Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack
Dr. Johnson once offered a toast at Oxford: “Here’s to the next insurrection of the Negroes in the West Indies.” That was pure mischief: though Johnson loathed the slave trade, he did not much care for black people. But the slaves in the Caribbean were not kidding. Two hundred disordered years later the island colonies were baptized island nations. “Their sun that would not set was going down,” as one of Derek Walcott’s poems has it.
The colonial legacy is central to the written literature of the Caribbean, taking in the time “when these slums of empire was paradise”—(again Walcott)—to the present in which the archipelago has been sold for a “chain store of islands.” What independence means is a debate without end. Africa, not surprisingly, has been reclaimed, and Mother England is being displaced the way an adopted child marches off to hunt out his natural parents. There is an anxious vigilance in this wish: life still seems to be judged by how near or far the soul is in relation to London.
Austin Clarke’s autobiographical novel Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack is directly concerned with the cultural contradictions of a young man’s education in Barbados during World War II. Tender, funny, unpolemical, the narrator Tom recalls his coming of age at the “middle and lower middle class” Combermere School for Boys “in Town.” He is admitted to the Lower Second Form and survives to the Fifth Form, which brings the “Cambridge University Senior Cambridge Examinations (Overseas). We were overseas people. Some of the banks in our country said they were overseas banks, too.” Everyone in his village, St. Matthias, is proud that he is a “Cawmere boy.” They know what it means. “Go ‘long, boy, and learn! Learning going to make you into a man.”
The Combermere School means stiff khaki uniforms; clean, stinging, shaven heads; ties of blue and gold; blue denim bookbags sent by some “relative” from “Amurca”; Latin, French, and awesome, big books. “It would turn me into a civil servant, if I did well. If I didn’t do so well, it would turn me into a sanitary inspector.” The tuition fees were the “devastating amount of eight dollars.” Gone are the sweating, harassed, shabbily dressed “teachers” of his former school in St. Matthias, where the black headmaster “wore white as if it meant something to him which we boys could never aspire to; and he wore a tie that had no tropical colour in it.” This headmaster inspected their necks and fingernails. He made them sing hymns or “Rule Britannia” as he flogged the unlucky with a strap that was rumored to have been soaked in pee.
The Combermere School has “masters” and teaches “big” things. “I was under the chloroform of learning things which made no immediate and applied sense.” Trigonometry, the prose of Caesar, the verse of Virgil, “things about a Grecian urn.” A master “ranted and raved before us in his love …