“A writer whose greatness lies more in his humanity than in his literary achievements”
— Derek Walcott
“The most memorable father of this family of Caribbean writers”
— George Lamming
“A presence, unobtrusive but full of vigour, his quiet smile indicating ever so clearly and warmly that he would anticipate one’s every need”
— John Figueroa
Testimonies to Frank Collymore, eminent Barbadian man of letters, suggest a figure of calm authority, fatherly and uncomplicated. But there was more than that to him; there was controversy, even mystery. For Dominican historian Lennox Honychurch, who lived for a time in the Collymore household, he was above all a consummate dramatist, who deliberately cultivated a public persona. This persona combined a teacher’s accessibility and an actor’s showmanship with the informality of an open-backed Morris Minor and his characteristic short pants. The schoolmaster in George Lamming’s novel In the Castle of My Skin, recognisably a portrait of Collymore, hints, however, at an enigma: “I couldn’t understand what part he played at the High School for the world of his immediate interests was quite different . . . He must have been capable of living on different levels and this must have been responsible for the reputation he had of being genteel and accessible. He was a kind of legend in the High School. But the legend had nothing to do with his interests.”
Dig deeper into his background, and you uncover complications offering clues to another persona. White in appearance, he stoutly claimed coloured ancestry. Colly, as he was widely known, chose to present himself as lazy: he was, in his words, “born, I fear, a convinced idler”. This claim was far from reality. What might he, a dedicated teacher, actor, and editor, have meant by this somewhat disingenuous self-description? Was it a bid for liberation from the constraints of conventional society? Or a claim to an alternative space — one where his imagination and creativity could roam freely? Another surprise is that some of his less publicised writing suggests an abrasive reaction to the Church, nationalism, and smug respectability — views he chose, for the most part, to keep to himself. Who, really, was this widely revered figure? Conundrum or straight man? What did he do to earn such interest and generous praise?
Frank Appleton Collymore was born in 1893 in the parish of St Michael, just outside Bridgetown. Close to his parents, he was a single child, for whom reading was a passion. The ethic of public service was passed on from his father, who worked in the island’s customs office. Much of his life was spent within the walls of Combermere School, which he entered as a pupil in 1903, where he was appointed teacher in 1910, and where he remained all his working life, until he retired as deputy headmaster in 1958. Even then, he continued to teach at the school till 1963.
The corner of Barbados in which he lived embodies a sense of stability and timelessness. He grew up and spent most of his life at “Woodville”, a modest house set back off Chelsea Road on the edge of Bridgetown. A giant frangipani tree overshadows the house, which remains the family home. Collymore was a renowned letter-writer, and this handwritten address adorned many lettergrams sent to Caribbean writers and others involved in Caribbean literature across the world.
Yet in conservative, urbanised Barbados, Collymore lived both inside and outside the almost tangible social structures. In his youth, Barbadian society was made up of a white minority, who held the political and economic power, and the majority black population over whom, for the most part, they ruled. But the day job of successful school-teaching was combined with celebrated evenings on the amateur stage and the creativity of artist, poet, and editor. John Wickham, the Barbadian writer, noted what an unlikely, almost unique product Collymore was. He came, Wickham wrote, “from a Barbadian class noted for its careful husbandry, its narrow vision . . . It is a class notorious for its loyalty to Barbados, generally uncomfortable in any environment which calls for the use of imagination.” And so, “by all reason of his background in time and place, Colly is the last man one would expect to have identified himself with a literary magazine and made it the foremost contributor to the surgent spirit of West Indian writers.” Collymore was, above all, a sort of “gatekeeper” — a cultural mentor and artistic arbitrator. In December 1942, at the launch of Bim — the magazine with which he will always be associated — Collymore was one of a number of editors. By the third issue, he had in effect taken over as sole editor. In the 32 years that followed, he produced 56 issues, before handing on the editorship to John Wickham in 1974. Bim, which started as a production of the Young Men’s Progressive Club of Barbados, quickly became one of the few regularly sustained literary magazines in the region.
Every small magazine, in time, takes on the character of its editor. Bim was no exception. In their generous way, Bim and Collymore provided a platform for unknown writers from the region, creating a dialogue between them and those who were already established. The magazine offered contemporary short stories, poetry, criticism, and commentary on new books by Caribbean authors abroad. The litmus test Collymore applied to all the contributions he received was whether or not he felt them to be “sincere”.
A unique feature of many issues of Bim was one or more of Collymore’s menagerie of “Collybeasts” — black and white line drawings of imaginary creatures such as “the Allabus”, “the Antander”, “the Pern”, “Kangarooster”, “Pimmity”, “Rumpty”, “the Khain”, and “the Bhain”, all strange hybrids of his imagination. Edgar Mittelholzer captured their otherworldly nature, describing them as “quasi-Cubistic monsters, half antediluvian, half Fuseli-nightmare in appearance.” But there was also controversy. Educated to speak and teach standard English, Collymore respected and encouraged the formal tradition. At the same time, he was surrounded by other versions of English that were clearly different, and changing world views. The poet Kamau Brathwaite, interviewed a few years ago, remembered that Collymore was at times less than keen on “nation-language”, finding Brathwaite’s poetic sequence Rites of Passage“disturbing”. But though Collymore was unable or unwilling to shift to the creolisation of written English in his own work, he was nonetheless fascinated by the living language around him. Instead of allowing Bajan English to enliven his writing, he chose to make it an object of study and classification, taking on the role of amateur lexicographer in his popular Notes for a Glossary of Words and Phrases of Barbadian Dialect. Now a Barbadian classic, this book has run to four editions and continues to be available on bookstands around the island.
Collymore was more than a creative publisher of West Indian writing at home. He also used his personal interest in writers and his gentle style to promote Barbadian artists and West Indian writing abroad. He brought the early poetry of Derek Walcott to the attention of his friend Henry Swanzy, producer of the BBC radio programme Caribbean Voices in the 1940s and 50s. George Lamming, Sam Selvon, Shake Keane, and Kamau Brathwaite were all provided with introductions to Swanzy as they made their way to London. This involved more than simply passing on the names of those who came to the door of his home, claiming to be able to write, or the transitory encouragement of a secondary school teacher. It involved a talent for identifying “the real thing”.
In an edition of Bim in 1992, its jubilee year, a letter from Swanzy reviewing the magazine’s considerable achievements paid tribute to Collymore’s gatekeeper role. “I do not know which I admire the more, his tastes . . . or his magnanimity. Unlike so many literary people, he was perfectly ready to pass on the names of unknown writers, for their sake, and not his. One recalls a Jesuit saying: it is surprising what good can be done, if no credit is claimed. So there was a two-way traffic between us: cash and publicity from the BBC . . . and credit and permanency from Bim.”
In his poetry, Collymore’s themes, styles, topics, and observations also show his unconventional if conservative side. Not many Caribbean poets of the mid-20th century celebrate, as Collymore did, the figure of the nanny (“Amanda”) or the planter (“Homage to Planters”), or the business of taking tea (“Sparrows at Tea”). Though he considered himself a “minor” poet, some of his poems have achieved a lasting status. The poet and anthologist Stewart Brown recently identified “Hymn to the Sea” as arguably Collymore’s best poem. From the poem’s personal and imperative opening incantation —
Like all who live on small islands
I must always be remembering the sea . . .
— to its sensual imagery —
. . . tasting/And feeling her kisses on bright sun-bathed days . . .
— and awesome power —
Mother and destroyer, the calm and the storm . . .
— “Hymn to the Sea” embodies, Brown suggests, all of Collymore’s qualities as a poet.
His collection of short stories, The Man Who Loved Attending Funerals and Other Stories, offers a rare glimpse of mid-20th century polite Barbados. He presents a white society in which servants — along with other luxuries — are taken for granted, people are kept in their place, and yet the exercise of power is generally thwarted or shown to be ineffective. In one story, the main character fails to realise his ambition as a result of his prejudice against fat people. In another, a grasping mother and daughter are duped out of their upward social climb by an unscrupulous foreigner. In a third, a dying man saves a drowning kitten as a last act of human feeling, only for the kitten to be blamed for his death and killed the next day.
His writing is also distinguished by his mixed feelings towards
“the mother country”, to which many from the Caribbean flocked in the middle of the last century. Collymore travelled to Britain on a British Council scholarship in 1947. His reports are full of enthusiasm for museums, art galleries, and theatre visits. Dinner with the dean and faculty of Pembroke College, Cambridge, and associated trappings were described in hallowed terms. “All the happenings of the evening assumed the nature of a sacrament,” he recollected, “and I felt as though I had partaken of the very stuff of England.” But far from wishing to leave Barbados behind, reminders of the island are a constant source of comparison. He practises a small-island attentiveness to faces, looking for reminders of friends in Barbados. The landscape also holds forceful reminders of the countryside of Barbados, “refined and subjected to a softer atmosphere and a longer spell of mellowing years”. At the theatre, an actor’s voice convinces him of the “authentic Englishry of our Barbadian tongue as it is spoken by some of our older planters today”. On a visit to the zoo, he sees “wonderful to relate, some goats, real Bajan goats”.
In contrast to these positive associations, he laments that the palm trees of Torquay are “small and straggly” with “such an apologetic air”. And at the end of his tour, he is clearly delighted to return to Barbados. On his inbound flight the island strikes him as “a very precious toy-land spread out beneath”.
Collymore relished what he described as “the tonic effect of acting”. His love of the stage, the creation of other characters, the mask of costume, yet again offered him those alternative spaces that he sought. The parts he played ranged from Shakespeare’s Malvolio to Andre Obey’s Noah; from the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland to the Obeah man in Wilfred Redhead’s The Séance. His widow Ellice Collymore recently said she thought the theatre was where he was happiest. He played before audiences all over Barbados, often to rave reviews, in a career that spanned well over 60 years. As an accomplished character actor, it was his total commitment to the spirit of each part that delighted critics. The eminent Barbadian actor Alfred Pragnell, who often performed with him, has vouched that Collymore saw acting as “a serious business done for fun”.
It is this link between seriousness and fun, work and play, that gives, perhaps, the best clue to Collymore’s philosophy. In one of his poems he asks, “What have I learnt thus far from life?” One answer he gives to this question is “that work is only of value when it can be converted into play”. John Wickham summed it up like this: “It was not for monument or honour or award that he played his many parts or made his verses or drew his funny pictures or taught his pupils. All these things were done, as he was never tired of saying, for the fun of it.”
Where then do these scattered clues to the “real” Collymore lead? Beneath the approachable and affable public persona there is the insider whom social change and artistic temperament pushed to an ambivalent edge. His life and his writing are best characterised by Jean Rhys’s observation about the Caribbean: “There is always the other side, always.”
After his death in 1980, Frank Collymore escaped the ubiquitous honour of a roundabout or street bearing his name. Instead, on 18 September, 1986, a new complex was opened by the Central Bank of Barbados, housing a 491-seat recital hall, a Steinway concert piano, a Grande Salle for exhibitions of paintings, and many high-tech amenities. The Frank Collymore Hall is a place of ceremony and formality. Ladies feel obliged to wear their best dresses, and gentlemen to ensure that their shoes shine. In many ways, it is an unlikely commemoration of a person as informal as Colly. Perhaps nearer to his concern is an annual series of awards for creative writing which the Central Bank of Barbados funds in his name. The Frank Collymore Literary Endowment Awards are now entering their sixth year. Cash prizes are offered each January for unpublished writing by nationals and residents of Barbados, in categories that include poetry, plays, stories, and novels. Each annual event includes a feature address and literary readings. The chairman of the independently appointed awards committee, Andy Taitt, annually lauds his committee’s search for excellence, and calls the awards the top literary prizes in Barbados.
Works by Frank Collymore
1944 Thirty Poems
1945 Beneath the Casuarinas
1959 Collected Poems
1968 Rhymed Ruminations on the Fauna of Barbados
1970 Notes for a Glossary of Words and Phrases of Barbadian Dialect
1971 Selected Poems
1993 The Man Who Loved Attending Funerals and Other Stories
Prizes and honours
1958 Order of the British Empire
1968 University of the West Indies M.A.
1973 Savacou: A Journal of the Caribbean Artists Movement (January/June), ed. Edward Kamau Brathwaite, dedicated “A Tribute to Frank Collymore”
1977 Queen’s Jubilee Medal