Forgotten voice of black Britain

The Life of Una Marson 1905-65

September 11, 1998

Una Marson suffered the fate of many pioneers, being forgotten for what she had done and remembered mainly as a name and for a photograph. In the photograph taken in 1942 she appears with George Orwell, William Empson, Mulk Raj Anand, T. S. Eliot and M. J. Tambimuttu broadcasting poetry to India for the Eastern Service of the BBC. She herself had written poetry and plays, one of the first British West Indian women to do so. She also, while at the BBC, produced a show, Caribbean Voices, that encouraged Caribbean writers and, when reintroduced after the war, became as central to the development of Caribbean literature. Before that she had been a journalist and the first Jamaican woman to publish and edit a magazine.

Marson had arrived in Britain in 1932, the same year as C. L. R. James and for much the same reasons. Like him, in the mid-1930s she attempted to defend Ethiopia against Italy. In London in the 1930s, she was involved in Harold Moody's League of Coloured Peoples; in Jamaica from 1936 to 1938 and from 1960 to her death in 1965 she gave much of her time to social welfare. The only period of her adult life when she concentrated on her private life was the 1950s in the United States (when she married, unhappily). She had much to say about the condition of women, especially West Indian women, which was not being said before the second world war, indeed before the 1960s in the Caribbean. Why then the neglect?

Delia Jarrett-Macauley never really provides an answer in this well-researched and interesting biography, which will do much to rescue Marson's reputation. Part of the reason was Marson's timing: the period in US dogged by ill-health, which remains obscure despite the author's efforts, coincided with the years before independence, when Marson would have been most effective promoting both literature and social welfare. The later Caribbean Voices programmes produced by Henry Swanzy were important for the novelists of the 1950s, such as Sam Selvon, V.S.Naipaul, and George Lamming.

The discontinuities in Marson's careers as journalist, editor, poet, playwright, broadcaster, social welfare worker, and between the countries in which she worked, meant that Marson disappeared all too easily from the record. There was a gap of two decades between her early work for Jamsave, the social welfare agency in Jamaica, and her return to it in the last years of life. Her play, Pocomania, which introduced African-dominated popular religion to the Jamaican stage, was not followed up in the lost years in the US or after her 1960 return to Jamaica.

For a while in the late 1940s and until her departure for the US, she encouraged writers, including Andrew Salkey, through reading manuscripts and trying to establish the Pioneer Press, but to maintain that influence she should have returned to London in 1952 not gone to Washington DC, since the writers were gathering in London and the new improved Caribbean Voices originated there.

So luck, a diversity of interests and mobility all conspired against her reputation. The difficulty of writing a biography in the absence of any great store of personal papers did not help; Jarrett-Macauley has overcome many problems in writing this book. There are a few minor factual errors and the time between completion and publication shows most poignantly when the late Andrew Salkey is discussed in the present tense. But let us hope that this particular pioneering effort will not suffer the fate of its subject.

Peter Fraser is lecturer in historical and cultural studies, Goldsmiths College, University of London.

The Life of Una Marson 1905-65

Author - Delia Jarrett-Macauley
ISBN - 0 7190 5284 x
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 242

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