"Be British" conveyed the same authoritative admonishment as "Behave yourself", at the time when to conceive of a nation of Trinidad and Tobago was to indulge idle dreaming. Eric Williams, profiling the place he was born in 1911, never added "and Tobago" to his references.
In theory, in practice, in aspiration, being "British" has remained a challenge from before Trinidad and Tobago became yoked into a single nation state. Well, such were my musings on Tuesday, as I chanced to click onto the BBC's coverage of Queen Elizabeth at Westminster Hall in London.
The Queen was marking her diamond jubilee. Members of the Parliament—Lords and Commons—had assembled in homage to "Most Gracious Sovereign", as the Speaker addressed her.
Hooked as I am on pageantry, I was disappointed that the BBC never troubled to supply caption information about the ceremonial characters resplendent in scarlet and gold, like the Gentleman Usher holding a rod, filling expressive roles in that ancient tableau.
It was the monarch's moment, celebrated in the British way. The Queen noted that she had "treated with" 12 prime ministers, over a period going back well before the incumbent David Cameron was born.
Now in her 80s, but sure of step, clear of head, distinct of speech, she had personally written (the Mail Online said) remarks that she flawlessly delivered: "So, in an era when the regular, worthy rhythm of life is less eye-catching than doing something extraordinary, I am reassured that I am merely the second sovereign to celebrate a Diamond Jubilee."
The observation that normal people doing their normal work well never gain "eye-catching" headlines could yet apply to herself. Though hers may be one of the best-recognised figures on the planet, what she does for a living is seldom appraised.
At this diamond jubilee, it is the reality of long service that comes to the fore. One BBC commentator listed T&T and South Africa as republics where the Queen remains in reverential regard.
In sustaining the monarchy, projecting an admired figurehead for the Commonwealth, and otherwise exercising, on behalf of London, a unique kind of diplomacy, Elizabeth II has served her country well. For a 2009 state dinner in Port of Spain, she who wore a gown imprinted with the chaconia, months later wore a gown imprinted with the Canadian maple leaf for a state dinner in Ottawa.
When jibing critics call Ms Persad-Bissessar "queen", their doing so amounts to a low-rating of the singular model the world has known for 60 years, in Elizabeth II.
Such an appreciation for a foreign queen must be easier to feel in T&T today than in the Crown Colony days. When white officials, posted here from London, literally lorded it over the disempowered local population, "Be British" sounded like raising a toast to the chains of oppression.
Now that we could choose, or have more choice, we could decide to abdicate ourselves from the Privy Council. I hold it against both Basdeo Panday and Kamla Persad-Bissessar that they, in equally faithless retrogression, repudiated earlier commitment to the Caribbean Court of Justice, and re-embraced the Privy Council.
Meanwhile, I've been intrigued to see "the British" invoked in an exchange on standards in the publicly spoken and written words. Winford James, the Tobagonian UWI linguist and Express columnist, started something, I hope, with his upholding of "defi-nightly" as the pronunciation for "definitely".
Tobago speakers, he argues, are comfortable with "defi-nightly". Then "who is to say they are wrong? The British?"
Whether "right" or "wrong", that Tobago pronunciation will likely not fall from my lips. But pronunciation and accents and peculiar uses of words do call distracting attention to themselves. As Prime Minister, "Castara kid" ANR Robinson drew sniggers for calling media people "joe-nalists". Was the Oxford-educated Mr Robinson was making fun of us with "joe-nalists"?
Similar questions arise over "Mult-Eye-Culturalism", as pronounced by the Minister of the Arts and that. Mr Peters, a calypsonian, is capable of rare satire, and hearers must wonder about his attitude to the big word in his assigned portfolio.
Mr James' endorsement of "defi-nightly", as respectable alternative to "definitely", has provoked from retired educator Clive Borely the rebuke that to teach such an approach today "is decidedly a backward step". Neither linguist nor educator myself, my own status is as cockroach in that fowl party which I hope will be joined by other knowledgeable observers.
Eric Williams, also Oxford-educated, had scorned Crown Colony public language in which "thusly" was preferred over "thus". I have never accepted "you all" as other than an overdone effort to correct "all you" which sounds all right in my ears. Likewise, I prefer "Ka-na-val" to "Kor-ni-vul" that I hear more and more these days.
It all took me back to John Simon, the literary and language critic, who once advocated the making of conscious distinctions between "refined, educated, elitist usage" and "popular, demotic uneducated usage".
"It would be up to every one of us," he wrote, "to choose the parlance suited to his aspirations." Thus influenced by the Hungarian-American John Simon, my own aspirations are definitely not to "be British".