For a few years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I had the good fortune to be in a relationship with Clem Maharaj, a former jazz drummer from Trinidad whose mother had taken the precaution of sending him to Europe in a suit made of flame-resistant fabric. This fireproof suit occupied a large space in our imaginations, because it hadn’t really protected him from what came next.
By the time I met Clem, he’d already had a pretty full adult life. Being a professional musician had nudged him into drug use; he’d been through a treatment programme and recovered; become active, with his partner Bernadette, in the radical Caribbean and feminist networks around C. L. R. and Selma James; joined the political grouping Big Flame; become A Worker and got a packing job in a cigarette factory; had three children; had a breakdown; lost the job, the marriage and the sons (or maybe the breakdown followed the end of his marriage; I realise I don’t know).
Some of this distress may have happened because he was a writer who wasn’t writing, but that wasn’t clear yet. When I met him, he was about to start a job with the North Islington Law Centre. During all the time I was with Clem, he fought Margaret Hodge’s Labour council and the Home Office for what we called Maharaj Justice. No council tenant with damp and mouldy walls, rotten windows or a leaking roof, no scared person threatened with deportation, walked away from the Law Centre without Clem’s thunderbolts landing in the housing department or the Home Office. He was very effective. He was also kind and generous, and a lot of people loved him, including me.
We were heady and hopeful, with the times. We were reading Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Adrienne Rich, Earl Lovelace, Marge Piercy, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood; some of us were pretending to have read more Walter Rodney and Frantz Fanon than we had; I was one of the women who regarded The Golden Notebook as a manual. We were active in the Namibia Support Committee, the SWAPO solidarity campaign; apart from all the directly political work, under its auspices we organised an African film festival, projecting the films of Ousmane Sembène, Djibril Diop Mambéty and others from 16mm onto a screen at the Africa Centre.
I was absorbed with the fear and excitement of making films for television; I felt I had a chance to put some of the people and ideas we were involved with on the BBC, and I had no desire to be judged a sell-out – that dread term we used to throw around all the time – if I didn’t do it. I’m sure I took myself way too seriously, but Clem was also serious about his work. The spirit of the times was revolutionary, but I think the fact we knew we came from relatively privileged backgrounds also played a part: his father was a pharmacist and a politician in Trinidad; I grew up white in apartheid South Africa.
We had three or four pretty happy years. Then at some point we decided we would either go to India or buy a place together. Without our even trying very hard, chance threw a huge cheap maisonette in our path, so we bought a place; but we should have gone to India. Our living together ended painfully, and it was my fault. Writing this piece, I’m shocked to find how much darkness remembering that ending and my cavalier behaviour can still produce. So, let me tell you a story about something that happened on a trip Clem and I made.
A friend had lent us a cottage in Lancashire for a few days. This wasn’t the trip where a gale ripped the bonnet of our ancient 2CV station wagon off its catch while we were chugging up the M1 and smashed it back through the windscreen. Nor was it one of the many trips where we discovered that yet again the British army had moved with lightning speed and established a military base right next door to our rented cottage. Okay, this was mostly a joke, but late at night, coming back to an unlit cottage somewhere in Shropshire with the SAS just across the fence, we didn’t feel safe. Taking ourselves too seriously.
On this particular trip we were absorbed in E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, and on our last day we had the idea we wanted to find a mining village and pay our respects (this was several years before the Miners’ Strike). There was no Wikipedia; Thompson’s index was no help with place-names; so we turned into the bus garage in I think Burnley. It was early Sunday afternoon; sunshine was glaring through the glass roof, a music radio station was blaring, and there was nobody around. Finally, the supervisor came out; we told him we were looking for a mining village, and asked if he could help us. We were probably standing there in our dungarees and our Kickers and our badges and our London accents. He said the best he could do was to ring Radio Burnley – which he did: ‘I’ve got these people here who are looking for a mining village’. We were feeling pretty stupid by then; but we did follow the directions he got from Radio Burnley, and we ended up in a place that was blanketed in Sunday afternoon torpor, with three young blokes drinking keg bitter in a Club & Institute Union bar the only sign of life. Not a mineshaft or a banner in sight. Not our finest hour.
Clem died on a Sunday lunchtime in Finsbury Park. He’d been out running, and he was late back; his wife, Jan, looked out of the window of the first floor flat they had, saw an ambulance and a crowd and went down, and found Clem lying in the street. He’d had a theory that running would counteract the effects of cigarette smoking, but it was a very hot day, and his heart gave out. By then all his sons had been back for a time from Trinidad, welcomed by him and Jan in a large house in Hackney, and he’d had a novel published, The Dispossessed. He’d also written several plays, and he and Jan were planning to move permanently to Italy.
I have a letter Clem wrote me ten or eleven years after we parted, not long before he died. He says: ‘I can still recall the first time you invited me around for a meal and cooked half-done lentils. I gritted my teeth and ate them as though they were the most delicious pulses in the whole world. I spent the following day wondering how anyone could like me enough to invite me to dinner’. I did. I don’t remember that dinner. But I know Clem made me feel like I had a place in the world.