Monday, October 31, 2005

News from Rome

The rumour that Keats is dead.
A poet itching verbs
like tattoos into his skin.
Limbs stitched into his bed.
The furniture chopped and burned,
the pink house sweet with smoke.
Severn destroys the umpteenth draft of his letter,
the legend is still absurd,
these names sinking in stone.

A letter to London takes one month.
A letter to me takes 183 years.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

It's not included in the online edition, but today's Guardian reports on 3Canal's concert last Thursday night at Bois Cano:

Rapso artiste Wendell Manwarren weaved a stinging commentary into his group 3Canal's Kapok Hotel performance on Thursday night, lashing out at junior National Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds and critics of the Death March....

3Canal was one of the groups that performed free for the march.

"It was about people doing something for a change," he told a selection of T&T's art, music and media elite.... Manwarren, working in his comments at the end of one of their songs, also challenged criticisms that the march was for the middle and upper classes and not the poor black community, the source of the majority of the country's 310 murder victims.

On this point, band member Stanton Kewley retorted, "What wrong with being middle class?"

Hammer, nail, direct blow to the head. "What wrong with being middle class?"

I entirely understand the causes of the vituperation with which the (sometimes self-appointed) representatives of the working class, black or otherwise, have responded to the Keith Noel 136 Committee & last Saturday's "death march". But surely the only route out of the crisis we're all snared in starts with recognising common concerns, common hopes, a common cause--& believing that these outweigh our differences and grudges?

The middle classes are frightened & angry, & last Saturday they did something dramatic to express that fear & anger. (When last, outside of Carnival, did you see white people marching through town in the hot sun?) To dismiss them out of hand is to say that blind loyalty not so much to class or ethnicity but to the PNM is more important than the good of our society; that party trumps country. And very little that the PNM under Mr. Manning has done suggests that the party has any meaningful goals apart from holding on to executive power. Ditto for the UNC under Mr. Panday. Maybe that's what it comes to--party or country? It's a symptom of our crisis that, it seems, there can be no coincidence of the two.

And here's the thing about the middle classes: they have been the least prone to blind party loyalty, switching their vote to whichever group seems most likely to address their concerns (remember the ONR? the NAR?). There's nothing wrong with that--that's the foundation of politics, seeking your own interests, but also recognising that often the best way to get what you want & need is to learn what your friends & rivals want & need, & find compromises that achieve a common good. The alternative is to allow selfish interests to tear our society apart--& that is exactly the crisis we're in. All are guilty: working, middle & upper classes, black people, Indian people, white people, everybody. "More unites us than divides us", read one of the placards at last Saturday's march--lyrics from "Trini to de Bone", of course, a song whose cliches still make me cringe, but cliches often derive from truths.

What unites us most urgently now is that few of us feel safe, few of us feel we're truly benefiting from the massive energy boom convulsing our economy, & few of us feel the party politicians care about our concerns. Can we not agree on a common thrust to address these matters on everyone's behalf? And does it matter who starts or leads that thrust?

Remember this: Henry Alcazar, A.A. Cipriani, Albert Gomes, even Eric Williams, were all men of the middle class, & they all led battles on behalf of the wider populace. There's nothing wrong with being middle class.

Friday, October 28, 2005

From a report by Yvonne Webb in today's Guardian:

Reeling under pressure from various sectors to curb the spiralling crime rate, Prime Minister Patrick Manning said on Wednesday that he hoped the people who are attacking his Government were not guilty of criminal activities themselves....

Last Saturday, thousands of citizens participated in the Death March in Port-of-Spain. The march, organised by the Keith Noel 136 Committee, highlighted the need for the Government to fix crime.

Referring to this, Manning said, "A number of people are attacking us for crime and I hope, and I am very careful with my words, I hope that those who are attacking the Government on crime are not guilty of criminal activities themselves."

I didn't think a Trinidad & Tobago politician could still surprise me, but I'm astonished today--this is how Mr. Manning responds to the 15,000 people who marched in Port of Spain last Saturday? No, I'm astonished--by the pettiness, the callousness, the spite.
Reporters sans frontieres has released its fourth annual worldwide press freedom index. Trinidad & Tobago is once again close to the top of the ranking (higher means freer), tying for 12th place this time with Hungary, New Zealand, & Sweden (last year T&T ranked 11th). By comparison, Germany ranks 18th, Canada 21st, the UK 24th, & the US 44th. Of other Caribbean nations, Jamaica comes 34th, the Dominican Republic 51st, Haiti 117th, & Cuba, near the bottom of the list, is 161st.

How did RSF decide T&T has such a free press?

Reporters Without Borders compiled a questionnaire with 50 criteria for assessing the state of press freedom in each country. It includes every kind of violation directly affecting journalists (such as murders, imprisonment, physical attacks and threats) and news media (censorship, confiscation of issues, searches and harassment).

It registers the degree of impunity enjoyed by those responsible for such violations. It also takes account of the legal situation affecting the news media (such as penalties for press offences, the existence of a state monopoly in certain areas and the existence of a regulatory body) and the behaviour of the authorities towards the state-owned news media and the foreign press. It also takes account of the main obstacles to the free flow of information on the Internet.

Three cheers for Trini boldfacedness & macociousness.
This week's Caribbean blog roundup over at Global Voices takes the form of a chat between Georgia & myself about the state of the Caribbean blogosphere--who's doing what, why, how, & where could it all go? Or something like that.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Over at Alien in the Caribbean, Jessie has emerged from hibernation to comment on the current state of Trinidad & Tobago, point out parallels in St. Lucia, where she's been living for the last three years, & ask the question many of us are preoccupied with right now: what next?

I know I am living in the "third world" but until a few years ago, that was never even an issue. Although our islands were never big contenders on the world's economic landscape, I certainly never felt like a "third world" citizen and there was always a feeling of hope. Our ability to cope, innovate, commune, rally our spirits compensated for much inconvenience and social problems. We held this spirit that things could get better and we would live to see it get better. My generation especially felt like the one with the ideas, energy, will and power to make it happen.

Could it be that we are actually running out of that juice that nourished us in the face of challenges? As I struggle not to once again fall into the pit of living from paycheck to paycheck like I did in Trinidad, even while I work harder than I ever did professionally and all the while coping with the very palpable human misery all around me, I feel one overwhelming feeling....... FATIGUE. Not of body but of spirit. I understand so completely the way Trinis are right now, "to themselves" reserved, withdrawn and holding fast to personal strength. There is none to share anymore. Those of us who give, give, give, give, give and give some more of our positive energy, ideas, creative expression know what I am talking about. And yet, still I keep thinking maybe just maybe there is a very good reason for all of this. We've had it GOOD the past twenty years or so and what have we REALLY accomplished for our country with all of our BIG ideas, creative endeavors and philosophical thinking and talking over wine at our dinner parties?...

The truth is that revolution requires a massive dose of desperation to ignite it. Many of us have always been the fire proof buffer of reason and status quo maintenance. We would think of protesting, of starting a revolt but then we'd chicken out because we have "responsibilities" and a "reputation". To be honest, few of us have felt it like we do now and there is a dangerous excitement about it. Let's not become afraid again. Let us embrace our rage and perhaps we can find in it the fuel we need to fire our activism against our corrupt and inept governments and disempowered societies.

Monday, October 24, 2005

In the face of a massive outpouring of concern about the crime situation on Saturday, with thousands of people gathering around placards, music and theatre to demonstrate the need for more effective action, the PNM was able to issue one clear directive and that was to its party members, ordering them not to attend.

Chairman of the committee organising the march, Stephen Cadiz described the no-show as contempt for citizens and an insult to the nation, but it was, more likely, another indicator of the haplessness of the ruling party when faced with problems outside the traditional boundaries of politics.

The problems of crime in Trinidad and Tobago aren't being faced decisively because there is little in the machinery of political representation to prepare those elected to high office to handle the outpouring of violence, anger and lawlessness that has characterised crime in the country over the last five years.

-- From today's Guardian editorial (their archiving system is annoying. Read the editorial here today, here from tomorrow), which also refers to the results of the UWI/ANSA McAl Psychological Research Centre poll published in yesterday's edition. Asked whether the government's crime-fighting measures were "having any serious effect on crime", 90% of the respondents said no. 54% said Martin Joseph should resign. But 52% said there was no one else in the PNM administration they thought could do a better job with national security, & 19% said they didn't know. Just 2% said Patrick Manning himself would do any better. By any fair standard, these numbers add up to a damning vote of no confidence in the Manning administration's ability to deal with the security crisis, & give the lie to claims that Saturday's marchers were not representative of Trinidad & Tobago as a whole.

The Guardian editorial concludes:

It's time that this government left the safe perch of continuous planning to execute a strategy to manage crime that the public can understand, endorse and engage.

A lucid, stringent and clearly-articulated plan to limit opportunities for unlawful activity is unlikely to win friends and votes in a country that so dearly loves its freedoms, but the alternative is a slow and steady loss of confidence in the capacity to lead that now registers the Government's management at a nadir in public perception even as it continues to drop.

"A lucid, stringent and clearly-articulated plan" "that the public can understand, endorse and engage"--exactly. But I disagree with the Guardian's implication that such a strategy need curtail our "freedoms". We don't need a curfew, draconian new legislation, or the suspension of habeas corpus (as permitted during a state of emergency by the constitution). We need to have our existing laws properly enforced. We need for our elected officials and members of the security services to do their jobs faithfully & efficiently. And we need for ordinary citizens to stop putting up with the minor infringements--littering, petty vandalism, unsafe driving--that help create an atmosphere in which major infringements like murder, kidnapping, & theft thrive & breed. Above all, we need for the current government to take responsibility for its failures. But when Mr. Manning, a day after the "death march", describes Martin Joseph as "one of the best Ministers of National Security ever in Trinidad and Tobago" (as quoted in this Express article), it's utterly clear that taking responsibility is the last thing on his mind.

He promise the fire next time, he promise the fire next time....
Addendum to the preceding

I've just noticed this NY Times story on a World Bank report on the effects of "brain drain" on developing countries around the world.

Poor countries across Africa, Central America and the Caribbean are losing sometimes staggering numbers of their college-educated workers to wealthy, industrialized democracies, according to a World Bank study made public today.

Its conclusions are based on a far-reaching survey of census and other data from the 30 countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which counts most of the world's richest nations among its members....

The World Bank's study is part of a broader intellectual ferment about the role that migration plays in the development of poor countries. Scholarly research has tended to focus more on the impact of foreign aid, global trade and foreign investment, but there is a growing sense that the movement of people is also a major and little-understood factor.

The four Caribbean countries examined in the report are Jamaica, Haiti, Cuba, & the Dominican Republic. Some of the statistics are, literally, shocking--such as the estimate that 80% of Jamaican & Haitian nationals who have been to university live in developed OECD countries. The percentage for Trinidad & Tobago is almost certainly lower (but by how much?); I imagine the figure for Guyana is about the same.
From the Guyana Project

A week & a half after the release of the preliminary report on the 2002 census, Ian McDonald writes (in his column in yesterday's Stabroek News) about Guyana's continuing "brain drain" problem:

I wish absolutely accurate figures could be made available but, even in their absence, who can doubt that the exodus, if illegal is added to legitimate, is still running at as much as 15,000 people a year, perhaps more. These include many of the best, most skilled, most experienced, and hardest-working people in the community.

I cannot understand why this threat to the whole nation is not more discussed in public, and with greater concern, especially as the exodus on the face of it seems likely to grow as the numbers abroad who can sponsor those at home goes on increasing. A couple emigrating a few years ago opens the way for a dozen more up the road. Remember also the devastating fact that people planning to leave have already left in the sense that they have lost all feeling of commitment and wanting to work hard and contribute as they coast towards the Promised Land. The cumulative loss of commitment slackens the sinews of effort in the nation most insidiously.

Recall that the census figures show an overall increase in Guyana's population, but also suggest that 40% of the Guyanese born in the late 1970s--i.e. my generation, the generation who ought to be preparing right now to assume responsibility for Guyana's future--have left in search of better opportunities abroad.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Georgia has posted a photo of yesterday's Red House ceremony here at Caribbean Free Photo, & images of the march at flickr.

And the T&T newspapers today are full of coverage of the "death march" (I persist in using this slightly hysterical term because what we all need now is to be shocked out of complacency). Ucill Cambridge's lead story in the Express quotes a police estimate of "10,000 to 15,000" marchers, & includes this account of an exchange with Martin Joseph:

When contacted yesterday, National Security Minister Martin Joseph said he could not talk since he was at a constituency meeting in Mayaro. He terminated the phone call before a question could be asked.

Because, as far as Mr. Joseph is concerned, the outrage of 15,000 citizens is an irrelevance.

The Express also runs short interviews by Darren Bahaw with Commodore Anthony Franklin of Communities Mobilising Agsint Crime, Brother Noble Khan of the IRO, Professor Kenneth Ramchand, TTMA president Paul Quesnel, and calypsonian Singing Sandra, all of whom were at the march. On the op-ed pages, Martin Daly rages against the politicians who are refusing to acknowledge their true responsibility for the crisis:

The Prime Minister of our Republic is fully accountable for the murders, bombings and kidnappings rampaging throughout Trinidad and Tobago and turning our lives upside down, no matter what evasive words are used. So is Mr Go-Stay Panday, who is not electable and, by denying us some choice other than the cruel, uncaring, bunch of limp jokers we have in office, Mr Panday is also killing the country.

And Ramesh Deosaran asks the hard question all of us who marched yesterday now have to face: what next?

... it will eventually take the Cabinet, the Ministry of National Security, the Police Service Commission, Commissioner of Police, all constitutionally empowered agencies, to get the job done....

Will the death march and signatures help get this desired result which I believe is the main aim of the Keith Noel 136 Committee. In other words, you can march up and down the street from now to Christmas, you can collect 1.2 million signatures, all these marches and signatures will amount to nothing if these bodies do not do their respective jobs properly and expeditiously.

If the Police and even the Commissioner of Police are not doing their jobs to public satisfaction, how can the public say so in their presence and get effective action? The real issue is therefore this: How can you get these authorised bodies to do their work and account for it publicly now?

Today's Guardian editorial (no permanent link) makes a similar point, more bluntly:

... marches by themselves, however well supported, will not reduce crime.

A first-time visitor, surveying the crowd and the oral and visual messages yesterday, could gain a sense that some fairly obvious thing to defeat crime is being done neither by the authorities, nor by the Parliament. Such a visitor would not, however, have learned what that obvious thing is.

In his address to Parliament last month, President Max Richards lent his prestige to the conviction that Parliament need only take action, which he did not specify, to make a difference with crime.

The belief is apparently widely-shared that tough new laws are needed to put criminals on the run, as President Richards put it.

Placards held by marchers yesterday called for brisk, no-nonsense approaches expressed in "Start making sense," and "Stop kicksing in Parliament." But even those marchers who called for the prompt hanging of murderers must be aware of the practical obstacles in the way of implementing the death penalty.

Before the Keith Noel Committee, with its many supporters, can become a movement for change, expressing the "new culture of leadership" called for by some T-shirts, it has to meet a responsibility to clarify not only what it opposes, but also what it proposes.

The Guardian is right; if yesterday's march is to be the beginning of something rather than the end, if the Keith Noel Committee is to have any lasting impact, it must move quickly to focus citizen anger on some goal more clearly defined than "do something". That means accepting that the Manning government time & again has proven itself unwilling to listen to the criticisms & suggestions of the public, partly because of Mr. Manning's particular delusion of infallibility, partly because of a constitutional system insidiously designed to eliminate actual representation from representative government. It means accepting that the UNC under Mr. Panday did & likely would do no better, so a UNC where Mr. Panday is still calling the shots is under current circumstances a force for harm.

It also means realising that our current crisis goes beyond "locking up the criminals" or enforcing the death penalty (to which I am inexorably opposed), & needs to be fought on two fronts. First, immediate measures to restore public safety: fundamental reform of the police service, of the prison system, of the judicial system; real intelligence work to infiltrate drug & gang networks & destroy them (the information is out there, we all hear the stories, people know the names--why are we afraid of acting?); & immediate action to destroy the legitimacy that our venal politicians have granted to crime kingpins by treating them as "community leaders", hiring them as enforcers at election time, accepting donations from them, and giving them positions in the URP & CEPEP hierarchy, which amounts to public subsidy of criminals. It means giving all these measures priority over new cricket stadiums & downtown high-rises & a new prime ministerial residence.

The second front of this battle is the state of our society & social infrastructure forty years after independence: vast inequalities in an ostensibly booming economy, failing education and public health systems, & the feeling among the general populace that there's nothing "we" can do about these problems because the power is in the hands of the government--which, once elected, forgets about representing citizens until the time comes again for election rhetoric.

None of these ideas is original, all of them have been argued more eloquently by other commentators, & many of them are succinctly expressed in the FITUN flyer I quoted yesterday. But instead of forthrightly dealing with these problems, the Manning government engages in personal aggrandisement and pappyshow projects (like Vision 2020), throws hundreds of millions away on extremely expensive & thus far ineffectual "crime-fighting" equipment and monuments to Mr. Manning's self-esteem, & insults anyone who dares criticise or disagree.

Stephen Cadiz said yesterday he hoped the "death march" would finally make Mr. Manning sit up & take notice. I know, most of us know, he won't. So what next? On the one hand, the widespread publication of a clear, detailed programme of practical steps to deal with all of the above: immediate reform of & action by the security services, massive, meaningful, long-term social investment (anyone who says in 2005 that we can't afford it is lying), &, fundamentally, major constitutional reform to give Trinidad & Tobago, finally, some kind of real representative democracy.

On the other hand, since the current generation of PNM & UNC politicians has proven to us that they simply don't care to "do something", a radical campaign to either force Mr. Manning & his cronies (& for all intents & purposes Mr. Panday is one of Mr. Manning's cronies) to do what they don't want to do, or eliminate them for good. And for good. Under present circumstances, that probably means a campaign of civil disobedience. Two modest proposals: from the businessmen, a pact to withhold all direct & indirect tax revenues from the government; from the trade unions & the ordinary man on the street, a general shut-down of the country. Hold the government to ransom, just as most citizens feel held to ransom. With no violence, & no tolerance for anyone who would make this out to be an anti-PNM campaign. The UNC is complicit, & all are involved.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Were you there?

The rallying point for the Keith Noel 136 Committee's "death march" this morning was Independence Square at Chacon Street. Georgia and I left Diego Martin around 8.30, each with essential equipment: MP3 voice recorders, cameras, notebooks, bottles of water. ("Did you bring a handkerchief?" I asked her. To soak with water and put over your mouth and nose in case they use tear gas." I was joking, of course. Do the T&T police even have tear gas?)

We parked on Richmond Street, half a block up from Queen Street. There were small bunches of people wearing Keith Noel Committee t-shirts, carrying flags, walking down to Independence Square--middle-aged couples, families with small children. And many of them clearly middle-class or upper-middle-class. This was a worry for many people I spoke to: that the marchers this morning would be predominantly white, near-white, brown, and thus easily dismissable. But of course we were approaching Independence Square from the north-west, from the direction of Port of Spain's upper-middle-class suburbs--not surprising those were the people we saw walking down Richmond Street. We cut across to St. Vincent Street, walked past the Red House, the National Library, the Guardian offices. When we got to Independence Square and turned left, it was a different story. The Promenade was covered with people as far east as we could see, and the crowd looked like Trinidad.

Many people had come in groups--neighbourhood groups, professional groups. There were contingents from some of the trade unions--I saw Jennifer Baptiste, the president of the Public Services Association--and groups of employees from various firms. Many people held placards--some obviously mass-produced, some hand-made with idiosyncratic messages. One man bore a placard shaped like the island of Trinidad. It had a face, and it was weeping tears of blood.

We pressed through the crowd, seeing people we knew, friends, colleagues, nodding and shaking hands and kissing. A tassa side had begun playing--there was no music otherwise, the drums providing the beat for us to march to, sounding somehow solemn and at the same time hopeful. There was a look of patience and determination on many faces in the crowd, and a feeling of great expectation. Not many smiles. I was trying to estimate how many people were here. Four thousand specially made t-shirts had been sold, I'd read in the newspapers, and there were at least that many marchers, surely more. Later someone from TV6, experienced at estimating crowd numbers, told me he thought there were close to twenty thousand people.

Then, at someone's quiet word, the march began, led by a plain white banner with black letters--KEITH NOEL 136 COMMITTEE--and a group of people wearing blue t-shirts (blue was Keith Noel's favourite colour) and carrying large Trinidad and Tobago flags. From the foot of Nicholas Tower on the south side of Independence Square they turned onto Chacon Street and then onto the north side of the square, east past Cipriani's statue and the part-demolished Salvatori Building, and north again on Henry Street.

Other groups fell into formation behind banners or flags, and unattached people dressed in red or white or black joined in where they liked. There were marchers from the San Juan Business Association and the Blue Range Residents Association; from TSTT, Maritime Insurance, Beacon Insurance, McCann-Erickson; a vociferous contingent from Beaver Construction, dressed all in black; there were scouts from the First Trinidad Sea Scout Troop of St. Mary's College; a handful of drag queens in tight denim; the conservative Catholic Living Water Community; the Trinidad Hotels, Restaurants, and Tourism Association; at the very rear of the procession, the Hunters Association of Trinidad and Tobago, and someone with a large rainbow-striped umbrella blazoned "Save the Forests".

I saw at least one nun, and Rev. Cyril Paul, the former Presbyterian moderator. I saw two MPs, Gillian Lucky and Gerald Yetming. I saw Independent Senator Angela Cropper, and former senator Julian Kenny. I saw Martin Daly, wearing a black beret with a red star. I saw fashion designers, jewellers, dancers, artists, TV producers, and many photographers documenting the march. I saw the proprietors of a French restaurant in Woodbrook, and two elderly ladies in red t-shirts walking very slowly and pausing every now and then for a rest. I saw writer B.C. Pires and his wife Carla on bicycles. I saw Arthur Lok Jack, the new chairman of BWIA. The family of Eddie Koury, kidnapped and beheaded last month, were there, dressed in black and holding white roses, some of the women weeping discreetly. But not Koury's uncle John Rahael, the minister of health, because members of the PNM were banned from joining the march.

As we walked up Henry Street and across Duke Street, I snapped many photos, and Georgia interviewed people from the crowd--a woman who said she was there because threats had been made against her son; Nicola Cross, who spoke about the long-unsolved death of Akiel Chambers. Chants broke out occasionally--no more guns, no more crime--but most people walked quietly, or chatted with their companions. I kept thinking the closest thing to this that I'd experienced was Carnival, but it was nothing like Carnival. I didn't expect to feel so moved--by the sight of two men bearing placards with photographs of a murdered friend, or simply by the sight of so many people angry enough to march in the hot Saturday morning sun, not an easy thing to ask of Trinidadians, especially Trinidadians of the middle classes.

The procession turned down Frederick Street, back across Independence Square, up Abercromby Street. Georgia and I tried to get closer to the front, to see what was happening. The top of the procession had reached Woodford Square now, and the ceremony outside the Red House had begun. I pushed through the crowd. Three hundred volunteers, representing the year's tally (thus far) of murder victims, were dressed in white, their heads covered with black hoods. One by one they lay down on a long sheet of red cloth, stretching up Abercromby Street; their wrists were bound by a single strip of red cloth. Then one by one they got up again, and removed their hoods. People began squeezing into Woodford Square.

We saw the photographer Alex Smailes; he'd got a better look at the ceremony, the crowd parting for his camera. Alex spent years covering war zones for a French photo agency--former Soviet republics, Haiti. This feeling today, he said, was familiar to him, the feeling of a revolution beginning, the first rumbling emerging as from beneath the earth.

Georgia was interviewing two women; one said she was 65, the other didn't say her age. They'd both volunteered to participate in the ceremony; they still had their black hoods in their hands. They'd turned up at Independence Square this morning, alone, and fallen in together; they'd never met before, but now they were referring to each other as "my friend". I had to come, the first woman said. My children didn't want me to, but I took public transport and came. I moved back here from New York three years ago; I can't believe what's happening in my country, the place I spent years longing to come back to. The other woman held up a sign she'd made with brown paper and ballpoint pen: WHAT WE GOING TO DO WITH THESE / THE GOVERNMENT / PRESSURE THEM 'TIL WE GET AH EASE!!! / (WITH CRIME)

The Beaver Construction group came up the street behind us, singing and dancing, waving their placards. We crossed into the square. It was approaching noon by now, the sun blazing. I hadn't thought to put on sunblock, and forgot I had a hat in my knapsack. By afternoon my face and neck were sunburnt, my head aching.

People were setting up microphones on the Woodford Square bandstand, and meanwhile a DJ was playing patriotic calypsos; when Sniper's "Portrait of Trinidad" began, people all around began mouthing the words as they walked and stood and bought snow-cones from the vendors dotted across the grass. Finally someone announced that we should face the Red House for the National Anthem, and the notes began on a tenor pan. I couldn't resist breaking the regulation at-attention stance to photograph the crowd all facing west, motionless.

Stephen Cadiz, the chairman of the Keith Noel Committee, made the first speech. To look at him, there is nothing remarkable--medium height, slightly portly, bespectacled, bearded. He speaks in a French Creole accent and has a French Creole assurance that some may take for arrogance. People's feelings about the Keith Noel Committee, I suspect, are heavily coloured by their impressions of Cadiz, this white Trinidadian who says he is apolitical but who has orchestrated one of the major political statements in the country's recent history. Most Trinidadians don't even know how to pronounce his name--CAY-diss--unless they are French Creole themselves. It's a clear U-and-non-U marker.

He spoke forcefully and concisely, and was followed by Wayne Chance, the ex-convict, and Christine Hosein, whose son was kidnapped (and managed to escape) in April. Then the performers came on: Abbi Blackman, Brother Resistance, 3Canal. Those in the crowd who intended to stay on for the music settled in, found patches of shade or opened umbrellas, drank free Gatorade. There were dozens of TV6 reporters and crew in a cordoned-off area behind the bandstand. The sun blazed.

A nervous-looking young man was handing round flyers from the Federation of Independent Trade Unions and NGOs, or FITUN--a group I'd never heard of. "Admit where we went wrong", it read. "Build a society based on justice and equal opportunity for all."

"Both traditional political parties have engaged in the deadly game of sleeping with the 'devil' in the form of gang leaders and the so-called 'bad-boys' in order to win elections. This has given the gang leaders and bad boys legitimacy that then makes them believe that they can act with impunity.... The business organisations are guilty of calling for action against crime but yet stay silent on the fact that amongst their ranks--masquerading as respectable business-people--are the importers and exporters of drugs and the money launderers. They have been given legitimacy. Some even finance the political parties.... The Chambers of Commerce are silent on this." Fix the education system, the flyer argued, reform the prisons, overhaul the justice system.

When 3Canal performed "Talk Yuh Talk", denouncing the "mocking pretenders", they pointed across at the Red House, which today was a symbol both of the ideals we were marching for--democracy and freedom--and of the forces we were marching against--the greed and selfishness of the politicians who have turned the House of Representatives into a pappyshow and clawed their way to power through our fraying social fabric. The last person Georgia interviewed before we left Woodford Square was Stephen Cadiz. He was in a hurry, attending to some small urgent matter, but he stopped and spoke for a minute into her microphone. What next? Georgia asked. We're hoping that today's march will send a message, Cadiz said, will make a difference, that things will change.

But the person who needs most urgently to act right now, I thought--the person who is constitutionally empowered and obliged to deal with the crisis of crime that is traumatising the country--is the prime minister, and Mr. Manning made it clear two days ago that today's march, the perhaps twenty thousand people who tried to send a message in Port of Spain, the one hundred thousand who have tried to send a message through the Keith Noel petition, that all these people and their angry and frustrated cries are of no consequence to him. Why think Mr. Manning even bothered to watch the coverage of the march on TV today, or will bother to read about it in the newspapers tomorrow?

"He promise the fire next time, he promise the fire next time, he promise, he promise, he promise, he promise, he promise the fire next time, and who ent dead badly wounded, who ent dead badly wounded...."

We left Woodford Square at nearly 2.00 p.m., tired and hungry, and walked up Abercromby Street to the little Italian restaurant just below Park Street. We met two friends there, and had a late lunch. And another day I'll try to figure out what this all means.

Friday, October 21, 2005

With a sense of crisis building throughout the country, with the murder count over 300 for the year, another kidnapping on Wednesday, & less than a week after the St. James bombing, the Manning Cabinet met yesterday & made a high-level decision to--sourly boycott the anti-crime march being organised by the Keith Noel 136 Committee tomorrow, on the grounds that the committee was calling it a "Death March", &, in the words of Conrad Enill, "This Government does not understand what a death march is because, you know, we are in the business of peace and life, not death." (Express report here, no permanent link yet to the two Guardian reports.)

Now, I've had some misgivings about the Keith Noel Committee's tactics, & the term "death march" undeniably has horrible historical associations; but Enill's response clearly demonstrates (again! again!) that the Manning government simply does not understand the fear & anger mounting among the populace. As a nation, we're in what most citizens feel is a life-or-death situation. Mr. Manning & his ministers are either incapable of acting as a responsible government should, or else they are refusing to. Either way, it amounts to what I can only call criminal negligence. As the murders & kidnappings & robberies rack up, the flaws in our political system (if you can call it that) are clearer & clearer. The Keith Noel Committee's petition reveals yet again our fundamental problem of representation (who do you present a petition like this to, when our "representatives" make it obvious that they don't feel obliged to represent anyone?). The Manning government's ongoing response to this swelling crime wave reveals the politicians' overriding concern for holding on to power & prestige, whatever the cost to the citizenry. Perhaps what tomorrow's march will reveal is whether enough people are angry enough to (finally! finally!) demand meaningful change.

The Manning government's callous dismissal of the intentions of the march & the Keith Noel Committee suggests that they plan to continue ignoring the crisis. But here's how I reassure myself: every time Mr. Manning or Mrs. Manning or Mr. Enill or any of them stands up & says something stupid & insulting, it makes another fifty or one hundred or two hundred people angry. Sooner or later, I hope, we'll achieve the critical mass of enraged citizenry we need to trigger real change. I've already suggested--in earnest--various acts of mass civil disobedience. Well, the Keith Noel Committee got a permit for tomorrow's march, but maybe next time--maybe next time....

And, if I was wavering before, Mr. Enill has decided me: I'm marching tomorrow, in my 3Canal Diego Martin t-shirt.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Frequent T&T Review contributor Cary Fraser writes a letter to the Stabroek News today in response to Tuesday's Stabroek editorial, which asked "Who are the modern counterparts in the Caribbean of Eric Williams and C.L.R. James?" and went on to remark that:

The challenges posed by independence in the sixties and the subsequent efforts to build nation states have been considerable. The New World generation of Best and Girvan led the way in talking about the decolonisation of the mind, the rewriting and re-interpretation of our social and economic history and the need for a re-assessment of our role and our identity free of imported dogma. But one cannot help feeling that the period of post-independence turmoil is still to produce that classic work or works that the situation demands and that might enable us to begin to see in perspective the social and economic upheaval inherent in the rapid change of the last forty years that seems to have left these small Caribbean states rudderless and vulnerable in a sea of globalisation.

Fraser replies:

the emergence of Derek Walcott, Vidia Naipaul, Wilson Harris, Martin Carter, George Lamming, Lloyd Best, William Demas, Elsa Gouveia, Walter Rodney, among many others, in the post-1945 period reflected the coming of age of the wealth of talent that the region had nurtured during the late colonial period. The work of this successor generation built upon that of their predecessors and created a body of work that has a relevance that will transcend their respective lifetimes. Perhaps, the fact that so much talent emerged in such a brief period of time has led us to think that the region will continue to generate this level of talent on a systematic basis. I would suggest that our experience with cricket over the same period should encourage us to be more measured in our expectations.

The 1945-1970 era in the West Indies was a period of extraordinary creative ferment in the region but it also resulted in the export of population, including some of the most talented individuals. It may be useful for regional leaders, from the political arena and from civil-society, to think about ways to engage the diaspora in helping the region to negotiate the present and the future.

In other words, best and brightest, gone away. Our political leaders continue to send their own children abroad--where are Mr. Manning's sons, Mr. Panday's daughters? not here in the country their fathers are so gleefully screwing up--so how can we expect talented, ambitious young people not to leave for big cold cities where they can train their talents & fulfil their ambitions? And slowly, slowly, slowly these little islands sink further into the waves.
Today the Guardian has picked up the story that the Met Office was warned about last weekend's waves days ahead of time by at least one surfer, but ignored the warning--as I reported yesterday (currently there's no permanent link to the Guardian story):

Alan Davis, vice-president of the Surfing Association of T&T, said the forecast of the unusual activity was posted on the US Navy Web site,, on October 8.

"Surfers visit the site to get forecasts on wave action around the world," he said. "We look for swells. We chase them. It's what surfers do," he said.

Davis said the five-day advance forecast showed a drastic increase in the swell period....

Davis said he called the Met Office last Wednesday to find out if they knew about the swells.

"I asked if they were going to issue a warning to fishermen because of the huge size of the swell that was approaching the country," he said in a telephone interview yesterday.

"I even gave them the address of the Web site and told them to check it out themselves."

But the surfer said his credibility was questioned by the person who took his call.

This is backed up by a letter by Jonathan Torry published in today's Express:

The surfing community had been tracking these waves through the use of different Internet weather sites. Starting from midweek, surfers were booking flights to Tobago and making plans for the arrival of the waves into our area on Sunday morning. We, the surfers, could have told all concerned about the arrival of these waves within hours of when they were expected and how big they were going to be.

Meanwhile, Andy Johnson, in his column in today's Express, promises to ask national security minister (a title which reads more & more like an Orwellian joke) Martin Joseph some hard questions when he appears on Johnson's Morning Edition programme tomorrow:

In the face of glaring evidence that it is the criminals--the boys with guns aplenty on the streets, the kidnappers and now the garbage bomber--who seem to be in charge, the men in the political directorate are making matters worse for themselves by their enslavement to the supposed power of positive spin.... once more after the fact, the Prime Minister could say that the Government has a fairly good idea of who is behind it. He made the statement in the Parliament on Monday. This suggests that perhaps the discovery was made in the 72 hours after the fourth explosion.

So on that score alone, here are some questions minister Joseph must be prepared to answer tomorrow. The person has been and is now under surveillance, true or false. His passport has been seized, if not, why not? he has been contacted by the police and has been questioned, if not, why not? it is clear now that this is one person as the mastermind behind these potentially murderous actions.

There has to be a substantive difference between having a good idea and knowing for sure who this person is whom Mr Manning described as "Mr Big".
(Barely worth mentioning--Time's book critics have indulged themselves by compiling a list of "the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present" (1923 being the year the magazine was launched), & they include two Caribbean books: Wide Sargasso Sea & A House for Mr. Biswas. Journalists love this kind of thing, because they get to show off how many books they've read.)

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Prime Minister Patrick Manning didn't say he knew who is the bomber involved in the four explosions which have rocked Port of Spain, National Security Minister Martin Joseph said yesterday.

In a statement to the Senate yesterday, Joseph said he had been asked to correct reports in the press, attributed to the Prime Minister on Monday in Parliament on the bombings.

Manning told the House that the Government had a good idea of who "Mr Big" is in the bombings but lacked evidence to take any action at this time.

But yesterday Joseph said Manning said he knew who "Mr Big" was but "not that he knew who the bomber is."

In other words, they don't know one damn thing.

At the end of his statement, UNC Senator Robin Montano loudly called out to Joseph: "Resign! It's time to resign!"

No, what it's time for now, it seems to me, is a massive campaign of civil disobedience. I don't mean just marching through Port of Spain, as powerful as that symbolic act might be. I mean peaceful occupation of the Red House by citizens. I mean islandwide roadblocks to shut the country down for a day (like they do in Jamaica every six months or so). I mean a general strike. I mean a pact by all the members of all the chambers of commerce to withhold tax payments until there is some credible action by the government of Trinidad and Tobago to deal with this crime surge that is undeniably terrorising the populace. If Mr. Manning doesn't know how to act, he ought to resign, & take his government with him. If, however, he is simply refusing to act--to do anything beyond the pappyshow of grandiloquent speechifying & boasting about the purchase of pointless, incredibly expensive "crime-fighting" equipment--then his callousness has itself become criminal, and it may be time for citizens to declare our own form of state of emergency.
The weekend's destructive wave surges make the front page of the Guardian again today, & dominate the news pages of the Express (according to this Express story, the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management "dispatched emergency first responders to villages affected by the pounding waves" yesterday--two days after the crisis. Good to know they're on top of things). But here's a story that doesn't seem to have made the papers yet. Surfers around the world use the website of the Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Centre--a division of the US Navy--to plan their surfing trips, because the site provides forecast maps of wave action around the world. Days before the sea ate up Maracas & smashed King's Wharf, there were surfers who knew what kind of waves were coming--& at least one, I'm told, called the Met Office & suggested they issue an official warning--only to be rebuffed.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Unusually destructive wave action along Trinidad & Tobago's north & west coasts makes the front pages of the newspapers again today ("Spare us, O Lord", begs the Express, "Las Cuevas beach gone", laments the Guardian), but the local press doesn't seem to be reporting on similar conditions in neighbouring territories. In Guyana, the sea wall has been breached in several places in West & East Coast Demerara, causing major flooding in some villages, which the Stabroek News calls "a replay of what happened ... during the January floods". The Guyanese newspapers are blaming this on "extraordinarily high" spring tides; the T&T press quotes the Met Office saying it's the coincidence of three separate weather systems.

Meanwhile, Patrick Manning has had the nerve to stand up in parliament & say he knows who's responsible for the four Port of Spain bombings, but "there is a difference between information and evidence". I'm frankly fed up with Mr. Manning's repeated claims of superior knowledge about matters of national security which don't seem to translate into effective action to stop the crime wave that's been demoralising the country these past months. What's the point of him being such a know-it-all if the murder & kidnapping rates are spiralling into the stratosphere & bombs are going off in the city on a regular monthly schedule? "I know & you don't know" is another power-trip, just like the $40-million "spy blimp", the disruptive helicopter fly-overs, the stupid "eye-in-the-sky" elevated platforms etc etc etc, none of which has made the slightest difference to anything except Mr. Manning's healthy self-esteem. And after the red-herring arrest of Abu Bakr a few days ago, can we believe this "Mr. Big" even exists?

Monday, October 17, 2005

A Judge's Journal, Part 1

I've agreed to be a judge for the inaugural Derek Walcott Prize for Fiction, established this year by the Trinidad Theatre Workshop's Fund for Literature and Drama to celebrate Walcott's 75th birthday. The prize of TT$10,000 is for an "outstanding work of fiction, novelette or short story collection" by a "new writer" who is a national of Trinidad & Tobago. (There are separate prizes for playwriting, children's literature, poetry, & short film.) When Kris Rampersad, the prize co-ordinator, approached me, I didn't quite realise what I was signing up to do was read eight full novels in less than a month--& write a report on each. Now I have a box of typescripts on the floor of my office, distressingly heavy, which I suppose I'll transfer to my bedside staging area at home--I can see what my recreational reading will be for the rest of October. Obviously, matters of confidentiality prevent me from naming names or discussing specifics, but I have it in mind to keep a sort of journal here of the experience of engaging in this particular sub-species of literary endeavour.

I'm torn between plucking one typescript at random from the box to start, or going for the shortest one first, or the one with the most promising (least threatening) title.

Who was the Booker Prize judge who confessed a few years ago that he didn't read to the end of every novel?

[A few minutes later] Have decided to start with the typescript with the most intriguing opening line.
A 43-year-old Guyanese adventurer, mountaineer and nature lover will travel to the North Ridge of Mount Roraima to photograph its beauty for the publication of a book.

Rafel Downes will leave Georgetown for Region Eight (Potaro/Siparuni) on October 21 to take the photographs which he hopes will capture and highlight the beauty of the North Ridge, displaying its unexplored wilderness.

After stopping at Waipa, Ireng River in Region Eight, Downes will move on foot into Region Seven en route to the mountain. Navigating using GPS charted routes, he expects to be at the mountain face on November 1 at the Brazil/Guyana border....

His ground-breaking solo climb to the top is expected to be arduous, but achievable using the route that he has scouted and practised. He will be moving with high tech lightweight equipment that will not encumber him.

Downes' food will be predominantly pumpkin seeds and water. He has been practising the diet for the past three months and has developed his physical strength to suit his needs.

-- From a story in today's Stabroek News. Hasn't Roraima been climbed from the Guyanese side just twice before?

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Information is no longer a scarce resource--attention is. David Rose, a Cambridge, Mass.-based expert on computer interfaces, likes to point out that 20 years ago, an office worker had only two types of communication technology: a phone, which required an instant answer, and postal mail, which took days. "Now we have dozens of possibilities between those poles," Rose says. How fast are you supposed to reply to an e-mail message? Or an instant message? Computer-based interruptions fall into a sort of Heisenbergian uncertainty trap: it is difficult to know whether an e-mail message is worth interrupting your work for unless you open and read it--at which point you have, of course, interrupted yourself. Our software tools were essentially designed to compete with one another for our attention, like needy toddlers.

The upshot is something that Linda Stone, a software executive who has worked for both Apple and Microsoft, calls "continuous partial attention": we are so busy keeping tabs on everything that we never focus on anything. This can actually be a positive feeling, inasmuch as the constant pinging makes us feel needed and desired. The reason many interruptions seem impossible to ignore is that they are about relationships--someone, or something, is calling out to us. It is why we have such complex emotions about the chaos of the modern office, feeling alternately drained by its demands and exhilarated when we successfully surf the flood.

-- From Clive Thompson's story in today's NY Times Magazine on "life hackers"--behavioural scientists who study human multi-tasking & the way high-tech devices affect our everyday lives. Two very interesting points: when juggling multiple tasks on a computer, people seem to feel calmer & more in control when they have a display large enough to allow them to see many windows simultaneously--for example, a word processor window right in front of them, their email window open to one side, so they can see new messages at a glance, & a web browser to the other, so they can take information off a website. (What I wouldn't do for a separate display just for email!) Also: "by a sizable margin, life hackers are devotees not of Microsoft but of Apple ... a company that has often seemed to intuit the need for software that reduces the complexity of the desktop." Of course.
An unwritten story by Kafka

A man who cannot sleep goes for a long walk in the early morning. He rambles through the city, not paying attention to the neighbourhoods he passes through. Then he stumbles and sees at his feet a ladder. It is three times as long as he is tall. So he picks it up and continues until, entering a square, he sees a mark on the paving-stones indicating this is where he must start climbing. Balancing the ladder on the air he tries to climb, but each time it slips and he must leap off to avoid falling. He tries to climb faster and faster and even manages to ascend to the fifth or sixth rung, but each time the ladder slips. The sun is up by now; the square, which happens to be at the centre of the city, is filled with street-sweepers, schoolchildren, clerks, housewives, elderly strollers, citizens hurrying about their business. The man climbs faster and faster.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Now We Are Three

It's three years today since I started this blog.

It feels like much longer.

Some numbers, just for fun: in three years I've had, according to my stats counter, just about 9,600 hits, the overwhelming majority of them one-offs, people arriving here by googling peculiar combinations of words. In three years it seems I've managed 558 posts (not counting this one), which averages about one every other day--I had no idea I'd been so prolific (but there've been whole months when I haven't posted at all). There was a time, soon after I started, when I was the first-ranked Google hit for "trinidad blog". Now I'm not even in the top 200.

In April 2003, I did an "interview" via email with Mark Lyndersay, who was thinking then of writing about blogging in Trinidad for his Bit Depth column in the Guardian. It never ran, but I've kept that Q&A. For want of anything better to post on my anniversary:

Subject: answers about blogging
From: Nicholas Laughlin
Date: 4/10/03 8:03 PM
To: Mark Lyndersay

What drew you to blogging and finally drew you away? [I was posting very irregularly at the time]

I started blogging by accident--that's what I tell people. Like everyone else, I suppose, I'd been reading about blogs & bloggers for months; finally last Oct. or thereabouts I read an article specifically about Blogger software & the free hosting offered at Blogspot. I was curious. I checked out the site. They said it was so easy, anyone could have a blog going in three minutes. So without thinking about it very much I clicked the link, filled out a short form, & before I knew what was happening I had a blog. I typed in a sentence to test it. To my horror, this was suddenly visible to the entire world. A sense of obligation came over me: I felt almost duty-bound to provide content. Then also I was intrigued by the phenomenon, & thought that the best way to explore & understand it was from the inside. And then I thought it might be a good way to learn some basic HTML, of which I was then entirely ignorant. And of course there was an element of vanity to it: here are my thoughts, here is my name, acknowledge me, O world.

I kept it up for about three months, though with a significant gap of a few weeks somewhere in between. I was intrigued by the idea of creating a distinctly Caribbean blog--following regional affairs, expressing strong opinions, debating, demonstrating. To this end I started dutifully reading the regional newspapers online--the Observer, the Gleaner, the Advocate, the Nation, the Stabroek News, the Chronicle, & of course the Express & the Guardian daily, & smaller papers like the Antigua Sun & the St. Lucia Voice a couple times a week. But naturally this required a big chunk of time every day--some days I spent five or six hours (not consecutive) on blog-related surfing, which was ridiculous. I might have kept it up if I had a real audience--not thousands like Glen Reynolds, or even hundreds, but at least dozens. But on my very best day ever I had 27 visitors [four days later, when the Guardian feature appeared, I racked up 72 hits in a day--still my record], & I could tell from my stats software that most of these were in fact people who'd stumbled upon the blog accidentally via search engines--& thus not constituting a real "audience". I had relatively few Caribbean or Trinidadian readers.

So I didn't stop because I lost interest. I stopped because I simply didn't have enough time to spare to blog "properly". Real-world deadlines pressed in, I wasn't getting enough sleep, my Internet bill soared. I'm not a fast enough typist. (Glen Reynolds once admitted that the secret of his success was speedy typing.) And I couldn't argue to myself that I owed it to my readers. I pretty much had no readers--a half-dozen friends & that was it.

How did blogging fit into your hierarchy of writing? Was it a diary? A space for gracenotes? Public musings?

"Public musings", I suppose--I linked to & blogged about things I found interesting for one reason or another--often to things I disagreed with. I made a conscious effort to follow stories that intrigued me, or that I thought not enough people were paying attention to. I tried to cover WI literature as widely as possible--linking to book reviews, interviews etc. Sometimes, I must admit, I posted things just to keep the content fresh--to get the date stamp, as it were.

How frequently did you blog?

I tried to post daily at least. Some days--like Sundays, when the newspapers are thicker & there's more to disagree with--I might have posted five or six entries. But for a period in November when I was simply too busy to think about blogging, I left off altogether; a friend helpfully suggested I put up an "on vacation" notice. I was busiest in January, then suddenly realised I couldn't keep it up & halted in February. I still do post entries whenever something particularly catches my eye--once a week maybe, so the blog isn't dead. It's hibernating, let's say, half-opening an eye every now & then to see what's going on in the waking world.

Is blogging a Trini thing? Would you rather lime and chat than write?

There's no mass audience here for Caribbean-interest blogs, I think, & the big "international" blogs are so deeply concerned with US politics that they aren't of much interest to most of us Trini web-surfers. The global-Internet-geek culture which seems to fuel the blogosphere hasn't achieved critical mass here yet. (And few of us have broadband.) But I wonder if it isn't just that the right kind of Trini blog hasn't been started yet--a blog with lots of gossip & politics & bacchanal, updated tirelessly! Perhaps an energetic enough Trini blogger could make it happen--& one popular blog might create enough of an audience to feed many smaller, more specialised ones.

Personally, I'd rather lie in bed reading than blog or chat or lime. I've become seriously reclusive in my early-onset middle-age [ahem! I was 27 when I wrote this], & very dependent on the consolations of fiction. --But I don't know if you can usefully compare blogging to verbal conversation. Blogging's premise is a mass audience, I think--whether the blogger means to show off to that audience or convert it. The medium has its own very heady pleasure. I can't say I prefer it to the pleasure of conversation (or that of emailing, or keeping a journal). It's a less essential pleasure, certainly. (Though I imagine in a few years personal weblogs of some sort will be as universal as personal email addresses.)

And there is, of course, the thrill of feeling that you're in on something--the early stages of what could be a revolutionary new medium--or could be merely a dead end.

I hope some of this is useful to you. I'm not very coherent on the subject--my thoughts on blogging are many, scattered & inconsistent. Let me know if there are any gaps you want filled.




"Here are my thoughts, here is my name, acknowledge me, O world." The world has never paid very much attention, despite my occasional contrivances to increase visitor traffic. I suppose I must once have found this discouraging, but I've gradually come to think of this blog not as a form of mass communication but as a sort of wastebook (in the Lichtenbergian sense) that happens to be online & is hence potentially accessible to millions of readers, almost none of whom, however, is interested. (You're practically my only regular reader these days, Georgia.) Knowing I have no particular audience relieves me of the obligation to be "relevant" somehow, by blogging about politics or current affairs, etc.--& leaves me free to post whatever catches my fancy, from odd snatches of poetry to squibs plucked from old notebooks. (Lately, it's been heavy on Guyana-related material, my so-called Guyana project, which began as an intense but confused interest in the place & has evolved fairly rapidly into a book-in-progress with the working title "Imaginary Roads".)

It's also reassuring to know that if anyone googles my name, at the top of the list will be something I've created & can control: this eccentric, discontinuous, sometime-ish stream of observations, discoveries, complaints, questions & textes trouvés revealing my interests, my obsessions, & perhaps more of me than I really intended when I started out.

Friday, October 14, 2005

From the Guyana Project

I always prefer to travel with maps; it unnerves me not understanding the geography of a place, not knowing which way is north. In any strange place, city or island or jungle, I try to keep a map with me, so I can check the landscape I see before me against the drawing on the paper, relate the time it takes to move from one point to another to the lines and symbols on the chart. I never feel I know a place until I can somehow impose upon the fabric of my sensations and memories an image as seen from some impossible location high above the earth. But I had not been able to find a good map in Georgetown, and now I was travelling blind, as it were; like a man groping round a room, I felt I was drawing on my other senses to fill in the blank spaces in my idea of the land I was crossing.
Nicholas on the road to Nappi, North Rupununi, Guyana, 9 August, 2005:

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Guyana's long-awaited 2002 census report--or at least an "intermediate" "core analysis"--has been released; see the front-page story in today's Stabroek here.

When I was in Guyana in February and again in August I heard several theories about why the census results had been delayed so long. It seemed generally agreed that the figures would point to some demographic trend the PPP government was not pleased about. The summary is: Guyana's East Indian population, an absolute majority as recently as the 1980 census, has declined from its 1991 proportion of 48.65% and now accounts for 43.5% of the national population. The African population has also declined (by 2.1%) to 30.2%. The mixed race population, meanwhile, has jumped to 16.7% (three cheers for miscegenation). Most striking to me, Guyana's Amerindians are now 9.2% of the population, up from 6.5% in 1991--which may reflect improvements in health care, nutrition etc. or, as a Guyanese friend pointed out to me, may simply mean the census-takers counted more carefully this time (it's thought that Amerindians have been seriously undercounted in earlier censuses due to the relative remoteness of many of their settlements & distrust of coastlander officials). When more detailed figures are released it'll be interesting to see whether the increase has been consistent among all Guyana's nine officially recognised Amerindian peoples, or concentrated in just one or two.

So you can see why many people thought the government was deliberately withholding the figures: ten months ahead of what everyone expects will be a nasty general election, in a country where the two major political parties depend on ethnic voting, it's revealed that the ruling party's base is shrinking. Interesting that the state-owned Chronicle didn't put the census story on its front page, & published an article giving the reaction of the PPP's general secretary, Donald Ramotar (no link; the Chronicle website is a mess):

He said "the census was taken in 2002 which suggests that the composition of the population was more or less the same in 2001 when the (general) elections were held and the PPP won over 53 per cent of the vote. Clearly, the PPP was getting a large (number) of crossover votes."

Mr. Ramotar noted the Census 2002 showed that the East Indian population was 43 per cent, while the PPP/C has been able to secure more than 53 per cent of the votes and argued that this destroyed the myth of the PPP being an Indian party.

"Historically, even if the PPP received all the Indian votes, it could not win government. And I am also sure that a certain percentage of East Indians did not vote for PPP. Our national, broad appeal saw increasing support in every election from other ethnic groups--Africans, Amerindians and Mixed," he offered.

This is interesting too: as pointed out by this Stabroek story, the figures suggest that 40% of the Guyanese born in the late 1970s no longer live in Guyana, a devastating accounting of the brain-&-brawn drain that's afflicted the country for decades. The census also counts just over a thousand Brazilians living in Guyana, a far cry from the figures I've heard bandied about ("maybe ten thousand just in the Georgetown area").

All, somehow, relevant to the Guyana project....

Saturday, October 08, 2005


No one has attended more closely than I the unendable arguments of insects, the disputes of their assemblies, the debates of their swarms. No one has made a more painstaking or painful study--I have winced under stings, bites, scratches, scrapes, inhaled repellent gases, pinched caustic liquids, and trembled through strange fevers of their venomous devising--a more eager or anxious examination of their multifarious civilisation, collectively so vast as to be incomprehensible, despite the insects' individual minuteness. I, an amateur (if to love can be ascribed my terrified activity), have suspected and discovered truths to which the doctors and professors and technicians have been blind.

-- J.S. Roman, from "Entomic Deceits"

My blood, I have discovered, is attractive & tasty to the ants, & they will come far out of their way to have it. --Of other personal fluids they will take spittle, but with apparent reluctance. --These mornings I draw a little therefore, an eighth of an ounce or so, & using a sort of tiny aspergillum I sprinkle it on the floor near my table. Quickly the ants stream in from the other rooms in meandering progressions. As they swarm about the scattered drops their glee assumes a series of intricate patterns in continuous motion. These I closely observe, sketching rapidly with pencil & paper. When, having consumed the blood away, the ants evacuate the room, I translate my sketches into passages of appropriate symbols, using specially prepared grids. Several stages of decoding, according to formulae I have with great effort & ingenuity devised, reveal my poems.

What do the ants mean by their avidity? Merely hunger, & their craving suggests our own for supersubstantial nourishment. Their mindless frenzy creates its own vortex of beauty; an image of the inexorable (& voracious) universe. The means by which I translate this into words seem to me purer than any other yet conceived.

Of course I fear the ants; they know me too well by now; whereas I know next to nothing about them. (This is partly deliberate.) I do not even know exactly where they come from, where they assemble, to which nest they carry their daily spoils of my flesh.

-- J.S.R., from the "Nevertime Notebook"

Hungry for the blood of all that move,
hungry for the hidden sweets of flesh,
atoms solving round each point of love,
you weave the fraying world into this mesh
of tingling taut commotion that is God's
(or galaxy's) propulse to holy state:
the sling He shoots me sodden out of sod
to that ecstatic fire I cannot sate.
Your frenzy circling seconds sprung of chance
must teach me to be eager for delight
in every slip or start; your furious dance
my pattern, smarting, craving, to requite.
You wake me with your kisses red as thorns.
To lust, to stinging lust I am reborn.

-- J.S.R., "Sermon to the Ants"
...although we live in a time that sets great store by measuring progress ("research" in academic parlance) in precisely demarcated areas of knowledge, real advances are often made by people happy to muddle along within the splendidly vague job description advanced by Susan Sontag, whose "idea of a writer [was] someone interested in 'everything'". Why, realistically, would one settle for anything less?

-- Geoff Dyer in today's UK Guardian, writing about "gatecrashing the experts' party".