ARTICLES: HONOURS AND PAQUOTILLE

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One of the results of the post-war growth of nationalist movements among former colonies all over the world has been a broadening and deepening of our understanding of colonialism.

The lead in this understanding has not always come from nationalist leaders themselves. For one thing, they are more or less forced to spend a great deal of time and energy in simply keeping politically – sometimes even physically – alive; and for another, they tend to form a breed notoriously prone to simple and uncomprehending drives to personal glory – which too often limits their radicalism to a shifting of personnel within the inherited structure of authority.

Hence the existence today of ex-colonies where nationalist movements have petered into the thin trickle of sickly new but essentially colonial concoctions – Pakistan, Jamaica, Nigeria and so on.

Hence too, the supreme importance of those non-political figures – the social scientists, historians, creative writers and artists of every kind – to the new societies striving for independence and identity. For it is these cool observers, standing outside the dusty bullring of personal political ambition, on whom we have more and more to depend for giving nationalist movements their true force and direction. They help to identify the real enemy by creating the consciousness which is the only real weapon of small-country nationalism, the only means by which such people can free themselves from colonialism and their only claim to independence.

In the post-war wave of ex-colonial nationalism writers and artists have played increasingly more significant roles. It explains why they have tended to mushroom all over the undeveloped world – not least in the West Indies – articulating, defining, pinpointing. The novels of men like R. K. Narayan and Khushwant Singh, the films of Satayajit Ray, have disbanded Stalky & Co., Mowgli, and all the old noisy paraphernalia of Kipling’s India, to reveal a new India underneath, teeming, not with trick animals and loutish coolies, but with sensate human people no different, in essentials, from the people the cosy British housewife read and felt about in Woman and Home.

The objectives of such art are not narrowly nationalistic, of course. In Japan the spread of brash and brassy Americanism is combatted by the clean and beautiful art-films of directors like Akihiro Kurosawa, but Kurosawa also happens to be one of the earliest and greatest exponents of the new cinema art, the current revolution against the long, debilitating stranglehold of the Hollywood stereotype.

What people like Kurosawa, Narayan, Satyajit Ray have done, essentially, is to provide the world with new vantage points for gaining insights into the behaviour, not only of their own peoples, but of man in general. They have played a very important part in dispelling some of the webs of colonialism, political or cultural. But it would be a mistake to suppose that they provide the only kind of insights useful to an ex-colonial people in search of a sense of identity. Other useful insights, generally of a very different kind, have for years been provided, for instance, by scoffing and unsympathetic English writers who have managed, time and again in the past, to point accurate fingers at one essential aspect or another of the colonial mentality.

The American “Rochester” and Uncle Tom images – which are only stereocast projections of the White American’s conviction of superiority – have no value as art and offer no insights. But a book like Ronald Firbank’s uninhibitedly malicious study of social ambition in Jamaica (Prancing Nigger, 1921) is something altogether different. Here, Indeed, is both art and insight into West Indian behaviour which, despite the malice, we ought to regard as valuable. For Trinidad, Miss Honor Tracey has done something quite as brutal, but in a different way, in her recent novel A Number of Things.

And then there was that remark of Trollope’s about the West Indian Negro “burning to be a white man and a scholar, and puzzling himself with fine words” which drew such indignant nationalistic fire from Dr. Williams. Why, for God’s sake, when a century or so after that remark was made, there is still evidence all around us that it contains some relevant insight into certain intellectual and psychological effects of colonialism?

It is true that Trollope’s intention was malign. It is true that he was talking, not about the limitations of colonialism, but about the limitations of black men. But need we be unduly troubled by that? In so far as an artist is an accurate observer truth will out, no matter what his own prejudices. What is important to us, therefore, is not the motives or prejudices behind Trollope’s observation, but the observation itself as a matter of relevant fact. And the relevant fact here – regardless of what Trollope thought – was a fact about certain psychological effects of colonialism supported by African slavery in the West Indies.

The evidence that Trollope, Firbank, Miss Tracey, and similar writers have all touched on vital weaknesses in the West Indian character is scarcely clearer anywhere than it is in or absurd’ attitudes to honours and pointless privileges conferred by the British government. One of the things we have certainly learned in the last twenty years – if we did not know it before – is the system of petty bribery by which metropolitan imperialism has managed to maintain fifth columns within the colonial societies, ensuring “stability” – that is, a clash of local interests profitable to the metropolitan ruler. It is those imperial powers which made fullest use of these systems of bribery – of which “education” has been a major factor – that have generally succeeded best in their colonial enterprises.

And it should be obvious that of all the paquotille traditionally employed by the British for taming the colonial natives the most intrinsically worthless is that of the Honours award system – an idea that is in itself puerile and public schoolish anyway.

It is true that if lack of actual value were all that could be charged against the system there might actually be arguments in favour of retaining our adherence to it – political arguments, mainly, such as the expediency of humouring the whims of economically useful associates, the undesirability of risking diplomatic offences (in much the same way as we agree to take off our shoes on entering a mosque) and so on.

But there are positive destructive, and peculiarly odious, effects of the system which outweigh such arguments. In Trinidad it causes middle-aged “social workers” with big bosoms and M.B.E’s to say “sixpence” instead of “twelve cents”. It has put me in a terrible personal predicament about how to address my friend’s mother – after calling her Mrs. X from childhood – now that her brilliant husband has been knighted.

These may seem trivial, but are they? The fact is that, in essence and intention, the system is one founded upon a concept of social inequality – a Tory idea. Any serious socialist government in England with a real understanding of the practical benefits of egalitarianism would abolish it in that country tomorrow. In Trinidad or Nigeria or Jamaica it is no more nor less than the uninterrupted continuation of the colonial principle – infiltratory, divisive, socially and psychologically corrupting.

In England nowadays nobody takes this system “seriously” – though it is in fact a rather serious matter, like the House of Lords – and in most cases the Honours are cynically reserved for their therapeutic value in treating tired Tory Office officials, passe politicians and powerful Canadian businessmen with inferiority complexes about not being British.

To understand this is further to understand the nature of such awards to “good” West Indians – yes, Sir Uncle Tom. It is true that in places like Trinidad and Jamaica the awards are no longer nowadays made on the recommendation of the British Governor. But the new system, whereby we ourselves administer the handouts, looks rather worse, if anything, for it implies full acceptance of the ascribed role.

But there is an even more socially evil aspect of this affair, and that is where real merit is involved. Why should Mr. Frank Worrell – who everybody agrees is, or has been, a superb cricketer – wish (or for that matter agree) to be henceforth known as Sir Frank? The answer is that the title confers a certain formal status and privilege in the society. And it is harmful precisely because it has translated a real achievement into a formal privilege – which is a debasement. Since the formal title is intrinsically irrelevant to merit as a cricketer it can hardly be expected to do anything but detract attention from the true nature of that merit, thereby detracting from the total social value of the achievement. Worrell – who is really a far more important and valuable person – has been sold up to Sir Frank. One only has to listen to the public utterances, in London and Trinidad, of another famous Knight-Cricketer to get a stark illustration of the principle.

It is a maddening – but not surprising – fact that, lashed and flooded as we are by the huge breakers of American culture, the West Indies and the Caribbean in general seem to be receptive only to the worst – the pinball and chewing gum and jukebox – aspects of that culture. Instead of Tom Paine we get only Dr. Kildare. One would suppose that an ex-colonial society might have some of the emotional repugnance for formal ascriptions of privilege that is one of the few redeeming features of the American character.

But it was no doubt too much to expect from a society thick with the sort of people that Trollope and Firbank and Miss Tracey, in their different ways, have described. What we have certainly done consistently is to select the worst of two worlds – British snobbery and American vulgarity.

So what we can expect – any minute now – is that they will make him ‘mightier yet!’ Hail, Sir Sparrow, and goodbye to our best calypsonian!