He was hailed as a remarkable poet whose radicalism stood him apart in post-war Britain, yet priest turned communist Peter Blackman was destined to become the forgotten man of black literature and politics, ending his days as a railway worker in north London.
Now 20 years after his death, the publication of the first collection of his poems seeks to restore Blackman to his rightful place in history, not only as a poet but as a campaigner who, like his friend Paul Robeson, saw art as a weapon in defence of the poor and downtrodden.
“He is a major Caribbean poet, who has never received his due either in Britain or the Caribbean,” says Chris Searle, the editor of the collection, Footprints.
“First of all, he was a communist writing at the height of the Cold War. Secondly, he wrote in a classical style influenced by the Bible and writers like Milton and Whitman, whereas in the post-Windrush era Creole languages were seen as the main vehicle of Caribbean expression and standard English was repudiated.”
Blackman’s distinctive art reflects his extraordinary background that Searle discusses in the book’s introduction, which has been reproduced in the latest edition of Race and Class.
Born in Barbados to working class parents in 1909, he received an elite colonial education at one of the island’s top schools thanks to a church scholarship, and later studied theology at Durham University.
After becoming an Anglican priest he traveled to Gambia in 1935 as a missionary but returned to England converted to communism, so appalled was he at the racism of the church that saw Africans made to sit at the back of the congregation.
He settled in London in 1937 throwing himself into campaign groups like the League of Coloured Peoples and helping out at the Communist Party’s offices in King Street, Covent Garden.
During the war, he helped assemble Wellington bombers and would later write movingly of the defeat of German fascism and the hope that this represented for the world.
“He was a black communist writing from the heart of empire and his poems are deeply about the world in which he lived. They are are profoundly internationalist in vision, an invocation to the workers of the world,” says Searle.
Although regarded as politically suspect and later placed on a MI5 file, he managed to get occasional airtime on the BBC on topical literary programmes and, fluent in French, he also traveled regularly to Paris to write for Le Monde and the influential negritude journal Presence Africaine.
In 1949, he organised Robeson’s tour of Britain and accompanied him to Moscow and Warsaw. The two were firm friends and Robeson was a frequent visitor to Blackman’s home in Heath Hurst Rd, Hampstead, among a string of other progressive luminaries.
In 1952, Lawrence and Wishart published his long narrative poem My Song is for all Men as a 20-page pamphlet in London and New York.
In the same year, extracts from the poem, whose myriad references include Belsen, the Korean war and apartheid, were incorporated in the Alan Bush cantata, Voices of the Prophets alongside the words of Blake and Milton.
Stalingrad, his tribute to the courage of those who beat back the Nazi war machine, was later published as part of a collection by Seven Seas in Berlin.
But it was only partial recognition. Now married with three small children, money was tight and he was forced to earn a living as an engine fitter at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm and later at Willesden Junction depot, priding himself nevertheless on being the only mechanic who knew both Latin and Greek.
Searle came across Blackman’s poetry by chance many years later in the1970s and began visiting him at his flat in Belsize Park where, now divorced, he lived alone.
He paints a picture of a warm and friendly man who remained very much the priest in his approach to life. “He did not seem at all bitter about his work being overlooked,” recalls Searle, himself a published poet.
“In fact he was very modest and did not want to be exposed to public acclaim or to be part of the intelligentsia or literati. Instead he had gone to work everyday with ordinary men and women, which is how he saw himself. It is this that made him unique.”
Searle invited him to read his poetry to the students at the east London school he taught at, and more readings and talks followed. In 1980, following his public recital of Stalingrad, the ex-Soft Machine singer Robert Wyatt asked him to record it for the flipside of his single Stalin wasn’t Stallin’. The track also appears on Wyatt’s 1982 album Nothing Can Stop Us.
During their chats, Blackman showed Searle some of his unpublished work, including Joseph, which was written in the late 1950s against the backdrop of the US civil rights movement. It is included in the collection with three other long poems and a short elegy to Claudia Jones, who was also a friend.
“Blackman’s poetry is exceptional in the beauty of its language and depth of human vision,” says Searle. “My hope is that the rest of his works will be recovered and published so that future generations may read and know it.”
Footprints is published by Smokestack Books, price £7.95/Article first Published Camden New Journal, October 3 2013