REVIEW: Black Book Swap at the Ritzy, by Alex Wheatle

Picture by Lemn Sissay
Picture by Lemn Sissay

Menacing clouds hovered over Brixton and drizzle dampened my brows as I arrived at the Ritzy for Black Book Swap 5. I featured at their first event, talking about my experiences as a black writer in the UK to an enthusiastic audience and since then, Black Book Swap has found not just a home in central Brixton but a dedicated following.

As the sell-out crowd arrived I could sense a vibe of anticipation as the guest authors mingled and swapped pleasantries with the ever-smiling organisers. All this was back-dropped by the sound of the bar’s coffee percolator that was earning its keep and then some.

Alex Wheatle, left, with Lemn Sissay at the event. Picture by Malika Booker
Alex Wheatle, left, with Lemn Sissay at the event. Picture by Malika Booker via Instagram

First up to be interviewed was the acclaimed poet, Lemn Sissay, who had freshly arrived from the South of France. His exuberance and shock of afro hair energised the venue and anyone who had a late Friday night and a drowsy Saturday morning could not help but pay full attention. Lemn spoke about the books he’d like to take with him to a desert island and also related his passion for emerging Ethiopian writers.

Next up was the tall and measured Lloyd Bradley, author of Bass Culture & Sounds of London. A journalist, Lloyd offered fascinating insights into the creation and development of black music in the capital for the past 100 years. I for one was spellbound as he enlightened us on the making of the very first lovers rock record (Louisa Mark’s Caught You In A Lie) that was played as a dub plate on the legendary Sir Coxsone sound system in the mid 1970s.

Following the lunch break, where again the noise of the coffee percolator sound-tracked every literary conversation, the elegant novelist and playwright, Patricia Cumper, regaled us about her book, Inner Yardie, that contains three plays she has written. She read from one of them, Benny’s Song, and charming us with her rich Jamaican patois to relate her tale, I don’t think anyone in the audience wanted her to stop.

From Jamaica we flew to Guyana as the much-loved poet, Malika Booker took to the stage. Brixton has been her home since she arrived in the UK shortly after the 1981 Brixton Uprising. Surprising the throng, she told us that she grew up reading Enid Blyton and that her present guilty pleasure is reading Mills & Boon romances. One of the books she’d like to take away to a desert island is the recently deceased, Maya Angelou’s And Still I Rise. To bring proceedings to an end, Malika read from her vivid and soulful poetry collection, Pepper Seed.

Following the readings and informal Q & A sessions, books were sold, friendships were renewed, photos were taken, coffees were sipped and the organisers smiled. A great time was had by all and I’m already looking forward to Black Book Swap 6.

Alex Wheatle is the author of Brixton Rock, East of Acre Lane and Brenton Brown among other novels. Follow him on Twitter @BrixtonBard.