Published: 30 June, 2011
by JOHN GULLIVER
The unveiling of a plaque on Tuesday afternoon turned out to be pure theatre – of the best kind.
I have been at dozens of underwhelming plaque ceremonies over the years. Praise is made of whoever is emblazoned on the plaque, followed often by a speech by a political celebrity. Well ordered – and rather dull.
But the plaque fixed to the wall of a first floor flat in Somers Town where George Padmore had spent his life writing and plotting against the British Empire and other colonialist powers inspired a ceremony full of surprises.
And it wasn’t just because of the theatrical backdrop of thunder and a heavy downfall.
It began with a service by an eminent educationist, Gus John, an ordained follower of the ancient West African religion, Ifa, which preceded the birth of Christianity.
Resplendent in an African costume, Mr John sprinkled onto the pavement part of a bottle of the best Trinidad rum – Padmore came from the island – while intoning eulogies to famous African and Caribbean writers and activists who had opposed colonialism in the past century.
Unfortunately, I never got a sip of it as it was passed around the large group who had gathered outside the block of flats in Cranleigh Street.
Nor am I sure that High Commissioners of Ghana and Trinidad and Tobago or Camden’s mayor Abdul Quadir sipped it either.
But the religious ritual, followed by enchanting reminiscences from people who had known the great man, Padmore, brought a warm touch often absent from a typical unveiling ceremony.
Along came a poem by Zita Holbourne in praise of Padmore the “liberator”, a poem that had come to her that morning. There were a few moments from Nina Baden Semper, who starred in several TV series including Love Thy Neighbour and turned out to be distantly related to our “revolutionary” hero.
And then there were memories from Selma James, wife and “soul-mate” of the celebrated writer and left intellectual, CLR James who worked with Padmore in the 1950s. Historian Marika Sherwood, who is researching Padmore also spoke, and there were snippets of political wisdom from the London Assembly member Jennette Arnold, who had found the works of Padmore while searching for her own black identity.
Mingling in the crowd I also saw newsreader Moira Stewart, an admirer of Padmore, and Corinne Carter, another TV and film actor.
It was at the end of an hour that the threatening clouds finally burst to the accompaniment of thunder... and still the final ceremony hadn’t been reached.
But undeterred, as if it was a sunny day, the tall figure of Dr Aggrey Burke, a consultant psychiatrist and vice-chairman of the George Padmore Institute, delivered the final speech about a man whose legacy had included the creation of pioneering Saturday literacy schools voluntarily run for Caribbean children.
“George Padmore was a true son of the Caribbean and a champion of the newly liberated world,” he concluded.
And then, amid the thunder and the downpour, the crowd rushed into cars heading for a reception laid on in the mayor’s parlour – all pure theatre that left me reflecting on an intriguing political thinker who had spent years of his life in a small, undistinguished flat in Camden, pouring out articles and books that had helped to bring down empires.