Although I lived in Southall and had access to the Southall Library, Hanwell Library on Cherington Road in neighboring Hanwell was my favorite library in the London Borough of Ealing.
It was not as close to home, but it was close to my school, Drayton Manor Grammar School in Hanwell, which meant that I could visit the library on my way home from school.
Increasingly, I also spent the weekends in the Hanwell Library, during the hours that I was not working in Salim Uncle’s shop.
I had discovered the great Russian authors!
It started with an interest in ‘dissident’ writers like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who were ‘banned’ in their own country because they spoke out against the totalitarian regime in the Soviet Union. This led me naturally toward contemporaries of Solzhenitsyn who were also considered dissident by the regime such as Joseph Brodsky, Sasha Sokolov and Sergie Dovlatov.
The head librarian at Hanwell Library was getting quite fed-up with me by now, as I pestered her for more and more obscure Russian authors. Since the library had the distinction of being an endowed Carnegie Library and thus had a reputation to uphold, the head librarian had no choice but to order the books I requested if they were unavailable on the library shelves.
Another reason I avoided the library in Southall and preferred Hanwell was because the Southall Library was populated by many of the customers who frequented Salim Uncle’s shop.
My uncle Salim was a local celebrity in Southall because of his good nature and good humor.
Much more than this however, was his quiet reputation for being a source of strength and support for those recent immigrants, particularly the Bangladeshis and the Somalis, who had been bullied and sometimes badly beaten by the local thugs and skinheads. Amongst the grateful immigrant population in Southall, my uncle Salim had an affectionate nickname:
They called my uncle the “Sadhu of Southall”.
The upstairs kitchen above uncle Salim’s shop in Southall had become a safe house and safe heaven for so many immigrant refuges in the Southall area.
Since uncle Salim ran a thriving business and since he was generous to a fault with his money, he was busy making deals with all sorts of local institutions. He made a deal with the local karate and judo clubs to provide subsidized self-defense classes for young Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Kenyan, Somali, Ethiopian and Sudanese youth, as well as youth from several other immigrant nationalities.
Uncle Salim wanted these youth to defend themselves against the growing violence inflicted by white supremacy groups that habitually roughed them up. Of course, uncle Salim paid for these karate and judo classes out of his own pocket.
Uncle Salim also made deals with the local polytechnics to pay for English language courses for many of the immigrant parents who spoke hardly any English. He set up scholarships for immigrant families who could not afford the English language classes.
All of this community service work that Salim Uncle had taken on was making it prohibitive for him to open the shop at 5am and close the shop at 9am. He was actively searching for an employee to open the shop for him in the morning and manage the paperboys on their newspaper rounds.
“My goal now is this…” explained uncle Salim as he munched upon some colorful burfee:
“… That I have a morning manager, you see? Morning Manager. A bright young fellow who can to be opening the shop at five o’clock, who can to be be looking after all the paperboys and making sure they get the newspaper deliveries on time, and then managing the shop until after lunch at two o’clock. You see, papu? That way your Salim Uncle will just roll in after lunch like a motah sahib, and just to work from two o’clock to nine o’clock. Just seven hours, bhus! Khalas! Seven hour day, only. That is what is my goal now, you see?”
Being the nephew of the iconic celebrity which was the Sadhu of Southall, aka Sadhu Salim, was no easy matter. I only had to walk down the streets of Southall on my way to school or on my way back from school, and shop keepers and street vendors would stop me in my tracks. They recognized me from working in my uncle’s shop.
As soon as the old Indian ladies recognized me they would stop me and say a prayer for my uncle Salim, for which I was somehow assumed to be the telepathic messenger. If they were Muslim, they would furtively and fastidiously fumble through their worry beads as they mumbled prayers in Arabic with their eyes closed. If they were Hindu, they would recite their Sanskrit benedictions and then paste a thick blob of saffron color upon my forehead to give me a third-eye - which I would swiftly wipe off my head as soon as I was out of their sight.
The shopkeepers and food vendors were relentless in their voluminous generosity.
They would ply me with cans of ghee, boxes of burfee and bhajias and biscuits, and gobs of sticky and syrupy gulab jaman.
“Now you take these gulabs to your Salim Uncle young man. These are fresh gulab you see – too fresh, I tell you! Now you take these to Sadhu Salim, yes? Your Salim Uncle he loves gulab, I know because he always eats gulab when he come to Kwality Sweetmart!”
The Indian grocers would give me a bag of basmati rice for my uncle Salim and his wife.
In the early days of my uncle Salim’s fame, on my way to school, things seemed manageable.
I could stuff the cans of ghee, and the biscuits and the burfees in to my school satchel and nobody was the wiser. I would snack on some of the perishable foods at lunchtime and then bring the remaining supplies – together with further supplies that I was forced to accept on my way back home – to uncle Salim’s shop. He and his wife were accustomed to even more gifts whenever they went out onto the streets of Southall. Our larder was full of all sorts of goodies which we never had to pay for. As the larder at home began to overflow, so did my school satchel and my blazer and trouser pockets.
It had gotten to such a frenzied level of gift giving on my way to school, that I now would arrive to school with a satchel full as well as additional bags full of foodstuffs.
Inevitably, I was noticed by other students who saw me lugging bags of Indian sweets, English biscuits, cans of ghee and boxes of dessicated coconut. Since there was always a racist contingent at the school, someone slanderously accused me of selling foodstuffs at the school and thereby profiteering. Inevitably, I was reported and I ended up in the headmaster’s office.
C.J. Everest (whom we called ‘beaky’) was the classic headmaster of the Old School.
He had studied History at Oxford University and he was a lanky fellow with a thin mustache and eyeglasses that made him a doppelganger of Peter O’Toole in Goodbye Mr. Chips. Everest summoned me to the headmaster’s office and requested that I bring all my various bags of foodstuffs along with me. When I entered his office with all my various bags, Headmaster Everest requested that I unload the contents of the bags on to a table next to his desk which he cleared of papers for this purpose.
I dutifully plonked down boxes of biscuits, jars of ghee and other foodstuffs onto the table he had cleared away for me. Mr. Everest then eyed the display suspiciously, his hands clasped behind his back, occasionally stooping to inspect a particular food item with concerned curiosity.
“And what, Ajania, is this ‘ghee’ – what does it do?”
“Um… well, ghee is clarified butter, sir. It’s used in cooking, sir?”
“Clarified butter, eh…”
“Well, let me venture to clarify something for you, young man: Drayton Manor Grammar School is not a shop, it is a school. Is that a clarification you can comprehend, Ajania?”
“Eh… Yes, sir. Absolutely, sir. Not a shop but a school, sir.”
“Good. That’s a good start.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“What, pray tell are these orangy-sticky-roundy-curly things?”
“They are called jalebi, sir.”
“Yes, sir. You eat them, sir.”
“Well, I certainly don’t!”
“No, sir. Not you. I meant we Indians… eh, we Indians eat them, sir.”
“You are here to receive a classical education. Aut disce aut discede, eh?”
“Ipsa scientia potestas est, sir.”
“Precisely! Now let’s not have any more hawking of your wares during school hours, shall we?”
“No, sir. No… eh, ‘hawking’,” I replied.
“No hawking. This is a school, not a shop. This is a grammar school, not a school of trade. Is that clear?”
“Yes, sir. It is clear.”
“Good. I knew you would see reason.”
“Yes, I most certainly do, sir.”
“Good man! We shall put this wayward foible of yours down to a learning experience. Experientia docet.”
He slightly unstiffened his stiff and lanky frame. He relaxed a bit. He restrained a smile. I could feel some humor coming along…
“I mean, the boys are well fed here wouldn’t you say? We serve some excellent school lunches here – they are not lacking for decent food are they, Ajania?’
“No, sir, they are not lacking for food.”
“I mean…” (oh, here it comes…), “I mean to say… this isn’t exactly a gulag is it now?”
I forced a smile and a chuckle.
He approved. And he continued…
“I mean to say, if this was a gulag, I could well imagine your need to smuggle foodstuffs in, what?”
“By the way Ajania, how is your reading of The Gulag Archipelago coming along?”
“Oh, it is absolutely first-rate, sir. I am so grateful you presented it to me at the poetry prize-giving, sir.”
“Well, truth be told it was your English teacher, Miss Sosaboska who recommended it. First Russian author you’ve read I imagine, what?’
“Yes, Solzhenitsyn is the first, sir, but his work has compelled me to read more of Russian authors.”
“Really? Who, for example?”
I hesitated. I was concerned about mentioning the dissident authors I had grown fond of such as Brodsky, Sokolov and Dovlatov. I knew he was a bit Old School and would likely frown at me reading from a list of banned authors. From the corner of my eye, when I first entered his office, I had scanned the headmaster’s bookshelves. I knew the answer Headmaster Everest wanted to hear and so I lied:
“Eh, well… Tolstoy, of course, sir. Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoyevsky… eh, Turgenev…”
“Turgenev! Fathers and Sons?”
“Eh… yes, of course, sir. Fathers and Sons. A classic.”
“A classic indeed! As it happens, I have a copy right here on my bookshelf.”
As I exited the office of Headmaster Everest, I found Miss Sosaboska waiting in the corridor.
She had heard that I been reported to the headmaster for profiteering by selling foodstuffs to my fellow students. I explained to her the misunderstanding and I also explained how I had obtained the foodstuffs in the first place.
She seemed baffled:
“I simply do not understand. Can you not just let the shopkeepers and food vendors know that you can’t take all their gifts to school with you because it will get you in trouble with the headmaster?”
“Miss Sosaboska, it is all about my uncle’s good karma,” I ventured, “In Indian culture it is considered an insult to refuse gifts or hospitality. If I said ‘no’ to the gifts I was given on behalf of the good karmic works of my uncle Salim, I would be equally in trouble with my uncle Salim. Karmic circles must be completed in our philosophy, and rewarding his good karma with gifts and hospitality completes the circle.”
“That uncle Salim of yours must be a real saint,” sighed Miss Sosaboska.
“He is,” I said, “In fact that is what they call him now – Saint Salim, the Sadhu of Southall, or just Sadhu Salim… It’s become contagious throughout Southall. He’s a celebrity!”
“And a most deserving one too!” exclaimed Miss Sosaboska, “I wish there were more people like him in this world. You know, I have an idea…”
Here idea was remarkably simple:
Every morning, I would meet her in the parking lot of the school and present her with the bags of foodstuffs that had been gifted to me that morning. She would then store the bags in the staff room until the school bell rang for end of day, whereupon she would give the bags back to me to take home.
“Miss Sosaboska,” I encouraged, “You are welcome to help yourself to all the biscuits and sweetmeats you wish – we can’t possibly eat all that at home. In fact, if you ask me what the staff like to eat, I can request that from the shop keepers – they will be delighted to oblige!”
“Well,” began Miss Sosaboska quite gleefully, “I am rather partial to Huntley and Palmers – they truly are the perfect dunking biscuit! They will go rather well with the staff room teachers’ elevensies, I can tell you! McVities Digestives are also quite nice…”
From that day on, the shopkeepers of Southall that I passed by on my way to school had Huntley and Palmers as well as McVities Digestive biscuits ready for me to take to Miss Sosaboska for the staff room teatime at 11am every morning.
When I explained this development to my uncle Salim he marveled and bobbed his head to and fro as only Indians know how to do.
“Kamal, kamal, papu!”, he smiled, “You see the good karma of Southall is reaching that posh school of yours in Hanwell, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Salim Uncle,” I acknowledged.
“Now what lesson this is? I will tell you,” he explained seriously, “That from the village of Southall to the village of Hanwell there is peace-offerings and goodwill. Now you see, that is power. That power of good karma will one day make all the racism and skinheads just disappear. You see? So you keep to delivering Huntley-Palmer biscuits. What all she calls them, your teacher?”
“Eh… ‘dunking’ biscuits, Salim Uncle.”
“Yes, that’s because the teachers dunk them in their tea – they dip them in their tea.”
“Dunking, eh? Kamal, kamal these Britishers!”
The Hanwell Library was my sanctuary.
Few, if any of uncle Salim’s customers lived in the vicinity and so it was unlikely I would bump into any of them in Hanwell itself, let alone the local library in Hanwell.
I had by now, become so immersed and intrigued in the place and era that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn inhabited in the Soviet Union that I devoured any book I could find related to the subject. Anyone who might take an interest in what I was reading – as was evidenced by the pile of books accumulating next to me as I sat in the Hanwell Library – would likely be repulsed in my interest in the Soviet gulags.
I am not certain why the subject interested me.
I would imagine that it had to do with my educating myself about the extent of man’s cruelty to mankind. If being beaten up by Grubs for the color of my skin had been an occasion in which childhood innocence was finally lost, then reading about these atrocities was far more than that. The sadness of it engulfed me and this was no longer about a loss of innocence but a very dark night of the soul.
The more I read the more I began to despair. The more my soul entered the blackest night where there was not a spec of light.
In the hands of Stalin, Mao and Hitler – just three men, three tyrants – were the blood and the deaths and the brutal murders, of well over 50 million souls. Many of these died in labor camps and concentration camps. The intensity of the Russian poets in the era of Solzhenitsyn was arresting and painful and irresistibly honest.
Haunting words like these, from Boris Pasternak’s poem, A Sultrier Dawn, kept me up at night:
I pleaded with them-
Don’t torment me!
I can’t sleep.
But – it was drizzling; dragging feet,
The clouds marched down the dusty street
Like recruits from the village in the morning.
They dragged themselves along
An hour or an age,
Like prisoners of war,
Or like the dying wheeze:
– Boris Pasternak (1890-1960)
Whenever it was too much for me, pouring through the stories of the horror in gulag in the Hanwell Library, I resorted to daydreaming.
I daydreamed about my childhood in Kenya.
It was the one place that I could go in my mind that was unsullied and unadulterated. That was truly magical and innocent. I would remember Mr. Patel’s shop on Nagara Road in downtown Nairobi.
“You are from Nairobi, isn’t it? I know your uncle Salim. He is Sadhu of Southall, isn’t it?”
This voice that had interrupted my pleasant daydream in the library came from Mr. Shah.
Mr. Shah was a customer of my uncle Salim’s shop in Southall. It seemed that I had not fully escaped the thankful cheerleaders of my uncle Salim who now seemed to be the unofficial Mayor of Southall. I recalled Mr. Shah’s kindly and wrinkled face from the times he would come into the shop with his grandchildren. He would buy them their favorite Cadbury’s chocolates and then, while they ate the chocolates, he would chat with uncle Salim. Since Mr. Shah was also from Nairobi, he and my uncle would reminisce about the good old days in Kenya.
For Salim Uncle and me, there was nothing more sacred, more magical and more innocent and pure, than our joyful memories of life in Kenya before we emigrated to England.
Kenya held a sacred sanctuary of memories deep within all of us.
Mr. Shah had a neatly groomed white beard and always dressed the same way: a white Nehru cap upon his head, and head-to-toe in immaculately clean white Indian kurta pajamas. He looked like he lived in another ear and belonged to another world, a world that no longer needed him. He had a twinkle in his eyes beneath which was a deep and dark sadness. There was, I thought, always more to him than met the eye.
He looked at me eagerly as I sat in the library. Then, he whispered carefully in my ear as there were others quietly reading on the same long table at which I sat.
“Come along, young fellow!” encouraged the kindly and elderly Mr. Shah, “Let us go out in the fresh air and find us a nice cup of chai and a biscuit – you are to be looking too gloomy reading all these heavy books, isn’t it?”
That was certainly a welcome suggestion. There was only so much one can digest of torture and torment within the gory gulags of the Soviet Union. A cup of tea and a biscuit it was!
We found a local teashop and ordered tea and McVities Chocolate Digestive biscuits.
“You have been reading about the gulags in Russia, isn’t it?” he asked, as he saw my own personal copy of The Gulag Archipelago which had been presented to me by my headmaster at the poetry prize-giving.
I nodded. I could feel he had something to tell me so I said as little as possible.
I just listened to him and watched his intent expression.
Mr. Shah remained quiet for a long time.
We both sat there without talking. We sipped tea. We ate biscuits. We sipped tea again.
He had difficulty averting his eyes from the copy of Solzhenitsyn’s book which sat next to me as I sipped my tea. The book had a grip on him. He looked like he was about to burst.
“I have read it,” said Mr. Shah when he finally spoke, “The Gulag Archipelago – yes, I have read it. I have a copy also.”
“Did you enjoy it?” I asked, just to break the silence once more.
It was a stupid question. I realized that as soon as I asked it. How can one ‘enjoy’ reading about gulags?
“No,” he replied quietly.
Mr. Shah was far away. He fell quiet again.
I decided to remain quiet as well lest I blurt out yet another stupid statement.
We sipped our tea. We ate our biscuits. We sipped our tea again.
The silence was palpable, particularly as we were one of the few customers at the tea shop.
The other single customers were sitting alone at three other tables. One was reading a newspaper. An elderly lady was staring wistfully out of the window while she drank her tea.
A man who I recognized as a school teacher at Drayton Manor Grammar School was and correcting and marking student papers. He had a red ballpoint pen.
He was sipping tea and munching on toast.
Mr. Shah’s voice crackled as he finally spoke. He looked me intently in eye.
“We had them also in Kenya,” he began, “Gulags. In Kenya. Britishers made gulags in Kenya.”
Once he began, he could not stop.
He tried to restrain himself at first but then it all came bursting out in every bloody and cruel detail. Mr. Shah said he had not spoken about this to anyone for all these many years. Not even his wife, and not even his sons. He said that when he saw me reading The Gulag Archipelago it was clear to him that I was curious about such things. Why else would I have purchased such an expensive hard cover book?
He said he was an old man and did not know how many years he had left to live.
He said he had to unburden his soul and tell someone of the new generation what he knew and what he had seen with his own eyes. Like so many early Indian immigrant settlers, pioneers who came to British East Africa from British India to begin a new life, Mr. Shah opened a shop in the hinterland and sold all sorts of supplies to the local people, some of them English officers in the British Colonial army.
He sold sundry items, canned foodstuffs, paraffin and ghee and umbrellas; basically any kind of stock he could get his hands on which he could then resell in this remote part of Kenya.
He was a poor immigrant from the western Indian state of Rajasthan, who had left his wife and children in village India during he early 1950′s, while he sought his fortune in British East Africa, so that he could provide better for his family. He tithed most of his profits from his shop back to his family, and lived frugally, his only adornment being a worn photograph of his wife and children in a frayed wooden frame encased by cracked glass.
It was a meagre existence but not an unusual one for an Indian immigrant in his time.
One fine day, Mr. Shah’s fortunes changed forever. It was as if he had won the lottery.
Two young British army officers drove over to him and disembarked. They asked to see his immigration papers. He presented his papers to them, they took a cursory glance at the papers, approved their validity and gave them back to Mr. Shah. He was all clear. Next, they asked him to close the folded steel shutter of his shop entrance and shut the shop down for an hour.
The officers then escorted Mr. Shah to a local Arab ‘dukka’ – an improvised outdoor kiosk with makeshift old benches and chairs where men sit around and drink tea or soft drinks and smoke cigarettes and play cards while listening to music from a squeaky old transistor radio. The British officers ordered themselves and Mr. Shah some tea.
One of the sons of the Arab dukka owner served the men tea and then hid out of sight, presumably, thought Mr. Shah, because the boy was intimidated by the British officers. Out of the corner of his eye, Mr. Shah how scared the young Arab boy looked as he observed the white colonial officers in their starched khaki uniforms. It made Mr. Shah uncomfortable.
Mr. Shah looked at me gravely before he continued. He took a sip of his tea.
The two British officers explained to Mr. Shah that there were to be major economic developments in this remote region of Kenya where Mr. Shah owned a shop.
This was excellent news for Mr. Shah, they said, because he would be receiving a windfall of new business. The army was going to be transporting a lot of what they called ‘manpower’ and this new population of ‘manpower’ would need rations of food, and blankets and shirts and all sorts of new items that Mr. Shah might sell and profit from. The officers explained that they were going to provide all the clearances and permits for lorry loads of supplies to be delivered to Mr. Shah on a weekly basis so that he can sell these items to the new crop of ‘manpower’ that was being imported into the region.
Mr. Shah was overjoyed.
He envisioned his wife and children in Rajasthan finally having the money to board a steamship from Bombay, sail the Indian Ocean to Mombasa, where he would then await them. Then bring them back to his shop in the Kenyan hinterland with its thriving business.
And they would live happily ever after.
Mr. Shah was both surprised and delighted that life would turn out almost precisely as the two young British officers had promised it would.
Within days, lorry loads of supplies had arrived for Mr. Shah to stock in his shop and there was not room enough to stock it. The officers had arranged for some African laborers – who had arrived in their own lorry loads – to help build Mr. Shah a brand new extension to his shop. It was now three times the size and full of stock and thriving with a growing business.
Business was booming!
Most of all, for the very first time in his life he had a substantial amount of money accumulating in the local bank and substantial remittances being sent back to his family.
Truly, these two officers had been messengers of hope and blessing in his life, thought Mr. Shah, and that is precisely what he also relayed to his beloved wife and children back home in village India, in his native state of Rajasthan.
However, there was one caveat:
Since this was a secret army operation, since this was technically a ‘classified’ event, Mr. Shah could not write or talk about what he witnessed in front of his eyes: a growing compound being built, a fenced wall being erected, endless reams of barbed wire fencing and more and more African people crammed in dusty lorries like cattle, arriving every few days from all parts of Kenya and being ushered into this secretive compound.
These events were ‘classified’ explained the army officers and thus were subject to the ‘Official Secrets Act’ and therefore, would Mr. Shah mind signing a few documents in which we swore to never to divulge the events being unfolded before him? Well, Mr. Shah did not see any reason why he should not sign the documents and so he willingly signed away.
Mr. Shah was very excited at the prospect of his family joining him very soon.
Somehow, however, his family never made it over from Rajasthan to Kenya because their immigration papers got mysteriously misplaced.
Mr. Shah stayed on for several more years without his family.
His family were well taken care of because his business was booming and he was selling all sorts of items to the growing Kenyan population behind the compound encased behind a barbed wire fence, armed guards with rifles and machetes, and guarded further by growling and barking dogs with big teeth and spiky metal dog collars around their necks.
One night, the curiosity of Mr. Shah got the better of him and he wandered over to the secretive compound about which he himself was sworn to secrecy by signing official documents to that effect. It was Christmas Day. He felt emboldened to venture over to the compound.
After all, the British officers – of which there were two dozen or more by now – were all drunk into a stupor. Many of the African guards were also drunk and several had simply passed out from too much food and drink.
Mr. Shah peered through the barbed wire of the compound. What he saw was unspeakable.
He looked at me and then his surroundings in the tea shop and then again at me.
It was as if he had forgotten where he was. So vivid were his recollections that he had transported himself back to another time: to a remote region of Kenya in the 1950′s.
“What did you see, Mr. Shah,” I asked him eagerly, “Please tell me.”
“I cannot,” he muttered, “I cannot. I cannot describe it to you, young man. Unspeakable.”
“It was a gulag?”
“Yes,” he confirmed, “A gulag. A concentration camp. No different than the concentration camps that the Nazis built in Germany. No different than the harshest camps in Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.”
After my conversation with Mr. Shah, school lost all meaning for me. All I could see before me were the images Mr. Shah had conveyed so vividly even though he hardly spoke about them.
School was a prison for the next two years.
Like any prisoner, I could not wait until my sentence was completed and I was released.
The official school-leaving age at Drayton Manor Grammar School was 16 at the time, and I managed to endure every day just as any prisoner might. Trying my best to pass the time and tolerate the drudgery and the boredom. After my conversation with Mr. Shah, I had lost my tolerance for robotic and cold, soulless and sanitized facts and figures devoid of any sense of humanity. Of dead and tired and over-rehearsed and outdated school curriculum.
I could not wait to leave school and work full-time in Salim Uncle’s shop.
Salim Uncle was very supportive of my decision to leave school at 16 and did not interfere in it.
Meantime, I found solace in my record player where I played songs like Pink Floyd’s The Wall:
We don’t need no education
We dont need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!
All in all it’s just another brick in the wall.
All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.
– The Wall, Pink Floyd
When the final day arrived when I could leave school, I prepared a statement which I had rehearsed, and which was directed toward my headmaster, Mr. C. J. Everest.
He granted me an audience in his office for me to say my final farewell, not knowing what I had prepared for him and not being prepared for what I had prepared.
I entered his office and he asked me to be seated on the chair across from his desk while he sat at the opposite end.
He was such a hardworking headmaster, as was evidenced by the countering hills and mountains of paperwork piled neatly in different configurations upon his massive desk.
One day the entire Western world will grind to a halt, its apparatus clogged with forms, files and memoranda.
R.F. Delderfield, To Serve Them All My Days
Headmaster C. J. Everest and I faced each other.
I then glanced down at the handwritten paper I had in my hand.
The moment had arrived, and in the moment, I lacked the courage of my convictions.
He intimidated me with his impeccable manners.
We made some pleasant small-talk. His phone rang. He excused himself politely. He took the phone call. He nonchalantly waved me away to end the meeting and leave. As I looked back, making my way toward the door, he was deeply engrossed in his phone conversation.
I left his office.
That was that.
It is by politeness, etiquette and charity that society is saved from falling into a heap of savagery.
William of Wykeham (1324-1404)
Outside the school, I sat quietly upon a bench and read the letter I had composed for him.
The letter I was too cowardly to read him face to face:
Dear Headmaster Everest,
I know how much you English people pride yourself upon your good manners.
You frequently say: “Manners Maketh Man”.
It is therefore extremely baffling to me why you have behaved with such atrocious bad manners in presenting me with a copy of The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
It was bad manners enough, that your country, Britain, imposed a gulag on my country, Kenya, where tens of thousands of my countrymen were interned and tortured and subject to extreme cruelty and ruthless murder. If that is not bad manners enough, you then presented me with a book about gulags in order to add insult to injury.
Clearly, you had not done your homework, headmaster.
The only reason that we do not know as much about the gulags in Kenya as we do about the gulags in Russia is because Kenya did not have a brave and noble soul like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to expose the bad manners of the British. Or, perhaps Kenya did, but the British colonists either suppressed or sabotaged the Truth from being exposed.
May I suggest, sir, that instead of having school students storing sanitized facts about Tudors and Stuarts or Normans and Saxons, and mindlessly spewing sayings in Latin and Greek, that you might begin to educate yourself in a substantial way by learning about other cultures and the Truth about how your country played a devious and destructive part in their development?
I have learned absolutely nothing of value here at Drayton Manor Grammar School.
Nothing about humanity. Nothing about honesty.
It has been a complete and utter waste of time.
That was the letter I had planned to read my headmaster.
Moreover, my plan just before I exited his office, was to dramatically return the copy of The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to Mr. Everest, which he had given me as a gift at the poetry prize-giving. That was going to be my statement of mild protest, to show him how I was rather miffed by the theme of Solzhenitsyn’s book. I then envisioned a bold exit from his office.
Once again, I was intimidated and did not go through with my plan.
I just scampered out of his office when his phone rang and he casually signaled me to leave.
I lost the moment.
I knew why. There is one simple reason I did not read the letter out loud to him:
It would have been very bad manners.
The one quality that English grammar schools taught you well was how to be extremely well-mannered. “Manners maketh man,” Headmaster Everest would announce frequently at the end of morning assembly. He was fond of this quote by William of Wykeham, which is the motto of Winchester College and New College, Oxford. Headmaster Everest was always well-mannered.