The most eventful years in the history of Jamaica and the United Kingdom

The Weekly Gleaner has reflected the changes in the life and character of both Jamaica and the United Kingdom over seven of the most eventful years in the history of both countries. It was launched in the same year as the Festival of Britain illustrated that the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth were recovering w it h some confidence from the ravages of the Second World War, and between the triumphant cricket tour of 1950 and the athletics honours in the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games. The Gleaner was here even before long-reigning sovereign Queen Elizabeth II came to the throne. The first years were low-key. Jamaican independence was still over a decade away. The Gleaner served primarily to keep those in Britain with business interests in the Caribbean aware of events in the region. The West Indian her it age community, the major it y of whom expected to be “home” again w it hin a couple of years, tended to take their news direct from the main Gleaner in Jamaica second-hand from copies sent/brought by friends and relatives.

The Notting Hill riot of 1958 changed that perception. “Immigrants” realised that for better or worse they and their children needed to look on themselves as “citizens” of their new country. They were here to stay and their press needed to be shaped accordingly. The production of the Weekly Gleaner was comparatively laid-back. Self-motivated free-lancers – Theo Campbell, Vivian Durham, Sheila Brown and, slightly later, photographer Eddie Grant come to mind – sent reports on UK-based events and personalities ad hoc to the Editor in Kingston. Some (an increasing number) were published, mixed with news from “home”. Advertisements, of which there were few at first, were collected by Colin Turner Ltd in Shaftesbury Avenue, London. It did not appear to be too onerous a task. Yet because the service was important the Gleaner had an influence beyond the immediate merit s of its restricted circulation. There was no cohesion in presentation.

Contributors, who often did not know each other, had a bi-lateral relationship w it h “head office”. From time to time while on a visit to London Theo Sealy, Group Editor and Managing Director, an august personage indeed, inv it ed the free-lancers to meet him for an hour of so individual chat over a day at his hotel. More immediate requests and information were sent by cable. Nevertheless, these were momentous days. Readership – and activities – rose rapidly on the arrival of thousands of Jamaicans before the Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962 closed the door.The Weekly Gleaner carried the community through the politics of the racially-controversial 1964 General Election and of Independence for Jamaica (and other former Caribbean colonies), the victorious cricket tours of 1963 and 1966, the rapid expansion of music h it s in the wake of “My Boy Lollipop”, landmarks such as the first televised inter-racial kiss in Emergency Ward 10, and so much more.

By 1967 the management in Kingston decided that a specific London office was necessary to meet the new challenge and opportunity it ies, but it was delayed for a decade because I understand, there was not enough advertising revenue from the UK to support the venture and advertisers in Jamaica were not enthusiastic about backing an initiative so far from home. With Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech, the rise of the Notting Hill Carnival, sports triumphs including the cricket World Cup victory in 1975, greater pol it ical and social involvement …. the demand for a more substantial “presence” in London could not be denied, especially as newspapers such as the UK-based “West Indian World” and “Caribbean Times” were making headway in the local circumstances. In 1977 the Gleaner arranged to be represented here by the Kent Messenger Group.

Although the main office and editorial office in Maidstone were considered to be a little remote from the readership it served, the London office in the area of Fleet Street, then the centre of the newspaper industry, provided a handy and effective advertising, circulation and editorial focal-point. Regular weekly meetings of contributors – including Chris Francis, Herma Diaz, Al Croasdaile, Al Hamilton, and representatives from the regions (such as Whit Stennett) – ensured that few stories were missed. The energetic and charismatic Hector Wynter, who had succeeded Mr Sealy in his capacity as Group Editor (while Oliver Clarke succeeded as Chairman and Managing Director), kept a keen interest in the Weekly Gleaner and participated in editorial meetings on his frequent vis it s to London. The Kent Messenger Group franchise between 1977 and 1985 coincided with a series of major events at home and abroad.

The Weekly Gleaner was ahead of its competitors in coverage of stories such as the rise of Reggae to an international phenomenon, and the passing of Bob Marley, the halcyon days of the “invincible” cricket team, the New CrossFire, the Yorkshire Ripper, the nation-wide urban riots, world-wide sporting success especially in athletics and boxing (w it h football on the rise), the “golden age” of beauty contests, and the American-led intervention in Grenada. With its unique position, the Weekly Gleaner continued to carry disproportionate clout. National radio stations – there were fewer local stations then – and television channels were rarely open to people of West Indian her it age and matters of West Indian interest. National newspapers were similarly not interested. Unlicensed (“pirate”) radio gave some competition at the neighbourhood level. The printed press was pre-eminent to the extent that the Weekly Gleaner, West Indian World and Caribbean Times were seen to be “grazing in the same field” rather than competing for their own livelihood. The “crash” came in early 1985.

The economies in both the Unit ed Kingdom and Jamaica had gone through a lean time. There was less money in the “kitty” of private enterprise for advertising. Several publications, including the West Indian World, went out of existence and even the Weekly Gleaner had to cut back its coverage. The surprise is not that the Weekly Gleaner had to reduce but that it was able to survive at all in the adverse ambience. The rapport and “good name” built up w it h the readership stood the newspaper in good stead. The defeat dealt the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher to the Labour Party in the 1979 general election changed the nature of the industry. Denied national influence for a generation socialist and radical politicians became more involved in local activities. The increase in “equal opportunities” investment benefitted the number of newly-launched radio/television outlets. The enhanced profile of the West Indian heritage community in the established local and national press reduced the capacity of the UK Caribbean press for being the “first point of news”. 

“The Voice” newspaper, which was launched just before the “crash”, came out of those of a younger age born here – “black British” as opposed to “West Indian”.On the ending of the Kent Messenger Group franchise, the Weekly Gleaner had to move from Fleet Street to new premises in Brixton – first in the Bon Marche building and then off Acre Lane. George John, a Trinidadian and “giant” of Caribbean journalism in the mould of Theo Sealy and Hector Wynter, was appointed editor. He could inspire contributors, but it was now a different age. Administrative skills, consolidation of the gains made and a steady hand were as important as journalism – perhaps more so.The newspaper industry has changed beyond recognition w it hin the last 35 years. Fleet Street is no longer the centre of the printed press. National titles have been dispersed throughout London. Many have found their way to the new Docklands, where the Weekly Gleaner then settled. George Ruddock, who has been at the helm throughout this time, first as Editor and then as Managing Director, has the distinction of being the first Jamaican to edit the UK edition from the United Kingdom and of learning his skills at head office in Kingston. He is uniquely qualified to square the circle of seeking to provide news of Jamaica to compatriots here and carrying UK news.

These were difficult times. In spite of the ending of Apartheid and of the Cold War bringing optimism to international relations the economic situation was harsh. After its own setback, a fire in their premises at Brixton (which occurred, evocatively, during urban disturbance in the area), the Weekly Gleaner moved to the Elephant & Castle complex. Nevertheless, the team settled soon and w it hin a few years brought out the London Extra free distribution newspaper. Although racial tension/discrimination and a rise of individual acts of violence remained a source of worry, the value and contribution of the Jamaican heritage community were now recognised nationally.Coming into the present century publications of shared commercial or editorial interest started to come together. The Weekly Gleaner and The Voice were no exception and joined up at the end of 2004 – though the London Extra was closed – in shared offices in Stockwell-Brixton, and relocated more recently to Docklands (and later still returned to South-east London).

With so many sources of news, press releases/conferences, and people of West Indian heritage being reported more prominently in the national media, the present editorial task does more in the presentation of features, interviews and the news – presenting a “black point of view” as Syd Burke used to introduce his radio show “Rice and Peas” – than, as formerly, in digging out news that would not be reported otherwise. 

Based in London, the Weekly Gleaner has been located well to observe, comment upon and even participate in the momentous events of the last decade. Not least was the Olympics Games 2012, of which there was much to report as Jamaican athletes, spearheaded by super-sprinter Usain Bolt, and those of the UK Caribbean community gleaned – if we may use the word – a harvest of medals and outstanding achievements. There were also an unusually high number of royal celebrations, including the Queen’s 60th anniversaries of her accession and coronation. More recently there has been more politics, elections and referendum than it is possible to keep pace.Even so, the Gleaner has not forgotten its core readership. Links with ongoing events in Jamaica have been matched by commitment to the very active Diaspora movement, and support for Jamaican business, trade and culture.

Even if the profile of the printed press generally has suffered in the age of social media, television and youtube streaming, the newspaper, while not necessarily punching so much above its weight as before, has been punching effectively in the areas which matter. People, and not only Jamaicans, look to the Gleaner for authority and representation. There has been sadness along with the success. Many of those who played important parts in the earlier years have departed this life in recent years. Among the many who adorned our previous coverage and are no longer with us, I recall Sam King, the first black Mayor of Southwark and staunch spokesman of the wartime/post-war generation; Spencer Williams and Trevor Russell were the bastions of entertainment and business, and at the former’s funeral the latter quoted at the lectern from the Gleaner’s obituary of his colleague; and perhaps the greatest loss, personally and to this newspaper, was that of Count Prince Miller three years ago. A proud Jamaican this greatest of his country’s all-around entertainers never let an opportunity pass at which he could express his support for ourselves and for his island. Then just over a year ago came Covid, the lockdown, working from home, and the passing of Millie Small.

It had the young singer’s overwhelming success with “My Boy Lollipop” which inspired Jamaicans in all walks of life that success was possible and put gale-force wind into the sails of our own sales and significance. My involvement with the Gleaner has gone from just before MBL (“My Boy Lollipop”) to BLM (Black Lives Matter). It has been a long, varied and worthwhile road. So much has changed and yet the parallels with the past are poignant. The Weekly Gleaner was initiated one year before the Olympic Games 1952 and the royal celebration of Her Majesty’s accession the same year and has matched both such robust institutions in longevity. Even the recent ending of the partnership with The Voice is significant. The Gleaner stands alone again, as a signpost from the emergence of the post-war era, through post-colonialism, and into that of post-Brexit. The challenge is still there and our purpose is the same.

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