Perambulatory Christmas Books, part 7
BY J. C.
Perambulatory Christmas Books, 5th series, part VII. Not all perambulators live within reach of the metropolis, but here's a suggestion for those who do. On the next free day at your disposal, lace up your walking boots and head for Hampstead. Once there, rummage among the overflowing shelves of Keith Fawkes's bookshop in Flask Walk. Then, walking south over the Heath, follow the River Fleet past the ponds at Keats Grove, winding down to Camden Town. Here, you find yourself in Walden Books, Harmood Street, run by David Tobin, beneath whose floors the Fleet quickens its course to the Thames at Blackfriars Bridge. Walden's outdoor barrows are London's most bountiful: orange Penguins in abundance, Faber poets, Ordnance Survey maps, Livres de Poche.
The poet Sterling Brown, a contemporary of Langston Hughes, refused conscription into the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, objecting to white patronage. Brown is less celebrated than Hughes, but more appealing, more "bluesy", and at the same time more modern. His collection Southern Road (1932) introduced readers to tricksters, "bad" men, Stagolee, a singer called Big Boy. Brown wrote poems to Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey:
I talked to a fellow, an' the fellow say,
She jes' catch hold of us, somekindaway.
She sang Backwater Blues one day:
It rained fo' days an' de skies was dark as night
Among the book's best poems is the one that gives it its title: the Southern roads were built by Negro chain gangs:
Swing dat hammer – hunh –
Steady, bo' . . . .
The hammer rhythm thumps through halfa-dozen stanzas:
Chain gang nevah – hunh –
Let me go . . . .
Neglected in the US, Brown is scarcely known in Britain, so we were delighted to pluck from Walden's barrows his Collected Poems in a 1996 edition, priced £4.