Biography of James Berry
James Berry, OBE (born 1924), is a Jamaican poet who settled in England in the 1940s. His poetry is notable for using a mixture of standard English and Jamaican Patois. Berry's writing often "explores the relationship between black and white communities and in particular, the excitement and tensions in the evolving relationship of the Caribbean immigrants with Britain and British society from the 1940s onwards". As the editor of two seminal anthologies, Bluefoot Traveller (1976) and News for Babylon (1984), he has been in the forefront of championing West Indian/British writing.
Berry was born and grew up in rural Jamaica. He began writing stories and poems while he was still at school. During the Second World War, when a teenager, he went to work for four years (1942–46) in the United States, before returning to Jamaica. As he has written:
"America had run into a shortage of farm labourers and was recruiting workers from Jamaica. I was 18 at the time. My friends and I, all anxious for improvement and change, were snapped up for this war work and we felt this to be a tremendous prospect for us. But we soon realised, as we had been warned, that there was a colour problem in the United States that we were not familiar with in the Caribbean. America was not a free place for black people. When I came back from America, pretty soon the same old desperation of being stuck began to affect me. When the Windrush came along, it was godsend, but I wasn't able to get on the boat.... I had to wait for the second ship to make the journey that year, the SS Orbita."
Settling in 1948 in Great Britain, he attended night school, trained and worked as a telegrapher in London, while also writing. He has been reported as saying: "I knew I was right for London and London was right for me. London had books and accessible libraries."
In 1976 he compiled the anthology Bluefoot Traveller and in 1979 his first poetry collection, Fractured Circles, was published. In 1981 he won the Poetry Society's National Poetry Competition, the first poet of West Indian origin to do so. He edited the landmark anthology News for Babylon (1984), considered "a ground-breaking publication because its publishing house Chatto & Windus was 'mainstream' and distinguished for its international poetry list".
Berry has written many books for young readers, including A Thief in the Village and Other Stories (1987), The Girls and Yanga Marshall (1987), The Future-Telling Lady and Other Stories (1991), Anancy-Spiderman (1988), Don't Leave an Elephant to Go and Chase a Bird (1996) and First Palm Trees (1997).
His most recent book of poetry, A Story I Am In: Selected Poems (2011), draws on five earlier collections: Fractured Circles (1979), Lucy’s Letters and Loving (1982, Chain of Days (1985), Hot Earth Cold Earth (1995) and Windrush Songs (2007).
In 1995, his "Song of a Blue Foot Man" was adapted and staged at the Watford Palace Theatre Theatre.
In 1990, Berry was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to poetry. In September 2004 he was one of fifty Black and Asian writers who have made major contributions to contemporary British literature who featured in the historic "A Great Day in London" photograph at the British Library. His archives were acquired by the British Library in October 2012. Among other items, the archive contains drafts of an unpublished novel, The Domain of Sollo and Sport.
James Berry Poems
Some people shoot up tall. Some hardly leave the ground at all. Yet-people equal. Equal.
A Nest Full of Stars
Only chance made me come and find my hen, stepping from her hidden nest, in our kitchen garden. In her clever secret place, her tenth egg, still warm, had just been dropped. Not sure of what to do, I picked up every egg, counting them, then put them down again. All were mine. All swept me away and back. I blinked, I saw: a whole hand of ripe bananas, nesting. I blinked, I saw: a basketful of ripe oranges, nesting. I blinked, I saw: a trayful of ripe naseberries, nesting. I blinked, I saw: an open bagful of ripe mangoes, nesting. I blinked, I saw: a mighty nest full of stars. naseberry: sapodilla plum with sweet brown flesh
A Nest Full of Stars
Only chance made me come and find my hen, stepping from her hidden nest, in our kitchen garden.
A Nest Full of Stars
Only chance made me come and find
my hen, stepping from her hidden
nest, in our kitchen garden.
In her clever secret place, her tenth
egg, still warm, had just been dropped.
Not sure of what to do, I picked up
every egg, counting them, then put them