98 year old poet Eula Harrison, inspired by Paul Laurence Dunbar, is still writing

At almost 98, poet Eula Harrison has a fierce lyrical gift: “I write in bed and have quite a few pen marks on my bed linen as a result.”

By Oliver Bennett

Eula Harrison.
Eula Harrison. Photo: Penny Dampier

One of the most remarkable poets of our time has emerged in Clerkenwell. Eula Harrison has become a rising star, with an expanding portfolio of poems that are as heartfelt and thoughtful as they are punchy and powerful. And she is 98 years old in March.

Eula, who was born in Cuba in 1925 to Jamaican parents, had at a young age the good fortune to have an inspirational teacher in Edna E. Harrison. “I remember it well,” says Eula. “It was hot. We’d come back from lunch break and she would sit on top of a bench and read to us. And I didn’t realise until later that it got me interested in poetry. That is how I started.”

There was another inspirational moment. When Eula’s grandfather died, and she was about 12 years old, she went through his old travelling chest. “Inside, I found this old poetry book by Paul Laurence Dunbar.” An African-American writer, Dunbar was born to enslaved parents, but managed to gain an international reputation. “I took it to school,” says Eula. “I think maybe it spurred me, because I started to read more and funnily enough, even started writing a story about my grandfather.”

Eula moved to London in 1956 and lived in the West End near the BT Tower, which she saw being built. With links in the UK – her brother was in the RAF – she moved to be with her partner. She had three children here, and worked as a seamstress. By the 1980s she retired in the UK and moved back to Jamaica for nine years. “My partner died and I just didn’t want to stay,” she says. “But the Jamaica I’d left was different to the Jamaica it became.” So after a while working there, she returned to London.

This time, with grown-up children, Eula had more time for herself. She saw an advert for a poetry class in Hilldrop Community Centre with poet Tessa Dummett and went along. “She was a good teacher,” says Eula. “She told us to read each other, comment on each other’s work, and taught us poetry forms and other things.” Eula’s work was published in an anthology.

Eula also went to Age UK’s ‘Older Learners’ group in the early 1990s, where she gained a lot of experience. From this, she found herself volunteering in schools and helping young people. In recognition of this work she was invited to Clarence House where she met the then Prince Charles.

For the last five years or so, Eula has attended All Change Arts in Dingley Place, EC1 and along with The Peel every Monday, she finds both places “very supportive”. Eula still writes – not daily, but a fair amount. “Something comes in my head and I just get it down,” she says, about her process. “I write in bed and have quite a few pen marks on my bed linen as a result.” A keen self-editor, she also has “a lot of little scribblings. I might do three or four lines then I go back to them, to see if they work or not.” Some are on ancestral themes, while others may be about flowers. She has a huge range.

“When Covid came I wrote about Covid, because someone called to ask me if I’m lonely. That’s when I wrote my poem Not Lonely or Bored. It’s what I do to keep myself occupied.” With over 100 poems and many more in parts, Eula has enough for another anthology or two.

Writing has kept her sharp, she says, including through lockdown, and she has become a much-loved regular at The Peel, where CEO Olu Alake has called her work “incredible”. Eula has now come to the attention of editors and publishers. But while her venerable age could be a real marketing platform, the interest in her poems lies in their simplicity and strength of her words – to be seen, for example, in the poem below, Citizens of Empire.

Citizens of Empire

Passengers arriving in this country
In 1948 on the SS Empire Windrush
Did not arrive as fateless migrants
Driven from their homes
Or dying of hunger and thirst.
They came invited to work.
The country needed workers,
The call came from the Government here in London.

Leaving families behind,
They arrived, eager to do their part,
All loyal citizens of the Empire.
Not entering by a back door,
But as British citizens,
Born under the British flag.
With head held high,
And a British passport in hand.
Their Motherland needed help,
To rebuild a country
Devastated by war.

From all corners of the Caribbean they came,
Ready to work
Filling the gaps left,
By those who sadly would not be returning.
Eagerly, they arrived like those before.
Soldiers and sailors,
Fearlessly giving their lives,
In both world wars,
Defending king, country and Empire.
The Head of Empire seated here in London,
Has always been revered by them from afar.

Never did they expect the unfriendly,
Unfair treatment meted out.
Given the worst of jobs, lowest of pay,
Suffering snubs and indignities.
Willingly they did the work offered,
Loyally helping the country to recover.
Still remembering families far away to be provided for,
While suffering the effects of unfamiliar cold and snow.
Getting frost-bitten and having heavy chills and colds,
From bad housing conditions and unsuitable clothing.
Working long shifts as drivers and conductors on buses,
Manning the railway and underground,
Building sites to name a few.
In time, they were able to make changes
With better conditions,
Securing a home,
Allowing them to be united with families,
Within this group of labourers on the Empire Windrush
Were doctors and nurses, manning the hospitals
across the country,
Nursing the returned wounded and shell-shocked.

Long before the Windrush came,
Thousands of our soldiers and sailors, airmen and engineers,
For army and navy, carpenters, masons.
How proud we all should be of them who came before,
Worked so hard for hardly any recognition.
Forerunners for others who came after,
They truly are our heroes.
Now these same workers – Doctors, nurses and others –
elderly and infirm,
Are being forced out of the country they worked so hard,
And fought for
And helped to rebuild.
If we, the people of those far-off islands, should complain,
Of disgraceful and unfair treatment,
Meted out to these elderly citizens,
Can we truly be blamed for complaining?

**A few months after this article was written Eula sadly passed away. You can read a beautiful obituary to her in the Aug/Sept issue of the Echo on page 13**

This article is from the February/March 2023 edition of Ec1 Echo. Click here to download your copy.

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