Guyana’s New Beginning

Divide-and-rule was always the special hallmark of British imperialism.     It’s a technique that worked well for Britain in its imperial heyday, and which was also brought into play during the ‘end of empire’ twilight,   when successive British governments sought to shape the political arrangments in their colonies in favour of their own geopolitical priorities.

These intentions left a trail of political disasters in their wake, many of which lasted long after the Union Jack had ceased to flutter.     Northern Ireland; the India-Pakistan partition; Kashmir; the Malaysian and Kenyan ’emergencies’; Israel-Palestine: these are just a few of the some of the conflicts and crisies that had their origins in political arrangements designed to suit the colonial power rather than the interests of the people that came under its jurisdiction.

The tiny Caribbean nation of Guyana, formerly British Guiana,   is a lesser-known variant on this less-than-glorious imperial legacy. In the nineteenth century, Britain began shipping large numbers of mostly Indian indentured labourers or ‘coolies’ to take the place of freed African slaves.   Economic competition between these two groups subsequently resulted the political division of the country along racial lines in the runup to independence.

This division was not inevitable. In 1953   the leftist People’s Progressive Party (PPP), under Cheddi Jagan,   won the colony’s first national elections. Unwilling to permit the formation of a ‘communist’ government in the Commonwealth, Britain suspended the Guyanese constitution and sent troops to restore ‘order’ in a typical ’emergency’ response of the period.

Two years later, Britain encouraged Jagan’s former colleague Forbes Burnham to form a new party called the People’s National Congress (PNC), whose membership was mostly Afro-Guyanese.   In doing so, Britain helped exacerbate and formalize Guyana’s racial divisions – the better to manage its post-imperial transition.   In 1961 Cheddi Jagan became chief minister once again, and the following year the CIA, with the collusion of the British,   funded a prolonged national strike which descended into vicious racial clashes.

These manouevres destabilised Jagan’s administration and paved the way for the rise of Forbes Burnham, who was invited by the British to form a government in 1964. In 1966 Guyana became independent.   For the best part of three decades, Burnham used a combination of violence, intimidation, demagogic Third Worldism and rigged elections to neutralise the Indo-Guyanese demographic advantage and keep the PPP excluded from power.

As a result of Burnham’s catastrophic misrule, Guyana experienced a long-drawn-out economic collapse that eventually caused more than half the population to abandon the country. It wasn’t until after Burnham’s death that Cheddi Jagan returned to power in 1992 and inherited a ruined country.

This history is little known; internationally Guyana is generally associated with the Jonestown massacre, insofar as it is known at all.   It’s a country that   nevertheless had a graet personal significance for me.   My family lived there for nine traumatic months between 1966 and 67.     When my mother returned to England with four children, my father remained in Guyana until his death in 1992.     Three years later I returned to Guyana to find out what had happened to him, a journey that became the subject of my book My Father’s House.

My father was a member of the PPP throughout its years of political exile, and he died only months before its electoral victory in 1992.       When I was in Guyana I was conscious that the racial division in Guyanese politics was still very much alive.   The PPP remained the party of the Indo-Guyanese, and the declining PNC had little to offer beyond the posturing racial populism of Burnham’s former sidekick Hamilton Green.

It was obvious, even in 1995, that these divisions was an enormous impediment to national reconstruction, and many Guyanese believed that they still had the potential to turn violent. Since then I have rather fallen out of touch with Guyanese politics beyond the BBC 4 series Trouble in Paradise (2005) which followed Cheddi’s engaging successor Bharat Jagdeo.   The snippets of information that I did come across did not sound good.     The PPP was accused of corruption and nepotism, involvement in organized crime and even running death squads to assassinate its political opponents.

I had no idea how how much of this was true, and a part of me perhaps didn’t want to believe that my father’s old party had undergone such a disastrous moral decline. But then the PPP is a party that demographically speaking, cannot lose elections, and such a position does not necessarily make for honest government.

Shallow students of history, or those who still cling onto the notion that colonialism was essentially a civilising project, will attribute the failure to achieve a post-racial politics to the Guyanese themselves.   But there are innumerable examples of how difficult it is to overcome political and economic divisions that become entrenched on ethnic or racial lines.   As the history of Ireland has shown, such divisions can last not just for decades, but for centuries.

Last week however, Guyana took a historic step towards a different kind of future, when the multi-racial Partnership for National Unity and Alliance for Change coalition, under the leadership of the former army brigadier and publisher David Granger, defeated the PPP in national elections. by a narrow margin of 206,817 versus 201,457 votes.

The coalition includes former members of Walter Rodney’s Working People Alliance (WPA), which tried to develop a multi-racial opposition to Burnham back in the 1970s, before Rodney’s assassination in 1980.     It also includes the PPP’s former Minister of Information Moses Nagamootoo, a former friend of my father’s with whom I had a boozy run-in back in 1995, who is now the vice-chairman of the coalition.

PPP president Donald Ramotar is contesting the electoral result, for no obvious reason except that he lost, because outside observers, including Jimmy Carter, have insisted that the elections were free and fair.     Ramotar should back off.     His party has been in power for 23 years. That is way too long.   And if I had a bottle of rum in the house, I would raise a toast to Moses and his new party, because this victory may not mean much to the wider world but it is a huge breakthrough for a country so rich in unfulfilled potential,   whose progress has been consistently undermined by the racial divisions that were so cynically manipulated by the former colonial master.

Now Guyana has a chance to overcome these divisions and build a country in which all Guyanese can have the future they deserve, and even though my father was a member of the PPP, that was an outcome that he always wanted, and I suspect that if he was alive he would probably raise a glass in celebration.

My Father’s House: Official Re-Launch!

After more than a decade out of print, my 1998 memoir My Father’s House: In Search of a Lost Past officially comes into existence today as a self-published e-book.     It’s available at Amazon, iBooks, Kobo and other outlets at £3.99 ($6.99).     My Father’s House is my most personal book, and a book that I’ve always been particularly proud of, so I’m really pleased that 21st century has given me the opportunity to re-introduce it to a new generation of readers.

Here is the book description:

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In 1995 Matthew Carr returned to Guyana in the Caribbean, where his parents’ marriage had broken up nearly thirty years before, in order to investigate the mysterious death of his father Bill Carr in 1991. A popular and charismatic English lecturer, a lover of DH Lawrence, Shakespeare and Matthew Arnold, and a left-wing political activist with a strong public presence in West Indian politics, Bill Carr was also a violent alcoholic who beat his wife and children, and whose alcohol-induced mayhem forced his family to return to England without him in 1967.

In the ensuing decades little was known of the life he led in a country whose single claim to international fame in all that period was the ‘Jonestown massacre.’ Apart from a single visit to England a few years before his death, Bill Carr had, it seemed, cut himself off from his family and his country and chosen to live a life of exile with a new family in his adopted country. His son’s decision to return to Guyana for the first time since 1967 was partly prompted by the confused circumstances that preceded his father’s death, in which he seemed to express a wish to return to his native land.

What began as an exploration of a lost West Indies childhood in Jamaica and Guyana and an investigation of his father’s chaotic and contradictory personality, became a compelling and extraordinary journey into the racial politics and history of the Caribbean, and Guyana in particular. Why did so many people remember Bill Carr so well when his family remembered him so badly? Why had his father cut himself off from his family so completely and so brutally? Why had he wanted to return? What caused his death?

Alternating between meetings with his father’s friends, colleagues, enemies and family members, Carr sets out to answer these questions and reconcile their memories with those of his family. The result is a striking combination of family history, travelogue, and colonial history that recalls Malcolm Lowry, Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad, in which the story of Bill Carr’s steep descent into masochistic self-destruction mirrors the collapse of Guyana under the post-colonial dictatorship of Forbes Burnham.


And here are some reviews that it received at the time:

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‘ Bill Carr embodied all the idealism and sickness of the colonial mind and his son’s narrative is a monumental exploration of the paradoxes of Empire. It is written as if from the pen of a novelist, superbly plotted with a marvellous sense of the intricacies of character and a panoramic view of British and colonial history. Matthew Carr has made astonishing art of his father’s wreckage.’ David Dabydeen, The Times

‘Matthew Carr embarks, literally, on a journey in search of his father. His book combines the skills of a gifted travel writer, a novelist and a biographer. The result is a high-class creation that unfolds with the excitement of a detective story.’
Richard Gott, The Independent

‘ …almost impossible to categorize. A personal biography, it reads at times as a socio-political history and at others as a gripping novel.’ The Times

‘ …an honest and decently written memoir, and Carr junior’s motive in writing it is exemplary.’
The Mail on Sunday


And here is a review that the e-book has just been posted on Amazon:

[stextbox id=”alert”]My Father’s House is a deeply affecting, fluent and insightful meditation on memory, family, and personal identity. It reminded me a great deal of John Irving’s wonderfully melancholic novel about childhood memory, Until I Find You. In both books, the main character goes on a journey to try and discover the truth of childhood memory, and make sense of the contradictions and gaps in their personal history. Along the way, they are forced to contront the flawed humanity of their loved ones, and the positive and negative ways in which their parents continue to shape their sense of identity. As such, My Father’s House unfolds as part travel log, part mystery, part philosophical meditation, part auto-ethnography. Either way, it is brutally honest, beautifully written, and deeply engaging. I was genuinely moved by its eloquence, its tenderness and its profound insight into the fragilities of human relationships. The final chapter provided a particularly satisfying end to a wonderful narrative that will have universal appeal. It’s one of the best books I have read in recent times. Buy it. Read it, and prepare to be moved.[/stextbox]


Let’s Talk about Immigration

On the train coming back from London today, I had a great conversation with two retired Guyanese nurses, who were on their way to Chesterfield, where they had once done their training.

Both of them left Guyana many years ago, as so   many Guyanese did during the disastrous Burnham decades, so we had a lot to talk about, regarding  places and people in the country where I once lived as a kid.   They had spent their lives working for the NHS, and they were deeply committed to the institution in which they had spent their working lives, and lamented the decline of the bedside-oriented school of nursing by bureaucratic micro-managed ‘reforms’ that forced nurses to spend more time filling in forms and trying to hit targets than caring for patients.

With their old world grace, charm, and humanity, they made me wonder once again why soldiers, rather than nurses, are invariably placed in the category ‘our finest men and women’.   Both of them had once been ‘migrants’, who a depraved public ‘debate’ about immigration has reduced to the status of generic intruders, predators and parasites.

In recent weeks we have had an absolute barrage of this vicious drivel, in the shape of an entirely manufactured scare campaign about a supposed mass influx of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants hellbent on usurping ‘our’ jobs and services.

As always, this campaign has been spearheaded by   a degenerate xenophobic rightwing press that is devoid of honour or decency, with a slew of deliberately incendiary headlines on ‘the battle to keep out EU migrants’ (The Express) and ‘ Germany rejects Romania and Bulgaria’s bid to roam Europe without a passport amid fears of “immigrant invasion” (The Daily Mail).’

If the ‘journalists’ who construct these stories are to be believed, Rumania and Bulgaria are inhabited not by workers, but by an army of scroungers whose ‘bid to roam Europe’ heralds an all-out immigrant assault on ‘our’ benefits – the same benefits that are being ruthlessly stripped away by the government – with the support of these same newspapers that propose to defend them against the immigrant hordes.

We have seen this kind of talk many times before, in the depictions of Caribbean immigrants in the 50s, in the Ugandan Asians and Kenyans in the early 70s, in the ‘siege of Dover’ in the late 1990s.     The ‘immigrants’ may change, but the British right remains essentially the same.

And how have our politicians responded to this latest panic?   Naturally they have gone along with it.   First there was talk of the UK government planning a ‘negative advertising campaign’ to try and put Rumanians and Bulgarians off coming here.     Then Lord Snooty tried to win the Eastleigh byelection and take the wind out of Ukip’s sails by promising to prevent Rumanian and Bulgarian migrants from accessing benefits.

These efforts failed, but that failure is almost certain to galvanize Cameron to intensify the anti-immigrant rhetoric,   regardless of what he may say about not ‘ lurching to the right.’

And now Ed Miliband has come lumbering into the ‘debate’ with an immaculately-timed   party political broadcast on Labour’s ‘One Nation immigration policy’ to be broadcast tonight, in which he will once again bow his head about Labour not ‘getting it right’ on immigration, because it allowed ‘too many low-skilled workers’   into the country and undercut local people.’

Well yes, Labour did ‘allow’ that to happen, because Britain is a member of the EU and is not legally able to stop people from coming to the UK to look for work.   Many migrants found work, because the economy was booming and there were many low-skilled jobs available that Britons did not want to do, and when those jobs dried up, tens of thousands of migrants left or returned to their countries.

It may be that foreign migrant labour ‘undercut’ some workers in some sectors – something that never interested Labour too much when it was in power – but their presence also contributed to economic growth and therefore created new jobs,   and their right to look for work in the UK also had – and has – reciprocal rights that allow British workers to go and look for work in Europe.

Labour knew all this when it was in office, yet still tried to pander to rightwing anti-immigrant rhetoric with lots of ‘tough’ talk about crackdowns and deportations of ‘illegal immigrants’, and a raft of draconian and punitive measures against asylum seekers.

Now it’s looking to win votes away from the Conservatives and Ukip by addressing public ‘concerns’ about immigration, which essentially concede many of the arguments the right has been making about immigrant ‘invasions’ and an ‘open-door’ policy.

A more courageous and truly progressive party would take these ‘concerns’ apart, and expose the lies and phobias that surround them by placing solidarity at the heart of the debate about immigration, and by pointing out that the greatest danger to the rights of foreign and British workers – and to ‘our’ services, does not stem from immigration, but from the neo-liberal economic model that has reaped such a disastrous harvest in the last five years.

But then, they pretty much supported that model when they were in power and they remain committed to it now.     And so Miliband, like Lord Snooty and his pals, prefer to talk about immigration as if it were a problem.

But the real problem is the shocking combination of inhumanity, paranoia, selfishness and sheer dishonesty that underpins the depictions of immigrants like the women I met today by the Mail, Ukip, Migration Watch and the Tory right, in a public ‘debate’ that gets ever more shameful and repellent.