An obituary for Bart Wolffe, Zimbabwean playwright and Croydonian poet

By - Tuesday 1st November, 2016

The exiled poet and playwright found a home in Croydon and left a message for our time

I was very sad to learn of the death of the accomplished writer, poet and playwright Bart Wolffe this summer, and thought that a few of my fellow Croydonians might like to know a bit more about the life and work of this perceptive Croydon poet who always carried the spirit of Africa in his heart and soul.

For the last thirteen years of his life, Bart Wolffe was a writer in exile. Born and brought up in Zimbabwe, he worked in advertising and as a playwright, director and actor, and established a reputation as someone who produced thought-provoking, challenging work. His one-man play Beast deals with our fear of people who are different, and how such fears can make us even more morally reprehensible than those of whom we are often unjustly afraid. In this post-Brexit referendum period, the play seems particularly pertinent.

Almost inevitably, Wolffe’s writing brought him into confrontation with the government of Robert Mugabe and in 2003 he left Zimbabwe for the UK. He then stayed in Germany for a short time before spending the rest of his life in England.

Wolffe created poetry from the most mundane of subjects

Here he continued writing and soon after his exile began published his autobiography, Bastard of the Colony. He also published a number of books and poems. He was on the committee of Exiled Writers Ink, an organization that tries to help and support writers exiled from their homelands. His work can be valued by anyone, but I hope that in years to come, it is the people of Zimbabwe who will produce his plays and treasure his poems. In England, he never achieved the same level of influence and popularity as he had in his native land.

Towards the end of his life though, he produced many fine poems about life in Croydon and he was generous enough to share them on a Facebook site I set up called Croydon Poets Potager. He gave permission for many of them to be included in a recently published anthology of poems by Croydonians about Croydon called Poetic Ramblings through Croydonia.

Sadly I never met Bart in person, yet I feel that I knew him to some extent through the poems that he wrote. We became friends on Facebook and so I learnt about his love of Bonsai and how he saw and photographed deer from his last home on the edge of Caterham. He had lived in Coulsdon for a number of years before this and poems such as ‘Coulsdon South Flyover’ beautifully demonstrate how poetry can be created from the most ordinary of subjects.

His plays dealing with issues of identity, justice and exile will be what are most remembered

His poems often deal with the subjects of loss and exile, and yet they could also find comfort and joy in the intricate beauties of nature. It was both his eye for detail and his ability to imbue what might seem the most mundane of circumstances with a broader significance that first attracted me to his work. Yet his often experimental plays written in Zimbabwe, dealing with the nature of identity and the quest for justice, will perhaps justifiably be what he is most remembered for. This is a time when they seem particularly due for a revival both here and in Zimbabwe.

Although he may not have achieved fame and celebrity in the UK, I believe that his work and ideas will live on for many years to come. Perhaps the best obituary would be for a drama group to stage a performance of his play Beast somewhere in Croydon, and for some of his fellow poets to organise a reading of some of his poems. His name will also live on in an award Exile Writers Ink has set up in his name to support the work of an exiled writer in the UK. Bart Wolffe’s sharp eye, aesthetic sensitivity and concern for social and political justice will continue to inspire those who stumble across his works.

Charles Barber

Charles Barber

Adoptive Croydonian, currently trying to publish a book and find gainful employment within the Croydonian urban jungle. Environmental campaigner, Twitter@rainforestsaver, founder of the Croydon Rainforest Club and of the Friends of Whitehorse Park.

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  • Adrian Maasdorp

    My friendship with Bart began in a place now called Harare Zimbabwe Where we passed though the same institution .,and had common friends which I term the mentally ill 5 ,though they were much more numerous.Bart was very caring and nurturing and encouraging. Courage was and is one thing I lack.Probably for good reason.I was upset by news of his death There was one poem he wanted me to publish in ’80 I feared to. also though it came to me ,schizophrenically against my convictions Can Russian earth fall on Rhodesian soil Is it not enough that we farm our lands Without swords and assagais in brutal hands Fences that riddle the land Machine gun shard green land bart was a firm Born Again Christian so I know he is now in GOOD HANDS LOVE to all Adrian