That for his long stay;
Abroad and away in a distant land.
Turned a helpful hand;
With non-barbaric plan: night long.
Tame as of the shrew; headlong
He sprung to civilize the Britons ‘till farewell song.
By Courtenay Barnett
Dear beloved, we are again at the altar of the Almighty Truth. Gathered for delivery and receipt of words of enlightening and everlasting truth.
Our topic today is the mission of civilization which saw me trying to redeem the British from lives of drudgery and stoic resolution.
The beginning is normally the correct place to start, but here already steadily advancing towards the peroration and already at the third paragraph might do just as well – so let us begin.
In the beginning I lived in Jamaica. When I was sixteen, I was shipped off to England to further my education. Projecting that I would be doing a first degree and post-grad studies, I was the fortunate recipient of a flat ( ‘apartment’ as the Americans term it). My father sagaciously and with considerable financial foresight, bought a place in a well appointed part of London – south east London in Upper Norwood where I lived during the course of my studies.
Now, the shift from the Caribbean to England was initially a culture shock. ‘They’ were not me and I was not them. Despite the differences I quickly learned the ways and largely adjusted to patterns of behaviour and alternate ways of living and doing that were quite different to me than the way we did things back home. However, I vowed to remain civilized and refused to convert to certain barbaric and insularly withdrawn ways accompanied by antiquated and dowdy existential practices.
Barbaric is a strong word, but at its worst, it was actually a form of villainous sadistic introspection accompanied by withdrawal into one’s own personality. Simply put, the majority of people were not gregarious and not instinctively and/or habitually warmly open. They were not unduly hostile, but the personality was one of cautious rectitude accompanied by politeness. At its best, politeness was present to a fault. Of course I am reflecting loosely and collectively, but the general at times can nevertheless sum up the specific. Watching the cricket crowd at Lords and observing the English is quite a different tell on cultural disposition, be it at Lords or the Oval, of being within the West Indian stands, versus watching the game with the stiff and stoic upper lip. In those days much of that was needed by the English in great quantity for it was then that under the captaincy of Clive Lloyd the West Indies was on a fifteen to eighteen year winning streak. But back to the point and the mission. The best summary of English cultural traits is written by a Hungarian travel author, George Mikes, in ‘ How to be an alien’, being the most successful of all his many humourous books. Mikes wrote, “the English have no soul; they have the understatement instead.” To sum up what I was getting at earlier, they are a reserved lot of people, and so the West Indian cricket ground cavorting is simply not British. The English will sit quietly, intelligently, and in a deliberately studied fashion watch the game while the spirited West Indians can do what the bloody hell they want to; they simply are not British. There I stared the problem in its face and I was determined to fix it. But how so?
When I moved into my flat, it took me far too long to get to know my neighbours. There we were coming in and out – seeing the same faces week in and week out and it took so bloody long to get to know people. Not that they were impolite ( far from it) – much too polite and withdrawn. Time for a change.
I like parties. Nothing like a few drinks, friends, music and dancing to raise the spirits. Good start. My first party in true West Indian style got going around 11p.m. and went all the way through into the morning. Those who drove were heading home somewhere between 5 or 6 in the morning and the buses for others would start running around 6 a.m. ( no all night services back then in the 1970s). So, a neighbour rings the bell and comes in and marches to the record player and takes the record off and complains to me that he has to go to work early next morning. I turn the music down a bit, the food is served around 2:00 a.m. and we party all night and morning long. Not the best start, but a start nevertheless. How can I civilize them? How can I introduce levity, laughter, humour of an effervescent type and not studied, wry or intellectually clever humour with subtle undertones and the ol’ double entendre ? How can I make them all in all less dull and dreary people? That was my challenge – that was my mission, hard as it may seem, I was determined to give it my best.
New party and new strategy and this time I invite everyone in earshot of my flat. They all get in the groove and love it, curry goat, chicken, rice and peas and more and music like they had not heard before. Ah, I am making progress. And so it continued over the years with eager inquiries coming as to when would be the next one. They were finally letting their hair down and were realising that there is more to life than work and home and vice versa each day.
I was not the first from the Caribbean who had this concern, for there was the well established Notting Hill Carnival addressing the problem on a mass scale each year. It had become, during my years in London, the largest carnival in all of Europe. All a part of the civilizing mission born of care and concern for responding to the hungry needs of the backward British psyche.
Face it, being reserved, very reserved, can be and is astoundingly boring and ultimately of no good for one’s psychological well-being. It takes forever and a day to get to know one’s neighbours and making good acquaintances and developing friendships are both in the general English milieu – laborious tasks instead of joyous endeavours which are supposed to feed the heart and enliven the spirit. Face it, life is not long enough along the English trajectory to have a happy life with such great distances between meeting a person to thereafter walking the very long road to friendship . How does one get them to open up spontaneously and – well – to put it bluntly – simply learn habitually to live as happy human beings? All a part of the hard task taken on.
So, there was this particularly good party. College friends, flat mate’s friends and acquaintances, the wholly bloody adjoining neighborhood of inhabitants of flats and a truly cosmopolitan bunch of people with music blaring in merriment. Then there is my friend Trevor’s Uncle Bert. Trevor was also from Jamaica and in England studying and he lived with his uncle, not far down the road from me in Croydon. Uncle Bert accompanies Trevor and jumps right into it. Did he now. Ol’ Bert ends up dancing ( if dancing it can be so termed) with this Mayfair Playboy Bunny in a secluded corner for about 5 or 6 songs. She happened to be the live in girlfriend of my immediate neighbour who had been to my parties before; before he and she met Bert that is. Well, Bert seemed to be making the breast of it – sorry – best of it, and she seemed to be enjoying every moment, but then, there was this boyfriend who was not amused. For some strange reason, once the music took a little break and Bert too, the boyfriend, it appears, made a hasty dash for his girlfriend followed by an equally hasty retreat home, next door. If Bert ever came to another party, I cannot recall that the neighbor ever did – or – if he did it was a quick hi and goodbye. I wonder why? Ah well, despite the interlocutor meeting such as with ol’ Bert, the mission overall proceeded over the years, quite well.
Over time, my parties became a staple. The English ( at least those who could attend my entertainment college) learned in rapid order how to be open, warm, friendly and even indulgent at times ( someone said “Uncle Bert”?).
Yet as the years wore on, I noticed that there seemed to be an overarching depression within Britain. I was perturbed for I had been doing my best to assist the people uplift in spirits from their psychological plight. So, I investigated. It turned out that during my years abroad, this coincided with the West Indies consistently, for an extended period, beating England in their national game, cricket. This led to great depression. What could I do? The mission, not only in my flat, but in places such as Dalston, Brixton, and up north in Birmingham and Manchester and across the country the mission had effective and active volunteers engaging the English, with considerable success over a number of years. We could not permit West Indian cricket success to defeat the mission. Churchill’s words came to mind, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills;…”
The West Indies cricket team did all that and not even in beach cricket could England then defeat us. But, the victories were having a deleterious effect on the national psyche which was in turn adversely affecting the civilizing mission. There simply had to be an answer and a reversal before the several years of “blood, toil, tears and sweat” were expended all for nought. Blood in Brixton rioting against racist mistreatment; toil in factories rebuilding Britain after World War 11; tears at how West Indians were so badly mistreated; and my sweat in a hot flat throwing parties in diligent service to and support of the noble cause of civilization.
The solution came as a flash of inspiration. The West Indies, for the greater good of Britain, would simply have to stop winning in playing the national game of cricket. After all, they did invent the game; we merely showed them how to play it masterfully. So said, so done. Once more, Winston Churchill came to the rescue of his people, for as he said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” We were successful in the extreme; English failures in cricket, with us being humane people of conscience, care and concern, simply could not permit this to be fatal for the English psyche; and so in volunteering and discretely desisting from winning, we reinstilled in the English the courage to continue playing the game of cricket. It was a joyous period to see what we had done once the smiles started to shine once more on English faces at Lords, the Oval and elsewhere.
I can reflect now after more than four decades having finally departed London to resume residence in the Caribbean. Just goes to show that it takes all types to make a world convivial and pleasant; and, cultural conversion is not always a bad thing. I learned how to be serious about my studies and advanced myself to a worthy profession and in exchange I gave some to the best years of my life to naturalising the British into being human. I don’t take full credit, nor for that matter, claim any exclusivity on applying the mission’s methodology. Last time I checked the mission was still in progress and others seemed to have also made great headway; for here is but one recent example as proof:-
Fair cop ol’ Blighty? And a jolly good time was had by many in the best spirit of the civilizing mission.
One love and no Amen for this sermon.
Courtenay Barnett is a graduate of London University. His areas of study were economics, political science and international law. He has been a practising lawyer for over thirty years, has been arrested for defending his views, and has argued public interest and human rights cases. He lives and works in the Caribbean.