When did you last meet a real Renaissance man, or woman? I mean someone who can do absolutely everything without seeming to try very hard. I suspect there aren’t as many of these multitalented individuals as there used to be, partly because we’re all told to specialise at an early age and to stick at what we know.
If Frank Collymore was ever given that advice, he ignored it. He was a poet, a painter, a broadcaster, a lexicographer (he published notes on Barbadian dialect), and an actor. He also found time to teach English and French to generations of boys at Barbados’ famous Combermere grammar school, the school he’d attended between 1903 and 1910 (he taught there for over 50 years, influencing writers like George Lamming and Austin Clarke). He was probably a decent cook and good at DIY as well.
He claimed he liked acting best, but he is remembered above all for editing the magazine Bim — the title is an affectionate nickname for Barbados — which appeared first in 1942. Published erratically, and always in financial difficulties, this was quite simply the Caribbean’s most important literary forum in the 20th century. It published work by Lamming and Clarke, Sam Selvon and Edgar Mittelholzer, Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott, giving a stage to these and many other authors from the English-speaking Caribbean who might otherwise have remained unnoticed. In his role as editor, Collymore encouraged and helped some of the greatest names in West Indian writing, believing that the region had its own distinctive literary culture.
It seems hardly believable that this unusually energetic man could fit anything else into his career, but he did. In fact, he did a great deal of writing, not just of poetry, but short stories too, some of which were published in Bim. Eighteen of these pieces were gathered together and published in 1993 under the intriguing title The Man Who Loved Attending Funerals.
It is, of course, a piece of received wisdom among publishers and critics that no one really likes short stories, that it is a bad move on the part of any self-respecting writer to abandon the full-length novel in favour of the shorter genre. Short stories, so the orthodoxy has it, are written by amateurs in competitions and are not real literature. Leaving aside the fact that such “minor” authors as Dickens, Joyce, and Flaubert wrote short stories, such a view ignores a more important truth: that this sort of writing has its own demands and devices, that it requires an understanding of the genre that turns its limitations of length into positive strengths.
Collymore had that understanding in abundance. He realised that a short story must quickly grab the reader’s attention, that it revolves around one idea or predicament, that its conclusion must provide either a satisfying resolution to a mystery or an unexpected twist-in-the-tale. He also knew how to create a strong sense of atmosphere from the start, and how to use an isolated incident or vignette to full effect.
Some of the stories in the collection are really rather funny, casting light either on particular foibles of Barbadian society or, more generally, the weaknesses of human nature. Take “To Meet Her Mother”, for instance, in which the splendidly named and very fastidious Fitzwilkinson Cumberbatch is in love with the svelte and delicate Sylphide. His affection for this slim creature is matched only by his disgust for the obese older women whom he sees all around. Imagine his horror when, on meeting Sylphide’s mother, he discovers a woman “like a preposterous blob of blancmange”, a terrible portent of what will inevitably happen to Sylphide.
Even more pointed is the comic unmasking of social pretentiousness and hypocrisy in “RSVP to Mrs Bush-Hall”, the story of a former prostitute’s bid to win respectability and status by marrying her witless daughter to one Lucas Traherne, an Englishman who claims to be a poet and minor aristocrat. One might sympathise with Maude Bush-Hall’s aspirations but for her appalling smugness and snobbery, and so it comes as a fine example of Schadenfreude when we learn that Lucas is nothing more than a conman, who fleeces the gullible Maude and escapes Barbados on the day of the wedding.
Collymore’s stories are often cruel in their comedy, but he also reveals a darker side, an interest in morbid behaviour and madness. One of the most powerful tales is “Shadows”, a broodingly gothic evocation of revenge and murder set in a sinister haunted house. Here the mood of lurking terror is convincingly established by a narrator who, we learn at the end, is writing to a friend from a lunatic asylum, having murdered his wife. The madhouse also features in “Miss Edison”, another creepy story of deranged passion and murder, here masquerading under a veneer of respectability.
Murder and revenge are frequent ingredients in these stories by a man I assume to have been a mild-mannered, pipe-smoking schoolmaster. There is also an undisguised interest in the bizarre, not least in the title story, “The Man Who Loved Attending Funerals”, a strange piece of first-person confession that starts with a classic attention-grabbing line:
I have a strange admission to make; but, since I regard myself as already dead, I have no reason to conceal anything; these words of mine are, as far as anything written by mortal hand can be, the truth.
The truth is that the narrator derives an acute pleasure from being at funerals, a pleasure that develops into an almost supernatural ability to predict who among the mourners will be next to be buried. The unexpected ending has a fittingly poetic justice, as he realises, looking into his car mirror, that his own face has adopted the terrifying skeleton rictus of one already dead.
If one were to find fault with Collymore’s fiction, it is probably that it deals with a circumscribed version of middle-class Barbadian society, a world of cocktails, maids, and golf courses, and has little to say about a wider Caribbean context. But that, in fairness, was probably the world Collymore knew and loved, and he evokes the genteel conformism of post-war Barbados with a deft touch.
My own favourite, however, is one story that escapes from the starched tablecloths and chrysanthemums of suburban Bridgetown, as the child protagonist experiences the rowdy excitement of a race meeting at the Garrison Savannah.
In “A Day at the Races”, Collymore successfully captures the intoxicating impact of a forbidden and slightly illicit adult activity upon an innocent child. In a series of finely drawn scenes, he sketches the drama of the crowds, the gambling, the race itself, and that uniquely Caribbean mix of good humour and badinage that surrounds such events. Like many of the other stories in this collection, it is a small masterpiece of the short story writer’s craft.