Though George Lamming came to prominence as part of the Windrush generation who emigrated to Britain in the early 1950s, he never lost touch with his Caribbean roots. Through his novels and essays he explored the region’s history and politics as colonial rule was giving way to independence, and highlighted the experiences of those who were marginalised on account of their race, gender or income.
His own childhood was circumscribed by racism and prejudice. His first and most famous novel, the loosely autobiographical In the Castle of My Skin (1953), explored his early years spent amid social unrest in Barbados, the island’s seminal 1937 riots and the quest for national independence after centuries of colonisation; it also drew on Lamming’s extensive readings in existentialist thought.
He described his novels as “dramatic poems”, and his first was notably filled with dense, metaphorical imagery: “The water rose higher and higher until the fern and flowers on our veranda were flooded,” he wrote. “My mother brought sacks that absorbed it quickly, but overhead the crevices of the roof were weeping rain, and surfacing the carpet and the epergne of flowers and fern were liquid, glittering curves which the mourning black of the shingles had bequeathed.”
George William Lamming was born in 1927, the only child of Loretta Devonish, a cleaner. He was estranged from his biological father and raised by his mother on a former sugar plantation in Carrington village, an impoverished suburb of Bridgetown. Clyde Medford, his stepfather, was a policeman. The wooden chattel houses of Carrington (which became the Creighton village of In the Castle of My Skin) juxtaposed the well-appointed homes in palm-tree lined Belleville, the nearby suburb where black people were forbidden to enter after nightfall.
Nurtured by an anxious and protective mother who valued her son’s education as a vital means of escape from deprivation, Lamming was a precocious student. He performed well enough at Roebuck Boys primary school to win a scholarship to the elite Combermere School, where he was mentored by his English teacher Frank Collymore, who edited the influential BIM literary magazine devoted to publishing Caribbean authors.
From 1946 to 1950, Lamming worked as a teacher at El Colegio de Venezuela, a boarding school for boys in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and began his first encounters with Marxism. While there, his poems and prose were published in BIM and broadcast on the BBC’s Caribbean Voices programme alongside the work of Derek Walcott, Samuel Selvon and VS Naipaul. He emigrated to London in 1951 (travelling on the same ship as Selvon) and briefly supported himself as a factory worker while writing In the Castle of My Skin, which went on to win the Somerset Maugham award and was well received on both sides of the Atlantic. Appreciative reviews appeared in The Times, The Observer and the New Statesman. The book also won the admiration of literary luminaries such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Richard Wright, and placed Lamming at the centre of postwar Caribbean literary culture.
Wider critical recognition soon followed, as did a sought-after Guggenheim fellowship and more novels. The Emigrants (1954) was centred on the journey of a West Indian immigrant to England and the sense of alienation and displacement caused by colonialism; Of Age and Innocence (1958) and Season of Adventure (1960) examined race and politics in the imaginary colonial and post-colonial society of San Cristobal. In Lamming’s first collection of essays, The Pleasures of Exile, also published in 1960, he addressed issues of post-colonial Caribbean identity, drawing on the dynamic between Prospero and Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and he returned to the theme in his 1971 novel Water with Berries.
Lamming spent one year, from 1967 to 1968, as a writer-in-residence and lecturer in the Creative Arts Centre at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies. In the 1970s he continued his travels in the United States, Africa, India and Australia, teaching and lecturing along the way. He enjoyed visiting professorships at numerous US universities including Duke, Brown and Cornell. In 1980 he returned to live in Barbados, taking up residence at the Atlantis Hotel in Bathsheba, on the Atlantic coast. He wrote speeches, edited anthologies of Caribbean writing and produced volumes of literary and cultural history such as The Enterprise of the Indies, while continuing to lecture widely and debate issues of political activism.
He is survived by his long-time partner Esther Phillips, who became the first poet laureate of Barbados in 2018, and his daughter, Natasha, from his marriage to the Trinidadian painter Nina Ghent. His son, Gordon, predeceased him in 2021.
Besides his love for books and reading (“my oxygen”), Lamming adored swimming, West Indian calypsos, the black spiritual songs of Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson and the music of Bach and Verdi. An accomplished raconteur, he delighted in entertaining friends with stories of his travels.
George Lamming, novelist, poet and essayist, was born on June 8, 1927. He died on June 4, 2022, aged 94