CLENNEL WICKHAM: A Man for All Time

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JOHN WICKHAM

My father visited the United States in 1928 and one of my earliest memories is of the morning of his return from that fabulous place which then, even more than now perhaps, seemed to so many Barbadians to be the land of hope or opportunity or whatever. I remember the suitcases spilling their contents on the floor while my mother put clothes away. I remember my father’s imitation American accent, but most of all I remember that the old horn gramophone was playing “Ain’t she sweet” and my father danced the Charleston as he opened the suitcases and spread joy over the house.

We lived in those days in an old house in Howell’s Cross Road, set back from the road and screened by an enormous breadfruit tree which sticks in my memory as the original tree of life in the garden of Eden, perhaps because it was under this tree that my father and brother and I bathed in naked innocence when it rained, and more because the leaf of the breadfruit has for that reason seemed to me admirably designed to hide newly discovered nakedness. There was a plot of land belonging to the house, running down to the roadside. This piece of land was planted with vegetables and another memory recalls a Sunday morning about six o’clock when my father and I stole out of the house and went down into the garden and picked cucumbers and tomatoes. I remember running back to the house, the bottoms of my pyjamas wet with dew, to fetch a pinch of salt and the taste of that idyllic breakfast of cucumbers and tomatoes has not yet left my mouth.

There is another pastiche of memory. The scene is the old “Herald” office in Shepherd Street. It is a Saturday morning and I have just come back from the library with the book of my choice (almost certainly a collection of Greek or Roman myths) and I sit reading it in the window seat high above the street. My father sits at or on his desk talking to his friends. The paper is already on the street and the first reactions to the week’s editorial have begun to flow back. Clauson “Billy” Lovell. Seymour Legall, Barney Millar, Gussie Maynard, Tom Wilson come and go. I can see them all now, laughing, talking politics, cricket, gossip. I cannot recall anything that may have been said but I cannot forget the camaraderie, the passion of the talk, and the glow in my own belly that came from the recognition that whatever it was that existed among the group, centred on the personality of my father.

Books were central to the life of our house. I must have been about seven when my father took me to the library in Coleridge Street and introduced me to Miss Sanderson, who was in those days in charge of the children’s library and guided my first choice. This was R. L. Stevenson’s “Travels with a Donkey” and around the same time, he gave me a thin volume of poetry which contained G. K. Chesterton’s “The Donkey” which he knew by heart, so that even now the picture of Modestine is one of monstrous head and sickening cry. My father, except for an unsuccessful attempt with Scott, never told me what to read, but there were so many books around the house that it was almost inevitable that I should read what I saw. What was there? F. L. Green’s History of England,

Boswell’s Life of Johnson, a complete set of Fennimore Cooper which I opened only to look at the drawings. The American Mercury in those far-off days of H. L. Mencken whose own “Selected Prejudices” was also there, also Ronald Knox’s “Essays in Satire”, the essays of Elia and a German grammar which I always thought that my father had to study so as to be able to fight against the Germans when he was at the war. Dickens was a great favourite and my father could repeat whole chunks of Serjeant Buzfuz and Sam Weller. There was also a green-backed cricket anthology which had the account of the match at Dingley Dell and tales of famous single wicket encounters. When Derek Sealy scored his first hundred for Barbados as a schoolboy, my father wrote in the Herald the following Saturday:

“The scoring had not been fast but it was steady and satisfactory and with Sealy in his eighties, there were hopes that he would signalise his debut in English cricket with a century and do honour to Combermere School which was only raised to first XI cricket last year. The boys in School Stand were in a state of uncontrollable excitement. They roared at every shot. Their caps were perpetually off their heads and the air resounded with the cries of “Played, Derek!” The style bears the marks of its age and of the writer’s feeling for Dickens.”

On Christmas morning, my father and brother and I pay our ritual visit to Cole’s Road to see my paternal grandparents. My grandfather and father sit at the table with a drink and talk of the past, the old days of cabs and tramcars, of the changing times. The grandsons have a drop of falernum and a piece of cake and play around. My grandmother who was a member of what is now known as the Exclusive Brethren, from time to time raised her voice against the monstrous sin of father and son setting such a bad example to children. But I was sure even then that she felt as warm as I did at the sight of the two men sharing a glad communion. Was this not her son who in 1919, irked by the restriction of Barbados, set off for Egypt and Kitchener’s army and left her weeping? And did she not, despite all the warnings and efforts to dissuade, hire a row-boat and venture out into Carlisle Bay where the troopship lay at anchor? And among all that throng did she not by the miracle of love spot her son leaning over the side looking for her, as if he knew that she would come to catch a last glimpse of him? He threw her all his money wrapped up in a handkerchief and, greater miracle, she caught it and wiped her tears and returned home. At my own wedding, this grandmother was still alive, but with a fading and confused memory when she spoke to me, she thought that I was my father, telescoping the years and saying to me that she had not known that I had come back from Egypt.

On Sunday afternoon, H. A. Vaughan, T. T. Lewis and a friend from Demerara, Johnny Gokool. who always brought sweets for the children and the warmth of the talk on the verandah. As I enter the room, I hear my father say, “Christ, man, what are you to do? You can’t leave your backside to be kicked all the time!”
The “Herald” was quite a special sort of newspaper. It did not exist to make money. Clement Inniss, its founder, and my father were idealists and they believed that the Herald should be devoted to making people think and making Barbados better. In an article in February 1929 on the first anniversary of Clement Inniss’ death, my father wrote:
“To one principle he held fiercely, fanatically, the opinions of his newspaper were not to be influenced by any financial consideration to himself. It was an abiding joy to see him gaily taking steps which were bound to result in immediate monetary loss to himself because he thought it his duty to do so. His newspaper was his child, his own creation, part of him to be watched and guarded and kept inviolate.”

It was my father’s determination to keep the Herald true to the spirit of its founder that led, within a year of the article I have just quoted, to the death of the newspaper. The circumstances of this death are perhaps not as well known as they should be, and in these tabloid days, they seem wildly irrelevant, but the fact is that in all the years since 1930, the Herald of Inniss and Wickham has had no successor. Whether the kind of newspaper it was is at all possible nowadays is open to question. I think it is, for the Herald was essentially Barbadian. It had a cosiness which ensured that everyone read it and I think it captured an element of the Barbadian spirit which is so easily recognised and identified, if not so easily defined. The following comment on a public meeting is taken from an issue of the Herald of January 1930 and will illustrate what I mean:

“The election campaign is now well on its way, and the repeated advice in this journal to electors to demand public utterances have borne fruit. Most of the candidates all over the colony have met their electors on the platform and during the next three weeks there will be more meetings; Mr. Hanschell held a meeting last night. I was not able to get there early but what I did witness was spirited enough. The audience was as lively as any I have ever witnessed and Mr. John Hutson the chairman, had his hands full. There were one or two amusing asides. Once Mr. Adams told the listeners that they were not like St. Lucy folk. Mr. Reece at once asked what was the matter with St. Lucy. “Oh”, said Mr. Adams, “St. Lucy is far away.” “Yes,” rejoined Mr. Peece, “like Heaven.” It was some time before quiet could be restored.”

How times have changed! We no longer have to demand public utterances from politicians, we have to beseech them to shut up. And St. Lucy is no longer far away.

The last time I heard my father’s voice was early one morning in the December of 1937. We sat under a stunted golden apple tree in the back yard, again I remember the dew on the grass and on the bottom of my pyjama trousers. “You see,” he said a propos of what I can no longer remember, “there is a very simple reason why a man must always try to do the right thing. He must always be free to speak out against something that is wrong. He will not be able to do that if someone can say that his own actions are not above suspicion.” And then he said, “Most people are preparing to ‘live’ when they can afford a motor car or a beach house at Bathsheba, but they forget that while they are waiting for these things, they are living, or ought to be!”

And indeed, it was as if his whole life was dedicated to the proposition that life was worth living and that all men were living men. In the Barbados of his day, it was not always clear that all men were considered living men and he had to speak strongly against many practices. But as a person, he did not understand, I am quite sure, how people made a difference between people on the basis of colour and boots. He himself could see no difference. For one thing, he had no personal ambition, for another he was deeply devoted to Barbados, a devotion he shared with many of his contemporaries who, however, had other methods of expressing this devotion, since they had other conceptions of Barbados. In 1928 he wrote:

“Imagine the effect on the whole Empire policy, imagine the prestige to these colonies if we could adopt and maintain the principle of free trade amongst ourselves. Is it too much to hope or will the West Indian colonies continue to develop each ‘along its own lines’ with the certainty of getting nowhere in the end?”

The question needs only minor amendment to be as apposite today as when it was written. One of the saddest things about the present day West Indies is the absence of a core of informed, intelligent and articulate opinion. When I think of the men who gathered together in the Herald office, I know that the nucleus of such a core existed once. I am not sure that the promise these men represented has been fulfilled. It is a measure, I think, of our wasted years that we seem even now to be fighting the same battles as they fought. These were men whose formal education was slight compared to that of the multitude of graduates around us. What they knew and learnt came from the most intense application and effort, there was no learning made easy. There was no radio, no television and no air travel, yet they knew a good deal about the world and what was most important, they did not despise their place in the society, however strenuously they were trying to change the structure of that society. When I think of their achievements and their qualities I feel a profound sense of shame and self-contempt. We are their sons in name only.

My father was by nature an optimist. He thought that people might be persuaded sooner or later to see that charity and love and generosity were desirable qualities, and that men were brothers or could be brothers if they lived their lives with humour and tolerance and intelligence. He died before the phenomena of Auschwitz and Belsen, before the horror of Hiroshima and so was perhaps spared more than a suspicion of man’s incredible capacity for evil and self-destruction. Whether he could have preserved his own idealism and humour in the face of modern events, the naked self-interest of nations, the individual’s cynical disregard of others, in the face of the multiplying evidence of man’s inability to learn from the past, this is a question I dare not try to answer lest I betray my own growing cynicism. My abiding pride is that I knew him, my single regret is that my own children did not.