Rebel with a will to win the game

Darcus Howe talks to Harvey McGavin

I went to Queen's Royal College in Trinidad. There are only about four grammar schools in the country and in order to be certain to get there you have to win an exhibition. They only gave free places to 50 of us and I think about 5,000 took the examination. I won an exhibition at the age of nine.

It was much more liberal than the primary school I had attended where my father taught me and where I was under scrutiny - especially as a son for whom he had high hopes; I couldn't get away with much, or with anything at all.

Then I went to this huge school in an old Victorian building with a Big Ben that chimed, where there were 400 pupils, large grounds, a very well- appointed tuck shop and the masters, who were mostly Oxbridge-educated whites. I was bright so I came in at 1A, the top stream in the school, part of the cream of the crop in the country.

We did French, Latin, Spanish, history, English language, English literature, geography and science. I was fine the first year, I coasted and was more or less in the middle of the form. But I used to be very rebellious, whenever the opportunity arose. And if you did something in class that was way out of order they would send for the black book. The school messenger would come with the book, and the master would read it out and say, "Howe, you've got to go to the principal's office".

You either got a good ticking off or six of the best. By the third form I had come close to the record in the history of the college for being in the black book. I would answer back and argue and not do my homework and be a general nuisance. When I got into the fourth form I really went to town on them - I used to give them hell.

There was a boy called Johnny Perreira, a rich white boy, who didn't understand Latin at all so I did his exam for him and he got 95 per cent in it. I told everybody and that was the final straw. At the end of the year they had set it up to expel me. But one teacher, Ralph Laltoo, said, "Howe can come in my class, I'll take responsibility." I only learned that long afterwards.

He was a Trinidadian Indian. He used to wear a white linen suit, white shirt, black tie, gold tie pin, black silk socks, black shoes. He was always spotlessly clean. You never saw his eyes - I think there was something wrong with them - because he always wore dark shades. On the first day, I took up position at the back of class, slouching in the corner from where I planned to carry on my systematic bombardment of the teachers. Laltoo walked into the class and said: "Where is Howe? You have been giving everybody in this school a very difficult time. But I believe there is something to you. I have no views about you and I don't want you to have any about me. But . . . you will sit in the front." I looked at him and said "Sir, what are you going to teach us?" He said, "English language and English literature."

From then on it was wonderful. I was good at writing essays and I had a very good facility with metaphor and simile. But I didn't do it to the best of my ability. The first essay he gave us was entitled, "I Write as I Choose". He used to read the best essays to the class and he said: "Here I have a work of genius. Out of 25 I'm giving you 35, so you have 10 marks in credit."

But then I wrote something a little pompous the next week and he said: "You are five in debit now." And so it went on. I used to play cricket in the ghetto but I refused to play cricket at school. Yet he told me to put my name down. He had been to the games master and had said, "Give Howe a break".

Everywhere around the school my name was being paraded as the rebel without a cause, and there was Laltoo taking a special interest in me. At the first game I got seven wickets for 14 runs. During the following game I went to chase a ball to the boundary, and as I did I looked up and saw him sitting in his big American Buick watching me. I got six wickets that day and the next morning he went round school again telling everybody about it.

To this day I am an absolute pig for classical literature - I like Dickens, Shakespeare, Thackeray, poetry. He opened my eyes to all that. All the other stuff I learned in school, I ignored. But I went on in my life with a deep love for literature.

The day of the school certificate exam results is a day of national concern because everybody is wondering how they will do. When the Ministry of Education sent the results I was at home and Laltoo was going around the school, shouting: "Where is Howe? Howe got a first grade! That very Howe they wanted to throw out of school!" He said to this other boy there, "Borrow a bicycle and go and find Howe".

Later, when I was about 21, I was back in Trinidad on holiday and found Laltoo had become principal of the school. He told me about all the defences he had put up in my name. He said a lot of people hadn't liked me, had even hated me. I said it was sheer frustration, because I knew I had something, but they couldn't get at it. Laltoo was a remarkable and wonderful man.

Darcus Howe is a journalist, television presenter and columnist for the New Statesman and the London Evening Standard. Married, with seven children, he lives in Brixton, south London

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