COLLY’S FOLLIES

James Ferguson on Frank Collymore’s wry, sly short story collection The Man Who Loved Attending Funerals

Illustration by Christopher Cozier

When did you last meet a real Renaissance man, or woman? I mean someone
who can do absolutely everything without seeming to try very hard. I suspect
there aren’t as many of these multitalented individuals as there used to
be, partly because we’re all told to specialise at an early age and to stick
at what we know.

If Frank Collymore was ever given that advice, he ignored it. He was a
poet, a painter, a broadcaster, a lexicographer (he published notes on Barbadian
dialect), and an actor. He also found time to teach English and French to
generations of boys at Barbados’ famous Combermere grammar school, the school
he’d attended between 1903 and 1910 (he taught there for over 50 years,
influencing writers like George Lamming and Austin Clarke). He was probably
a decent cook and good at DIY as well.

He claimed he liked acting best, but he is remembered above all for editing
the magazine Bim — the title is an affectionate nickname for Barbados
— which appeared first in 1942. Published erratically, and always in financial
difficulties, this was quite simply the Caribbean’s most important literary
forum in the 20th century. It published work by Lamming and Clarke, Sam
Selvon and Edgar Mittelholzer, Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott, giving
a stage to these and many other authors from the English-speaking Caribbean
who might otherwise have remained unnoticed. In his role as editor, Collymore
encouraged and helped some of the greatest names in West Indian writing,
believing that the region had its own distinctive literary culture.

It seems hardly believable that this unusually energetic man could fit
anything else into his career, but he did. In fact, he did a great deal
of writing, not just of poetry, but short stories too, some of which were
published in Bim. Eighteen of these pieces were gathered together
and published in 1993 under the intriguing title The Man Who Loved Attending
Funerals.

It is, of course, a piece of received wisdom among publishers and critics
that no one really likes short stories, that it is a bad move on the part
of any self-respecting writer to abandon the full-length novel in favour
of the shorter genre. Short stories, so the orthodoxy has it, are written
by amateurs in competitions and are not real literature. Leaving aside
the fact that such “minor” authors as Dickens, Joyce, and Flaubert wrote
short stories, such a view ignores a more important truth: that this sort
of writing has its own demands and devices, that it requires an understanding
of the genre that turns its limitations of length into positive strengths.

Collymore had that understanding in abundance. He realised that a short
story must quickly grab the reader’s attention, that it revolves around one
idea or predicament, that its conclusion must provide either a satisfying
resolution to a mystery or an unexpected twist-in-the-tale. He also knew how
to create a strong sense of atmosphere from the start, and how to use an
isolated incident or vignette to full effect.

Some of the stories in the collection are really rather funny,
casting light either on particular foibles of Barbadian society or, more
generally, the weaknesses of human nature. Take “To Meet Her Mother”, for
instance, in which the splendidly named and very fastidious Fitzwilkinson
Cumberbatch is in love with the svelte and delicate Sylphide. His affection
for this slim creature is matched only by his disgust for the obese older
women whom he sees all around. Imagine his horror when, on meeting Sylphide’s
mother, he discovers a woman “like a preposterous blob of blancmange”, a
terrible portent of what will inevitably happen to Sylphide.

Even more pointed is the comic unmasking of social pretentiousness and
hypocrisy in “RSVP to Mrs Bush-Hall”, the story of a former prostitute’s
bid to win respectability and status by marrying her witless daughter to
one Lucas Traherne, an Englishman who claims to be a poet and minor aristocrat.
One might sympathise with Maude Bush-Hall’s aspirations but for her appalling
smugness and snobbery, and so it comes as a fine example of Schadenfreude
when we learn that Lucas is nothing more than a conman, who fleeces the
gullible Maude and escapes Barbados on the day of the wedding.

Collymore’s stories are often cruel in their comedy, but he also reveals
a darker side, an interest in morbid behaviour and madness. One of the most
powerful tales is “Shadows”, a broodingly gothic evocation of revenge and
murder set in a sinister haunted house. Here the mood of lurking terror
is convincingly established by a narrator who, we learn at the end, is writing
to a friend from a lunatic asylum, having murdered his wife. The madhouse
also features in “Miss Edison”, another creepy story of deranged passion
and murder, here masquerading under a veneer of respectability.

Murder and revenge are frequent ingredients in these stories by a man I
assume to have been a mild-mannered, pipe-smoking schoolmaster. There is also
an undisguised interest in the bizarre, not least in the title story, “The
Man Who Loved Attending Funerals”, a strange piece of first-person confession
that starts with a classic attention-grabbing line:

I have a strange admission to make; but, since I regard myself as already
dead, I have no reason to conceal anything; these words of mine are, as
far as anything written by mortal hand can be, the truth.

The truth is that the narrator derives an acute pleasure from being at
funerals, a pleasure that develops into an almost supernatural ability to
predict who among the mourners will be next to be buried. The unexpected
ending has a fittingly poetic justice, as he realises, looking into his
car mirror, that his own face has adopted the terrifying skeleton rictus
of one already dead.

If one were to find fault with Collymore’s fiction, it is probably that
it deals with a circumscribed version of middle-class Barbadian society, a
world of cocktails, maids, and golf courses, and has little to say about a
wider Caribbean context. But that, in fairness, was probably the world Collymore
knew and loved, and he evokes the genteel conformism of post-war Barbados
with a deft touch.

My own favourite, however, is one story that escapes from the starched
tablecloths and chrysanthemums of suburban Bridgetown, as the child protagonist
experiences the rowdy excitement of a race meeting at the Garrison Savannah.

In “A Day at the Races”, Collymore successfully captures the intoxicating
impact of a forbidden and slightly illicit adult activity upon an innocent
child. In a series of finely drawn scenes, he sketches the drama of the
crowds, the gambling, the race itself, and that uniquely Caribbean mix of
good humour and badinage that surrounds such events. Like many of the other
stories in this collection, it is a small masterpiece of the short story
writer’s craft.