West Indies Calling: Poetry from the radio feature 'Caribbean Voices'

Listen to poems penned by Caribbean talent, broadcast between 1943 and 1958 as part of the BBC's Caribbean Voices programme – recited here by V&A staff of Caribbean heritage.

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The BBC began broadcasting its regular radio series Calling the West Indies in 1939, as the Second World War took hold. Transmitted across the Atlantic from a studio in London, the programme bridged the gap separating its Caribbean listeners from their loved ones in Britain, who had relocated as part of the war effort. Through the airwaves, West Indian servicemen and women were able to 'call' home, sharing personal messages, war news, and details of their new lives with friends and family listening over 4,000 miles away. For audiences in the Caribbean, Calling the West Indies offered reassuring updates; yet, for their compatriots tuning in from Britain, the programme offered a comforting escape, with its blend of West Indian music and narratives providing familiar voices in unfamiliar surroundings.

Woman holding a newspaper, looking into the distance
Una Marson reading a copy of the West Indian Radio Newspaper during WWII, by unknown photographer, before 1946. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

As the war progressed, so did Calling the West Indies. Under the direction of Jamaican producer Una Marson, increasing amounts of airtime were dedicated to West Indian arts and culture. By 1943, the programme had evolved into a weekly hour-long feature wholly dedicated to West Indian poetry, plays and short stories, titled Caribbean Voices. Combining literary readings with discussion and critique, Caribbean Voices provided an essential platform for West Indian talent – many of whom went on to achieve wider critical acclaim, such as John Figueroa, Sam Selvon and Kamau Brathwaite. In a continuation of her pioneering work on Calling the West Indies, Marson was instrumental to the success of Caribbean Voices. As a writer and poet herself, she deftly orchestrated the programme's content and contributors, giving a voice to those who would otherwise be overlooked by mainstream radio programmes in Britain. Popular with audiences in both the Caribbean and Britain, Caribbean Voices would continue to broadcast for 13 years after the war ended, until 1958.

To many West Indians settling in Britain during and after the war, Caribbean Voices was essential listening. The programme educated and entertained its listeners gathered around the radio, broadcasting a taste of 'home' that resonated through the front room. No original recordings of Caribbean Voices survive, representing a significant loss to the histories of West Indian literature and broadcasting. In lieu of the lost tapes, we have created new recordings of select poems originally aired on Caribbean Voices, recited here by V&A staff of Caribbean heritage.

Two people sat behind a radio microphone. They have notes in their hands
Pauline Henriques and Sam Selvon on Caribbean Voices, BBC, 1952. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

With thanks to our contributors Janet Browne, Noris Connolley, Zarna Hart, Olivia Hylton, and Mia Lewis.

Find out more about Una Marson.

The term West Indies is used throughout this article with reference to, and in honour of, the radio series Calling the West Indies. West Indian identity emerged when Caribbeans arrived in Britain and met people from Caribbean islands other than their own. The region had been divided up along European colonial territorial lines centuries before. In the context of arrival and settlement in a Mother Country (i.e. Britain) that did not always welcome them as a good mother should, unity was deemed temporarily more important than difference, hence the adoption of West Indian identities.

Header image: Radiogram, by Blaupunkt, from the Vanley Burke Archives, about 1960, Germany. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London