Hello, she said, and startled me.James Berry
Nice day. Nice day I agreed.
On an Afternoon Train from Purley to Victoria, 1955 was written by James Berry, who was born in 1924 and died in 2017. Born in Jamaica and fascinated by words, Berry was frustrated by the lack of educational opportunity in his native country. He recalled helping his father with his fishing nets but, with ambitions to become a writer, left the island as soon as he could. After an attempt to relocate to America failed due to that country’s widespread racism, he set sail on the second ship transporting migrants from Jamaica to England in search of a better life. The people who set sail for England at this time were later to become known as the Windrush Generation, after the first ship that transported the West Indians to England. As a British colony, the UK government had invited Jamaica’s inhabitants to move to England to bolster the workforce that had been depleted by the Second World War.
Through his poetry, Berry repeatedly affirms the need for different races and cultures to achieve mutual acceptance and understanding. Some themes such as slavery and colonialism appear in his work but, overall, Berry’s writing has a hopeful tone. He often writes in conversational mode, as if trying to engage black and white people alike.
James Berry arrived in England on a ship called SS Orbita in 1948. Growing up in a small rural village, he had long had ambitions to migrate elsewhere, further his education and achieve his authorial ambitions. He became the first West Indian poet to win the Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition in 1981.
On an Afternoon Train was written in 1955 so it is one of Berry’s earlier poems and effectively conveys the sense of displacement that many West Indian migrants must have felt, surrounded by people of a totally different race and culture. The misunderstandings that accompanied this are aptly shown in the Quaker’s ignorant questions about the male speaker’s home country.
James Berry worked towards achieving acceptance and harmony between people of different backgrounds. Although he writes about the tensions in the evolving relationship of the Caribbean immigrants with Britain and its society, he chooses to defy prejudice through an emphasis on unity.
Berry writes in free verse to emulate the informal nature of a real conversation. Each stanza has differing lengths but the final stanza is longest, suggesting the ideas contained within it are the key ones of the poem.
Migration: Berry was a migrant, part of the Windrush Generation that came to Britain from Commonwealth countries to boost the post-war workforce. The poem’s title indicates a literal journey but it could also be interpreted as a metaphorical journey between places and the ensuing barriers that might arise.
Communication: Poetry is language used precisely but everyday conversation is full of non-fluency features and misunderstandings. Berry’s conversational mode adds naturalism and authenticity to the communication between its speakers, which is flawed but also endearingly human.
Unity: Despite the differences between the speakers, they are able to share their space convivially and the structure of the poem suggests a growing unity, with the stanzas getting longer and the concluding image of people sitting down around the speakers.
Linking to other Poems
What, you thought that’s it? Not a chance! we have hundreds of Beyond Secondary Resources and you can sign up for a free account here. And why not take a look around at our free resources before you subscribe too?