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Yesterday, we published the first of two extracts from James Gilman’s memoirs. In 1941, young James Gilman, with his father, mother and sister, travelled from England to Trinidad, where his father took up the post of head of the Salvation Army in that part of the Caribbean and was also appointed civil defence adviser to the Governor, Sir Bede Clifford (grandfather to the wife of Britain’s present Prime Minister, David Cameron).
He became a pupil at Queen’s Royal College, remaining there for three years until the family returned to England in 1944.
Now 81, he is writing his memoirs. Gilman recently e-mailed the T&T Guardian a copy of the section of his autobiography dealing with the perilous voyage to Trinidad and his time here.
On the first day of the school year we’d report to our new classrooms, collect our books, answer to our names on the register—and then go home! On the last day of each term, while our class teacher sat doing reports, we’d line up our desks into two opposing rows on either side of the classroom and spend the day in battle, hurling water bombs, paper darts, catapulted pellets, and other projectiles at each other, under our teacher’s benevolent eye, who’d sometimes join in with his or her own ammunition. The main, oldest part of the school was a red-brick two-storey building with a corridor running along the front of it. It was a school tradition that on Saturday mornings the junior boys would collect together on the upper corridor, lay in a huge stock of water bombs (filled with water from a tap placed there conveniently for this purpose), and hurl these at the sixth-formers and prefects strolling along the bottom corridor playing their own part in this happy ritual.
During our lunch break the press man would trundle his barrow into the school playground. In it would lie a huge block of ice, and in his hand a kind of metal plane, like those used to plane pieces of wood, but modified to provide a space above the blade for collecting ice shavings. In return for a penny he’d stroke the ice with his plane, collecting a mass of shavings inside the instrument. Taking out the finished block, he’d shake coloured syrup over the resultant “press,” which would then be stuffed into our mouths and dribbled down our chins like vampire’s blood. It was wonderful, like every other aspect of school life at QRC (known to boys at rival schools as “Queen’s Rubbish Cart,” or “Queen’s Royal Cabbages”). Latin was my best subject but one which, sadly, was not taught at any of my subsequent schools in England. Maths was especially interesting, as our teacher had a complete set of three-dimensional mathematical models—globes, pyramids, cubes, and the like—which he’d hurl at any pupil giving what he considered to be a stupid answer. As a result, though, we didn’t learn a great deal of maths in his class we certainly learned how to move quickly, sharpen our physical responses, and erect desk lids at lightning speed whenever a missile strike was sighted.
Geography was mainly an ongoing lesson on the nations of the British Empire, which nations, we were shown on a globe, were all coloured red and whose empire, we were reassured, was one upon which the sun never set. Perhaps our teacher should have studied a little more History in her degree course, for the sun, even then, was beginning to cast its dying shadow over the red bits on the world map. English seemed to be divided between the reading of books and the learning of poems by heart, and a lot of what was called on the timetable “Copy,” which consisted of endlessly copying individual letters from printed examples on each line on every page, to ensure we were able to write with a legible hand. As a left-hander who therefore had to push instead of pull his hand across the page, I found this more of a drag than most of my fellows and—literally—blotted my copy-book on many an occasion. Science was great fun, with plant and animal life being enthusiastically exterminated and bodies then cut up; Divinity (as Religious Education was labelled) was full of Bible stories and moral teachings, as befitted a Church of England school; and PE was a glorious mêlée of swinging on ropes, chasing each other around the gym, tightrope walking, rolling on to and over various parts of our bodies, and creating a general mayhem greatly enjoyed by us all. Strange, then, that this subject above all others was to subsequently prove my downfall at school later in England. I made two special friends at my school. One—whose name sadly I cannot now recall after all these years—was the son of the director of Trinidad’s “madhouse,” as the asylum was known to everyone from the Governor down. Living in a large house on the asylum’s campus, he introduced me to two essential elements in every boy’s life at that time.
The first was American comics, so different from English ones like my weekly Champion, in that, unlike the latter which contained stories accompanied by a few black & white illustrations, these were all pictures, and in glorious Technicolor too. There was Superman, Green Lantern, and The Justice Society of America, a gang of criminal-busting heroes who included Hawk, Wonder Woman, Captain America, and assorted other weirdies, all tremendous grist to the mill of my sparking imagination. The second element was that staple of boys’ literature: adventure books (as opposed to comics). Most people today have heard of Biggles, the Second World War flying ace and heroic creation of Captain WE Johns. My friend, however, possessed books featuring an even earlier creation of the same author, cast in the same heroic mould: Scotty of the Royal Flying Corps, the First World War flying ace who flew a Sopwith Camel against the likes of Germany’s Red Baron. Saturday afternoons spent in the “madhouse” were a memorable feast of reading for two young boys looking for their own heroes in life to emulate.
My best friend— one of only two “best friends” I ever had in my school days—was Henry Cooke, the eldest son of Port-of-Spain’s Methodist Minister, a boy of my own age and in my class at school. Henry and I fitted together like a lock and key, his key unlocking my own suppressed urge for adventure so I could fizz like a trail of gunpowder and explode into activity. Attached to the Methodist manse in which Henry lived was a sizeable patch of uncultivated ground known to us all as the hen run. Overlooking the road and just inside the fence was a large tree, in the branches of which we built our own tree house from salvaged pieces of wood found under the manse (which, like all European houses in the West Indies, was raised off the ground on stilts some three feet high against insect infestation). Sitting up in our eyrie we’d plan the day’s activities in between rudely mocking passersby, and occasionally hurling little explosive pellets at them —twists of paper on sale in the shops, enclosing crystals which exploded with a very satisfying bang upon impact. Sometimes there’d be encounters with other boys from our school, erupting into artillery bombardments from the safety of our tree-house which inspired retaliation in kind from our street-level friends. On Saturday mornings we’d all go down to the cinema in town to watch Mickey Mouse and other cartoons together with the serial, Captain Marvel who, with a blood-curdling shout of KAZOOM!!! would stuff himself with miraculous powers and chase the baddies out of town and the girl into his arms.
Whilst shouting encouragement to him in regard to the former ands booing in respect of the latter, we’d while away the darkness by firing off pellets from elastic bands at anyone smaller than ourselves, especially girls who, with any luck, could be relied upon to scream most satisfyingly on being struck. At the end of the show we’d stand for the (British) national anthem and then, filing out quietly past the uniformed commissionaire, make our way to the main road there to lay pennies inside the tram lines, to be satisfyingly flattened when rolled over by these iron monsters who, not able to breathe fire at us themselves, left it to their conductors to do so. It was all good fun—fun which doesn’t seem to come the way of our young counterparts today.
Not all our activities were of a violent nature, however—far from it. Henry and I shared a love of books and, especially, of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series set in the English Lake District. We’d spend hours stretched on the floor, poring over maps we’d borrowed from the library and doing our best to match these against the sites mentioned in the books.
Not having access to any lakes or rivers, we transferred our enthusiasm to the roads instead, building a boat with wheels that we christened Wild Cat in honour of Ransome’s creation. Thanks to the pushing power of our crew—ie Wesley and Dennis—we sailed this right around Cape Horn and back through Panama to Trinidad with a Jolly Roger flying at the masthead and the wheels falling off almost as often as we did. We solemnly formed ourselves into two boating commands, the Swallows represented by Henry and the Amazons represented by myself. Our two captains communicated with each other by semaphore signals laboriously written down on to sheets of paper headed S.A.F.E#, standing for “Swallows & Amazons For Ever,” which we posted to each other by hiding them behind a loose brick in a wall half-way between our two houses. There could be one there to this day.