Canterbury and Me

I’ve always loved Canterbury. From the 70s when I first moved to East Kent, my visits there were first as a tourist, and later as a Kent resident and frequent visitor. English history had been a major part of my colonial education in Guyana and like many others I was more familiar with the Reformation than our own Caribbean history. I remember being enthralled by the sheer physicality of standing in Canterbury Cathedral, the location of Becket’s murder. For several years my encounters with the city changed, and would include countless shopping trips, theatre outings and my first pantomime at the original Marlowe Theatre. (I’ll admit I wasn’t over-excited by the latter, not having adapted to a British sense of humour, changed now of course, not least by my youngest daughter having just completed a successful season in Ramsgate as Dick Whittington.)

My early visits to Canterbury were accompanied by children in pushchairs, negotiating railway crossings and narrow train corridors with prams, followed by creaking lifts in department stores like Riceman’s where the children’s department and the Ladies were on the third floor. Breast-feeding your baby was a huge problem, and many of us mums thought our ship had come in with the arrival of Mothercare and mother and baby rooms. In later years there would be ballet auditions, music lessons and choir concerts, watching my firstborn wrestle with her violin.

When at the age of 39, I went to the University of Kent, my relationship with the city changed again. For five years I would journey frequently to study for my BA and then MA, years which would also see me develop as a writer. Going to uni as a mature student presented challenges beyond those of time-management, childcare and transport. For younger, single students uni life is a step out into the world – freedom, socialising, drinking and turning up late at seminars. I couldn’t do any of that unfortunately; attempts at joining the Philosophical and African/Caribbean Society proved impossible. I resigned myself to the hard graft of uni minus the fun. However there were some frolics to be had: studying African/Caribbean Literature coincided with my passion for the newly-dubbed World Music, and The Penny Theatre in Canterbury often hosted some amazing musicians in a space where all ages could bump and grind to their heart’s content. I truly came into my own during those music sessions and only the last train forced me to leave before time. Canterbury at night is a different animal. It has its seedy side. Like all cities, its hungry, its lonesome, its desolate wandered the streets which during the daytime offered panpipes at each corner. Dance was another mad passion of mine, not only learning to dance contemporary and African dance and drumming, but also attending performances by companies such as the Rambert and Northern Ballet.

I can truly say I matured in Canterbury in more ways than one. In my first year a dear friend, Miriam, died suddenly just prior to her year studying in Italy. Her vivacity and zest for life is still with me.

The Penny Theatre inspired the title story of my short story collection Canterbury Tales on a Cockcrow Morning, way back when. My first publications occurred during my time there, by Virago and littleBrown, Wasafiri. I ran towards the writing world like the Prince slashing Sleeping Beauty’s forest. setting up and attending Poetry events and running workshops. One day, riding the train into the city I was filled with the thoughts of two prizes I had entered for – The TS Eliot at Kent, and The Guyana Prize for Literature, wondering if I stood a chance of winning either. Fate and luck offered me both. In 1994 Canterbury was the scene of another gift – the first step at the Gulbenkian Theatre on a European Women Writers Tour; together with Caroline Price I was chosen to represent Kent – a never-to-be forgotten experience which re-assured me I was now officially a poet.

My involvement with the city continued to evolve, even as many landmarks changed -the disappearance of Woolworths and Riceman’s, the appearance of a new shopping precinct, childcare facilities, and high speed trains. I have remained enamoured of the city, with literary activities including judging The Canterbury Festival Poetry Competition, being commissioned to write a poem on The Siege of Canterbury, and having my collection of short stories published. One reviewer described the book as a love story to Canterbury, I agree with that, even as I agreed with John Agard’s reflection on the cultural voices I tried so hard to acknowledge and bring to life. The stories came as a direct result of my intimacy with a city that has inspired, educated and welcomed me as part of its cultural heritage. That girl who stood awe-struck in the Cathedral so many moons ago, was just as awe-struck receiving her degree there, grown-up children as witnesses. The tales of pilgrimage, encounter, liaison, sorrow and joy which informed Chaucer’s Tales, informed mine too, but so too did the city, my own encounters, and those of the new voices now adding to the cultural strata of the city.

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