By Ameena Gafoor
Edward Baugh. FRANK COLLYMORE: A BIOGRAPHY. Kingston and Miami: Ian Randle Publishers. 302 pp. ISBN 978-976-637-391-7 (hbk).
In a tribute to his dear friend and colleague, John Wickham says: “I knew Frank Collymore better than to accept the often repeated description of him as a simple, unaffected person.
Unaffected, maybe, but far from simple … he was a complex and fascinating personality, full of niches and corners of feeling, amazingly stubborn unless you understood that the stubbornness was the expression of a hard and refined opinion.”
FRANK COLLYMORE: A BIOGRAPHY is an equally fascinating study not only because it examines the passions, life, work and envied temperament of an iconic figure but also because it opens a window onto the social history of colonial Barbados in the first half of the twentieth century, capturing some of its mores, neuroses, contradictions and ambivalences.
FRANK APPLETON COLLYMORE was born at Woodville in Barbados, not far from its capital, Bridgetown, on 7th January 1893.
As a teacher, poet, actor, and editor of one of the Caribbean’s seminal literary magazines, BIM, Collymore made a lasting impression upon Barbadian culture but would have resisted any suggestion that his life was remarkable enough to be documented or that he was an inspiration for countless others, both in Barbados and the wider West Indian islands.
When in 1969, he published an autobiographical essay entitled “At the Turn of the Century” (BIM 49), the self-effacing Collymore refused to develop it into an autobiography.
He wrote in a letter to Edward Baugh: “Glad you liked my ‘recollections’, but as regards a sort of serialised autobiography, I don’t really think it would be all that interesting . . . most of my life has been so very uneventful that I’m sure an account of all the trivia would be rather boring. Schooldays –- cricket — visits to Dominica – the amateur theatre – BIM – but otherwise? My ‘career’ as editor and actor didn’t begin until the early ‘40s – between my schooldays (1910) and then is a great gap fixed. Teaching?” (August 9, 1969).
Five years later, he attempted some recollections of his childhood (published in two instalments, BIM 57 and BIM 58) that covered up to age six but could not be persuaded to continue.
It is to Professor Baugh’s credit that, long after Collymore’s death (July, 1980), he persisted in reconstructing the salient features of his life and his invaluable contribution to the arts and culture of Barbadian society out of Collymore’s letters and journals, and interviews conducted with Collymore’s relatives, friends, colleagues and “the many people whose lives he touched.” Poet and scholar, Professor Baugh must himself have grown from Collymore’s friendship and mentorship, his wit and charming personality. Baugh’s earliest correspondence with Collymore appears to be 9th August, 1969.
The work is divided into seven Chapters, the first of which, “Beginnings,” traces Collymore’s antecedents.
Painstaking archival research reveals that the Collymores of Barbados trace their ancestry to Captain Robert Cullimore, a Scotsman, who settled in the island in the mid-seventeenth century.
One of his descendants, his namesake Robert Collymore, was to spawn the branch of the family from which Frank Collymore came.
Frank Collymore’s great-great-grandfather, Renn Philips Collymore, was the son of Robert Collymore and Amaryllis Renn Phillips, a mulatto slave who was later manumitted with her eleven children and amply provided for financially with a plantation of her own complete with slaves.
The research into the family history makes instructive reading in the context of the rigid social hierarchy of Barbadian society.
A consciousness of the power of colour, race and class in the former plantation societies is betrayed in Collymore’s remarks on a photograph of his great-grandfather thus: “Indeed it is quite impossible to look at great-grandfather Collymore’s features in their stern fixity without noting immediately the negroid cast of countenance, the stiff but not too closely curling hair, the spread of the nostrils, much too wide for those of a passably white man and the shape of mouth and lips” (p. 7).
When the young Frank Collymore asked his father if they were related to the most distinguished Collymore of their time, Sir Allan Collymore, Chief Justice of Barbados, the reply came, “We must be, but very slightly. You see, they are the WHITE branch of the family.”
The lines of colour and class were so deeply drawn that while Frank, in his youth, knew of two or three other Collymore families, “there was no social intercourse between them and us: only a formal ‘how-d’ye-do’ was exchanged by way of greeting”. One is immediately reminded of Edgar Mittelholzer’s psychic dilemma as told in A Swarthy Boy, his deep anguish at the discovery that he was of less than pure German blood.
Collymore experienced his fair share of anxiety and ambivalence about his heredity and racial identity.
Arnold Rampersad, in his biography of Langston Hughes, relates the latter’s experience of editing the anthology The Poetry of the Negro, which included work by Caribbean poets: “Most annoying was the attitude of various colour-conscious West Indians, ‘whom one drop of white blood makes white, and not the other way round as it is here.’
Afraid of being mistaken for a Negro, Frank Collymore of Barbados, the editor of BIM magazine, first refused to have his work included, then relented” (p. 10). It is our view that Collymore was neither black nor white and resisted any attempt towards racial categorization. Collymore himself was known to be the most affable, gentle mulatto often mistaken for white (pp. 8, 9).
In 1903, when he was 10 yrs old, Collymore entered Combermere School on a Government exhibition and was to remain there for the next 60 years, changing roles from pupil to teacher in 1909. He would be instrumental in effecting change in several areas of school life before formally retiring in 1958.
Collymore finally stopped teaching in July 1963 but would serve on the school’s Board of Governors for the next 10 years. The generosity, friendship, respect, concern for their well-being, and recognition of their individuality that Collymore displayed towards his students and former students have been attested to by any number of them in the work: “He was generous of himself, of his time, of his knowledge, of his books, and of his money, this last all the more remarkable in someone who had so little of it” (p. 49).
A pocket of the Barbadian literati withheld praise for Collymore. For instance, Elombe Mottley, a moving figure in the Barbados National Theatre Workshop at the time complains of Collymore’s “culpable eschewal” of political activism: “He was a waiter, inert, devoid of politics or political interests . . .” (p. 69) while Sir Alexander Hoyos has been quoted as saying, “The truth is that Colly found politics to be the most boring of activities” (p. 104) but that did not preclude the introspective man from keeping company with loud political firebrands (p. 104).
Nonetheless, Major Noott, Headmaster of Combermere School, wrote to the Governor of the island, Sir Robert Arundell (March 21, 1957): “. . . I regard Mr. Collymore not only as a trusted colleague, and an outstanding Schoolmaster, but as one who has played a leading part in the growth of a culture and literature indigenous to the West Indies . . . . In his veins the two racial stocks from which he is descended have blended into a harmony whose chords are vibrating across the Caribbean . . . “(p. 82). In the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List of 1958, Collymore was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (p. 82).
The revelations about his growing up, his friendships, love and marriage and his active participation in local theatre are instructive in their own right but it is in Collymore the writer-in-the-making, in his relationships and rich letter exchanges with other emerging writers in that crucial period of the gestation of a literary culture in the archipelago of scattered islands, his instrumentality, as editor of BIM, in encouraging writers, that we are most interested and a substantial chapter has been devoted to this absorbing piece of literary history.
Collymore and Therold Barnes became co-editors of BIM, after its founder E. L. Cozier relocated to Trinidad after only one issue (December 1942). Barnes passed away too soon and Collymore remained editor until his own death. The magazine provided a vital outlet for aspiring writers languishing in the colonies and for Collymore’s own prolific surge in fiction and poetry writing.
Effectively, Collymore began his publishing career with “The Best Man”, a short story appearing in the Xmas Souvenir Edition of the Barbados Advocate for 1928.
Many of his stories that appeared in BIM in the 1940s had been written more than 20 years earlier and modestly set aside.
In honing his own writing skills, Collymore paid keen attention to contemporary writers (such as Somerset Maugham for whom “the essentials of good prose are simplicity, lucidity and euphony”; Edward Lear’s nonsense verse; Hilaire Belloc with his “grave absurdities” and Edgar Allan Poe with his interest in the dark side of the human mind), their style, language, tone and intent.
Another interesting aspect of Collymore’s apprenticeship was his diary upon which he “projected an added dimension” in that “it would be not only a record of day-to-day happenings, but would also incorporate ‘incidents from his life, especially from [his] childhood’ … a sort of autobiographical medley” (p. 135) that proved to be a gold mine for the biographer.
Professor Baugh finds that “[T]he mix of diary record, philosophizing, carefully articulated ideas on school teaching, recall of family history and early life, did indeed produce an engaging ‘autobiographical medley,’ which might, if completed, have resulted in a novel kind of autobiography.
The sense of a shaping, artistic principle informing the writing, but un-schematically so, is underscored by the fact that, having abandoned the diary after three-and-a-half years, he returned to it 28 years later in order to do a summary filling-in of the years in between, and bring to it a sort of completion” (p. 136).
Collymore developed a “lucid, precise prose style” (p. 136) that did not preclude his use of “the delightfully elaborate, eccentric, ungrammatical English (of, for example, the unofficial bookmaker at the races in “A Day at the Races”) anticipating Austin Clarke’s great achievement with Bajan speech” (p. 139). Collymore’s stories were virtually “a small window opening on to Barbadian social history at the turn of the century” while several stories could well have been chapters in what was to become an outstanding category of West Indian prose fiction, the novel of childhood.
Notwithstanding his imbibing from English and American writers, Collymore strove for an indigenous literary tradition.
Some of his poems are dedicated to his “ancestors”, meaning the three groups that went into the making of the Barbadian people: the privileged white colonizers (the merchants and adventurers); the poor whites; and the enslaved Africans, but we note that he did not see the blacks, the Africans, as having brought anything appreciable by way of customs and traditions to the making of Barbadian culture (p. 146).
His biographer attributes this reservation as possibly partly due to the fear among the lighter-coloured and middle-class West Indians, of an emerging consciousness of Africa among the labouring masses and partly to Collymore’s peaceful spirit, as Barbadians, both black and white, mixed freely, schooled, worked and played with an easy acceptance of each other even as Edward Kamau Brathwaite started to publish his Arrivants Trilogy (1967-1969) which re-opened the African psychic connection and new awareness of the African self.
We note, in passing, that Collymore was not exactly blown away by Brathwaite’s African poems, especially The Trilogy, and this, in a man, we are told, who was given to much critical self-analysis.
There was possibly a limitation to Collymore’s poetry as he himself must have understood the great challenge that poetry places on the true poet, the use of language that not only charms but also shocks the reader into awareness of the human condition, two notable exceptions of his being “By Each Let This Be Heard” and “Newsreel from Buchenwald” (p. 143). As Baugh notes critically, Collymore’s poetry, is “benign, and perhaps too evenly accommodating” and leaves out the “pain and inequity” of Barbadians living together (p. 144) whereas the short stories achieve a more in-depth portrayal of the psychic condition of his subjects.
It is important to note that “although Collymore’s cultural taste and view of the Caribbean were outdated in relation to the new mood sweeping the Caribbean as he moved into his eighties, this did not limit BIM’s open-door policy” towards contributors whose views differed from his own. For all of that, Collymore’s Notes for A Glossary of Words and Phrases of Barbadian Dialect (1955), went through four other editions in his lifetime, and a sixth one appeared in 1992, hailed as a pioneering work that paved the way for such as Richard Allsopp’s Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage (1990).
Time and space prevent us from highlighting more of the rich exchanges between Frank Collymore and some of the eager writers of the day but Baugh’s biographical work ensures that the light of a modest man continues to burn for later generations.
The editor of The Arts Forum’s Page, Ameena Gafoor, can be reached by e-mail at: [email protected] or Telephone: 592 227 6825.
Volume 5 Numbers 1 & 2 of THE ARTS JOURNAL is available at all leading bookstores or from the editor or from Bernadette Persaud at [email protected] or Telephone: 220 3337. Back issues are available.
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