Friday, 25 November 2016
The first time we met we had a disagreement. I don’t recall exactly what we argued about. He had been invited by my university, London Met (then University of North London, where I was a student at that time) to be a writer in residence. He attended one of our classes (I think it was ‘Other Literatures in English’) and something he said didn’t sit right with me. I objected. He returned some comment. I returned another and the teacher, having let us bash words for a while (maybe to his amusement) had to stop us, for we had taken over the class, two stubborn Guyanese arguing over what I can’t remember now - just that this was our first meeting.
It was the beginning of our friendship and maybe why I remember the time. He was not offended but in fact asked my tutor to invite me to a reading of one of his plays at the Tricycle Theatre. He wanted me to tell him what I thought. And I did and always would when he later shared his other works in progress with me. I marvelled that he cared what I thought but went along with it. He too remembered our first meeting because it concerned him that I was the only student to even say something in response to his talk (or whatever it was). The others sat there – listening? I think he wondered whether any of them was also THINKING!
I had never heard about him before that visit to my university; didn’t realise that he was part of that generation of Guyanese (or for that matter Caribbean writers) who had arrived in the 50s/60s to make their contributions to the literary world here in the UK.
Michael was a Queen’s College pupil (1952-1956), as many children from middle class backgrounds were. His father, Neville John Abbensetts was a Doctor, his mother, Elaine kept home and both were very strict. His father didn’t like that Michael chose the economically precarious profession of writing over the supposedly financially sound choices of lawyer, doctor, architect and so on. The dispute between them over it persisted throughout Michael’s life. I suspect he sometimes, very slightly, regretted that this was one of the major outcomes of his decision to become a writer.
With Fellow Guyanese Eric Huntley.
But a playwright he was. At that time when he came to London in 1963 there weren’t many. His first play, Sweet Talk opened at the Royal Court in 1973. From our conversations, I gather he was ‘hot stuff’ during those days, owing to the success of Sweet Talk. His work was fresh and spoke to Britain’s theatre goers’ curiosities about black people being here at all. He didn’t struggle, as he would later, to get his plays put on. The TV drama series, which is how he saw it (and not as a ‘soap’ as it was deemed), Empire Road ran on BBC2 from 1978 -79, the first of its kind, and one of few since that time. He regretted the title which people thought suggested it was a black version of Coronation Street. But by having a fully black cast (predominantly and including different minorities to whom the term ‘black’ applied politically) he was making a statement about the lack of black characters in programmes like Coronation Street, when we were very much part of the UK by late 1970s.
The lead character, Everton Bennett (played by Norman Beaton) was called the ‘Godfather’ which Michael said was not ‘criminal’ but caring. He was morally upstanding, someone in the community to whom others could take their problems. Michael explained that though there were a lot of such black men in the community many writers, himself included, wrote about the angry or promiscuous types for the sake of producing drama. In doing so, he acknowledged “we’re unfair to all the black men who are wonderful role models. And I definitely wanted to portray that with ‘the godfather’ in Empire Road.”
By the time I met him he had written his best works but was still writing, still trying to find that edgy material that some theatre would want to run. But the curiosity of the British theatre goers about Caribbean people had not only waned it had changed. They expected to see stereotypes – yardies, babyfathers, gangs, violence, drug pushers and police chasing these (it was The Bill series time), maybe even a mimicry of the dysfunctions we saw with white families on TV. Michael wrote short TV scripts for the series Doctors but couldn’t keep up with the shift in expectations of what black identities should look like on screen, particularly to white people. He was used to writing strong, confident, independent and full of life, believable black characters and not the smiling, docile characters that prolong in programmes like EastEnders. His characters were funny, feisty and aspiring as reflected in the mini-series Little Napoleons, he wrote for Channel 4. He remarked that many of the black characters on TV were not positive, or their story lines weren’t durable because they were written as white characters by white writers in the first place and then cast as black. One such script ran into difficulties because the writer, who was supposed to maintain a story line with a black character (previously conceived as a white character) said “he’d only lived a short time in Brixton and wasn’t happy there.” In other words, he had no real material to go on but took the fat cheque and thought he could continue writing ridiculous stuff about the character until he was finally stomped.
The day of his wedding to Liz Abbensetts
The one off drama Black Christmas (1977), which I saw once when I was interviewing him for an article some years ago, dealt with the issue of mental depression. The main character, played by Carmen Munroe was trying to recreate a perfect Guyanese Christmas. The family had recently migrated to England. It was their first Christmas, she had made Christmas dinner including the cultural black cake but something was wrong. Her sister in law was in a state of mental depression, which was running parallel to the pretence of keeping up the appearance of ‘Christmas’ and being somewhat ‘arrived’ in the UK. Her sister in law’s depression was in part to do with adjusting to being in the UK but also having to deal with her husband’s infidelities with white women. “I think that what I was really saying is it’s not just keeping up appearances, but that it’s a conscious act of will almost that you have to adapt somehow” in the new space, Michael told me. Carmen Munroe was trying to do that but her sister in law was struggling: “what I liked about Carmen Munroe’s character is that she really was the strong one in the family. She held everyone together by the real strength of her character.” Michael contrasted Munroe’s character with that of Norman Beaton’s, whom he says “was listening to all kinds of white television, about all kinds of things that really had nothing to do with his life. The TV is always on, sort of belching out this stuff. And his wife turns it off, and by doing this she imposes her will on the situation.” He acknowledged then that although things had moved on “there are a lot of black people, even ones born here, who are not sure how to really deal with life here.”
In writing a TV drama about the issue of mental depression as experienced by black people and the taboos surrounding it, Michael was way ahead of his time. We’ve not seen anything near it on our screens as far as I can recall. As Michael said, “we have no idea how many black people – even ones born here – end up in psychiatric hospitals.” He used to visit a white friend who was in a psychiatric hospital and was struck by the numbers of young black people in the hospital. “I overheard a young African asking a psychiatrist ‘why do I keep returning to this place? Is there no cure for mental illness?’ I found this very painful. So I wanted to deal with the fact that there are some black people in our society that we don’t seem to talk about,” he explained.
One of those argumentative Guyanese, who would try to convince you the colour of coffee was green just for the sport of argument, we had lots of hot discussions. I loved all of them, though they sometimes left me frustrated. We had mutual respect and at some point when I showed him my work he told me I could write. He wanted me to complete this play I was actually working on when I met him. It’s still in the ‘why can’t I finish writing this thing’ state somewhere. Besides getting advice on my writing, when he was writer in residence at my university I used to visit him just to chat and hear that old school Guyanese accent. A friendship flimsily built on our shared Guyanese heritage and my aspiration to write developed. In our later discussions, I could tell he was frustrated because he couldn’t come up with new writing material. I had tried convincing him to take a fresh look at the world, perhaps by going back to Guyana. I also tried to get him to write an autobiography but I suppose I didn’t realise fully the mental state he was in.
The happiest I saw him was when his wife Liz threw a surprise 70th birthday party for him. But his health was in decline from then, though it would be a while before this became obvious. The marriage with Liz broke down and broke him a bit. He couldn’t get over it. He had told me a long time before then about his fear of developing alzeimer’s, from which both his mother and sister had suffered. Some years ago he had disappeared and was found wondering the streets, beaten up, he told me, by a man accusing him of hustling his woman. Because he was losing track of himself, forgetting where he lived and who the people around him were, he was put in a home. When I visited him at this home, he tried to get me to bust him out; he couldn’t believe he was there; wondered why Liz, his wife would commit him to the place; thought it a prison where he was locked up for doing what he couldn’t understand. And still then, he walked around with pen and paper attempting to write something.
It was miserable seeing him the last time I did. I went with Uncle Eric Huntley and Ateinda. He still seemed to recognise me from our conversation but became upset when we tried to discuss his condition with the staff. We had hoped to organise some kind of care plan or visit regime. We were told he had become violent to the staff and other residents at the home. He was moved to another, where he could get better care. But I never saw him at this new place. I know I couldn’t face it after the last difficult time. Last time Liz saw him, a couple weeks ago he didn’t recognise her, she said. About a week ago, he contracted a chest infection and passed away peacefully yesterday 24th November.
When I attended his wedding.
He had one daughter, Justine, who will be making the funeral arrangements which details are to follow. His last public appearance was in November 2012 when a tribute was organised for him by Errol Lloyd and others at the Tricycle Theatre, which featured a reading of Sweet Talk. He was admired by contemporary black playwrights (like Oladipo Agboluaje and Kwame Kwei-Armah) for being one among the first to make that mark at the big theatres in the UK, and even by those actors whom he loved to write larger than life stories for, particularly Norman Beaton with whom he was lifelong friends. And by us all he will be missed for his fearlessness in a profession that continues to marginalise many black artists. He told me in that interview I did with him that he never was anxious about getting his work put on (not in those early days) because “I decided I would get it on whatever it cost” and it’s with that spirit of feistiness I shall always remember him.
Michael's last public appearance in 2012, with Jessica Huntley, Liz Abbensetts,Errol Lloyd and Ateinda just visible in the back
Michael Abbensetts June 8th 1938 – November 24th 2016.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Abbensetts for more about his life and works.