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Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack

First published in 1980, Austin Clarke’s memoir of his education in 1940s Barbados is, on the surface, an uncomplicated and affable tale of a colonial boyhood. But captured in its pages – and typified by that splendid title – is a laser-sharp portrait of the stratifications and petty tyrannies of the colonial system and the daily idiocies brought about by imposing a structure of English rules and attitudes on a small Caribbean island.

Clarke’s book opens with his admission, as a scholarship boy, into the prestigious Combermere School, an establishment which prepared boys for careers in the Civil Service or the Law with a strict regime of Latin and French, Pythagoras’ theorem and flogging. In his wonderfully vivid account of wartime Barbados, Clarke exposed the faultlines of colonial Bajan life. Black and white, shortage and abundance, the poor in their shacks and the Governor in his mansion; the tensions of the imperial system are ever-present. Barbados is a society pulled between its imperial ties and the lure of consumerist ‘Amurca’.

The book ends with the boys sitting the Senior Cambridge Overseas Examination, a terrifying ordeal that determined a boy’s life: sending him forward into a lucrative job or pitching him back into the poverty of his village. Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack is packed with sharply observed characters and written with a joyous and sprightly conversational rhythm. It is both a wry and perceptive critique of the colonial system and a sharply observed account of childhood.

Signal Books Ltd, 36 Minster Road, Oxford, OX4 1LY, England. Ian Randle Publishers, 11 Cunningham Avenue, Box 686, Kingston 6, Jamaica.

New Internationalist issue 364 magazine cover This article is from the February 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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