The Commonwealth: A Common Culture?

By Richard Maltby; Peter Quartermaine | Go to book overview

4: MICHAEL THORPE
How Much is Everything? English Language and
Literature in the Developing Nations of the
Commonwealth*

It would seem a vain task to seek to define a common culture among the diverse ethnic, political and religious systems that make up the Commonwealth mosaic. Investigating such issues as civil rights, religious ritual, or, more narrowly, the status of women, would alone be enough to expose radical differences. Even the Commonwealth nations’ shared colonial past takes so many varying forms that it affords no serviceable generalizations. There is, however, a shared medium of culture, the English language, and it has become something of a cliché to affirm that the literatures of the Commonwealth form a rich Common Wealth:

It’s good that everything’s gone, except their language, which is
everything (‘North and South’)

Obviously the St Lucian poet Derek Walcott’s ‘everything’ is a studied hyperbole: he knows English remains the colonial language, using which many consider at best a shameful necessity. The English tongue holds its own now, often for pragmatic reasons, as a lingua franca in the countries Britain ruled, but it cannot be quickly forgotten that it was originally introduced as an instrument of imperial control – and of an imperious civilization:

I said to Uncle Hilaal, ‘We know what conquerors with written
traditions who occupy a land belonging to a people of the oral
tradition do. We know they impose upon them a law which makes
it unlawful to think of themselves as human. The European colonists
have done so’.

* The ‘first peoples’ of the white-ruled Dominions, Australia, Canada and New
Zealand, fall outside this essay’s scope: bound to remain ethnic minorities, still
colonized, they face distinct problems of accommodation with the dominant culture.

-41-

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