Recalled by Clayton Goodwin
The Weekly Gleaner is often omitted from histories of the Caribbean press in the United Kingdom. That is because it is seen as being primarily a subsidiary and off-shoot of the main Gleaner Group in Jamaica, and, indeed, for the first quarter-of-a-century after its founding in 1951 it was administered and edited from the office in Kingston. Yet it has been the only publication to have been around permanently to record the momentous events of an age in which history was made. When it first appeared here in the shops Jamaica had a further decade, and more, to run before the island attained independence. It has seen the host country, too, travel from Empire to Brexit with a lost destiny in-between.
Initially the Gleaner was concerned with keeping the native British public, as well as the comparatively few of its own compatriots here, informed of events and opinion in Jamaica. That changed with the knock-on effect of the Notting Hill riots, the mass migration into the United Kingdom, and Independence, itself, in the early-1960s. Then the newspaper served to boost the confidence of the newcomers by recording their successes and achievements – as well as bridging the distance between these arrivals from the West Indies and the families and friends they had left behind in the home-islands. Yes – “West Indies” – because the Gleaner, a term of respect which became generic for all Caribbean newspapers was a focal-point for all West Indians (and beyond). It is difficult today, when the written press is overshadowed by television, radio and the social media, to recall just what clout the Gleaner had.
The start of my own relationship with this newspaper was not all that clear cut. I became aware from conversations with friends that articles which I had had published in UK-based publications, such as the West Indian Gazette, WINA and Magnet News were appearing somewhere else as well. That source was the Jamaican edition of the Gleaner in Kingston, and I was encouraged to send contributions direct to the main office. Then I sensed that different versions of the same material were being seen in this country. That is when those-in-the-know drew my attention to the Weekly Gleaner which in those days did not have a high profile on the street. Readers had to know where to look for the shops and premises at which it was sold.
Although there were no UK representatives as such, except for an English agent handling distribution and advertising, which kept itself very much to itself, the higher echelons in Jamaica had a keen eye on the newspaper’s progress. Mr Theodore Sealy, the somewhat awesome respected Gleaner Group editor, his successor Mr Hector Wynter, and Mr Tom Sherman, the Business Manager, were frequent visitors. The first-named, especially, consulted with the disparate band of free-lance contributors by summoning us to meet him individually (often at his hotel/accommodation in High Street Kensington). Mr Sealy spoke with authority, and, from my own experience, he and his colleagues kept the promises they gave.
Nevertheless, the lack of a presence at public occasions prevented the Gleaner from sharing the promotional opportunities which its competitors enjoyed. It was clear from the mid-1960s that a permanent Weekly Gleaner base in London was essential. An attempt to establish an editorial office here was frustrated, as I was given to understand, because there was not sufficient advertising income in the immigrant community to make it viable, and Jamaica-based business didn’t see the necessity to support an enterprise which they did not consider to be relevant to its own direct interests. Consequently, the initiative had to wait until 1977 before it could be established. By then a concept of the UK Caribbean/black press had evolved in which the Gleaner was not an integral part.
Although it was boosted by its coverage of the big stories, the paper was kept going essentially by its coverage of local events and personalities. Jamaicans, and their friends, looked into the Gleaner specifically to see if their own names, and those of people they knew, were mentioned. This was attained through the reports and photographs of a large number of (usually) amateur contributors, some of whom developed into (semi-) professional reporters and others restricted themselves to one topic, or even one article, or personal interest. Its very haphazard nature fostered a friendly and family feeling. Everybody seemed to know about the Gleaner, and to regard it with affection, even if they didn’t know where to buy it. Word of mouth was an effective medium.