Colin Grant, Saturday 13th October, 6pm, International Anthony Burgess Foundation
Words by Reina Yaidoo.
What does the phrase "that's no jacket" seen in the book mean, asks a member of the audience. In Caribbean patois that means "that a child is not yours". A rather colourful way of hinting that a person, usually a man, unbeknownst to him of course, is looking after someone else's child.
Colin Grant's Bageye at the Wheel is rich in the phrases, colours and sounds of the Caribbean community living in Luton in the 1970s. The arc of the memoir is condensed into a year which begins with his mother having an idea to send her children to private school and following on through the quest to attend a private catholic school in leafy St Albans, a far cry from the industrial city of Luton.
A cast of characters is introduced at the start of the evening, a pitstop tour of the book, and the novelist says the names are of uber-importance. "No one can know your real name," one character whispers. "If you were to make an enemy and they know your name, they could write it down and hide it in the bottom of their shoe."
Clock is named because he has one arm shorter than the other. Pioneer is named, not because he came on the Windrush 10 years before, but for his obsession for a certain brand of hi-fi. He is prone to make pronouncements: "Never drink from the bottle if the seal break and never eat fruit if it has stone." Mrs Knight is a kind of banker who encourages the men to save by putting £5 away weekly and to lose their shirts by gambling the rest away at her house every weekend. Joe Burns has the power of naming everyone and he is the only one whose full name is known.
Above all of these characters stands the ever-present Bageye of the title: ex-merchant seaman and father of the author. Bageye named for the ever-present bags beneath his eyes, and whose mood could be judged from the hat he was wearing. The black hat meant you were in for a hard time, the Cossack meant he was ready to make a deal and the fedora meant he was in the mood to splash the cash he had won gambling. Bageye worked the nightshift from 10-5am, and Colin and his other siblings judged themselves like U-boat personnel negotiating below stairs so as not to awaken HMS Bageye, who could launch torpedoes and depth charges at any hint of transgression.
Colin Grant's job as a radio producer comes through as he holds court easily telling stories of Bageye, a man who is held in affection and love. Stories include the knock-back cool of Bageye challenging himself to drive to a poker game without a gear stick, funding his children through private school by becoming a small time dealer of marijuana (or, as he saw it, fulfilling a social need) - his handling of the police who were forever stopping the uninsured, non-road taxed car by promoting said PCs to Detective Inspectors during conversation was inspired.
The small but enthralled audience at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation saw projected photos of the characters during the informal presentation. A handsome Bageye, beautiful mother Blossom and Billy Brook, a priest-like figure and member of the largely Irish community in which they lived, gazed at everyone through time.
On meeting his father again after a long estrangement to tell him of the book, they agree to take a walk to relieve the tension. Even how his father walks is important. "My father walked like a man on the losing side of the FA cup final going to collect the losers' medal. There is dignity in defeat."
In explanation of this the author said. "I recognise that my parents' generation were very bright, but because of the time they arrived and the opportunities afforded to them, they could only go so far and they recognised that they had greater skills than they were they were able to use. There was a daily defeat, a daily knocking of ambition, but they were going to hold their head up high and still have dignity. They made space for themselves and realised that their success lay with their children in penetrating the hierarchy of society to a greater extent than they could."
The book is really a tribute to these pioneers and their humour. It's the ubiquitous story of the migrant and the dualism of being a migrant.
Reina Yaidoo is a writer and entrepreneur. She runs her company Yaidoo Ltd in Manchester.