The godfather

By John T. Gilmore

Frank Collymore: A Biography, by Edward Baugh
(Ian Randle Publishers, ISBN 978-9766-373-917, 304 pp)

Frank Collymore

Frank Collymore. Photograph courtesy the Estate of Frank A. Collymore

By many people’s standards, Frank Collymore (1893–1980) led a life of quiet obscurity. For nearly all of his eighty-seven years, his home was the modest house on the outskirts of Bridgetown in which he had been born. Only occasionally, and for relatively brief periods, did he ever leave Barbados. As a pupil, and then teacher, he spent sixty years at the same school, where he was intermittently acting headmaster, but never achieved the substantive position, probably because the fact that he had never been to university counted against him.

Nevertheless, as Edward Baugh’s fine biography shows, Collymore’s influence was far-reaching in a number of ways. He published several volumes of poetry and a number of short stories, most of which were posthumously collected in The Man Who Loved Attending Funerals (1993). As a lover of literature, he was also a dedicated and selfless encourager of the work of others, lending books to aspiring writers from their schooldays onwards, publishing their early work in Bim, the literary magazine he edited for more than fifty issues from the 1940s to the 1970s, and helping them to find other markets, especially through the relationship he established with Henry Swanzy, producer of the influential BBC radio programme Caribbean Voices.

Collymore was involved in a number of amateur dramatic groups and appeared on the local stage in some fifty productions between 1942 and 1967. Even after that, as he was approaching eighty, he appeared in four local television productions in the late 1960s and early 70s. As a teacher in an era when the widespread belief in “discipline” often found expression in a ferocious use of corporal punishment (as anyone who remembers the horrific description of a flogging administered by a primary school head teacher in George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin will know), Collymore believed that getting boys to learn could be achieved by inspiring love rather than fear. While he did not succeed in winning over all his colleagues to this point of view, his influence on generations of boys was profound, and played an important part in making Combermere one of the leading schools in Barbados, a position it continues to enjoy to this day.

Baugh is the ideal author of a life of Collymore. Himself a poet, he is now emeritus professor of English at the University of the West Indies, Mona, and well known for his academic studies of Caribbean literature. He knew Collymore personally for many years, has been able to draw on interviews and correspondence with Collymore’s family and friends, and has also made substantial use of the extensive collection of Collymore’s unpublished papers and correspondence preserved at the Department of Archives in Barbados, and of archival collections elsewhere (Swanzy’s papers and those of the Barbadian novelist Austin Clarke). He is the author of a tribute to Collymore published as long ago as 1966, and of several other published pieces about him, and the present volume — an excerpt from which was published in the May 2008 issue of the CRB — is clearly a labour of love which has been long in the making.

It offers a detailed account of the different, but always inter-related, aspects of Collymore’s life, as an actor, a writer, and, as Baugh puts it, “editor and literary godfather.” Particularly illuminating are the account of Bim and the extracts from Collymore’s correspondence with Swanzy and with writers such as Lamming, Clarke, Edgar Mittelholzer, and Derek Walcott, which demonstrate clearly the significance of Bim and of Collymore himself in encouraging the astonishing development of Anglophone Caribbean literature which took place from the late 1940s onwards. Baugh gives a nuanced and largely positive reading of Collymore’s own poetry and short stories: though some of this writing is derivative and limited, it does include pieces which Baugh suggests will well repay the attention of the modern reader. While Collymore’s direct influence, as a writer rather than an editor, on later Caribbean writers would appear to be limited, some of his work, particularly in prose fiction, has a pioneering quality.

Baugh does not shy away from what he and others have seen as a central issue of Collymore’s career. In a Barbados which was for much of his lifetime dominated by a white oligarchy, Collymore, as a person of mixed racial ancestry, as (in his own phrase, which has been quoted by several later writers about him) “one of the whiter of the non-whites,” was in an ambiguous position. He had a decidedly Eurocentric view of literature, and was sceptical about the African roots of Barbadian culture. Nevertheless, Bim encouraged writers of all colours, and Collymore gave ample space in its pages to those, such as Kamau Brathwaite, with whose views on art and culture (in spite of personal friendship) he did not necessarily agree. His somewhat conservative advice (discussed in detail by Baugh) on how to express Bajan speech in writing was acknowledged as helpful by both Austin Clarke and Timothy Callender, who are widely recognised as masters of the extensive possibilities of this literary form.

During his stage career, theatre in Barbados was dominated by amateur groups consisting almost entirely of expatriate and local whites. Collymore appears to have been largely content to accept whatever roles were offered to him, and did not do much to change the situation, even if he sometimes got work as ushers for black boys from Combermere, so they could see productions to which they would not otherwise have been admitted. Some critics, such as the cultural activist Elombe Mottley, who was one of the creators of the Barbados National Theatre Workshop in the 1960s, felt that Collymore could have done much more. Although his friends included political activists such as the white radical “TT” Lewis and the black lawyer Grantley Adams — who became the leader of the ultimately successful working-class movement for political enfranchisement and democracy in Barbados — Collymore was never by any stretch of the imagination one himself. Baugh sensibly suggests that this should not be held against him: “Some people are political activists and others are not, and the world has benefited and suffered from both kinds.”

One aspect which Baugh does not really discuss is the extent to which Collymore’s chosen career might have imposed limitations on him. Clearly he enjoyed teaching, and it was a profession with certain attractions. At a time when most people worked a six-day week, he had Saturdays off, as well as being able to enjoy the school vacations. He could play cricket and football for free (he was for many years a cricketer of a reasonably high standard), and, when he was first appointed in 1910, as a very young, single man, the salary of forty dollars a month “was at that time most attractive.” However, teachers in Barbados were civil servants, and subject to rules and regulations which imposed constraints, and in those days they were by no means assured of a job for life. Something of what this meant is shown by the fact that when in 1934 another teacher, Gordon Bell, published a very funny — but not, one would have thought, particularly provocative — satirical book called Wayside Sketches: Pen Pictures of Barbadian Life, he had to do so under a pseudonym.

In an island where keeping one’s business private has always been a problem, Collymore may have felt that his somewhat unconventional personal life (which is discussed by Baugh) before his long and happy second marriage in 1947 made him vulnerable. With family responsibilities, a teacher’s salary may have seemed less wonderful than it had at first, but it would not have been easy for him to find alternative employment. While Baugh does mention Collymore’s scepticism about religion, he only touches relatively briefly on the large number of poems which were never published in Collymore’s lifetime. Some of these, particularly “Dithyramb of Dislikes”, which is printed in Remembering the Sea: An Introduction to Frank A. Collymore, edited by Philip Nanton (2004), suggest a Collymore who was perhaps rather more radical than he appears in the pages of Baugh’s book. For most of Collymore’s lifetime, Barbados was noted for its religiosity and social conservatism, and he clearly felt he had good reasons for keeping some of his opinions to himself, or sharing them only with a small circle of friends.

Baugh has produced a model of what a literary biography should be. As I said when reviewing Nanton’s book in the CRB in May 2005, it is to be hoped that it will encourage many new readers to turn to Collymore’s own work. A new edition of Collymore’s complete, or at least selected, poems and stories would be extremely welcome.


The Caribbean Review of Books, July 2010

John T. Gilmore is an associate professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick. He is a former managing editor of Caribbean Week.