Linton Kwesi Johnson honoured

Father of dub poetry wins 2012 Golden PEN Award

The father of dub poetry, Linton Kwesi Johnson, has won the 2012 Golden PEN Award, awarded annually to an accomplished writer, resident in Britain, whose work has had “a profound impact on readers, and who is held in high regard by fellow writers and the literary community”. Previous recipients have included Salman Rushdie, Harold Pinter and Margaret Drabble.

Speaking to the Independent over the weekend, the 60-year-old poet and musician noted his shock upon hearing the news. “I’m not exactly in the mainstream of the British literary scene; I’m nearer the periphery,” he said, going on to explain that he hasn’t, in fact, written a line of poetry in years. “If a poem happens to come to me, I write it. But I am not bothered. If I never write another poem, so be it.”

Johnson has written profoundly on civic unrest, race and police brutality in Britain. His poetry collection, Mi Revalueshanary Fren, was published in the Penguin Modern Classics series, and his albums – notably Dread Beat an’ Blood (1978), Forces of Victory (1979), Bass Culture (1980) and Making History (1983) – which blend reggae, toasting and rhythmic, haunting spoken word, did so much to bring the language, culture and concerns of British Afro-Caribbeans to cultural prominence, particularly in times of difficulty.

“Di Great Insohreckshan” was written in response to the 1981 Brixton riots, at a time when The Spectator claimed Johnson's phonetic rendering of English-Jamaican patois “wreaked havoc in schools and helped create a generation of rioters and illiterates”. Another powerful poem, “Sonny’s Lettah”, is spoken from the perspective of a young Jamaican, writing to his mother from Brixton jail, after his brother is randomly apprehended by police: “Jim start to wriggle / di police start to giggle…”

Johnson sees poetry and music as vehicles for liberation, available to all, something he explained in an interview before performing at the Festival des Libération in France last year (see below). Perhaps the timing of the award, so recently after PEN’s Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot was published, hopes to offer a reminder of what poetry and music have done for the oppressed throughout history.

Below are some choice performances by Johnson and the Dub Band, live and on the Old Grey Whistle Test. To read a short interview with Johnson, published in the NS in 2008, click here.

Linton Kwesi Johnson. Photo: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser