Friday, 25 November 2016

Michael Abbensetts June 8th 1938 - November 24th 2016: The Play Must Go On

The first time we met we had a disagreement. I don’t recall exactly what we argued about. He had been invited by my university, London Met (then University of North London, where I was a student at that time) to be a writer in residence. He attended one of our classes (I think it was ‘Other Literatures in English’) and something he said didn’t sit right with me. I objected. He returned some comment. I returned another and the teacher, having let us bash words for a while (maybe to his amusement) had to stop us, for we had taken over the class, two stubborn Guyanese arguing over what I can’t remember now - just that this was our first meeting.

It was the beginning of our friendship and maybe why I remember the time. He was not offended but in fact asked my tutor to invite me to a reading of one of his plays at the Tricycle Theatre. He wanted me to tell him what I thought. And I did and always would when he later shared his other works in progress with me. I marvelled that he cared what I thought but went along with it. He too remembered our first meeting because it concerned him that I was the only student to even say something in response to his talk (or whatever it was). The others sat there – listening? I think he wondered whether any of them was also THINKING!

I had never heard about him before that visit to my university; didn’t realise that he was part of that generation of Guyanese (or for that matter Caribbean writers) who had arrived in the 50s/60s to make their contributions to the literary world here in the UK.

Michael was a Queen’s College pupil (1952-1956), as many children from middle class backgrounds were. His father, Neville John Abbensetts was a Doctor, his mother, Elaine kept home and both were very strict. His father didn’t like that Michael chose the economically precarious profession of writing over the supposedly financially sound choices of lawyer, doctor, architect and so on. The dispute between them over it persisted throughout Michael’s life. I suspect he sometimes, very slightly, regretted that this was one of the major outcomes of his decision to become a writer.

With Fellow Guyanese Eric Huntley.

But a playwright he was. At that time when he came to London in 1963 there weren’t many. His first play, Sweet Talk opened at the Royal Court in 1973. From our conversations, I gather he was ‘hot stuff’ during those days, owing to the success of Sweet Talk. His work was fresh and spoke to Britain’s theatre goers’ curiosities about black people being here at all. He didn’t struggle, as he would later, to get his plays put on. The TV drama series, which is how he saw it (and not as a ‘soap’ as it was deemed), Empire Road ran on BBC2 from 1978 -79, the first of its kind, and one of few since that time. He regretted the title which people thought suggested it was a black version of Coronation Street. But by having a fully black cast (predominantly and including different minorities to whom the term ‘black’ applied politically) he was making a statement about the lack of black characters in programmes like Coronation Street, when we were very much part of the UK by late 1970s.

The lead character, Everton Bennett (played by Norman Beaton) was called the ‘Godfather’ which Michael said was not ‘criminal’ but caring. He was morally upstanding, someone in the community to whom others could take their problems. Michael explained that though there were a lot of such black men in the community many writers, himself included, wrote about the angry or promiscuous types for the sake of producing drama. In doing so, he acknowledged “we’re unfair to all the black men who are wonderful role models. And I definitely wanted to portray that with ‘the godfather’ in Empire Road.”

By the time I met him he had written his best works but was still writing, still trying to find that edgy material that some theatre would want to run. But the curiosity of the British theatre goers about Caribbean people had not only waned it had changed. They expected to see stereotypes – yardies, babyfathers, gangs, violence, drug pushers and police chasing these (it was The Bill series time), maybe even a mimicry of the dysfunctions we saw with white families on TV. Michael wrote short TV scripts for the series Doctors but couldn’t keep up with the shift in expectations of what black identities should look like on screen, particularly to white people. He was used to writing strong, confident, independent and full of life, believable black characters and not the smiling, docile characters that prolong in programmes like EastEnders. His characters were funny, feisty and aspiring as reflected in the mini-series Little Napoleons, he wrote for Channel 4. He remarked that many of the black characters on TV were not positive, or their story lines weren’t durable because they were written as white characters by white writers in the first place and then cast as black. One such script ran into difficulties because the writer, who was supposed to maintain a story line with a black character (previously conceived as a white character) said “he’d only lived a short time in Brixton and wasn’t happy there.” In other words, he had no real material to go on but took the fat cheque and thought he could continue writing ridiculous stuff about the character until he was finally stomped.

The day of his wedding to Liz Abbensetts

The one off drama Black Christmas (1977), which I saw once when I was interviewing him for an article some years ago, dealt with the issue of mental depression. The main character, played by Carmen Munroe was trying to recreate a perfect Guyanese Christmas. The family had recently migrated to England. It was their first Christmas, she had made Christmas dinner including the cultural black cake but something was wrong. Her sister in law was in a state of mental depression, which was running parallel to the pretence of keeping up the appearance of ‘Christmas’ and being somewhat ‘arrived’ in the UK. Her sister in law’s depression was in part to do with adjusting to being in the UK but also having to deal with her husband’s infidelities with white women. “I think that what I was really saying is it’s not just keeping up appearances, but that it’s a conscious act of will almost that you have to adapt somehow” in the new space, Michael told me. Carmen Munroe was trying to do that but her sister in law was struggling: “what I liked about Carmen Munroe’s character is that she really was the strong one in the family. She held everyone together by the real strength of her character.” Michael contrasted Munroe’s character with that of Norman Beaton’s, whom he says “was listening to all kinds of white television, about all kinds of things that really had nothing to do with his life. The TV is always on, sort of belching out this stuff. And his wife turns it off, and by doing this she imposes her will on the situation.” He acknowledged then that although things had moved on “there are a lot of black people, even ones born here, who are not sure how to really deal with life here.”

In writing a TV drama about the issue of mental depression as experienced by black people and the taboos surrounding it, Michael was way ahead of his time. We’ve not seen anything near it on our screens as far as I can recall. As Michael said, “we have no idea how many black people – even ones born here – end up in psychiatric hospitals.” He used to visit a white friend who was in a psychiatric hospital and was struck by the numbers of young black people in the hospital. “I overheard a young African asking a psychiatrist ‘why do I keep returning to this place? Is there no cure for mental illness?’ I found this very painful. So I wanted to deal with the fact that there are some black people in our society that we don’t seem to talk about,” he explained.

One of those argumentative Guyanese, who would try to convince you the colour of coffee was green just for the sport of argument, we had lots of hot discussions. I loved all of them, though they sometimes left me frustrated. We had mutual respect and at some point when I showed him my work he told me I could write. He wanted me to complete this play I was actually working on when I met him. It’s still in the ‘why can’t I finish writing this thing’ state somewhere. Besides getting advice on my writing, when he was writer in residence at my university I used to visit him just to chat and hear that old school Guyanese accent. A friendship flimsily built on our shared Guyanese heritage and my aspiration to write developed. In our later discussions, I could tell he was frustrated because he couldn’t come up with new writing material. I had tried convincing him to take a fresh look at the world, perhaps by going back to Guyana. I also tried to get him to write an autobiography but I suppose I didn’t realise fully the mental state he was in.

The happiest I saw him was when his wife Liz threw a surprise 70th birthday party for him. But his health was in decline from then, though it would be a while before this became obvious. The marriage with Liz broke down and broke him a bit. He couldn’t get over it. He had told me a long time before then about his fear of developing alzeimer’s, from which both his mother and sister had suffered. Some years ago he had disappeared and was found wondering the streets, beaten up, he told me, by a man accusing him of hustling his woman. Because he was losing track of himself, forgetting where he lived and who the people around him were, he was put in a home. When I visited him at this home, he tried to get me to bust him out; he couldn’t believe he was there; wondered why Liz, his wife would commit him to the place; thought it a prison where he was locked up for doing what he couldn’t understand. And still then, he walked around with pen and paper attempting to write something.

It was miserable seeing him the last time I did. I went with Uncle Eric Huntley and Ateinda. He still seemed to recognise me from our conversation but became upset when we tried to discuss his condition with the staff. We had hoped to organise some kind of care plan or visit regime. We were told he had become violent to the staff and other residents at the home. He was moved to another, where he could get better care. But I never saw him at this new place. I know I couldn’t face it after the last difficult time. Last time Liz saw him, a couple weeks ago he didn’t recognise her, she said. About a week ago, he contracted a chest infection and passed away peacefully yesterday 24th November.

When I attended his wedding.

He had one daughter, Justine, who will be making the funeral arrangements which details are to follow. His last public appearance was in November 2012 when a tribute was organised for him by Errol Lloyd and others at the Tricycle Theatre, which featured a reading of Sweet Talk. He was admired by contemporary black playwrights (like Oladipo Agboluaje and Kwame Kwei-Armah) for being one among the first to make that mark at the big theatres in the UK, and even by those actors whom he loved to write larger than life stories for, particularly Norman Beaton with whom he was lifelong friends. And by us all he will be missed for his fearlessness in a profession that continues to marginalise many black artists. He told me in that interview I did with him that he never was anxious about getting his work put on (not in those early days) because “I decided I would get it on whatever it cost” and it’s with that spirit of feistiness I shall always remember him.

Michael's last public appearance in 2012, with Jessica Huntley, Liz Abbensetts,Errol Lloyd and Ateinda just visible in the back

Michael Abbensetts June 8th 1938 – November 24th 2016. for more about his life and works.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

If you have a written a good book that no one will publish you must publish it yourself

My mum, 'Mama Lou' (Lucille Davis) basking in the moment. Photo Kai Rutlin

The title is a rephrasing of what Toni Morrison said about writing the book you want to read. I didn’t set out to do both – write books I wanted to read and publish them. After I’d made up my mind to self-publish, swallowing the sensation of ego tripping and self-aggrandisement, there were some avenues to be published by outside companies. But I’d made up my mind.

This last is Uncle Eric beaming the acknowledgement that 'Doing Nothing is NOT AN OPTION.' Photos Kai Rutlin

I’ve learnt that sometimes you have to do it yourself – that you are likely the best person to execute your vision. You trust and know yourself. And even if you don’t quite, and feel petrified, you have to find some way of believing in yourself. And keep believing in yourself, until you can prove yourself to no one but yourself.

A folk day, people hugging, drum beating. Photos Dwight Duroni Davy

Good always comes

So another note from Toni Morrison, my mentor elect is that though the project/task will be difficult – this shouldn’t obviously show in the outcome. Those difficulties and outcome (product) must appear symbiotic. You become philosophical because there is no other way to surpass those obstacles that greet you daily as you pursue your vision. You tell yourself – you can do it. It must in fact be your will to PROVE it to yourself that such is possible. Doubt, anxiety, fear, lack of finance must be countered by constant affirmations like DIVINE ORDER and ONLY GOOD CAN COME. Speak less about the difficulties – which is half the task of overcoming and more about the learning experiences that come with the challenges. The apparent cheesiness of communicating with the Universe is in truth very important. By this I mean, it is imperative one believes that the Universe wants you to succeed. The Universe delights in your success; sets up opportunities that mask themselves as challenges merely to test our WILL. And my IMAGINATION through which I encounter strategies to push when I need to, pull when I must, give when that time has come and take my share – this too is tested. It is a matter of consistent communication with the ALL SOURCE of which I am an individuated expression through which it experiences. How then can I avoid the push and pull – I must embrace the strong winds of deep flight if I am to enable the SOURCE to experience itself through me. And when one simple progress is made, I give thanks for passing those necessary tests.

Photo Ateinda

Buzz about books. Photos Dwight Duroni Davy

Keeping your head

There are times when all around you people are losing their heads. You either join them or keep yours. If you can do the latter at least you can help them should they wish. But if you’ve set yourself a task, made the promise to the Universe (simply by saying you WILL do this or that thing) you need to follow through. For you have set in motion elements of Universal Intelligence that depend on your efforts to align. It might be understood thus – ‘no weapon fashioned against me will prosper’ as Psalm 91 reads. That is because your EFFORTS alone in the midst of chaos and emotional drama (trauma) propels the Universal Intelligence to continue advancing your WILL. As such you cannot fail. There is no weapon (read vibration) stronger than your WILL TO DO GOOD. So long that is as you remain focussed. Those voices of doubt will come. Anxieties will overwhelm. You will feel alone. You’re not – though, if you contemplate your relationship with SOURCE. You can call this SOURCE, Oludumare, Nyame, God, Allah and so on – you and IT are ONE.

Surround yourself with the likeminds

Those likeminds need not be physical! They can be represented by uplifting words, prayers, books, other writers and creatives, positive forces that impact your reality in illuminating ways. Love YouTubers, for example who have tapped into the Universal Call and share their experiences so that we are all empowered by our creativity. That’s at least how I see the myriad lessons on the platform that means you can be self-sufficient and save time and resources.

This also means accepting that the backpat loving and congrats or support you might be seeking from some people around you is not necessarily going to come from them. For they won’t always SEE you in the light of your CREATIVE EXPANSION. Instead, they will see you through limited lenses of your humble birth and not like, say, the pussy cat who sees its reflection as that of a tiger. They cannot SEE YOUR DESTINY. Your worth is a cosmological mystery, for although coconuts are bunched together, they retain their own secretly poured sweet water. You must remember and treasure your unique powers – no one can appreciate YOU as GOD (your DIVINE) does. See yourself as GOD SEES YOU. And be content therein.
So why these books?

An abridged answer is that it was a necessary homage to my ancestors by way of launching my writing and publishing intentions. Because my ancestors have been there always, and certainly through every major experience of my life, including the supposed ‘breakdown’ during my first degree, I needed to pay them this tribute. These books seemed the best way to do so. It was after said experience at University that I changed course and stumbled on this greater need to LIVE a spiritual experience guided by my ancestors.

Photos, Kai Rutlin

Guyanese Komfa: the ritual art of trance – is from my PhD research, which was completed in 2009. After so doing, I tried to send the thesis to publishers but responses didn’t come. I didn’t try hard, to be honest. I made the contacts, but didn’t always pursue after I didn’t get a response – not sure if this was arrogance, annoyance or reticence. It may be that I didn’t have the time. Also I sensed that there might be issues with the form of the work – for it is multi-disciplinary – combining critical theory, social science, literary criticism and creative writing. I believe it was partly this that meant I was not rewarded funding by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), when I appealed for their help with doing the PhD; and from other potential funders. I was awarded a scholarship by my University in the end – through the Caribbean Studies Centre at London Metropolitan University, headed by Professors Jean Stubbs and Clem Seecharan – the centre is sadly closed now. The research proposal was turned down by Goldsmith University who wanted me to do something on literature only – keeping it as a one discipline thing! The only straightforward support came from my Supervisor Dr Patricia Murray, who had never heard of Komfa but trusted me to complete the project in the form and style I chose. Eusi Kwayana had also been very supportive from the beginning, which gave me confidence that I was doing something worthwhile.

Photos Kai Rutlin

Something Buried in the Yard is a metaphor for the forgotten traditions of my ancestors. It is about revisiting cultural identity, given our dispersal from the Continent of Africa. It’s about reconnecting with traditional practices by which we felt at one time socially empowered. It’s about accepting that our spirituality is a force that cannot be denied, that the drum will never be silenced. I hoped it might encourage Guyanese particularly to reimagine their sense of cultural and national identity. For others, it would reshape sensibilities about spiritual phenomena and address the cognitive dissonance that blight many of us. We know but pretend we don’t. The self-denial, consequent of enslavement and colonisation (of mind) is overtired now – we’re actively continuing our psychic persecution.

Host Margaret David, reading from Mama Lou
Photos Kai Rutlin

Mama Lou Tales is a biography of my mother, which means it is also about my grandparents, whom I adored. It was an honour to acknowledge my mum’s life. Her struggles always concerned me for various reasons. I always wanted to know why she did this thing or that, made the decision to come to England, for example. And then leaving me and three siblings there – with her twin who already had a houseful of children. Why she left my father to rejoin the man who abandoned her, though he was her husband. Why, why, why? She rarely complained about our ‘lot’ – that we don’t have material stuff; ‘silver and gold I have none’ she’d say but I have the word of God. Only we differed in our interpretations about this God, till we are finally at middle ground, I believe. I don’t know why I added this to the publications list for the year, but it was compelling and I went with it. I accept that not every WHY has a BECAUSE…

Da drummers dem and da dance

The Triple Book Launch

It was special in ways I'll try to do justice to here. I give thanks to everyone who attended the ‪#‎triplebooklaunch‬‬, featuring ‪#‎Guyanesekomfa‬‬ on Saturday 23rd July. You came as we'd hoped. With open hearts and minds, with love therein to experience spiritual upliftment as I through‪‬ way wive wordz Publishing and ‪‬Bogle L’Ouverture Publications tried to encourage in the writing.
As I looked at the audience, I observed the warmest smiles along with some curious faces, but not strained - the sun perhaps relax those tight cheeks! From the Nation Song entrance, stirred up by wonderful drumming, to the libation, the readings, the pretty canapes (most homemade by some great friends – actually my family - who're always supporting – and those with whom I surround myself as the physical likeminds), the lovely children who rocked to the drums, reminding us of their beautiful spirit - this was an altogether blessed and memorable day.
The libation was a highlight - thanks (brother)Nana Kofi Adjetey Kuto we learnt new vibrations - and not before time, appreciating the good spirits he called on to bless the day.

Libation, beautiful done by Nana Kofi (brother Sankhara)


I thank those drummers who welcomed the opportunity to contribute - Prince, Chauncey, Gary, Blaggie (if I recall the name correctly), Haydock and Eli. I thank Margaret David for doing a tremendous job hosting the day and the excellent reading from Mama Lou – herein is your calling (from Universe –hark!); and John David for his consistent support, allowing us to use the vibrant Johmard Community Centre. Special thanks to my dear Katherine Nanena for her 110% all the time. Thank you Ateinda Ausarntu for your beautiful patience - and the catering prep, the lifting those heavy books (!). To Olivia Hatlman - the Canapes you made looked and tasted superb. Tracey Nanena, bless you for the chicken and samosas. Tony, thank you - for the balloons (skin teet) and stage maninger stylie! Cheryl thanks for all your help. Senzenie and Accabre and other members of the Huntley family – like Kai Rutlin who took many of these pictures - thank you all. Uncle Eric Huntley, thank you for allowing us to publish Guyanese Komfa jointly with Bogle L’Ouverture publications – and for those shoulders on which I stand. Khabira Mwali you are a star - for taking care of mum, and cashiering. Peri and Anthony and Chi-Ming Tan who pitched in - thanks for coming and showing the love. Scott Jason Smith for the stunning covers for these books - whose artworks were provided by the ever giving Universe (in the form of my niece, Leah Gordon, Brian Clark and Ivey Hayes). Dwight Duroni-Davy - thanks for filming bits of the event.

It would be remiss of me not to mention Book Printing UK who contributed to the Universal Intelligence gearing me to success. Thanks for putting up with my harassed calls but particularly for fast tracking the last and major title Guyanese Komfa so that I could get it in time for the launch. The near panic was a beautiful illustration of symbiosis at work. You cannot imagine the delight on my face when UPS turned up with those three heavy books of books on Friday morning (the day before the launch!). Thank you so much.

My mother and my father

The launch was extra special because my mother Lucille, Clarice, Alberta Davis, whose biography is featured among the three books (MAMA LOU) - stole the evening. She was in her element and well deserved. For this special launch was a celebration of ordinary lives and folk whose experiences are often forgotten, if not denied. I wanted to show that it is possible to do amazing things with ordinary people and because those very lives MATTER; that indeed whilst Toni Morrison would say "if there's a book you'd like to read that's not been written, you must write it" - that I could do that and publish it too!

And finally the launch was special because there was a clear sense of ancestors being present - the spirit of my father, particularly. A young Amos Bursary scholar (doing anthropology) whom I met a couple weeks ago attended (on his own) after my short notice invite to him. He soaked it all up - and I knew he was channelling my father Solomon Isaiah Brotherson - his name too being Isaiah.

The launch was a blessing, and I was so humbled by the turn out and that PEOPLE BOUGHT BOOKS! It was wonderful to see some facebook friends make it. And there were many who shared the event - this is how each one teaches one - thanks to those who did).

So if you missed the event and would like to have special discount launch price (plus p&p) copies - please inbox me by 23rd August whereafter the books will be sold at usual retail prices. There will be other launch opportunities I hope you can attend. In any case you might like to get your copies from the website

I give thanks that I have proven myself to myself! For it was my hope to also contribute to continuing experiences celebrating Guyana's 50th. Ase O