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Remembering Cy Grant

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Kurt Barling | 16:28 UK time, Sunday, 28 February 2010

Cy Grant has died after a brief illness at the age of 90. He was born on November 8 1919.

Back in 2007 the Museum in Docklands launched its controversial permanent exhibit of London's considerable role in the Slave Trade.

The great-grandson of a Guyanese slave, Cy Grant, was on hand to dispense wisdom and a famous face, as is the way with modern marketing. But it didn't take long in conversation to realize that the first black man to appear regularly on the BBC was a multi-layered talent who'd navigated an extra-ordinary personal journey through life.

He told me about a recent set of correspondence with a Dutchman who'd been trying to track down the location of his Lancaster and the surviving crew, Cy was the Lancaster's navigator.

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I thought "there's a story" and invited him to come back to Holland with the BBC. Despite his advancing years, he was 88, he jumped at the chance. More on that later.

Cy sang regular Calypso current affairs updates on the BBC's Tonight programme which was launched in 1957 and presented by Cliff Michelmore. It made him a well-known face in British homes. He tired of what he later described as being typecast as a one-dimensional troubadour with his popular refrain: "We bring you the news that you ought to know/In Tonight's topical calypso".

A direct contemporary of Harry Belafonte, pictures show he had just as commanding a presence at 6ft 2in, and it is little surprise he went on to feature in films and television productions.

Born into an upper middle-class family in the village of Beterverwagting in British Guiana (now Guyana) on the South American mainland, Cy was one of seven children of a Moravian minister and a music teacher. When he was 11 the family moved to New Amsterdam, Berbice.

Grant wrote in later life of the profound influence of his father on his life. A man revered by all, Grant was in awe of his father to the end. He was proud of the extraordinary man he believed his father was. Grant senior was born in Victorian times but with a very modern understanding of the dilemmas facing colonial society.

His father nurtured in him a love of books but also of the importance of black figures in the development of western civilisation. His father impressed upon him that Alexander Pushkin and Alexandre Dumas had black ancestors. The Moravian minister also impressed upon a young grant that Toussaint l'Ouverture who led the revolution in Haiti was a great leader.

This informed his worldview throughout his life that unity and strength comes through diversity.

Following the huge losses at the Battle of Britain, Commonwealth volunteers became a lifeline for a country almost on its knees. Cy Grant was one of over 440 young men from the Caribbean recruited as RAF aircrew from 1941 onwards. After navigator training Grant was commissioned as a Flight Lieutenant, one of the few black officers in the services.

Assigned to 103 Squadron of Bomber Command based at Elsham Wolds, Lincolnshire, he had flown just three missions to the Ruhr valley as a Lancaster Navigator when his aircraft was attacked over Holland.

Grant recalled the desperate efforts to evacuate the plane, but before the crew could get out of the poorly designed escape hatch, the aircraft exploded. Grant described the sensation of coming to a falling through space then seeing a dark shadow getting ready to swallow him up. Just in time he realised it was Dutch soil.

In the depths of war eventually Cy had been picked up by the Dutch police and handed over to the Gestapo who packed him off to Stalag Luft III, scene of The Great Escape later in the war.

After the war Grant retrained as a barrister at Middle Temple, qualifying in 1950. Being black made it difficult to find clients and instead he turned to acting in order to make a living.

A successful audition for Laurence Olivier and his Festival of Britain Company led to appearances in London's West End and at the Zeigfeld Theatre in New York. The absence of roles for black actors, made Grant develop all round talents which saw him performing as singer, and accomplished guitarist.

He appeared in a number of films including "Sea Wife", alongside Richard Burton and Joan Collins, "Shaft in Africa" (1973) and television drama like "Blakes Seven" (1979).

In 1965 he played Othello at the Phoenix Theatre, Leicester, the first black man to do so since Paul Robeson and theatre became a new passion for Grant. In 1974 he become the co-founder of the Drum Arts Centre, Britain's first black arts centre, which provided a showcase for black acting talent and challenged the mainstream arts sector to recognise the paucity of opportunities for the vibrant offerings of new communities.

During the 1980s he was director of the Concord multicultural festivals which sought to foster improved race relations in an increasingly diverse society.

So back to that story of the Dutchman. After 65 years, Cy returned with me to the village in the Netherlands where he floated dazed to earth. On that trip he recalled the absurdity of thinking he could escape through Europe to Spain. A black man in occupied Europe had no means of disguise.

I wanted to capture the emotion of the Dutch who revere allied aircrews as their liberators. Incredibly the farm where he was taken to have a head wound treated still existed. Cy remembered the farmer's pregnant mother, the farmer himself the unborn baby!

As an 11 year old one local man Joost Klootwijk rushed to the scene of the crash. In later years he was so determined to flesh out that childhood memory and find out what happened to the crew, that he spent his early retirement reconstructing the events of Flight W4827. He made contact with Cy in around 2007.

When they finally met during BBC filming, Joost was overcome with emotion several times just being in the presence of a man he had pictured in his mind as a real life hero since he was a boy. The tears flowed freely. I know Cy was humbled by the esteem in which RAF aircrew are held by the Dutch and rather regretted RAF personnel had not been recognised in this way at home.

Part of his enduring desire was to see proper recognition for the RAF aircrew that lost their lives over Europe in WWII. He remained a firm supporter of the Bomber Command Memorial Appeal which still seeks to raise a monument to aircrew somewhere in London. He told me that in his view it would be a memorial for peace for that is what his comrades died for.

Never one to rest on his laurels on returning from the Netherlands Cy Grant wanted to see if it was possible to use the internet to gather information on Caribbean aircrews.

With the help of Hans the son of Joost Klootwijk who'd witnessed the Lancaster crash they begun to compile a permanent online archive of Caribbean aircrew in the RAF. It occupied much of the past eighteen months of grant's life. Hans Klootwijk says the site is regularly updated and through this the contribution of Cy grant's generation will never be overlooked again.

One of the curious by-products of Cy's RAF experience was the 1960s ITV marionette series, "Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons". The series creator Gerry Anderson had lost his own brother over Holland in world war two and he drew on Cy's personal qualities to develop one of the first positive black fictional characters in children's television. In 2068 these were the qualities deemed necessary by Anderson to defeat the Mysterons. He was never afraid of pop culture.

Cy's meliflous tones gave lieutenant green, the black defender of planet earth alongside captain scarlet, a serene and heroic quality. Cy looked back on that series, essentially an allegory of the battle between good and evil, with great fondness. Ever the practical man he recently told me that Lieutenant Green had kept him well fed into retirement.

Grant wrote a memoir Blackness and the Dreaming Soul (2007) which shed light on some of his frustration as a West Indian living in Britain. He long believed that his skin colour had limited his ability to reach his full potential. He was torn between being raised in Empire but perceived as a perpetual outsider.

Grant never tired of trying to resolve this inner conflict. His intellectual inspiration increasingly derived from his admiration for the great French Caribbean scholar and politician, Aime Cesaire. Grant saw Cesaire's cahier d'un retour au pays natal (notebook of a return to my native land) as a blueprint for enlightened action for minorities in Western societies. In essence they have to know where they are from in order to make peace with the society in which they exist.

This interest in Cesaire dovetailed with an interest since the 1970s in Tao Te Ching which offered grant a way to reconcile his feelings of being a perpetual outsider in British society. He described it as offering him a path to spiritual wholeness.

An event sponsored by the Attorney General, the Rt Hon Patricia Scotland, will pay tribute to Cy Grant and Caribbean aircrews at the House of Lords on March 4th.

Cy Grant is survived by his wife, Dorith, their four children and his grandchildren.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    I was delighted to see Kurt Barling's warm commemoration of Cy Grant, who was very much part of my childhood.I used to adore his Calypso performances on the BBC 'Tonight' show so it is very sobering to learn that throughout his marvellously full life he always felt 'an outsider'. To me he was just'part of the family',half a century ago. Looking back I now realise that Cy's TV appearances were probably my first extended exposure to a black person,although I never thought about it in those terms at the time, at least initially. At first he was just a star.But I was into rock'n'roll, Jazz and blues with plenty of other black musical heroes just when their place in American life was being placed in the spotlight by the mighty Civil Rights struggles, which made a huge impact on me.I suppose in some oblique ways Cy's manifestly talented presence on our TV screens steadily reinforced my anger at the multiple injustices faced by black people not just in the USA but elsewhere,including Apartheid South Africa and here in 'Colour Bar' Britain. This was brought home to me very forcefully by such events as the Notting Hill 'Race Riots' in 1959, followed by the Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa the following year, just when Cy was at his 'Tonight'peak.

    I always loved his soft Caribbean accent and relaxed manner , which even then I thought pretty cool, perhaps the wrong word given the warmth of his voice and personality. The more I became aware of issues such as discrimination and 'racialism', as it was then called, the more it seemed a very positive statement to see Cy Grant perform night after night on the BBC. He had a very strong but benign presence and appeared to embody some kind of deep ancestral wisdom.

    Now I know more about him thanks to Kurt Barling's excellent commemoration I realise that I would have regarded Cy as even more of a hero if I'd known back in the Fifties that he had been shot down in a Lancaster bomber in World War 2. I used to avidly read such books as 'The Dam Busters' and 'Enemy Coast Ahead' as a kid and had a very high regard for those that risked their lives in such terrifying missions. I applaud the attempts to honour their memory and would like to echo Cy's sentiment that this should be seen as a Memorial for Peace.

    Just as it's upsetting that Cy never stopped feeling an outsider, it's even more sad that he also felt he was never able to fulfill his potential, which at one level is tragically true, given the impediments he faced at different times in his life. But that shouldn't stop us marvelling at the astonishing range of his achievements in so many different areas. Let us all remember his life as an inspiration towards a greater fulfilment of his dream of strength through diversity, something he embodied in his own richly varied life.

 

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