Trevor Macdonald: How English literature enlivened my Caribbean childhood

From a Royal Society of Arts lecture in London, given by the newsreader to the College of Teachers
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The Independent Online

In my Caribbean world of post-war years, a love of English literature did more than provide me with the boyhood thrill of discovery, it went beyond any kind of emotions of temporary happiness; it was no transient joy, it went much deeper than that - it influenced the way we thought, it anchored our hopes and our fears, it sharpened the way we looked at life and the way we looked at the world and it widened the boundaries of our aspirations.

Nor was I alone. Generations of us West Indians fell under the same spell of the glory of English literature, generations of us found a kind of happiness in exactly that way.

My mother never ceased to tell me about my grandfather, whom I never knew, sadly, but who apparently found some way of making Mark Anthony's speech "Friends, Romans, countrymen lend me your ears" appropriate to a wide variety of village audiences in Trinidad, whether they were at weddings, at funerals or at bar mitzvahs (if there were any of those then).

So steeped were my parents - although they themselves were formally uneducated - in the traditions of the literature that was part of our lives that it even infected our humour.

My mother would tell me on countless occasions the story of a Trinidadian - and this is probably apocryphal, but Trinidadian stories almost grow because of their apocryphal nature, and we like stories which are as wild as parts of the country are.

It us the story of a Trinidadian witness who was called in a case of common assault in a magistrate's court and who began his testimony; he said to the judge, or to the magistrate (I think he'd been asked a question about what he had seen), he said: "Sir, as I was sitting on my veranda perusing the works of Milton and Byron and Shakespeare I happened to see this poor miscreant take up an agricultural implement and apply it with such force to my neighbour's cranium that it caused a propulsion of blood to quite obscure parts of his physiognomy."

As you have probably guessed, what our friend with literary pretensions was trying to say was that he saw someone hit his neighbour with a cutlass, and there was rather a lot of blood.

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