a mounted ostrich’s egg, small knives of lethal sharpness, ceramic Buddhas and, my favourite, which I still have, a six-foot long beaded snake made by a Turkish prisoner of war in Mesopotamia in 1917.”
The values of education at the time were that “character is Sport, and wisdom is gained through study and hard work.” School was Dulwich College, followed by Caius College, Cambridge, and then the University of Ghana, where he studied for an M.A. in African literature.
The University of Ghana
Niven arrived just over seven months after Kwame Nkrumah, an influential advocate of Pan-Africanism, was removed from office by a coup d’état in February 1966. It was a time of political and intellectual ferment and change. “In the 1950s and early 1960s the standard way of praising an African author was to compare him with a western model – he reminded the reader of Dickens or was as inventive as Joyce. Emulating the great writers of another tradition was a desired objective rather than evidence of what in Australia they were already calling ‘the cultural cringe’: obsequious obeisance to colonial culture. The mindset was, however, slowly changing.”
Niven relished the time spent in West Africa. It was a life-altering experience, “I learned how to teach, I embarked on a life-long crusade on behalf of post-colonial literatures, and I fell in love not only with my future wife, but with a whole nation.”
On his return to England, following gaining a PhD for a doctorate at Leeds, he went on to teach at the newly-founded Stirling University, where his wife worked for The Open University (they married in 1970). He would build up the university’s reputation for Commonwealth literature and invited writers to give lectures. “Shiva Naipaul, who was to die too young, arrived for a night and stayed a week. Thomas Kenneally was more tactful, regaling us with endless tales until the small hours. Samuel Selvon, the humorous chronicler of Caribbean immigrants in London, delighted and appalled us by eating a huge supper the moment his talk was over and then asking for a chicken takeaway as we drove him to Stirling station to catch the overnight sleeper back to London.” Other favourites included George Awoonor-Williams a.k.a. Kofi Awoonor, Chinua Achebe (awarded the Man International Booker Prize in 2007 – shamefully, the only major government not represented at his funeral in 2013 was that of the British), Mulk Raj Anand, author of Across the Black Waters, Nirad Chaudhuri and Raja Rao author of the philosophical novel The Serpent and the Rope.
From the Africa Centre to the Arts Council and beyond . . .
Returning to London in 1978, Niven was appointed Director-General of the Africa Centre in Covent Garden. Major African writers gave readings or talks, “not only Achebe and Ngũgĩ, but Elechi Amadi, Dennis Brutus, Buchi Emecheta (an active member of the Centre’s governing body and a vibrant contributor to our constant focusing on African feminism), Nuruddin Farah, Bessie Head, Jack Mapanje, Njabulo Ndebele, Flora Nwapa, Gabriel Okara, Ben Okri, Sembène Ousmane, Amos Tutuola, and Wole Soyinka, to say nothing of C.L.R. James, Naomi Mitchison, Samuel Selvon, and many other authors with invaluable reflections on human rights and international development. We devised several major book exhibitions, including Bookweek Africa in 1982, the most ambitious display of publications from Africa ever to be seen in Britain”.
In 1984 he went on to the Arts Council as Director of Literature. The organisation was under attack for neglecting the interests of black and Asian people. “It published a famous strategy document, The Glory of the Garden: The Development of the Arts in England. Bizarrely this took its title from a poem by the writer most identified in the public mind with imperialism, Rudyard Kipling. For the first time an Arts Council report faced up to the transformed cultural diversity of our society.” The biggest celebration of black and Asian literature – Out of the Margins – that had ever taken place in London was put on with the South Bank Centre in 1994.
He would go on to work for other public bodies, education trusts, foundations and prize giving committees – and got involved in Africa 95. It was touring with authors that he fully “understood then how much of a lifeline the organisation [English PEN] could be for people living under despotic regimes.”
The narrative is peppered with entertaining anecdotes revealing an unknown side of numerous leading thinkers and cultural activists at home and abroad. It gives a behind-the-scenes snapshot of how the likes of the Arvon Foundaton, the Poetry Society, Wasafiri, Carcanet Press, Book Trust and other now well-established charities evolved, for the “vital purpose of promoting reading“. It was a time when arts funding was less heavily-focused on target-driven form-filling and politicised management-speak than it is today.
In Glad or Sorry Hours makes for an illuminating read. It is underpinned by a true internationalist’s passion for arts and culture of which books and drama are the mainstay, and is imbued with self-deprecating humour. At times it is like a Who’s Who of Postcolonial Literature. For anyone looking for some classic reads offering an eclectic mix of voices and ideas there are plenty of suggestions.
A memoir of a rich and rewarding life well led, In Glad or Sorry Hours demands that we take a closer look at what we take for granted, especially in this pandemic year.
In Glad or Sorry Hours – a memoir by Alastair Niven | 256 pages £14 February 2021 Starhaven Press | ISBN: 9780936315485
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