My history hero: Patrice Lawrence chooses Lord Kitchener (1922–2000)
Children’s author Patrice Lawrence chooses Lord Kitchener as a history hero
Lord Kitchener: in profile
Lord Kitchener, ‘the grand master of calypso’, is best known for his song ‘London Is the Place for Me’, which he was filmed singing on his arrival in England in 1948 on the Empire Windrush. Born Aldwyn Roberts in Trinidad and Tobago, he was orphaned at 14 but went on to have a long and successful career as a calypso star in both Britain, where he lived for 14 years, and his Trinidadian homeland. He died aged 77.
When did you first hear about Lord Kitchener?
My mum, the second youngest of 12 children, moved from Trinidad to England in the 1960s to work as a nurse. When I was nine I visited Trinidad with her and, while there, was introduced to him. Aunty baby, my mum’s older sister, bought me an album of his and I’ve been a fan ever since. It was the mix of storytelling, humour and music that appealed.
What kind of man was he?
‘Kitch’, as he was known, was always musical. There’s a long calypso and steel band tradition in Trinidad, so I think he was very influenced by the sounds that he grew up with. There was also a lot of energy in the Trinidad and Tobago of his youth because it was still searching for a sense of identity, and some of that energy rubbed off on him.
What made Lord Kitchener a hero?
Not only is he an important figure in Trinidad’s story, but his songs show the way music can document everyday history. Party songs popularised calypso in Britain but Kitch showcased calypso as an art. There’s even a touch of propaganda about the song ‘London Is the Place for Me’, which he sang for Pathé News. Britain’s economy needed Caribbean immigrants and the government wanted to lure them across the Atlantic.
What was his finest hour?
First, his album Hot and Sweet. It’s a mix of party tunes that celebrate carnival, but also social commentary documenting the immigrant experience. This was particularly important for someone like me growing up in the 1970s and 1980s when there was so much negativity expressed about people of African heritage. Second, the way in which he was ahead of his time in talking about ‘colourism’ – prejudice against people with a darker skin, a legacy of enslavement and colonialism – and those people who were of mixed race heritage and wanted to be seen as white.
More like this
Is there anything that you don’t particularly admire about him?
I have difficulty with the gender attitudes in songs like ‘Dr Kitch’. Yes, there was a jokey side, but when he refers to giving a woman “a slap”, I thought “Whoa!”. It probably reflects the casual attitude towards violence to women then, but that doesn’t excuse such lyrics.
Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?
Only in that we’ve both used art in our own way to try to change opinions. I’ve used my picture books to challenge racism in the same way that Kitch did in some of his songs.
Patrice Lawrence is best known for her books for children and young adults. Her latest picture books are Our Story Starts in Africa (Magic Cat) and Granny Came Here on the Empire Windrush (Nosy Crow).
This article was first published in the June 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
Claim your summer book + FREE access to HistoryExtra.com when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed