In his groundbreaking poem The Song of the Banana Man, the writer Evan Jones, who has died aged 95, conceived a new form for Caribbean poetry that merged the cadence and language of Jamaican patois with that of standard English.
Written in 1952, broadcast on the BBC’s Caribbean Voices radio programme in 1953 and published in Barbados in Bim magazine in 1954, the poem captured the pride of a Jamaican farmer who works the land during a time when the huge sugar estates owned by foreign concerns were being replaced by locally owned smallholdings, and records the stirrings of an agitating workforce that was heading towards self-determination.
Part of its last verse runs: “So when you see dese ol clothes brown wid stain / An soaked right through wid de Portlan rain / Don’t cas your eye nor turn your nose / Don’t judge a man by his patchy clothes / I’m a strong man, a proud man, an I’m free / Free as dese mountains, free as dis sea”.
Widely anthologised and still taught in schools throughout the Caribbean, The Song of the Banana Man has been named as an influence by younger writers including Linton Kwesi Johnson, Lorna Goodison and Raymond Antrobus.
Jones went on to write The Lament of the Banana Man in 1962, the year Jamaica gained its independence from Britain, with the protagonist repositioned as a dejected London Underground employee. But he had his greatest success outside Jamaica as a prolific playwright and screenwriter, working with directors such as Joseph Losey, Ted Kotcheff and John Huston.
The anti-war film King and Country (1964), his second for Losey, was nominated for several Baftas, as well as for the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival, and he received the Dr Martin Luther King memorial prize for The Fight Against Slavery (1975), a six-part BBC television series exploring abolition.
Later, Jones’s evocative novel Stone Haven (1993) used his own family history as a means of exploring the complex race, class and gender issues that still affect the political and social life of Jamaica. One of the seven children of Fred Jones, a mixed-heritage farmer who gradually established one of the biggest private farms in Jamaica, and Gladys (nee Smith), a US-born Quaker missionary and schoolteacher, Jones was born in Hector’s River, a small coastal settlement in eastern Jamaica.
Raised a Quaker and home schooled by a governess until the age of nine, Jones was first exposed to poetry through the verses his father recited as he did the rounds of his agricultural estate.
At Munro college, a boarding school in the rural southwest of the island, he studied the Romantic poets and Shakespeare.
Jones attended Haverford College, a Quaker liberal arts university near Philadelphia in the US, where he majored in English and Spanish. In 1949 he travelled to Palestine with a Quaker group to provide assistance to refugees at the sprawling Khan Yunis camp, which had been established following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
He then enrolled for an English degree at Wadham College, Oxford, where he fell in with an influential group of Rhodes scholars that included two Jamaicans, the future novelist Neville Dawes and the future editor of the Gleaner Hector Wynter.
When Jones had a heated exchange with a fellow student who suggested that vernacular dialect was an unsuitable form for structured poetry, Dawes challenged Jones to make good on his vision – and The Song of the Banana Man was the result.
After gaining his degree in 1952 he returned to Philadelphia, where he briefly worked in the furnace room of a bubble gum factory before teaching English in Vermont, New England. He married the actor Honora Ferguson there shortly before moving back to the UK in 1956. In London he drew on his experiences in Palestine to write the television drama The Widows of Jaffa (1957) for the BBC.
A year later he wrote a book on the 16th-century Spanish social reformer Bartolomé de las Casas, Protector of the Indians (1958), and then a second BBC television play, In a Backward Country (1959), which explored the complexities of land reform in the Caribbean.
Jones briefly returned to Jamaica to run the family farm, but then moved to New York to craft the BBC television drama The Madhouse on Castle Street (1963). A problematic project that suffered from delays and cast Bob Dylan in his first acting role, it was finished in London, where Jones’s career subsequently flourished.
Having been impressed by In a Backward Country, Losey approached Jones for help with a rewrite of the script for the horror film The Damned (1962). He also employed Jones to work on Eve (1963), a film about romantic obsession. Their final collaboration was on Modesty Blaise (1966), a James Bond parody that Jones deemed an artistic failure but led to his scripting the secret agent film Funeral in Berlin (1966), starring Michael Caine, following an approach by the Bond producers Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli.
During his time with Losey, Jones continued to address Caribbean realities for stage and small screen. The play The Spectators (1962) explored problematic aspects of tourism in Jamaica and had a brief run in Guildford, Surrey. His ITV drama Return to Look Behind (1963) explored the disappointments facing a Jamaican migrant who returns to the land of his birth.
After writing a short play, Old Man’s Fancy (1965), for ITV’s Armchair Theatre series and then the one-act Go Tell It on Table Mountain for the BBC’s Thirty Minute Theatre (1967), Jones began working with Kotcheff, first on Two Gentlemen Sharing (1969), a film adaptation of David Stuart Leslie’s novel exploring race and class prejudice in Britain, and then on Wake in Fright (1971), which was nominated for the Grand Prix at Cannes, about a schoolteacher who is forced by circumstances to live in the Australian outback.
During the two years it took Jones to complete The Fight Against Slavery, he was also drafted in to rewrite the mystery thriller Nightwatch (1975), following objections by its leading lady, Elizabeth Taylor, to the original script. In the late 70s he scripted the TV movie The Man With the Power (1977), about a black psychic, and the first episode of ITV’s The Racing Game series (1979), based on Dick Francis stories. Jones’s first and only foray into Hollywood film was Escape to Victory (1981), directed by Huston.
He also the wrote the screenplay for Kangaroo (1986), an adaptation of the DH Lawrence novel, as well as the political thriller A Show of Force (1990) and Shadow of the Wolf (1992), a Canadian/French drama about conflict between Inuit and European traders in the 1920s.
During the mid-80s he compiled several collections of traditional Jamaican folk tales that were aimed at younger readers, as was his novel Skylarking (1993); Alonso and the Drug Baron, for an adult audience, was published in 2006.
Following the end of his first marriage, Jones met the actor Joanna Vogel in 1963 and they married in the mid-70s. She and their daughters, Melissa and Sadie, and four grandchildren, survive him.
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