Seated in two leather chairs in Exeter Custom House by the Quay, poet Roger Robinson and author and broadcaster Johny Pitts invited us to be passengers in the back seat of their red Mini. We were to embark on a journey along the coast of Britain, one which explored Black British culture, with the two writers as our guides.
The event was held to celebrate the release of a book that Pitts and Robinson have co-created; Home is Not a Place. In it, the duo travel across Britain, providing an insight into the life of contemporary Black experience; on the voices, lives and communities whose stories have yet to be told.
“Beautiful, haunting, and thought-provoking”
The combination of Pitts’ photography and Robinson’s poetry takes the reader through a history of Black Britain; from London’s Tilbury Docks where Empire Windrush docked in 1948, to far-flung areas of the British coast; Dover to John O’Groats.
Pitts described the candidect of many of the photographs as reflecting the “B-Side” of British life, from a carnival posse in the heart of Notting Hill to a lonely portrait of a soldier in Calvary uniform.
“The images move in your mind as you read the poems, bringing them to life as they relate to the lives and culture of Black Britain to create a mosaic of experience.”
The vitality of these images is reflected in Robinson’s poetry. The poems and photographs have a musical undertone, taking inspiration from both jazz and 90s RnB (something to which they listened exclusively as they drove around the country). The result is that of “still cinema” as Pitts described it; the images move in your mind as you read the poems, bringing them to life as they relate to the lives and culture of Black Britain to create a mosaic of experience.
The highlight of the event was a reading of Robinson’s poem, Twenty Parakeets, which tells the story of parakeets, brought over as exotic pets, only to then be seen as a ‘risk’ to natives – overstaying their welcome. This reading was accompanied by an arresting image of a naked tree in Plymouth at night, lit from the top by vividly green parakeets nesting on bare branches before they inevitably move on again. Seeing the image and hearing the words together highlighted the racial injustices that so many Black Britons still face today.
Considering the events that have taken place on this book’s historical journey, from race riots in the 60s to the more recent Windrush scandal, this could easily have been a narrative of trauma, but instead, this is a celebration of Black Britain. Of a community’s creativity, resilience and life.
“The title poem, Home is Not a Place, is presented on the back of the book; it speaks of love…a love of home, of the small town, of the place each one of us comes from.”
The archetypal notion of what is ‘British’; fish and chips, the Union Jack, and the red Mini in which they travelled along the coast, has become associated with something more negative in contemporary political culture. The use of these symbols to explore what Black Britain means is what makes this book so special.
The title poem, Home is Not a Place, is presented on the back of the book; it speaks of love. Honest love that is romantic and familiar. It is not simple or saccharine, it is raw and honest. It is the sort of love we understand when we have been on a journey to reach it. It is a love of home, of the small town, of the place each one of us comes from. We’ll be exploring this theme more in Issue 5 of The Lit, coming soon.
By Sophie Blauth, Editorial Assistant at The Literary Platform
Led by Helen Chaloner, and based at the historic Exeter Custom House on Exeter Quayside, Quay Words showcases literature as a diverse and flexible art form, with something for everyone and is a core project of Exeter as a UNESCO City of Literature.
For more events like this, check out https://quaywords.org.uk/.