I’ve admired the work of Paterson Joseph, actor, for a long time – most recently in Noughts and Crosses and Vigil both for BBC TV. He does imperious authority very well. He won’t remember it but I met him once too – at a charity event. He was about to play Julius Caesar for the RSC in 2012 and told me about it.
I was intrigued, therefore to see that this multi-talented man, who wrote a book Julius Caesar and Me about that production of Julius Caesar has now penned a historical novel The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho.
Sancho was the first black man to vote in a British general election in the late 18th century because, despite a chequered past, he was eventually able to buy property which at that time gave him the right to vote.
Sancho knew people like David Garrick, Samuel Johnson and William Hogarth as well as being sponsored by Lord Montagu. Paterson and Sancho go back some time. He has performed his 2011 one man play about Sancho’s life An Act of Remembrance (published in the Oberon Modern Plays series) all over the country so I suppose a novel to explore further what an actor might call the “back story” is a logical progression.
The diary format takes the form of letters to Sancho’s son Billy. We read about Sancho’s possible parentage and birth on a slave ship. Slavery runs through this novel like an ugly dark thread. In real life the older Sancho became a very active abolitionist. As a child he was taken in by three women in Blackheath – effectively, chillingly fleshed out in this novel as is the slave catcher, Jonathan Sill, prowling London looking for black people to send forcibly to the plantations.
In Paterson’s take on it, Sancho’s fortunes do a lot of dramatic rising and falling before he eventually settles very happily down with his wife, Anne Osborne, and gets enough work to keep his growing family in their own home. I don’t think there is any evidence that it actually happened by I enjoyed the account of Sancho’s persuading Garrick to let him play Othello for one night. It’s well informed, of course. Paterson played Othello at Royal Exchange Manchester in 2002 and 2007.
One of Sancho’s talents is music – he composes and teaches. And I was delighted to hear some of his work featured on Radio 3’s The Early Music Show recently in honour of Black History Month.
Unlike many people I was well aware that there were many black people living and working in Britain long before Windrush – one of the things Paterson, says in his introduction that he wants to establish. Nonetheless it’s a fine thing to read another novel (see Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s Blood and Sugar for another example) which really focuses on this.
I found the rather arch Fielding-esque chapter headings tedious although I see that Paterson is simply trying to make the writing feel authentically eighteenth century. It’s a minor gripe though. This is a compelling novel which introduced me to a fascinating historical figure I knew nothing about and I really appreciate that.
Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Christmas Stories by Charles Dickens