Small Island, by Andrea LevyI too recall pictures of the British Monarch hanging on the front wall of every classroom of my youth. She was ‘our’ Queen, yet she lived in a different country. I was lucky indeed that our Catholic teachers (read Irish) weren’t overly inclined to indoctrinate us with a strong allegiance to that queen. They left her to hang rather primly on the wall, eyesbrows slightly raised, looking down on us, not exactly warmly.
Not so lucky were the main characters in Small Island, Hortense and Gilbert. Growing up in Jamaica before the Second World War, they were well indoctrinated in their filial duties to the “Mother Country”. Not only was the monarchy and Britain glorified in the classroom, the children believed the country was truly their mother in their hearts. They pictured England as a land of milk and honey where they would be embraced and lavished with opportunities unavailable to them in their small island of Jamaica.Because of the war, Gilbert makes his way as a soldier to Britain before Hortense, and when he gets to that war ravaged country, he considers this: “Let me ask you to imagine this. Living far from you is a beloved relation whom you have never met. Yet this relation is so dear a kin she is known as Mother. Your own mummy talks of Mother all the time. ‘Oh, Mother is a beautiful woman—refined, mannerly and cultured.’ Your daddly tells you, ‘Mother thinks of you as her children; like the Lord above she takes care of you from afar.’ There are many valorous stories told of her, which enthral grown men as well as children. Her photographs are cherished, pinned in your own family album to be admired over and over. Your finest, your best, everything you have that is worthy is sent to Mother as gifts… Then one day you hear Mother calling—she is troubled, she need your help…
The filthy tramp that eventually greets you is she. Ragged, old and dusty as the long dead… She offers you no comfort after her journey. No smile. No welcome. Yet she looks down at you through lordly eyes and says, ‘Who the bloody hell are you?’”Hortense also goes to Britain assuming that she is bettering her life. When she arrives after the war, she is horrified by the squalor and poverty. She is astonished that instead of finding Britain grand, it is cold, colourless and stark. Over and over she hears that England has been at war, that it wasn’t always this bleak. But she looks at the drab colours chosen by the British citizens, and the glum expressions on their faces, and wonders where the sun has gone.
Even worse than the culture shock, the prevailing racial superiority that exists stuns both Gilbert and Hortense. Back at home, both had come from somewhat privilidged backgrounds, and believed themselves to be superior to many. In Britain Hortense learns that her education is not credited, and she must start from scratch if she is to work again as a teacher. Gilbert had hopes to become a lawyer, but is shunted into chauffering positions instead, while less educated but white servicemen are enrolled in university classes and given the opportunities that Gilbert had been promised.Gilbert and Hortense are among the first wave of immigrants to establish themselves in Britain, in the aftermath of the war. It’s strange to think now that Britain had once been so cloistered, so shocked by dark skin and musical accents.
An early passage in this novel hooked me for good. This is where Gilbert ponders British food: “I was not ready, I was not trained to eat food that was prepared in a pan of boiling water, the sole purpose of which was to rid it of taste and texture…I thought it would be combat that would make me regret having volunteered, not boiled-up potatoes, boiled-up vegetables—grey and limp on the plate like they had been eaten once before. Why the English come to cook everything by this method?”If you’ve ever been a ‘Colonial’, if you've ever wanted to emmigrate to the 'mother land', or you frequently find yourself astonished when meeting Anglophiles, this book is for you. As far as literature therapy goes, I suppose it could remind you that attitudes do change, and the world is bigger than it may have once seemed.