Maya Angelou speaking in 2009. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Maya Angelou 1928-2014: An extraordinary mix of innocence and depravity, elegy and celebration

From the archive: Nicci Gerrard on Maya Angelou's second volume of autobiography, Gather Together in My Name, first published in the New Statesman 17 May 1985.

Autobiography can be stranger than fiction, more delightful in its telling and more inspiring in its tale. Maya Angelou's first volume of autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was sheer delight. Its sassy, gritty, knock-kneed enchantment with the world in all its colours and its funny, marvelling evocation of childhood's shape, sound and smell burst through the cage of black woman's adversity. The book ended with 16-year-old Maya holding her newborn son in her arms, the world open and unsignposted before her — and readers wanting more.

In its sequel, Gather Together in My Name, Maya Angelou has lost none of her verve for life, and her almost physical enjoyment of the words that we chew and roll around in appreciation at their unpredictable prescience. But Gather Together in My Name is not simply more of the same. In spite of all the horrors encountered, the pellucid, spontaneous imagination of the younger Maya made the cage into a wide world of sunlight. The prison bars close in during adulthood: natural glee and the courage of hope press up against a difficult world and from their friction Angelou creates a more wisely exuberant self.

Angelou's love of life turns a catalogue of horror into a tale of gutsy survival. The book opens on the war's ending. After the first flush of victory, during which "everybody had soft little preparation-to-smile smiles on their faces" and "Race prejudice was dead", America re-erects old familiar boundaries. Maya herself is 17 — "very old, embarrassingly young, with a son of two months" — and already intimate with a textured guilt, "my familiar, my bedmate". The end of the war is for her a time of shuddering self-doubt; a wide-eyed inconsolable gaze at the real world outside childhood.

She becomes a cook, content among the odorous vapours of onion, sweet pepper and garlic until she falls in love with a stunned abruptness. The transience of passion and pain at its absenc sets up a pattern of impermanence in Maya's life. Travelling to Los Angeles she works in a nightclub and then drifts into managing a brothel. The sprightly hard-boiled tone is spiked by retrospective self-knowledge:

I had managed in a few tense years to become a snob on all levels, racial, cultural, intellectual. I was a madam and thought myself morally superior to the whores. I was a waitress and believed myself cleverer than the customers I served. I was a lonely unmarried mother and held myself to be freer than the married women I met.

After a brief and discomforting visit to the slow-speaking, right-thinking Arkansas of her childhood, Maya returns to California to Cook in a greasy, dingy diner, knowing that the rancid cooking oil and the old men's sadness has seeped into her pores. A few months of tap-dancing make only a glorious interlude in her sure decline into the world of narcotics and prostitution. Teetering on the brink of destruction, Maya is given a sudden glimpse into the hidden world of the wretched, into which she is poised to rumble. It is a vision of hell on earth: standing in a hit joint for addicts and watching their salivating, scratching degradation she finally "knew innocence as real as a grain of sand between my teeth". The end of Gather Together in My Name performs an act of redemption upon both life and book. At its moment of crisis Angelou achieves the honed understatement of a deeply-felt truth:

The life of the underworld was truly a rat race, and most of its inhabitants scurried like rodents in the sewers and gutters of the world. I had walked the precipice and seen it all, and at the critical moment one man's generosity pushed me safely away from the edge.

Entering squalid humiliation and returning from it whole and hopeful, Gather Together in My Name binds horror and raunchy delight together through its unique voice. In it, the reverberations of the Black Church's Gospel songs and the syncopated rhythms of jazz converge; the inherited proud tradition Angelou's beleaguered people and the unsentimental isolation of her individual spirit interweave; the natural optimism that chases away shadows is also sharpened into self-lacerating wit. Loving the world, Maya Angelou also knows its cruelty and offers up her autobiography as an extraordinary mixture of innocence and depravity, of elegy and celebration. 

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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