At June’s official unveiling in Brixton of Britain’s first permanent memorial to the contribution made by servicemen and women from Africa and the Caribbean, Nairobi Thompson gave a spirited reading of ‘Riotous Indignation’. The poem is among 60 included in Bayonets, Mangoes and Beads, which gives a voice both to those who served in the two world wars and to those who waited anxiously back home.
The first sign that this is no ordinary book of poetry comes at the back – a bibliography. It’s easy enough to engage in hand-wringing at the horrors and injustice of war, but Nairobi’s verse is underpinned by solid research, including interviews with former soldiers. That grounding in lived experience invests her writing with a rare authenticity.
Year ago, I inherited a great-uncle’s First World War trench notebook, containing his verse and musings about everyday life amid the mud and blood of the Flanders killing fields. More recently, I discovered my father’s letters home describing his passage through much the same territory in the second global conflict just 26 years later. With those family writings in mind, I can say with some confidence that Nairobi has captured the spirit of ordinary fighting men in the two world wars. That is a remarkable achievement, given the distance in time and real-life experience between the poet and her subject.
People often say that war was a great leveller, but that is only partly true. Beyond the prospect of imminent death, the dreadful food, the lice, the rats and the sheer soul-sapping fear-tiredness-tedium of war, the average soldier born in the British Isles only had to contend with the usual poisonous prejudices of class and accent. Servicemen from the Caribbean, on the other hand, had to shoulder a massive extra burden both during and after the conflict: the colour of their skin. Nairobi’s verse points up the hypocrisy, the casualty cruelty and – from a 21st-century standpoint – the baffling absurdity of a racism that actively snubbed those who volunteered from Britain’s West Indian colonies.
This is a book that makes you think, and should probably make you angry, moved, proud and amazed in about equal measure. Some made me want to head off to the archives to find out more. In his Foreword, historian Stephen Bourne highlights ‘Herbert Morris’, ‘Nervous Chatter’ and ‘When Fire Met Ice’, which were also among my favourites in this collection. I’d add ‘Riverside Songs’, which catches the often-forgotten emotional impact of war on those left behind, and ‘1919’, which lays bare the bitter disillusion of the colonial troops being cut out of First World War victory celebrations.
At its best, Nairobi’s writing is spare and memorable, often including a twist that up-ends your expectations. Sometimes a few words cover a lot of ground. A soldier who returned home suffering shell-shock (PTSD as we would call it now) was “Never again to be the sum of his parts”. In the same poem, ‘Trauma’, she explains:
They physically demobbed him
But left him emotionally armed and dangerous
A walking pulled-pin grenade
Landing in populated places…
Thoroughly recommended – it should surely be a candidate for an English Literature set text.
- Bayonets, Mangoes and Beads, by Nairobi Thompson, published by Nu Jak Media Publishing Co (ISBN 0-634158-66149-5), £9.99