Turning point

James Ferguson on In The Castle Of My Skin, George Lamming’s masterpiece about a civilisation in the throes of social revolution

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The early 1950s were something of a boom time for Caribbean literature. London publishers were scrambling to acquire writers such as Trinidad and Tobago’s V. S. Naipaul and Sam Selvon and Jamaica’s Roger Mais; the Barbadian literary journal Bim was showcasing local talent; and West Indian authors were eyeing the success of black Americans like James Baldwin with envious interest. In cultural terms at least, things seemed to be moving in the islands.

Not that there had been much to celebrate in the preceding decades. The Second World War had brought increased hardship and deprivation to what were already neglected little corners of European empires. The war had followed the devastating impact of the global depression of the 1930s, which had bankrupted the region’s sugar industry. At the same time, the uneasy tranquillity of places like St Vincent and Barbados had been rocked by a wave of labour unrest, which spread to Jamaica and Trinidad in a fury of rioting and looting. After years of stagnation and passivity, the Caribbean had had enough.

With hindsight, the cultural renaissance of the 1950s was, in fact, the legacy of the turbulent 1930s. Not only did the poverty and disturbances of the pre-war period nudge Westminster into long overdue reform and investment in the Caribbean, but the turmoil also acted as a sort of inspiration to many contemporary writers who had literally seen history being made in their own backyards. Social protest, anti-colonialism and the celebration of local identity became the order of the day. In the atmosphere of expectation which followed the end of the war, change seemed inevitable.

Nowhere is the process of political change and the creation of a new social order more creatively interpreted than in George Lamming’s masterpiece In the Castle of My Skin. The novel appeared first in London in 1953, to immediate acclaim (the New Statesman called it “the fundamental book of a civilisation”); it has been in print, and widely read, ever since.

What is truly remarkable about this novel is not so much that it deals with the social convulsions of the 1930s, but that it presents them as seen and lived by a typical Barbadian community and by one adolescent boy in particular. There is none of the omniscience of a politically sophisticated narrator, no analysis of the broad picture, but instead an entirely convincing impression of confusion mixed with hope and anxiety. In short, this is social history as it is experienced rather than artfully arranged.

The novel is unashamedly autobiographical, a fact that Lamming was to confirm in his later The Pleasure of Exile (1984). The character, G, who narrates part of the book, lives in a small Bajan village, owned by a white landlord and run on the archaic, paternalistic lines of the old plantation system. Lamming’s childhood stamping ground, Carrington’s Village, was pretty much identical, right down to the communal wash-house and the annual floods. The forces of authority — the overseer, the police — represent the interests of the landlord Creighton, and he is respected and feared in equal measure by most of the villagers.

Creighton Village, with its rigid hierarchy, is but part of a fossilised colonial Barbados, where schoolboys sing “God Save the Queen” and learn English history. A pupil at Combermere High School, Lamming was personally acquainted with the absurdities of the colonial public school ethos, and here he mocks the myth of Barbados as “Little England”, the faithful colonial outpost. A long passage describes the pontification and dreary ritual surrounding “Empire Day” in G’s school.

Yet the old order is about to be swept away, and the unlikely agent of social change is the pointedly named Mr Slime, a former schoolteacher who becomes a politician and leader within the community. How he rises to a position of influence remains something of a mystery, since none of the villagers, including G, are aware of his ambition and few realise that his founding of the Penny Bank and Friendly Society is hardly an act of philanthropy, but a deliberate power-seeking strategy. Events prove to be on his side. Riots take place, spreading into the village from Bridgetown; the landlord is almost attacked. Suddenly, it seems, Slime is the top man in the village, and the landlord is selling up and moving out.

In this sense, the way in which the novel is played out is more fundamentally realistic than the traditional all-knowing narrator approach. As in real life, people are too busy with their own lives, too blinded by their preoccupations, to make sense of what is happening to them. No explanation is offered. Instead, different points of view are deployed — G, Pa and Ma (the village veterans), an unknown commentator — and this episodic structure reinforces the ambiguity and uncertainty surrounding the demise of Creighton and the rise of Slime.

The absence of narrative authority emphasises the innocence and naivety of the villagers and their inability to interpret or control the events that are to change their lives. Overnight, tenants find that their land has been sold to buyers from the city, Pa is to be sent to the Alms House, the old certainties of village life are gone.

The idea of change and impermanence runs through In the Castle of My Skin. As G prepares to leave for Trinidad (as Lamming did in 1946), he sees Pa for what he knows will be the last time:

“You won’t see me again, my son,” he said, and felt his way up the steps. The door closed gently behind him.

I stood for a moment waiting to see whether he might put on the light. The feeling had seized me again. You had seen the last of something.

The replacement of the old white master with the new elite marks this ending and signals G’s departure from the village. His childhood friend Trumper has already left for the US and the promise of riches, and G knows that he will never recapture the freshness and happiness of his early boyhood spent in innocent mischief with his gang. The novel ends with this sense of loss but also with the exciting promise of a new world beyond the village. For G has become George, the novelist who must leave his home and past in order to recreate them in one of the Caribbean’s greatest works of fiction.

James Ferguson is the author of The Traveller’s Literary Companion to the Caribbean (In Print/Passport Books/Ian Randle Publishers)


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