Beyond pride and prejudice

14th March 1997 at 00:00
One Bright Child BBC Radio 4 10.02-10.30am Mondays March 12-April 10

The bright child in the title is Gloria Cumper, the mixed-race heroine of a five-part series, written as an act of hom-age by her daughter, Patricia Cumper.

Gloria was the daughter of upwardly-mobile Jamaican parents and sent, against her wishes, to be educated in England. She and her mother went to a grim boarding house in London - "never had any trouble with Colonials" said the landlady menacingly.

Gloria went to a school called Mary Datchelor (a real institution, now defunct) where the headmistress was kind and inspiring. Gloria wanted to go to Cambridge and become a barrister. The series tells the story of what happened when she tried to put her ambitions into effect and faced racial prejudice - often ignorant rather than malign. It is a telling portrait of a country coping with the throes of war and an ignorance of different races and cultures.

Within six weeks of her arrival at Cambridge, Gloria had met, fallen in love with and married, a white man from the North of England. His family, to put it mildly, did not approve.

Patricia Cumper has modified her mother's story but feels she's been true to her attitudes, personality and her background. "Her father, my grandfather, was the son of an African slave," she says. "He was a remarkable man who believed that education was the thing to do."

Some of the story was learned from her mother and other members of the family, but she had to research the Cambridge episodes - set at the end of the war. "There were leeks and potatoes growing on the lawns, the rooms were icy, whale-meat was on the menu and there were few women and only three or four non-whites doing law. There was one African student who wouldn't speak to my mother because she was mixed race," she says.

Patricia says her mother encountered strange racial attitudes. "In the stores they were convinced she was an African princess and wanted her to have an account, but she wanted to pay cash." Nevertheless, the family - and academic - pressure on Patricia's parents before and after their marriage was huge, and it wasn't until . . . But you'll have to listen to the play to find out what happened next.

However, it is possible to reveal an interesting but sad postscript to the story. Patricia's father, who was a professor of economics in the West Indies, became a white victim of black racism in the 1960s. In the end, he had to pursue a successful career elsewhere.

He died in 1993 and Gloria in 1995. For Patricia "telling their story has been a bit painful", but there's nothing painful about listening to this delightful tale.

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