Sailing Away to a New Land: The Writing of James Berry

James Berry is a poetry titan. He migrated from Jamaica to Britain in 1948, the year the Windrush arrived in Essex, and was one of the earliest writers to use Jamaican vernacular in his poetry. We asked poet Hannah Lowe, a friend of James Berry and an expert on his work, to give us an introduction to this legendary writer.

Black and white photo of James Berry, wearing a trilby hat and a suit
Photo: Sal Edriss

Let’s say you wanted to collect me up –
now frightened and hopeful I go
Your roads of travel lead on
        to rebirth after rebirth

from ‘Sea-Song Two’, Windrush Songs

Imagine you are stood on the dock on the coast of the country you have lived all your life. You are about to step onto a ship and sail away to a New Land. How would you feel? Excited? Scared? Hopeful?

What will you have packed? You don’t know when you’ll see your family and friends again, so alongside practical things you might take photographs and keepsakes – things that remind you of those you love and miss. This is before the days of email and easy phone communication, so the only way you’ll be in touch is by letters travelling across the ocean, as you are about to.

Imagine you actually know something about this New Land. Perhaps you’ve heard that it’s cold, whereas the place you have lived is tropically hot all year around. You’ve seen photographs of the New Land. You’ve read books about it. In fact, this new country is locked in your heart as a place you almost know as well as your own home. You think of it as the ‘Mother Country’ – because even though it is miles and miles away, people from the Mother Country have ruled your land for centuries.

I’m sure you’ve realised by now that I’m talking about Britain and the British Empire, which for hundreds of years occupied and controlled many other countries. The map here shows how much of the world was part of the British Empire in its ‘heyday’, at the beginning of the 20th Century. You can see how tiny Britain is, and how large its control and influence was at the time.

Map of the British Empire, with Canada, India, Australia, and swathes of Africa and islands around the world in red

After the Second World War, thousands of people from around the Empire travelled to Britain, many as British citizens. They believed it was their Mother Country – a place that would welcome them.

Cover of Bluefoot Traveller: a man sits on a suitcase by a railway trackThe poet James Berry, who was born in 1924 in Jamaica under British colonial rule, was one of them. He came from a small rural community called Fair Prospect, and left for Britain in 1948. In Britain he became a writer and published six collections of poetry as well as short stories and children’s poetry and fiction. He also edited two important anthologies of Caribbean British poetry – Bluefoot Traveller (1976) and News From Babylon (1984) and won many literary prizes. He was awarded an OBE in 1990.

The last of his poetry collections Windrush Songs (2007) tells, from different angles, the story of post-war Caribbean migration to Britain. Many poems are about his Jamaican childhood, where the seeds of reverence for Britain were sown. The poem ‘Empire Day’ emphasises how early in life colonial socialisation began, depicting himself and other Jamaican children marching to celebrate the British Empire on the day of Queen Victoria’s birthday:

Empire Day is what we rememba, singin
Praises to Modder Country, Englan…

… Each
one of us get a likkle Union Jack
and sweets with flags
printed all over the tin…

from ‘Empire Day’, Windrush Songs

Later poems explore the reasons so many people left the Caribbean for Britain after the Second World War. This ‘exodus’, which began in the late 1940s and ended in the early 1960s, has become known retrospectively as the ‘Windrush’, because the Empire Windrush was one of the first ships to carry those migrants to Britain. The ship’s name has become a symbol for a generation, though in fact there were hundreds of different ships and some people arrived by aeroplane rather than sea.

A famous calypso singer Lord Kitchener was on board the Empire Windrush, and features in a Pathé news film that was made when the ship docked at Tilbury in Essex. You can watch the interview with him and other passengers here, and hear him sing the famous song ‘London is the Place for Me.’ The song sums up the belief held by many, and a crucial reason so many left their homes – that the centre of Empire would welcome them. Instead, most found themselves to be victims of institutional and popular racism, discriminated against in housing and employment, and greatly disillusioned.

Cover of Windrush Songs: a photo of the sea with a ship's wakeJames had been making notes for many years for the poems in Windursh Songs and used these to form the collection. These notes – many written in notebooks, or on scraps of paper – are held in the James Berry Archive at the British Library. By the time the collection was published, James was suffering from Alzheimer’s, a condition that greatly affected his memory. In some ways, his illness emphasises how important it is to collect and collate the memories of the people who made this journey and settled here, to hear their testimonies and commemorate their huge contribution to British society. I met James for the first time while he had Alzheimer’s, and we became friends and spent time much talking about writing, his memories of Jamaica and life in Britain.

James was not the only writer to explore these experiences in literature. Other writers such as Sam Selvon and Andrew Salkey also wrote about this period, but both were already authors, travelling to Britain to extend their literary careers. James was different because he was an ‘economic migrant’, travelling to find work and better opportunities. We might consider his experiences to be closer to the majority post-war Caribbean migrants who collectively hoped to ‘Change our rags for riches’, as he writes in ‘Sea-Song One’ (Windrush Songs).

James emphasises his working-class origins in the introduction to the collection:

When the Windrush came along it was simply a godsend, but I could not get on that boat. I simply could not meet the expenses … It was some time before I could get myself together and sell the few pigs and goats I had, to gather up the money … I had to wait for the second ship to make the journey that year, the SS Orbita (Introduction, Windrush Songs)

But his literary ambitions were clearly there from early on, as a note from the archive makes clear: ‘I came to England in Sept 1948 on the SS Orbita… Instantly, my great obsession was to improve my English language so I could begin to write…’ (James Berry Archive, British Library) James developed his writing practice alongside his work as a dental technician and a telephone engineer, and went on not only to become a prolific and respected writer, but also an educator, editor and activist.

The opening poem of Windrush Songs both explores and problematises the term ‘Windrush’. Rather than stressing the journey of a particular ship, James breaks the word in two – ‘Wind-rush’ – shifting its meaning to emphasise one of the multiple factors that pushed people from that region to migrate. Many Jamaicans were farmers, and the common occurrence of hurricanes could completely destroy their livelihoods:

I won’t miss how breezeblow madness
Batter and beat the place up island-wide
Knocking things over with sea raging and raging
How island-wide bugle blow of wind
Batter and mash-up the place…

from ‘Wind-rush’, Windrush Songs

Below is an early handwritten draft of the poem from the archive:

Handwritten poem
James Berry Archive, British Library

James was also deeply concerned with the troubled history of the Caribbean which had endured years of colonial exploitation, through slavery and beyond. The image of the ship in the collection is not only of the post-war vessels, but also the ships that transported slaves to the Caribbean from Africa. In the poem ‘Comparing Now with Ancestors’ Travel from Africa’ he writes powerfully, ‘ancesta-them did travel / in a ship hole / chained-up, angry, filthy, half-starved’ (Windrush Songs).

The brutal removal of African people from their homeland is also beautifully and painfully imagined in James’ novella for young people Ajeema and his Son, and in many other poems. James never shies away from Africa as his ancestral homeland, despite the ways he felt Africa was ignored and/or denigrated by many in Jamaica, perhaps because of its painful reminder as the origins of their forebears’ enslavement. Many of his poems are about his attempts to reconnect to his African heritage, perhaps as a place of consolation for the hardships faced in Britain.

Two particular things mark James’ writing out for me. The first is that he was one of the earliest writers to use Jamaican vernacular – often called Nation Language – in his writing. This was a radical departure from the English canonical poetry that he would have been taught at school – poets such as Wordsworth and Kipling. He wanted to use his own voice and way of talking to bring to life the voices of the communities he wanted to represent and address. He argued that ‘one of the cruellest things West Indians have suffered is the disqualification and put-down of our language’ and set about to change this (‘Interview with James Berry’, Oxford Poetry).

One of the most beautiful examples of his use of this voice is in his lesser known collection Lucy’s Letters and Loving, written in the voice a Lucy, a Jamaican woman newly arrived in London and missing Jamaica. The opening poem, ‘Lucy’s Letter’ is framed as a letter to Lucy’s former neighbour, Leela:

Lucy’s Letter

Things harness me here. I long
For we labrish bad. Doors
Not fixed open here.
No Leela either. No Cousin
Lil, Miss Lottie or Bro’-Uncle.
Dayclean doesn’ have cockcrowin’.
Midmornin’ doesn’ bring
Cousin-Maa with her naseberry tray.
Afternoon doesn’ give a ragged
Manwell, strung with fish
like bright leaves. Seven days
play same note in London, chile.
But Leela, money-rustle regular.

from Lucy’s Letters and Loving

The last lines sum up the hardship of her experience, working seven days a week, weighed against the economic necessity of staying. The line ‘I long / For we labrish bad’ is a wonderful example of how both Jamaican lexis (‘labrish’, a wonderfully sonorous word, means ‘gossip’) and also syntax (here the placing of ‘bad’ as the last word of the line) really convey Lucy’s sense of yearning. The equivalent in formal English would not be as emotive.

Listening to James read his work is deeply pleasurable, and we are lucky there is a considerable archive of recordings of his readings. Here he is reading ‘Englan Voice’, a poem that specifically explores the hierarchical associations of speaking formal English versus Jamaican vernacular.

The second thing I love about James’ work is the breadth and depth of his thinking about migration, which includes both depictions of the multiple adversities encountered, but also a sense of opportunity and adventure. The collection Chain of Days contains many poems about the racism against migrants in Britain. ‘In-a Brixton Market’ is about the SUS Laws, which gave the police the right to stop and search people they suspected of committing crimes, and were used disproportionately against black people. James uses a resistant humour in the poem, writing that the police who stop the speaker are disappointed to find only: ‘Two piece of yan, a dasheen / a han of banana, a piece of pork / an mi lates Bob Marley.’ (‘In-a Brixton Market’, Chain of Days)

In other poems, James portrays the sense of possibility inherent in the migrant experience. In one of his children’s poems, ‘Black Kid in a New Place’, the child speaker at first likens himself to a trapped bird ‘who will not return from here’, but later transforms his view:

… I see
I was not a migrant bird. I am
a transplanted tree, here, blossoming

from ‘Black Kid in a New Place’, Only One of Me

Many of James’ poems express a sense of excitement about journeying to a cosmopolitan metropolis. The penultimate poem of Windrush Songs, ‘Beginning in a City, 1948’, narrates the speaker’s arrival to ‘dim-lit streets’ where ‘war-tired people moved slowly’. He describes the first men he rooms with as ‘fellow-inmates’ being exploited in overcrowded living conditions, a well-known element of the post-war Caribbean migratory experience. But by the end of the poem, the speaker has found his way to Brixton, where a Caribbean community has started to form. Another man affectionately calls the speaker a ‘jus-come’, and points him in the direction of the Labour Exchange to find work.

The last line of the poem, I think, speaks to the sense of adventure that James Berry felt about his arrival to the country that was to become his home for the next sixty years, and where he would make his name:

So, I had begun – begun in London.

from ‘Beginning in a City, 1948’, Windrush Songs


Berry, James:

              Chain of Days (1985)
              Lucy’s Letters and Loving (1982)
              Ajeema and his Song (1992)
              Only One of Me (2004)
              Windrush Songs (2007)

James Berry Archive, British Library

Interview with James Berry by Sue Goad

Black and white photo of Hannah Lowe
Photo: Dirk Skiba

Hannah Lowe is a writer based in London. Her first poetry collection Chick (Bloodaxe, 2013) won the Michael Murphy Memorial Award. In 2014, she was named as one of 20 Next Generation British poets. She lectures in Creative Writing at Brunel University. @hannahlowepoet

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