Windrush Poet James Berry Has Died

Former Chiswick resident was first poet of West Indian origin to win a major poetry prize

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Former Chiswick resident, the esteemed poet James Berry OBE, has died aged 93. Born in Jamaica in 1924, he was one of the first winners of the National Poetry Competition, winning with the poem ‘Fantasy of an African Boy’, in 1981. He had been suffering with Alzheimer’s Disease for some years, and died in his nursing home on Tuesday 20 June.

He was one of the last survivors of the Windrush generation, the first wave of immigrants to the UK from the Caribbean in 1948. Here he is featured in his Chiswick home reading a poem.

James Berry was born and grew up in rural Jamaica. He began writing stories and poems while he was still at school. During the Second World War, as a teenager, he went to work for six years (1942–48) in the United States, before returning to Jamaica. Settling in 1948 in Great Britain, he attended night school, trained and worked as a telegrapher in London, while also writing. He has been reported as saying: "I knew I was right for London and London was right for me. London had books and accessible libraries."

In 1976 he compiled the anthology Bluefoot Traveller and in 1979 his first poetry collection, Fractured Circles, was published. In 1981 he won the Poetry Society's National Poetry Competition, the first poet of West Indian origin to do so. He edited the landmark anthology News for Babylon (1984), considered "a ground-breaking publication because its publishing house Chatto & Windus was 'mainstream' and distinguished for its international poetry list".

Berry wrote many books for young readers, including A Thief in the Village and Other Stories (1987), The Girls and Yanga Marshall (1987), The Future-Telling Lady and Other Stories (1991), Anancy-Spiderman (1988), Don't Leave an Elephant to Go and Chase a Bird (1996) and First Palm Trees (1997).

His last book of poetry, A Story I Am In: Selected Poems (2011), draws on five earlier collections: Fractured Circles (1979), Lucy’s Letters and Loving (1982, Chain of Days (1985), Hot Earth Cold Earth (1995) and Windrush Songs (2007).[8]

In 1990, Berry was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to poetry. His archives were acquired by the British Library in October 2012.

He died on 20 June 2017 after suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

Director of The Poetry Society, Judith Palmer said, “British poetry has so much to thank James Berry for. He helped throw wide the doors and make poetry a more open and welcoming place.”

June 27, 2017


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