Tuesday, December 23, 2003

A tidbit for Naipaul-watchers: one of the small but interesting details of the honours system controversy currently raging in the British newspapers is that fact that Sir Vidia (who, it's been reported, once suggested that titles be sold through the post office) turned down a CBE in 1977, thirteen years before accepting his knighthood. The UK Guardian published a partial list of honours refuseniks yesterday. The Guardian left out Virginia & Leonard Woolf, both of whom refused either OMs or CHs, I can't recall which--their letters of refusal are included in their published correspondence.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

A hundred years ago, we discovered we could fly....

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Johnson manages to touch on the paradox of exile and alienation, not among writers living overseas, but among those like him, isolated in his own home. His stories are rendered better for the intimations of alienation that they reflect. It is this underlying consciousness of a certain disturbing placelessness that lends some power to a collection that is otherwise affected by a somewhat limited range of experience and a self-conscious literariness.

-- From Al Creighton's review of Ruel Johnson's Ariadne and Other Stories, published in last Sunday's Stabroek News (which I've only just read, because I couldn't load up the Stabroek website on Sunday). Creighton's assessment is rather more positive than the headline ("The apprenticeship of Narcissus") might suggest....

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Yes, all lists like this are publicity stunts, but here's something to amuse oneself on a lazy Sunday afternoon: Rolling Stone recently compiled its list of "the 500 greatest albums of all time", based on the votes of 273 music industry types. (Naturally, the Beatles dominate.) Eight Caribbean albums show up; unsurprisingly, all but one of them Jamaican; unsurprisingly, most of them by Bob Marley:

46. Legend, by Bob Marley & the Wailers

119. The Harder They Come soundtrack, various artists

123. Catch a Fire, by Bob Marley & the Wailers

169. Exodus, by Bob Marley & the Wailers

182. Natty Dread, by Bob Marley & the Wailers

260. Buena Vista Social Club, by the Buena Vista Social Club

319. Burnin', by Bob Marley & the Wailers

378. Funky Kingston, by Toots and the Maytals
I thought I wouldn't be a free man, I didn't want the squalor of children.

-- V.S. Naipaul, explaining his childlessness, quoted in a brief story about the BBC's new radio dramatisation of Miguel Street (adapted by Mustapha Matura, produced & directed by Guyana-born Rishi Sankar), published on India's

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Against My Old Age

The ancients purchase peace intent in towers
Watching for bursting light the east and Patmos.
They wither to spirit.

                                  The years quiet to stone
The tide that plunges and rages in the heart
And smashes boxwood craft.

The eagle has talons, they can pluck the sight
The dazzling star usurps the long-held spirit
The human topples over in divinity.

Oh that I mastered--but the blood must shrivel
Before the vast abysmal heart can heal.

--A.J. Seymour, p. 120 in the Collected Poems.
It's a couple of weeks old, & I don't particularly want to spend much time thinking about US politics right now, but I can't resist linking to this.

Monday, December 08, 2003

Some Monday afternoon reading:

-- "God of the Flat", a poem by E.A. Markham, in the Autumn 2003 Poetry Review.

-- a review, by Rajnish Wattas, of V.S. Naipaul's Literary Occasions, in yesterday's India Tribune.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Blogs ... are all the rage in some quarters. We're told that blogs will evolve into a unique source of information and are sure to become the future of journalism. Well, hardly. Two things are happening to prevent such a future: The first is wholesale abandonment of blog sites, and the second is the casual co-opting of the blog universe by Big Media.

Let's start with abandoned blogs. In a white paper released by Perseus Development Corp., the company reveals details of the blogging phenomenon that indicate its foothold in popular culture may already be slipping.... According to the survey of bloggers, over half of them are not updating any more. And more than 25 percent of all new blogs are what the researchers call "one-day wonders." Meanwhile, the abandonment rate appears to be eating into well-established blogs: Over 132,000 blogs are abandoned after a year of constant updating.

Perseus thinks it had a statistical handle on over 4 million blogs, in a universe of perhaps 5 million. Luckily for the blogging community, there is still evidence that the growth rate is faster than the abandonment rate. But growth eventually stops.

The most obvious reason for abandonment is simple boredom. Writing is tiresome. Why anyone would do it voluntarily on a blog mystifies a lot of professional writers. This is compounded by a lack of feedback, positive or otherwise. Perseus thinks that most blogs have an audience of about 12 readers.... Some people must feel the futility.

-- From a short essay on "the beginning of the end for blogging" by John C. Dvorak, in PC Magazine (via Keks--I don't read PC Magazine & would never have noticed this otherwise).

This is as good a time as any to note that this blog reached its first anniversary about a month and a half ago--which I didn't think worth mentioning before. Let's say I was feeling the futility.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

As a part of his week-long residency at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Colin Channer on Tuesday presented a public lecture titled "The Most Important Thing You Need to Know About Writing Novels, Plays or Movies From a Guy Who Should Know". Channer proved to be as long-winded as the title, and quite lacking in substance....

During the lecture he declared: "Depth is something that eluded me... I'm very happy to exist very close to the surface." In keeping with this ideology, Channer bobbed happily at the surface of the art of storytelling."

-- From an anonymous & pleasingly snarky article in today's Gleaner.
In a 1988 review of A Sinking Island: The Modern English Writers, the critic Richard Eder wrote in The Los Angeles Times: "Kenner doesn't write about literature; he jumps in, armed and thrashing. He crashes it, like a party-goer who refuses to hover near the door but goes right up to the guest of honor, plumps himself down, sniffs at the guest's dinner, eats some and begins a one-to-one discussion. You could not say whether his talking or his listening is done with greater intensity."

R.I.P. Hugh Kenner, author of The Pound Era, one of my favourite works of literary criticism.

Monday, November 24, 2003

Bravo, Hari Kunzru.

Saturday, November 22, 2003

In the eyes of many civil rights activists, especially white liberals, it was Carmichael more than anyone who contributed to the dissolution of the grand alliance--civil rights Negroes, labor, church, liberals and the Democratic Party--that sent the movement crashing into Black Power, thereby provoking white backlash. But for others, like Carmichael himself and many blacks of that era, it was time for "black liberation" and not token integration.

For better or for worse, Carmichael's legacy is primarily associated with that Molotov cocktail phrase....

Born in 1941 to working-class, West Indian parents (father a carpenter, mother a seamstress) who hailed from Trinidad and moved to New York, Carmichael was a nonnative American citizen, an outsider in his adoptive home. Yet as a son of the African diaspora he was also a part of a tradition to which Afro-Caribbeans had contributed mightily, the tradition of black radicalism that also numbered men like Marcus Garvey, C.L.R. James, George Padmore, Martinique's Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, Puerto Rico's Arturo Schomburg and women like Malcolm X's mother, who was also a West Indian. Unlike segregated African-Americans, Caribbeans like Carmichael's parents had grown up in majority-black countries where they hadn't been totally indoctrinated into accepting a subservient position. Although most of the British Caribbean world would not be decolonized until the 1960s, Afro-Caribbeans, as British subjects, were used to running at least some aspects of their own show. They had had, in other words, a taste of power.

-- From Norman Kelley's review, in the December 8 Nation, of Ready for Revolution, the just-published autobiography of the late Stokely Carmichael, a.k.a. Kwame Ture.
The great and enduring strength of the United States is that it is an immigrant society subject to continual waves of replenishment from outside. Such is the desire to participate that one person every day is killed trying to enter the country. These "new" people bring with them new narratives, which grow and flourish in the very heart and bosom of the society, narratives that find expression in music, theatre, dance, film, and literature. These "new" people are not only vital to the economic health of the country, they are also the keepers of the cultural and artistic flame. However, after September 11, it is precisely these people who are being hounded and persecuted by the government, and their fealty to the country is being questioned. Their desire to construct narratives has not been stilled, but their new tales are counter-narratives, which seek to explain their situation.

The urge to tell a story is the oldest of human impulses, for it clarifies and orders the relationship between the private and the public, our inner and outer worlds, and it records the dissonance between these two spheres of existence. This being the case, storytelling has always been a logical form for the migrant to utilise to try to capture the conundrum of his own, often precarious, situation in the world. While I remain dismayed by the domestic and foreign chaos that the United States continues to unleash upon its own people, and millions of foreign citizens, I am comforted by the knowledge that her folly will be recorded and exposed by the narratives of those whose private and public lives have been thrown into turmoil by the iniquities of White House policies.

-- From Caryl Phillips's essay "A Beacon in Dark Times", published in this weekend's Guardian Review.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

The 2003 National Book Awards were announced last night. Waiting for Snow in Havana, Carlos Eire's memoir of a privileged childhood ended by the Cuban Revolution, won the non-fiction award. (The other "Caribbean" book in the list of NBA nominees was Louis Simpson's collected poems, The Owner of the House. Simpson was born in Jamaica in 1923 and emigrated to the U.S. when he was 17.)

Update: read my short review of Waiting for Snow in Havana, originally published in Caribbean Beat, here.

Saturday, November 15, 2003

It is not enough for me to succeed, as Gore Vidal has said; my friends must fail. And Lane, though not exactly a friend, has let me down badly in this respect. Having this slab of a book by my bed has been exquisitely painful for me--although I found that it wasn't so bad once I had Tippexed out the quote from Martin Amis on the front.

-- From Nicholas Lezard's short Anthony Lane rave in this weekend's Guardian Review.
Pundits have fretted for years that mobile phones are making us ruder. In June, Nokia released some evidence that may actually prove it. A survey found that 71 percent of mobile-phone users admit they are now consistently late for social events. Why? Because they can send a flurry of text-messages explaining where they are, how fast they're moving and precisely when they'll arrive, down to the minute. "You sort of feel you've got more play, because you're in this incredibly close contact," says Robbie Blinkoff, the principal anthropologist at Context-Based Research Group, which has found similar trends in its studies.

Indeed, this sort of "micro coordination" is a form of behavior made uniquely possible by those tiny S.M.S. ("short messaging service") bursts of text. Phoning someone six times an hour just to relay your location would seem outright insane. But text messages are far less obtrusive, so mobile users--particularly teenagers--think nothing of sending dozens of messages a day to a single friend, keeping them in almost telepathic contact with each other. Ito calls this "persistent but lightweight co-presence": in Japan, she has found that partners who do not live together may trade up to 100 text messages a day. "They're expected to be in constant contact. But it's not as if they're asking for a face-to-face intense conversation. It's like you're in the room, and you just sort of share a sigh or a facial expression," she says. "And they'll flag moments of disconnection. They'll say: 'I'm going to take a bath now! I won't be texting.'" This isn't the Borg-like hive-mind that digital prophets have long predicted humanity would evolve into; nobody's doing any deep thinking in S.M.S. messages. It's more like the behavior of ants, leaving chemical traces to figure out where their colleagues are. Studies have found that the single most commonly sent text message is "Where are you?"

-- From an article on the evolution of the mobile phone by Clive Thompson in tomorrow's NY Times. (I don't own a mobile & have no plans to acquire one.)

Friday, November 14, 2003, after twenty-three novels and over forty years, we arrive at The Mask of the Beggar. The text of the book is preceded by a note in which Harris presents an uncharacteristically direct statement about his ideas and how they are to be understood in his work. The note, as well as the novel that follows, comprise a summation: in Harris's end is his beginning, and it encompasses the entire range of his quantum Imagination, to borrow two of his favorite words. Here are passages that contain Harris's enduring fascination with Amerindian myths, his belief in "visionary Time"--time that is fugitive and trapped, fluid and stagnant--in which Cortez and Quetzalcoatl reappear, and passages in which he defines the peculiar aesthetics of his art, with its cross-cultural references rooted in the dark depths of human consciousness, distinguishing this art from the journalistic representation of a superficial reality commonly practiced by his contemporaries.

-- From Zulfikar Ghose's short essay on The Mask of the Beggar in CONTEXT No. 14. Ghose notes that Harris considers his 24 novels, written over a period of 43 years, as movements in a single "long work", finally at an "end" (Harris's quotation marks).

Saturday, November 01, 2003

E.M. Forster's A Room With a View was my first intimation of the possibilities of fiction: how wholly one might feel for it and through it, how much it could do to you. I felt it was very good and that the reading of it had done me some good. I loved it. I was too young, at 11, to realise serious people don't speak of novels this way.

-- Zadie Smith, a young contemporary writer I am fond of, writes in this weekend's Guardian Review about E.M. Forster, an old dead writer I am exceedingly fond of, pulling in Keats (a young dead writer I am head over heels in love with) along the way.

Friday, October 24, 2003

Tremble, sinners: Seldo says God is broken.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Now, putting in print that Apple has scored another success is always risky business. Such an assertion inevitably invites a shower of e-mail pointing out that Macs are universally more expensive than Windows PC's (true for desktop machines, false for laptops); that far more software is available for Windows (true; "only" 6,500 programs are available for Mac OS X); and that the Apple hallmarks of elegance, beauty and thoughtful design aren't worth paying extra for (a matter of opinion).

But to argue these points is to join a religious war with no hope of resolution. Wherever you stand in the Macs vs. Windows debate, this much is certain: In Panther, Apple has taken an already sparkling, super-stable operating system and made it faster, better equipped and more secure.

-- From David Pogue's review of the new Mac OS X 10.3 in today's NY Times.

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

These are essential historical texts, as they illuminate the early intellectual development of this prophet of Pan-Africanism, Caribbean national liberation and federation, and working class sovereignty--yet this small elegant volume is also distinguished by imagery and narrative that even the reader of popular fiction will enjoy....

We begin to see the impending major intellectual powerhouse emerge.... Only hinting at the future political ideals for which he would become a standard bearer, James's Letters from London depicts both a clash over and an embrace of the principles of modernity and civilization.

-- From Matthew Quest's review of Letters from London in the Fall 2003 Rain Taxi Review of Books (unfortunately, this review isn't available online).

Saturday, October 18, 2003

I am the pillow where angels come for the sleeper.
Like all of Phillips's novels, A Distant Shore gives you a lot to think about; Phillips builds his fiction around provocative issues. But he's not a prose stylist. His sentences are rarely metaphoric or rich, his dialogue is often unrevealing, and he's not a particularly deft handler of scenes. Especially irritating is his habit of leapfrogging over present-tense events only to turn around and recount them retrospectively, jamming discontinuous scenes together in successive paragraphs. You sometimes feel that Phillips is changing the channel just when things are getting interesting. And yet his novels have a way of growing on you, staying with you long after you've closed the book. Some writers are more interesting away from the page than on it.

-- From Rand Richards Cooper's review of Caryl Phillips's novel A Distant Shore in this weekend's NY Times Book Review.

Friday, October 17, 2003

Dream on Monkey Mountain, the lyrical epic by the Trinidadian Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, is an eclectic work, a layered narrative laden with historical, folkloric and literary allusions that, as the title suggests, maintains the tenuous logic and adventurous imagination of dreams....

Over all, it is difficult to parse, for audiences as well as directors and performers, a likely reason it is rarely produced even while being considered by some to be Mr. Walcott's masterpiece.

All of which makes Dream on Monkey Mountain natural fare for that giant-killer of a company, the Classical Theater of Harlem....

If the company has a signature in performance, it is an electricity that pulses through each and every production, the kind of palpable sizzle that comes from glee and gall. With occasional exceptions in starring roles--in this case André De Shields as Makak and Kim Sullivan as his Sancho-like sidekick, Moustique--the actors the company employs are generally at the beginning of their careers, but the lack of experience is never stifling. And in Dream on Monkey Mountain, each and every member of the ensemble, which is full of athletic, stirringly attractive men and women, is equipped with nerve and energy.

-- From Bruce Weber's review of the current off-Broadway production of Walcott's play, published earlier this week in the NY Times.

(Note to Times fact-checkers: Walcott's passport has "St. Lucia" stamped on its cover.)
If only, Americans must wish, Iraq was like Grenada.

-- The Economist remembers the Grenada invasion.

Thursday, October 16, 2003

With the appearance of Letters from London, it seems almost as if C.L.R. James were making a posthumous critique of his academic admirers. A slender volume containing seven essays originally published in a Trinidadian newspaper in 1932, it reveals the essential James: a cosmopolitan man of letters from a small island at the margins of the imperialist world-system, his sensibility shaped by the literature of the Victorian era.... More distinctly than any other work, Letters charts James's growing ambivalence about the culture he has absorbed....

-- From Scott McLemee's review of Letters from London in the Fall 2003 BOOKFORUM (unfortunately, the text isn't online).

Monday, October 13, 2003

Exciting news for Walcott fans: Lynne Rienner, a small academic publishing house, is about to release a new edition of Another Life, extensively annotated by Edward Baugh of UWI-Mona & Colbert Nepaulsingh (a Trini) of the University of Albany (200 pages of notes!).

Friday, October 10, 2003

Had to be an Australian: 380 Hayden.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

The Classical Theatre of Harlem revival of Derek Walcott's play Dream on Monkey Mountain has just opened off-Broadway; reviews have begun to appear in the NY press. Here's two:

The play takes the form of a hallucination, where the plot is routinely subverted and characters die only to be reborn again. It's more than a little puzzling, and the production, directed by Alfred Preisser, was understandably having trouble finding its footing during an early preview....

The production never establishes a disciplined rhythm. The pacing is erratic, with bursts of singing and dancing that serve mainly as temporary distractions from the narrative confusion. A razzle-dazzle approach may keep an audience in their seats but it doesn't unlock the theatrical meanings of a literary work that speaks in the coded language of dreams.

--Charles McNulty, in the Village Voice.

Dream on Monkey Mountain may be convoluted and more than a little opaque, but it's also consistently surprising and regularly riveting. It has a raw and ferocious heart that doesn't preclude humor, and expresses itself in unforced, openly beautiful language. It looks with complicated ambivalence at the obstacles to faith, the impossibility of revenge and the seeming inevitability of hate....

Preisser's staging sometimes favors sound over sense, and he and his actors have trouble tracing the specific emotional arcs of the play's characters.... But even though some of the details get lost, the overall force of the play remains intact, thanks to a theater group undaunted by such a tough, thorny, worthy challenge.

--Gordon Cox, in Newsday.
He carried himself with such effortless style, such carefree irony, that it seemed his life was his art and his work his play. If the reality was more trying, Plimpton was content not to share the strain.

"There are people who would perhaps call me a dilettante, because it looks as though I'm having too much fun," he once said. "I have never been convinced there's anything inherently wrong in having fun."

--From Andrew Anthony's interview with the late, wonderful George Plimpton, in last Sunday's UK Observer Review.

Sunday, October 05, 2003

The Mask of the Beggar, like all Harris's fiction, is more than mere storytelling; it is an essay on the radical potential of art, an inquiry into the nature of historical memory, and a meditation on South American identity and the imaginative resources that its materially deprived peoples may possess. Never remotely sectarian or parochial, Harris draws on "a community of Imaginations", people such as Van Gogh, Wilde and Goethe, even Trotsky, who, before he was assassinated in Mexico, sought to promote unceasing revolution, which Harris relates to "the unfinished genesis of all art". His own lexicon, repeated with incantatory, magus-like force, invokes the central importance of imagination, diversity, mutuality, intuition.

Small wonder that Harris is considered arcane and difficult to read. But so are Dame Julian of Norwich, T.S. Eliot and Kathleen Raine, writers whose mystic mantle he has long sported. Perhaps if his novels were illustrated, Blake-like, then their slightly recondite, hieroglyphic essences might be more transparent. Yet, whether read in short, intense bursts, or in one go as an oceanic wash of sound and poetry, it's almost impossible not to succumb to their strange, jarring, isolated power.

--From Sukhdev Sandhu's review of The Mask of the Beggar, published a few days ago in the Telegraph.

I'm still struggling with the book myself, apparently doing the almost impossible.

Saturday, October 04, 2003

"Oh Rowan," Mr. Plimpton said with incongruous ease. "By the way, the Dead are coming by for a drink. Make sure we have something for them. Oh yes, and tell the staff."

-- Warren St. John recalls The Five-Decade Book Party and Its Tireless Host.

Friday, September 26, 2003

Perhaps Mr. Plimpton's career was best summarized by a cartoon that once appeared in The New Yorker. In it, a patient looks at the surgeon preparing to operate on him and demands, "How do I know you're not George Plimpton?"

(The wonderful) George Plimpton, 18 March, 1927-25 September, 2003

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

At the moment I'm struggling with The Mask of the Beggar, the latest novel from the ever-inscrutable Wilson Harris. A dozen pages in, I'm ready to conclude that the book is almost literally unreadable, & banish it forever to a dark & dusty shelf. Fred D'Aguiar seems to have fared better.

Thursday, September 04, 2003

The Museum of Lost Art is a low glass building set in parkland, a place you drive past on the motorway, barely registering it. Approach across the rape fields and what at first had seemed to be a greenhouse turns out to contain not tomatoes but paintings. Hanging low in pale daylight are vanished masterpieces by Rembrandt, Cézanne, Manet, Braque and Vermeer.

The museum extends deep underground. Inside, Bill Gates, Charles Saatchi and Osama bin Laden sip champagne at a very, very private view. In the cafe, the salt-cellar is a stolen work by Cellini, and in the bookshop, Thomas Pynchon signs copies of the catalogue which he has written. Everything in the Museum of Lost Art is invaluable and everything is illegal. There are even masterpieces the world believes to have been lost in floods and fires. As you wander through, paintings take on the appeal of something wrong and sinful. It is my favourite museum.

Monday, September 01, 2003

I have never separated the writing of poetry from prayer. I have grown up believing it is a vocation, a religious vocation. What I described in Another Life--about being on the hill and feeling the sort of dissolution that happened--is a frequent experience in a younger writer. I felt this sweetness of melancholy, of a sense of mortality, or rather of immortality, a sense of gratitude both for what you feel is a gift and for the beauty of the earth, the beauty of life around us. When that's forceful in a young writer, it can make you cry. It's just clear tears; it's not grimacing or being contorted, it's just a flow that happens. The body feels it is melting into what it has seen. This continues in the poet. It may be repressed in some way, but I think we continue in all our lives to have that sense of melting, of the "I" not being important. That is the ecstasy. It doesn't happen as much when you get older. There's that wonderful passage in Traherne where he talks about seeing the children as moving jewels until they learn the dirty devices of the world. It's not that mystic. Ultimately, it's what Yeats says: "Such a sweetness flows into the breast that we laugh at everything and everything we look upon is blessed." That's always there. It's a benediction, a transference. It's gratitude, really. The more of that a poet keeps, the more genuine his nature. I've always felt that sense of gratitude.

-- Derek Walcott, interviewed by Edward Hirsch in the Winter 1986 Paris Review. An excerpt is currently available online at the Paris Review website.

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

The double heart of a secret fruit, / an "X" in the equation, / an open book
When Lord Kitchener lent his piercing eye, laser sight finger and dodgy moustache to First World War recruitment posters, he probably didn't imagine that several decades later a Calypso singer from Trinidad would borrow his name. And put a sassy spin on the relationship between the Empire and its "exotic" children.

Kitch sang "London is the Place for Me" back in 1948, the year the Windrush brought 492 Caribbean immigrants to Britain, yet the tune made "mas" on the capital's more discerning radios in 2002. It was featured on a compilation released by Honest Jon's, the premier record shop in Portobello Road, a jewel of the capital's alluring yet thorny crown of multi-culturalism. The song's lifespan is roughly in parallel to the ascension of the Notting Hill carnival.

The point is that London has the Caribbean, Africa and Asia fluttering in its subconscious as well as nestling in the marrow of its bones. The sons and daughters of Britain's former colonies have a long and complex history of economic, political and artistic engagement with the capital. They have given it as much as it has given them.

-- From Kevin Le Gendre's review of Sukhdev Sandhu's London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined a City, published in last Sunday's Independent.

Saturday, August 23, 2003

One of the very finest writers about London, regardless of colour, was Trinidad-born Samuel Selvon (1923-94). His novel The Lonely Londoners was published in 1956 ... set in a city still struggling to get back on its feet after the war. Joy itself seems rationed. The capital is blinded by peasoupers, and reeks of pigeon feed, paraffin fumes, week-old hair oil, drip-drying workers' overalls. There are sweatshops, immigrant hovels, junk-littered yards behind railway lines. Ex-servicemen wander the streets confused.

Selvon goes on to introduce us to some of those West Indians who, invited to rubble-strewn London to help the capital build itself up again, were all too often regarded as if they were part of that dereliction, the problem rather than the solution. There's Sir Galahad, the dandy loverman; Cap, a green-stripe-suited Nigerian, who spends his days hustling and his nights chatting up foreign students; Big City, a bluff self-promoter, who's always making up tall tales about the fancy toffs he's been consorting with in Mayfair and Belgravia. They're rogues, chancers, colonial wide boys. And we love them.

Selvon writes a kind of pavement poetry. He shows us the city from the point of view of those blowing into their palms on their way to an early shift, or tramping up to the dole office, or having just done a runner from a hostel when they can't pay the rent. It's through their eyes that we gaze at pretty secretaries leaving their offices on summer evenings, at the friezes hanging from the cornices of aged buildings, at the sheer pandemonium of the metropolis.

This is not the sad sociology of old Pathé newsreels or Picture Post stories about the "colour problem". For sure, we're shown young men, wrapped in overcoats beneath their thin blankets, staring forlornly out of the grubby windows of their Notting Hill Gate basements in winter. But just as often we see them loping up the Bayswater Road, coasting up to Marble Arch where they bump into their "spars" who are also on their way to cruise for girls round Hyde Park, lapping up the noise and smell of late-night Leicester Square. All of this in a style that is slangy, vulgar, sing-song, tender.

-- Sukhdev Sandhu, author of London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined a City, in an essay called "Love Letters to London", published a couple weeks ago in the Telegraph.
The stars reconciled & remitted: / there should have been no world not blue for you
Naipaul's new collection of essays appears like a last wrap-up of the 2001 Nobel ceremony, a pastiche of previously published work: old prologues, forewords and book reviews to package with his Nobel lecture, "Two Worlds."

... The new book is really a critique of Naipaul by Naipaul, so perspective is limited and redundancy is guaranteed. He presents his writing life as a sort of international case study, emblematic of all who embody the enigmas of a cultural migrant. But Naipaul remains the stubborn representative of one.

-- From Lois Wolfe's review of Literary Occasions, the "new" Naipaul, in last Sunday's Miami Herald. There's also a review by Terry Eagleton in the September Harper's--not available online, but nicely digested over at the Literary Saloon.

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Letter of the week

From today's Stabroek News (not a permalink):

Dear Editor,

At the age of 15 I began to express my views in the letter columns of the dailies in Guyana.

Soon, I began to submit poems and stories. I have enjoyed publication in the Guyana Graphic, Sugar News, Gleaner of Jamaica, Caribbean Contact, Mirror, Stabroek News and others.

I have restricted for years now my letters to the Stabroek News because I believe it is the only Guyanese newspaper that does not present a partisan outlook. I feel that Stabroek News attempts to be fair to itself and its readers. I am comfortable with it.

I am most impressed by its refusal to lower its standard to accommodate base language and ridiculous sexual jokes.

The time, Sir, has come for me to tell your letter column an eternal goodbye.

In alignment with my destruction of all my writings in my possession, I have decided to cease submitting letters to editors for the rest of my life.

I wish Stabroek News the best!

Yours faithfully,
Krishna Nand Prasad

Monday, August 18, 2003

Reporters sans frontieres has been working hard to make sure the world does not forget the 26 journalists arrested in Cuba last March & subsequently sentenced to long prison terms (between 14 & 27 years), for the "crime" of speaking freely & doing their jobs as journalists--reporting the facts of life under Castro's rule. The RSF website includes a special Cuba section, containing information on the 26 imprisoned journalists; an online petition calling for their release; & a page where you can download PDF versions of the two underground publications, De Cuba & Luz Cubana, with which many of these writers were associated.

Saturday, August 16, 2003

The 2003 Man Booker Prize longlist has been announced; among the nearly two dozen novels is Caryl Phillips's latest, A Distant Shore.

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

The cartoon in today's Express takes on the MSBlast worm that's been slaying PCs left, right & centre around the world the last day or two. It depicts a terrified little computer fleeing a vicious serpent-like creature, calling for help from "pest control". But the unfortunate machine, as drawn by the cartoonist, is clearly meant to be either an eMac or one of the original iMacs--that shape is utterly distinctive. Yet MSBlast only affects Wintel PCs, of course. Simple ignorance--or part of a sinister anti-Mac campaign on the part of the Express?

Saturday, July 05, 2003

A young CLR James sailed to London from Trinidad in 1932, and wrote nine essays recording his responses for the Port of Spain Gazette. You could hardly imagine anything more ephemeral, more tied to its place and time, less likely to achieve the reaction "blimey, this could have been written yesterday". And on the surface it is very much of its time. The prose may have been written by an intellectual, but it is simple to the point of artlessness. It describes the present and is not primarily given to making timeless statements that will ring down the ages. It is as concerned as a photograph with what is going on. James's task is to be a meticulous observer. Yet this is what makes the book seem, by the end, strikingly contemporary.

-- Nicholas Lezard, reviewing C.L.R. James's Letters from London ("my" book!) in today's Guardian Review.

Tuesday, July 01, 2003

Possibly because she got to me so young, her effect is rather out of proportion with what any movie star should mean to anyone, but I am immensely grateful for it. The kind of woman she played, the kind of woman she was, is still the kind of woman I should like to be, and an incidental line of hers, from the aforementioned The Philadelphia Story, remains my lodestar every time I pick up a pen to write anything all: "The time to make your mind up about people is never!" This line was written by Donald Ogden Stewart, but in its utterly humanist commitment to the peculiarity and beauty of individuals, it was 100% Hepburn.

-- From Zadie Smith's moving tribute to the late Katherine Hepburn, in today's UK Guardian.

Tuesday, June 03, 2003

First up was Mel Cooke, a Jamaican journalist and poet with a booming voice and a bone to pick with Jamaican violence and American politics. One poem rhymed "rub-a-dub" with "blood," and another called the president of the United States a "son of a Bush." The young poets who followed him were mostly obsessed with sex, with much ado about flesh-slapping, the divine B-O-D-Y and wombs "stuffed like cumulonimbus."

Then Adziko Simba, a British-born poet living in Jamaica, performed her poem "Crazi Ladi Daze." With long arms waving and bare feet moving up and down as if on hot coals, she had a poetic breakdown, a long, agonized "Ahhh!" and then confessed breathlessly: "Sometimes I have a need, a need to have a crazi ladi day ... And suck thumb and suck thumb and rock and suck thumb rock and suck thumb ... and scream ... I need a day." She was a knockout.

Colin Channer's Calabash Literary Festival made the NY Times yesterday. Of course the Jamaican newspapers covered the event extensively for weeks--see Mervyn Morris's summary in last Thursday's Observer here.

What I'd really like to know is why Walcott pulled out at the last minute. Anyone have the inside story?

Monday, June 02, 2003

Meanwhile, over in Baghdad:

Ya Allah have mercy on our souls. The old state owned Internet center in Adil district has been taken over by anarchists and they are offering internet access for FREE. You just need to dial up a number, no password, no special settings. Whoever heard of anyone doing that?

Friday, May 09, 2003

Assuming each monkey typed a steady 120 characters a minute, mathematicians have calculated it would take 10 <+>813 (10 followed by 813 zeros) monkeys about five years to knock out a decent version of Shakespeare's Sonnet 3, which begins: "Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest, Now is the time that face should form another." And that's if they had a computer each.

--From a story in today's U.K. Guardian about a team of scientists who recently attempted to test the "infinite number of monkeys" theory.

Thursday, May 08, 2003

Salam Pax is back.

Tuesday, May 06, 2003

At Algeciras--A Meditation upon Death

The heron-billed pale cattle-birds
That feed on some foul parasite
Of the Moroccan flocks and herds
Cross the narrow Straits to light
In the rich midnight of the garden trees
Till the dawn break upon those mingled seas.

Often at evening when a boy
Would I carry to a friend--
Hoping more substantial joy
Did an older mind commend--
Not such as are in Newton’s metaphor,
But actual shells of Rosses’ level shore.

Greater glory in the sun,
An evening chill upon the air,
Bid imagination run
Much on the Great Questioner;
What He can question, what if questioned I
Can with a fitting confidence reply.

November 1928

--W.B. Yeats

Monday, May 05, 2003

Nobody articulates better than Phillips, who was born in St Kitts in the West Indies and raised in Leeds, the pain of leaving, the necessity for flight and the abandonment of ties. In novel after novel, he has quarried moving stories of the diaspora, tracing lives back to the point where home meant home. His overarching theme is cultural and social dislocation, particularly the migratory experience, whether it be as a result of the slave trade or through economic necessity -- or because of a repressive regime. All amount to much the same thing. To leave home other than through personal desire is something nobody considers.

--From Alan Taylor's review of Caryl Phillips's new novel, A Distant Shore, published in yesterday's Sunday Herald.
People often criticise us for being too hard on poor countries and letting Western democracies off lightly. "Moralising by the rich," they say. "It's your culture that's talking."...

Our answer is still the same. We firmly believe that attacks on the free flow of information are relative. We think the complete absence of press freedom in one country is more serious than simple flaws and abuses in another. We think journalists who cannot work without risking death or injury deserve more help than their colleagues in countries where the press is a true "fourth estate."...

We are well aware, and we say so, of the threats to civil liberties, including press freedom, contained in some of the steps taken in 2002 by the US government in its fight against terrorism. We know that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's control of the broadcast media is bad for Italian democracy, and we say so. We protest too each time French police or courts challenge a journalist's right not to reveal sources.

We recognise that the dependence of reporters on the military in wartime makes their work less credible. But all these real problems do not alter the fact that in the United States, Italy and France, news flows more freely than on average in the rest of the world, and that their journalists enjoy an independence that is the daily envy of colleagues living under repressive regimes everywhere.

--From the 2003 annual report on press freedom released by Reporters sans frontieres on Saturday.

Friday, May 02, 2003

No one can make me feel like a criminal, or an enemy agent, or someone who does not love his country, or make me believe any of the other absurd accusations the government uses to degrade and humiliate. I am only a man who writes. And writes in the country where he was born, and where his great-grandparents were born.

--Raul Rivero, one of the best-known of the independent journalists recently imprisoned in Cuba, quoted in today's Gleaner, in a comprehensive summary of the present status of the Cuba's independent press.

Thursday, May 01, 2003

As the general election in Barbados draws near, the Advocate (in today's editorial (this is not a permanent link)) considers the possibility of violence in the weeks before the polls:

On Tuesday evening, a broadcaster claimed that since Barbadians had a history of good behaviour during election contests, there will be no physical conflict in 2003.

The idea that an absence of serious adversity in the past totally assures that none can now occur, is much in line with the silly notion that God, being a Bajan, natural disasters will not strike this island.

This is indeed a shockingly silly notion--everyone knows God is actually a Trini.
Every conceivable sympathetic movement on the part of another person towards Castro and the Cuban government is interpreted by Castro as a justification for his ideological convictions. Over the past two decades, the Canadian, Spanish, Mexican and CARICOM governments, among others; the Pope, liberal American politicians, Black activists from the US, and Caribbean people have given Cuba and President Castro unbelievable breathing space to survive American pressure, but to date there has been no willingness on Castro's part to shift gear in the direction of obligatory politics. Castro simply does not believe in such a path because his psychological apparatus does not allow for this. Castro's world view is based on divine right, meaning that his position is right and truthful, and those who open up to him have come around to the acceptance that the Cuban ideological construct is philosophically grounded in history and has been proven right....

How ironic that the CARICOM-Cuba relationship contains the same ingredients as CARICOM-US friendship. CARICOM treads carefully in provoking the US because they have too much to lose. And it is the same with Cuba. Cuba has been generous to CARICOM states, with the latest manifestation of this being a huge number of scholarships to Guyana, the lessening of a shortage of medical personnel in Trinidad, and infrastructural help to Grenada. This explains the reticence of CARICOM on Cuba's savage lawlessness in the execution of three men following court trials, and the imprisonment of seventy-three others where the invisible demand of Castro hangs like a painting over the head of the jury and the judges are able to see Castro's face as they ponder their verdict....

--From a letter by Frederick Kissoon published in today's Stabroek News (no link, because Stabroek has no permanent online archive).

Today's Stabroek also publishes another letter by Armando Proenza describing the U.S. embargo as an "elementary violation of the human rights of the Cuban people for more than 40 years". It does not occur to Mr. Proenza that it is possible to oppose both the increasingly foolish embargo & Castro's human rights abuses simultaneously; but then, which ideologue ever had much time for logic--or justice?

Sunday, April 27, 2003

Dennis's poems had a dancer's suppleness and grace; and that grace was the more impressive for being driven by a formidable intelligence and ballasted by an unblinking awareness of the horror that subsisted just below the surface of things. Like Frost, Scott was one "acquainted with the night". His poems were full of spiders, cats, knives. And yet the mortal man in company was quite the opposite: perennially gentle, laid back, amused, kind. I don't think he ever wished harm to anyone in his life.

--Wayne Brown, remembering the late poet & playwright Dennis Scott (who died just over twelve years ago), in today's Observer.

Saturday, April 26, 2003

Carlos Fuentes called Cuba a "suffocating dictatorship." Jose Saramago said Fidel Castro "cheated his dreams."

Shocked at Cuba's recent crackdown on dissent, many leftist intellectuals and authors find themselves criticizing a government they spent years applauding.

The backlash appears to have caught Cuba off guard and forced officials to defend themselves against not only their foes--but also their longtime friends....

"Must they learn the bad habits of the enemy they are fighting?" wrote Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano, who once praised Castro as a "symbol of national dignity."...

Fuentes, a Mexican novelist and longtime Cuba supporter, was even more disillusioned. He lumped Bush and Castro together and declared himself against both. Castro, he said, needs "his American enemy to justify his own failings."

"As a Mexican, I wish for my country neither the dictates of Washington on foreign policy, nor the Cuban example of a suffocating dictatorship," he wrote in a letter published in Mexico City's Reforma newspaper.

He wasn't alone. Saramago, a Portuguese writer who won the 1998 Nobel Prize for literature and considered himself a close friend of Castro, said Cuba "has lost my confidence, damaged my hopes, cheated my dreams."

Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who lives part-time in Cuba, has been silent on the issue. But his magazine, Cambio, published an article saying "few other repressive waves have left a government so isolated and rejected."...

Fuentes warned it will be hard for Castro to bounce back.

The Cuban president, he said, is preparing "the way for his own exit from the world stage in a hail of flames."

--From an Associated Press report issued yesterday.

Meanwhile, the Bahamas has just established a permanent embassy in Havana, which was the subject of an op-ed piece by Dr. Kevin Alcena in yesterday's Nassau Guardian. Dr. Alcena goes on at great length about the ill-effects of the embargo, & denounces what he calls the "imperialistic agenda against Cuba", but does not think it necessary to even mention Castro's recent crackdown on journalists, librarians, & other dissidents.

But what was it Carlos Fuentes said? "He lumped Bush and Castro together and declared himself against both." Unreasonable? Read Amnesty International's report on what's been going on at Guantanamo:

Reports indicate that a "handful" of children, described as being between the ages of 13 and 15 years old, have been "discovered" by the authorities in Guantanamo. It is reported that the children were transferred, possibly from Afghanistan, earlier this year. It had already been reported that a 16-year-old Canadian national was transferred in late 2002 from Afghanistan to the Guantanamo Naval Base. Reports indicate that it took six months for even the Canadian government to be granted access to him. Along with all the other detainees, he remains without access to legal counsel or his family.

Thursday, April 24, 2003

Even her unparalleled cultural contributions pale in comparison to the unique esteem in which she is held by her countrymen. For Louise Bennett is undisputedly the most universally beloved figure this island has ever produced. Alexander Bustamante, Michael Manley and Bob Marley all have their detractors. But no Jamaican responds to Miss Lou's name with anything but unconditional admiration and love.

Now, because of ill-health, Miss Lou has, for the past decade or so, lived in Canada, far away from the land she still loves so passionately. She is almost 90 now, and with her husband of over 50 years having passed away last year, only the Lord knows how much longer she will be with us. And you can bet that on that sad day when death comes to her, as it must come to us all, there will be an unprecedented outpouring of sympathy and praise in the country. But surely we should lavish all the tributes on her while she can still appreciate them. Why wait till she is gone to let her know how much we all love and cherish her?

--Kevin O'Brien Chang, arguing (rather hyperbolically) in yesterday's Observer that the Jamaican government should lavish some meaningful attention on beloved dialect poet Louise Bennett while she's still around to appreciate it.

Wednesday, April 23, 2003

"We went down to the Callaloo camp one day shortly after Carnival and found a little note, a small piece of paper pinned to the gate, which said: 'Peter Minshall, I have seen your costumes in The Lost Tribe, I love them and I want you to design two gowns for me.'"


"You have no idea how beautiful it is to come awake in the morning and hear that voice singing from the shower: 'I Loves You, Porgy.'"

Peter Minshall & Carol La Chapelle remember Nina Simone in today's Express (look out for the photo of the diva in bikini & glitter, Carnival c. 1980).
"His father was a Butcher, and I have been told heretofore by some of the neighbours, that when he was a boy he exercised his father's Trade, but when he kill'd a Calfe, he would doe it in a high style, and make a Speech....

This William being naturally inclined to Poetry and acting, came to London, I guesse, about eighteen. And was an Actor at one of the Play-houses, and did act exceedingly well.... He began early to make essayes at Dramatique Poetry, which at that time was very lowe; and his Plays took well. He was a handsome well shap't man: very good company, and of a very readie and pleasant smooth Witt."

--So recorded the indispensable John Aubrey. And today is this handsome William's birthday, his 439th by most accounts; somewhere, someone must be drinking a toast, someone else singing a song; the best present I can offer (help me, Will!) is one of his own poems, my current favourite sonnet, no. 29:

When, in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur'd like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least:
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising,
From sullen earth sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

And in one of literary history's most delightful coincidences, today is also the 104th anniversary of a somewhat celebrated, prodigiously talented Russian emigre writer (with a prose style as fancy as a murderer's), for whom I have long maintained a robust fondness; to commemorate which, I reproduce these lines from the great John Shade:

What moment in the gradual decay
Does resurrection choose? What year? What day?
Who has the stopwatch? Who rewinds the tape?
Are some less lucky, or do all escape?
A syllogism: other men die; but I
Am not another; therefore I'll not die.

Space is a swarming in the eyes; and time,
A singing in the ears. In this hive I'm
Locked up. Yet, if prior to life we had
Been able to imagine life, what mad,
Impossible, unutterably weird,
Wonderful nonsense it might have appeared!
("Pale Fire", ll. 209-220)

I feel obliged to append Charles Kinbote's note:

Lines 213-214: A syllogism
This may please a boy. Later in life we learn that we are those "others."

Meanwhile, prompted by Akiko Nakata of the Japanese Nabokov Society, a group of scholars & admirers (including Juan Martinez & Dmitri Nabokov himself) have created their own birthday gifts (jeux d'esprit, chess problems) & presented them here. Following their lead, I nervously offer this fragment, appropriate lepidopterously if in no other way:

The Dangers of the Parcel Post

On the morning of what was to be that fateful afternoon, the post arrived earlier than usual. He noticed a warm, kind scent in the daybreak air as he strode barefoot down the path to the letterbox at the gate. Two letters from friends and a postcard from an aunt, but what was this large bulging blue envelope? No return address; he ripped it open; and out poured a great cloud of butterflies, golden and green, which made a tipsy spiral round his head. He was delighted; he laughed out loud; who had sent them? No way to tell. The butterflies followed him up to the house; the sense of thrill lingered for hours. How could he know they were venomous; that they soon would grow bored?

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

More on Nina Simone:

In conversation, she was brooding, restless, oscillating between dignified deflections of personal questions and arias of indignation about the prejudices, aesthetic deafness and philistinism of the music business. She was an act to be handled like hot coals or priceless china.

To her audiences, particularly in the later years, she emitted an aura of fearful expectation that made one uncertain that, as part of the audience, one simply might not be good enough for her.

--from John Fordham's moving obituary in today's UK Guardian. Fordham also mentions Simone's most notorious Caribbean connection: her affair with Barbadian prime minister Errol Barrow back in the 70s. She continued to be a regular visitor to the region, & was here in Trinidad for Carnival up to three or four years ago (when, as it happens, a friend of mine found herself dining with the diva at the Cascadia Hotel--but perhaps I'll tell that story another time). Bina Shah, on the other hand, confesses that before today she'd never heard of Simone... (permalink unavailable--I think this must be a widespread blogspot problem at the moment).
A perfect story for Earth Day: Richard Flanagan, author of the grand novel Gould's Book of Fish (one of the half-dozen best books I read last year), withdrew himself from consideration for the Tasmania Pacific Region Prize, which he had been instrumental in establishing, in order to protest the cutting of old-growth hardwood forests in his home island, after Tasmania's Forestry Commission turned out to be one of the prize's co-sponsors.

Mr. Flanagan, a descendant of Irish convicts, said he intended to withdraw quietly. But when his friend Tim Winton heard, Mr. Winton, also an acclaimed novelist, followed suit. He withdrew his novel "Dirt Music," which evokes the vastness of space and describes the life of the edge-of-society characters in Western Australia.

That seemed to be the end of it, but then, after the short list was announced, Peter Carey, who was odds-on favorite for "True History of the Kelly Gang," announced that he, too, was withdrawing. Mr. Carey, who lives in New York, is one of Australia's best-known writers. His books include "Oscar and Lucinda" and "Jack Maggs."

Finally Joan London withdrew after she was short-listed for "Gilgamesh," a moving account of a woman who was born on a tiny farm in remote Western Australia and who meets the modern world through a cousin who had worked on an archaeological dig in Iraq.

Mr. Flanagan said that Ms. London, the least known, had made the biggest sacrifice because the prize would have meant recognition for her. But he would not criticize authors who did not withdraw.
The dullest blog in the world (via This, That & Whatever, a Bajan blog).
Today is Earth Day. Pay Matt Prescott's Earth-Info.Net a visit--there is no better guide to environmental resources online. Then read this article from yesterday's Gleaner about the first Caribbean Endemic Bird Festival, a month-long event organised by the Society for the Study and Conservation of Caribbean Birds; & Julian Kenny's column in today's Express, in which he wonders why T&T's new Community-based Environmental Protection & Enhancement Programme (CEPEP) has adopted a literal scorched-earth policy (I've seen, but found it hard to believe, what they've done to lower Flagstaff Hill, round the corner from my office). But first read Derek Walcott's magnificent poem, the best offering I can make for this Earth Day:

The Season of Phantasmal Peace

Then all the nations of birds lifted together
the huge net of the shadows of this earth
in multitudinous dialects, twittering tongues,
stitching and crossing it. They lifted up
the shadows of long pines down trackless slopes,
the shadows of glass-faced towers down evening streets,
the shadow of a frail plant on a city sill--
the net rising soundless at night, the birds' cries soundless, until
there was no longer dusk, or season, decline, or weather,
only this passage of phantasmal light
that not the narrowest shadow dared to sever.

And men could not see, looking up, what the wild geese drew,
what the ospreys trailed behind them in the silvery ropes
that flashed in the icy sunlight; they could not hear
battalions of starlings waging peaceful cries,
bearing the net higher, covering this world
like the vines of an orchard, or a mother drawing
the trembling gauze over the trembling eyes
of a child fluttering to sleep;
it was the light
that you will see at evening on the side of a hill
in yellow October, and no one hearing knew
what change had brought into the raven's cawing,
the killdeer’s screech, the ember-circling chough
such an immense, soundless, and high concern
for the fields and cities where the birds belong,
except it was their seasonal passing, Love,
made seasonless, or, from the high privilege of their birth,
something brighter than pity for the wingless ones
below them who shared dark holes in windows and in houses,
and higher they lifted the net with soundless voices
above all change, betrayals of falling suns,
and this season lasted one moment, like the pause
between dusk and darkness, between fury and peace,
but, for such as our earth is now, it lasted long.

Monday, April 21, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) -- Nina Simone, whose deep, raspy, forceful voice made her a unique figure in jazz and later helped define the civil rights movement, died Monday at her home in France, according to her personal manager. She was 70.

Read the rest of the AP report here.


It could be argued that her gifts were always going to be too diverse and too overpowering to make her at ease with the demands of the music business. Embracing jazz, pop, rhythm and blues, show tunes, chansons and gospel, Simone mastered them all. Life, as ever, was a little harder.

--Clive Davis, the jazz critic of the London Times, writing in Tuesday's edition.

Also: read the NY Times obituary (surprisingly short) here.
At last. From today's Express editorial:

It is ironic that as more and more of the world embraces freedom and democracy, the authorities in Cuba, one of the world's last remaining communist dictatorships, have thought it necessary to resume the type of repression associated with the long rejected early days of Stalinist philosophy....

There is speculation that the new approach of the Cuban government is driven by fear of invasion from what is widely seen as a right-wing US administration bent on imposing its will on the rest of the world and anxious to please the Cuban dissidents resident in the state of Florida. But it is far more likely that Mr Castro and his comrades are simply reverting to form as they run out of answers to the country's economic problems....

The new wave of repression has already drawn the condemnation of the European Union, which has long been working to ease Cuba's isolation by the US. It will also put pressure on Cuba's regional allies, including Trinidad and Tobago and the rest of Caricom, who have been seeking to bring the communist country out from the international cold....

As one of its main allies in the region, including a close relationship between Prime Minister Patrick Manning and the Cuban leader, the Trinidad and Tobago government needs to use whatever diplomatic clout it wields to convince Mr Castro that this is not the way to go.

It is also important that the local and regional organisations which have for years supported Cuba, and rightly protested the American embargo that has brought so much hardship on its population, send a message to Mr Castro that the behaviour of his government is not only unacceptable, but counter-productive.

Sunday, April 20, 2003

Easter and the Time of Rice-Planting

Let me speak with the hurrying tongues of the river
Trapping the crystal light
To challenge the ocean with their coffee wound.

From sunken land speechless kokers stare
Hollow with the teeth of the guillotine
Awaiting the influct tides to stain her womb.

But there are angels in the sky
In the great void of holiness
Blessing the green rice sanctuaries
Ringing inaudible caves of blue and golden bells
Above the hurrying waters.

--A.J. Seymour, p. 125 in the Collected Poems.

Saturday, April 19, 2003

She dwells with Beauty--Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to Poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of delight
Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

I have no heart for anything today but Keats, & the splendid mysteries of Beethoven's late quartets, the op. 132 & the op. 135 in particular. Muss es sein? And the reply comes not as an imprecation, not as a threat, not as a lamentation, but as a benediction: Es muss sein!

Friday, April 18, 2003

A poem for this Good Friday:

I hammer on that common door,
Too frantic in my superstition,
Transfix with nails that I have broken,
The angry notice of the mind.
Close as the thought that suffers him,
The habit every man in time
Must wear beneath his ironed shirt.

An open mind disturbs my soul,
And in disdain I turn my back
Upon the sun that makes a show
Of half the world, yet still deny
The pain that lives within the past,
The flames sinking upon the spike,
Darkness that man must dread at last.

--from "Tenebrae", by Austin Clarke (the Irish one), p. 17 in the Dolmen Selected Poems, ed. Thomas Kinsella.
I ought to have spotted & posted this three days ago, but despite sincere effort I don't always manage to read all the major English-language Caribbean newspapers every day: on Tuesday the Stabroek News ran the following editorial on recent events in Cuba, which I reproduce in full because Stabroek has no permanent online archive.

Crackdown in Cuba

Since March 18, 2003, seventy-eight persons in Cuba have been arrested by the authorities, charged and tried. They include independent journalists, organisers of the Varela Project (a petition for a referendum on legal reform which seeks greater personal, political and economic freedoms) and pro-democracy members of illegal opposition parties. The trials were held in improvised courts and lasted one day. A Reuters report indicates that undercover agents who had infiltrated the dissident groups gave evidence.

Human rights groups described the trials as a throwback to Stalinism. Severe sentences were handed down, one as long as 28 years. A statement from the Ministry of Justice said the dissidents were jailed for mercenary activity and other acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the state. In 1999 a law had been passed providing severe sentences for passing information to the United States that could be used to bolster anti-Cuban measures such as the US embargo. The law also bans the ownership, distribution or reproduction of what it describes as subversive materials from the US government. The authorities said dissidents had been plotting with US diplomats to subvert the state.

Many in the Caribbean who do not share President Castro's ideology and who believe in an open society have nevertheless had enormous sympathy for the Cuban revolution. Fidel Castro has been admired for the achievements of his government in the field of education and health. But more than that, he was seen to have tried to chart an independent course after he took power in 1959 and though this had in fact pushed him into a dependant relationship with the Soviet Union this was understood as a predicament that at that time faced all the countries in the region, the dilemma of trying to steer an independent course between the Scylla of the American eagle and the Charybdis of the Russian bear.

So democrats in the region swallowed their qualms about the failure of the government to liberalise the social and political situation, to hold elections and to respect human rights.

But the maintaining of a one party state after 43 years in power and the resulting restrictions on basic human freedoms have been very hard to bear and these latest acts of repression are intolerable. The Varela Project, led by Oswald Paya Sardinas of the Christian Liberation Movement collected the 10,000 signatures constitutionally required to hold a referendum in Cuba. The legal reforms sought by the group are to introduce freedoms taken for granted in all democratic countries in the Caribbean, and elsewhere.

Paya has received widespread recognition for his work in the international community and also received the prestigious human rights award, the Sakharov Prize, from the European Union. He has not been arrested but members of his organisation have been. The immediate cause of the roundup seems to have been that James Cason, the head of the US Interests Section in Havana based at the Swiss Embassy allowed a group of journalists to use his official residence for a meeting. He had also visited opposition members around the island. That may be seen as somewhat provocative in the Cuban context though it has been quite normal for human rights groups in the Caribbean to seek overseas assistance of one kind or another in the past. But sensitive or not it cannot possibly justify the arrests, charges and imprisonment that have taken place recently.

We condemn this attack on independent journalists and others seeking rights of speech and assembly and other human rights freedoms. Moreover, we do not believe Caricom governments should turn a blind eye to human rights abuses of this kind by a regional colleague. Regrettably, they have done so before, as all Guyanese well remember. The dissidents had only three days to appeal. Caricom should add its voice to criticisms from governments and human rights groups of this authoritarian behaviour.

Today's edition of Stabroek publishes a reply to Tuesday's editorial (& to Wednesday's, which mentioned Cuba in passing) on the letters page:

Dear Editor,

Your references to Cuba in the editorials of April 15 and April 16, call my attention powerfully. I am wondering who is really behind these editorials? Why do you repeat the campaigns of the government of USA against Cuba? It is curious also that a newspaper of Guyana makes reference in these days to the violation of the human rights in Cuba, just when the USA government and government lackeys from Latin America try to condemn Cuba in the Human Rights Commission in Geneva.

Maybe the Stabroek News is part of the libelous papers to the service of the world superpower USA?

This kind of lie that you say in your editorial really is helping that Cuba must be invaded in a near future. Who pays you for this reason?

Your appeal to the governments of Caricom to condemn Cuba is a call to smash the solidarity that exists among our peoples, an objective that the government of US has always pursued.

I call to all Guyanese to reject your unjust considerations and to support the homeland of Marti and Fidel in order that it is not allowed that Cuba must be the target of the U.S. bombs.

Please, Mr. Editor, I request your sincerity.

Yours faithfully,
Armando Proenza, Latin Resident

Stabroek's editor replies as follows:

Editor's note:

We have usually supported Cuba editorially despite our obvious reservations about it being a one party state which does not permit freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and other freedoms which are accepted as basic constitutional rights in the English speaking Caribbean.

We recognise it as an independent Caribbean country which has provided a great deal of help to Guyana and other Caribbean countries particularly in the field of medicine. We also oppose the American embargo....

Where we part company with the Cuban government is in its wish to retain the one party state and the concomitant restrictions on freedom. This cannot be justified. "Dissidents" in Eastern Europe like Vaclav Havel were in their time routinely attacked as enemies of the state. How can legitimate opposition ever emerge in Cuba with the current mindset where all critics are labelled as counter-revolutionary? The fundamental premise is wrong, Fidel does not have a divine right to rule. Even if those pushing the Varela project and others are receiving American help that does not put them out of court, so to speak. They have a right to be heard and to put forward their views.

It is difficult for Caribbean people who fight for democratic rights in their own country to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in Cuba forever.

I disagree with the editor's last point. It clearly is not "difficult for Caribbean people who fight for democratic rights in their own country to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in Cuba forever": our politicians, journalists, columnists, academics, activists, & "liberal" opinion-makers of every variety seem perpetually eager not merely to believe that Castro's government can do no wrong, but to apotheosise the aging "revolutionary" dictator himself. And I wish I could ask Mr. Proenza if he's actually read Jose Marti, whom I doubt would recognise Castro's Cuba as the patria for which he fought & died.
The NY Times runs a story today on Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam on Broadway, the rap-verse extravaganza that since November last year has put slam poetry centrestage in the mainstream NY theatre scene. One of the nine poets in the production is Jamaica-born Staceyann Chin, who moved to the US nearly six years ago & has rapidly become a leading figure in the slam poetry circuit; the Times piece includes a brief profile ("Ms. Chin would not go so far as to call herself happy. 'I think happiness is more a journey than a place,' she said. 'I'm on my way there.'").

And it turns out she also has a blog, where she writes about her old life in Jamaica, her new life in NY, the unexpectedness of fame:

Learning to read my poems to small crowds again. Small groups of friends who care about the words more than they do the laughter.

I have enjoyed Broadway. Still believe it is important. Half the people who come to see those shows would never see a person like me in the mainstream. The show is still very important for so many reasons....

So I am reading my poems in small rooms. Like the one I sleep in. To people who care about them. Even if they are not loud or angry or fierce. I am reading to old lovers and hands that hold me now, and friends and sometimes, I read to myself. To remind me. That I am trying to be a writer. Not a rockstar. Not a celebrity. Not a person who people reconize and say hi to on the A train. I am one of millions of people who are just trying to save the world.

Thursday, April 17, 2003

There's no hint of it yet at the magazine's website, but the Partisan Review has announced this week that its current issue will be the last--see stories in the NY Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, & Slate ("it is either a supreme irony or a hilarious coincidence that the greatest of all Trotskyist publications should have announced its demise at the very moment that a belated species of Trotskyism has at last established itself in the White House"!).

(Partisan's heyday is long past, but the U.W.I. library still subscribed to it while I was an undergraduate at St. Augustine some years ago, & there were bound volumes of back issues sitting in the stacks. My university education consisted primarily of reading a great many books not on my course reading-lists, to which end I spent the better part of my campus career holed up on the third floor of the main library. I read every new issue of the Partisan Review almost cover to cover in those days, which perhaps gave me a skewed idea of its continuing cultural relevance. Of course, by then it was already a relic of what seemed a more vital, more serious, more bracing time. Its private significance to me was that it seemed to provide a tangible connection to that time.)


By coincidence, I have just this evening been reading Heidi Julavits's essay on book-reviewing in the first issue of the new Believer (the latest product of the Eggers publishing empire), which in this passage nicely summarises one aspect of the significance of the Partisan Review back in the 1940s & 50s:

Yes, we've had our Vendlers, our Sontags, our Updikes, and our Ozicks, but no one critical group is as mythically representative of a golden age as the "New York Intellectuals", among whom the most famous was probably Lionel Trilling and the most infamous Norman Podhoretz. During the WWII era in which most of these writers emerged, literary criticism was inextricable from cultural criticism, and thus reviews functioned as moral, philosophical and political explorations for society at large, inspired by this or that book. Trilling, by far the most mannerly member of the NYI, was the first to coin the term "cultural criticism", and he believed--it sounds adorably giddy nowadays, or reprehensibly bourgeois ... that "intelligence was connected with literature, and that it was advanced by literature."

(The Partisan Review of course was the chief house-organ of the so-called New York Intellectuals.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Human Rights Watch has monitored human rights conditions in Cuba for more than fifteen years. Although severe restrictions on basic civil and political rights have been a constant in Cuba during this period, the current crackdown, both in its scale and in its intensity, far surpasses the violations we have documented in the past.

Over the past month, the Cuban government has carried out a full-scale offensive against nonviolent dissidents, independent journalists, human rights advocates, independent librarians and others brave enough to challenge the government's monopoly on truth. By its sweeping nature, the crackdown seems intended not only to repress dissident voices, but to deny the very possibility of an independent civil society.

But while the current wave of repression is extraordinary for its scope and intensity, there is nothing unusual, by Cuban standards, about the means by which it has been imposed. The denial of basic civil and political rights is inscribed in Cuban law. The country's domestic legislation tightly restricts the rights to free speech, association, assembly and the press; its courts lack independence and impartiality; and its criminal procedures violate defendants' rights to due process of law.

--From a statement made earlier today by Jose Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director, Americas Division, Human Rights Watch, to the US House Committee on International Relations. Vivanco goes on to argue that the forty-year old US embargo cannot succeed in improving the human rights situation in Cuba. (It should be entirely obvious by now that maintaining the embargo is one of Castro's major objectives.)
From our reading:

"Whatever anyone says, and however many hairs are split in the definition of public interest, our attitude to a free press depends on whether we feel more threatened or more protected by it."

-- Auberon Waugh, "The Real Censors", in Another Voice, p. 146 in the Fontana edition.
i am writing a dissertation for a phd in ethnomusicology ... on the interplay between hip-hop, or rap, and dancehall.... i am proposing a critical history and contemporary aesthetics of hip-hop as a transnational music. specifically, i am focusing on jamaica's relationship to the music, from its origins in the founding figure of dj kool herc (i.e., clive campbell, a jamaican immigrant to the Bronx in the late 60s), through decades of constant interplay, to today's current moment of greater fluidity than ever.... i am seeking to decenter the concept of a "hip-hop culture" that is too often represented as a stable, and usually exclusive, whole. by exposing a bit of the messiness of cultural and musical workings, i hope to shed light on the constructed and contingent way that we make meaning, and to show the power of music not only to express but to inform who we are, our epistemology and ontology, which is to say, the way we come to know the world and our sense of being in it. as you can see, i tend to slip into fairly academic language when i get into this subject.

--So explains Wayne Marshall, a Harvard grad student living temporarily in Jamaica with his partner Rebecca Nesson, doing research & running a volunteer project in Kingston schools. Wayne & Rebecca are keeping a joint blog, recording their six-month sojourn--a frequently fascinating view of Jamaica from the perspective of outsiders trying to fit in ("better believe soon as i can say, 'me nah tourist,' convincingly enough, i will"), with the occasional attempt to comprehend local politics.
Over at Free Trinidad, Seldo posts a retrospective analysis of the (apparently now concluded) Iraq war. It's too long to reproduce in full, & too concise for partial quotation, but far more fluent & sensible & cogent than anything I've read on the subject in the Caribbean press.

Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Many of the independent journalists recently imprisoned in Cuba were connected with the magazine De Cuba, including its editor, Ricardo Gonzalez, & the well-known journalist & poet Raul Rivero (both given twenty-year sentences). Gonzalez's home, one report says, was searched for eleven hours by ten policemen, who confiscated his computer & other equipment.

According to Reporters sans frontieres:

The appearance of De Cuba on 19 December last year was the first new challenge for several years to the government's information monopoly. A second issue came out on 27 February this year. Some 300 copies were printed and distributed secretly in the country's 14 provinces. The magazine, entirely staffed by independent journalists living in Cuba itself, aims to present fresh viewpoints to Cubans, whose only source of news is the official media.

De Cuba was produced on a PC, "printed" with a photocopier, & bound with staples & brown tape, according to this recent Associated Press story--authentic samizdat. But the tools of the information age give the magazine far wider reach: both issues can be downloaded in PDF format from this page at the RSF website (scroll down). Of course, the text is entirely in Spanish, so monoglots like me may need some assistance. Online Spanish-English dictionaries are available here.
Intriguing Google facts, from a story that ran in the NY Times on Sunday:

Google ... handles 200 million searches of the Web each day, a staggering one-third of the estimated daily total. To keep up with that torrent, Google has essentially built a home-brew supercomputer that is distributed across eight data centers....

The company stopped giving updates on the size of its computing resources in 2001. But several people with knowledge of the system said it consists of more than 54,000 servers designed by Google engineers from basic components. It contains about 100,000 processors and 261,000 disks, these people said, making it what many consider the largest computing system in the world.

But this is the part I like best:

Not long after arriving at the company in 2001, [Eric E.] Schmidt [Google's chief executive] found that he was contending with a squatter in his office.

One of Google's top engineers, Amit J. Patel, who was sharing space with five others in Google's chronically crowded quarters, decided that he could find relative solitude in Mr. Schmidt's tiny, 8-by-12-foot office. The chief executive would travel and attend meetings often, Mr. Patel reasoned, offering privacy during the intervals.

When Mr. Patel sought permission, Mr. Schmidt turned the decision over to his vice president for engineering, hoping that the request would be denied.

It wasn't.

"We were trying to drive home the point that we needed more office space," said Wayne Rosing, the vice president, a veteran of Apple and Sun.

Mr. Schmidt got the point. In an example of Google's eccentric culture, he let Mr. Patel share his office for several months. He now says that there was an upside to the odd arrangement: Mr. Patel is a master data miner, and Mr. Schmidt soon had instant access to better revenue figures than did his financial planners. (Ultimately, the company expanded to a fourth building.)

There's another reason for this post. Months ago I linked to another Google story in the Times, also mentioning Amit Patel, who some time after added a direct link from his home page to my blog. Over the last few days this link has directed something like sixty visitors here, according to my referral stats, so Patel is at least partly responsible for the sudden spike in my hits (yes, despite, what I said yesterday morning, there has been a spike, as anyone who's bothered to scroll down & hit the Nedstat button can see)--& the new Times story must be generating major activity at his site.

I had 72 hits yesterday (mock on, mock on, Glen Reynolds, Andrew Sullivan--72 hits is a dizzying height for me); my previous all-time record was 27, back in January, before this blog went into semi-hibernation. Most of yesterday's traffic I can attribute to that Guardian article. (Interestingly, there was no significant increase in visitors from T&T--the surge was made up of readers from Europe & North America. Which suggests, of course, that most of yesterday's readers were expatriate Trinis reading the Guardian at the end of the working day in their respective time zones--Europe-based readers predominated during the early afternoon, T&T time, & US-based readers later in the evening.) But most of today's activity has obviously been the belated result of that link from Amit Patel's home page.

Clearly, I continue to be obsessed with my stats....

And, yes, the possibility of an actual audience is a great incentive to diligence on my part....
In a bitter criticism of the executions carried out last week in Cuba, Jose Saramago, the Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese writer considered Fidel Castro's best friend among European intellectuals, broke with the regime Monday.

"This is as far as I go," Saramago wrote in a short but powerful essay printed in Spain's leading newspaper, El Pais, as the European Union, various countries and organizations around the world continued to offer public repudiations.

Killing three men by firing squad at dawn Friday for trying to spirit a ferry boat is unacceptable--especially since the would-be hijackers didn't hurt anybody, wrote Saramago, a communist.

"Cuba has won no heroic victory by executing these three men, but it has lost my confidence, damaged my hopes, robbed me of illusions."

--From a story in today's Miami Herald.
I loaded up today's Guardian expecting the worst, frankly, but it seems my repeated expressions of reluctance have paid off, for Mark Lyndersay's column on blogging (warning: not a permalink) contains not a mention of me, or any other character named NL (or, for that matter, any other T&T blogger). But I must admit I'm slightly peeved now that I spent something like two hours last Thursday night writing 1,000 almost-coherent words in response to Mark's email questionnaire, when instead I could have been curled up in bed coddling myself with a novel....

Monday, April 14, 2003

With Cuba on my mind, I've been googling around rather more than usual today, & offer the following, in more or less random order:

A statement on recent events in Cuba by the Committee to Protect Journalists; a letter to Fidel Castro from the International Press Institute; a statement by the International Federation of Journalists.


A report from the organisation Friends of Cuban Libraries on the arrest of fourteen independent librarians & the confiscation of thousands of books during the recent crackdown on dissidents. (Another report on this site says that Animal Farm & Nineteen Eighty-four are, appropriately, among the most popular books distributed by Cuba's independent library movement.)


A report from Reporters sans frontieres on the protest action undertaken in Paris on 4 April by activists from that organisation. (Read RSF's 2002 annual report on Cuba here.)


From Oswaldo Paya's speech to the European Parliament last December, on the occasion of his receiving the Sakharov Prize:

I have not come here to ask you to support those who oppose the Cuban Government or to condemn those who persecute us. It is of no help to Cuba that some people in the world side with the country's government or with the latter's opponents on the basis of an ideological standpoint. We want others to side with the Cuban people--with all Cubans--and this means upholding all their rights, supporting openness, supporting our demand that our people should be consulted via the ballot box regarding the changes we are calling for....

There are still those who perpetuate the myth that the exercising of political and civil rights is an alternative to a society's ability to achieve social justice and development. They are not mutually exclusive. The absence of any civil and political rights in Cuba has had serious consequences such as inequality, the poverty of the majority and privileges of a minority and the deterioration of certain services, even though these were conceived as a positive system to benefit to the people....

This state of affairs cannot be justified by saying that the Cuban people have adopted this system out of choice. You will all know that none of the peoples represented in this Parliament, and no people in the world, would ever give up the right to exercise their fundamental freedoms.

A democracy is not genuine and complete if it cannot initiate and sustain a process that raises the quality of live of all its citizens, because no people would freely vote for the kind of poverty and inequality that results in the masses becoming disadvantaged and marginalised.... any method or model which purportedly aims to achieve justice, development and efficiency but takes precedence over the individual or cancels out any of the fundamental right leads to a form of oppression and to exclusion and is calamitous for the people.

(Reproduced in the English-language section of the magazine Carta de Cuba, published out of Puerto Rico.)