I still remember the Jean Brodie tones of a woman from one of Edinburgh's many private schools exclaiming, when we had been discussing Kole Omotoso's The Edifice, a novel partly set in Edinburgh and (autobiographically?) focusing on a Nigerian student who stacks his unwashed dishes in a cupboard rather than rinsing them, "My girls don't do that sort of thing and should not be exposed to such bad customs".
Neglecting dirty dishes is not an anthropological characteristic - though my own children do their best to show that it is - but we nevertheless discovered in those meetings great nervousness in embarking upon not only Nigerian fiction but almost any contemporary work which depicted non-European societies or used unfamiliar registers of English and names uneuphonious to the British ear. Never mind that the same teachers would have no qualms about explaining the meaning of "Who would fardels bear..." or tackling the gradations of Jane Austen's social structure. The sanctified canon of Eng Lit was proper matter for the classroom; the re-energising of the English language or the widening of cultural perspectives in our own time were not.
Things have moved on considerably since then. I would not receive today the kind of postcard sent to me by a Pitlochry schoolmaster when I invited him to a conference on "The Commonwealth Writer Overseas: Themes of Exile and Expatriation" which I organised at Stirling in 1975. "What possible relevance can all this stuff have to my pupils in Pitlochry, where the only black people they ever see are rich American tourists?" And golfers at nearby Gleneagles, he might add today. I, of course, replied that it was just such a group of young people for whom Commonwealth writing was most appropriate, since how else would they know about the rest of the world?
The battle for representation of the "new" writers in schools syllabuses was won partly because of a limited but genuine recognition of the multicultural society in which all British students, including those from Pitlochry, would increasingly belong. As the national curriculum for England and Wales puts it: "pupils should read texts from other cultures and traditions that represent their distinctive voices and forms". This statement enshrines many things but, above all, a perception that it is no longer possible to imply that good literature stops at Dover.
Just as the hegemony of the Greek and Latin classics had eventually to give way to the pressing intensity of English literature, and later to the challenges of American writing, by as early as the 1970s it was becoming impossible to ignore the claims of major writers of quality from Africa, Asia, Australia, the Caribbean and the whole of the English-speaking world.
I recall at Stirling marking an essay on the Guyanese writer Wilson Harris, written by a student called Iain Banks - already, no doubt, dreaming of his wasp factory. It was a brilliant piece of work, a straight A, by someone who did not always shine academically. I wondered why Harris's metaphysical, elusive, poetical, peregrinatory work appealed so much to Banks. "Because I can say what I think," was the reply. Commonwealth writing was as yet without a body of criticism telling students what they should like, as so many of them felt was so with the Beowulf to Virginia Woolf canon of approved texts.
To some extent this freedom to form one's own judgment still prevails, even where "Commonwealth literature" has been theorised into "post-colonial discourse". Indeed, though this has become a "field" in which many academics dig for treasure and umpteen critical studies have appeared on authors from Achebe to Zimunya, I doubt if a single really major critic has been produced from the Commonwealth literature movement. Perhaps, as Salman Rushdie famously entitled an essay, "'Commonwealth literature' does not exist".
So why write about it? Much of the focus in post-colonial studies has been on denouncing supposedly metropolitan influences, often in ignorance of the diffusion of literatures within the United Kingdom itself, where this malevolent hegemony is supposed to originate. Where is the metropolitan voice in a nation which contains Angela Carter, James Kelman,R S Thomas and Benjamin Zephaniah? It does not exist. Margins have occluded centres.
What do exist, however, are many parallel histories. The Commonwealth-and-post-colonial discourse is fundamentally comparative. Hence its value to readers, teachers and students. It invites us to look at a Nigerian novel alongside one from Trinidad, or to contrast modes of theatre practice, or to see how poems from various parts of the world use different Englishnesses.
I was recently in Guyana as a judge of its national literature prize. Here is a little known corner of the world which has produced an astonishing range of writers. Some of them - the poets Martin Carter and Ian McDonald, for example - are seriously worth discovering if one is looking for a fresh name to introduce to students.
Others, ranging from the doyen Harris to John Agard, Fred D'Aguiar, David Dabydeen, Pauline Melville and Grace Nichols, are among the forefront of so-called Black British writing. They occupy this position far more because they challenge orthodoxies of language and narration than because they are politicall y correct choices ("sociological", we would have said a generation ago). They are there to be read for the lives they describe, the histories they unfold, the landscapes they evoke and, above all, for the extension of our cultural and linguistic horizons which they bring about.
Prizes are not the only, or perhaps even the best, guide to what is worth reading, but in a country which now publishes more than 100,000 books a year they are a useful lodestar. All the major British awards have been won by Commonwealt h writers; the first David Cohen British Literature Prize (V S Naipaul), the Booker Prize (Ben Okri, Michael Ondaatje), the T S Eliot Prize (Les Murray) and the Whitbread First Novel (Fred D'Aguiar).
The Commonwealth Writers Prize has honoured many talents, among them Britain's Louis de Bernires, India's Githa Hariharan, New Zealand's Witi Ihimaera, Australia's David Malouf, Canada's Rohinton Mistry and Mordecai Richler, and Jamaica's Olive Senior, who are celebrating the prize's 10th anniversary by undertaking an Arts Council of England tour. This imaginative award is judged across continents and seeks not only a Best Novel of the Year, but a Best First Novel. If one wants a bird's eye view of the state of Commonwealth fiction over the past decade, then there is no better starting point than the list of this prize's winners.
The 10th Commonwealth Writers Prizes have just been awarded in London, where the Queen, getting her priorities right, received on election day all the writers who have won the main awards over the decade. From Africa the Best Novel this year, chosen from a continent-wide trawl of English-language fiction, was Yvonne Vera's Under the Tongue, from Zimbabwe. The other Best Novels, similarly selected by a judging process across the vast regions, were Earl Lovelace's Trinidadian novel Salt from the Canada and Caribbean area, Beryl Bainbridge's very British novel about the loss of the Titanic, Every Man for Himself, from a region combining Europe and the Indian sub-continent, and Sue Woolfe's Leaning Towards Infinity, representing South-East Asia, the South Pacific, Australia and New Zealand. Ronnie Govender (Africa), Anne-Marie Macdonald (Canada and the Caribbean), Jeremy Poolman (Eurasia) and Sia Figiel (South-east Asia and the South Pacific) were the Best First Book winners. Eventually the judges chose as overall winners: Earl Lovelace for Best Novel and Anne-Marie Macdonald for Best First Novel.
Prizes bestow reputation and they therefore, willy nilly, push writers back to the centre from which they are often striving to escape - if not to the same centre, then to a new one. Increasingly, therefore, I attempt to dive behind the grandee awardees: to black detective fiction and the Brixton "yardie" authors led by Victor Headley, the Sri Lankan stories of Punyakante Wijenaike and Jean Arisanayagam, the Zimbabwean generation headed by Charles Mungoshi and Musa Zimunya, the traditional aboriginal and Maori poets, whose names we do not always have. The only problem is getting hold of the books in which such work appears, since their distribution, especially when published locally, is often abysmal.
So one falls back on many familiar names, among which are some of the great works of contemporary literature: Achebe's Arrow of God, Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable, Bessie Head's The Collector of Treasures, Les Murray's The Vernacular Republic, Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Petals of Blood, Raja Rao's The Serpent and the Rope, Derek Walcott's Omeros, Patrick White's Voss. Merely mentioning them makes me long to be back with students, though even with the prospect of an occasional straight A from a budding novelist I don't want to see another pile of unmarked essays on my desk as long as I live.
Alastair Niven is director of literature at the British Council.
* The Festival of Commonwealth Literature continues until May 6. For information about readings and the exhibition, contact Book Trust on 0181 870 9055