The story of how industrial waste was transformed into the only acoustic instrument to be invented in the 20th century is told in Our Time is Now, a collection of essays by nonagenarian writer Cy Grant.
That instrument is the steelpan, made from discarded oil drums in Trinidad after World War ll, whose musicology Grant uses as a platform for a wider examination of the role of music in culture.
Pan as Comic Symbol, one of six essays, is in fact part of Grant’s overall critique of Western society, expounded more fully in his 2005 book, Blackness and the Dreaming Soul in which he examines the West’s alienation from the natural world.
The development of steelpan has paralleled that of calypso and carnival so it is somehow fitting that Grant, a household name in the 1950s as a calypso singer, should be writing about it.
But mention his calypso singing days and he visibly bristles with irritation. It is true that he was once probably the most well known black person in Britain at the time thanks to his rendition of the news in calypso on the innovative BBC programme Tonight for three years. It is also true that he was also a very successful actor who was on first name terms with the darling of British theatre “Larry” Olivier.
But this is not what he wants to be remembered most for in a roller coaster of a life in which he has seamlessly reinvented himself on a number of occasions, going from RAF flight lieutenant to the Bar, thence to the stage and screen and finishing up as a cultural activist, poet and author of several books.
“The fact is I only took up singing because I could not get enough work as an actor, and I only took up acting because, though qualified as a lawyer, I could not get work at the Bar and I thought it would help improve my diction,” he tells me in a bemused tone from his home in Highgate.
Tall, charming and still in possession of his matinee idol looks at the age of 90, it is easy to see why he became the post-war equivalent of a superstar.
But as his credits grew as an actor and recording artist so did his political consciousness. “Of course I was aware of the racism in British society – witness what happened to me, an ex-RAF officer and a prisoner of war. After qualifying as a barrister – no job opportunities,” he says, slipping in his two-year stay at Stalag Luft lll camp in Germany after being shot down in his Lancaster Bomber in 1943.
“But the crunch came with Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968. I was forced to confront myself, to stand up and be counted, so to speak.”
Grant, originally from British Guiana, went on to co-found the pioneering Drum Arts Workshop as a platform for black artists in 1974 and in the 1980s became director of more than 20 Concord Multicultural Festivals around Britain. Latterly, he has set up an online archive of Caribbean aircrew volunteers, for which he is to be honoured in the House of Lords next month.
A member of the Scientific and Medical Network, Grant’s sweeping world view takes in the Martinique poet-politician Aime Cesaire, African mythology and the ancient masters Pythagoras and Lao Tzu, all of which are touched upon in Our Time is Now.
Other essays weave in Grant’s backstory, beginning with his middle class Caribbean roots and arrival in Britain in 1941 as trainee RAF navigator. His life has been, he admits, a “true life drama”, but one that is often overlooked because the central character defies easy categorisation.
Our Time is Now is published by Cane Arrow Press, price £10
Published: 11 February 2010