gall and gumption

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Henry Fowler 1915-2007

In 1971 I passed a scholarship exam that got me full tuition to Priory School in Jamaica. Its founder, Henry Fowler, was still the headmaster then. This photo was taken the second year that I was there. Mr. Fowler was an old-school Jamaican of colonial days, the sort of person that it is now fashionable to blame for all our ills.

He grew up in colonial times, when the Jamaican identity was associated with a culture rooted in a distant land. Even though, as a Rhodes Scholar, he was educated in 'Mother England', he set his sights on helping to build a new Jamaica, according to the vision of Norman Washington Manley who was to become one of the iconic figures of Jamaica's quest for nationhood and whom Fowler greatly admired.

After studies in England, Fowler returned to his native land and plunged into the social revolution which was being born. Self-government was the immediate goal and he took on the role of editor of the newspaper, Public Opinion, a vehicle for discourse on what the future held. He became part of a band of social activists/idealists who began to lay the groundwork for the 'new Jamaica'. Along with journalism, he also embraced the cause of education, founding The Priory School, which came to be widely regarded as an institution for the élite. However, along with Knox College in Manchester and Excelsior High in Kingston, it was part of a new ethos, challenging the old definitions of education and setting new boundaries for the young.

Among various appointments, he served as adviser on education to successive Jamaican governments and also represented the nation as ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), helping to place this country on its agenda through his interest and influence in education and the arts.

Henry Fowler had a deep passion for the arts and the theatre in particular. Perhaps his most noted monument is the establishment of the Little Theatre Movement (LTM), which he co-founded in the 1940s along with his first wife, Greta Bourke Fowler. The LTM and the Little Theatre which it built, have remained beacons in Jamaican and Caribbean theatre for over six decades now.

Under LTM auspices also, the Fowlers established the Jamaica Theatre School in the 1970s and later handed it over to the Government. It was renamed the School of Drama and became a component of the Cultural Training Centre, now the Edna Manley College for the Visual and Performing Arts.

Henry Fowler also led the establishment of the Ward Theatre Foundation in response to the urgent need to save the landmark building and preserve its heritage as a part of Kingston's cultural history. To the end of his life, he retained his interest in the LTM and the Ward and continued to be passionate in his advocacy for the maintenance of these symbols of national creativity.

But he founded this incredible school, and he put into practice there his passionately held ideas about education. It was called the "snob school" because it was a very expensive private school; my scholarship enabled me and my brother to go there, or my parents would never have been able to afford it. It was the school where all the expats -- ambassadors, bauxite industry executives and so on -- sent their children. Mr. Fowler was very proud that the school was international and encouraged us to be so too. In addition to the really first-rate, inspired teaching (graduates went on to Oxbridge and the Ivies every year), the school was an incredible place to learn drama.

The Fowlers had major connections in theater; they were friends with Noel Coward, who lived in Oracabessa (my grandmother's birthplace) on the North Coast of Jamaica. His house, Fireflies, is now a tourist attraction. Greta Fowler's daughter Jennifer, on Coward's recommendation, got a shot at performing at the Old Vic in London, when people like Sean Connery, Richard Burton, and Richard Harris were there. She ended up marrying the actor Robert Shaw. When they divorced she moved back to Jamaica and her two younger daughters were students at Priory. Kathy, the youngest, was one of my first friends there.

The result, for Priory, was that theater was just a normal part of school life. There was always a drama teacher on staff, and there was always something being worked on, and you just sort of got drawn into a production because you showed up for workshops, a workshop turned into a reading of a play, the reading of the play turned into blocking it out, and the next thing you knew it was a production. That is how I ended up in the school play for almost all the years that I was there, and why, when I finally left Priory to go to school in England, I seriously considered going into acting. I mean, it seemed so easy. But within a year I gave that up out of a foolish sensitivity that was totally unrelated to acting itself. My uncle was a professional actor at the time (he has since moved into directing, producing, and teaching), and I was so in awe of him that I couldn't bear to think of acting in front of him. I knew sooner or later he'd see me, and then he'd die of embarrassment after casting one reproachful stare that would burn itself into my soul indelibly like in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And then one day he did see me; for a surprise my mother brought him to see me perform in a sketch at a schools' drama competition in Kent. His presence made me completely lose my head and I ran through my part at a sort of hysterical breathless gallop, just burning to get off the stage. This was a complete misreading of my uncle's character, but you must understand he had gone off to England and become very chic and sophisticated and mod. And cool people always told me I was an idiot, in my experience. I hadn't yet figured out that a totally groovy person like him would be groovy to me too. Well, he was and is. I acted in school, thoroughly enjoyed it, for the rest of the year but I gave up any thoughts of it for a career. Regrets? Only for my stupidity. But I'm over the stage fright (the only instance of it I have ever experienced) and I can even read things to my uncle without having an anxiety attack.

At Priory Henry Fowler was venerated. He was so smart, so kind, so warm, so completely in charge, so completely civilized. He had a way of roaring at you, too, when he caught you misbehaving, that would make your hair stand on end. His second wife, who was the British High Commissioner to Jamaica for many years, is a close friend of my mother's, and so I had news of him from time to time. He seemed indestructible. I saw him about 20 years ago when he took me and my mother on a tour of Oxford. I was thinking of going to grad school there and of course my mother, a diehard old colonial in her very soul, was very keen for the idea. But Marvin Mudrick proved the bigger draw.

My recent posts on Marvin got me reading around in Mudrick Transcribed again. In one class, he tells a story about a grad student who came to see him to complain that he had really just done a lousy job of teaching one session of a class. "Oh don't worry about it," he said. "The only way they will remember anything about you is if you vomited on your shoes." That grad student was me, though he didn't say so and made me a "he" (further misdirection). Well, as it happened, I once did vomit on my shoes at the front of a classroom. It was when I was in 7th grade (first form as they say in the old country). I felt sicker and sicker and kept hoping it would go away, and at the last possible minute (a defining trait of my character) I made my way to the teacher's desk, opened my mouth to ask to go to the bathroom, and disgorged a great stream of barf down the front of my clothes and all over my shoes. There was no need of further explanation. My classmates were, of course, delighted. Several minutes later, somewhat cleaned up and faintly reeking, I sat in the front hall of the main building waiting for my mother to pick me up and take me home. Priory's main building was one of the grand old wooden mansions along Hope Road in Kingston. The room was dark with aged mahogany panelling. Mr. Fowler came bounding up the front steps and saw this tearful person sitting there and immediately set to work to cheer me up. It was uphill going. He chattered away, laying on his maximum child-charming powers, and when I told him my name he said, "What a coincidence! We have a little girl here named Kia, she's very nice..." You know how when you're a kid and you're so sunk in your own wretchedness that you can barely even speak? I was like that. I managed to bleat out, "That's me. It's me!" When he finally heard me he was so shocked, he was sort of laughing and blushing and patting me on the shoulder and apologizing and exclaiming at his own silliness. He stayed with me till my mother showed up (they didn't know each other so well at this point), told her the story. When I visited him at Oxford he still remembered it.

As people die you lose the past. It was a very different Jamaica then, and he was a big part of why, at least for me.

(Photo note: The Chinese boy at the far right of the photo was a neighbor and a playmate of my brother's. In 1998 when I was teaching briefly at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, his housekeeper's niece was one of my students. A smart, funny and impressive woman who I remember fondly for saying to me in class one day, "Penso, your clothes is hexpensive but dey is hugly." Her first name was Monaco, as in Princess Grace Of.)

Note: If you are interested in his full and even more impressive obit here, if you scroll down a ways.


At 11:42 AM, Blogger L7 said...

I loved reading this. It's beautiful.

At 5:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was a Priory student in the early 1960s, one of those American kids you describe. But I remember Mr. Fowler vividly, the assemblies on Monday mornings when it seemed he flew into the room on great black wings (the sleeves of his Oxford gown). It was indeed a wonderful school, very demanding, and very accepting. It was so far ahead of its time in understanding how much good could come of putting children of all races and socio-economic backgrounds into classrooms and friendships together.

At 5:58 AM, Blogger vernon patrick barrett said...

Well done. Great School Day Memories. I just found your blog 7 years later - isn't the internet great!! Thanks for capturing a piece of Jamaican Educational History. I won the Priory Scholarship the following year to you - 1972 and was only there for 2 years. But it was enough to make an impact on my education and life perspective. Really appreciate the school which was so ahead of its time in many ways - esp. now as a parent with kids being educated. And the Priory quality education was down to Mr. Fowler, undoubtedly. The students in your photo were in my year/class and I was just out of lens range!! Small world.

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