Speaker Well, it was the 40s and all the male relatives, cousins, uncles, everybody was going to war. Yeah, for me, everything, there was a chance that the women would get a chance until I was probably about 17 going on 18 when the news came over the radio about midday one day that it was an opportunity for women to volunteer. And I sneaked out of the house and I got my bicycle and I went down to the drill hole for two or three minutes. But I got there nearly 30 years ahead of me. And the time they chose the first six was among those and took us through Jamaica. We spent about six months in Jamaica, which was very nice, and then eventually arrived here in the mid forties. And after basic training in England, I said I came to go to Scotland because maybe I was a volunteer. OK, I’ll fly into Scotland. So I served my well is up in Scotland and Edinburgh.

Speaker Why? Why were so many people. Are you all right? Why were there so many people trying to join. They wanted to get out or.

Speaker Of many things we’d been we’d been brought up feeling very British. Part of this great pink thing went around the world and also to the sense of adventure. But I knew anyway from I was even younger. I knew I was going to leave home one day.

Speaker I didn’t know where. But maybe that’s just in the blood out there. People are always going somewhere. But King and country, yes, we did think that in the front. But behind it, maybe they were much more compelling reasons that we just wanted to go, you know, the big part of it. Wow.

Speaker So what I’m curious about is tell me the kinds of duties that you did when you met the immigrants in the forties, right?

Speaker I don’t know. It was early fifties. I went home after the war and then I was trying to get back because I wanted to go to college. I had fun. I had this very strong interest in, you know, people of the world. I was brought up really with Nationalism, National Geographic magazine, and also had a teacher who used to get the newspaper from Jamaica and spread it on the desk even when I was four. And erm with our British education, we were very outward looking and as I interested in people and there was an ATSI mixed with so many different kinds of people and I thought the kind of study I think I like to do is to go to the London School of Economics and do something to do with people. And that’s really what brought me back. I’d wait about three years before I got into the and I was in my second year there when I was hauled out into the colonial office. Now, Norman Manley was a prime minister of Jamaica. I’d come over and persuaded them that these people, migrants coming from the Caribbean, needed some institution between them and all the statutory bodies. And so they set up a liaison welfare thing there. And I was asked to take charge of the women’s desk. And so we had to go to meet the boats and trains and just advise people who wanted to find an address or had problems in housing, not work, strangely enough, because, you know, all those people in those days, they do things that these agencies can’t imagine today. I mean, a woman would go into a shop and say, listen, I can. So you have a job for me or up in the north, I’d get on a bus and say to the bus driver, where does this go? And he says it goes such and such a terrible anastasiya factor there. Yes. OK, jump on going to the factory and say, have you got a job for me? I mean, they got their own jobs. And so that’s what I did. And sometimes, like one night I remember they came arrived at the Waterloo station, I think it was, and all their luggage had been sent to another station. So lots of weeping because they couldn’t continue their journey. So we trudged about London looking for one of these nice places for them to sleep, nothing doing. And I took them back to my own little flat and we all bedded down on the floor. And the next morning they got their luggage and off they went, you know? So you never knew. Besides that, we used to liaison with liaise with bodies in Nottingham and Sheffield and Birmingham. These were English people who like Quakers and other people who had an interest and used to start something there. And then we’d go from this central liaison office to liaise with them and find out what was going on in their towns, you know, so there’s quite a lot of moving backwards.

Speaker What was the racism when what kind of what kind of social political conditions? The black people were there when you had to meet the immigrants. What were the colour barriers or was this discrimination? Was it legal to be racist?

Speaker Well, I don’t. Really, no, personally, I know lots of second, because, believe me, my time in Scotland, I didn’t meet racism, but I was on my own among a lot of different people. And I was very lucky because there was a small British Honduras community there from serving during the war and there was a big Commonwealth students hostel there. There are people from Trinidad, from Africa, and then there were the Scots. And so I really had a ball. I had moving along a lot of different kinds of people. I’d always done that nearly all my life. This is where this is up in Scotland when I was in the army. OK, but I’m talking about but when I came back after the war and I came to London, that’s the first time I became aware about the racism because you could see the cards in the window. You know, it would say no blacks, no dogs, no Irish, no children, but always no blacks. And you knew that say someone would arrive at the station. There were very courageous and plucky and very confident that arrive at the station. They would find somewhere for the night. They’d walk along the streets the next day. And in those days, not like now, you see another black face, your eyes met, you kind of talk to one another. They’d find out where they might say, well, try Brixton, and that person might get a place to stay in Brixton. Then they’d go after the job. There wasn’t anywhere really to for them to to to be guided as to where to go, to stay there, to fend for themselves. And there was the landlords, some of them very good, very kind, all those who took advantage of the situation. But this was how it was. And for myself, I never had any trouble finding somewhere to stay because usually I. I still choose to ask somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody, you know, that week. But I think that that first group of people that came and and you probably have read that the man were put in an old wartime shelter in Hyde Park. Their experience was different. But the people I was meeting either had the address of a relative or they’d come on their own and they just wanted somewhere for the night.

Speaker And the next day they got and just decided to find somewhere to live and work.

Speaker When was the first time you heard about Poirot and you said you didn’t hear about them in a child?

Speaker I never knew anything about him when I was growing up. But in the mid forties, after I joined the Army and I was stationed in Scotland, I used to come down to London, to British and German and X World War. He’s a veteran of World War who lived in Brixton. And he used to take me to a place where there was a group called the League of Coloured Peoples. And this was a group started by a Jamaican doctor who lived and worked in London. And these were people who had their eyes on the independence of the colonies. And they also were aware of discrimination in this country. It wasn’t as bad then, but they were aware of it and they met to discuss all these different things in the name of an Kuruma, the name of Paul Robeson, the name of Sailor James. Nice to hear his name, but I never met him. I heard his music very often and I would buy the records. Now, 23 years later, I’m a student out of the army in Glasgow as a member of the International Students Club. And one day they just announced Paul Robeson is coming and delegated three of us to meet him and look after him while he’s there. And that was a late forties and that’s the first time I ever met him. I don’t have any memory of what we did. I said I just have this image of this man in my head. And it wasn’t until now, about nineteen sixties, before I actually met him face to face. And when I did meet him face to face, that first meeting had gone out of my mind completely. I didn’t even bring up the subject, you know, so that’s when I first met him. And then prior to that of course, there were the campaigns by Claudia Jones and the West Indian Gazette by lots of actresses. What campaigns were this to tell him to get his passport back? I was very involved in that. And there are different groups of people up and down the country, in Wales, in England and Scotland. A lot of them were women. And I think women just knew that it was important. And but there have been around, of course, to and these campaigns were really struggling to go on. And in this very hall where we are now, one of them took place. And I remember the transatlantic hookup when Paul Robeson spoke from the states. And there are a lot of stars of stage and screen and ordinary Caribbean black people and other English people from different organisations. We were all gathered in this hall and we greeted him on the telephone and he sang to us. And then I think it was probably a year or two after that, he arrived having had his passport and there was a big concert in this hall, and I was one of the artists at that time. And that’s when I really met him face to face.

Speaker OK, two things. Were you involved in the passport campaign?

Speaker Oh, yes. That’s what I was saying, that I was involved. I was doing a lot of work on television. My involvement would be fundraising or to cheer up the audience, you know, to I would be singing something. And I remember being invited not only by the Caribbean community and their friends, but by English groups, you know, who would want to to make the Americans know how they felt about it.

Speaker You know, I heard about the Welsh campaign as well that what was what was your impression of Paul when you met him, when you actually met him? What did you think? Well, I.

Speaker I was not at all surprised. To me, it was towering. And I don’t know if I mentioned this to you, but I grew up with the folk songs of my country and the Caribbean, very much a part of my everyday life. I didn’t think it was anything special. And also, as I said, I had this outlook on the world and I was very interested in people from everywhere, you know, how they lived and what their problems were. And so when I heard the music of Paul Robeson, this was like an American folk speaking to me. And when I heard him actually sing, I was mesmerized because what he did was take maybe a song from some part of China and then take a song from some area of Africa. And then he would sing the songs and you’d see the common thread of humanity between these two lots of people. And I had this feeling in me to such an extent that sometimes when I’m watching television documentaries and I would see a little documentary about the Turkish village or a remote Chinese village, and the woman would come out and shoo the chickens and do the very same things, you know, happened back home. And you’d feel the oneness, you know, everybody and I was really built like that anyway.

Speaker So I was mesmerized when he was singing his songs and the fact that he had this very strong affiliation and affinity with people everywhere. This was the amazing thing. And now when I listen to that CD from Moscow 1949 concert he did, this comes out strongly. In fact, he sings all the time with that awareness of his links with people from different parts of the world. And that’s really what drew me to him.

Speaker What tell me about your act and tell me about your thoughts about foxing as a I mean, why? I mean, you told me why you got into it because it was part of your life.

Speaker Well, it was. But what I mean, professionally, you did it. Well, I accident everything with me is an accident.

Speaker I was I was taking part and singing in a BBC folk musical written by BBC producer. And there was a story of a brother and a sister coming back from Jamaica. And they appeared in England just before the Notting Hill riots. And the action of the play goes through the rats to the end. And there was an actor there, Ewan McCall. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him. He’s a one on one of the most famous folk singers. He wrote the song the first time ever for his wife. Right. And he was there singing with this very same song to me. And behind us in another studio, there was a big Caribbean choir because the BBC had asked Rihanna and his wife Pearl to organise a squad because a lot of the music in this folk musical were Caribbean folk songs.

Speaker And so they were singing in it. And the three people in the studio with you and his wife, Peggy Seeger’s sister, that Pete Seeger. And there was a man called Steve Benbow, an English folk singer. I didn’t know that then. But at the end of the play, he came to me and he said, How do you feel about joining my forkful? And I said, Me, no idea what Caribbean women in the middle of an English folk folk, OK? And I didn’t know. But that was the early days of what was called the great British folk song revival. And they had maybe one or two folk song clubs. And as time went by, these folk song clubs kept sprouting up all over the country. And and and this was about 1950, probably 59, I’m not sure wrong or mid late 50s anyway.

Speaker And suddenly there was this scene with circuits all up and down the country. And then you had the Welsh, the English, the Irish, the Scottish and maybe half a dozen Caribbean people involved. Singing, exchanging music, folk songs, taking part in these big concerts, Usher Hall in Edinburgh, Festival Hall, London, and we are all joining in the chorus as if an Irishman is singing. We join in the chorus. And if I wanted to sing a calypso, they join in the chorus. And so we had this complete two way thing going on, which nobody seems to remember today. And that was how I came to be involved in in the folk singing. I heard Lenny Henry say that he didn’t understand how this Jamaican man in the middle of this folk songs could be singing an English folk song.

Speaker But this is what happened. We sang everything. And that was really the peak of my career, really. So I was very, very much involved in tracing songs. For instance, you may find a song that comes from Guyana and it is really a song that maybe an English buccaneer took to the Caribbean. The oldest folk song in Belize where I come from is in fact an English and an Irish tune. And so there are all these connections.

Speaker And they filled my head because I was full of this in those days that well, you know, did you did you ever talk to Paul about your ideas of song and music?

Speaker And I last you see there you see, he was so rare, so many people wanted to to talk to him.

Speaker And I remember he was here with his wife, Ethe, and I think I did shake hands and say hello and had a few words. And we had our photographs taken together on that stage in this place. But I never really was able to have a talk to him about music.

Speaker Even there was so little time. And by then I don’t know where he went next, but he wasn’t long. He wasn’t long here. And I think he was probably at that time becoming ill.

Speaker Know when you saw him in the 60s, you said you felt that.

Speaker I mean, you heard what it was. It was probably fifty eight when I saw him. No, no. Where would it be. Would it be. Would be. Would be the 60s.

Speaker Yes, because it would be about 58 anyway. I remember because I remember very much because the whole scene in England had become much, very different really from when I was here in the 80s. I used to travel all over the country. I was just like he I had that same experience of people inviting me into their homes, showing me hospitality.

Speaker I mean, they may be very ignorant of who you are and where you come from, but they would be giving you this great warm hospitality even while one or two of them might be asking you questions like not exactly what have you come down from a tree, but I mean things that really shocked you and they didn’t know where your country was or anything like that.

Speaker But it was so. So when you met him, it was not when you met him, but when you when he came back, people said, boy, he really tired. He was there. Now, what do you think about that?

Speaker Well, I heard this and I heard this particular conference recently, and someone had been going through all the bits of the play Otello he was in. And for a minute, I myself forgot what year that was. And then I thought, what if they close the newspaper and had a look of what was going on on the front page? Because this is actually a year I myself was doing a play in Notting Hill and it was a crowd of black people. There’s a big cast and green pastures. You probably know all all historical play. And in the afternoon we suddenly looked out and they’re gathering on the street was a bunch of young people, very thuggish looking people. And the BBC immediately stop the rehearsals and told everybody not to leave the premises.

Speaker They would collect us in a bus that night and buses out of Notting Hill and we had to catch our train. Even those who lived there, not enough to go and catch the trains from Hammersmith or somewhere just outside. So this thought suddenly came into my head when I heard a thing about how so tired he was and all the rest of it, I thought, but stop. Nobody has realised that Britain was a different place that Paul came to from the one he left with all that adoration all those years ago.

Speaker So tell me about the difference.

Speaker Compare, compare when he first got there and the adoration and compared to the reaction then.

Speaker Well, I wish I could I could identify with the early days because that’s how it was for me. I spent a lot of time in people’s homes being. Invited to spend the weekend being invited everywhere, and as I said, there was this warmth of people who really took to me and I just have one spirit takes to you, spread, talk to you what we see at home. And there was this kind of warmth. But when I came back, you remember I said after the war, when I came back this time I came to England. And this is a time you could you could see the difference. You could see those cards. You see those rejection. You knew about people going after phoning up and saying their name is Cambell MacTavish or whatever it is going to the house. And then all of a sudden the room is gone. You know, you knew all these kinds of stories. So although it was quite diffuse and very ignorant, it wasn’t quite they weren’t quite persuaded to turn that ignorance into a kind of antipathy that that gradually began to harden till you got the years of, you know, people in the 60s. And people began to really show that it became respectable to show how you felt. And so there was that change. I don’t know. I wasn’t with Paul at that time. I don’t know what he felt and what he thought. But if he had come the year of the Notting Hill riots and had heard and seen, I’m sure you’d have been despondent. You know, I don’t know what his own personal experiences were. And I said he could have been ill. But when he was on that stage, I didn’t see anything of that about him, you know, because that’s the main element, isn’t it? The singing?

Speaker Yeah. Yeah. Although then it was acting. And I mean, I am a person who has always gone through life.

Speaker I started off as a pupil, teacher and once a teacher, always a person, gone through life in this country educating people with a lot of love, but always telling them, no, this is who I am. No, that is not so. This is really how it is. I mean, I found myself doing it spontaneously until now. I am, what, 73? And I stopped doing that to a certain extent because I live a kind of reclusive life now and I watch and listen to everything that’s going on. But I feel I’m on the verge of emerging again because it seems as though something in me is waking up again and saying, you know what, Paul? What about Paul?

Speaker But what is it you want to know about him that he gave and he opened up in the early days?

Speaker And I would think he had the same experience I had when I was in the army. But people everywhere showed you, especially as he was on the stage and he was giving them so much pleasure. I would think there are many people who warmed to him and wanted to look at look at what happened in Wales. I mean, he became so beloved of the people in Wales that to this day there are people there who will talk about him with great warmth and love.

Speaker OK, but but but when he came back in the late 50s, he still was prepared to give. But what you’re saying he didn’t they didn’t give it back?

Speaker Well, what I saw on this stage here that he certainly gave and when I saw the people who are fighting for him to get his passport and get out of the state, they care very much about him. And my impression that he was that sort of a man, you know, that people who saw him and heard him just gravitated towards him, you know, so I can’t imagine he must have been ill. Those who say that he was tired, there must have been something happening with him, whether it was in the context of the new attitudes in the society or he himself was having personal problems or he was feeling ill. I can’t tell you because I wasn’t that close to him.

Speaker OK, did you know or did you get to talk to her?

Speaker I met her formally. I never I never said I was working. I was travelling myself doing a lot of television at the time, going to Scotland, quite often flying to Scotland and coming back. I wasn’t sort of settled down. I was I was.

Speaker When you met her, what did you think of her?

Speaker I didn’t think anything. I just saw her as his wife. And then I later read about her in books, his wife.

Speaker One last question.

Speaker Yes, it is said that Paul had relationships with a lot of women.

Speaker Did you hear about that? Well, I would I would say I would say a lot of women would have wanted to have a relationship with him.

Speaker I mean, like, you look at you.

Speaker I mean a man I mean a very good looking man, full a vibrant man, you know, and who was interested in people.

Speaker And when you are in the theatre and you are working closely and intimately with somebody, for instance, and you have love scenes. It doesn’t always happen, but depending on how much affinity you find with that person, how much you connect together, it could easily happen if you let it. But I would say there are women who go out of their way also to make it possible. And it’s just a question of him shutting his eyes and stepping over the bodies or choosing to taste, you know, this is how it is. But I certainly don’t think Paul was a womanizer. I mean, my father was a womanizer. And I know all about womanizing. And that’s a totally different picture because this is a thing of women’s flesh is one of the pleasures. Like I like he liked writing and he liked cricket and he liked sports and all the rest of it. And he was very attractive, you know, but women’s flesh and a pleasure to love more was one of the greatest things imaginable pleasure to him as well. And there were women everywhere for my father and say no.

Speaker But that’s what I’m saying to you. I know what womanizing in.

Speaker And I could never call Paul Robeson a womanizer. I would say that lots of women gravitated towards him and he may have been attracted to to some of them, but I wouldn’t say he was a womanizer. I mean, my father was a womanizer. And I saw the the effect of that when I went home from the war, because quite often when I went back and I used to want to eat up the country, I used to say if I stood still in this country, I’d just raise my voice and say the name got to all over the country.

Speaker You know, I had half brothers, half sisters. You know, that’s a womanizer. What else?

Speaker Well, basically, you covered everything. I hope so.

Speaker With everything and anything else you want to say?

Speaker I don’t know. Because you see, at the beginning, I felt I knew so little about him. I mean, his is his present in my mind, but I knew little about him. And I had no opportunity to go, for instance, because I was working and travelling to go somewhere where they might have had a reception for him and you could sit down over a drink and have something to talk about. I couldn’t tell you I had a real conversation with Paul Robeson.

Speaker So my knowledge is very scant. I can tell you that you told me about what it was like for people coming here.

Speaker Yes, it did. Yes. You know. Yes.

Speaker OK, what about the competition? What they want to sort of music and people singing together? Yeah.

Speaker No, no. That was something else that was to do with the Wimpier and Bob Dylan songs were very much. But you know what I’m saying? This is my repertory. I didn’t sing with Paul. I know. Because when that night was one of the things I told you would take a song from a certain country far away like the Far. And I saw me. His song spoke of the the the struggle and the pride and the dignity of people and the adventures of people. And he would take a song from any part of the world and he would then take a song from another part of the world and he would just open the eyes of his audience to the fact that those people, although they’re very different kinds of people, very different colors, different cultures, yet they had something in common with one another.

Speaker And I think that’s what he stood for to me.

Nadia Cattouse
Interview Date:
American Archive of Public Broadcasting GUID:
"Nadia Cattouse , Paul Robeson: Here I Stand" American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). July 27, 1998 ,
(1 , 1). Nadia Cattouse , Paul Robeson: Here I Stand [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET).
"Nadia Cattouse , Paul Robeson: Here I Stand" American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). July 27, 1998 . Accessed June 5, 2023


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