Saturday, March 13, 2004

It's a foggy day in Coventry, and Derek Walcott is huddled against the cold in an overcoat, talking about his home in St Lucia and the view from his window where the blue sky meets the blue sea. I wonder if he might open up in the sun, like a hibiscus, but today his face is closed.

The previous evening, a dinner was held in his honour at Warwick University. Some of those present were studying for PhDs on his work. Everyone had a question, a comment. The Nobel prizewinner and founding father of Caribbean literature fended them off with monosyllables and deep imponderable silences. In the game of academia, he was playing by his own rules.

But there is another side to Walcott. Earlier that evening, arriving at the university for a reading, he was met by two girls from St Lucia, enthusiastically clutching their tickets. He broke his schedule to talk to them, let them take photographs, then changed the poems he had planned to read to include one with a section in the island patois. They hooted with delight.

You can take the man out of his island, but you can't take the island out of the man. The little isle in the Lesser Antilles, 14 miles by 27, is the backdrop and very often the subject of his writing. In what many would regard as his masterpiece, his epic Omeros, he reimagined Homer's Odyssey among the fishermen and waitresses of the island. The villages are "my villages". When he uses the word "here" in our conversation, he means not a hotel in Coventry but his island home.

-- From a profile of Walcott by Susan Mansfield in today's Scotsman.

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