“Little England Behind You”

In Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack, Austin Clarke mocks the idea of a sound colonial education. James Ferguson considers this sardonic memoir.

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How does it feel to be colonised, to be a colonial subject? Happily, few
of us under the age of 50 know or will ever know, for we live in what academics
like to call a “post-colonial” age. Looking at the independent English-speaking
nations of the Caribbean, it can be hard to imagine that until the 1960s
(or in some cases much later) nearly all of them belonged to the British
Empire. The Mother Country held sway over large chunks of the region, from
the Bahamas down to Trinidad and Tobago, with a good deal in between.

Of all these colonial outposts, Barbados was always reckoned to be
the most “English” in style and taste. Successive generations of travel
writers reported that places with names like Hastings and Worthing were
tropical replicas of Home County retirement resorts, that traditional Anglican
churches were to be seen nestling among coconut palms, that cricket and
roast beef were the order of the day. Even the rolling cane-covered hills
of the island were likened by the more fanciful to the gentle landscapes
of the Cotswolds or the Downs.

Barbados, of course, had always been British — or, at least, ever since
1627, when the first English settlers arrived. Unlike any other Caribbean
territory, Barbados never changed hands during the fierce inter-European
rivalries that shook the region in the 17th and 18th centuries. It remained
under London’s control, was an important military base, and contributed
handsomely to Britain’s profitable trade in sugar and slaves.

Thus emerged the idea of Barbados’s loyalty to Britannia, a centuries-old
link between rulers and ruled. Perhaps the defining moment of this colonial
relationship came during the Second World War, when chief minister Grantley
Adams reportedly sent a patriotic telegram to King George VI, which ended,
“Carry on England, Little England is behind you!”

The myth of “Little England” is tenacious. But beyond the
tourist clichés of village greens and cups of tea, a more serious
dimension exists, and this is the subject of Austin Clarke’s memoir, Growing
Up Stupid Under the Union Jack
. Not, of course, that this is a serious
or sombre book. Quite the opposite, as the playful title suggests. But
this is a piece of writing that examines the colonial system and, to say
the least, finds it wanting.

Austin “Tom” Clarke grew up in Barbados in the 1930s and 40s, decades
in which the whole idea of Empire was coming under critical scrutiny from
all quarters. But some of the institutions of colonial rule, most notably
education, were remarkably resilient to any “winds of change” that might
be blowing through the Caribbean. His autobiographical account thus starts
with his admission, at the age of 11, into Combermere School, a traditional
establishment modelled in every way on the British public school.

Combermere these days is doubtless a fine and progressive school, but
the place described by Clarke is a cross between Tom Brown’s Schooldays
and Dickens’s Dotheboys Hall. Gratuitous sadism, it seems, was considered
a suitable ethos, and the British headmaster, clad in khaki uniform, administered
regular floggings. Corporal punishment was accompanied by endless sermonising
and a good deal of indoctrination concerning the Empire and its glories.

Clarke paints this strange education as both absurd and slightly sinister.
He and the other boys were obliged to learn Latin declensions parrot fashion,
to sing God Save the King, and to follow the intricacies of British,
rather than Barbadian, history. This immersion into the culture of the
colonial power inevitably created a certain confusion:

I was more at ease in England, the Mother Country, than in Barbados.
I lived the lives of those men in the History of England book. My mind
crawled with battles and speeches, with Divine Rights, Magna Cartas, and
I saw myself sitting in ermine with the Lords and Dukes, eating and drinking
with Charles the First, who got himself into trouble and paid for it with
his head.

The worst thing about the system was that for children of modest backgrounds
it offered the only way out of mediocrity and into the professions. Clarke
and the other middle-class boys were forced to learn their Latin verbs
and English monarchs and to sit the intimidating exams that lead to a scholarship
and respectability.

To be a “Combermere boy” was clearly the mark of intelligence, but
it also meant inhabiting a different world from everyday Barbados and Barbadians.
Clarke draws a graphic distinction between the old-fashioned rituals of
school life and the vibrant normality of the village in which he lived.
Here, the traditional Caribbean institutions of the church and rum shop
provide a setting for vividly drawn characters and incidents. The village
is also the domain of strong women, whose warmth and openness stand in
distinct contrast to the repressed male world of the school. And where
the language of the classroom is formal and, quite literally, foreign,
that of the village is earthy, witty, and full of resonance.

What Clarke makes plain in this atmospheric account is that the colonial
system, and in particular colonial education, was essentially rather silly.
As the title suggests, an education is no guarantee against stupidity,
particularly if the stupid are doing the educating. One is left with the
feeling that the large number of eminent Barbadians — politicians, lawyers,
writers, and, of course, cricketers — who emerged in the post-war period
did so despite, rather than because of, their schooling. And the sort of
education that Clarke describes also seems essentially unnatural, disconnected
from its environment.

But this was also an unnatural period in Barbados’s history, as the
Second World War interrupted normal trading relations with Britain and
brought hardship to the island and its neighbours. It is precisely in his
recollections of the war years that Clarke is most perceptive and mocking
about the foibles of “Little England’s” loyalists, who saw Barbados as
a heroic bulwark against Hitler. He rightly points out that significant
numbers of Bajans did fight against fascism — and some did not return from
the battlefields of Europe — but the memoir also evokes a bizarre phase
of jingoism in which a Nazi invasion of Barbados was believed to be imminent.

With its mix of indulgent satire and affectionate reminiscence, Growing
Up Stupid Under the Union Jack
provides an entirely accessible insider’s
view of how colonialism, or at least the British version, worked. First
published in 1980, and recently reissued to coincide with Canada-based
Clarke’s latest award-winning novel, The Polished Hoe, it is as
fresh and irreverent as the day it first appeared. Its anti-colonial sentiments
evidently went down well with the Cuban judges who awarded it the prestigious
Casa de las Américas prize in 1980, but do not think for a moment
that this is a political tract. Instead, this is a charming memoir of a
Caribbean childhood, a celebration of the good things in life, and a gentle
dig at a set of values that are long gone and unlamented.