In the Land of my Literary Ancestors
Preserving our literary heritage
by Petamber Persaud
March 11, 2007
The first major migration of West Indians to the UK started in 1948 with the sea vessel ‘Empire Windrush’ transporting some 492 West Indians to the UK now known as the ‘Windrush generation’. My trip, to attend a conference hosted by the University of Warwick last month, was about some six decades later and by air.
As I travelled across the United Kingdom, the land of my literary ancestors, fond memories of those endearing ‘nursery’ school days came back to me evoked by neat rolling meadows on gentle hillocks and dales with bales of hay against quaint brownstone houses with cows that could jump over the moon, woolly white sheep and beautiful black sheep.
It was like re-entering the English story book world of my formative years at a time when all literature we consumed was English literature.
And more, they were educational, seemingly without any didactic intention, a seamless teaching/learning instrument. Without knowing it, I was learning to count with ‘One, two, buckle my shoe’, ‘This old man/He played one’, ‘As I was going to St. Ives/ I met a man with seven wives,/Each wife had seven sacks, each sack had seven cats, /Each cat had seven kits: kits, cats, sacks and wives,/How many were going to St. Ives?’ and ‘Ten little Indians’. See me going through my paces in buckling my shoes, knocking at the door, going ‘a-courting’ etc. Without knowing it, I was repeating the days of the week in
Born on a Monday,
Christened on Tuesday,
Married on Wednesday…’.
Other such helpful nursery rhymes include ‘Here we go ‘round the mulberry bush’, ‘Wash on a Monday’ and ‘Monday Child’.
How useful we found, ‘Thirty days hath September,/April, June and November;/ February has twenty eight alone/All the rest have thirty-one/Except in Leap Year, that's the time/When February's Days are twenty-nine.’
The nursery rhymes were not all nonsense verses; there were morals to impart and virtues to acquire as in ‘A wise old owl sat in an oak,/The more he heard, the less he spoke;/The less he spoke, the more he heard; /Why aren't we all like that wise old bird?’. Then the reminder, ‘An apple a day/Keeps the doctor away’ and ‘Jack, be nimble,/Jack, be quick,/Jack, jump over /The candlestick’, ‘Come let's to bed, says Sleepy-head’, ‘He that would thrive/Must rise at five;/He that hath thriven/May lie till seven;/And he that by the plough would thrive,/Himself must either hold or drive’.
Even the nonsense rhymes were worth their salt as aiding in vocabulary development, ‘Croak, said the frog’, ‘Hey Diddle Diddle’, ‘Cuckoo cuckoo what do you do’, and ‘Sippity sup, sippity sup’- onomatopoeia slurping off the tip of the tongue.
What a treat – the nursery rhymes that extended into stories like ‘The owl and the pussy cat’, ‘Humpty Dumpty’, ‘Little Bo-Peep’, ‘The farmer in the dell’. We fell in love with the animals that wove magic around us as in ‘This little piggy’, ‘Three little kittens’, ‘Three blind mice’, ‘Little Robin Readbreast/Sat upon a rail./Niddle, naddle went his head;/Wiggle, waggle went his tail’. It was the wish then of many of us little uns to go to London to visit the Queen. (What a coincidence and added attraction that I was visiting London when the movie, ‘The Queen’, won an Oscar award in Best Actress category.)
Being there like turning back the hand of time and wishing to be like ‘pussycat pussycat’ going ‘to London to visit the Queen’.
Except there, in the land of nursery rhymes, I noted that there were some changes to the text of at least one of my childhood verses. The once popular children’s rhyme, ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ has undergone numerous alterations in the UK over the years in order to make it appear and sound politically correct.
It has evolved from ‘Baa baa black sheep’ to ‘Baa baa green sheep’ to ‘Baa baa happy sheep’ and presently to ‘Baa baa rainbow sheep’. Despite the hullabaloo, that nursery rhyme remains the same to me as when I first encountered it: ‘Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?/Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full!/One for the master, one for the dame,/And one for the little boy who lives down the lane’.
Whether it was my favourite nursery rhyme, I cannot remember now; they were all so enchanting, endearing and entertaining.
I was in awe traversing the land of my literary ancestors, soaking up every bit of information, revisiting wishes made in bygone days of walking the land where Shakespeare had trod, where he had lived and loved, where he had worked and enjoyed the fruits of his success and where his body was interned.
Many Guyanese have gone of their free will to visit and stayed, completing the triangle form Liverpool (England) to Africa/India/China/Madeira to Guyana to UK. Many Guyanese writers including John Agard, Wilson Harris, Beryl Gilroy, Grace Nichols, Janice Shinebourne, Pauline Melville and David Dabydeen have gone to live in the land of their literary ancestors. That lengthy list of literary ancestors include Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, C. S. Lewis, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Philip Larkin, Lord Byron, Francis Bacon, Emily Bronte, T. S. Elliot, Dylan Thomas, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Elliot and others.
Crossing the ‘spaghetti junction’ in Birmingham, England, I was reminded that the famous London Bridge immortalised in two distinct pieces, ‘London Bridge is falling down’ and ‘London Bridge is broken down’, was rebuilt more than once and relocated and that the 1831 bridge was transported to Lake Havasu, Arizona, USA.
At the spaghetti junction, my mind moved easily from England to Guyana; the nursery rhymes invoking the limericks in the early issues of the Chronicle Christmas Annul and the works of our early local versifiers including Henry Dalton, Thomas Don and Egbert ‘Leo’ Martin. Incidentally, the reprinting of a selection of the poems of Egbert Martin is underway, an undertaking by David Dabydeen.
Most nursery rhymes came out of oral tradition. Many Guyanese folk songs came out of oral tradition. On February 23, 2007, as Guyana celebrated it 37th Republic anniversary, I was dining in the Hylands Hotel in Coventry (birthplace of Philip Larkin) listening to folk songs of Guyana against the regular fare of classical music. (The playing of my CD copy of folk songs was effected by a Nigerian waitress named Sarah who thoroughly enjoyed the rhythm.)
Soon it will be Easter so let’s enjoy some
‘Hot cross buns,
Hot cross buns,
one a penny,
two a penny,
hot cross buns.’
And let us revisit nursery rhymes, the works of our early local versifiers, Guyanese folk songs and more good literature.
Responses to this author telephone (592) 226-0065 or email: email@example.com
*It’s books and more books including one booth given over to Guyanese books only at the 6th Annual Book Fair organised by the Guyana Book Foundation on March 14 & 15, 2007, in the Rupununi Room of the Hotel Tower.
You can now get THE GUYANA ANNUAL 2006/2007 at Universal Bookstore, Austin Book Service, Michael Ford Bookstore, Nigel’s Supermarket, the National Art Gallery, Castellani House, Sandra Goodchild of Guyenterprise Ltd., and from the editor at telephone (592) 226-0065 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts’.
Shakespeare has travelled the earth far and wide, covering a lot of ground since he surfaced in the 16th century, coming to Guyana and taking up residence in the hearts of many generations of literature lovers. He is perhaps the most well-known writer on the planet.
So it was worth every new pence and old penny visiting the “Shakespeare Houses” in Stratford-upon-Avon in the sprawling county of Warwickshire, England. It was worth every pound of entrance fees (and other costs) totalling over twenty-five pounds sterling, the price of a few text books in Guyana; I ought to have taken that tour way back when one pound was equal to $4.80.
Every minute was worth the scores of books I read and the dozens of documentaries/movies I viewed on or about Shakespeare - the man, his life and work. I am grateful to former British High Commissioner to Guyana, Edward Glover, for hosting Festivals of Shakespeare films in this country.
This account of my sojourn in Shakespeare country would not be worth its salt if I did not include a certain character. My “transporter”, photographer and guide was Joseph Burgundy (as in the Joseph featured in David Dabydeen’s first novel ‘The Intended’ that won The Guyana Prize for Literature in 1992 for best book of fiction.)
Joseph, now a man/servant of modern gadgetry, equipped with GPS, went around in circles - not that I was mindful - I couldn’t get enough of Shakespeare. Give me excess!
While at school, my teachers would often say, close your eyes and imagine Shakespeare time and country, put yourself in the play, get the feel of the land, the culture of the time – the kissing of hands, the role of the Court jester and meaning of touchstone and what were foul papers, boys playing female roles.
Imagine too Shakespeare playing at marbles, top spinning, blind man’s buff and hide and seek.
Now, decades later, here I am walking along Henley Street to the local grammar school, returning to do my chores, later walking through the gardens and orchards all the way to the placid Avon River.
Now, decades later, here I am fingering the door that was opened to Shakespeare as he courted Anne Hathaway. Of course Shakespeare had a sweet tongue which sometimes got him into trouble, once propositioning him into marriage life at the age of eighteen to a woman about eight years his senior.
That union produced a daughter named Susanna and the twins, Judith and Hamnet; the boy died a few years later and the others were unable to carry on the Shakespeare name.
Despite the discontinuity of genealogy, William Shakespeare remains perhaps the most famous playwright in history. Shakespeare went on to produce approximately 37 plays and about 158 sonnets and poems. It is said he processed an awesome vocabulary of approximately 30, 000 words. A few of my favourite plays include As You Like It, Merchant of Venice, Taming of the Shrew, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello and King Lear.
Now, decades later, here I am standing upon the Avon as it flowed alongside the Royal Shakespeare Theatre which was about to take a final curtain call with the play “Coriolanus” in preparation for a three-year closure for renovation works that will transform it into an intimate 1,000 seat Renaissance courtyard auditorium.
New Place (where Shakespeare spent his final days after returning from London) was gone but in its stead was a stimulating and informative knot garden with a semblance of the famous mulberry tree, all guarded by bronze sculptures of characters from Shakespeare’s plays including Tempest, King Lear and Hamlet.
William Shakespeare, born 1564, descended from Warwickshire farmers. His father, John, was glover, tanner, property owner and public official. Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden, was a member of the Warwickshire gentry.
Shakespeare died in 1616 but his work is alive all over this planet and moving now into cyberspace.
Despite the wintry chill (it was very cold for a man who lived all his life in the tropics with his first taste of winter), despite hazy sunshine (the sun was out most of the way that day but there was no fire in its belly), despite constant cloudbursts (like at Bartica on the Essequibo River, Guyana), I will cherish each moment of that visit.
At various historical stops, there were throngs of people from all parts of the world doing the said tour that day; I do not know any foreign languages (save a few Spanish words) but on that day there were nationals whom I was able to ascertain from China, France, Belgium, Germany, Spain and from other countries whose identity I was unable to establish.
But we were all speaking Shakespeare language, it was like a universal language, in fact the works of Shakespeare is translated into every major languages of the world. Standing outside Shakespeare birthplace, I asked (in English) a French school girl how she felt, she replied, “no speak English - Shakespeare birthplace.” She turned to her colleagues and giggled and they hugged and they did a gig and lost me in a babble of excited French.
Leaving Stratford-upon-Avon, my mind drifted to home and further back to my school days filled with Shakespeare and his quotations which got us boys into trouble or got us into girls’ good books.
Shakespeare was brought to Guyana by the English colonisers, transported here just as cricket and other interests/pastimes were brought to Guyana. Ever since then Shakespeare has captured the imagination of Guyanese, remaining a companion to the ‘old school’ even as the master playwright is reborn in the breast of every generation of school children.
Responses to this author telephone (592) 226-0065 or email: email@example.com
* Just off the press is the second edition of ‘Bibliography of Guyana and Guyanese Writers’ compiled and edited by Lal Balkaran; for further information please go to www.lbapublications.com