Saturday, 27 August 2011



My Liberal Education

Miss Madden who taught me in junior school was - at least I think she was – a fairly cultivated sort of person.  She loved poetry and stories and we loved listening to her reading to us. She wasn’t a beautiful woman. I could see that, even at the age of eight or nine, but she wore nice clothes with bright dangling beads and her straight black hair worn in a fringe was tight to her head as if she wore a helmet. I liked Miss Madden who must have been in her forties when I knew her.

And she taught magical history lessons. How we beat Napoleon and won the battle of Trafalgar; described the treachery of an Indian prince and the Black Hole of Calcutta; and about when we whipped the Spanish Armada and how our soldiers beat off the savages at Rorke’s Drift in South Africa; and about Wolfe’s troops in Canada, scaling the Heights of Abraham, to defeat the French. What examples to all of us. Never any doubts about us and our courage, because we were a strong, adventurous, noble race. How could we not win?

Usually the teachers you like will occasionally tell jokes but I remember only one joke from Miss Madden. In the days before photo-copiers you had to put a ‘skin’ on the tumbler and then turn it by hand and the copies would slowly chug out. But before operating the machine it was smeared with a thick, black, gooey ink which came out of what looked like an oversized tooth-paste tube. That was when Miss Madden used to crack her only joke which, though expected, always seemed so fresh and newly minted.

She would hold up the tube of black ink and say: ‘Darkies toothpaste.’ And how we laughed and smacked each other on the shoulder and repeated the words to each other. Darkies toothpaste. Ridiculous. We all knew that they had white teeth.

Maybe after that we’d have singing and many’s the time we sang ‘Swanee River’ about the ‘darkies’ on ‘the old plantation’. Why children in north-east England in the 1930s were singing about such an alien world mystifies me now but the adults of that time did not question such usage.

Even my grandfather, a jokeless man if ever there was one, used to refer – in what context I cannot recall – to ‘a ginger-headed darkie’ and we used to laugh at the absurdity of the image.

In the book, Mr Pybus the schoolmaster speaks to his class of the glories of the British Empire with the same casual abandon and the same unquestioned assumptions of English superiority.  Note the emphasis on ‘English’. 

'We've got a new world map.'
Mr Pybus was unrolling it, holding it by one hand under his chin until, opened out, it covered his knees.
'And look here,' he said, waving his free hand airily across the surface in front of him, 'this in red.  See it?'
He paused like the proprietor of a well‑stocked emporium, smiling at the class as though he was about to reveal a personal triumph to them.
'This in red?  Eh?  Well, it's all ours.  Belongs to us.  The British Empire.'
Any other day Joshua would have been enthralled.  To learn that he was heir to all that, that others owed so much to him and his fellow Englishmen, would have entranced him. Even today, his neighbour, Michael Lawrence, with no elbows to his jacket sleeves, swelled with the pride of ownership.  The four other occupants of the Windsor desk were equally impressed.  All these darkies they had beaten.  India.  Africa.  Jackie Udall eased his feet in his brother's cast‑off boots.  Betty Wright stopped picking at the purple‑daubed spot on her face; Ernie Pattison's open mouth betrayed his black and broken teeth; and Alan Hogg ran his hand through the fringe in front of his close‑shaven scalp.  The whole class, every one of the sixty boys and girls, treated the information with proper respect and wonder.
'Think of these people before we went,' Mr Pybus told them.  'Poor, benighted savages.'
'Not all darkies either,' Mr Pybus was saying. 'Up there,' ‑ he pointed at Canada ‑ 'they were Frenchmen.'
Now he moved to Australia and New Zealand.  'They're ours too.  And they're white.'
Mr Pybus paused to take a deep breath, heightening the drama of his tale.  It was important to him, to these bairns, to know what Englishmen were doing for people in other places, people without advantages.  He tugged at the ends of his generous moustache, preparing to launch into the next stage.  He would just be brief today, give a broad picture, let them know of Wolfe's victory, the gallantry at Rorke's Drift, the treachery of the Indian prince at the Black Hole of Calcutta, the lack of civilisation before the English reached Australia and New Zealand.  He would give more detailed accounts of each event later in the year.
'The White Man's Burden,' he was saying when there came a knock on the glass pane of the classroom door. 

Enlightenment, Mr Pybus is telling them. It’s our gift to the world.

And it’s what Miss Madden in her history lessons implied and her comment about the ‘darkies toothpaste’ never struck us or our parents or grandparents as other than a really good joke.

And it’s from these kinds of long-fermenting memories that stories come

Hope you found this interesting. Do respond! And if you did, do forward it to others!

I’ll be back next week!!!

And Such Great Names as These by Allen Makepeace
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This book is also available on Amazon Kindle
75% of the book’s profits go to the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association

1 comment:

  1. You're so right--it's exactly from those kinds of "long-fermenting memories" that stories come. Love your blog and I'll be back!