Frank Collymore and the Miracle of Bim

Today, the West Indian novel is an internationally recognized literary phenomenon, and we even speak without hesitation of a West Indian literature. But twenty-four years ago, when Bim first appeared (Dec. 1942), neither phenomenon had any recognized existence. For the fact that we can now speak of a West Indian literature, we owe much to Bim. For those who do not know it, Bim is a literary magazine published in Barbados and devoted chiefly to poetry, short stories and criticism.

With characteristic goodwill, the editors of Bim more than once paid tribute to the now defunct B.B.C. programme Caribbean Voices for its part in the growth of West Indian literature. In No. 16 (June 1952), they wrote: “West Indian writers owe a great debt of gratitude to Mr. Swanzy and the Caribbean Voices programme, to this source more than any other is due the quickening of whatever literary rebirth there may be in the Caribbean.” We shall not quarrel with this assessment. It is enough to say that if there is any other source of that rebirth which can compete with Caribbean Voices for the honours, it is Bim.

And in any attempt to assess the relative importance of the two, we must remember that, except for small tokens in the early years, contributors to Bim were not paid, whereas the Caribbean Voices’ fee of one guinea per minute must have seemed to many of its recipients, a great temptation. Besides, there was the glory of having one’s work broadcast by the B.B.C. For the young West Indian who found himself writing against great odds and because he must, Caribbean Voices encouraged whatever unformed hopes he may have had of making a career of writing. Here were people, whom he didn’t even know, who were willing to pay for what he wrote. But the writer needs outlet and encouragement nearer home. That the writers of quality were from the very beginning so willing to entrust themselves to Bim, without any material reward, is proof of the need which Bim satisfied. Here, in a sense, was the making of the true professionalism.

Indeed, Bim is important in the development of West Indian writing if only because it did much to foster in the would-be writers, the necessary idea that the profession of letters is honourable. This was imperative if a literature was to develop in a society, semi-literature and unliterary, in which a boy was brought up to believe that he had to become either a doctor, a lawyer, or a non-entity. The manner in which Bim greeted the publishing successes of West Indians who had committed themselves to a career of writing must have been a source of strength to the would-be writer brought up in this society. The editorial comment on the publication of Mittelholzer’s early books, for example, was really, despite its quietness, a joyful cry of recognition, in both senses of the word. In it can still be heard the sound of the herald of a new day:

“Sometime in 1944, we received a contribution, a short story, from a visitor to Barbados. The author’s name was Edgar Mittelholzer. The story was published. We discovered afterwards that Mr. Mittelholzer had already had a novel published in 1941, Corentyne Thunder, that he was a Guianese living in Trinidad and that his ambition was to be a novelist. In 1948, he decided to make his home in England. Last year, his second novel, Morning at the Office appeared, and was well-received both by critics and public. This year Shadows Move Among Them has had an equally successful career. And we extend our congratulations to Edgar Mittelholzer who has contributed to every issue of Bim since No. 4”. (this is an error, his first contribution appeared in No. 5). (No. 14, July 1951)

Bim has also been important to the writers of the English-speaking Caribbean in that it has
been one of their chief meeting places. George Lamming made the point over a decade ago:

“In a community like ours, a community which has not developed to a satisfactory degree the habit of reading, writers will find themselves caught in a disturbing isolation, and one of the ways of refreshing their energy and reinforcing the validity of their work is to carry on a free, easy and continuous dialogue among themselves”. (Bim. No. 22, June 1955)