Tuesday, January 28, 2003

The Guyana Prize for Literature winners will be announced this coming Sunday; the Stabroek News has published interviews with a couple more nominees, which you can read here (doesn't appear to be a permalink after all, but it ought to be good for a week or two more at least).

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

The top story in today's Express:

Prime Minister Patrick Manning last night condemned a claim by Opposition Leader Basdeo Panday that he (Manning) was in association with an Al Qaeda terrorist connection in Trinidad and Tobago.

In a strongly worded reply Manning said Panday’s claim was "one of the worst examples of irresponsibility and irrationality I have seen in my long political career."

Which is saying a lot — remember Manning is the fella who, when he had a falling out with Speaker Occah Seapaul, decided to declare a state of emergency in Port of Spain so he could put her under house arrest & prevent her from presiding over the House of Representatives....
It may be the best song on the finest album by the greatest rock group of all time. Does this that make it the best song of all time? Unlikely....

— Tom Bissell, in a passionate McSweeney's essay on "She Came in through the Bathroom Window".

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

In his "Arts on Sunday" column in the Stabroek News two days ago (yes, I'm a little late with this post...), Al Creighton replied at length to various criticisms of the Guyana Prize for Literature published recently in Stabroek's correspondence columns. Unfortunately, there's no permalink to Creighton's column (though you can read it here till next Sunday), & it's much too long to reproduce in full; but, for the sake of those of my half-dozen readers with a burning interest in Guyanese literary politics, I'll attempt to summarise by quotation.

The central issue, it seems, is the definition of Guyanese literature. "A writer, no matter how far flung his imagination, writes out of a particular place and time and the validity of his work is tested as it evolves, or fails to, with that particular time and place," argues young Ruel Johnson. "Guyanese literature ... cannot develop outside of a Guyanese sensibility, one that is in constant interaction with the people and the environment, one that relates through intimacy, not one that dictates through ignorance." In other words, Guyanese literature needs Guyanese writers actually living in their home country; but the list of past winners of the Guyana Prize is dominated by writers living elsewhere.

Creighton replies:

...Local writers feel that most of the awards have gone to foreign-based authors because something is wrong with the adjudication. The system of judging is accused of unfairness to local writers who claim that it becomes controlled by an incestuous clique of foreign-biased writers/critics. Moreover, the arguments continued, long residence, socialization and orientation overseas have rendered these persons incapable of producing or evaluating Guyanese literature....

Johnson ... remains guilty of imposing restrictions when he defines a Guyanese sensibility as "one which is in constant interaction with the people and the environment, one that relates through intimacy...". Here he returns to a notion previously visited that Guyanese writing must reflect the Guyanese environment and writers "in exile" who are not in "constant interaction" with it cannot produce Guyanese literature. Among the points raised by the local writers is the conviction that these exiles who are out of touch with the Guyanese landscape cannot reproduce it with any accuracy....

Guyanese literature is not limited to works set in Tucville or work that can reflect from intimate contact the subtle ethnic dimensions of an East Indian visiting his Black girlfriend in contemporary Buxton [references to two of the stories in Johnson's Guyana Prize-nominated fiction manuscript]. It may be about a Guyanese trying to relate to his Canadian neighbours in Toronto. It may be about the identity crisis facing a British born girl of Guyanese parentage in London who has never visited Guyana. One can say that Guyanese literature is literature written by Guyanese set anywhere on any subject in any style. It may be written by or about Guyanese at home or in the "diaspora" or it could be about a trip to the moon. A poem about the tragic state of humanity does not have to be set anywhere except somewhere within the ambit of human experience, yet, if written by a Guyanese, it is a Guyanese poem.

Debates of this nature have long ago taken place about West Indian literature and the clear consensus has been that we should be wary of prescriptions. Edward Baugh discusses the development of the poetry from the early imitative variety to the attainment of verse that is independent and fully aware of its own audience. What is important is that it speaks to that audience as confidently as it does to the international community without any self-consciousness about identity. None of the writers say consciously that I am going to write a West Indian poem or this one is going to be international. They simply write whatever they wish, placing no limitations on their language or subject, not caring if any Englishman or American does not understand the Creole.

A key component of the debate is the significance of Wilson Harris, who most would call Guyana's greatest living writer, though Johnson believes he "shut the door to the Guyanese reality in literature for a generation of writers". I'd love to wade into this particular fray, but, as I admitted a few weeks ago, I've always found Harris pretty much unreadable (which has nothing to do with whether or not he's "Guyanese enough"). A couple years back I picked up C.L.R. James's little pamphlet called Wilson Harris — A Philosophical Approach — the text of a lecture James gave at St. Augustine in 1965 — & after reading two or three pages felt properly frightened off from Harris for the rest of my life. But perhaps the time has come to clear my thoughts, practise meditative breathing, take a week's holiday from the office, & make another try at Palace of the Peacock. But not till after A Box of Matches....

And, by the way, I don't agree that "a writer ... writes out of a particular place and time and the validity of his work is tested as it evolves, or fails to, with that particular time and place." The "validity" of a writer's work, as a work of literature (as opposed to politics or polemic or whatever else), depends solely on its aesthetic achievement. We don't quiver at Shakespeare because his plays "evolved" with Jacobean England. We quiver at his words. The words are enough.
... I find you in the reeds, a trickle coming out of a bank, a foal of a river

one step-width water
of linked stones
trills in the stones
glides in the trills
eels in the glides
in each eel a fingerwidth of sea

in walking boots, with twenty pounds on my back: spare socks, compass, map, water purifier so I
can drink from streams, seeing the cold floating spread out above the morning,

tent, torch, chocolate not much else.

Which'll make it longish, almost unbearable between my evening meal and sleeping, when I've
got as far as stopping, sitting in the tent door with no book, no saucepan, not so much as a stick
to support the loneliness

he sits clasping his knees, holding his face low down between them,
he watches black slugs,
he makes a little den of his smells and small thoughts
he thinks up a figure far away on the tors
waving, so if something does happen,
if night comes down and he has to leave the path
then we've seen each other, somebody knows where we are.

For those of my half-dozen readers interested in such things: Alice Oswald has won this year's T.S. Eliot Prize for her long poem Dart; details in this story in the U.K. Guardian. (E.A. Markham was on the shortlist for his book A Rough Climate; read my short review of this here.) Read an excerpt from Dart at the Poetry Society's website.
Well worth bookmarking: collects useful links to online reviews of dozens (hundreds?) of book titles — a more elegant, far wider-ranging version of what I attempted to do with my index to online reviews of Caribbean books.
Who cares about the problems the narrator, Emmett, has manipulating a slippery bar of soap in the shower? Who cares about his technique for tossing his underwear into the laundry bin with his toes? Who cares about his method for taking off his pajamas or his method for washing his dishes? Who, in short, cares about Emmett, or his tiresome little narcissistic riffs?

Michiko Kakutani has just read A Box of Matches, the new novel from Nicholson Baker (one of my favourite contemporary writers, & the greatest living formal explorer of the stream of consciousness...), & she hates it. Read her remarkably petulant review in today's NY Times.

Thomas Mallon is rather more enthusiastic in the January Atlantic Monthly; Michael Upchurch more so in the Seattle Times ("Baker has genuinely transformed the way fiction can render our experience on the page").
"GOVT IN CAHOOTS WITH AL QAEDA", reads the Express headline today:

Opposition Leader Basdeo Panday yesterday accused the Government of having an association with Al Qaeda terrorist connections in Trinidad and Tobago....

Panday added that it was well known "that there was [sic?] Al Qaeda connections in Trinidad and it is well known that the Government was in association with those elements just before the (October 7, 2002) elections. It's known."

Where does inflammatory rhetoric end & certifiable insanity begin?

Could it simply be that Panday's guiding policy since the general election last year has been sheer bloody-minded spite against the electorate that failed to return the UNC to government?

Note how the report ends:

Panday also said he would be willing to meet with Manning to discuss a nominee for President.

Willing to negotiate with "terrorists", in other words?

Monday, January 20, 2003

A letter published in today's Gleaner:


Britain has built another wall against freedom. Apparently they and the Americans are all in everything together. I am ashamed to be British. Please forgive them for their ignorance they know not what they do.

Respect to all of Jamaica and all who innocently abide in her.

I am etc.,


"Another wall against freedom"? Ladies & gentlemen! We're talking about a visa requirement! Not a ban, not a concentration camp, not a blatantly rigged election.

In a perfect world, we'd all have complete freedom of international movement; there'd be no need for passports or visas or immigration laws. But our world is manifestly imperfect; & any sovereign nation has the right to decide on what terms citizens of other nations may enter its territory. Over the last week I've read many indignant letters & columns about the new visa requirement for Jamaicans wishing to visit the U.K.; not one of them disputes the statistics cited by the British Home Office for illegal immigration from Jamaica.

Perhaps the Home Office was also concerned about Jamaican criminal elements (thanks to Matt Prescott for the link to this particular story); this is the possibility that has so riled up all those commentators in the Jamaican newspapers. I still maintain that on immigration grounds alone the visa decision is defensible.
R.I.P. Al Hirschfeld, 1903–2003.
Time has picked up the Naipaul/Tehelka story in its issue of 27 January — it gets a whole 187 words.

Sunday, January 19, 2003

Bill Clinton is visiting St. Lucia this weekend, but not everyone's happy about it, reports the Star:

Minister for Foreign Affairs Julian Hunte and Minister for Education Mario Michel seemed dumbfounded yesterday as to why the entire nation was not totally ecstatic about former US President Bill Clinton’s visit.

The story's much too complicated for summary, but apparently the Clinton visit has been the "most discussed" issue in St. Lucia for the last week, pushing the Matthew Roberts scandal into second place.

"It was a takeout menu, slipped through the mail slot of my door, that alerted me to a splendid little sushi restaurant on West Fourth Street called Aki, whose chef's experience working for the Japanese Ambassador to Jamaica had inspired him to put on the menu a roll that includes both jerk chicken and hearts of palm."

— Calvin Trillin, in a short essay called "Local Bounty" in this week's New Yorker, on New York's superiority to San Francisco for takeout food.
... both his sentences and the structure of his novels work like the waves of the Atlantic that so often divide his characters from those they love, lapping at the shore, retreating, returning, shaping things in their path.... The real subject here is the physical Guyana — its singular confusion of races and languages, its groves of tamarind, sapodilla and greenheart, its bats, alligators and iguanas, betrayed by a border war fought in a jungle where no one pays attention to borders anyway.

— From Aida Edemariam's review of Fred D'Aguiar's new novel, Bethany Bettany, published in yesterday's U.K. Guardian. (Read an extract from the novel here.)
I am not for one moment pouring cold water on the actions of the human rights activists. But I am not moved to be a moralist on the issue of the death penalty. I know that our justice system has a very definite middle class bias. I know that the investigative work of the police is at best, shoddy and in instances, appalling. But our courts also allow those convicted for murder their appeals. Once they have gone through the processes and the convictions are upheld, they should be executed.

— Mark Wignall, arguing in his column in today's Observer that Jamaica has nothing to learn from Illinois governor George Ryan's recent decision to commute all his state's current death sentences. Wignall goes on:

It is not, in my book, anything to do with justice. It is the need of the victims' relatives and loved ones to see the person or persons who brutally murdered others themselves be put to death by the state whose duty it was to protect the deceased in the first place. It is not about justice; that is too high flown a word. It is about vengeance.

"Not anything to do with justice"? I've never heard so clear a statement of the moral bankruptcy of the death penalty.
The UK Observer today runs a clear, carefully reasoned leader on "the case for decisive action" in Iraq, dispassionately argued yet informed by the principles of passionate liberalism:

One thing which has been stressed too little in recent weeks is that it is Iraq's choices that have brought war closer. The debate in Britain and Europe continues to focus largely on what America is doing and why. Too often, it is overlooked that it is Iraq which remains, at the eleventh hour, in defiance of the will of its region and the wider world. That will is still to find a sensible resolution to the current crisis without war....

The arguments for coercive pressure may well end in war. But they combine two laudable motivations. The first is the nature of Saddam Hussein's regime and the call by many Iraqi exiles and dissidents for him to be overthrown. The appalling 1980s nerve-gasing of the Kurds is well documented. Less widely appreciated is that there are few Iraqi families which have not suffered directly, either in the massacres which crushed the 1991 uprisings, or by the violence routinely deployed by Iraq's secret police....

The second motive for displacing Saddam is the danger he poses to the wider world. Western governments must articulate the nature of that potential threat too. The Prime Minister has made the case for the need to deal with Saddam for some years with consistency, though with far less public notice before 11 September 2001. Accused of becoming America's poodle, he, in fact, sticks to a potentially unpopular course because he believes this to be right, and that the threat from Iraqi weapons is real. He does so with courage and clarity....

Some will still argue that because the world contains other unpleasant dictators, it would be wrong to get rid of this one. We disagree. The recent past contains several examples of military intervention against sovereign states where the outcome, if not ideal, has certainly been much better in humanitarian terms than what went before: Vietnam's removal of Pol Pot from Cambodia; Nato's Kosovo campaign, with the subsequent indictment of Slobodan Milosevic; the removal of the Taliban from Afghanistan.

War with Iraq may yet not come, but, conscious of the potentially terrifying responsibility resting with the British Government, we find ourselves supporting the current commitment to a possible use of force. That is not because we have not agonised, as have so many of our readers and those who demonstrated across the country yesterday, about what is right. It is because we believe that, if Saddam does not yield, military action may eventually be the least awful necessity for Iraq, for the Middle East and for the world.

Compare this to Wayne Brown's column today in the Jamaica Observer (in which he argues that the American media are willing co-conspirators with the Bush administration in the cause of war. Clearly he doesn't read the NY Times, & hasn't heard of the blogosphere). Brown has written about Iraq a couple of times in the last few months, always railing against "the military-industrial complex" & "the Bushes, father and son" ("two of the more unpleasant pieces of work to have sullied the world stage in recent times"), but I can't recall him acknowledging Saddam Hussein's monstrousness, or the horrors he's inflicted on the people of Iraq, or the danger he poses to nearby nations. There are good arguments against a war, & many good people making them; but any such argument which does not consider the evil of Hussein's reign seems to me morally invalid.

The question is not whether a war against Iraq would be evil. War is always evil; but there are greater evils still in our fallen world. The question is whether the evils of this war are or are not outweighed by the evils of allowing Hussein to continue his crimes against his people & tolerating his danger to the rest of the world. The Observer editorialist understands this. Wayne Brown, it appears, does not.

Saturday, January 18, 2003

Ruel Johnson is the youngest nominee for the 2002 Guyana Prize for Literature. What's remarkable is not just his age — twenty-two — but the fact that he's been nominated in two categories, Best First Book of Poetry & Best First Book of Fiction, in both cases for unpublished manuscripts, which he submitted to the Prize committee "to make a point". A few days ago the Stabroek News published a substantial interview with Johnson, the first in a series on this year's Guyana Prize nominees. (Read the whole interview here — appears to be a permalink.) Johnson has strong opinions on the state of Guyanese literature, & has not been shy about declaring them loudly, with the result that he's become something of an enfant terrible in Georgetown's literary circles:

Stabroek News: How do you view the work of local and overseas writers since the establishment of the Guyana Prize for Literature? Do you agree that local writers don't usually win because of mediocre work?

Johnson: ...As is common knowledge, the Prize goes mainly to overseas Guyanese.... much of local writing is abominable, much of it makes for very painful reading. I edited the Christmas Annual in 2001 and was fortunate in attracting some genuine talent, but the fact that I felt that I had to add two poems and part of a story of mine as sort of glorified fillers shows that there simply wasn't enough good writing floating around the place. But good writing from emerging writers who are not afforded good editors, publishing houses, a literary environment, workshops, writing resources, alternative sources of income, etc. is not non-existent; I humbly prostrate myself as proof of that.

In my view, I do not believe the Guyana Prize should just spread its small net and hope that the occasional fish such as myself swims in. I believe that the people behind it, financially and administratively, should go after us with trawlers, submarines and sonar equipment. It should be investing in the environment, not just rewarding the individual. As it is now, the Guyana Prize may attract highly qualified judges, it may reward writers that are critical successes in the societies they live in; it however remains an award without that which nothing literary should be without — a soul....

Stabroek News: What are some of the limitations you face as a writer living in Guyana?

Johnson: Only one — Guyana. Seriously, many of the ones I mentioned earlier — workshops, resources. Most importantly is the interaction with as many other serious writers as possible. The best experience that I have had as a writer was at the Cropper Foundation Workshop in 2000. Three weeks with some wonderful people, writers, who were willing to challenge each other's work tenaciously to the dot in every "i", argue over the politics of homosexuality in the Caribbean, wrangle over the merits and demerits of globalisation — but friends, a community, with whom you could go out and enjoy a Carib and listen to the overplayed Bob Marley CD at the bar....

Stabroek News: How much do you think a nation depends on literature?

Johnson: I believe that a nation ... needs a constant mirror to its face, a lens which aspires to some coarse, soap-smelling truth perpetually focused upon itself. Otherwise our very identity, our sense of self, based upon our common experiences, is eroded. That for me, that function of reflection, is the role of the creative/artistic process, more particularly the role of literature.

Sadly, we here cannot claim of anything close to a national literature and what we have being rewarded as Guyanese literature (by the Guyana Prize) does not, indeed cannot, by virtue of the producers being resident elsewhere, perform that function of reflection. An essay I read recently on Anglophone Caribbean literature, written by Jeremy Poynting of Peepal Tree Press, makes the point that writers like Dabydeen and Fred D'Aguiar, both multiple Guyana Prize Winners, are, "in all essentials, British authors whose concerns grow out of British experience and whose readership is predominantly British." Poynting goes on to say that Caribbean societies, with a focus on Guyana, lack writings that really reflect contemporary life within them and that it is unhealthy for us to lack fictive reflections of our changing natures.
I believe that I've argued ad nauseam, gratis Stabroek News' letter pages, that we need to define Guyanese literature by virtue of a Guyanese sensibility. I believe that right now there is an urgent need for a "hic jacet" [Latin term: literally "here lies"] attitude in local literature, a renewed and conscious provincialism, an engagement with our landscape and society and people that is not ashamed of itself. The sort of thing is not, as some would have us believe, invalid in literature. It can be seen in the work of superior writers like Mauriac, Patrick White, Naguib Mahfouz, Toni Morrison. Somebody needs to sit down and start working on the Great Guyanese Novel.

(Note to Ruel: get cracking, then!)
Wouldn't it be neat to run a magazine? A literary quarterly, maybe — something that would reflect one's own quirky, albeit discriminating taste, be a force for good in a dark time, elevate standards, preserve the cultural heritage, promote the young and the restless.

— From an odd column by Michael Dirda in this weekend's Washington Post Book World, in which he describes in great detail his imaginary ideal literary magazine, right down to a long list of potential contributors. Sheer self-indulgence, perhaps, but could he actually be angling for an investor?...

A throwaway comment from one of Virginia Woolf's letters (to Violet Dickinson, 11 April, 1913) comes to mind:

We are only waiting for £2000 to start the best magazine the world had ever seen. Everyone agrees that it is the best idea in the world, but also hints that they can't support the bankrupt. Still, we go on looking up to Heaven.

Friday, January 17, 2003

Today's editorial in the Stabroek News is a careful analysis of the situation in Venezuela (no link, because Stabroek has no permanent archive; I'll quote extensively instead):

The very least that can be said about the ongoing crisis in neighbouring Venezuela is that both sides have behaved with total irresponsibility. Absolute right lies with neither, and the language being employed is of such a rabid order (Guyana's political exchanges sound quite gentlemanly in comparison), that it makes it difficult to create any space for genuine debate, let alone compromise. Neither side can "win" in the long term, and even if there is a victory in the immediate term, it will be Pyrrhic in nature, as the underlying tensions will remain unresolved and will simply flare up again in more virulent form somewhere down the road.

From a constitutional point of view, President Chávez stands on somewhat ambiguous ground. The leader of an abortive coup in 1992, he not only never repudiated his past, but actively sought to celebrate it by organizing a huge procession last year on the tenth anniversary of the failed putsch. More important, he attempted to give it some patina of constitutionality by having inserted in the constitution a provision allowing Venezuelans to refuse any "authority that contradicts democratic values, principles and guarantees, or impairs human rights."

In an ironic twist, it is this very clause which the opposition has seized on now to justify its actions. It too, of course, has a failed coup in its recent past, which leaves everyone standing on more-or-less the same moral plane, politically speaking.

Whatever the opposition says to the contrary, in a general sense, President Chávez has operated constitutionally. It is true that the constitution by which he is guided has not been hallowed by time, and was explicitly tailored to suit his needs. Congress was abolished, for example, and in its place came a single-chamber assembly which was dominated by Chávez sympathisers. Chávez people were also put in key public posts, including the Supreme Court and the elections council. That notwithstanding, neither of the two last-named institutions has consistently handed down decisions in his favour during the current crisis. The only two entities which he did not manage to bring under his direct control were the Caracas Metropolitan Police, and the oil company, PdVSA.

While President Chávez is technically in compliance with the framework of the state ... he has sought ways around the rules. The most problematical of these is the arming of the Bolivarian Circles, his hardline supporters who are thought responsible for many of the deaths and injuries during the demonstration which preceded the April coup, and who have attacked opposition marchers since that time, most recently last weekend. They have also been responsible for physical attacks on private media-houses, which are uniformly hostile to the regime....

The opposition has accused the President of being a dictator, and while he is clearly more comfortable with an authoritarian approach than a democratic one, he has not in practice been able to exercise dictatorial powers as such. His closeness to Presidents Fidel Castro of Cuba, Gaddafi of Libya and Saddam Hussein of Iraq, has certainly made his middle-class opponents nervous; however, even that is not a primary issue. Class antagonism apart, one of the major fault-lines separating the opposition from those who support the Government is quite simply, economic policy.

President Chávez is a kind of romantic socialist by sentiment, and his favoured policies hark back to a discredited economic era when the distribution of goods rather than their production was the main concern of governments in the developing world. It is no accident that the hard-core of Mr Chávez' support is among the poor — the majority — and while his commitment to them cannot be faulted, his uncertain grasp of economic principles and his apparent lack of understanding of how systems and institutions work, have meant that there has been little overall improvement in their lot. When the opposition alleges that he has destroyed the economy, therefore, they may be a little premature in their judgments, but that is the direction in which he seems to be headed.

Even if a case could be made out for the current strike, the opposition which has organised it is far from being above reproach. It contains among its leadership, for example, elements from the discredited, corrupt oligarchy which governed before Mr Chávez was propelled into the Miraflores Palace. It is a rag-bag of groups, which has no coherent political programme, no agreed leader and is united only in its hatred of the President. Furthermore, unlike the President, it has displayed a disinclination to abide by Supreme Court rulings when not in its favour....

While they have rightly accused the President of dividing the society with his unalloyed aggression towards the business, professional and upper classes, they too are doing nothing to heal the rift. If Venezuela went to the polls tomorrow, as they would like, President Chávez would almost certainly win again because they are in such disarray. But even if they could win, the thirty per cent of the population which believes that Mr Chávez is their only salvation, would not let them govern in peace. In other words, an election will solve nothing unless the winner can articulate a vision for the whole of Venezuela, and not for any particular class-interest.

The poll figures I've seen — coming out of the Venezuelan media, & hence suspect — suggest that the majority of the populace want Chávez out; but his success or failure in fresh presidential elections would of course depend on who the other candidates were. The Stabroek editorial's clearest insight is in recognising the opposition's crucial flaw: the lack of a credible leader to offer as an alternative to Chávez.
Recommended reading from Saturday's U.K. Guardian:

A review by Stephen Romer of a new selection from Coleridge's Notebooks.

A review by Philip Horne of Christopher Ricks's new book, Allusion to the Poets.

A profile by Nicholas Wroe of the poet Douglas Dunn.
Last week & this week B.C. Pires has been thinking about life & death & the strange, inapprehensible zone where they meet (the link is good only till next Friday; the Guardian has no permanent archive):

As surely as you read this sentence, your days are numbered.... we are here and we are gone.

Understand that and you have no choice but to live as best you can — because you can't be sure you have a single moment more coming when you check out.

Jonathan reads B.C. & thinks about what this mess of being human means:

Life could not have meaning if it weren't so. And at times like this we are made more aware of that fact, and come to a sharper understanding of what life, and our humanness means. Ultimately, whatever truths we may uncover, or realisations we come to, we must engage one inescapable fact: we are here, then we are not; what, if anything happens after that we do not know.

I read B.C. & think that what he says today in nine hundred words, Philip Larkin once said in forty-eight.

Thursday, January 16, 2003

From a fascinating story in today's Express:

Leader of Government Business in the House of Representatives Ken Valley said the need to make profits may be the reason for sensational headlines in the nation's newspapers and the type of calypsoes being produced for the 2003 Carnival season.

(You mean newspapers print headlines that will increase sales? What an astonishing insight! No wonder the man's in cabinet!)

Valley said, "Whenever I go to Jamaica, I always wonder what is wrong with us here in Trinidad. There seems to be an intellectualism in Jamaica that seems to be absent (here) at present."

(Is that the same "intellectualism" the Manning government is trying to breed here in T&T by turning Laventille & Morvant into garrison communities like Kingston's?)

Valley also knocked the print media saying "there seems to be an absence of analysis".

I suspect I read more of the regional press than Valley does; in fact, just about every day I read the English-speaking Caribbean's eight major newspapers: the Trinidad Express in print, & the Trinidad Guardian, the Jamaica Observer, the Jamaica Gleaner, the Barbados Advocate, the Barbados Nation, the Stabroek News, & the Guyana Chronicle online. (See links to the right.) Naturally I don't read every last local news tidbit in every paper, but I glance through the major stories & pay particular attention to the op-ed pages. I can say with great assurance that the T&T newspapers are as good as their Jamaican counterparts, & better than those in the rest of the region, at reporting. And when it comes to "analysis", by which I suppose Valley means the commentary in the op-ed pages, the T&T papers are far superior on the whole to the Jamaicans, the Bajans, & the Guyanese. Frankly, Lloyd Best in the Express twice a week is a better deal than all the op-ed writers in those other papers combined. Guyana's best columnist, Ian McDonald, is really a transplanted Trini; as is Wayne Brown, who's one of the highlights of the Observer's Sunday edition.

But maybe my idea of good "analysis" is not the same as Mr. Valley's; see his first quote at the top of this post.
So England is going to Zimbabwe for the World Cup after all. Agree or disagree with the decision, but get your facts right, unlike the writer of this letter printed in today's Gleaner:

Is it not hypocrisy when the Prime Ministers of Australia, Great Britain and New Zealand want to boycott cricket World Cup games to be played in Zimbabwe, supposedly because Mr. Mugabe is not behaving himself?

But is Mr. Mugabe not a good student of his former colonial masters? He is simply doing what the colonial masters did many, many years ago; they went into Zimbabwe and without a please or a thank you took away the people's land and gave it to Caucasians. Now that was not cricket. Mr. Mugabe, having studied them very carefully, has now updated the system and has taken back the land and has evidently distributed it to his cronies.

When the British finally gave up their interest in Zimbabwe, did they ever think of righting the wrong they had done?... To my mind if the present owners of the land had only done the moral thing and negotiated with the government a solution could have been found. More than likely they could have given a part of the land back to the people and they should also have helped them in establishing farms and teaching them new methods of agriculture. This would have been the moral thing to do, but in this modern world where is morality?

For the record: it's not the land "reform" question that prompted the idea of boycott; it is the fact that Robert Mugabe is deliberately starving half his people.
The latest from India:

Two days after the Nobel laureate, V.S. Naipaul, came out in open support of Tarun Tejpal and the Tehelka team, the former Samata Party president, Jaya Jaitly — who had sought the author's intervention in the case in November 2001 — today said the writer should "not lend his stature where it is not called for".

Reacting to Sir Vidia's press conference on Tuesday, where he articulated his faith in and admiration for Mr. Tejpal and his team, Ms. Jaitly issued a statement "requesting" him and "his Pakistani wife" not to play politics in India "on behalf of his website friends and to keep himself away from the dirt and machinations about which he claimed to have no interest".

While training her guns on the Naipauls, Ms. Jaitly uses Ms. Naipaul's own words as firepower. In her response to Ms. Jaitly's letter to Sir Vidia in November 2001, Ms. Naipaul had noted that her husband had a "larger historical interest in India" and was "removed from the dirt churned by the day to day machinations of democracy".

Read the full report in the Hindu; or this version in the Times of India.

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Damien has been arguing with British consumer advocates who say cheap food does not really benefit the poor; he mentions a think-tank report recommending a tax on unhealthy food:

Independent of whether or not that is a good idea ... such ideas are, at the very least, condescending, assuming that the poor do not know any better than to buy "bad" food.... The revealed preference of poor shoppers indicates a preference of "bad" food; why is this a problem at all? If these preferences are bad, why are supermarkets to blame for it? Maybe the poor heavily discount the future, leading them to not think much about the long-term effects of present consumption. Maybe the taste of "bad" food overrides any long-term considerations. Maybe they believe that the hype about obesity is exactly that — hype. Whatever the reason, it is hard to see why such behaviour merits a response — why supermarkets must be compelled to be socially responsible and sell expensive, healthy food to people who clearly don't want it.

I've suggested to Damien that he doesn't give sufficient thought to the social costs of an ill-nourished populace. But on the matter of poverty & nutrition I'd recommend anyone start by reading George Orwell's stunning little book The Road to Wigan Pier (which I know Damien's read too) — especially chapter six. This is obviously too long for me to post in its entirety, & to quote selectively (as I'm about to do) is an injustice to Orwell's investigation, so I encourage my half-dozen readers, if they have any interest in the matter, to pull Wigan Pier from their bookshelves, or else read it online via Project Gutenburg.

Here's an excerpt from chapter six (Orwell is writing about unemployed coal miners in the north of England during the Depression, but his understanding of human nature & human behaviour does not date):

A human being is primarily a bag for putting food into; the other functions and faculties may be more godlike, but in point of time they come afterwards. A man dies and is buried, and all his words and actions are forgotten, but the food he has eaten lives after him in the sound or rotten bones of his children.... So perhaps the really important thing about the unemployed, the really basic thing if you look to the future, is the diet they are living on....

And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn't.... When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don't want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit "tasty". There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let's have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we'll all have a nice cup of tea! That is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C. level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don't nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the English-man's opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread.

The results of all this are visible in a physical degeneracy which you can study directly, by using your eyes, or inferentially, by having a look at the vital statistics. The physical average in the industrial towns is terribly low, lower even than in London. In Sheffield you have the feeling of walking among a population of troglodytes. The miners are splendid men, but they are usually small, and the mere fact that their muscles are toughened by constant work does not mean that their children start life with a better physique. In any case the miners are physically the pick of the population. The most obvious sign of under-nourishment is the badness of everybody's teeth. In Lancashire you would have to look for a long time before you saw a working-class person with good natural teeth. Indeed, you see very few people with natural teeth at all, apart from the children; and even the children's teeth have a frail bluish appearance which means, I suppose, calcium deficiency.

(Naturally, great improvement in public health over the last sixty years means the situation is not so dire; but where Orwell is shocked at the condition of his miners' teeth, we should perhaps be shocked at the heart disease statistics for their children & grandchildren.)
Just a few miles from here, across the Gulf of Paria, Venezuela is falling apart. I've posted nothing these last few months on the state of affairs in T&T's nearest neighbour; not because of a lack of interest, but because I don't feel well-informed enough to add anything useful to the pro-Chávez/anti-Chávez debate (&, frankly, haven't had the time to investigate much).

Francisco Toro is a Venezuelan journalist living in Caracas; a few months ago he started a blog called Caracas Chronicles, to give "a blow-by-blow account of the twists and turns of Chávez-era Venezuela" (discovered via Maciej Ceglowski). Toro used to report on Venezuela for the NY Times, but on Monday he resigned, saying, "For better or for worse, my country's democracy is in peril now, and I can't possibly be neutral about that." He's anti-Chávez, in other words, but more thoughtful & far more reasonable than most of the opposition voices we've been hearing in the press. I hope my half-dozen readers will take a look at his blog; start, for instance, with his analysis of the present state of the Venezuelan media (his permalinks aren't working; scroll about halfway down the page):

The Venezuelan press, including the magazine I write for, long ago decided that Chávez had screwed up so much that they're allowed to play rough with him. For better or for worse, they've concluded that this government is incompatible with ongoing democracy, and that the imperative to fight the enemies of democracy overrides the standard dictates of journalistic ethics. So the private media here barely pay lip service to notions like journalistic balance anymore. Their raison d’etre is to undermine the government. To the extent that informing the public fits in with that, they'll inform the public. But in cases where it doesn't, they won't.

The resulting stream of viscerally antichavista pap on the TV and in the newspapers is far from the kind of journalism I want to practice ... even if, substantively, I agree with many of the criticisms levelled. The problem is that what the local press is producing is not really journalism at all, it's propaganda disguised as journalism. Who knows? Maybe they're right to act that way. Maybe when faced with a government as dangerous to democracy as this one, one's duty as a citizen overwhelms one's duty as a journalist. That's a philosophical question; I'm not sure what the answer is.
In his column in today's Express, Denis Solomon says the T&T presidency is an absurdity, then offers this rule of thumb:

For anybody confused about the election of a President, I recommend a simple exercise: don't bother about how or when the election takes place, but simply ask yourself "Would I take the job if it were offered to me, and if so, why?"

Well, yes, I would (were I not disqualified by age; I'm eight years too young). I'd immediately refresh the senate by appointing nine outspoken troublemakers to the independent bench; frustrate & delay, to the full extent of the law, any government decisions requiring my theoretical approval that I happen to disagree with; & generally defy convention by saying what I really think about the venality & idiocy of our politicians, loudly & frequently. No doubt I'd earn myself the honour of being the first president of Trinidad & Tobago to be removed from office by the combined members of the two houses of parliament (the breakdown should be 58-9; I'd expect my independent troublemakers to vote against the motion).
I said it yesterday (slightly more eloquently, I hope); the Express editorial says it today:

Had the UNC won rather than lost the last election, it is almost certain that constitutional reform would not have been high on either its legislative or political agenda. However, having tasted the gall of defeat, the party has now hit upon a stratagem that it believes will enable it to continue contesting the election, albeit, of necessity, in another form.

According to party chairman Wade Mark, the UNC's ire has been raised because "the reality is that there exists in the Parliament a dictatorship controlled by the Executive, meaning the Cabinet". That is true, but the first question that Mr. Mark should answer for the UNC is when has this not been the case — including the occasions when the UNC, either in coalition or singly, ruled the parliamentary roost.

The second question to be put before Mr. Mark, as the campaigning UNC spokesman on the matter, is why should the population now believe that the UNC underwent such a change of heart before the lost election that, had it won, it would have embarked on the steps it considered necessary to so transform Parliament that it would cease to be "a dictatorship controlled by the Executive, meaning the Cabinet".
Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul accused the Indian government on Tuesday of persecuting, an Indian news portal which sensationally exposed the bribery of politicians, bureaucrats and military officers two years ago.

"This abuse of constitutional authority must stop," the British-based novelist told a news conference.

The Web site,, has faced an inquiry commission and tax and police investigations since it showed film of top officials apparently taking wads of cash from reporters who posed as arms dealers to swing a fake arms sale....

Naipaul, who attended a government-organised conference of the Indian diaspora in New Delhi last week, said he admired the way the editor-in-chief of the Web site, Tarun Tejpal, "has stood up to ... what is simply persecution".

Read the latest on Naipaul's involvement in the Tehelka issue in the Economic Times.

(And the press outside India has started to pick up on the story: see this article in the U.K. Independent; this report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Perhaps Howard Chin Lee needs to give Mr. Giuliani a call....

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

In case of a war, can't you leave the country before it happens?
I could. The question is do I want to? No I don't, this is probably a turning point in the history of this country, I want to be here, I want to be part of it if I can. At this point in my life I care too much about my family and friends to jump ship and go watch it on CNN.

If not will you stay in Baghdad or can you go somewhere else?
We, the extended family all 30 of us have decided to stay in Baghdad. I am sure that the moment things get too hot the government will issue a curfew and people will not be allowed to travel between governorates, at least they will not be allowed to come in or go out of Baghdad.

During the Gulf War the family was separated, all left Baghdad into other cities or rural areas. Keeping in touch was a major problem. And later on when some people thought they could start their own revolution things started getting nasty. This time all would rather stay in their homes, at least to make sure the looting that happened the last time won't happen this time.

— Salam Pax, giving blunt answers from Baghdad.
I imagine that in another time Kevin Baldeosingh would have been burnt at the stake, Denis Solomon would simply have been slowly broken on the rack, while Colin Laird would have been made to drink the hemlock. Heaven only knows what the Catholic Church might have done to Tony Pantin, or B.C. (a special auto-da-fé?) five hundred years ago, but Daniel Teelucksingh and Eric St. Cyr would simply have been crucified. Raffique Shah would have faced a musket firing squad.

— An entertaining new parlour game called "Kill the Columnist"? No: Julian Kenny arguing the evil of state killing — a.k.a. capital punishment — in his column in today's Express.

And with Kenny's bold sentences still ringing in my ears, I say: Ishmael Samad for president.
A senior member of the Opposition here in T&T demands "meaningful and comprehensive" constitution reform. Parliament is controlled by an "executive dictatorship", he says. Opposition MPs will not hesitate "to take the necessary and appropriate action to address those deficiencies." Clearly the UNC leadership has been reading Lloyd Best & the other recent commentators on the constitution reform issue.

Well, we know the devil can cite scripture for his purpose. What's triggered Wade Mark's constitution diatribe? The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association has arranged a seminar on parliamentary procedure here in Port of Spain, &, after first agreeing to attend, the UNC MPs now announce that they're boycotting the event, on the grounds that, according to Mark, "the conduct of both Houses of Parliament have [sic] thus far been unfair and biased in favour of the PNM".

Those fellas down at Balisier House & Rienzi Complex can't really disappoint me any more — my expectations are too low now — but with this announcement the UNC comes close. T&T's constitutional arrangements are "unfair", in the sense that they deny meaningful representation to the people & provide almost no significant checks to executive power. But these are the same constitutional arrangements under which the UNC governed for six years, & the Panday administration took advantage of them then to no less an extent than the Manning administration has over the last year.

It would be a great breakthrough if one of the two major political parties in T&T seriously took up the issue of constitution reform; but it's clear from the context & the content of Mark's announcement yesterday that this latest UNC tactic is merely an effort to frustrate the legislative process, prompted by sheer ill-will against the PNM. Mark's vague mutterings about boycotting parliament are nothing but hollow badjohnism. Let's call this threat what it really is: callous, opportunistic betrayal of half the electorate's trust. If this is what all our debate over constitution reform is coming to, we've clearly been wasting our time.

Prove me wrong, someone. Fuad Khan, Gillian Lucky, Winston Dookeran: prove that the UNC has any real interest in genuine constitution reform, beyond the ambition to fall back into government at the earliest opportunity.

Head them off, Constitution Reform Forum.
Maciej Ceglowski is working on a semantic search engine for blogs; recently he's been ploughing through a mass of Movable Type archives, & he's come up against the problem of linkrot:

... the search itself works ... but what doesn't work is the links. By far the majority of weblog posts are short one-liners with a link in them. The next category after that is the tossed salad variety format — a paragraph full of loosely connected ideas built around pointers to interesting sites. Of course this is the whole point — we're supposed to be making a reasonable stab at hypertext — but it turns out the links are terribly brittle.

Reading these grizzled posts is like looking through an old scrapbook, where the writing is clear but the pictures have all bleached to white. The further back you go in the past, the fewer working links you can find. "Permalinks" to other boggers get broken as people change ISPs, domain names, or software. Links to novelty sites and flavors of the month dry up; links to bubble-era dot coms have gone down with the ship. "Permanent" links to news sites get retired to a polite 404 every time the software changes.

The irony here is that most of this content still exists. More things get moved around than disappear, and much of what is really gone still lives on in the Internet Archive.... The sad part is that these old sites and old posts aren't old by any meaningful standard. The oldest blog entry I've looked at dates from 1998, and the blogger who wrote it is still in his twenties....

We're so caught up in keeping track of who is linking to what just at the moment that we've neglected to think about what is going to remain of the "blogosphere" ten years from now. *Two* years from now, for many sites.

(Via Brad DeLong.)
From our reading:

"The complexity of things becomes more close," said Bernard, "...the excitement of mere living becomes daily more urgent. Every hour something new is unburied in the great bran pie. What am I? I ask. This? No, I am that. Especially now, when I have left a room, and people talking, and the stone flags ring out with my solitary footsteps, and I behold the moon rising, sublimely, indifferently, over the ancient chapel — then it becomes clear that I am not one and simple, but complex and many. Bernard, in public, bubbles; in private, is secretive. That is what they do not understand, for they are now undoubtedly discussing me, saying I escape them, am evasive. They do not understand that I have to effect different transitions; have to cover the entrances and exits of several different men who alternately act their parts as Bernard.... But you understand, you, my self, who always comes at a call (that would be a harrowing experience to call and for no one to come; that would make the midnight hollow, and explains the expression of old men in clubs — they have given up calling for a self who does not come), you understand that I am only superficially represented by what I was saying to-night. Underneath, and, at the moment when I am most disparate, I am also integrated. I sympathise effusively; I also sit, like a toad in a hole, receiving with perfect coldness whatever comes."

— Virginia Woolf, The Waves (which I'm currently re-reading yet again), pp. 48–49 in the Vintage U.K. edition.
More news from India: Naipaul speaks out on the Tehelka issue:

Creating a fresh flutter, Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul on Tuesday expressed his "profound" disappointment over the treatment of Tehelka by the Centre [i.e. the national government of India] and said he expected that at some point in time the government will withdraw from the "sorry state of affairs", admitting its "lack of graciousness."

"I am profoundly disappointed over what happened to Tehelka, which can damage the country," Naipaul, one of the Directors on the Board of Tehelka, said.

Concerned over the "crushing of intellectual life" in the country, he said writers and books were not the only ones which could make the country look into itself but good journalism is very important for the process.

However, Naipaul, who was accompanied by his wife Nadira and Tehelka Managing Editor Tarun Tejpal at the press conference, said he still had confidence in and goodwill for the BJP even after what happened to Tehelka and Gujarat.

"Tehelka was a mistake by the government," he said.

(Read the whole story in the Economic Times.)
The National Book Critics Circle yesterday announced the finalists for its 2002 awards; Adam Zagajewski's Without End is a poetry nominee.

Monday, January 13, 2003

Busy, busy, busy in New Delhi! V.S. Naipaul attended a sitting of the Indian Supreme Court today, at which bail was granted to Kumar Badal, a reporter for the controversial Internet news portal Tehelka:

Lending a touch of drama, Nobel Laureate Sir V.S. Naipaul attended the apex court to show solidarity with Tehelka, where he is a director of the holding company. "I am here just to look and see. I am concerned about the matter," Naipaul told presspersons as he walked along with his wife Nadira and Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal.

Read the report on here. Pakistan's Daily Times gives a good summary of the background to the case.
Lots of letters on the UK visa issue on the Gleaner's letters page today, all of them angry. (None on this subject in the Observer, oddly.) Racist, racist, racist, screams one correspondent. An embarrassment to our wonderful island, moans another. Sue them, pronounces a third. Yet another says, Our high commissioner didn't know what she was doing. (Interestingly, these letters were all written by Jamaicans living abroad.) But none of them disputes the British government's immigration figures: approximately 150 Jamaicans per month last year entered the U.K. as "temporary" visitors & then absconded; six percent of the 55,600 Jamaicans who travelled to the U.K. in 2002 were then denied entry (that's 3,340 people who would have saved themselves the cost of a plane ticket if they'd been denied a visa in Kingston in the first place); worse yet, half the Jamaican children entering the U.K. last year as unaccompanied minors never returned home. Maybe the Home Office did have crime in mind when they decided to introduce the visa requirement, but on immigration grounds alone the decision is eminently defensible.

Sunday, January 12, 2003

I'm 21 years old and grew up with the generation of young black boys that is currently plaguing our inner-city streets with gun crime. Over the past few weeks, I've listened to everyone from the Home Secretary to Kilroy talk about the reasons behind the rise in gun culture. Ninety-nine per cent of the time they are talking rubbish....

I know many boys who have been both victims and perpetrators of gun crime, and the biggest cause of the problem is lack of education. The black boys I know were never shown the importance of getting qualifications at school. If the boys were excluded, they were sent to a youth centre-type "special school", where they could hang out with friends, smoke, and walk out on lessons without the fear of punishment. If Tony Blair's son misbehaves, that doesn't happen to him....

The Government needs to stop shifting the blame for this rise in gun crime and look at British society's own shortcomings, such as unemployment, social deprivation and educational underachievement — particularly in the black community.

It can be no coincidence that the areas described as the "most deprived" also top the gun crime statistics.

— Akosua Annobil-Dodoo, writing about "the rise of gun culture among young black males" in today's U.K. Observer. Many of these "young black boys" are of course the sons & grandsons of immigrants from the Caribbean; it's striking how much of what Annobil-Dodoo writes is as immediately relevant to Port of Spain & Kingston as it is to London or Leeds. And she agrees that, as I argued a couple weeks ago, the solution to this crisis of crime & violence must be a major social intervention via the education system, to provide meaningful opportunities for young people, & to pass on values of civility & civic responsibility.
Guardian Sunday editor Kris Rampersad is in New Delhi at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas; she reports today on Thursday's Naipaul brouhaha (no link; still no permanent online archive). I hope my half-dozen readers will forgive my (gleefully) pointing out that I reported the incident on Friday; it's taken the Guardian, with a senior journalist actually on the spot, three days to run the story; & the Express has yet to pick it up. Advantage: Laughlin?
A little while ago, in a sunny, little, pluralistic and ostensibly secular society called Barbados, a group of persons professing a certain version of the Christian faith got together for a solemn act of communal purification.

They burned a number of Harry Potter books.

For what it is worth, the hierarchy of the sect or confession in question has apparently dissociated itself from this piece of lunatic-fringe fundamentalism.

But the fact that there are people living in 21st century Barbados who are capable of issuing and implementing this incendiary fatwah is just one more of the growing number of reasons for Barbadians like me to wonder exactly what kind of country we are living in today....

People like the book-burners, the noisier Pan-Africanists, and the proponents of a theist state, who are convinced that they are the exclusive possessors of the only truth about life, pose a grave danger to a society as small and as fragile as this ex–slave, mixed-race, multi-faith, resource-poor island swimming precariously in the shark-filled waters of 21st century globalism.

If all our problems could have been settled by a single ideology or religion or economic recipe, we would now have no problems at all. Life, unfortunately, is not quite as simple as that.

— Oliver Jackman, writing about the conflict between "civility" & fundamentalism in contemporary Barbados, in his column in today's Nation.
The painter Hubert Moshett, an influential figure in the history of twentieth-century Guyanese art (though little-known in the rest of the Caribbean), died this week, at the age of 101. The Stabroek News today runs an obituary by Alim Hosein (no link, because Stabroek has no permanent online archive):

Moshett ... [was] Guyana’s last living link to the art of the past ... one of the artists whose work helped to create a transition from that art to the one which exists today. Moshett was born in September 1901, and enjoyed an art career which lasted until the mid 1980s. In this period, his work formed part of the transition from the heavily European-influenced art of nineteenth and early twentieth-century Guyana to the developments of a local style in the 1950s....

Not much of the art produced in Guyana from the early period (pre-1930) has survived. However, some indication of the kind of work produced is given by an anonymous piece which was acquired by Castellani House in 2000. Dubbed Sea Wall Promenade, the painting was probably done in the 1920s, and most likely by a tourist or an expatriate. It shows all the virtues of traditional European landscape painting — the piles of creamy massed clouds, unnamed colour, glazed application of paint, dramatic balance of light and shade, scene straight out of English or Dutch painting.

The work of Moshett and others was influenced by this kind of art, but also by other contemporary European styles and approaches. In their work could be seen both the traditional influences and the movement away from them, and also something else which comes from knowledge of and inhabitation in the landscape which they painted.

But they all — Moshett, Phang, Antrobus and others — were basically the inheritors of European realist art. Their subjects were the same: the landscape, things of nature, the human figure.

Moshett’s portrait of E.R. Burrowes at his easel is a very revealing spy-hole into the Guyanese artist of that time. Burrowes is recognised as one of the foremost pioneers of local art, but his portrait depicts him as a gentleman painter in the best manner, complete with his tie, white coat and pipe, confronting his canvas in a classical stance. Moshett’s technique shows that he had mastered texture and light and composition. But the work has neither the look nor feel of something transplanted from Europe or any other culture. The light is clear tropical light, the brushwork is open, the colours are stronger and more direct. The lessons of Europe had been accepted, successfully assimilated and subtly transformed. It would be the next generation of artists who would take up from here and produce a more radical art....

Moshett was an integral part of the local ferment in art. He was a member of the British Guiana Arts and Crafts Society formed in 1931, was secretary to the Guianese Art Group founded in 1944, and was also secretary of the Guyana Art Association of 1966. He also ran art classes. Even after his retirement as an active artist, he remained a noted figure among artists. Notably, however, he never produced a one-man show, although he exhibited with other artists. This might be because he never kept hold of much of his work — most of the estimated 170 pieces which he produced were sold, often for modest prices....

Moshett’s work shows a focus on the actualities of place, a delight in the exploration of light, colour, form and painting technique.... Moshett and his generation of artists gave Guyanese a sense of the validity and beauty of our world, at a time when many Guyanese might not have fully realised that theirs was a genuine and unique life worthy of art.

Ian McDonald also pays tribute in a short note at the end of his column in today's Stabroek News:

Hubert Moshett died this week. He was 101 years old. He was one of the pioneers of Guyanese art. Nobody I can think of lived a better life. He was the sweetest-natured person I ever knew.

He refused to be dismayed. He never thought the world had or ever would do him any wrong.

He made a strong impression for such a gentle man. He conveyed a sense of being blessed. He did great work modestly and helped others in their work. And I think he knew the deep meaning of love, since when he died at his home his wife aged 96 was by his side.

At his home just before the funeral service a good neighbour who had helped care for the old couple said something which moved me. She searched for the right words and found them and said them to me with great emphasis: "Mr. Moshett was a very thankful man."
There's been lots of commentary in the letters pages of the Jamaican newspapers on the new visa requirement for Jamaican visitors to the U.K., most of it bitterly negative. For example, from today's Gleaner:


I just have a point to express with regards to Jamaicans needing visas to enter the United Kingdom. As a Jamaican I think it is unjust, seeing that the international repercussions on our economy are even worse. However, it has happened though it is disappointing.

If Jamaicans are considered so bad and criminal then I do think that Jamaica should start to have background checks on all possible paedophiles and other sex offenders that may enter the island from Britain. I would like to see this discussed through the newspapers and talk shows. This should take place, I strongly believe so.

I am, etc.,


Indeed. Two questions: how much illegal immigration is there into Jamaica from the U.K.? (The British home secretary says last year 150 Jamaicans per month absconded after being admitted to the U.K. as temporary visitors.) And which will have greater consequences for the Jamaican economy: the fact that travellers to the U.K. will now be more carefully screened (as travellers to the U.S. already are), or the fact that if Jamaica makes it harder for British nationals to visit their island, those tourist pounds will simply be diverted away from their north coast resorts towards the Bahamas, the Caymans, Antigua, Barbados, Tobago etc.? (And note how that old concept of "the English vice" lingers on.... As though Jamaica itself doesn't have its own share of "paedophiles and other sex offenders".)
Up in balmy Key West, Derek Walcott's been doing more than just reading from his latest work in progress:

Concern over possible United States action against Iraq tinted the 21st Key West Literary Seminar, and that prompted writers and poets involved in the event to sign a statement entitled "Poets for Peace." Seminar Board of Directors Chairman Irving Weinman, flanked by some of the nation's most recognized poets, read the statement aloud while framed by the backdrop of St. Paul's Church Saturday afternoon.

The statement reads as follows: "We the poets and writers of the 21st Key West Literary Seminar urge the United States Administration not to engage in an aggressive first strike against Iraq. Such a war would be unjust and result in the murder of innocents. We further urge the United States Administration to work towards the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, as only this will generate justice in the Middle East and stability in the world."

The statement is affirmed by 31 poets and writers, including Derek Walcott, Nobel Prize winner for Literature; Richard Wilbur, former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner; Billy Collins, United States Poet Laureate; and Lucille Clifton and Robert Creeley, Chancellors of the American Academy of Poets.

(Read the full report on
Jonathan asks, Where are the women columnists in the Express?

I've just been reading both the Sunday Express and Guardian online editions, and going through their respective lists of columnists, I find myself asking this question. The Guardian has, of a Sunday and during the week, Kris Rampersad, Ira Mathur, Atillah Springer, Debbie Jacob (who was with the Express) and Dana Seetahal, as well as its men columnists. The Express has Lloyd Best, Raoul Pantin, Raffique Shah, Martin Daly, Kevin Baldeosingh, Tony Deyal, Keith Smith ... all men; no women.

He forgets Mary King, whose column usually appears in the Monday Express, but his point is a good one. You'd think that a paper with women in its top editorial positions (Sunity Maharaj, editor in chief, & Omatie Lyder, Sunday editor) would be slightly more mindful of this disparity; but it doesn't even stop the paper printing the occasional sexist headline either.

Saturday, January 11, 2003

Maya Angelou's new "Life Mosaic Collection" at Hallmark arrives at a time of crisis in the world of greeting card verse. Despite the fact that the audience for inspirational verse has never been so vast, bitter infighting has broken out between the more formal neo-Cardist school, who insist upon such traditional materials, imagery and themes as card stock, dried flowers and Christmas, and the more contemporary purveyors of the O=B=J=E=C=T movement, who seek to explore the incongruities between the "language" of inspirational verse and the "object" on which it is printed, thereby limning the schema of relationships between "reader-as-object" and "object-as-self" within the context of the inspirational verse transaction.

(Ahem!) Marc Pietrzykowski reviews Maya Angelou's new Hallmark line of greeting cards etc., in the Contemporary Poetry Review.
To the cricket fans among my half-dozen readers: after a lull of a few weeks, the West Indies Cricket Blog is back in the game; Robert Ramsaroop has joined Ryan Naraine in posting frequent links to W.I. cricket stories online.
On Thursday night Derek Walcott gave the John Hersey Memorial Address at the Key West Literary Seminar (an annual literary festival; this year the theme is "The Beautiful Changes: Poetry 2003"); reports today on the evening's events:

The Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott stood alone on the stage at the San Carlos on Thursday night in a bright pool of light in front of a wine-red curtain, and read sections of a new, as yet unpublished poem that touched on death, desire, and the ways in which the peoples of the Caribbean — and any nation — can be both liberated and oppressed by European culture....

Walcott's poem took the audience on a journey from the icy mountains of Switzerland to the warm waters of the Caribbean.... Between reading sections of the poem, he spoke not only of a colonisation of the planet by powerful European nations, but also the colonisation of the mind and the soul by European culture. In the face of such dangers, poetry provides people with a navigational tool, a way out. Liberation is possible when one honestly examines and expresses one's conflicts, thoughts, and emotions. As Walcott wrote in a poem in his book Sea Grapes, "Now, I require nothing from poetry but true feeling."

(Yesterday I emailed one of the seminar organisers to ask whether Walcott's text would be available online; it won't, but in about a month it will be possible to buy a recording of the event on CD, via the seminar website.)

Friday, January 10, 2003

The upshot of Afro-Saxon culture among us is that we were to come to a real independence but only a nominal freedom, one without the benefit of any political class or even responsible elite.... Even the people who compete for control of government see only the need for election outfits without ever considering the maintenance of a political class as an indispensable requirement for anything save gangster operations. The perpetuation over the centuries of government without politics has been the necessary result, with its necessary extension in government as plunder and corruption as pandemic....

In every domain without exception, be it national security and the police, the school system, the university, sport, media, church, the public service or the unions, the chilling conclusion is that nowhere in sight is there anything resembling responsible elites or an officer corps capable of conceptualising the issue and of mapping strategic interventions or of identifying practical priority options.

— Lloyd Best, in his column in today's Express, examining the causes of the "complete impoverishment of public life" in the Caribbean today.

A topical illustration of this in T&T: the difficulty of finding a decent, independent nominee, acceptable to both major political parties, for the office of president, which Arthur Robinson must soon vacate.
The headlines in the Indian newspapers are shrieking today: Gandhi was a failure in South Africa, says Naipaul!

Our very own Sir Vidia is one of the luminaries attending the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas — an enormous conference for NRIs (non-resident Indians) arranged by the government of India, held for the first time this week — &, as, as one might expect, he has only to open his mouth for controversy to break out. The Times of India reports:

Unsparing as in his literary work, Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul poured a little cold water over the mushy experience that has been the Pravasi Bharatiya meet so far, suggesting Indians stopped living in their fettered past and blaming the British for everything.... The man who was described in his Nobel citation as "having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny..." pointed out that the present occasion had "an element of the trade fair" propelled by the idea of money and success of latter day immigrants to the US and UK.

All very well. But in reminiscing about the difficulties that the original émigré, the indentured labour, had to face, Naipaul said it was "important to remember that degradation lay within the country."

He wouldn't even spare Mahatma Gandhi, recalling that "he was a failure in South Africa and did nothing there for 20 years," though Sir Vidia made immediate amends by adding that from that failure rose the great independent movement. Gandhi, the original NRI, had seen that indentured people had very few rights and he saw that because he had occasion to go to South Africa, he said....

In the telling of his story, Naipaul attempted to jerk the gathering out of the comfortable confines of self-pity and complacency with a word of advice: "We must stop blaming the British for everything." And then generously hinted at an apology, saying he had merely dropped "a pebble in your thoughts", hoping there would be a ripple.

It did cause the ripple. Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, who spoke immediately after, commended the author and said the point was taken well. But Advani, who had brought along his own copy of Beyond Belief to be autographed by Naipaul, then went right ahead and blamed the British in the course of his address.

And Lady Naipaul's not doing too badly herself, driving the deputy PM to denounce theocracy in response to a rather discomfiting question:

"Theocracy and theocratic state are unacceptable to Indian tradition, culture and history. India can never be a theocratic state," Mr. Advani said in an interactive session at the three-day Pravasi Bharatiya Divas conference.

Advani's response came after Nadira Naipaul, wife of Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul, asked whether Muslims, Christians and other minority communities were being discriminated against by the BJP-led government.

Seeking to allay her misgivings that the Vajpayee government was only concerned about Hindus and not about Muslims and others, Mr. Advani said this was an "unfair image" being projected in certain quarters.

(Read the full report in the India Express; gives a few more details.)

Meanwhile, writing in the Hindustan Times, Soumya Bhattacharya ponders "the enigma of 'India Connection'":

A murmur of self congratulation rippled through the media and the followers of literary fiction in India this week when Hari Kunzru, 33-year-old author of The Impressionist, appeared on Granta magazine's list of best young British novelists. Now what does that have to do with us? Why does Kunzru figuring on a list of top British novelists get Indians excited?

Ah-ha, because Hari is our boy. He has an India connection.

Today, the phrase "India connection" has become the charm we use to clasp to our bosoms people who have rather tenuous links with this country. (Of course, such people have to be successful. Otherwise there would be no need for us to discover these links. Reflected glory is a reflection on ourselves too, isn't it?)

We did it when V.S. Naipaul won the Nobel Prize in 2001. We whooped for joy because Naipaul's forefathers used to live in western Uttar Pradesh before emigrating to the West Indies. Yes, that’s about as far as it went.

Naipaul, who when he refers to his own nationality at all, calls himself a British writer. For the record, if you want to be perfectly accurate, he is a Trinidad-born British writer of Indian descent....

When William Dalrymple was in Kolkata to promote his new book in November last year, many of us in the media made much of the fact that he had a "trickle of Bengali blood" in his veins. Dalrymple let on — perhaps mindful of where he was — that his "great-great grandmother Sophiya Pattle was descended from a Hindu Bengali woman from Chandernagore".

Tears of pride pricked at our eyelids. It would be funny if it weren't so pathetic.
Both the Gleaner & the Observer in their editorials today address the new visa requirement for Jamaican nationals wishing to visit the United Kingdom.

"The decision of the British Home Office ... carries with it a sense of inevitability," says the Gleaner. "It was not so much if the requirement would be imposed but when."

The Observer is more blunt:

... in the final analysis, Britain has the right to do what it thinks it must to protect its borders and its national interest — including insisting that Jamaicans must have visas if they want to enter the country. That's the cold, hard fact.

There is a lesson somewhere there for Jamaica and Jamaicans. One is that we have our problems and have to fix them.

A second is that we have to disabuse ourselves of the notion of a special relationship upon which we can ride and come to an understanding of a commonality of interests. When these interests do not converge, we ought not to expect a bligh.

Here, then, is the ultimate lesson: we have a problem and it is ours to fix.

But not everyone sees it that way; look at this letter to the editor from today's Gleaner:


Once again "Jamaicans" are the cause of all the ills of Britain. We are less than five per cent of the population yet blacks are responsible for the swathes of violence and high availability of drugs! When are we going to stand up and say enough is enough and stop accepting the punishment of the many for the sins of the few?

As slaves we were forced to bow our heads, we are now free individuals and should insist on being treated as such. Jamaicans hold your heads up high, you have nothing to be ashamed of as a nation.

Finally Mr. Knight, for years the British government has wanted to introduce visas for Jamaicans visiting its shores, Jamaicans did not bring this upon themselves, it was imposed upon you, all part of a prior plan.

I am etc.,


St. Anns, Nottingham
United Kingdom

"We are now free individuals and should insist on being treated as such." And as free individuals must accept responsibility for the consequences of our actions — that's part of the package deal. Vague references to sinister "prior plans" do not relieve us of that responsibility. But try explaining that to the L. Clarkes of the world. "None but ourselves can free our minds," eh?

Thursday, January 09, 2003

From our reading:

"After short, incoherent days, partly spent in sleeping, the nights opened up like an enormous, populated motherland. Crowds filled the streets, turned out in public squares, head close to head, as if the top of a barrel of caviar had been removed and it was now flowing out in a stream of shiny buckshot, a dark river under a pitch-black night noisy with stars. The stairs broke under the weight of thousands, at all the upper floor windows little figures appeared, matchstick people jumping over the rails in a moon-struck fervour, making living chains, like ants, living structures and columns — one astride another's shoulders — flowing down from windows to the platforms of squares lit by the glare of burning tar barrels."

— Bruno Schulz, "The Comet", in The Street of Crocodiles (trans. Celina Wieniewska), pp. 154–155 in the Penguin edition.
Andrew Motion, the British poet laureate, has written a poem called "Causa Belli", expressing misgivings about the possibility of war with Iraq. (The UK Guardian publishes the poem at the end of this report.)

Unfortunately, it's not a very good poem.
Today's Express editorial takes on former "human rights lawyer", former UNC attorney general, present National Team Unity leader Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, who's been trying to earn himself some press time lately:

Mr. Maharaj held his press conference on Monday ... he alleged a plan by the Manning administration to implement a State of Emergency in April to deal with the crime situation.

Mr. Maharaj, who claimed to have received his information from reliable sources, also went on to state that the Prime Minister would seek to ensure the election of a puppet president to achieve his ends, and with even greater hyperbole predicted that "Prime Minister Manning intends to use these states of emergency to attempt to silence politicians, trade unions — and during that period of time — intends to sell State assets to private enterprises."

(What, & not steal from little kiddies' piggybanks too?)

These are fanciful charges even by Mr. Maharaj's own standards, made even more remarkable by the failure of the former Attorney General to present any evidence whatsoever to back them up. As his erstwhile UNC colleagues have pointed out, Mr. Maharaj went to great lengths to ensure Mr. Manning assumed office; it is difficult to believe he would have done so with so little faith in the Prime Minister's democratic credentials.

Maharaj has shifted positions, policies & allegiances so often in the past that nothing he could say or do now would be genuinely surprising. He's exposed himself as a boldfaced opportunist a few times too many, even by T&T's political standards. I personally don't trust him enough to leave him in a room by himself. Yet he clearly still nurses hopes of being Basdeo Panday's political successor, &, God help us, he actually has some kind of support base. Panday himself, of course, is the man who could take Maharaj out once & for all — but does he want to? Does he still have the fire & the fury? From the safe distance of London, is he assembling a crafty plan for a dramatic comeback, or has he given up this time? (These days I'm just slightly missing the political bacchanal of the last year & a half — is that obvious?)

Wednesday, January 08, 2003

In today's Express, Kevin Baldeosingh profiles Jamaican-American writer Colin Channer, author of the romance novels Waiting in Vain & Satisfy My Soul; "the most successful Caribbean novelist of the younger generation", Baldeosingh says, "most successful" clearly meaning "best selling" in this case. (No link; the Express hasn't put the story on its website.)

The theme of the profile, it turns out, is the uselessness of Caribbean publishers; it seems that Channer couldn't find any Jamaican publisher willing to take on his first book; fed up, he got himself an agent in New York, & "Waiting in Vain was eventually published by Random House ... a major firm". (Well, to be precise, it was published by the One World imprint of Ballantine Books, a division of the Random House group which specialises in "commercial" as opposed to "literary" fiction. There is a difference, one that matters in the publishing world, however snobbish it may seem.) The story goes on:

Channer is still miffed that he had to get published by a US firm, and he remains underwhelmed by Caribbean publishers....

He berates the regional publishers for not being true capitalists. "A true capitalist understands the need to grow his customers, get the product in the pipeline, and nurture talent," he argues. He also rejects the argument publishers make about financial constraints. "There are no poor publishers in the Caribbean," he insists.

For good measure, Channer also makes a neat little snipe at the Caribbean Publishers Network (CAPNET), the regional association trying to promote the industry in the Caribbean.

As an editor at a Caribbean publishing house, I naturally find all this intensely interesting. Some of Channer's basic points are sound. Regional publishing, despite a few specific success stories, is in an unfortunate state. The best Caribbean writers are published abroad, most of them live abroad, & increasingly so do their readers. At least in the English-speaking Caribbean, most of the components of a healthy "book culture" — real bookshops, reviewers to write reviews & newspapers & magazines to publish them, prizes, arts councils — are largely absent. For writers, publishers & avid readers alike, this is a frustrating state of affairs. And naturally the publishers themselves must take some responsibility — it's always possible to try just a bit harder, isn't it?

But the fact Channer willfully ignores is that the Caribbean book market, by reasonable standards, is a very small one, fragmented by geography & language. The big foreign markets in North America & Europe are difficult to break into, especially for small firms based outside those markets, with only small resources for distribution & promotion. Books are expensive to produce in short print runs, but very few Caribbean publishers can afford long print runs — not when the local market is measured in hundreds, not thousands. Channer says "there are no poor publishers in the Caribbean". Perhaps none of us are actually below the poverty line, but very few of us are getting wealthy off our titles (with the possible exception of the textbook publishers), & many important books published in the region never manage to recoup their costs. It's easy enough to breeze on about "growing customers" & "getting the product in the pipeline", but for a published writer Channer seems oddly naïve about the economic realities of the book business. Large, well-established houses in New York & London are losing money, cutting staff, reducing their lists; does Channer really think that down here in Port of Spain & Kingston & Bridgetown small publishers like Prospect Press (the firm of which I am a member) are sitting on bags of gold?

Towards the end of the profile, Channer remarks that one of these days he's going to start his own publishing house. Perhaps with a nice fat Ballantine royalty cheque for capital, he'll make a great success of it & put the rest of us out of business, publishing his Caribbean-themed romance novels. Or perhaps he'll discover it's not quite as simple as he thought. I'm looking forward to seeing his first catalogue.
Demented people!

That's how director of the Commission for Pan-African Affairs, David Comissiong, has described persons who seek to dissuade Barbadians of African extraction from expressing their true identity.

Speaking at Heroes Square on Monday at celebrations to mark Black Civilisation Day, he said Barbadians needed to be able to locate themselves within African history.

They had to appreciate that the story of Africa was their story and that their roots were planted in that history, Comissiong added.

— from a story by Wade Gibbons, headlined "Denial syndrome", in today's Nation.

I'm troubled by Comissiong's assumptions about Barbadians' "true identity" — which I'm sure he'd extend to most other West Indians as well. (I'm troubled also by the leading role he played in the Barbados race conference debacle last October.) His idea seems dangerously essentialist: "the story of Africa was their story and ... their roots were planted in that history". Obviously the influence of Africa in the evolution of Caribbean society & culture has been crucial, but our history is far more complex than Comissiong seems to grasp. Our defining characteristic has been our cultural hybridisation, the collision & collusion of civilisations across our epic archipelago, & the result has been a restless, energetic, complicated, creative new culture. To berate the people of that culture for rejecting a revisionist, reductionist version of themselves is to betray a thorough misunderstanding of the Caribbean.

In fact, it seems far more sensible to speak not of a Caribbean or a Bajan identity, but of the many co-existing identities each of us chooses at different times, for different purposes. The truth is not some ethnic ideal we should feel obliged to uphold; it is instead that very multiplicity, from which our evolving common culture draws its energy & its strength.