October 19, 2017

Guyanese novelist Beryl Gilroy

By Venessa Deosaran 

Gilroy shortly before her death in 2001

One of Guyana’s last great novelists and educators Beryl Gilroy, who died of a heart attack at age 76, was a novelist and writer, and one of London’s first black head teachers. Gilroy was a pioneering novelist, children’s writer and educator originally from Guyana, who lived and worked in London.

Beryl Agatha Gilroy (nee Alnwich) was born Aug 30, 1924 in Skeldon in Berbice, British Guiana. She grew up in a large, extended family, largely under the influence of her maternal grandmother, Sally Louisa James (1868 to 1967) an herbalist, manager of the family small- holding, keen reader, and imparter to the young Beryl of stories and a treasury of colloquial Guyanese proverbs.

Her grandmother also took the view that the child would learn more by being taken all over the county with her and being given space for wonder and enquiry, rather than in the regimented system of primary schooling.

As a result, Gilroy did not enter fulltime schooling until she was twelve. It is clear that much of her grandmother’s influence persisted in Gilroy’s own philosophy of education, as she also educated her children at home. This was described as freedom for discovery within a framework of basic skills.

Her grandmother also taught her that people should avoid ‘spirit poorness’ (victimhood) and this philosophy permeates throughout Gilroy’s writing. The experiences of this Berbician childhood are told, above all, in “Sunlight on Sweet Water” (Peepal Tree, 1994).

The prolific novelist always maintained that her decision to go for further studies in England, rather than the United States, was decided by exchange rates rather than visions of Britain. Arriving in 1951, after initially facing problems in finding employment as a teacher, she taught from 1953 to 1956 at Inner London Education Authority schools. It was a period recounted in her autobiographical “Black Teacher” (1976).

'In Praise of Love and Children' written by Gilroy in 1994

Later, she worked as a researcher at the University of London, and developed a pioneering practice in psychotherapy, working mainly with black women and children.

Over a period spanning almost three decades, more than twenty of her books were published. She was also a founder member of Camden Black Sisters, an information and support group set up in the 1980s for black women in Britain.

In 1968, she became deputy head and then head of Beckford Primary School.

Some of her experiences are also in “Black Teacher”, but a sequel never appeared.

In 1982, she joined London University’s Institute of Education and the Ilea’s Centre for Multicultural Education. This ended her direct involvement in schools but opened a new phase in her career, in which she applied her psychological knowledge to her teaching experience.

Later, she graduated with a doctorate in Counselling Psychology.

The death of her husband in 1975 affected her and her children deeply, but she learnt from it. Between 1970 and 1975 Gilroy wrote the pioneering children’s series “Nippers” which is considered to contain probably the first reflection of the black British presence in UK writing for children. But as a home based person in North London suburbia, cut off from the networks of the male dominated London Caribbean writing fraternity and later from groups such as CAM (Caribbean Artists Movement), it was not until 1986 that her first novel, the award winning “Frangipani House” was published by publishing house Heinemann.

Frangipani House won a GLC Creative Writing Prize in 1982. The book is set in an old person’s home in Guyana and reflects one of her professional concerns, which was the position of ethnic minority elders, and her persistent emphasis on the drive for human freedom.

“Boy Sandwich” (Heinemann) was published in 1989, followed by “Steadman and Joanna: A Love in Bondage” (Vantage, 1991), and a collection of poems, ” Echoes and Voices” (Vantage, 1991). Then came “Sunlight and Sweet Water” (Peepal Tree, 1994), “Gather the Faces”, “In Praise of Love and Children” and “Inkle and Yarico” (all Peepal Tree, 1994). Her last novel, “The Green Grass Tango” (Peepal Tree) was published in 2001, sadly after her death in April 4 of that year.

Gilroy is said to have also had a keen sense of grooming, because it added to her self-confidence and esteem. She expressed her passion for clothes during the 1950s being in London, stating, “I dressed up for lectures.” A cotton mix suit was made for her by Nat Gaynes, a local dressmaker in her home country.

Once in London, she purchased a woollen coat and a velvet and scrim hat to counteract the English winter. Gilroy was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of London, and an honorary fellowship by the Institute of Education for her writing and pioneering work as a psychotherapist. (Taken from Guyana Times Sunday Magazine)