On introducing me to his friends after our first meeting Jan Carew never spoke as though we had first met only that afternoon. Listening to him you would surely believe that we had been lifelong friends. It remained that way even when he introduced me to his wife, Joy.
Jan knew everyone and had the small country habit of retaining everything about them almost as though he was the chief operative of a blackmail agency with hundreds of agents. He used his great capacity to recall information to network. For anything you wished to do he could name an associate or colleague who was working on the area, might be able to assist or someone who owed him a favour.
Our friendship was launched one afternoon in the summer of 1997 with a phone call from a Cameroun associate, Lucien Pagni, who was at the time employed by the European Commission in Brussels. He simply said, “Carl, I have someone who would like to speak with you.” There followed a voice, the owner of which seemed to be economizing on breathing. The person greeted me in extremely flattering terms. He introduced himself so minimally that initially I concluded that he was an old friend whose existence I had forgotten.
I have seen several CV’s of Jan Rynveld Carew and in them he describes himself as a novelist, playwright, poet and educator. Surely he had enjoyed outstanding careers in all those arenas, in different spaces. But such a CV cannot portray the person I eventually got to know. For that, one would need to be able to view a picture. In it would be a man who knew how to enjoy life, was extremely sociable, had enormous networking connections, could be very helpful, had an encyclopedic knowledge and in the face of all that was extremely proud of his family whose achievements he treated as his own. He was also resolute and a fighter. He was able mobilise painting and recounting his experiences as weapons in his struggle against illness.
In 1997 FOCUS Consultancy had been contracted by the ACP (African, Caribbean and Pacific) Group of States to lead a major conference on the legal, economic and employment conditions and the position of ACP migrants in the then 15 European states of the EU. This was the culmination of a series of technical seminars. Among the invited speakers were the mayor of a city, a Harvard Professor and Prof Jan Carew. Incidentally, the UN sponsored an identical theme and a related set of reflections last year – an event in which Guyana failed miserably to make any contribution whatsoever at either party or national levels, in spite of urgings from many quarters. But I am straying.
The call that set up our first meeting had been triggered by a lecture he was due to deliver to the conference. Prof Chris Mullard an outstanding Caribbean sociologist and entrepreneur of the largest Black consultancy in the UK and Europe at the time, was the head of FOCUS. Mullard, an expert on young Australian indigenes was a friend of Jan’s. His team pulled together an unusual range of themes which provided very interesting insights into the plight and challenges facing ACP migrants in Europe. In his presentation Carew relished the opportunity to demonstrate well known as well as little known links between Europe, the Pacific, Africa and the New World and the Pacific. He did not miss the opportunity to dilate on the origins and utility of the amaranath seed. He also regaled us with many personal experiences and some unusual pieces of information which drew on his own research and experiences of Africa and the Americas. I recall the audience being quite taken by his story about his evasion of capture when the Nkrumah regime fell whilst he was an adviser to the President. Subsequent to his presentation he came to my rescue when, the otherwise radical Howard professor and mayor, were incensed over my failure to cite the US as the greatest thing in decolonization and selfless aid.
In March 1999 Jan called to say that he was coming to Brussels on his way to Africa and asked whether we could meet for a drink at a hotel in Brussels. I arrived at the hotel two hours late having explored what seemed the entire length of the longest road in Brussels! The manager fetched Jan who emerged from a lower floor with his trademark smile that always seemed to have an element of tolerance of naughtiness. He greeted me warmly as usual and after a quick drink offered to take me to see something interesting downstairs. On entering the very quiet and poorly lit room, it suddenly erupted. It seemed that everyone under the sun was there – my mother and our relatives, old friends including Jimmy Matheson, associates from the ACP Committee of Ambassadors, my Danish counterpart the secretary to the EU Council of Ministers, Fleming Bjornaekker and his wife, former associates and academics from the University of London and Kenya, former UG students including Louis London, ex-girlfriends, guests from Guyana and the UK – the lot!
You could have picked me up from the floor at that point. Jan then proceeded to MC a birthday celebration fit for a celebrity. It unfolded like the British TV programme, ‘This is your life,’ complete with surprise guests, some of whom insisted on relating stories that I would have preferred be told in smaller circles, if at all! The MC, a very engaging speaker and a raconteur of no mean order, had the attendees enthralled. He had a humorous story or quip for just about every comment or incident that arose.
That event, apart from demonstrating the organisational and persuasive skills and selflessness of Barbara de Abreu and Jean Craigwell, also exposed the conspiratorial predisposition that they shared with Jan.
One morning as I drove into the CTA car park in Wageningen, The Nether-lands, the BBC programme on the radio suddenly registered in my consciousness – a BBC book programme interviewing authors about their recently published work and the events inspiring them. I suddenly heard the compère say something about one of his guests spending her childhood in the only English- speaking country in South America… and meeting her husband-to-be, a diplomat, whilst she was still at school. “Yes,” she replied, “He was a Venezuelan diplomat who would drive along the route I walked to school and speak to me… We eventually eloped…“ Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I had stored part of this story and as I struggled to retrieve it, I realized that it could have only emanated from Jan. I sat in the car park for half an hour listening to Lisa recount the story of her life and her work. Several of my staff came over to the car to see if I was indisposed or needed assistance. They were intrigued to learn that I was only listening to a story. This young lady was to call some time later when she was in the process of making a film in Angola on the environment.
I had the privilege of meeting Shantoba, Jan’s youngest daughter. She came to the Netherlands in 2005 to visit her sister and was the pride and joy of her parents. Her own approach to things seemed to reflect a close association with Jan which was positive.
That would be quite an achievement growing up in the shadow of a personality such as Carew.
Jan himself also stayed with me when I moved to the Netherlands. Subsequently, we laughed about that experience.
The bed we assigned to him turned out be too short! Until then I never thought much about the likelihood that bed lengths, as opposed to their widths, varied much. But then I would not have need to, I am not yet 6 ft tall! He only mentioned it the next morning, waiting perhaps to see whether it would turn out to be procrustean!
In the course of that visit, one of the secretaries at the office informed me that she had met him in Dominica during the course of a visit to her boss. He had, on meeting her, been so friendly and approachable that she was certain he would remember her.
Sure enough, when I conveyed the message, he not only confirmed her story but had me take him to see her.
That was Jan, a man with an uncanny capacity to remember the finest detail. One of the two things I remember most vividly about his book on Conversations with Malcolm X was the number of apparently verbatim exchanges with Malcolm that would have surely needed a tape recorder to retrieve them.
Whatever, the case about his memory, his story-telling capacity ensured that the tales were credible. The second element I recall about that book was that it shared a theme with the Big Pride. That theme was colour, the political contours and implications of race in the Americas. In that sense they explored a different section of the canvas from ARF Webber’s, To those that be in bondage.
Although he was not born in New Amsterdam (NA) Jan Carew had an understanding of the society that was fascinating. He attended Berbice High School and had relatives, friends of our family, who lived in Coopers Lane and worshipped at the nearby Methodist Church during my childhood.
Interestingly enough, the late William Young (aka Sue-Young) who arrived there as a refugee from war-torn China and had a similar grasp of NA’s family and social connections, was an immigrant to NA.
Jan spoke to me about NA as though he was born there and never left. He could tell you about the Rohlehrs, the Abensetts and Mittelholzer families as well as their relationships and even their individual idiosyncracies.
I shared with him an interest in the iconic role these families held and their links, as well as a range of other pre-occupations such as history, Africa, science and technology, Caribbean literature, etc.
In the course of a casual conversation Jan would tell you so many things it was difficult to keep track, his first marriage, his children and their escapades, his nephew Nigel Harris, Wilson Harris, Bernard Heydorn, Paul Robeson, DuBois, etc, and about the many places he lived. Distillation might take months.
We could talk for hours without exhausting obvious themes. I enjoyed his company in that regard. For me those exchanges would be what Gilbert and Sullivan described as ‘elysian.’
LFS Burnham once commented to me when I had finished explaining to him how I came to know about aerobatics and rifle shooting, “Is there anything that haven’t you done or has not happened to you in your short life? If you die tomorrow you will not have missed anything.” When I met Jan Carew I thought, here was a man that seems to really merit that enquiry from Burnham. He went to live in Suriname with a missionary uncle, at a time when few Guyanese ventured there; his sister had been kidnapped in the US soon after the family arrived there only to re-appear years later. He grew up with an unlettered uncle an, artisan, who taught him to paint, etc.
One day Jan informed me that he had been invited to the first public viewing of his play The Big Pride. This piece written with Sylvia Wynter, his first wife, was the second play written by a Black author, to have been shown on British TV. Since TV was still in its relative infancy in 1961, the show had been recorded live and the tapes of it had then been ‘lost.’ Forty-odd years later they were discovered and the story New Amsterdam (billed as Jamaica) and its three escaped convicts was to be aired at the Theatre of the South Bank as part of a celebration of early British TV. It was to share the stage with Errol John’s Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, (ITV, 1960). I travelled from the Netherlands to the UK with Jan to see the show which was well received. Afterwards Jan was besieged by a veritable crowd of well-wishers, former friends and colleagues.
The latter who pulled him aside to reflect on two interesting issues: the long and often frustrating struggle of those first post-War immigrants, and of artistes in particular, to gain recognition for their work and to obtain space on the theatre and on TV. Jan enquired of the current situation which he recognized had changed and contrasted it with the evolution of opportunities in the USA.
One interesting and surprising observation that emerged from the exchange was the role of change agents in the UK. The surprise that emerged from that discourse was Mrs Thatcher, who as a consequence of the trauma of the Toxteth riots, decided in defiance of her colleagues, to take steps to facilitate the development of a Black middle class. The first step on this route was the establishment of quotas in the British civil service. Jan listened attentively and absorbed.
The capacity to take such strands of thought and to weave them into more well-defined and comprehensive theories is the task of the academic and intellectual. That process was one which one could recognise Jan Carew undertaking almost all the time as he listened. He was formidable in this regard.
When I sent him a copy of my book on land settlement schemes in Guyana, he quickly located it in the evolution of our political economy and drew the link with Rodney’s work on the working class in Guyana.
In keeping with his great helpfulness to me, he offered to assist with the launch of the book in Canada, writing in the process a very supportive review and organizing for one of his young T&T colleagues at University of Kentucky to do the same.
Astonishingly, Jan remained a social animal into his final years. On that first visit to Brussels he came to my residence in Overijse. I saw a man full of ideas – about my house, my work, his work, etc. In retrospect it seems that we discussed everything. When I mentioned van Sertima and my interest in his work on They came before Columbus, Jan proceeded to fill me in on their friendship, van Sertima’s interest in Swahili law, his move from the SOAS U/L to NW University in the US and his work with his wife on African culture, etc. All of that talking was no doubt facilitated by the consumption of serious quantities of the best libation available. Jan having arrived in Overijse in the early evening, at 5am seemed not to even notice the lateness of the hour! He boasted of jogging and running up flights of stairs. Not bad for a man of 77! Eventually, I had to ‘put him out’ in order to be able get some sleep before the work day started.
It seems to me therefore that Jan enjoyed a full life, rich in fascinating experiences and fulfilment. He also contributed to the quality of life of many of those he touched, particularly his friends. I suspect that he would have departed this life with a smile, having concluded that he had somehow managed to trick the creator by managing to get a lot more out of his life than that great Being could possibly have had in mind!
Carl B Greenidge