Making Friends with Tom Clarke—and the Hangman

Transport Board Bus in Barbados

Sometimes, you've got to let that big blue-and-yellow bus pass if you want to reach your destination.


ABOUT FOUR YEARS AGO, I was sent into a small, colourful primary school in the middle of St George to teach Creative Writing to the upper school.

Workman’s Primary has a population of about 420 pupils, a warm, family atmosphere, and I remember its teachers as dedicated. The building, with its lively murals of children, is set into a hilly junction, with roads doubling back around, above and below it.

Although not an official part of my mandate, I made it my mission over the ten weeks I spent there to introduce the seven- to eleven-year-olds to Barbadian writers: to have them “make friends” with as many homegrown poets, novelists and playwrights as possible. One of my tricks was to use the game of hangman. I would stick a photograph or poster of a writer to the chalkboard or wall and mark out the number of blank spaces needed for the title of a published work.

The more intriguing or unusual the book title, the livelier the session. The class discussions we had over titles such as Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin, Colly’s “The Moth Eath Cloth” and Kamau’s Born to Slow Horses. I could never work out if the children’s calls for more book titles were because they were truly fascinated or simply to keep the games of hangman going and so delay the time to start writing. Their requests certainly kept me on my feet and ensured I was up-to-date with my bibliographies as well as author biographies. Hangman solved, I would then read to them from the chosen work, and invite discussion and brainstorming.

One of the most intriguing sessions was a day we learnt about Austin “Tom” Clarke. The pupils of Class 2 loved that they solved Pig Tails 'n' Breadfruit just before my hangman swung his noose. The title led, of course, to hearty discussion about food— fast, slow, traditional, and non-traditional—but also to questions about Clarke himself—he had locks, I had locks: Were we related? Was he still alive? Why doesn’t he live here?—and about his other works: What exactly did the phrase growing up stupid under the Union Jack mean?

My visits to schools usually take place in the first term of any school year, which means much of the work produced naturally ties to Barbados’ Independence celebrations in November. It was so long since I’d read Clarke’s 1980 boyhood memoir, I wasn’t sure I could answer their questions; but I was able to wrap my explanations around Independence, hopefully in a way they understood.

Interestingly, they also wanted to hear about More, the book I happened to be reading at the time and one of Clarke’s perhaps less accessible novels. The shortness of the title and what “more” could possibly refer to seemed to capture their imaginations, as well as the storyline centering around a Barbadian woman in Toronto struggling to cope with her no-good son. Tales of family relations, of a mother's or father’s interaction with a child, of dysfunction, can be relied upon to grip a young audience whether the material is written for children or adults. These pupils were eight and nine years old.

My Tuesday sessions with the Class 2s were always double sessions, taking place in the afternoon immediately after lunch and ending before the end of the school day, in time for me to catch the 2:10 p.m. Workman’s bus home. I would be reading a passage, and the teacher, or a pupil sitting near the window, would call: “Miss Deane, the bus coming down.” Those bending St George roads and the location of the school meant that you could watch the bus materialize on the landscape five minutes before it actually arrived at the bus stop a short distance from the school. From the first sighting, I would have about five to seven minutes, depending on how fast I closed the session, gathered my belongings, made my way downstairs and out through the gates, to catch it without having to rush or wait. Other days, I would sit by the windows in the school’s reading room and await it, never failing to be fascinated by how it would appear in the lush scenery, sticking out of it almost as if a child had painted it into a green, leafy, idealized landscape. You could never see the twisting, winding road it travelled on, hidden as it was by vegetation and the angle—just the large blue-and-yellow Transport Board bus, gearing and braking its way downwards through the banana plants and coconut palms on the slopes outside.

I learnt many things at Workman’s Primary the day we made friends with Tom Clarke (and, indeed, over the ten weeks).

I learnt it's never too early to know your Bajan literature. Or too late. Only recently, I have been able to read in entirety Clarke's poignant “Early, Early, Early One Morning.” That's the extremely funny, extremely sad, extremely beautiful short story about a mother’s rough love, her choirboy son, and his trek to town from his St George home in too tight shoes.  It appears in the latest, 50th Independence Edition of Bim: Arts for the 21st Century, the revitalized magazine that, forty or fifty years ago, gave many writers, Clarke included, their earliest opportunities.

I learnt that children, suitably engaged, are willing to learn, willing to read, willing to write: several went on to conduct and present research on Clarke and other Barbadian writers as part of their creative writing assignments stemming from those hangman sessions.

I learnt that we have a lot of work, perhaps too much work, to do, to introduce Barbadians of all ages to their own literary canon.

I also learnt it is possible, given the right Tom Clarke story, to miss a big blue-and- yellow bus into town—even when you can see it coming a mile off.