It was with shock that I learned last week of the death of the poet Landeg White, at his home in Portugal. He was seventy-seven years old. Landeg, who was born in Taff’s Well, near Cardiff, published around a dozen poetry collections, three of them with Parthian, and I had a lot of fun working with him on his Selected Poems, Where the Angolans are Playing Football (2003). He went on to publish two further collections with Parthian and did two historical novels with Cinammon: Livingstone’s Funeral (2010) and Ultimatum (2018). He is also the author of scholarly works in the area of African Studies. Perhaps he is best known for his superb translations of Camões, including Portugal’s national epic, The Lusíads, which won the TLS poetry translation prize in 1998. Although I did not know Landeg especially well, I certainly counted him as a friend and we spent time together in Cardiff, and later, in 2003, on a rather strange British Council tour of Portugal, which was scheduled to terminate in a reading at the glorious Lello bookshop in Porto (made famous as the inspiration for the shifting staircases in the Harry Potter stories). The reading never took place, as the bookshop was about to close when we turned up, not having been informed of our event by the BC. Instead we retired to a restaurant on the banks of the Douro and had a memorable evening of good food and wine and conversation, at each of which Landeg was an adept.
Landeg lived much of his life in Africa, during the era that followed the final collapse of imperial rule and he was a thorn in the side of more than one African dictator. Deported from Malawi in 1972, he lived and worked in several African countries before settling in Portugal, where he spent the latter part of his life.
His poetry addresses both the political and the personal in equal measure, usually in poems with a disciplined approach to form but bursting with colour and visceral energy.
Now that he is gone I wish I had known him better.
An obituary appeared in The Guardian on 22 January, written by his friend Hugh Macmillan. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jan/22/landeg-white-obituary
Below is one of my favourites from Landeg’s work, in the style of a West African praise poem, addressed – with a dollop of gleeful irony – to himself:
(for my African age-mates)
I climbed the old elm tree and read William books in the rook’s nest,
My knee stuck in the pulpit rail: for once the congregation laughed,
The missionary told of the poison ordeal. I was spellbound in the cub hut,
I won the match by slicing a six off the back of the bat over backward point,
I cycled a hundred miles precisely to Nettlebed and back to town,
I planted crotons, a whole hedge in thirty-two varieties,
I scored Sparrow’s Melda for the steelbands’ Panorama,
I made love to the circuit-minister’s wife in a dark corner of the canefield,
I decamped from the island under an arch of leaping dolphins,
Baboons jumped on my steaming bonnet as I stalled on the escarpment,
I crossed the longest bridge at dusk, reading of a new country,
I found her on a sand dune where a coconut palm strained at its bole,
She to whom all metaphors return was outlined with chevrons,
She stretched like a tigress, adorned with her stripes,
I watched the Beetle spinning downstream, swept from the flooded causeway,
My dugout parted the hyacinths in search of the hidden history,
When the armed guerrillas ambushed us, I said Oh, there you are,
From four jobs I resigned,
From the fifth the President deported me, without rhyme or explanation,
I helped at my son’s birth: he came out looking dumbfounded,
My proudest expedient, bribing our baby on to the plane!
The professor rang at midnight: my poem was a masterpiece,
I designed and built a kitchen to a millimetre’s calculation,
I knuckled down to fifteen years of mortgages and pension,
I campaigned for my dear friend to step forth like Lazarus,
My vine, in Viking territory, was a miracle of survival,
My garden exploded in poppies and cornflowers: autumn blazed in nasturtiums,
He wrote marvellously of his resurrection: it was I gave the writing space.
They shook hands, enemies to the vein,
They shook hands and reminisced across my conference table
(The student wrote: thank you, who else could we have got drunk with?).
As a scholar, I set the paradigm: as a poet, I found my niche.
Let these praises float from my window, setting fires where they will.