Shades of language

27th February 1998 at 00:00
I grew up in Georgetown, Guyana, and went to St Stanislaus College, a Roman Catholic secondary school. A lot of the people who went through that school came out with tremendous affection for their teachers.

They cared about education, and were eager for you to learn. Some of the very dedicated ones kept you back after school, and gave you private or extra lessons, coming up to exams.

I didn't really say to myself "I want to be a poet". I went through various phases, but they all had language as a common thread. At one stage it was theatre, then I wanted to be a priest, then a lawyer. "My lord I do declare. Objection overruled. On a point of honour, my lord." I would repeat those words just because I liked the sounds.

Most of the teachers were Jesuit priests. The principal was Father John Hopkinson, whom we called Hoppy. But there were Guyanese teachers like Michael Gilkes who took us for Shakespeare and Chaucer, and Jerry Jekir, who took us for French. One guy we called Marco - Mr Marques - was into games, and teaching Latin. We had a young volunteer from Voluntary Service Overseas fresh out of Oxford called Brian Cotton.

Coming up to O-levels, Father Stanley Maxwell, whom we called Maxie, brought us a whole world of language. A lot of the essays we used to get in those days were "a day to remember", "a day everything went wrong". But Father Maxwell would throw out some offbeat topics, and encourage us to make up our own. The more offbeat, the more you felt stretched. Like "write an essay on nothing".

He loved humour and I remember when he brought into the classroom Jerome K Jerome's Three Men in a Boat. In the opening, this guy looks through a list of diseases from A to Z and finds he has nearly every symptom. I found this hilarious. Then there was Stephen Leacock, a humorist, and PG Wodehouse. Maxie loved those types of books.

Maxie was like a hero. When he came into the classroom, before he did any exercises like pr#233;cis and comprehension from textbooks, he used to write words on the blackboard which we had to copy down in our exercise books. These were words which he said we would come across in later life, which would be useful to know. I can see him now at the blackboard, writing up "imminent", "eminent", "immanent".

There was a budding awareness of the shades of language, and he would give us a sentence to explain the meaning. "Abjure, abject. " He knew Latin and Greek, so it used to become like a game to go through the dictionary and find a word he didn't know the meaning of - and in so doing we were learning.

That was the first time I heard the word "antidisestab lishmentarianism", and we were fascinated. "Sir, is that the longest word in the entire world?"

I remember once, at 13 or 14, I found the word "whippersnapper". That was not a word we used in the Caribbean. You might say somebody is a small boy,but not a whippersnapper. "Sir!" I said. "I've got you here! What's the meaning of 'whippersnapper'?" He's busily writing and he says to me "Agard!Look in the mirror." And you think - he knew that word!

I sometimes wondered what it would be like to be a priest. I used to go home and put an old sheet around me and get my cousin, and we'd get some wine. I would pretend I was the priest and my cousin would kneel in front of me. I'd pour the wine and and then I'd chant in Latin.

I did love that sort of call and response - "Lord have mercy on us, Christ have mercy on us, Lord have mercy on us" - and the ritual.

Looking back, it would have been lovely to have had some poems which came from Caribbean culture and ethos, reflecting our environment. But we were responding to literature and to the beauty of language, when it touches us.

Poet John Agard recently started a six-month residency at the BBC as part of BBC Education's forthcoming Windrush season. The season will mark the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the first 500 settlers from the Caribbean on the troopship MV Windrush. John Agard's latest collection 'From the Devil's

Pulpit' is published by Bloodaxe.

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