Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Maya Angelou in South London

So long Maya Angelou (1928-2014), who died today. The great African-American writer is featured in a mural on a wall by Brockley station, somewhat the worse for wear at the moment, with words from her poem 'Life don't frighten me at all':

'...Tough guys fight
All alone at night
Life doesn't frighten me at all.

Panthers in the park
Strangers in the dark
No, they don't frighten me at all.

That new classroom where
Boys all pull my hair
(Kissy little girls
With their hair in curls)
They don't frighten me at all.

Don't show me frogs and snakes
And listen for my scream,
If I'm afraid at all
It's only in my dreams.

I've got a magic charm
That I keep up my sleeve
I can walk the ocean floor
And never have to breathe.

Life doesn't frighten me at all
Not at all
Not at all.

Life doesn't frighten me at all.

photo by Ben Sutherland

Her words also feature on the war memorial in Kennington Park,  in memory of over 100 people who were killed when a bomb landed on their shelter there in 1940: 'History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again'.

So yes, her words are woven into the urban fabric of London. But what of her visits here?  London certainly played a part in her life. She met one of her husbands, Paul Du Feu, at a party in London in 1972 (he had previously been briefly married to Germaine Greer). Another of her significant relationships was with Vusumzi Make, a South African activist with the Pan Africanist Congress who she met in 1961, and with whom she visited London in that year where he was attending a conference in London. in 'The Heart of a Woman', Angelou says that they stayed at 'a one-room apartment which the PAC kept near Finsbury Park' and that 'London air was damp, its stone buidings old and grey. Colorfully dressed African women on the streets reminded me of tropical birds appearing suddenly in a forest of black trees'.

She also performed on a number of occasions at the Lewisham Theatre, now the Broadway Theatre, in Catford and indeed became a patron of the theatre. The BFI database includes a 1987 Thames TV programme 'Maya Angelou in Performance', a 'Show featuring poet, author, dancer and university professor Maya Angelou from the Lewisham Theatre in South London. The best selling author filled a 1,000 seat theatre for a poetry recital'. I have also found a reference to her performing at Lewisham on April 30 1988. At his blog,  Stephe Meloy recalls seeing her there twice: 'I was blessed to have seen Maya perform her one woman show in Lewisham Theatre in Catford. On stage she was everything I dreamt she would be... The auditorium was packed full of adoring fans, inspired by her message of strength, valour, love and hope'. We also know that at some point in the 1980s she visited a feminist bookshop in New Cross - Bookplus was at 27 Lewisham Way (perhaps this visit coincided with one of her Lewisham appearances).

If anyone has any stories or memories of Maya Angelou in London, please comment.


aridtrax said...

Ha was just thinking to dig out my digital camera so I could post that mural up....see it on the way home from work every day...

John Wilks said...

I remember her in Lewisham - funny, moving, inspirational. "Still I rise" has been a refrain throughout my life. Thank, Maya. We will miss you.

Kate said...

I am sure I saw her at the Ovalhouse Theatre Kennington in 1983/4

Unknown said...

I saw her at Lewisham Theatre twice, in 1987 and at a later date, which I cant remember now. I also saw her previously at Book Plus in the 80s, in New Cross when she was doing book signings. Great memories