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Thursday, December 13, 2007

This Friday at Alice Yard: 200 Drawings

200 drawings children

Artists Nikolai Noel and Jaime Lee Loy (and a small audience) working on their collaborative project 200 Drawings, which opens in the Alice Yard Space on Friday 14 December.

(More photos here.)

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Silences travers├ęs des Mondes et des Anges



A map of the dark side of the moon, its geology indicated by colour, generated by the US Geological Survey--via Strange Maps. (No, I'm not looking for somewhere to migrate to, now that Mr. Manning is back for five.)

For no good reason, this makes me think of Rimbaud's vowels.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

44, 25

Well, scratch that out.

It turns out the figures reported by the Newsday yesterday were "very preliminary", as the second paragraph of the story clearly says. Less preliminary (but still not final) figures published by the Express today paint a different picture. Ah, the dangers of premature arithmetic.

Voter turnout was not a surprisingly low 56%, but closer to 66%, just a few points below the last election. The COP didn't snag 25% of the vote--more like 23%, and it looks like the UNC won 30%, a good 46,000 more votes in the popular count nationwide. (On the other hand, it now looks like the PNM got a mere 46%.)

So much for a 44-25 strategy.

34-23 doesn't have the same ring to it.

I think my basic argument still holds--that if the COP is to have any meaningful future role it must 1. win over non-voters and 2. turn the focus of the constitution reform debate away from executive powers and towards making the legislature more representative of actual voting patterns. But--back to those tricksy numbers--34-23 = a more toilsome fight than 44-25.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

1981, 1986, 44, 25

About a week before the general election in 1981, my standard one teacher, Miss Jacob, announced we'd be doing a classroom civics project: our own mini-election. She explained how voting worked, told us the names of the parties and their leaders, and set the date for the Friday before the real-life election day.

None of us seven-year-olds had any idea what the PNM or the ULF or the ONR were, or what was the difference between them, so naturally we went home and asked our parents who to vote for. On Friday morning, we wrote the party names and drew their symbols on strips of paper, then hunched over our ballots to mark our Xs. The "returning officer" collected them, Miss Jacob counted them, and she wrote the results on the blackboard. We were a class of perhaps twenty-four middle-class children from Port of Spain and its northern and north-western suburbs. All but two of us voted for the ONR.

When the PNM won the real grown-up election a few days later--and the ONR took not a single seat, despite winning a quarter of the popular votes nationwide--my seven-year-old self was utterly confused. It was my first experience of Trinidadian electoral politics.

Skip five years--past Plain Clothes' "Chambers Done See" and Gypsy's "Sinking Ship"--to the 1986 election. My father campaigned for the NAR in our constituency. I remember the posters with the steel-beam symbol everywhere, and the excitement and optimism, the sense that everything was about to change. And the huge victory rally in the Savannah afterwards, like a picnic the whole country was invited to.

The COP and its supporters--including many of my friends and colleagues and, finally, myself--were hoping that Monday's election would be like 1986. Instead we got 1981, like a slap in the face to bring us back to reality.

***

Number, numbers, numbers. The key ones--the heartbreaking ones--were on the front pages of the newspapers today: 26-15-0. An eleven-seat majority for Mr. Manning, but thankfully two seats short of the 28 he needs to start tinkering with the constitution. (Perhaps he'll try anyway.) The pundits will be picking over the figures for weeks, the pollsters will claim they got it right, the politicians will gloat or grumble--or, in Mr. Panday's case, foam at the mouth.

But these are the numbers that will matter in the long run: 44, which is the percentage of the registered electorate who didn't vote; that is to say, who weren't interested in the tribal politics of the PNM and the UNC but yet didn't feel motivated enough, or confident enough, to stain their fingers for the COP. And 25, which is the percentage of the popular vote the COP actually won. The UNC managed just 22.5%, but took eleven seats, thanks to the antiquated first-past-the-post system we inherited at Independence

If the COP is to have any long-term effect, if they are serious--if we are serious--about breaking the deadlock of tribal voting, those are the numbers future planning must be based on, it seems to me. And what is the 44-25 strategy? Convince the 44% that the COP is a viable option, that a vote for the COP is not a wasted vote, is more than a protest vote, and get them out to the polls next time. And work for real reform of a constitutional system that ignores the wishes of a full quarter of the electorate.

God knows what tricks Mr. Manning has planned for us in the next five years, in the name of "developed nation status". More heavy industrialisation, more skyscrapers, more legal voter padding of marginal constituencies via housing schemes, more murders, more gangs with more guns.... Five more years of being ignored or patronised by the government whose salary we're all paying, while we get more desperate and demoralised, and more of our brightest and best apply for green cards. And the last thing either the PNM or the UNC wants is an electoral system that produces a parliament reflecting the people's wishes, via some form of proportional representation. So I hardly need say that things will probably get worse before they get better, and making things better means blood, toil, tears, and sweat.

But what is the alternative?

I don't want a green card.

Update: damn numbers. See here.

Friday, November 02, 2007

It's entirely Trinidadian, as jokey as it is heartbreaking, that, with three political parties, instead of finding one to vote for, we should end up with two to vote against.

Thanks, BC, for saying everything we need to know about this election in one sentence.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Put the blame on we

As I type, the UNC is having a political meeting somewhere in my neighbourhood. The first I knew of it was the soundcheck earlier this evening; out of nowhere, a deep, excited male voice boomed through the house, making the windows rattle. "Yes. Yes. Yes, yes, yes. Yes!" It could have been the soundtrack to a porn movie. Then they started playing the annoying UNC campaign jingle. Now they've switched to what sounds like a parody of Akon's "Put the Blame on Me". Exactly how is this supposed to convince me to vote? It puts a definite end to my plans for a quiet night working away at my desk.

***

At least it's a change from the even more annoying PNM campaign jingle, which has been blaring from cars equipped with loudspeakers every afternoon this week. The chorus is a despairing voice bleating the name of the political leader and aspiring dictator: PATREHHHK! Then something about going down the road together. Down the road to where? National migraine?

***

In today's Express, Selwyn Ryan claims the PNM and the COP are running "neck and neck". But everyone I talk to seems morosely convinced that on 5 November the PNM will be back with a bigger majority. I don't know what would be worse: that, or a UNC government with Jack Warner and Ramesh Maharaj in high office. I wish I could believe the COP had a real chance of forming a government. I can't say I've been impressed by their campaign, or most of their candidates; but, if I'm certain of anything in Trinidad and Tobago politics, it's that Winston Dookeran is not a wicked man. Leave his real flaws aside--for now, that alone is enough.

My best realistic hope: an unstable COP-UNC coalition that collapses in a year or so and triggers fresh elections.

But I fear that on the morning of 6 November, we'll wake up and find that we're only just starting to realise what a mess we're in. Maybe we'll also finally grasp that it's our fault, not the politicians'--they're just preying on our prejudices and political immaturity. Then the real work will begin.
This Friday at Alice Yard: Proverb

mario lewis proverb

Still from Proverb, a video work by Mario Lewis, the second artist's project in the new Alice Yard Space at 80 Roberts Street, Woodbrook; opening on Friday 19 October.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Last Sunday

appalachian trail survey marker

Survey marker at the point where the Appalachian Trail enters Hanover, New Hampshire, from the east; 7 October, 2007

Friday, September 14, 2007

Balkan perils

A friend travelling in the Balkans writes from Ljubljana:

"The drunk Kiwi girl continued her violent rampage for about 2 hours, assaulting anyone who got near her. The police came and she assaulted them too. They handcuffed her and took her away. After that there was a lot of talk about it, and we went to a nightclub around the corner from the hostel which played the worst music I have ever heard in a club. Did anyone dance to 'Eye of the Tiger' when it was popular? One big guy in the club suddenly walked up to me, hugged me and gave me a kiss on the cheek. He then told me that he liked me. The Danish guy I was with (who bore the brunt of the Kiwi attack) asked for a kiss as well, and the man said 'silly white man!' I am exotic, it seems."

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

This Friday at Alice Yard: Rack

rack

Rack, a drawing installation by Adam Williams, will be the first artist's project in the new Alice Yard Space at 80 Roberts Street, Woodbrook, which opens on Friday 14 September.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Encoded

code1

From the personal archive: Code was a "magazine" I "published" seven-odd years ago. It ran to two issues, each of which consisted of an eleven-by-seventeen-inch sheet of paper laser-printed on both sides, folded down to make sixteen pages, each four and a half by five and a half inches. To read it, you had to unfold the sheet. I must have printed twenty or so copies of each issue, and for the life of me I can't remember what I did with most of them, or who might have read them. Almost needless to say, I wrote all the content myself. I also can't remember why I never "published" issue three.

code2

Friday, August 31, 2007

The big four-five

TRINIDAD & TOBAGO woke up on the morning of its 45th birthday and groaned like an octogenarian. It lay on the bed for a moment before opening its eyes to the blinding light coming in through the window. (The shade trees the British had planted had long ago been hacked down to clear the way for buildings, parking lots, smelters, churches, prime ministerial holiday homes and future monorail stations & child labour camps.) The country let out a little whelp, rolled over in the cramped, crowded, dirty, noisy little bed it had made for itself and tried to go back to sleep....

But even play-play countries in which grandiose official residences went up in record time but schools failed to open on the first day of term because of overflowing toilets, flea infestations & teacher absenteeism, must at least make a show of going about their business, even on their birthdays; and so Trinidad & Tobago sighed, steupsed, farted - and knelt at the side of its bed for morning prayers....


-- B.C. Pires, wishing the nation, ahm, a happy birthday in his column in today's Express.

The only thing funnier than that in the papers today--and I mean not funny-ha-ha or funny-strange but funny-heartbreaking--might be Juhel Browne's report of the media tour of the new prime ministerial palace:

The ground floor of the residence is where all visiting dignitaries would be accommodated in three self contained bedrooms.

Each bedroom has its own toilet and glass-door shower, chairs and a bed that did not appear to be more than 6ft in length.

The beds had mattresses with tags in Chinese words.

The bedrooms had large windows and curtains.

At least one of them had a clear view of the swimming pool.

There is a large room called a parlour which has chairs and sofas.

The ground floor also has a large dining area with a long wooden table and chairs and a meeting room.

There is a kitchen and preparation room for the food.

Some of the counter tops, however, are yet to be completed.


Are these haiku-like paragraphs straight-faced reporting, an odd attempt at irony, evidence of a journalist's utter despair? And what, I wonder, will Our Father have to say about it all?

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Many correspondents, few lovers

Email is good for one thing only: flirtation. The problem with flirtation has always been that the nervousness you feel in front of the object of your infatuation deprives you of your wittiness. But with email you can spend an hour refining a casual sally. You trade clever notes as weightless, pretty, and tickling as feathers. The email, like the Petrarchan sonnet, is properly a seduction device, and everyone knows that the SUBJECT line should really read PRETEXT.

But one has many correspondents, and few if any lovers. Individually, they’re all decent people; collectively, they form an army marching to invade your isolation and ransack your valuable time....


-- From "Against email", an unsigned essay in the latest issue of n+1. (I sent my very first email in late 1995 or early 1996--I wish I could remember more exactly. But I remember who I sent it to and more or less what I wrote. I also remember a sense of awesome--or should that be "awful"?--thrill. I knew the world had changed, but I didn't yet know how. And how could I have guessed--I barely understand it now--that a casual click of the send button would start the avalanche that finds me here, a decade later, at the bottom of a scree-strewn slope, in the desolate sump of Facebook?)

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

To everything there is a season...

...and a time for every blog to get a new look. This blog reached that point many months ago, but lassitude and procrastination are strong with me. However, when the acquisition of a top-level domain name required me to design a new home page, I thought there was no point putting it off any more. Circumspice, dear reader, whoever you are. And here's a last look back at the blog's old incarnation:

what my blog used to look like

I'll miss it a little--I'm silly that way--but I suppose I can always visit version 1.0 in the Internet Archive.

Meanwhile, nicholaslaughlin.com is now up and running. For the time being there's just a home page and a revised version of Choosing My Confessions, which collects links to various of my reviews etc., but eventually I'll post a page devoted to my Guyana book-in-progress, "Imaginary Roads", and who knows what else.

Oh, does this mean I'll now be posting here more often? Probably not, if experience is any guide.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

It wasn't until 1955 that I came across the Walcott book....

It seemed to me quite wonderful that in 1949 and 1948 and doubtless for some years before there had been, in what I had thought of as the barrenness of the islands, this talent among us, this eye, this sensitivity, this gift of language, ennobling many of the ordinary things we knew. The fishermen rowing homeward in the dusk are not aware of the stillness through which they move. We lived in Trinidad on the all but shut-in Gulf of Paria, between the island and Venezuela; that sight of fishermen, silhouettes in the fast-fading dusk, so precisely done, detail added to detail, was something we all knew. Reading these poems in London in 1955, I thought I could understand how important Pushkin was to the Russians, doing for them what hadn't been done before. I put the Walcott as high as that.


-- V.S. Naipaul on Derek Walcott, from a piece published in today's UK Guardian, excerpted from Naipaul's forthcoming book A Writer's People.

See this post at Antilles for a snippet from a 1963 letter in which Naipaul praises Walcott's "startling vision and muscular expression"....

Friday, July 27, 2007

the highest water bottle in jamaica

Yes, this is my water bottle atop the trig marker on Blue Mountain Peak--for a few minutes last Sunday, it was the highest water bottle in Jamaica. More photos from my hiking expedition etc. here.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

muhammad and attillah at brown leaf awards

Tonight New Voices hosted the first annual Brown Leaf Awards, for various environmental disgraces in Trinidad and Tobago. Muhammad and Attillah got all decked out in, respectively, top hat and feather boa; there were celebrity guests in the studio audience; Mr. Manners made an appearance, of course; and a good time was had by all, except, presumably, for the Brown Leaf Awardees.
6 April, 2071? 95 years and 11 months seems a decent age to live to. And surely I should get extra points--er, months--for being vegetarian and drinking so much tea.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The writer, like the artist, works in a small room crowded with strange objects. He sits at a low, square table, painted brown. The desk faces a window.

It is early morning, and the light is soft. The writer, like the artist, sits and stares at the sheet of paper before him: empty, white. In his hand he holds a pen.

Making ink-marks on the sheet of paper: that, it has been said before, is what artists and writers have in common. But this morning, the writer, like the artist, does not know where to start; or, rather, how.

In his hand, the very slight weight of the pen--Sanford Uni-Ball Onyx, fine point, blue ink--is a gesture both familiar and strange. The pen is both a comfort and a provocation. And the empty, white sheet of paper is a prism through which the writer sees into his heart of darkness, and his heart of light.

The writer must start somewhere, so he starts with the simplest, most ordinary word he can think of. Anything could follow this word. The word is: “the”.

The writer stares at this word, scrawled in the upper left corner of the no longer empty sheet of paper. Anything could follow this word, but staring at it, the writer realises he doesn’t know anything.

He stares at this simple, familiar word--“the”--until it begins to look strange and unsettling. The writer wonders if anyone has ever really looked at this word before--the shapes of the letters, their darts and curves. The “t” and the “h” like cruel hooks turned this way and that. The “e” like a sickle. How would you pronounce a word like this? Why would you wish to? The writer wonders how anyone has ever been able to write this word, make those particular shapes with a pen, and then go on to write another.

Like the writer, the artist does not know where to start. The artist stares at the empty, white sheet of paper; he studies its grain, the way one corner curls slightly away from his table, the microscopic specks of dust across its surface.

The artist, like the writer, must start somewhere, so he draws a line: a simple horizontal line, in black ink, across the middle of the sheet of paper.

A line across the sheet of paper, for the writer, means either a blank space waiting to be filled, like this: ____________; or a sign for deletion, for removing something that, because the ink mark has already been made, cannot really be deleted: like this.

Either way, for the writer, the line is a mark of failure. It goes nowhere.

For the artist, the line is a line, one of the basic elements of his medium. It is a beginning. It can go anywhere. It is a horizon, beyond which all is possible.

The writer knows it is unfair to think so, and furthermore untrue, but he thinks it anyway, constantly: it is easier for the artist.

And the writer wonders what the artist thinks.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

mr manners

Mr. Manners, prime minister of the Republic of Tings and More Tings, announces at a post-Cabinet press conference that his government's solution to teenage sexual promiscuity is to encourage young people to watch more TV; from the season premiere of New Voices tonight on Gayelle

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Last month, the governor of the state of Oregon, Ted Kulongoski, participated in something called the food stamp challenge (read a New York Times report here). He and his wife agreed to spend no more than US$21 each on food for one week--$21 is the average amount given to Oregon residents who receive food stamps--to raise awareness of poverty and hunger in his state. Some called it a political stunt, some said it showed a real willingness to understand what it means to live in poverty.

I thought of Governor Kulongoski this morning when I read the front-page story in the Sunday Express, written by Andy Johnson: "Big Poverty Drop: Report puts level at 17%". I'll just quote the opening paragraphs:

The Government is readying itself to roll out a report which will say that poverty in the country has been cut in half over the last five years.

The Poverty Reduction Unit in the Ministry of Social Development is said to be completing consideration of a report from a team of consultants which put the national poverty figure at 17 per cent. This is half the 35 per cent figure which the Government says it met when it took office in 2002.

Consideration of the report is said to be underway, and it is expected to go before Cabinet shortly before being made the subject of official discussions.

Framers of the study, who produced the report, used an income level of $655 as a monthly base from which to establish the poverty line in Trinidad and Tobago. This was said to have represented a slim increase over the figure of $625 used in a similar study in 1999. The poverty line figure of $655 is determined as the minimum monthly income required by an individual in order to secure the basic nutritional intake of 2,400 calories a day. Persons falling below this level are categorised as being indigent.

A national poverty figure of 17 per cent will come as a shock to many....


Let's assume for now that these figures, clearly leaked by someone in the ministry, are accurate. I want to see the head of the Poverty Reduction Unit and his team of consultants--let's not think how much they were paid--living on TT$655 a month. I want to see the Minister of Social Development try that. And the Prime Minister, and Mrs. Manning too. And the whole damn Cabinet. How the hell--pardon my language, readers, but the sense of damnation hanging over this country gets heavier every day--how the hell could any sane person living in Trinidad and Tobago in 2007 say $655 per month is an income anyone could live on?

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Antilles is back--in a new incarnation. (Read a note of introduction.)

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Beware of angels, lest they be strangers in disguise

nikolai noel: angels at attention

Angels at Attention: Ye Shall Know Them; Them That Sold Doves

Drawings by Nikolai Noel, from his solo show Forgiveness, in the InterAmericas Gallery, CCA7, 17 April to 11 May, 2007

Monday, April 30, 2007

Everything Went Wrong

Don't mention my name in your letters.
Don't write down my address.
In fact, better not write letters at all.
Better no one knows that you can write.

You'll know not to drink the water.
You'll know not to travel by night.
Don't carry foreign banknotes.
Never give your name when you pay the bill.

You will need a shot at the border.
The needles are perfectly safe.
Yellow fever can't be allowed to pass.
I knew a man who died in just three days.

The weather turned truly nasty.
It flooded ten miles around.
A boat capsized. A box was swept away.
I couldn't afford to bribe the customs guard.

Don't trust the maps: they are fictions.
Don't trust the guides: they drink.
In this country there's no such thing as "true north".
Don't trust natives. Don't trust fellow travellers.

Better no one knows you sleep alone.
Already no one remembers you at home.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

In Chris's studio

cozier's studio 2

Christopher Cozier's studio is half the ground floor of his house, perched on a hillside in St. Ann's. Almost one whole wall of the studio is a big wooden door that opens to the east, to the first morning light, and a view of the road below and a forested ridge above. Another wall is mostly covered by two of Chris's large drawings, from a series he worked on a few years back. The third wall is lined with untidy bookcases, disgorging art books and catalogues, and dusty hardbound volumes of classic West Indian literature discarded by a library in Port of Spain. On the fourth wall, dozens of evenly spaced pushpins make a sort of grid. Sometimes the grid is filled with drawings hanging from clips. Sometimes, like today, the wall is mostly empty.

A big wooden table sits right across the doorway. There is a strong lamp suspended above, and a tall stool pulled up alongside. On the top of the table there are bottles of ink, tubes of paint, jars of brushes; a telephone, scraps of paper with phone numbers, names, lists; a bowl of coins from various countries, a line of ornate old-fashioned soft-drink bottles, a photograph of one of Chris's sons, all sorts of odds and ends and strange objects, some of which may be artworks or fragments of artworks; and, on the only patch of clear surface, a stack of paper about six or seven inches high.

I like artists' studios. I like the sense of messy, energetic creativity I feel when I step through the door. I like examining artists' tools. I like thinking that any weird little object in the room, any little bit of junk, might turn out to inspire some unknown future work. I like catching glimpses of works in progress, peeking out from behind cloths or furniture. I like the smell of pigments and oils and turpentine, wood-shavings and clay-dust. I like the stains and splashes on the floor.

Apart from the tall stool near the table, there are three old kitchen chairs in Chris's studio. The are boxes in the corners, some labelled ("Unsorted Mail"), some anonymous. There are small shoals of CDs, bits of discarded clothing, what look like scraps of lumber. There are paintings and drawings in frames, stacked up facing the walls. There are children's toys, strayed from the rooms of the house above.

I am sitting in one of the kitchen chairs, sipping from a cup of milky coffee, staring at the pushpin grid on the wall opposite, and listening to Chris. I like visiting his studio and I like listening to him. He is a great talker, one of the best I know, never at a loss for words, plucking anecdotes from his capacious memory, weaving together recollections and observations and insights. He loves talking. One of his favourite words is "conversation". But in my conversations with him I mostly listen. Partly because I'm fascinated by his flow of words and ideas, and don't want to interrupt. Partly because his intense and effortless verbalness leaves me feeling, in turn, wordless. Images are supposed to be his medium, words mine. So why does Chris find it so easy to spin his phrases and lyrics, why do my own sentences feel like knots of barbed wire in my throat?

Several times over the last year I've visited Chris's studio to look at an ongoing series of drawings he calls Tropical Night. Sometimes the drawings--each about nine by seven inches, on thick paper--have filled the pushpin wall. Sometimes they are stacked on the table or the stool. Say seven by seven by nine inches, the stack of paper: a solid object. It has real weight. It casts a shadow. Chris talks about exhibiting the drawings like this: piled up, face down. The longer I stare at the stack, the longer it looks like a piece of sculpture, a cuboid with ridged edges, stained with brown ink.

When the time comes for me to leaf through the drawings, Chris usually finds a reason to leave the studio. I turn over the drawings like pages in a book. Each time, the order has changed. Some of the drawings have become familiar. Some of them are entirely new, not even variations on previous drawings in the series. The new ones shift the narrative, as it were; I thought I'd put the story together, but now there are fresh meanders in the stream of consciousness. I don't, after all, know where this is going.

Neither does Chris. "There are moments when I see a path, and I try to run it down." But: "Sometimes I don't want to prescribe the reading."

Reading. That is my urge: to "read" these images, like a story, like a book.

Maybe it's the "bookness" of the stack of drawings, sitting there like an unbound novel, with the patience of a book. (A book will wait five hundred years, then a reader opens it and the words unfurl fresh as flowers.)

Maybe it's the lines of text, in Chris's ornate, old-fashioned hand, that embroider the edges of the drawings, not naming or explaining, but reaching, it seems, for their own plotlines.

Maybe it's the many hours I've spent talking with Chris, or listening to him--maybe they've convinced me that he has the sensibility of a novelist, taking in everything, penetrating into the deep psychology of things and places and people. A poet's instinct is to pare away, a novelist's is to pile up, pack in, fill the room of the imagination with as much furniture, as much equipment, as much apparatus as possible.

Or maybe the "book" I'm trying to read is a reference work: a dictionary, or an encyclopedia, scrutinising the world, imagining its complexities into small constituent fragments, holding each fragment up to the light, describing it from many angles, enquiring after its pronunciation, its derivation, its possible and impossible uses.

What are the true names for these things? A small wooden bench, a distinctive triangular notch cut between its legs. A starburst shape that might be a flower or a leaf, a halo or a collar, or a setting sun. A medieval map of the Old World, continents with crinkled edges and rivers like roots or worms, writhing. Flights of hummingbirds, conspiring. Men jumping or swimming or trying to keep their balance. Monsters, sometimes one-eyed, sometimes two, stuffing their mouths with human flesh. Loaves of bread. Slices of cake. The numbers one, two, three, and seven. Dogs marking their territory. Feet. Cages and fences. The sea, or the horizon that hovers beyond. Women in Carnival bikinis. The silhouette of a young man, his bald head carrying absurd burdens, or filled with visions of all the above.

Of whose world is this a catalogue? Of whose history are these the chapters? Whose lexicon? Whose game? Whose fate?

I look up and for a moment it seems the images in the drawings have taken three-dimensional form and are populating the studio. Near-invisible lines of trajectory connect object to object, and object to image on the pages in my hands. I am caught in this web, and the whole room is washed in sepia ink. I close the "book".

My eyes readjust and once again I see chairs, bottles, boxes, scraps of wood.

The stack of paper sits on the only patch of clear surface on the table, jostled by jars of brushes.

Chris is saying: "Drawing is my note-taking, my handwriting."

I am thinking: This is not a book, this is not a novel, and in trying so hard to discern a "plot" you are seeing less and less of the actual shapes and marks before you.

Chris is saying: "I'm enjoying not having to account for myself."

I am thinking: Do these drawings "rhyme"? Do they have a "rhythm"?

Chris is saying: "If you just take this"--he picks up the stack of paper, holds it in the air for a moment, puts it back on the table with a gentle thud; it has weight, it casts a shadow--"if you just take that as an object, what it says is, all of these thoughts are in there.

"There is no end in sight."

cozier's studio 3

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Another false start

He had always told his friends, when the worst comes, you will all head north. I will head south.

The worst had not yet come, but it was close. He decided to take his chances.

The hills were burning as he left. His last memory of the island was of the lines of flame creeping across the contours of the ridges and slopes, the smudge of smoke barely visible in the swiftly rising dusk.

***

There was an almost-full moon, and the river was a hammered thread of silver among the black trees as the plane made its arc of descent.

There was a smell of burning here too. Flakes of soot drifted across the road outside the airport.

"Trouble at home," the taxi driver said. "Trouble here too, but at least we used to it."

There was a guesthouse near the centre of the city run by a taciturn woman who used to be a nun at a convent in the Interior. She disliked talking about her past, and so asked no one else about theirs.

He knew she recognised him, though she said nothing. She gave him a key and pointed to the stairs.

There was a power outage. As he closed the door to his room, a draught blew his candle out. He didn't bother to relight it. He locked the door, undressed, lay on the bed. The mosquito net hovered like a hot mist. The bedclothes were sweet with the perfume of cheap detergent.

All through the night the wooden house made sounds too vague to be called creaks. Perhaps they were sighs. Perhaps the wood through its mask of paint was inhaling and exhaling the humid air.

The next day he threw away the clothes he had arrived in.

***

For nearly a fortnight he felt at ease. In the mornings he went to the library two blocks south. The reading room would be empty, except sometimes for an elderly person vainly searching through volumes of old newspapers for some elusive fact. He would read whatever books had been left on the long table by the previous day's patrons; it didn't matter what they were. He had read everything already--everything he had ever thought he needed to read--and now books were merely an effortless and familiar way to pass the time. He read popular novels of the 1940s and 50s, books on the archaeology of the Holy Land, natural history reference books, accounts of the Napoleonic Wars. He would break off when he got hungry, sometimes in mid-sentence.

In the afternoons he walked along the sea wall that sheltered the city from the placid Atlantic tides.

***

It was the dry season, and with no rain to flush the stagnating water from the city's canals, the mild stench of the streets began to ripen. When the sea breeze died down, he could smell the canals from his room, three storeys above.

He was fascinated, somehow, by the filthy water, opaque green and iridescent with household chemicals, bubbling with tadpoles and small fish. When he was out walking he had to resist the impulse to gaze into the canals choked with rubbish and weeds, to look for a stick to poke around in the putrid depths.

He decided it was time to leave the city. When he told the landlady, he knew she had guessed where he was going, but she never said a word.

***

Perhaps he went back home. Trouble there, as the taxi driver said, but trouble everywhere, and the worst, though close, had not yet come. And perhaps the worst was still no reason to leave.

The hills were still burning as the plane landed. In the chaos at the airport--hundreds of people were camping in the terminal, hoping to catch flights heading north--his rucksack was lost. It didn't matter, he would have thrown away his clothes anyway.

Parts of the city were burning too. He could see the plume of smoke all the way from the airport. By now all his friends would have left the island. Gone north. Perhaps eventually he would go north too.

***

Perhaps that is a different story.

Perhaps he didn't go back home.

He woke early in his room at the guesthouse and left silently while everyone slept. He had paid off the landlady, the melancholy ex-nun, the night before.

At the centre of the city the market was already noisy with people selling, arguing, carting goods, their clothes damp with night dew. He caught a bus heading west.

The bus crossed one river on a bridge, then drove twenty miles through rice paddies and villages to another river. Here there was no bridge.

At the stelling, boatmen hustled for passengers and pickpockets moved through the crowd, their eyes downcast.

Someone half pushed, half pulled him into a small boat already full of passengers, and they cast off. The river here was so wide, he couldn't see to the far bank--it looked like the open sea. No, he couldn't see to the far bank because an island obscured the horizon. A big ferry lurched into the current, and the small boat nipped beneath its bow and set a course upriver.

Pirates stopped boats on the river sometimes, but they encountered none today. He hadn't worn a watch in months, and he was too drowsy to note the hours passing by.

The river gradually narrowed, and then they reached what looked like another island. It was really the promontory between two rivers, the place where two rivers happened to meet, and a little town clung to the riverbanks.

Someone had told him to ask for the Providence Hotel.

Perhaps by now he was no longer travelling alone.

Perhaps at the guesthouse in the city he had met a young man, another traveller. They started talking one morning over breakfast. The young man was German, perhaps, or Swiss--or German by way of Brazil. He seemed to speak fluent Portuguese. The details were never clear. He was restless; he had been in the country several months, he said, but he never explained why. They began going to the library together, where the German would spend hours looking at a big atlas; they began walking to the sea wall together. Now they had left the city together, and taken the small boat to Providence, and were looking for the Providence Hotel.

***

He--now there are two travellers, simple pronouns will not suffice. Johannes est nomen ejus. John is his name, or a name good enough for this story.

The German's name is Andreas.

Perhaps we slip gently into the present tense.

John does not mean to stay long in Providence. This was a boom-town once, on a modest scale, in the days--a century before--when the gold and diamond fields upriver were still fresh, and thousands of men left the coast to prospect alone in the deep rainforest. Providence was their staging point, the last outpost of civilisation as they fought their way into the Interior past rapids and falls, deep into the North-West. And Providence was the place they returned to, their pockets filled with nuggets and stones wrapped in brown paper, their eyes bright with hunger. A century before, Providence was a small, busy town of rum shops, general stores, and brothels, glittering at night with many lamps, and loud with music and laughter....

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Cheek: for so

do-it-yourself politician

"Do-It-Yourself Politician", from the anonymous satirical "Macaw" column that ran in the Trinidad Guardian in the 1950s and 60s (and collected in book form in Notebook by Macaw in 1960).

If somebody did one of these for Mr. Manning today, what would it look like? (Could anybody working on the Trinidad newspapers today come up with something like this?)

Saturday, April 14, 2007

nicholas on roraima

On reaching the summit of Mt Roraima, approx. 2.00 pm, Saturday 31 March, 2007

Monday, March 19, 2007

Lloyd Best--one of the truly great men of the Caribbean, and one of our truly great minds--has died. Eulogists and obituary writers will labour to describe the Caribbean's intellectual debt to him. I am still struggling to understand how much I personally owe him, and why. I first met him a short five years ago, after I started writing for the Trinidad and Tobago Review. His genuine interest in me, my opinions, my experiences, surprised me at first, and then gave me an important kind of confidence at a time when I needed it. He did the same for dozens, maybe hundreds of others. We will desperately miss--because we desperately need, now more than ever--his hard-won but lightly worn knowledge, his insight, his optimism, his humour, his integrity. No one has understood the Caribbean better, and few have lived so selflessly. If I call myself a Bestian, it's because I realise how far behind him I was--but also because he was generous enough to make me think I could one day hope to catch up.

Friday, March 16, 2007

... it ought not to seem odd that I remember clearly now, this minute, in 2007, the morning, 30 years ago, in the backseat of my father's car, on the way to whichever school it was that failed to reach me in '77, the moment I came across George John--now, as of Wednesday, the late George John--writing as Holden Caulfield in the Trinidad Express.

--From B.C. Pires's tribute to the late doyen of Anglo-Caribbean journalism, George John

Thursday, March 15, 2007

...so much of writing is fed by vanity and the feeling that what you are doing is the most important thing in the world and it has not been done before and only you can do it. Without these feelings, many writers would not be able to write anything at all. If you think that what you're doing is not all that important in the larger scheme of things and that you're just an insignificant creature in the whole wide world, which is full of six billion people, and that people are born and die every day and it makes no difference to future generations what you write, and that writing and reading are increasingly irrelevant activities, you'd probably never get out of bed. You need to work yourself up into some kind of a state every morning and believe that you are doing something terribly important upon which the future of literature, if not the world, depends. Buddhism tells you that this is just a foolish fantasy. So, I try not to think too much about Buddhism early in the morning. From noon on, I think about it.

--Pankaj Mishra, interviewed in The Believer

Monday, March 12, 2007

Breaking news! A previously unknown play by Shakespeare turns up in a library in Port of Spain. Its plot "has an uncanny resemblance to events in Trinidad and Tobago this last week". JT reports on "Truth Shall Not Out; or, 'Twas Always So".

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Serious travel is an art, even if no writing is contemplated; and the special art in this book lay in divining who of the many people I met would best and most logically take my story forward, where nothing had to be forced.

-- V.S. Naipaul, reflecting on the writing of India: A Million Mutinies Now

Friday, March 02, 2007

suffrage

Serialising The Suffrage of Elvira in the Trinidad Guardian--in an election year? The only thing that could be more subversive would be, well, someone founding a political party with real ideas and real principles and a real chance of winning a couple of seats....

Hold on! Somebody make a mistake! They put part of the novel on the front page by accident today--look the headline, "Jumbie chair"--about a piece of furniture in Parliament that does kill anybody who sit in it.

Wait a minute--you mean to say that's a real news story?

Saturday, February 17, 2007

It's as if Carnival is a phantom limb. A bit of our beauty and wholeness that's been cut off but we still think it's there. We still go through the motions, for reasons of image or enjoyment or economics.

--Attillah Springer, in her column in today's Guardian

Friday, February 16, 2007

As books pile up in vaster and vaster numbers--and especially now, in my sabbatical year, as I work at home and have no office to serve as a secondary storage-and-staging site--I seem to read less and less. Maybe as I age I read more slowly. Maybe I'm simply less patient. Maybe my powers of concentration wane. But it seems that a novel I would once--youth!--have devoured in two days now requires a month of slow mastication. --Hence, longtime readers, all three or four of you, I'd pretty much decided to abandon my four-year tradition, the annual and not entirely unserious Nicholas Laughlin Book Awards for Caribbean books (i.e. books written by Caribbean authors, set in the Caribbean, or otherwise of particular Caribbean interest) published in the previous twelve months. (Refresh your memory of previous winners and note my growing ambivalence about the exercise: 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005.) But it's Carnival Friday, I'm in my foxhole, and in need, it seems, of some distraction. So, for the little it's worth....

The fine print, as it were: the sole justification for these awards is self-indulgence. My sole qualification as chief judge: for professional reasons I try what might be called my best to keep up-to-date with new Caribbean books; I read--or at least flip through--most of the review titles that cross my desk, choke my shelves, and assemble themselves into obstacles on my carpet. My personal opinion is the only criterion for the awards, which are restricted to books published in English. Omissions due to poor memory are inevitable. In early years I named winners in certain categories, but my reading is no longer methodical enough for that.

The 2006 Nicholas Laughlin Book Awards:

Big "prize": University of Hunger: Collected Poems and Selected Prose, by Martin Carter, ed. Gemma Robinson, hands down the most exciting new West Indian book of the year, the definitive edition of the work of a major writer who was inaccessible for far too long. I wish this volume were only the first step in our taking our literary heritage more seriously. (Read a short review here.)

Runners-up, or hon. mentions, or whatever you'd like to call them: Goldengrove: New and Selected Poems, by Lorna Goodison. I Been There, Sort Of: New and Selected Poems, by Mervyn Morris. I include Wilson Harris's new novel, The Ghost of Memory, because if it seems utterly impenetrable to me, that merely speaks to my own inadequacies. I'm glad and grateful to have Jeffrey Chock's Carnival photos collected in Trinidad Carnival, even if the quality of the printing often disappoints; the photos survive mal-reproduction. I was impressed by the title story of the young Kei Miller's Fear of Stones and Other Stories, and I intend to keep a close eye on his career.

Addendum: the most breathtakingly original book I read last year was Naipaul's A Way in the World, published in 1994, and which I hadn't re-read since then. We all have a lot of catching up to do. --At the end of 2005 I resolved to read more funny books. Well, early in 2006 I said to myself, sod it all, and re-read Evelyn Waugh almost entire. I laughed myself into near-rupture of the spleen; then I was astonished and stricken into minor awe by the Sword of Honour trilogy, and wondered why I'd never read that one before.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

She began to pace the length of the shelves, up and down, up and down, and as she walked she plucked books out at random, feeling their weight, examining their shapes. She sniffed the pages of one and inhaled the salty ocean air. Another had such glossy, creamy pages she found herself licking it. More and more books were piling up on the floor: books that smelled like roses, books that seemed to shriek when she opened them, books that made her shiver when she turned the pages. One entire shelf was devoted to books that seemed to be singing a quick, frolicking tune.

From Anu Lakhan's story "Unreading", published in the first issue of the new online magazine Caribbean Writing Today, edited by Wayne Brown.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

2006 at a glance

In case posterity is paying attention

Key adjectives: overworked, overscheduled, overwrought, exhausted
Published words (print): approx. 42,800
Published words (online): it would take too long to count; est. 40,000?
Month in which I did not blog: December
Months in which I blogged most: February, April, and--over at the Galvanize blog--September and October
Emails written: approx. 6,600
Emails received (excl. junk): approx. 8,700
Photos taken: approx. 3,000
Major authors: John Keats, V.S. Naipaul, Bruce Chatwin, Ted Hughes
Reading highlights: E. Waugh, Sword of Honour; M. Swan, The Marches of El Dorado; N. Shakespeare, Bruce Chatwin; B. Chatwin, On the Black Hill; K. Desai, The Inheritance of Loss; rereading Naipaul's A Way in the World, Chabon's Wonder Boys, and Waugh's early comic novels; a flurry of books about India at year-end
Major literary pilgrimage: lunch in what was once Walter Pater's room, Brasenose College, Oxford, 10 July
Books read (at least two thirds of): approx. 60
Soundtrack: jointpop ("King Radio", "After Half Past Nine", "The Water Supreme", etc.); Rufus Wainwright (Want One); Jeff Buckley (Grace); Miles Davis (Kind of Blue); Bach, Mozart, Satie (various)
Favourite work of art acquired: C. Cozier, Available in All Leading Stores, 2006 (gift from the artist)
Best movie: The Squid and the Whale (N. Baumbach), StudioFilmClub, 4 May
Best live musical performances: 3Canal, 6 February (preview night of the 2006 3Canal Show); jointpop, 6 May (their tenth anniversary concert, coinciding with my birthday); jointpop, 26 July (performing as "Jimmy Crime and the Murderer" at the Little Carib); Miriam Makeba, 31 July (the Emancipation concert I "crashed" with the help of Attillah); jointpop, 15 August (the first night of the Anarchy on the Avenue series); Royal Opera Chamber Ensemble, performing Dominique Le Gendre's Tales of the Islands, Queen's Hall, 27 August; 12 the band, 30 September (their Galvanize performance); jointpop, 10 October (at Anarchy on the Avenue, first time I heard them play "The Fool"); jointpop, 14 October (their Galvanize "unplugged" performance, first time I ever heard them play "King Radio")
Best party: Galvanize launch, 14 September, CCA7, Laventille
Trips to the beach: 3
Months abroad: 1.25
Countries visited: 2
Aborted attempts to visit Guyana: 4
Modes of transport: airplane, car, train, auto-rickshaw, feet
Airplane flights: 6
Furthest point south: San Fernando, Trinidad
Furthest point west: Chaguaramas, Trinidad
Furthest point north: Oxford, UK
Furthest point east: Delhi, India
Most visited restaurant: Apsara, Queen's Park East, Port of Spain
Strange beds slept in: 8
Palaces visited: 3
Longest airport security queue: 0.125 miles, Heathrow, 23 December
Key purchases: Sacred Heart Carnival costume (Minshall mas camp, Ariapita Avenue, Port of Spain); favourite blue shirt (H&M, Longacre, London); 75-litre rucksack (The North Face); maps of India (Stanfords, Longacre, London); painted goatskin leather lampshade (Dilli Haat, Delhi, India)
I still do not own: a car, real estate
Most unexpected good thing: starting a year's sabbatical in December
Other misc. highlights: Mariel's dinner party, 28 January; watching "Son of Saga Boy" and "Miss Universe" cross the Savannah stage for the first time at the Kings and Queens Prelims, 16 February; wearing an illuminated tail for J'Ouvert, 27 February; crossing the Savannah stage with Minshall's Sacred Heart, Carnival Tuesday evening, 28 February; being quoted (twice) by Edward Baugh in his address at the West Indian Literature Conference, UWI, St Augustine, 2 March; Phagwah celebrations, Aranjuez Savannah, 19 March; watching the Soca Warriors beat--sorry, draw with--Sweden at our first World Cup match ever, 10 June; visit to Sir John Soane's Museum, 5 July; balmy, blissful trip to Oxford to visit Vahni and David, 10 and 11 July; Galvanize literary events, 29 September ("News That Stays News") and 19 October ("Monsters and Other Animals"); first day of sabbatical year, 2 December; gentle days in Jaipur, 9 to 12 December; Global Voices Delhi summit, and lots of interesting people from all over the world, 16 and 17 December; lunch with Phil and Louise in Islington, tea with Patrick in Tooting, The History Boys in the West End, and Karen and Andy's Xmas party in Tufnell Park, all in one day, 22 December
Encounters with important people from my past who I hadn't seen in over ten years: 2
Hopeless crushes: 3
New pets: 0
Cups of coffee: approx. 380
Cups of tea: approx. 1,200
Glasses of Champagne: 6
Red Bulls: 1
Omlettes: approx. 150
Evenings I attended three different dinner parties: 1
Nights I didn't get to bed till 4 a.m.: 0
Average bedtime: 11.50 pm
Average wake-up time: 8 a.m.
Nights I felt I didn't get enough sleep: approx. 350
Unofficial motto: Don't slow down

[Compare to last year]

Monday, January 15, 2007

"Bad writing does nothing, changes nothing, educates no emotions, rewires no inner circuitry -- we close its covers with the same metaphysical confidence in the universality of our own interface as we did when we opened it."
A pseudo-autobiographical quincunx; or, doing as Oso tells me, sort of *

1. My earliest definite memory is of lying in my little cot in a beach house on the south coast of Barbados, unable to sleep; through the mist of the mosquito net, one of my great-aunts peering down at me. I must have been three years old. It was a hot night, and I could hear waves breaking and trees rustling outside the window. I also thought I could hear hundreds of sand-crabs scrabbling beneath the floorboards.

2. My favourite constellation is Orion. Anywhere in the world, if I can spot him in the sky above, I feel a little more at home. Once, swimming on a moonless, starful night at Blanchisseuse on the north coast of Trinidad, I looked up and realised he was a perfect mirror image of me, floating on my back with limbs outspread. Since then, stars have always suggested the taste of seawater. I have often contemplated getting a tiny tattoo of Orion, a pattern of minute inked stars on my inner left forearm, just below my elbow; only my absolute intolerance of physical pain has stopped me.

3. Is it possible to have an erotic relationship with someone who died a century and a half before you were born? If so, that's how I feel about Keats. In my imaginary correspondence with him, I call him "My dear John". Plot for an unwritten novel: Keats goes to Rome to die of consumption, but instead meets a mysterious doctor who administers a supernatural cure. Side-effect: prolonged life and youth. He never returns to London, and refuses to publish another word. His name fades into undeserved obscurity, now that his biography is deprived of the glamour of a tragic early death. Unread manuscripts fill every room of his little pink house at the foot of the Spanish Steps. Every morning he visits the same cafe round the corner. One day, when he's well into his 180s, he meets there a young Trinidadian who has come in quest of....

4. I've sinned a lot, I'm mean a lot, but I'm like sweet seventeen a lot.

5. Occasionally, for purposes of entertainment only, I dabble in bibliomancy. As often as not, I simply use the dictionary (twenty-year-old edition of the Concise Oxford). About a third of the time, the results seem in some way apt, but that may just be a statistical consequence. This morning, let me pluck from the shelf my Penguin Major Works of Thomas Browne. Page 152, 15th line from the top: "There is no man alone, because every man is a Microcosme, and carries the whole world about him; Nunquam minus solus quam cum solus...."

* After two months of silence, this is as good as--as equivocal as--any other way to return to blogging. Thanks, David.

[Nearly forgot: I'm supposed to nominate a quintet of blogging colleagues to perpetuate this stream of revelations. Be good sports: Jonathan; JT; Attillah (who seems to be into making lists these days, when she's not breaking people's glasses); Marlon; and you, Reader, whoever you may be, or wish to be.]