Ira Aldridge (1807-1867)

NPG D17967; Ira Aldridge as Aaron in 'Titus Andronicus' published by John Tallis & Company, after  William Paine

Ira Frederick Aldridge as Aaron in ‘Titus Andronicus’ published by John Tallis & Company, after William Paine stipple and line engraving, published circa 1850.  NPG D17967 National Portrait Gallery, London

Forgotten for so long, Ira Aldridge has in recent years become literally the poster boy for all things Shakespearean. He was the first known black Shakespearean actor and made his fortune on the stage, though he wasn’t always welcome in his adopted country.

Born in New York in 1807 to a free black family, Aldridge received a classical education at the African Free School and was introduced to the theatre (and Shakespeare) through the African Grove Theatre, a theatre run and attended by the free black community of New York City in the early 1820s. The African Grove didn’t last long but Aldridge had already found his calling. It was difficult to find acting work as a man of colour in the US at that time and Aldridge decided to try his luck in Europe, taking the boat to Liverpool in 1824. He met his first wife, Margaret Gill, soon after he arrived in Britain.

With little stage experience, it took Ira a while to find his feet in Britain. He worked as a dresser and created a new persona for himself as an African tragedian rather than American. After some smaller roles, Aldridge made his debut as a lead actor on October 10, 1825 at the Royal Coburg, London (now the Old Vic) playing the lead role of Oronoko in A Slave’s Revenge. Aldridge’s most famous role was Othello, but he played a wide variety of characters including Richard III and Shylock, in later years becoming known for his King Lear (interestingly, he wore white face paint to play these roles). He caused a sensation and his fame spread across the country. He also toured Ireland successfully. Audiences loved him but the critics were less kind, usually commenting on his appearance as much as his ability. Edmund Kean, the eminent actor of the time, was very complimentary, and in 1833 Aldridge made his ill-fated appearance at Covent Garden when Kean fell ill.

Immortalised in the play Red Velvet, by Lolita Chakrabarti, Aldridge was engaged to play Othello at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden (now the Royal Opera House), one of the only two theatres in London to be awarded the royal patent to present ‘spoken word’ plays (this patent system was revoked in 1841 – before that, only comedy, pantomime or melodrama could be shown in theatres. The other patent theatre was the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane). Edmund Kean had been playing Othello to his son Charles’ Iago when he fell ill on stage in March 1833. Aldridge was brought in but only performed twice before the production was cancelled. There is much speculation that the cancellation was due to issues of race, that the audiences of Covent Garden were not as open minded as those in the provinces or the lower classes, but there are newspaper reviews commenting that Aldridge was well received. It is known that he did take a few liberties with the standard text, which at the time was very much frowned upon, and it is most certainly a fact that the press were hostile. Either way, his time at Covent Garden was over.

In the 1850s Aldridge began to tour abroad, finding fame and fortune in Germany and Russia in particular, consorting with Leo Tolstoy and performing before the Duchess of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. He is said to actually be the first actor to perform Shakespeare in the Russian provinces. He purchased property in London (his blue plaque hangs at 5 Hamlet Road, Upper Norwood – perhaps it was the street name that attracted him…) and became a British citizen in 1863.

The personal life of Ira Aldridge was as interesting as his professional exploits. He stayed married to his wife Margaret until her death in 1865 but she remained childless. Aldridge’s children were all born to his mistress, Swedish opera singer, Amanda von Brandt. They had five children, though the youngest was born after Aldridge’s death. The pair married after Margaret’s death but it was only two years later that Ira Aldridge himself died, while on tour in Poland. He was buried in the city’s Evangelical Cemetery and today his grave is tended by the Society of Polish Artists of Film and Theatre.

 

 

 

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

swing-time

Swing Time is the latest Zadie Smith novel, published in November to great fanfare. I reviewed NW a few weeks ago, following its TV adaptation and liked it without being blown away. Reviews of Swing Time have been more positive overall and so I came to this hoping to find what I had wanted from NW.

This is the story of two mixed race girls growing up in Smith’s home territory of Northwest London. Our protagonist (unnamed – a pet hate of mine) is the daughter of a proud black woman, intellectual and wanting more from the life she has. Her father is a postie, happy in the love he has for his wife and daughter. Tracey lives on the neighbouring estate. Her black father is in and out of prison, hardly ever at home. Tracey’s mother is on disability, a fat white woman who spends every penny she has on her daughter. The pair meet as children at dance class; Tracey is a talented dancer while our girl has flat feet but loves the music. They spend hours watching old movies, the dance routines, obsessively monitoring each step Fred Astaire makes and thrilled to see a brown girl like themselves in the background. The ‘Mum, there’s a black person on tele!’ phenomenon that I can identify with. I loved these scenes, school days and a friendship tested by the playground hierarchy. I would have been happy for the book to remain in London to be honest.

But on to the other half of this novel. Our girl grows up and ends up as the personal assistant to mega pop star Aimee. A Madonna type (in her Malawi days), Aimee has enough money to consider herself all powerful and decides to find a country, a village, worthy of her attention and wealth. The Gambia is the winner and she drags her team to this small village where she will build a school for the girls who she decides are being looked over in favour of the boys. Our protagonist, through her perceived black heritage, is placed on the ground to liaise with the locals alongside more experienced members of Aimee’s entourage. I found these scenes interesting without learning much about either the character or the local culture. These chapters were interspersed evenly with flashbacks into the past in London, so just as I began to get comfortable with the African cast of characters, I was whisked back to university in Brighton a decade earlier, or to a scene backstage in a West End theatre.

A problem that I had with NW was that, with the exception of Felix’s section, I felt quite removed from the characters. I was missing an emotional connection, and I had exactly the same experience with Swing Time. Without a name for the person I’m investing hours of time into I already felt at a disadvantage, but she is not a likeable character either. She never matures, even in her mid-thirties making stupid mistakes and neglecting the relationships that should matter to her. There was a coldness to her actions, and a childishness to her reactions to others. She looked down on Tracey by the end, but really they weren’t that different. Unsympathetic characters can work, and I’m not saying that this character didn’t, only that I did want a bit more of an arc with her than just following her around.

There is a lot to enjoy in this novel and, as always, Smith raises a lot of very interesting points. However, I began to wish that she’d choose one and delve into it. There was lots of skimming and I began to wonder if there had been a huge edit on this book. Because of the back and forth nature of the novel I did start to flit across the less interesting passages to try and follow up on the bit I’d just read. I missed how her father died, though I remember a paragraph on his funeral earlier in the book (again, because we jump forwards and back in time constantly I was waiting for this to be revealed later). The relationship between the main character and her mother was intriguing and I wanted more of this, more of Tracey, more of the village if that section was to be believed. Basically, I felt that this was either two novels compressed into one, or a hundred pages short of being a triumph.

Dark Lies the Island by Kevin Barry

dark-lies-the-island

Dark Lies the Island is a collection of Kevin Barry’s short stories, several of which previously appeared individually in publications such as the New Yorker (‘Fjord of Killary’) or won awards (‘Beer Trip to Llandudno’ won the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award in 2012).

Barry’s great talent is his use of language, never trying to test the reader’s vocabulary for the sake of it, never afraid to use dialect or slang words to paint a more realistic picture. As to be expected with an Irish writer, Barry sets most of his stories in Ireland, or at least with Irish protagonists, but he branches out to north-west England in ‘Beer Trip to Llandudno’. Even with a cast of Scousers he manages to write with authenticity this tale of a group of real ale enthusiasts on a day out.

The topics of these stories are all varied, and several are quite dark in tone, though Barry uses humour to great effect. Perhaps my favourite is ‘Wifey Redux’, the story of a husband and father who seems to have it all – until his teenage daughter finds herself a boyfriend and we find that he has a much darker side:

‘Howya doin’ boss-man?’

This, quickly, became his ritual greeting when I answered the door, evenings, and found him in his track pants and Abercrombie & Fitch polo shirt on the chequered tiles of our porch. He typically accompanied the greeting with a pally little punch on my upper arm and a big, toothy grin. He was seventeen, six two, with blonde, floppy hair, and about eight million quids’ worth of dental work. Looked like he’d been raised on prime beef and full-fat milk. Handsome as a movie star and so easy in his skin. One of those horrible mid-Atlantic twangs – these kids don’t even sound fucking Irish any more – and broad as a jeep; I had no doubt he could beat the shit out of me. Which meant that I would have to surprise him.

I found the strongest stories in this collection to be those which used humour to the best effect. I wasn’t so keen on the two stories set in London: ‘Wistful England’ and ‘The Mainland Campaign’. The latter especially I felt was missing some meaning. A young Irish lad, Steven, is living in London, scoping out Camden tube station, and it eventually becomes clear that his aim is to leave a bomb there, taking the guise of a prospective busker and depositing it there under cover of a guitar case. Barry’s characterisation was masterful as usual, but there was something of the tourist in his descriptions of what Steven got up to while he waited for the day of the bombing to come. Perhaps this was intended: Steven after all had a persona to build as his cover story. But I thought not, and I also wasn’t sure of Steven’s motivation when he seemed far keener on going out and meeting girls.

I have already found myself recommending this book to several people. Barry’s writing is always entertaining, always thought-provoking and mixes dark humour with some genuinely upsetting moments (the OAP kiddie-snatchers, poor Donie on his daily outing). There is certainly not a boring story in this collection.

Sir Learie Constantine (1901-1971) – The UK’s First Black Peer

NPG x21932; Learie Nicholas Constantine, Baron Constantine by Godfrey Argent

Learie Constantine by Godfrey Argent. Bromide print, 1 November 1967 courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London

 

At 101 Lexham Gardens, Earls Court, London, you will find an English Heritage blue plaque dedicate to Sir Learie Constantine. He only lived there for five years but this is where he wrote the book Colour Bar (1954). In the UK we like to be smug and compare ourselves favourably to the US when it comes to racial history and institutionalised racism. We did not have legal segregation, no, but nevertheless an informal colour bar did exist here, and Constantine fought against it.

Born in Trinidad, Learie Constantine first came to England as a cricketer, part of the touring West Indies team that visited in 1923 and again in 1928. On this second tour, frustrated by the lack of opportunities in Trinidad, he took the opportunity of a contract with the Nelson cricket club in Lancashire. He found great success in England over the next decade, the club winning the league eight times during that period, and he continued also to play for the West Indies.

War broke out and Constantine was offered a role as a Welfare Officer for the Ministry of Labour and National Service. Since he had assimilated into life in Lancashire so well with his family, it was hoped that he could help assist with the influx of West Indian migrants to Merseyside. He worked with trade unions to help assuage the concerns of the white workforces and was known to use his influence to overcome the resistance from some companies to employ non-white workers. He had been since the 1930s a member of Harold Moody’s League of Coloured People and was seen as a strong figurehead for the West Indian community. Always he preferred to negotiate rather than taking a confrontational or militant stance.

In 1943 the Constantine family endured a humiliating incident which had important repercussions. Learie took a few days leave to take part in a charity cricket match at Lord’s, and booked his family a room at the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury. Well aware of potential issues, he rang ahead and checked that the hotel were aware that his family were black, and was assured that this was not a problem. However, on arrival, the management made it clear that the family was not welcome (some accounts suggest that white American servicemen staying at the hotel prompted this turnabout of opinion) and the Constantines left, spending a night in another hotel owned by the same company.

At this time, there were no laws against racial discrimination and so Constantine claimed that Imperial Hotels Ltd. was in breach of contract. The hotel had not been able to provide a just explanation for their refusal of accommodation and so the judge found in favour of Learie, though only a small amount was awarded in damages. For Constantine this was acceptable. He had brought the case in order to publicise the plight of his community rather than for financial gain, and the case had also been discussed in the House of Commons due to his prominent position and his determination to have it known that such behaviour was unacceptable. This was the first case to challenge racial discrimination and as such is seen as the initial step towards the creation of the Race Relations Act 1965.

Learie Constantine lived in England until 1954, just after publishing Colour Bar, in which he talked about the racism he’d experienced as well as worldwide oppression. To some, the book was not radical enough, but Constantine had aimed it at a white audience perhaps hoping to change attitudes to the growing black population. Soon after, he returned to Trinidad and became involved in politics and joined the People’s National Movement to help them win the 1956 General Elections. He decided not to stand           for re-election in 1961 and instead was offered the post of Trinidad and Tobago’s first High Commissioner in London.

Back in England once more, Constantine was knighted in the New Year’s Honours List of 1962, also received the freedom of the town of Nelson. In 1963 he visited Bristol during the bus boycott and spoke out against the colour bar, condemning the actions of the bus company in refusing to employ black and Asian bus crews. This ultimately led to the Trinidadian government not renewing his term as High Commissioner as it was felt by both his own government as well as the British that he had overstepped the mark in becoming so outspoken over the issue.

For the rest of his life Constantine lived in London. He was variously involved in journalism and broadcasting, became a founding member of the Sports Council and was appointed to the Race Relations Board in 1967. In 1969 he was awarded his life peerage and became the first black man to sit in the House of Lords, his official title being Baron Constantine of Maraval in Trinidad and Nelson in the County Palatine of Lancaster.

Ill health forced Learie Constantine to consider a move back to Trinidad but, before he could make the journey, he died of a heart attack on 1 July 1971. His body was taken back to Trinidad for a state funeral. He was posthumously awarded the Trinity Cross of Trinidad and a memorial service was held for him at Westminster Abbey.

 

 

 

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

light-years

I love going to the library and finding new books (to me) that I’ve missed along the way. I also enjoy a series every now and again,  so was drawn to Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, following the  Cazalet family through from pre-World War II and into the 1950s. Published in 1990, The Light Years is the first in this series of books and takes place in 1937 and 1938. The three Cazalet sons, Hugh, Edward and Rupert, take their wives and children down to Sussex each summer to spend time with their unmarried sister Rachel. Most of the novel takes place at Home Place, the family seat in the country, though we do dart back to London from time to time. From the outside, life looks idyllic, but underneath the surface…

Hugh, haunted by memories of battle in France, is terrified at the prospect of another war. Handsome, charming Edward, who escaped the war unscathed, is more concerned with matters close at hand, but his wife Villy, desperately bored after her life as a dancer, is unaware of his continuous infidelities. Rupert, the talented painter, finds that he cannot both paint and be married to his beautiful and demanding wife, Zoe.  And Rachel is so loyal to her family that she has no time to devote to Sid – the woman she feels so passionately about…

Did I enjoy the book? Well, I’ve just ordered the next book from the library so yes, more than I expected. It read a little like an adults Enid Blyton, in a good way. There is lots of tea drinking, potted shrimp, dinners at the club (for the men) and a small glass of sherry in the evening, but also there is a harder edge to this novel. There is a lot of ‘stiff upper lip’ going on as well, for example when Sybil, Rupert’s wife, gives birth to twins and the girl is stillborn (this isn’t really a spoiler since there is a family tree at the start of the book). There are also a few darker occurrences that I hope are picked up again throughout the series; a hint at sexual abuse and a more blatant rape that goes unspoken about, childhood fears and the trials of growing up, the fear of childbirth in an age where the dangers were still significant.

One of the drawbacks to having such a huge cast of characters is that sometimes I forgot who some of the minor characters were – in such upper middle class households there were a myriad of staff who kept cropping up and I could never remember quite who was a maid/cook/secretary/random family friend who hadn’t appeared for two hundred pages. This wasn’t a huge stumbling block though since all of the main storylines focus on the Cazalets. It does feel like saying goodbye to friends by the end and I look forward to meeting them again in the next book.

The Man With his Eyes Sewn Shut – Part Four

Italian Opera

‘Where the hell is that man?’ Sam was pacing backstage, missing his Iago. Everyone else kept well out of his way, preparing themselves for the curtain to rise. ‘Ned!’

Ned lifted his head from his script which he was furiously studying. This could be it, the opportunity he had been waiting for, but there was a tricky song in the middle of the play, placed in only to comply with the Olympia’s licence which disallowed them from putting on straight plays. ‘Boss?’

‘You were with him last night. Patrick. What time did he go home?’

Ned swallowed and thought quickly. ‘It wasn’t that late, really. We were on Union Street. Left at the same time, but we live in different directions so…’

‘Damn him!’ Sam stormed off, calling to one of the odd-job boys to run to Patrick’s lodgings and see if he could be dragged to the theatre.

‘Looks like it’s me and you again.’ Daniel had appeared as if out of nowhere. For a large man he moved quietly, Ned thought. ‘Funny how things work out.’

‘What d’you mean?’ Ned spoke defensively.

‘Just that the part was supposed to be yours until Patrick arrived in town. Unless he’s so gravely ill that he doesn’t know where he is, Sam won’t trust him again.’

‘I didn’t realise Sam was so quick to bear a grudge.’ Ned thought back to the conversation he had had with the theatre manager the week before. Sam had trusted him. If he found out that Ned had left Patrick in the street like he had, he’d surely blame Ned as much as Patrick.

‘It’s not about grudges as such. More about protecting what we have here.’ Daniel slapped Ned on the back. ‘The Olympia is all about giving talented actors a chance, but we have to earn it.’

‘I’m sure that there’ll be a perfectly reasonable explanation for Patrick’s absence,’ Ned said, his conscience prickling. But any guilt was soon forgotten.

‘Ned! Get changed into Iago’s costume. You have five minutes.’ Sam thundered past. ‘Now who will be my Cassio?’

Excitement carried Ned through the performance, one of his best by the volume of the booing that he received as he bowed deeply, the applause so loud it felt like a soft punch to his body.

‘Incredible work, both of you.’ Sam was waiting in the wings to congratulate Daniel and Ned as they came off, shirts drenched in sweat after two hours before the heat of the footlights.

A young boy came up and tapped Sam’s elbow. ‘Sir?’

‘What? Oh. Did you find Patrick?’

The lad removed his cap and looked solemn. ‘Yes, sir. It’s not good news. I went to where he was living only his landlord hadn’t seen him since yesterday. I walked back the way you said he would have gone, past the river, and a fella there told me that a body was found there this morning.’

‘Dear God.’ Sam sat down heavily on the nearest crate. ‘Surely not.’

Ned felt his body weaken. ‘Boy. Tell us now. Was it him? Was it Patrick?’

‘Yes sir. I went to the morgue, you see, that’s why I took some time gettin’ back. He had a letter in his pocket which was damaged from the water, but when I give his name they managed to decipher enough to pick out his name and the name of the theatre.’

‘The letter that I sent him.’ Sam shook his head. ‘How did it happen?’

‘Fell into the river and drowned they reckon.’

‘Oh lord.’ Ned staggered and dropped to his haunches as nausea overcame him. ‘It’s my fault. I should have walked him home.’

‘Come now, how were you to know?’ Daniel lifted Ned back to his feet, acting as a crutch. ‘This isn’t your fault. It’s not like you left him there to drown. He was on his feet when you left him.’

Ned fell quiet but he knew that envy had bettered him.

 

 

 

 

My Top Ten Books Read in 2016

The year isn’t quite over but I thought it time to look over what I’ve read this year. Below are my ten favourites, mainly books that were published this year or last, with one that is a bit older.

10. Negroland- Margo Jefferson

Negroland

A memoir by Pulitzer Prize winning book and theatre critic Margo Jefferson, this book casts a spotlight on the black American middle class, specifically focussing on her own childhood. In 2016, with Black Lives Matter, the rise of acceptable fascism, Brexit, etc., it doesn’t seem that much has changed since the 1950s and 60s, the idea that wealthy black families were only tolerated in white neighbourhoods because they were so few still valid.

9. The Portable Veblen – Elizabeth McKenzie

The Portable Veblen

I read this as part of my Bailey’s prize shortlist back in May and fell in love with quirky protagonist Veblen Amundsen-Hovda and her crazy mother. I like a book that changes my opinion of the characters and shows development. I started out disliking Veblen’s fiancé, Paul, but by the end of the book was rooting for him. I had thought that he was just the stereotypical dull ‘boyfriend who gets dumped for something better’ character but he turned into so much more. This was a far more interesting book than I had expected it to be.

8. Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien

madeleine-thien

This was my joint favourite to win the Man Booker this year (the winner is also on my list). This is a multi-generational novel, taking us from Canada to China, from near present day back to the Cultural Revolution and the effects on one group of friends as they struggle to adjust. Thien’s research is impeccable as far as I can tell with my limited knowledge and I found my heart breaking on more than one occasion.

7. The Good Immigrant – ed. Nikesh Shukla

the-good-immigrant

I may have contributed to the crowdfund for this book but it earns its place legitimately on this list. This is an important book, a collection of essays written by non-white writers on their experiences of growing up in Britain. Funny, sad, thought-provoking, I found this the perfect antidote to Brexit Britain and the growing realisation that as a nation we haven’t come as far as I’d hoped. Everyone should read this.

6. The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

essex serpent

I was as surprised as everyone else that this book did not feature on more shortlists this year, and it deserves the accolade of Waterstone’s Book of the Year. I love historical fiction, particularly nineteenth century, and this book sets the standard for that genre of fiction. At its heart is a love story but protagonist Cora is not only defined by this. She is drawn to the myth of the serpent through a fascination with science and an aspiration to live up to the memory of her heroine, palaeontologist Mary Anning. A fabulous novel.

5. Ruby  – Cynthia Bond

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I love this book but it is an incredibly difficult read at times due to the subject matter. Set in Liberty Township, East Texas, it is the story of Ephram Jennings and his childhood love Ruby. Now in middle age, he lives alone and she has gone mad, ostracised by the rest of the town and talked of as being a witch. There are several magical beings in this novel, though arguably most of them are figments of Ruby’s fractured mind. It is a powerful book, unafraid to look at the aftermath of severe sexual abuse and human trafficking, and it deserves the many accolades it has received.

4. My Name is Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout

my name is lucy barton

For a relatively compact novel, this packs a big punch. I loved every sentence in this book, a masterclass in storytelling. Lucy, being a writer herself, is a comfortable narrator. She focuses her story on a period of time that was spent in hospital in the mid-1980s, a time when she is reunited with her estranged mother. As well as telling of their time together, we get various vignettes of Lucy’s childhood, of her upbringing in a desperately poor family who seem uncomfortable with her change in circumstances. There is such a deep sense of loneliness that comes through from Lucy’s memories and Strout captures her essence effortlessly.

3. The Sellout – Paul Beatty

The Sellout

Winner of this year’s Man Booker prize, this is the perfect example of satire that works. I know people who have taken offence to the way the protagonist, Me, behaves, thinking him a bad example to set, but after all he is never claimed to be an Everyman of the black community. There is so much in here that is not only funny but thought-provoking. To mention again one of my favourite sections, when Me decides to find a twin city for his hometown of Dickens, California, he is rejected by such highly sought locations as Chernobyl and Kinshasa, and instead chooses to pair up the Lost City of White Male Privilege. There is a fine line walked throughout most of this book but Beatty pulls it off and that is why he’s winning so many awards.

2. The Glorious Heresies – Lisa McInerney

The Glorious Heresies

Winner of the Baileys and Desmond Elliott prizes this year, this is an incredible debut from Lisa McInerney. Dark and funny, every single character is brilliant, from Maureen who accidentally kills a man at the start of the novel and has to get her son, a local gangster, to clean up, to teenager Ryan who is struggling to cope with the joys of first love, alongside avoiding beatings from his abusive father. A brilliant novel.

1. The Book of Night Women – Marlon James

bonw

OK – so I know that this was published in 2009 but I only got around to reading it this year and this is my list so here it is. I honestly don’t understand how it wasn’t up for more awards. The story of Lilith, a slave girl on a Jamaican plantation, this book is not afraid to shock. There is violence, rape, murder, but nothing is used gratuitously. James uses conversational patois throughout and this style works amazingly well: I found myself immediately absorbed in the story and missing Lilith when I had to put the book down. This is such a great novel that I felt bad for Colson Whitehead that I didn’t enjoy The Underground Railway as much as I hoped. I think it was because I was drawing constant comparison between the two and James does not shy away from the harsh realities of slave life (to be fair, neither does Whitehead but his writing felt more controlled to me, where James writes so freely that I believe every word of it). I loved it.