Seeing Africa After Dark: The Tilt By Jean Harrison
Steve Whitaker, Arts Correspondent
The failure of British colonialism to maintain its post war grip was precipitated to some degree by near bankruptcy: one of the prices of Attlee's domestically-focused radicalism was a new pragmatism in foreign affairs - the UK could no longer sustain a significant presence abroad either in monetary or military terms.
Fully prepared to exploit our huge war debt in words of liberation and independence, the colonies fell like a house of cards, beginning, in 1947, with India and the hasty internecine carve-up of Partition.
The rolling back of the map included, ten years later, the Gold Coast, whose name attributed everything to the economic character of historical exploitation, and nothing to its native inhabitants.
By the time of poet and writer Jean Harrison's eight year odyssey to West Africa in the sixties, the Gold Coast had adopted an old regional name of 'Ghana', meaning 'warrior king', as though to confer renewed identity alongside the relinquishing of colonial chains.
This seems a reasonable response to several centuries of European rule, among whose nation number were Sweden, France and Portugal - Britain was merely the last and most effective of a succession of exploiting nations.
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And in her new book of poems, 'The Tilt', it is a testament to Jean Harrison's great skill that she is able to disinter, from personal memory, telling elements of that strange symbiosis of otherwise remote cultures in order to foreground the starker realities of hypocrisy. It has been done before, of course, but rarely with this degree of forensic detachment, or with such subtlety.
Not for Harrison the direct post-colonial assault: she is not the outraged Chinua Achebe of 'Things Fall Apart', or her namesake Tony Harrison in 'The Death of the PWD Man'.
Her simple, spare observations conceived in a loose and tentative poetics bear an ambiguity which renders them authentic to contexts of time and place.
Her ground seems unsteady on her first arrival in Ghana. As an embryonic teacher in a remote country, she scrabbles for signifiers; a nervy search for a way forward for a provincial Englishwoman weaned on the unalloyed excitement of post war possibility, and bathing in the light of liberal rectitude.
She recalls, as a child, an ingenuously joyful flying 'clear of the earth / on the VE day chairoplanes' ('We were the ones'), in a moment which is ironised by the voice of experience in the title poem 'The tilt', where the 'map' of Accra unfolding beneath her airborne feet on her second visit to Ghana, is now fully recognised.
Which is not to gainsay the process of innocent 'becoming', and the fragile certainties which mutate into clear-eyed insight. The hopeful 'Manchester Guardian' devourer, who learns of colonial freedom-fighting through its foreign affairs pages and is exposed to the 'prison graduate' President Nkrumah in the same columns, is developing an unconditional sense of empathy as yet untarnished by the abuses of power.
Long after freedom fighter has turned dictator, and fallen, Harrison-narrator is guided through a two century-old 'dungeon' which reminds her audience that recent tyranny is only a mirror to the culpabilities of the colonial past.
The poem's cleverly understated title, 'A morning's stroll', belies the shattering, compelled significance of a moment: 'Then we must go through that far door // into an airless hole designed to hold women, / from that into a hell for men, with iron rings // still on the walls.'
Here, the thin economy of the couplets lends gravitas to centuries of stifling claustrophobia, and we are as far removed from the desiderata of an austere but stable Britain at the beginning of the volume as it is possible to be: Harrison's own words make a seductive virtue of simple post war pleasures: 'crocuses were flowering under the lime trees, / we could make toast in our rooms' (We were the ones').
It is a paradox that Ms Harrison somehow alchemises warmth from a sense of detachment. Her narrator's struggle to establish an immediate foothold in her temporary home, rendered in foreshortened metrics and staccato lacunae, suggests a groping for new meaning amongst the geometrics of spatial dislocation: 'a second compound jam packed / with three storey buildings / and a rectangle of sky' (One pair of sandals).
And the process of personal metamorphosis, from innocence to experience, is characterised by an infusion of colour, and, in places, a polyphony of voices whose tone yields an unwitting commentary on the continuing hegemony of colonialism, even in absentia.
The narrator is learning irony by accretion. Taking her place in a hierarchy which automatically elevated Europeans to the upper echelons of the Ghanaian teaching profession, the liberally progressive Englishwoman opens several paradoxical locks in one vignette: 'We were in love with 'relevance', avid / to leave Henry VIII out of the syllabus, / rid biology of the snowdrop, an exotic / whose attributes you'd learned by heart' (To get rid of the snowdrop). The apostrophic 'you', almost needless to add, is a junior black teacher.
Ms Harrison's theatre of extraneous voices acts collectively and corroboratively to counter complacency, from the mea culpa of a European's insouciantly-assumed superiority - 'By the way, a garden boy's / thrown in as well (No, I've never had a lion), to the water-collecting native Ghanaian's natural acceptance of drudgery - 'It is my work, Madame (The water).
And it is to her credit that she sometimes finds, behind the turgid histories, tectonic shifts and enduring colonial resonances of this alien land, a beguiling simplicity; not in the interests of parity, but rather in the celebration of a moment for its own sake:
'where a girl in a red skirt
jiggles her hips,
allows the shiver
to run down her body,
claps her hands softly.'
(Moments at a beach hotel)
'The Tilt' is published by Wayleave Press.
Seeing Africa After Dark: The Tilt By Jean Harrison, 5th December 2017, 9:46 AM