A view by Clayton Goodwin
Arif Ali, publisher, founder and guiding-light of many publications, secured my own career in journalism. By that I do not mean that he was there at the beginning, or even provided encouragement for my early stumbling steps (it was too early for that), but his faith and commission at a decisive moment enabled me to stand on my feet as a professional writer without recourse to income from outside. I had honed and developed my expertise under the watchful eye of the some of the “greats” of the early UK West Indian press, especially Aubrey Baynes, to whom I owe much for building my confidence and reputation, without earning enough to give up my “day job”. At a time when I thought I would never break free, Arif, to whose monthly magazine West Indian Digest I was an early contributor, commissioned me to write a history of West Indies cricket for his landmark supplement in 1976. The fee, worth three-months my regular salary, allowed me to set out on a full-time free-lance career.
This story parallels and illustrates what Arif did also for the UK West Indian press. He edged his way into the scene with the pocket-size West Indian Digest which flowed into the same stream as the West Indian World weekly newspaper founded and edited by Aubrey Baynes. The coming together of two men with a similar vision secured the continuation and future of a business which, in spite of the efforts and talents of the pioneers, might not have survived otherwise. When Baynes, exhausted by the financial and production struggle of more than a decade, withdrew from the fray, Arif Ali took over at the helm. It was the same vision, but a different style and perspective.
The new publisher adopted a new, inimitable style. As well as publishing the news for and about the West Indian / African community in the United Kingdom, Arif Ali developed an international aspect and a campaigning approach. To some extent, it was a blend of Baynes and Claudia Jones within its own individuality. Whatever the merits of the involvement on the world stage, the newspaper scored some heavy punches in fighting against injustice domestically. For example, I quote the Holiday Magic Pyramid Swindle, the most prominent, but by no means only, scam which ruined a generation of would-be entrepreneurs. Here was the press being put to a practical, as well as polemic, purpose. Arif Ali was a workaholic with an ingratiating personality, innovative and imaginative, determined and confident, with a ready quip, adroit command of words, a hustler’s charm, and a winning smile, and he seemed to be two or three moves ahead of the game. His personality pleased many, but not all. Some thought he operated at too high a profile – in other words, in a restricted pond he was “too big for his boots” – and that he publicised himself as much as he did the newspaper. No doubt he did, but could what he achieved have been done any other way? Or could anybody else have done it? That is very doubtful.
When he returned from a year based in Barbados, extending the business in that region, in 1976, Arif was unseated in an office coup by some of the younger staff brought in by his predecessor, and perhaps had not adjusted to the new way of things, egged on by others outside the limelight. As he struggled to pick up the pieces, mainly through the West Indian Digest, and his brief, unsuccessful venture with the West Indian Voice, it seemed that the mercurial Arif Ali, like Icarus, had flown too high, too near to the sun, and had fallen into the sea, never to rise again. If that was so, then, appearances were deceptive, very deceptive. This was but the prelude to the most amazing career ever in Black publishing in the United Kingdom.
The fight-back started with the Caribbean Times and went on throughout the 1980s and 1990s to comprise the Hansib Publishing phenomenon which encompassed the greatest empire of titles and publications this industry has experienced. It is to that stage in Arif’s career that I intend to return later in this series. My own work with him was closest in the late-1970s and early-1980s. Although our paths diverged later professionally, I continued to contribute to his newspapers and magazines until he sold his titles in 1997 to specialise in book publishing. If only Arif and the UK Weekly Gleaner could have come together, in spite of their their different political points of view, in the early-1980s the West Indian press here would have been incomparably stronger. Yet when I pushed the argument with a senior representative of the franchise-holder of the latter he replied “I might have been willing to consider Arif as an equal, but ……” That condescension said all you needed to know. Arif Ali went on his way to become a legend, the other man …
Caribbcommx thanks Hansib Publications for their assistance and use of the photograph.
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