Robert Oldham
HA&L Biographical Sketch and Introduction for contributor Robert Oldham 


Co-incidentally to preparing Otobe ing/land for publication with Hamilton Arts & Letters, tonight, I have been listening to a BBC Radio Four broadcast on the internet about the dub poet, Lynton Kwesi Johnston.  I realize now, looking back almost thirty years, that my wife and I saw him and his Rasta Love reggae band perform his poetry to music in the Brixton Community Centre, London, a modern concrete monolith that reminded and reminds me of the 1969 built Student Union Building known as the SUB at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. We were staying with Sally and her husband in Notting Hill (long before the 2005 film of the same starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts). In May 1979 after graduating from Library School at the University of Toronto my wife and I decided to visit my grandmother, who was not well.  It was an exciting visit, our first together to the UK and only the second since I had left Britain as an immigrant to Canada.

Eight years earlier,  in 1971, I had come back to the land of my birth alone hitchhiking and visiting the important places: Salisbury Cathedral, Stonehenge, London pubs, Edinburgh, etc.  In 1971 I was wandering around Shepherd’s Bush with about five other young Vancouverites I met in the Air Canada DC-8 we flew in over the Polar route to Heathrow, passing United Arab Emirates planes and Concorde supersonic jet liners as we landed.  I could have kissed the tarmac, I was back home, in fact I did kneel and kiss the ashphalt as we got off the plane via stairs wheeled over to the aircraft.  Henry VII did the same, on a beach, not a tarmac, when he landed in England after his exile and pursued Richard III, killed him and took the throne founding the Tudor dynasty.

I already liked Reggae music, which was the milieu in which Johnston performed.  I first heard it in September 1971 in a shop in London’s Shepherd's Bush.   I had to ask the boy looking after the shop three times what he replied when I asked what music he was playing.  I had never heard anything like it.  Eventually I understood him to say rayg-eh'.  It took a year for Abba to make it to the airwaves of Vancouver and two more for Reggae in the form of Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley to get that far.

Now it was as a slightly older, married man who had begun finding a voice for feelings expressed poetically that went to see Lynton Kwesi Johnston.  It was suggested we take the tube under the Thames and head south to Brixton, a working class and black immigrant neighbourhood, to see the dynamic political poet.  Since I fancied myself as a poet I thought we would give it a try.

That 1979 evening the poet was late getting back from a trip to Germany so we watched a film about him and his new album Dread Beat An’ Blood.  When he did arrive he was a slight figure with a bit of hard edge. He had a bread knife in the inner pocket of his jacket and it fell out when he was performing, but the poems were effective, they were angry and bitter but I could identify with them, there was a love for Britain within them.  I shared his almost childlike indignation at injustice.  He was upset with the suspicion and bad treatment the ‘Black British’ were receiving from the populace and the establishment.   I was still nursing hurt, not against the establishment (quite the opposite), but for personal reasons, because my mother had died and my father had said we were going to live in Canada (twice we took the boat across and settled) then finally ended up in Vancouver.  As a teenager I had thought at the end of the western world on the edge of the Pacific that I would never see England again.  I was wrong.

Now one night in London here was a man compressing and repeating the language of English I loved with a Reggae accent. He left Jamaica to be with his mum in England in 1963.  I left England for Canada because of my mum in 1963.  He went to a comprehensive secondary school, in London,  a run of the mill school not in the academic stream, I went to its predecessor, a boys only, secondary modern, in the more rustic wilds of Hampshire. He studied Sociology in Uni. and joined the Black Panthers, I studied History and Library Science and found work amongst books.  I wrote a bit, terribly at first, so badly that David Fraser scrawled on the ms I submitted to Pulp (later Arsenal Press in Vancouver) that my stuff was unprintable, “mere notes for stories, poetry.”  He was right.  Johnston was writing poetry at 17 and was experimenting with words tinged with Jamaican patois.

I must have been impressed, I did call this small collection of poems inspired by our 1971 visit to England,
ing/land.   Lynton Kwesi is still alive and a grandfather.  I wonder if he still has the breadknife? Hopefully, and I believe this to be so, he uses it only to cut bread and not for the self-defence he felt he needed as a black man in England in the 1970s.

R O, 25 July, 2008

[A Note on the Photograph: Jack Kay was about 65 when I first met him, short with white hair thick glasses.  He used to go away every summer and pan for gold, then he would be back hanging around the Artist’s Inc. on James Street taking photos.  He took some photos of me at his flat near the Bookcellar on James St.  We took some outside as well, it was a lovely, sunny day. I used one of them for the cover of Otobengland.

He was a character,
at one time he had run the Jack Kay Studio and taught tap dancing and ballroom dancing, he would come into the library every so often and I would talk to him; then he moved up north for good and is probably panning for gold all summer and winter alive or dead. I don’t think it would make much difference to him. R O July, 2008]

Now, enjoy Robert Oldhams's Otobe ing/land.  °

[This HA&L biographical sketch and introduction © 2008 RO.]