When I took up work in Nigeria, the day after their Independence ceremony of 1960, I had with me two old British books to introduce me to the country - or, at least, to my seniors' appreciation of it. They were as different, almost, as Cocteau and Baden-Powell. One was picturesque and picaresque, Africa dances: A Book about West African Negroes, published by Geoffrey Gorer in 1935 when he was 30, after a rather Waugh-like tour of French and British territories: he had been guided by Féral Benga, a ballet dancer from Senegal whom he had met in Paris. The striking pictures included a smoky painting of handsome Benga by his friend, Pavel Tchelitchew, who had introduced him to Gorer. Before his passage to Africa, young Gorer had already published The Revolutionary Ideas of the Marquis de Sade and his mood was still dandy-left, rive-gauche, smoothly dissident and shocking. Africa dances is now reissued as a paperback, in regrettably abbreviated form, with no pictures. We may trace in it the shifts and jumps of Gorer's developing political consciousness, dancing uneasily between the back and the front half of the New Statesman. He was inclined to see (and love) his 'negroes' as sculptures, objets d'art, patterns of dance, to be described to British readers in an amoral aesthetic way: but there were spasms of humane indignation at the French mode of government and, as a concomitant, a growing respect for the British system, despite its comically stodgy 'This England' aspects.
LRB 7 July 1983 | PDF Download