Days of Empire…

There is a continuous and ongoing debate about empires and specifically about the British Empire particularly amongst Members of Parliament who often wax lyrically about the “days of empire” – David Cameron is merely the latest of our Prime Minister’s to refer to our glorious days of empire when Great Britain owned half the known world, Tony Blair eulogised often about such times and if TB admitted to “valuing and honouring our proud history” then its probably very trendy to do so, for Tony was a trend setter you know – whatever happened to Tony Blair ?

Any road up, when ah wor nobbut a lad I was taught by headmasters who had actually lived in a time when Britain still had an empire and in the days when I was a young skinny school boy (complete with cap and satchel), your headmaster was a man you listened to, a man of great bearing and substance, if he said you were a “tiresome little boy” then thats exactly what you were and no doubt  (I was only lampooning him in a cartoon on the blackboard during a wet playtime, fortunately he didn’t recognise himself in the cartoon or I’d have been sentenced to more than five days litter picking)

Both headmaster’s that I served under at Primary and Grammar School were elderly empire retainers, both held the opinions and spoke out loud of those opinions, that most of the countries who had gained their independence since WW2 would soon be running back to us “the mother land” with arms and begging bowls outstretched for these countries were now being run by worthless coloured people who clearly weren’t up to the job and it would all end in ruination, mark their words.

If there was a sharp intake of breath from you the reader in that last paragraph then I apologise, but yes, I was taught by people like this, in all-white schools (whether by design I cannot confirm), our head at Primary School, Mr Holmes once gave us a half hour history lesson which started with him unfurling a 100 year old map of the world, the British Empire coloured in bright red, and told us that all “we” needed to do to control “these fuzzy-wuzzies” was to “send a gun boat up river and shoot a few of the buggers”, we were 10 years old at the time and of course our headmaster was sacrosanct, our parents probably held the same opinion anyway – my dad didn’t even like Italians and once made our Ned sit outside on the doorstep to eat a pizza he’d brought home from a night out, our dad said it was “foreign muck” and “stank the house out”.

And so it came as some surprise when I worked in Barbados for a while to find a country who, although declared independent in 1966, seemed to be populated by people who still regarded themselves as British albeit a Bajun style of Britishness. Everyone there was so polite to me, everyone that walked past you in the street bade you a “Good Morning”, people would shake your hand and enquire after your health at every meeting, they would speak fondly of a country that they had never been to but all wished to visit at some point in their lives, it was like living in the film “Mrs Miniver” and I started to wish that I owned a trilby just so that I could raise it to every woman I passed in the street.

Sitting at a bar in the hotel I worked at I was asked by a young waitress where I’d come from, she told me that she was saving up her tips to come to England that following November and was so looking forward to it – I sat there at the outside bar in sweltering heat, gazed at the perfectly blue cloudless sky and recalled that when I’d left Gatwick just 24 hours earlier it had been in the middle of a torrential downpour and had taken the 747 a quarter of an hour to climb through the layer of cloud that covered our whole country.

“November ?” I gasped.
“Yes, next November” she confirmed.
“But why ?” is all I could think of to say.

I tried to explain what the weather would be like in England in November but she thought it would be great, “I’ll bring my cardigan” she said as if that would make it just fine, I do hope that if she ever made it over here in November she brought more than just a bloody cardigan, a cardigan is just one of the several layers that she’d need on any typical November day, topped off by something very waterproof, something Jacques Cousteau approved preferably.

Back to those headmasters though, both of them, Holmsey and Cheesy, both “send a bloody gun boat up the bloody river” men, both convinced that only the Englishman had the right to stick a flag in a beachhead and claim it for The Queen, Holmsey once brought the whole school into the hall to sit us down in front of a large TV set (two hundred kids trying to watch one black and white TV set) just so that we could watch the launch of the QE2 cruise liner, “A proud day children” he said, “finest engineering nation in the world” he said, “no bloody Johnny Foreigner jerry-built rubbish for Her Majesty, oh no” and he wiped a silent tear from his eye as she slid down the slipway into the Clyde, two years later the finest engineering shipbuilders in the world had gone bust, bloody Johnny Foreigner, taught them everything they know we did.

Cheesy once put the whole of the fifth form, all 120 of us, on detention because one of us had shouted out of the window at a tweed-clad Colonel Blimp in spats, as he parked his Bentley in the school driveway and headed for the Poling Station that had been set up in the school hallway, “Vote Labour” someone shouted and Colonel Blimp shook an angry fist in our direction and went to seek out the headmaster to complain that his charges were spreading communist nonsense and influencing the vote, some chance, our Grammar School was deep in Tory territory, to be a Labour candidate and given the North West Leeds ward was akin to the Labour Party saying to you “We think you’re a waste of space and we’ve all taken a wager on you not getting your deposit back at the election”.

Cheesy actually called us bloody communists when we wouldn’t finger the wicked interloper who had dared to suggest that Blimp should vote for Labour, the very thought, two nights detention for the lot of you, all 120 of you, you bloody communists.


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