Longing to return home
It is mid-afternoon on Good Friday and Austin “Tom” Clarke is in his comfortable and tastefully furnished home in downtown Toronto, Canada.
But although he remains ensconced in a North American environment, the mind of the celebrated author, a pillar of Canada’s literary establishment, is anchored in Barbados where he was born and raised, educated at Combermere School and Harrison College, and where he sang in the Anglican Cathedral choir in Bridgetown.
“The thoughts about Barbados are like little pebbles in my blood from which I can’t escape the importance of them. I can’t escape the pain that some of those experiences have lodged in my heart,” he said. “That’s why I am thinking very seriously of spending two short vacations in Barbados. It is to relive those tremendous experiences, including those at Good Friday and Easter. I wish to mix myself into the society as you would mix a good mellow cou-cou with lots of okras and the heads of flying fish, battered and deep fried, as only my mother could do them.”
As he casts his mind back to the days when he was a boy in Dayrells Road, nostalgia was the obvious dominating emotion for a man who has written 16 novels, six works of non-fiction and a host of short stories, most of them about Barbados and Bajans. He can’t shake the images of Good Friday and Easter in Barbados from his memory bank.
“I know it’s a romantic reflection of life in Barbados but it is a very strong reflection. However, I have to praise Barbados for having born me and brought me up until I was 20-something when I left,” said Clarke, who has won many of Canada’s major literary prizes, including the Giller, the Canadian equivalent of the Pulitzer prize in the United States, for the novel The Polished Hoe, which also captured the Commonwealth Award.
There are the thoughts about kite-flying, the days of singing in St Michael’s Cathedral, and the smell and taste of the sea water surrounding his birthplace. Added to that was the inevitable trip to Queen’s Park for the Easter music, the company of friends and things Barbadian.
“Those experiences can’t be duplicated ever in Canada, although I have been in Canada longer than Barbados,” he added.
“The Barbados I am thinking of is the Barbados of the 1940s and early 1950s, without the sophistication and success in monetary terms that we see in recognizing the country.
“I am thinking of the days when we made and flew kites, walked through Clapham and across Dayrells Road and the Garrison Savannah. Easter began two or three weeks before the day itself, and I made regular visits to the tailor, hoping that he would finish the suit in time, because without it, you could not walk in Queen’s Park on Easter morning or Christmas morning and having the women, my mother included, making frequent trips to the needle-worker who was sewing her beautiful dress,” Clarke recalled.
“As a choir boy in the first row at the cathedral, wearing the shoes my mother always bought too small because, as she said, ‘big shoes don’t look very good on a little boy’s feet’, I would hear the noise of these shoes which you practised wearing in the house with pages of the newspaper on the floor so that if my mother
had to return the shoes to the store, they would not be spoiled by walking on the nails that erupted from the floor,” he went on.
“My generation had a very romantic idea of the Bible and of Christianity and we took those things seriously,” said Clarke.
“We sang like angels and some of us bragged that our singing was better than that at any English cathedral. We felt the glory, which was a much more satisfying experience than Christmas. It was a time when you saw the newness of life, a time when you wished that you were a reverend. Certainly, being a choirboy at the cathedral was a good substitute for that.”
But the Barbadian, who went to Canada in 1955 a few days after Hurricane Janet struck the island, didn’t stop there. “The food at Good Friday and Easter is a taste that still remains with me,” he said.
Clarke, who was awarded one of Canada’s highest national honours, the Order of Canada, admits to feeling lonely, a longing that only Barbados can remedy.
“I have this burning desire to return to Barbados. I am beginning to feel like a man without a country.”
And what would he do back home?
“I would teach,” he replied.