Friday, November 03, 2006

Which is the greater struggle? The struggle to keep moving--get out of bed, into the next room, pick up your bag, why is it so heavy, out the door, into the car, out of the car, up the stairs, down the stairs, to the next meeting, the next task, the next obligation, the next cup of tea, how would any of this be possible without the next cup of tea, one more step, one more sentence, one more minute, keep the momentum, catch up, keep up, stand up, step up--?

Or the struggle to keep still--to be quiet--to be calm--to be clear--to pay attention--?

his feet.JPG

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

galvanize 06 image grid

Friday, October 27, 2006

Attillah's t-shirt says it all:

smelt patrick.JPG

And I'm wearing black today--specifically, a subversive 3Canal t-shirt.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Turning Four

I missed my own anniversary.

On 15 October, this blog was four years old.

A year ago I mused that "knowing I have no particular audience relieves me of the obligation to be 'relevant' somehow, by blogging about politics or current affairs". I then proceeded, in the next few months, to blog a great deal about politics and current affairs.

I'm not really a blogger at all, I'm far too sometimeish.

Over the sometime of the last two months, what energy and time I've had for blogging has gone into the Galvanize web presence.

And maybe I've once again fallen into a doldrum-like state of wondering what exactly this blog is for.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Friday, just after 9 a.m. I'm standing in the kitchen with a cup of coffee in one hand and a cordless phone in the other, talking to A. At that hour of the morning I'm often a little tottery, so I hear it before I feel it: that deep, sickening rumble like a continent's bones grinding. Earthquakes used to frighten me when I was a child, but for years now I've been nonchalant about them--part of my own personal myth of it-can't-happen-to-me invulnerability. I step calmly into the doorway as A., a couple miles away in Cascade, asks, "Do you feel that?"

"Dammit, this is a strong one," I reply, as I see one of my dogs running past the kitchen door and the floor lurches underfoot. Then I hear glass smashing. A. is about to say something, but the phone goes dead. Then the power goes out. Another smash. I suddenly have a mental picture of utility poles falling over. Car alarms are going off all over the neighbourhood.

The facts, learned later: 5.8, 15 seconds.

A large picture fell off the bookcase behind my desk. Had I been sitting there, it would have crashed onto my head. Instead it hit the little table next to my desk and shattered its green glass top. In another room, a broken vase. When I get to my office a couple hours later, I find the bookcase in the corner has partly collapsed and an avalanche of books and magazines covers the floor.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

nicholas at launch

Admiring one of Bruce Cayone's signs at the launch of Galvanize 2006, 14 September, 2006, CCA7. Photo by Rachel Rochford

Friday, August 25, 2006

Starts and Stops; or, Notes towards an Autobiography

The time has now come for me to hear a step in the passage, said N. to himself as he raised his head and listened. But there was nothing, or rather there was the swift high-pitched silence that swept through the house and swirled around his head when he paused his breathing, even now in the middle of the afternoon, when the city outside--streets and law-courts and concerts and schools--was rumbling and groaning towards the climax of its daily business. N. had stripped off his coat, but he was stifling. The windows were closed, since they let in nothing but heat. His forehead was streaming. He left damp thumbmarks on the letter he held in his hand, blue smudges.

The clock struck four. He had just set it to the right time.

There would be no one in the house until six. Now, for once, N. wished to be interrupted, surprised, to have the trajectory of his thoughts confounded, to be forced to thrust the letter hurriedly back into its packet, to cram the packet back into the drawer, heart pounding, ears and cheeks prickling, to pretend to be nonchalant. But there was no voice, no step; the silence mercilessly flowed from room to room to the corner where he knelt, washing round the house, till the glass of the windows strained and seemed it would shatter from the press of silence within and heat without.
Starts and Stops; or, Notes towards an Autobiography

N. was not wholly disconcerted, when he reached the hotel, to learn that his friend was not to arrive till evening. They would dine together at the worst, and tomorrow if not tonight. Meanwhile, the note of his arrival had been such a consciousness of personal freedom as he hadn't known in years, such a deep taste of change and of having if only for the moment nobody and nothing to consider, as promised to colour his adventure with cool success. And the city, still strange enough to promise, if not pleasure, then at least that interest of discovery that for some can be taken as a form of pleasure, was also wide enough, crowded enough, that he could safely indulge the subtle satisfaction of declining the possible company of the new acquaintances he had made on his journey. Had he told anyone his real name? For a few hours, for even a few days, he could half wear, half shrug off this new cloak of anonymity. His friend would arrive that evening, said the note he had opened at the desk. But N.'s objects of luggage were few.
Starts and Stops; or, Notes towards an Autobiography

All day, under a wet grey sky of October, N. rode westward. As he stared mournfully out the window at the great raw land so sparsely tilled, his heart went cold and leaden in him. He thought of how he had set out to get order and position for himself, and of the rioting confusion of his life, the blot and blur of years, the red waste of his youth, the warm hours of worry and hot minutes of regret.

By God! he thought. I'm getting old. Why here?

His life had been channelled by a series of accidents--words, sounds, faces, omissions. He had reeled out of warmth and plenty into this cold and barren land. And he felt the strangeness of destiny probe him like a knife.

Why now?
galvanise poster

Thursday, August 24, 2006

An Indirect Route

The three of us flew to Pisa and then caught a train to Florence. M was reading a book by Graham Greene, Journey Without Maps; he said it was to prepare him for our Guyana trip. One night after dinner, sitting outside a cafe near the Piazza della Signoria, surrounded by holidaying Germans, I sketched a map of Guyana on the back flyleaf of M's book, naming villages and rivers and mountains. I traced the route we might follow, from the coast south to the Rupununi.

The next day we took the bus to Siena. I knew nothing about the city, and was surprised by its beauty, by what seemed the sweetness of the light, as though all the old buildings were stained with honey. We climbed with the other tourists to the top of the unfinished nave of the Duomo, high on its hill. We heard sirens winding through the city, then an ambulance appeared in the square below us. A circle of people formed, too far down for us to guess their nationality or their ages. Someone had fainted, or had a heart attack.

A young man in a violet shirt and a jaunty straw fedora was standing near us, also looking down. We asked him to take a photograph of us, and gave him L's camera. He was American; he was in Siena with his whole family, he said, parents, siblings, siblings' children; he had climbed up here to escape them for an hour.

"Are you staying in Siena?"

"We've only come for the day. We're staying in Florence."

"Where are you going next?"

"We're on our way to Guyana," M said.

"You're taking a very indirect route," the young American said.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Various Distractions

Writing requires patience and attention: two qualities I aspire to and occasionally achieve, but never for long enough. --But if I start like this I won't get very far.

Various things distract me:

--Being thirty-one-and-a-quarter years old distracts me; which is to say, being fifteen months past thirty distracts me. There simply isn't enough time left, as there was--as there seemed to be--ten or even five years ago. Perhaps that sense of plenitude returns; perhaps it comes and goes like a mood that swings languorously over decades. Now I have the sense of how much I have lost to indecisiveness, to long, stark hours spent lying in bed, staring at speckles and shadows on the ceiling, unsure how to proceed or with what or even how to get up out of bed again, how to make the effort against gravity.

--The thought that I don't know what I'm doing distracts me. I can imagine I ought to feel this as a kind of freedom--a hugeness of possibility. I feel it only as another in a series of huge indecisions--as a failure to have ideas--as a kind of timidity. Is it braver to go on, one awkward sentence after another, or to stop now and once and for all? The only stories I have to tell are of my own inadequacies and anxieties--which I indulge by assuming they are worth recording (however inaccurately).

--Everything I have ever read distracts me. I am right now sitting in a small room lined with books, like three walls of careful insulation. Rows and rows of elegant spines, gleaming in the light from the lamp on my desk, silent with a sense of having achieved what they intended. Which was, partly, to bewilder me. All these words in layers and lines and webs and cords and cages and knots and nets and branches--

Friday, August 18, 2006

Almost Writing

It is Friday night. I am sitting at my desk. I am almost writing. My desk is a plain square table three and a half feet by three and a half feet, painted brown. To my right hand is a pile of books. To my left hand is a lamp with its hinged neck bent at an uncomfortable angle. The lamp is not switched on. Behind the lamp is a red plastic tray piled with papers and notebooks. Directly in front of me is my PowerBook. Behind the PowerBook is a pencil-holder full of pencils, pens, rulers, scissors. Next to that is a little wooden carving of three monkeys. The first monkey covers his ears with his hands. The second covers his mouth. The third covers his eyes. Next to the monkeys are four little wooden boxes containing various odds and ends: staples, beads, ends of twine. Next to the boxes is a glass paperweight. I am almost writing.

It is eight minutes past nine. My desk faces a window about ten feet away. The window looks out onto a wall and the far corner of the back garden. It is dark outside and I can barely make out the silhouettes of the shrubs at the end of the garden. Dozens of little frogs are singing outside but unless I think about them I don't hear them. I am almost writing.

I am listening to Satie's Gnossiennes. I often listen to Satie when I am almost writing. Other kinds of music distract: make me hum, or rap my fingers on the arm of my chair, or sing a phrase or two. For some reason Satie does not distract.

I am doodling on a scrap of paper I have just fished out of my wastepaper basket. I use this basket not to throw bits of paper away but to store bits of paper that have been doodled upon and may be wanted for further doodling. So the basket is never emptied. This scrap of paper already has a doodle on one side: an imaginary map. I am doodling on the other side: another imaginary map. I usually doodle maps, especially when I am almost writing. Coastline, rivers, cities, provinces. There may be a war: something may be conquered, a boundary may change. There may be a treaty. Someone may found an empire. For ten minutes I ponder the affairs of these imaginary countries: whole populations wait unbreathing while I decide their fate. A line of blue ink divides a nation. I fold the piece of paper and tuck it carefully into the overflowing wastepaper basket until it is wanted again. I am almost writing.

My study is a small room completely lined with bookcases and the bookcases are full of books. I look up at the shelves with their lovely patterns of book spines like multicoloured stripes running round the room: better than paintings. I read the titles on the spines on a shelf to the left of my desk. I immediately want to read every book on the shelf. That one is an old favourite. That one I've always meant to read but haven't found the time. That one has that passage I marked in the margin and meant to go back to. That one: yes. I am almost writing, and that one, that one has been written, and perhaps if I read a few pages chosen at random I will understand how it was written, and then I will write. I get up from my desk, take the book from the shelf, let it fall open in my hands, read the first sentence. So this is what a sentence looks and sounds like: this is how one writes. One uses certain words, mentions certain names. Yes, I understand. I am almost writing. I get up from my desk again and put the book back on the shelf. Yes, I am almost writing. I open a new Word file. A beautiful field of white pixels: untouched: ready. I see myself as a character in a very intellectual movie, perhaps French. I am sitting at my desk. I am very good looking, because I am writing. Or almost writing. I am gazing intently at the PowerBook screen and the air around me is incredibly pure and clear, because I am brilliant, almost glowing with genius, and I am doing the most important thing in the world: I am almost writing. It is terribly poignant: what a movie, no wonder it's French. No: but I am not French. I am almost writing.

No, no, I am tapping my foot on the floor: Satie is distracting me.

I am almost writing.

It is thirty-five minutes past nine. I have not had dinner. Since I sat at my desk two hours ago I have been almost writing. I have read several emails and an article about a photography exhibition; I have drunk a glass of red wine; I have doodled a map. I have imagined myself in a French movie about a writer: it is likely that a government may fall or a revolution may break out because of what that writer is writing. It is a terrible responsibility, a terrible burden, but that writer in the French movie keeps writing. But the movie flickers on and off: the image will not stay still. The frogs are singing. The monkeys have their hands clapped over their ears, their mouths, their eyes. The lovely colours of the book spines -- oranges, greys, blues -- ripple round the room. I am almost writing. It is Friday night. I am sitting at my desk. I am almost glowing with genius -- I am not yet -- I am very good looking -- I will not get up from my desk again -- I will not slump down in my chair --

I am not writing yet.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Y una perra greñuda,
rubia en su cortesía.
No se sienten sus pasos de oro suave,
ni su distante presencia.
Sólo ladra muy tarde por la noche
para ciertos fantasmas,
para que sólo ciertos ausentes escogidos
la oigan en los caminos
o en otros sitios oscuros.

--Pablo Neruda

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Be free

I was going to write about how Georgia and Jonathan and I kind of stormed the Miriam Makeba concert last night with Attillah's help, but I see Georgia got there first.

I spent much of this Emancipation Day at the office reading page proofs--such is the tyranny of magazine deadlines. In between, I've been thinking about something Attillah wrote in her Guardian column last Saturday, about what it really means to be free:

I tell my elders I am not interested in struggling. I want to win now.

I reason with bredrins about this struggle thing. Everything for a time and a season. I don't want to be 50 and saying the same things, fighting the same causes. I want to do the job right and once.

My bredrin says choose your battles wisely. But what are the battles that we choose? There will always be those who think something is impossible....

The time for struggling to get along with each other is coming to an end. I declare myself emancipated from the politics of resentment. I declare myself emancipated from the politics of paranoia.

I declare myself emancipated from any confusion between freedom and freeness.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Let others praise ancient times; I am glad I was born in these;
or, Check yuh boy, he smiling in the morning

I nearly didn't go to the Little Carib last night, 'cause I haven't quite shaken off this annoying cold and I was tempted to go to bed early with a book--but then I thought, how many times in my life will I get to hear jointpop play? Fifty? A hundred? It's not enough.

jimmy crime and the murderers

Jimmy Crime and the Murderers, a.k.a. Gary Hector and Damon Homer of jointpop, performing at the Little Carib last night

My hands shake and I take bad pictures, but I'm glad to live in the time of jointpop, and I continue to hope that one day I'll hear them play "King Radio" live. And though it wasn't the full band last night, Gary and Damon played an intimate, laid-back, effortlessly virtuoso set to a small crowd of fans who knew almost all the lyrics, and we all got to be backup singers for "The Water Supreme", and, check me, I smiling this morning.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


BBC announcer, live from Berlin, Saturday afternoon:
"We had a sweepstakes for the match, and I put my money on five goals for Sweden. Clearly I lost."

TV6 announcer, live from Port of Spain, ditto, turning to his co-announcer:
"So what do you think about that victory--I mean draw?"

Friend in Oxford, poet and scholar, via email, Saturday night:
"!!!*i* *want* *a* *shaka* *hislop* *t-shirt*!!!"

And my 1989 Strike Squad jersey has turned up. My brother borrowed it on Saturday. It's mine on Thursday.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Friday afternoon thoughts

The German embassy in Port of Spain has granted travel visas to 2,500 Trinidad and Tobago citizens for the World Cup, according to the papers today. But that doesn't include Trinis living elsewhere who would have got visas from other embassies. I figure that could be another 2,500. -- Last night I went looking for my old-school Strike Squad jersey, worn just once in 1989 and put away safely ever since. Can you believe I couldn't find it? I thought I knew exactly which cupboard shelf it was folded away on. I found my old St. Bernadette's Prep. and St. Mary's College school shirts, extravagantly autographed by schoolmates on two separate last days of school, and even the old green t-shirt I was wearing when I first heard news of the coup on 27 July, 1990 (why did I keep that?); but not the Strike Squad relic I was planning to resurrect to wear tomorrow. -- These last two weeks, it seems every other car on the roads is flying a little T&T flag clipped to one of the windows. I couldn't figure out where these things were coming from, then someone told me Hi-Lo was selling them. Sometimes when I'm on my way to the office in the morning I see five or six cars all in a row flying these little flags on their little white plastic flagpoles. I wonder if it's just in Port of Spain, or if it's the same thing all over the country? -- And at least two buildings, one in St. Clair and one in Woodbrook, have been repainted in red, white, and black--not to mention the poor Port of Spain lighthouse which got "decorated" on a patriotic football theme a few months back. I'm surprised they haven't broken out the Independence Day bunting on government buildings. -- No, I can't really say I feel any excitement about the whole thing, but maybe that will change when the first whistle blows tomorrow. Yes, this time around I'll be watching. Missing these three matches would be like missing Minshall crossing the Savannah.
A housekeeping note

I posted a report on the "Global Voices, Caribbean Accents" roundtable over at the Global Voices website a few days ago; and have updated "Choosing My Confessions" with my profile of Peter Minshall from the May/June Caribbean Beat and my piece on Christopher Cozier from the June Modern Painters.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

"In the virtual world of the Internet, size and distance ought not to matter--people in small, far-flung, obscure corners of the world can, in theory, create a presence as big as anyone else's. But in practice, the slow acceptance and partial understanding in much of the Caribbean of what the Internet can be used for means that, online, Caribbean culture and ideas don't have a presence proportionate to our vitality and originality; and on the World Wide Web, 'Caribbean' continues to be defined by outsiders--a simple Google search turns up ample evidence.

"But blogging, by its very nature--its immediacy, its flexibility, its ease of access even to those with limited technical knowledge--offers the possibility for ordinary Caribbean people to tell their own stories and debate their own definitions. From Derek Walcott to Lloyd Best, our thinkers have long argued the imperative for Caribbean people to understand themselves on their own terms, in their own language, in their own context. The blogosphere is an opportunity for us both to engage in a boundaryless regional conversation and to talk back to the world, asserting our identity and independence.

"Is this conversation happening yet, or are we still clearing our throats? How are our bloggers answering the hard questions about Caribbean identity, about what 'Caribbean' can, could, and should mean?"

--This is the "abstract" I wrote a few months back for an event called "Global Voices, Caribbean Accents: A Roundtable on Blogging in the Caribbean", which is part of the programme of the Caribbean Studies Association's annual conference, currently ongoing in Port of Spain. The theme of this year's conference is "The Caribbean in the Age of Modernity", and Alice Backer, the Francophonia editor for Global Voices, had the bright idea that a panel on blogging would fit in very neatly. Alice drafted Georgia and me for the roundtable, but unfortunately at almost the last minute she had to drop out. Luckily, Attillah Springer was willing to leap unto the breach.

So tomorrow morning at 11.15 in the first-floor seminar room at the National Library in Port of Spain--a couple of blocks from the CSA conference headquarters at the Crowne Plaza Hotel--Georgia, Attillah, and I will have a decidedly unscholarly, free-form public dialogue about the current and potential roles of blogging and other forms of participative web media in the Caribbean. A special-edition Caribbean Free Radio podcast--incorporating interviews with various CSA members which we recorded this morning--will debut, we'll talk about our personal experiences with blogging and about the Caribbean blogs we think most interesting, and if the library's wi-fi and audio-visual equipment are as spiffy as we've been told, we'll stage a fully multi-media event, including live access of webpages on a big screen and who knows what other marvels. (It would be super if a member of the audience came equipped with laptop and decided to liveblog the proceedings.)

We'll post detailed reports afterwards, including selections from our notes and links to all the blogs and other sites we refer to during the roundtable. There was talk of a Skypecast, but we may have quite enough on our hands already....
D'où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?; or, The journey not the arrival matters

It is Indian Arrival Day in Trinidad and Tobago, the anniversary of the landing of the first Indian indentured immigrants in 1845, the day when we officially commemorate and celebrate the origins of close to half the country's population.

As far as I know, none of my ancestors was aboard the Fatel Razack, the ship that brought the first 227 immigrants across the Indian Ocean, round the Cape of Good Hope, and across the Atlantic; but Caribbean bloodlines are complicated, so I could well be wrong. Still, I can't help thinking today--in between reading a big stack of magazine proofs and putting in an appearance at the CSA conference in downtown Port of Spain--about the long, often arduous, sometimes improbable journeys that all our ancestors endured to end up in this bewildering little corner of the world that is the Caribbean.

In my younger days I made some effort to trace a family tree, and of course I've heard stories from older relatives about eccentric predecessors, and discovered in obscure history books an occasional name that I know I'm linked to somehow. One of my great-aunts owned a little volume printed in France some time in the nineteenth century describing the early genealogy of the Pantin family--my father's mother's family--from which I know that some of my far fore-parents were Breton nobility. There were Pantin estate- (and slave-) owners in Trinidad since Spanish days. I know I also have some de la Bastide and Ganteaume blood. Laughlin is an Irish peasant name that suggests descent from the Viking raiders--the lochlanns--of the Middle Ages. One of my great-great-grandmothers was an O'Connor. My father's father's mother was Venezuelan--the family name was Pulgar, and I know nothing about it. My mother's mother's family was solid English lower middle class--my grandmother's maiden name was Main, you can't get more solid than that, and her parents were low-ranking colonial civil servants. My mother's father was born in British Guiana, the illegitimate son of an unnamed mother described on his birth certificate as "coloured" and an unnamed father who family tradition says was one of the Seaforths, Guyanese plantocracy of German derivation who changed their surname to something more English-sounding around the time of the First World War.

I suppose I wish I knew more about all these various lines of descent, knew more names and places and dates. But, for the most part, when I think of personal ancestry, of "roots" or "routes", anything further than three generations back is an abstraction. I can see how the choices and opinions and actions of my great-grandparents, my grandparents, and my parents have influenced or determined various elements of my own life. But those old ladies and gentlemen of five generations or five centuries ago? Characters in a story. I suppose I wish I knew exactly when my ancestors first arrived in Trinidad, and maybe a few days' research at the National Archives would turn up some answers, but I find I'm far less interested in the moment of arrival itself and far more interested in the new journey that "arrival" begins--in the process by which wanderers, exiles, prisoners, and explorers make of the disjecta membra of many old worlds something new and strange and perhaps, in the original sense of the world, wonderful.

We reach. And the journey now start.

Bon voyage to us all.
The talented Marlon James has started a blog. Yes, I am happy.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

I was startled, about an hour ago, by a phone call from Georgia in St. Kitts, with news of significant activity from the Soufriere Hills Volcano in Montserrat--lava dome collapse, ash eruption. (See her two blog reports here and here.) The airport in St. Kitts, it seems, is currently closed due to all the volcanic ash in the air, which reduces visibility--St. Kitts is about sixty miles from Montserrat. (Bad news for St. Kitts, which is preparing to host its first ever international cricket match on Tuesday.)

The Montserrat Volcano Observatory website seems to be down at the moment, along with most other Montserrat government websites, so I decided to ring the observatory to find out what's really going on. I had a quick chat with the observatory director, and then with the head of the emergency department, which has issued two official press releases for the day so far.

The first release, at 10.30 this morning, announced "increased activity" at the volcano, with the collapse of the lava dome at about 7.20 a.m. and a pyroclastic flow which reached the sea on the eastern side of the island, with "heavy ashing". It's expected that this could go on for several hours, and there is some threat of explosive activity and more pyroclastic flows. There is also some threat of tsunami activity triggered by these flows reaching the sea, and small tsunamis have apparently been reported already from Antigua and Guadeloupe (the nearest inhabited islands to Montserrat). The people of Montserrat have been advised to stay indoors and "remain vigilant", but there is no immediate danger.

A subsequent release, at about midday, contains an advisory from the Chief Medical Officer that people with asthma and children under the age of five should be removed to the northern end of the island due to ash and "a level of gas" in the air.

Some of Montserrat's telephone exchanges are currently down and power has been cut to some areas (the volcanic ash conducts electricity), which might account for so many of the websites being inaccessible.

No doubt Georgia will report further this afternoon on the state of things in St. Kitts, where people must be fairly worried about what all this will mean for the cricket!

Friday, May 12, 2006

Something on the governor's head,
Nobody see, nobody tell.

My great-aunt Elaine used to sing this little verse to me when I was very young--always accompanied by her actually putting something on my head, a handkerchief or a toy or whatever small object she had at hand.

I've been thinking about these lines lately--I suppose I've always assumed they're from an old folk song or calypso--but they're unknown to Google, at least as of right now. Does any of my readers know this verse or anything about its origins? It must date at least to my great-aunt's childhood in the 1920s.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The night crowded with empty directions,
centuries in the Trades.

At thirty-one my boy John Keats
was dead six years, halfway a saint.

The years were "brass" upon his tongue.

Darkling I listen
to the first movement (allegro)
of the second Brandenburg Concerto,
boastful, full-throatful,
a golden bird hurtling as to the stars,
joyous voyager.

You have gone too far--
The pink house crowded with empty rooms.
--where are you?

Dear John,
enough is enough.

Please come home.

Nothing is forgiven.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Imaginary Roads 1:8

He waited an hour in the lounge of the Georgetown Club for a cup of coffee, while his headache ripened. The kitchen often treated requests for things like coffee as inconsiderate surprises. The waiter, when he brought up the cup on a tray, was sullen and silent, and the coffee was weak and lukewarm. He drank it quickly, and felt a sudden longing for greenery, for fresh foliage on which he could rest his eyes.

He walked down Camp Street and across Regent Street, and the air felt heavy with dust and the exhaust of cars. At Vlissingen Road he waited many minutes before he could cross to the entrance to the Botanical Gardens.

Just outside the old green-painted iron gate there was a huddle of hucksters with trays of biscuits and sweets, and three or four taxis waiting to whisk tired visitors away, their drivers asleep on their half-reclined seats, all the cars radios on at low volume. He was flushed and thirsty from his twenty-minute walk in the late afternoon sun.

From the gate, a long avenue lined with tall royal palms stretched down the length of the gardens, at least a mile, it seemed; he couldn't see to the other end. Not many people were here today. The hedge along the avenue seemed dusty, and the lawn that sloped on one side towards the famous manatee pond was muddy, with big, dirty puddles in the grass. Two or three children stood beside the pond flinging handfuls of grass into the water, but the manatees didn't appear; the uprooted grass floated slowly to the middle of the pond, and the children wiped their dirty hands on their clothes.

On the other side of the avenue of palms was a sort of paved terrace with a ring of six pools around a seventh pool in the centre, where water lilies and water hyacinths grew in the murky water. This terrace led in turn to a set of low steps and a strange low pavilion: President Burnham's mausoleum.

He'd heard this pavilion described as spider-like, with its concrete buttresses like legs jointed to the roof, but he thought it looked more like a crab, paused in mid-scuttle, watching motionless until the observer looked away, when it would race for the safety of its hole.

The northern and eastern sides of the mausoleum were open. He walked up the steps and into the pavilion's shade. The southern and western sides were enclosed with thick walls, decorated with bronze reliefs maybe eight feet tall and sixteen feet wide, depicting events from Burnham's life. He appeared as a political prisoner, watched over by British soldiers, talking politics with fellow captives; as an orator, standing at a podium blazoned with the initials of the political party he founded; as the author of Guyana's system of proportional representation. In the second relief the grateful people of Guyana--farmers, miners, soldiers, all bearing the implements of their trade, tools or weapons--paid homage to their leader.

The mausoleum's pillars were painted purple, which someone had told him was the colour of Burnham's personal livery. But the sarcophagus that stood in the centre of the pavilion was the most striking thing. It was faced with slices of quartz or some other glass-like rock, green so dark it was almost black; the pieces of rock looked dangerous, wet and sharp as a knife. Set in the stone base was a bronze medallion with a palm tree and a black caiman; this was Burnham's personal seal.

He had read that Burnham had wanted to be embalmed and displayed in a glass coffin, and when he died, twenty years before, his corpse was flown to London for this purpose, for the attentions of expert embalmers. But someone thought better of this plan, perhaps, or else the embalming had somehow failed, and now Burnham, if he really was entombed in the sarcophagus, was sealed inside concrete and solid rock, protected by the slices of dark quartz and an ornamental chain barrier.

He had heard many stories about Burnham, about his eccentricities and brutalities and the whims by which he ruled Guyana in the last years of his life, and every day in Georgetown he heard new stories; everyone old enough to remember Burnham had a story. At state dinners, he was told, Burnham would ask his wife in Latin to pass the salt, just loud enough for all the guests to hear. He had renamed the chief bauxite mining town, fifty miles inland, after himself, giving it his first name, Linden--a name that suggested green delicate trees, not the dull orange of bauxite dust. And there had once been a rumour, he read later, that Burnham also planned to rename the mango; in Guyana it would thenceforth have been called the Burnham apple. Or perhaps Burnham never thought of this at all, but it was close enough to what people believed about Burnham for the rumour to have spread in spasms of excitement.

On his deathbed, someone else told him, Burnham had asked--his last request--for a taste of sweet condensed milk, a few drops on his lips. In the worst years of his rule, condensed milk was banned; no one knew how to make it in Guyana, and merchants were not allowed to import it. Other imported things like wheat flour and powdered milk were banned also, in the name of national self-sufficiency.

"And that was all because the American ambassador got Burnham angry one day, you know. You ever heard that? It was when Burnham was pretending to be this big socialist leader, and travelling everywhere talking about solidarity with this and that, and nationalising all the big firms. The American ambassador had a meeting with him and said, Mr. Burnham, you better stop talking like this. Remember you depend on imports from America to feed your people.

"Well, that was the wrong thing to say. Burnham was a haughty man and he didn't like anybody to feel they could dictate to him. Burnham said, I depend on America? Not any longer. And then he banned the importation of all those things--we used to say he banned all the white things, flour and milk, and even cement to build, and white paint for houses, and toothpaste. You couldn't buy Colgate in Guyana. People used to smuggle it from Suriname or Brazil.

"We had to make bread and roti and everything with rice flour. If you got a little bit of wheat flour, you would save it for a special occasion, to bake a birthday cake or something. And milk was the worst. Because we hardly have dairy cows in Guyana, and in those days we didn't have refrigeration to store it. People used to line up for hours at the shops if they heard they had some milk, just to buy a little bit for their children."

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Plans for the beautification of Georgetown and surrounding areas in time for the World Cup are to be scrapped since it has been ascertained that the targets are unattainable.

Plan B will now go into full effect. This is based on the concept that tourists greatly enjoy a full blown Third World experience than the boring type of poverty where a country's citizens can afford to eat fast food almost every day but don't have any minutes in their cellular phones.

Several studies based on questionnaires of tourists returning from holidays in Least Developed Countries have shown that first time visitors gain a greater appreciation of their own countries' comforts and also become aware of the need to alleviate poverty around the world.

Guyana's secret "Plan B" for the 2007 Cricket World Cup has been leaked! It includes the creation of special DWZs (Designated War Zones) in Georgetown, a Downtown Chaos Initiative, a major conceptual art project by Christo, and the establishment of an SRC squad:

The Simulated Random Crimes (SRC) squad will patrol the city at night looking for areas where tourists congregate after matches, and then stage melodramatic shootings.

Meanwhile, my sources tell me that Trinidad and Tobago's own secret "Plan B" involves the construction of dozens of skyscrapers in Port of Spain by next year in the hope that after three-four Caribs the cricket tourists will start to think they're actually in Dubai. Each skyscraper to be clad in highly reflective glass, of course, so that the glare of the sun coming off them will blind everyone and make it impossible to notice the bad roads, drainage, schools, health care, etc.--just as Riverside Plaza for two decades and more has dazzled people driving into Port of Spain from the airport, so they don't notice the slums of Laventille in the hills behind.
Inside the People World Wide Web....

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

"It's ten years or more since I heard this story from B. Long enough for me to have reinvented parts of it, so maybe it's as much my story now as it is his.

"He was hiking overland to Kaieteur with a friend, a hike of four or five days, with a plane to meet them when they arrived at the top of the falls. It was the rainy season. They were carrying a tent to sleep in at night, and all their food.

"But it was raining heavily up in the mountains, and a couple of days into the trip a river burst its banks and flooded all the surrounding country, and they found themselves trapped on an elevation by the floodwater. At first they thought they would wait it out--they had enough food for a few extra days, and they expected the water would go down in a day or two. But it kept rising, and their patch of dry ground shrank slowly, and finally they ran out of food.

"They decided to swim. If they stayed put, they would starve, but five--seven?--ten?--miles away there was a village on higher ground. They decided to try to swim there while they were still strong, before hunger weakened them.

"They left most of their belongings behind--clothes, equipment--except for a compass. They wrote letters to their families on pages torn from a notebook, and wrapped them in plastic bags, in case they drowned and their bodies were ever found. And they put these letters in the small rucksack B. strapped to his back. He also kept the volume of Shelley he had with him--a classic B. touch, his just happening to have taken Shelley along on that trip--because, he told me, if he drowned he wanted to have Shelly with him, to have the book, wrapped in plastic, found with his body.

"Then they started swimming. For long stretches, where the water grew shallower, it was more like wading. And of course they could cling to the branches of trees to rest. And all around them all sorts of forest creatures--insects, snakes--were swimming also.

"Once, during the long swim, B. was some strokes behind his friend. All he could see of him was his head and neck, bobbing in the water. Then B. noticed that his friend's head and neck were covered with what looked like a fine red veil. It was hundreds of tiny red spiders, descended from a tree, perhaps, stealing a ride to dry land.

"B. was about to shout to his friend, tell him about the spiders, when he realised: he looked back over his shoulder, he passed his hand gingerly over his own head. Of course he was covered with the spiders also.

"He never told me about arriving at the village, how long it took to swim there, what the people thought of this dramatic appearance of two young men, climbing dripping from the flood. His story cut to their triumphant return to Georgetown, and then to his friend's return to Oxford, where he was a student of some sort.

"This was the punch-line of the story: his friend returned to Oxford and was describing his adventure to another friend who studied tropical diseases. This other friend, the pathologist, immediately grew excited. He asked for samples of blood, urine, stool. He discovered a new bacterium--or some such minute organism--previously unknown to science. It made his career."


Subject: half-remembered stories
Date: 15 April 200-

I've been turning over in my head a story I remember you telling me ten, eleven, twelve years ago, about getting trapped by rising floodwater on an overland trip to Kaieteur & having to swim to safety with nothing but a copy of Shelley. I'm wondering how much of this story I remember & how much I've invented.

Subject: RE: half-remembered stories
Date: 17 April 200-

I swam out of the floodplain near the base of Kaieteur with a secondhand copy of Shelley in a Ziploc bag. T. had ditched some Garcia Marquez and we'd thrown away our food supplies (rice, red beans, farina) and gambled on making do with a box of glucose. I looked at the Marquez books and couldn't bear to abandon Shelley like that. I decided to take his poems with me as we swam out. I will never forget the short walk into the floodplain.

We swam through a flooded forest (briefly) and I remember hidden branches rubbing my legs and belly. This actually felt reassuring at the time. Dozens of spiders jumped out of the overhanging branches and ran around the top of T.'s backpack, in front of me. I brushed them off and had one of those Hollywood moments when I looked back to see a whole colony of them scampering around on my own backpack (and neck and shoulders). We found shallow water near the river and were soon able to walk the rest of the way with no difficulty.

Our trip lasted nine days in all, three of which were spent in nonstop rain, moving away from the regular track beside the river and getting lost in the bush. I started to worry when a large tree fell over about ten feet from my hammock one afternoon. We had a sombre talk and I tried to write a will. Annoyed by some large green flies, I ate a fistful of raw garlic in the afternoon sun and couldn't sleep above my own smell. The flies responded as though sweated garlic was a pheromone. We spent two days alone at the top of Kaieteur, writing stupid comments in the guestbook. I lost a stone in weight and remember the delight of a large steak at the Arawak when we got back to Georgetown.

I remember howling monkeys at night and strangeness of the night's sounds against the deep, almost interrogatory silence of the forest. Too often I had the unfashionable thought that it would all be much better if somebody cleared this jungle away and put up decent houses, a cinema, a mall... anything I couldn't get lost in. The porknockers we met had a wonderful phrase about "eating a house"--people dismantled unguarded houses and used them for firewood. I also remember that they called gold "the mineral" and they talked of it like a woman, particularly the way it gleamed at the divers from the dredges.
I am sometimes a cloud waiting behind your eyes....

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Inevitably, he began to dream of rivers, or perhaps of a single river, unimaginably long, its source as impossible as its mouth, ceaselessly changing, ceaselessly the same, its black waters concealing impossible depths. He dreamt of a house on the bank of this river, a wooden house with open sides, among trees, the damp wood of the house no less alive than the wood of the trees, the wind tumbling through the branches of the trees the same wind that tumbled through the house, and the rush of the wind making the same sound as the black water rushing over the rocks of the river. For the house was close enough to the rapids for the river's spray to drench its posts and walls; but also--for such is the unstable topography of dreams--the house was on a great height overlooking the river, so high that the river's course was spread out below as on a map, a line of black or of gold traced through the green fog of the forest, black or gold, depending on the angle of the sun. And at this height the winds were warm and seemed tinged with pink and gold, but lower down, among the trees, where the wind gushed along the course of the river, the rays of the sun did not reach, it was always dark and damp and chilly in the permanent weather of this dream. It was always dusk, never day, and in the dark beneath the trees, along the forest floor muffled with dead leaves, it was always silent but for the sounds of the wind and the river, no birds called, no insects hummed, and the dark air was heavy with the weight of that silence.

From this house on the height above the river he would plan his journey, unfurling old maps that sometimes matched the river he could see far below. He did not know his destination, but he knew it lay somewhere along the river, further than the maps showed; he did not know when the journey would start, but he knew it would be soon, and his knapsack lay on the wooden floor beside him, half open, clothes and other things spilling out onto the floor. He had many visitors in this house, perhaps, because he could hear their voices, perhaps from another room, though it sometimes seemed the voices came from the trees, people chatting and laughing and never calling his name; but he was also a stranger in this house, he did not know what had brought him here, could not remember finding his way, and though he searched and searched his maps, turning them round and round on the table in the fading light, his face inches from the old, creased paper, his maps never told him where he had come from, and all they showed was the river, a long, meandering, spiralling line of black or of gold, the names of its islands and banks and tributaries unfamiliar and unhelpful, its many channels crossing and weaving so that it was not clear if it was one river or many, and the river of his maps only sometimes matched the river he could see outside, far below, and he did not know where the maps had come from. And though night never fell, night was always about to fall, it was always the moment just before he knew dusk had become night, and then in the wooden house with open sides on the bank of the river, so close that the spray from the rapids drenched the posts and walls of the house, he would shiver and listen to the rushing water falling on the rocks like knives, and wonder if it would rain that night, and, if it rained, how high the river would rise.

Sometimes this dream turned into the dream of nothing, which was an older dream, perhaps the first dream. It was a dream of falling asleep, of the moment between waking and sleeping when the dreamer must let go of things, of even the thought of sleep. Except he felt something in his arms, his arms were wrapped around something, something invisible without form or weight, a nothing, except he felt it in his arms and he tried to hold it fast, but the nothing in his arms seemed to grow bigger and bigger without ever changing, and he tried to hold it fast and stop it from growing, but because it had no form or weight it was unstoppable, and could not even be held, and then he realised he was sinking, but through a vast space so dark and empty he barely knew he was sinking, as if he were sinking through the very nothing he was trying to hold fast in his arms.

He wanted to let go, to stop trying to hold this nothing. Later he would know he did stop, because he did finally fall asleep, but he never knew how, and each time he had this dream he believed this was the time it would not end.

This was the oldest dream and the worst one, because it was really a dream of never sleeping and never waking. It was a dream of always being in the dream itself, in the impossible space between waking and sleeping, of always sinking and always trying to hold fast in his arms the nothing that could not be held or stopped. As a child, he had this dream nearly every night, and then for many years it had gone. Now the dream came back.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Who comes walking in the dark night time?
Whose boot of steel tramps down the slender grass?

"Unprecedented", the news reports are calling the assassination of Satyadeow Sawh. It's true that this horrible event--the cold-blooded murder of a sitting Cabinet minister and three other people by a gang of men armed with assault rifles--raises Guyana's ongoing crisis to a more desperate pitch. But the history of Guyana over the last fifty or sixty years is a sickeningly sequence of "precedents": from the Enmore Martyrs in 1948 to the horrors of the immediate pre-independence years in the 1960s to the murders of Bernard Darke, Vincent Teekah, Ohene Koama, Edward Dublin, Walter Rodney, and others in the late 70s and early 80s; to the violence after the 1997 and 2001 elections, to the Buxton "uprising" and the "death squad" which the former interior minister Ronald Gajraj is alleged to have run; and, just in the last few months, the murders of Ronald Waddell, Gazz Sheermohamed, and the eight people killed in Eccles and Agricola on the southern outskirts of Georgetown in one night at the end of February.

I've spent much of the last year thinking about and trying to understand Guyana. I've travelled about the country, talked to and interviewed people, read hundreds of thousands of words, and I've been trying to come to terms with my own experiences there the best way I know: writing them down, tentatively, anxiously. Again and again, Guyana's actual unfolding history has halted me. Maybe there is a degree of despair I don't have the nerve to engage. Maybe this heart of darkness is too dark. Maybe there are bad dreams I don't want to have.

It is the man of death, my love, the strange invader
watching you sleep and aiming at your dream.
If it does not dawn on the government after this that the state is no longer in control, then heaven only knows what it will take for the reality to penetrate. This is not about our normal unruly political game; we are into a different context entirely from anything which has obtained before

-- Today's Stabroek News editorial on the assassination of Guyana's agriculture minister Satyadeow Sawh.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Imaginary Roads 1:7

He was sitting in the lounge of the Georgetown Club with another of the guests, an Indian man, perhaps fifty or fifty-five, who was born and had grown up in Georgetown but left thirty years before. He had lived in Canada all those years and now he had returned to Guyana for the first time since he was a young man. He had a nervous, ascetic manner; he was thin and his hair was graying, and until now he had kept to himself, not chatting with the other Club guests. But perhaps something had happened to him that day, perhaps he had seen something that revived old memories, and he wanted to talk about the past. They had been sitting in silence; then the man made a small gesture with his hands as if to suggest that preliminaries were unnecessary, and began speaking.

"You wouldn't believe it now, but Georgetown used to be such a beautiful place," the man said. "Forty, fifty years ago. They used to call it the Garden City of the West Indies--you know that? And it was true, every house had a garden, trees, flowers--hibiscus, frangipanis. And trees along all the streets, the main streets. And water-lilies in the canals--they never used to be full of dirty water like you see now. People used to paint their houses every year, with fresh white paint.

"In the dry season people used to have garden parties. I went to so many parties when I was a boy here."

They were sitting in low armchairs near the Demerara windows that looked out onto Camp Street. Dusk had fallen as they sat there; cars sped past and through the open windows came music and loud voices from the small bar across the street. The man was speaking softly.

"I used to ride my bike everywhere. It was safe, it wasn't like now. I used to ride up to the Sea Wall, and in kite season we used to fly kites there. Hundreds of kites all along the Sea Wall on a Sunday afternoon. You ever saw those kites? They used to make them with a little flap of paper they called the tongue, and the tongue would make a noise in the breeze. It would sing. Hundreds of kites, flying and singing, all different colours, all down the Sea Wall as far as you could look. I used to wish I could go out in a boat and see the kites from the sea. And people used to dress up and come out walking to see the kites--families, children. Everybody friendly, everybody gentle. Not like the people now. I don't know what happened to this place.

"More than thirty years since I left. All that time I didn't want to come back. I didn't want to see what happened to this place. I used to hear from my family here, and my friends, hear about all what was going on. Even after Burnham died"--Guyana's first president, Forbes Burnham, died in 1985 after ruling for two decades--"even in the last election, they beat people in the street and burned down houses. I didn't want to see all of that.

"But I had to come back at least once. I'm not young anymore, I don't know how long I will still be able. So I came back now, for three weeks, to see what the place looks like, see who I still know here. I told my children I didn't want them to come with me. They're grown up now, no reason for them to come here. Most of my family left over the years, some came to Canada where I live.

"But the things I'm seeing-- You wouldn't believe what Georgetown used to look like, you can't look at this place now and imagine. It was the most beautiful place. And in the dry season when all the plants were flowering, and the sea breeze you used to get--the place wasn’t dirty like you see it now. Georgetown was like a garden."

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Imaginary Roads 1:6

It was impossible to not be surprised by the physical graciousness of the city, even though this was described in every account of Georgetown he'd read. The wide streets and their generous grid, the low line of the buildings, few rising to more than three stories, gave a sense of spaciousness; yet as he walked to his appointments he found that this was the rare city where things were actually closer than they appeared on the map.

It was the buildings themselves he most marvelled at, the older ones, built of wood and painted white, their fretwork and shuttered windows letting in the breeze from the north-east, delicate as houses made of paper, their banks of slender shutters like frills cut with tiny scissors. He thought of them as white ships floating across the waterlogged land, lined up in graceful flotillas.

But many of these lovely structures were decrepit, their paint peeling, boards warped, exterior staircases fallen away, weeds sprouting from balconies. Even this disrepair could be poignant and picturesque. And at the feet of these buildings, or just outside their walls, the open canals designed to channel the water that would otherwise submerge the city were full of slime and garbage, overgrown with water-weeds; water sat stagnant everywhere in the city, full of mosquito larvae or small fish. This elaborate hydraulic system first devised by the Dutch, by which the city was protected at high tide by the kokers, and drained into the Demerara at low tide, had been allowed to decay for decades. Canals were clogged, kokers warped or rusted shut, and now the foul wastewater was trapped among the streets. A septic smell lingered through Georgetown, like a reminder of failure.

A city built below sea level is in constant danger of drowning. A city built of wood is in constant danger of burning. Every day as he walked to and fro he saw gaps between buildings, empty except for a few charred timbers or concrete pillars that once supported wooden floors. If one of these wooden buildings caught fire, it burned so quickly there was almost no chance it could be saved.

Two months before he arrived Guyana, in fact on Christmas Day, the Sacred Heart church on Main Street, one of the city's landmarks, was destroyed during mass by a fire that started in the nativity crib. As the congregation sang the final hymn of the service, a small lightbulb sparked and exploded, and the straw that had been arranged around the figures in the nativity scene--the infant Jesus, the kneeling Virgin, Joseph with his staff, the ox and the donkey and the lambs--caught alight.

The church interior had just been repainted, with oil paint, and the building could not have been more flammable. In twenty minutes, he was told, the hundred-and-forty-three-year-old church was consumed by fire, its two towers, its Italianate west facade, the school behind it, and the parish records, with their details of the births, marriages, and deaths of five generations of the Portuguese community who had built Sacred Heart. Later he saw a photograph of the fire, the building's main timbers stark as a skeleton in the inferno. He often walked past the orb-topped gateposts that had once admitted worshippers to the church; now they led to an expanse of rubble among the stone foundations.

One day, as he returned from an errand at the bottom of Main Street, he noticed the Sacred Heart gate was no longer padlocked, and he went in. No one in the street paid him any attention. In the rubble he found fragments of wood now reduced to charcoal, shattered glass, and pieces of tin with a beaded pattern beaten into them. Anything of value that survived the blaze--if anything could have survived the blaze--had long been taken away, and fresh weeds were sprouting up through the small debris.
I think of ... a dream that I once had in the mid 90s, a time of much confusion in my life. It was Carnival, but in the past, near the Bleachers, where I saw mas in the 60s with my parents--it was Lloyd as a Gladiator! He was playing an individual. He had net, axe, leopard-skin coat, a Ken Morris breastplate, with a series of people, who I cannot recall, keeping his cape off the ground.

I was about to acknowledge him, but he held his hand up and said that he could not recognize me--Who are you? What are you playing? Go home and get your costume and then we could talk! he said.

In other words ... what's your position?

-- Christopher Cozier, in his new weblog, thinking about Lloyd Best

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Imaginary Roads 1:5

Late one afternoon he walked up to the Sea Wall, the long dyke--more than two hundred miles long--that protected Guyana's low-lying coast from the Atlantic flood.

The tide was out, and two groynes built from piled boulders stretched perpendicular to the shore. He climbed out to the end of one of them. The water was shallow, a few inches at most, dirty and foamy. Children were playing on the wide, garbage-strewn mud flats, and some boys were fishing from the other groyne.

Years before he actually saw it, he'd dreamt about this Sea Wall and the mud flats that at low tide ran for hundreds of miles, interrupted only by the mouths of rivers. He'd dreamt he was being chased by someone who in his dream he knew was the Guyanese poet Martin Carter, though the Martin Carter he invented, with white hair like an electric halo, looked nothing like the real Martin Carter who had lived in Lamaha Street not so far from the Sea Wall. In his dream, the dark, wet mud flats gleamed under the moon, and small objects half-sunk in the mud--pebbles, pieces of broken glass--glittered as he ran past.

There was a steady wind off the Atlantic and as the sun set the benches looking over the sea filled with people chatting. Scraps of plastic bags and old clothing fluttered like torn kites among the rocks and the scrub at the foot of the Wall. There were no ships to help him gauge the distance of the horizon.

As he ambled eastwards the Wall narrowed, till he had to sidle past people coming from the other direction. In a grove of sea-grape trees just beside the Wall someone had constructed a sort of bower-like habitation from pieces of cloth and string, pages torn from magazines, plastic flotsam, broken children's toys. Bottles hung from the branches; there were unlit candles in the mud among the tree trunks. On the Wall itself here cryptic symbols had been painted in white.

There was no sign of the person who had built this nest and presumably lived here, or slept here at night--or was it some sort of work of art, or someone's private monument? It was like a parody of a child's secret hiding-place, but deliberately out in the open, where you couldn't help staring into the heart of the lair. He noticed that other people walking past either sped up slightly, or looked away.

From this vantage point it was clear that at high tide most of the city would be below the level of the sea; he began to understand the nature of the catastrophic floods a few weeks before. Some buildings still bore the dirty brown or greenish marks along their lower walls that showed how high the water had risen, and the open fields--playing fields, perhaps, or pasture land--on the other side of the Sea Wall Road were still in parts coated with thick black mud. For a moment the Wall seemed a frighteningly slight defense against the vast weight and volume of an entire ocean, and he found it too easy to imagine all these houses and people and cars swept away by the flood, leaving nothing but an endless expanse of flat, empty mud.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Imaginary Roads 1:4

To stay at the Club, one needed the recommendation of a member. It was an old colonial institution, a relic of the sugar era, founded in 1896, though the present Club building was only sixty years old--its predecessor had been destroyed in a fire. The rooms upstairs, he was told, had once been used by overseers and other sugar company staff normally posted outside Georgetown, on their trips to the city. Now the Club housed an assortment of old Guyana hands visiting from abroad, men and women who had been coming here for decades and knew the ways of the place.

Every morning he would come down to the dining-room and find himself assigned to a different communal breakfast table, so that over the weeks he stayed at the Club he breakfasted with most of the other guests in turn, and he wondered if the staff carefully arranged who would meet over breakfast by manipulating the place settings.

The Club and its guests were governed by a set of rules, some of which were posted on a noticeboard near the bar, some of which, it seemed, were semi-secret, divulged to guests only after they had broken them. Some of these rules were archaic, stipulating standards of dress or behaviour that must have seemed reasonable seventy or eighty years before; they were upheld faithfully by the Club's staff, most of them working-class Guyanese. Guests were discouraged from having visitors at night, and the lights in the main lounge were put out at ten. One could not simply pay for a drink across the bar; to give cash to the barman was considered improper. Everything had to be signed for and billed to a member's account; so only members (or "temporary members") could order drinks or meals.

At one time the Club was run by English expatriates; most of its members were of the white upper class, in the days when Guyana still had a white upper class, families with English and Dutch and sometimes French names, families who owned or managed sugar estates. "Ordinary" Guyanese could not have sat in the bar, except perhaps with the special dispensation of the Club management. Now the Club seemed to have very few members, and most of those were "squash members", who joined only in order to use the squash courts behind the main building, across a courtyard. On weekends, when a heavy silence like the sound of abandonment hung over the lounge and dining-room and even veiled the noises of the street outside, shouts of excitement and laughter would sometimes drift across the small yard from the squash courts.

On Wednesday nights a group of older members met in the billiard room to drink and play and exchange news, but otherwise the Club worked like a sort of hotel, with guests from abroad staying in the rooms upstairs and businessmen using the bar to meet with colleagues. Unaware of the complexities of this history, over the weeks he stayed there he often asked people to meet him at the Club; it was as convenient a place as any to sit and talk. He noticed that some of his acquaintances--men and women who thirty years before would not have been welcome as guests--seemed surprised to find themselves here, nervous ordering a drink from the barman. One new acquaintance who had come to meet him confided that he had been a waiter there once, and would take nothing more than a glass of water; not even a cup of tea.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

howsen cricket match 2

Easter Sunday cricket match at Howsen Village, in the foothills of the Central Range near Talparo; Howsen Village vs Valencia, Howsen batting; 121 for 5, just before the tea break
Imaginary Roads 1:3

The city was called Georgetown, and the central district near the river was snarled with traffic. The driver explained that the Brazilian president was visiting, and some of the main streets were closed for the convenience of his entourage. The car zigzagged back and forth, and he lost his sense of direction, could not tell if they were still heading north. The white spire of the cathedral seemed to circle them, counterclockwise.

"This is the place," said the driver. They were on Camp Street, at the Georgetown Club, where he had a room booked. A skinny security guard in a khaki uniform opened the heavy iron gate.

He had expected spacious grounds, wide lawns and pavilions, not this building overlooking a noisy street, with a small strip of garden--shrubs in orderly beds. From the outside, the Club was three storeys of white-painted wood, its facade broken by many windows. Inside, it was dark polished wood.

There was no one to help his with his bags. He climbed the stairs to the main lounge, a long, airy room furnished with low chairs and sofas, small tables, faded maps of Guyana pre-dating independence, as he saw when he looked closely: where each map had once been captioned "British Guiana", someone had carefully pasted a strip of paper printed "Guyana" over the old colonial name.

The only person in the lounge was a man in a white shirt behind the bar, looking alarmed to be called from his newspaper. The barman handed him a form to fill out, an application for "temporary membership", and gave him the key to room seven.

The wooden staircase, with its ill-fitting maroon modern carpet, creaked as he climbed, and the heat in the corridor on the upper floor felt stale, as though it had been trapped there behind the windows for too many long afternoons.

He was disoriented by the feeling that here at the Georgetown Club it could have been any year in the last three decades; the furniture, the decor, and even the most inconsequential fittings looked like they had not changed in that long. Everything was like a vague childhood memory about the way doors opened or chairs settled. But his room was air-conditioned and cool and clean. There were two beds, a small refrigerator with bottles of water, a long desk with a telephone. The window looked past a traveller's palm onto Camp Street, busy with schoolchildren and bicycles, and the small trenches that ran along the sides of the street, choked with weeds and gagged with stagnant water. At this height, two storeys up, he was safely above the smell of the city's decay.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Good Friday, 2006. Looking Skyward

kites and poui trees

Kites flying above the poui trees on the western side of the Savannah, Good Friday

"Any idea where we might find a bobolee?"

"Yeah, they have one in La Seiva every year."

So we drive up into Maraval and to the little junction in La Seiva village by the rumshop. An old fella sitting there by the side of the road looking bored, but no sign of a bobolee.

We stop a young woman and ask her.

"Nah, they didn't do one this year, I don't know why."

(A bobolee is an effigy of Judas, made from old clothes, newspaper, straw, sacks, traditionally displayed in public on Good Friday and ritually beaten--symbolic punishment, roughly two thousand years after the fact, for the original Judas's betrayal of Christ. Over the years, Trinidadians have come to use the bobolee-beating as a form of political protest, with the effigy standing in for delinquent politicians, notorious criminals, despised phenomena. This year, it seems, completely spontaneously, people across the country refrained from beating their bobolees in order to protest the wave of violence and murder that is traumatising the country. Photo in the Guardian of a bobolee in McBean Village propped up against a fence with a sign reading "Please stop crime / by don't beating me / that's part of crime".)

So we drive back down to the Savannah, where the hot dry-season sky is filling with kites: impressive mad bulls; strange ring-shaped objects that seem to hang motionless in the breeze; a goldfish with fins rippling; a few simple brown-paper chickeechongs; and cheap plastic numbers like the rainbow-striped one Georgia bought week before last.

A few days ago the pink poui trees were covered with flowers, but the breeze has almost stripped them bare. Still, pink pouis always remind me of snow-cones with condensed milk, and it's a hot, dry afternoon, so after the kite manages to get lodged in a tree I stroll down to "George", the snow-cone man across from QRC.

The Savannah grass is brown and dry and prickly, but one fella is stretched out on his back, one hand behind his head, the other holding on to his kite-spool, looking up at the western sky and the clouds back-lit by the descending sun, dozens of kites darting and swooping but somehow never colliding, and, even higher, pairs of birds gliding towards the hills.

Could I behold those hands which span the Poles,
And tune all spheares at once, peirc'd with those holes?
Could I behold that endlesse height which is
Zenith to us, and to'our Antipodes,
Humbled below us?

pink poui

Pink poui tree in the Savannah, Good Friday

Say what:

Friday, April 14, 2006

Imaginary Roads 1:2

He was travelling to a place called Guyana, an English-speaking country on the north-eastern shoulder of South America, reaching from the Atlantic inland along the lengths of three or four great rivers to the border with Brazil.

The flight lasted perhaps an hour. Later he wouldn't remember any view out the window of the airplane until he was descending over a river called the Demerara. Below was what looked like an unbroken forest canopy, a monotonous expanse of trees, not a hill in sight.

He realised at that moment that he knew almost nothing about Guyana, despite the reading he'd done to prepare himself, the guidebook information he'd memorised. He didn't know what he was getting himself into. Then among the trees he saw tin roofs, then clearings, the untidy evidence of human settlement, and then the runway, and the plane's engines roared.

It was early afternoon and the heat felt not quite familiar. This was South American heat, with the slightly sweet scent of a bonfire.

He told the immigration officer he was on his way into the interior.

He'd arranged to be met by a taxi, and as he stepped into the front arrival hall he saw the driver holding up a piece of paper with his name written on it in ballpoint ink.

The road to the city was lined with houses, shops, Chinese restaurants every fifty feet, pedestrians, animals. He couldn't make out where one village ended and another began; the blur of buildings on either side of the car seemed a single continuous settlement. He found the bustle reassuring. He saw policemen in tunics of a shade of pale blue too delicate to be practical; a Hindu temple like a pagoda, built of white-painted fretworked wood; a donkey-cart loaded with vegetables under a burlap sack. He had a sense that water was near, then saw the Demerara to the east, its bank demarked by sentinel kokers, Guyana's famous sluice-gates.

But what did the taxi driver talk about, was the car comfortable, did its air-conditioning work, what did he think of the people they passed on the road, their clothes, the way they walked or stood, the signs painted on their shops, the shrubs in their small garden plots, the little wooden footbridges leading to their houses, was this anything like the story he'd told himself, why had he imagined arriving and driving along this road at night?

"You been to Guyana before?"

He told the driver this was his first time. The driver asked why he was here.

"You come for business? Not the best time to be here, you know. You heard 'bout the floods?"

A few weeks before, the strip of low-lying coast where most of Guyana's people lived had been devastated by floodwater, after unseasonable rain overtopped the conservancy dams that protected the settlements, and the old system of drainage canals and sluice gates collapsed. Some villages had been flooded eight feet deep, drowning livestock and destroying crops, and even parts of the capital city were five or six feet below water. Bacterial diseases broke out, and there were fears of epidemics.

"Yes, it flood round by my house too. Four foot in my patch of greens. You could still see the mark on the side of the house where the water reach."

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Imaginary Roads 1:1

He was not a good traveller. He was always agitated by the mundane mechanics of getting from one place to another: packing, driving to the airport, waiting, the special discomfort of the airplane, waiting, lugging bags around, onto trains, into cars, up stairs. That morning he was still slipping from room to room with clothes and books in his hands, cramming things into his knapsack, pushing papers into a manila folder, when the friend arrived who had offered to drive him to the airport. She sat making quips while he hopped about, still half-dressed, trying to cross things off the packing list he'd drawn up the night before, grabbing his shoes, making a mental inventory of his pockets; wallet, keys, pen, handkerchief. His rucksack was overstuffed: he was taking a bulky battery-powered reading light, a portable coffee-maker (but he forgot the bag of ground coffee, and was never able to find any in the city; he drank instant coffee the entire time he was there); books he wouldn't read.

At the airport, after he checked in and surrendered his rucksack, he had a makeshift lunch of sandwiches and weak tea. Whatever pleased excitement he'd felt about the trip had curdled into anxiety by now; his knee bobbed up and down under the formica-topped table. On most journeys there came a point of near-despair, usually when he was at the airport and waiting to board the airplane, when he'd regret he was going anywhere at all and wish he were at his house, in bed or sitting at his desk. The place he was travelling to would begin to seem sinister; he'd have visions of dark, dirty, cold cities, or sterile landscapes baking in the sun. The airport departure lounge or, worse yet, restaurant, was a non-place, a sort of limbo, where nothing seemed to resemble the objects of the world outside--not even the air, recycled dozens of times, scented of some unidentifiable substance, some polymer.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Waiting for rain

Watching the oleander outside my window nodding in the dry season breeze, thinking of imaginary islands, reading The Loss of El Dorado, wanting a fresh cup of tea, listening to jointpop in my iTunes, ignoring the stack of page proofs near my left elbow, trying to remember the exact temperature of the Essequibo at Kurupukari where thirteen months ago I swam under an early moon, waiting for an email from across the sea, wondering how I've got to be thirty years and almost eleven months old....

Monday, March 20, 2006

phagwah chowtal

A chowtal group from Montrose performs at the Phagwah celebrations at Aranjuez Savannah, Sunday 19 March, 2006

Yesterday afternoon I drove out to Aranjuez with Georgia and Jonathan to join in the Phagwah (or Holi, as it's known elsewhere) celebrations there. I'd like to write a short, ruminative essay about the experience: our arrival, dressed in pristine white; our discovery that we'd missed a bee attack; the nice man who gave us our first dousing with abeer, then handed us bottles of the purple liquid and bags of powdered dye so we could join in the fun; the nice woman who in a matter-of-fact, motherly way smeared my face with green; the young scallywags who took every opportunity to soak us long after we were purple from head to foot; the small chowtal groups who performed, followed by a dance troupe who did a couple of Bollywood numbers (I kept hoping they'd play Babla and Kanchan's Hindi version of "Hot Hot Hot", just to close the circle and complete the New World experience); the friendly special attention everyone seemed to pay us, as though they didn't want us "strangers" to feel left out in any way; the young man who was sprinkling everyone with talcum powder, just like a Carnival fancy sailor; my longing for a pichakaree, the tubular device you use to squirt abeer on people; and ending with our departure, brightly stained and all but indistinguishable from everyone else in the crowd, a nice little allegory of--something or other.

But offline deadlines and distractions continue to mount, so the above summary will have to suffice, plus a small selection of photos here (I had my camera in a Ziploc bag most of the time, for the obvious reason). Attillah's also posted some photos, from the celebrations at the Nagar site in central Trinidad (start here and move backwards), and Georgia's posted photos of her dye-stained fingers after the event.

Say what:
A housekeeping note

I've rather ignored this blog lately--combination of post-Carnival exhaustion and real-world obligations--but I have managed to post a few recently published things over at "Choosing My Confessions", including a review of Rupert Roopnaraine's Primacy of the Eye from the February Trinidad and Tobago Review; a review of Caryl Phillips's Dancing in the Dark from the March/April Caribbean Beat; and "Talking about StudioFilmClub", a dialogue with my friend Leon Wainwright, from the March Modern Painters. I've also finally got around to posting some photos from Guyana last July and August here at Flickr.
Hao Wu, Chinese filmmaker and blogger and Global Voices Northeast Asia editor, was detained by Chinese authorities on 22 February, and has been held since then without charges. Please visit the Free Hao Wu page for more information about his case, and consider linking to spread the word online.

Say what:

Friday, March 17, 2006

On the train from Dublin to Cork, 27 April, 2005, thinking of home

He discovers Ireland is flat as Barbados
and green as a Berbice paddy.
He wonders how many sheep it takes to mow these hills.

He thinks, this place could do with a few volcanoes.


Scott McLemee says, "Kiss Me, I Might Be Irish".

Saturday, March 11, 2006

heart that sings banner

Banner from the "Heart That Sings" section of The Sacred Heart, on display at the Callaloo Company mas camp at the victory party on the Saturday after Carnival

Carnival over nearly a fortnight. Physical aches and pains lasted just a few days, but I still don't feel like I've caught up on sleep. And I find myself drifting in what I can only think of as a gentle post-Carnival depression--the excitement ended, the adrenaline flow cut off, the electric charge suddenly dropped--and mild dry-season March blinks through its days, and I find I haven't been able to arrange my mess of impressions and remembered emotions into anything resembling a narrative.

I was in the Savannah on Carnival Friday night to see Minshall's king cross the stage in the semis--the story that night was that Kerwin Paul, who had played Son of Saga Boy in the prelims, was replaced by another first-timer king, Brian Pantin. Carnival Saturday I kept my head down, kept quiet, trying to conserve strength. Dusk on Dimanche Gras found me sitting in the Phase II panyard, enjoying the breeze and the sunset light and the impromptu duet two tenor pannists were playing a few feet away. Then back to the Savannnah to watch Minshall's queen, Miss Universe, cross the stage again in the finals--this time, for all of five minutes I was part of the crew, when Alyson Brown thrust a piece of equipment into my hands, until someone else grabbed it away.

I slept maybe fifteen minutes that night, then at two in the morning I was out of my house with a flask of coffee and a bag full of eight-foot lengths of aluminium wire and cloth strips, soon transformed into devil's tails, equipped with nine-volt batteries and torchlight bulbs: taillights, which bobbed behind us as we chipped, mud-plastered, through Woodbrook, across Park Street and down St. Vincent Street to Independence Square, where we met milky dawn. At seven we drove out to Macqueripe to wash the mud away. The beach was still almost deserted and the sea was icy and dark. And from the lack of sleep, low blood sugar, and the shock of the cold water, I was briefly and abruptly sick, retching on the shingle. But as I knelt there, eyes closed and shivering, I couldn't help thinking this was somehow appropriate, a part of the J'Ouvert ritual, the preparation for the two days to follow--physically expelling whatever was before, because this was new and now: Carnival was here.

I got home just in time to greet the two friends who had flown down from Newcastle and were staying with me till Ash Wednesday. We all collapsed into various beds, and it's true, J'Ouvert morning sleep is the sweetest sleep you can imagine. At noon we were up and heading out to join Minshall, dressed in white and decked with red sashes. We found the band at the Savannah, creeping towards the stage, many friends and acquaintances in the throng, and perhaps I imagined it, but everyone seemed a little perplexed but delighted to have made it here once again. Our sashes were in the air as we danced across the stage between the near-empty stands, then we were on our way down Victoria Avenue into Woodbrook, moving slowly, thinking of the exertions still to come. We left the band at Adam Smith Square as the sun was going down, and drove out to Chaguaramas to peep at the last-minute flurry of activity at the Callaloo mas camp--painting, carving, rehearsing.

Tuesday morning we were at the Savannah at half past seven. The band was assembling along the pitch just across from Queen's Royal College, all black and red and silver flashes from the elaborate metal helmets. The first ten minutes everyone seemed nervous--would we be able to manage these three-foot-tall "samurai" helmets all day in the blazing sun? But they turned out to be surprisingly wearable, a trick of balance, not weight, and within an hour we were all moving as though we'd been wearing them all our lives. I was struck by the way the costumes "told" you how to wear them, how to play the mas: the wide "cowboy" chaps encouraging a legs-apart swagger, the helmets forcing you to keep your head upright, your eyes focused directly ahead--we must have looked like an army dancing down the road, our red flags fluttering overhead, and that, after all, is what we were supposed to be, an army marching to battle for what Minshall called The Sacred Heart of Trinidad and Tobago.

They told us we were meant to cross the Savannah stage "early" on Tuesday. No one believed this, and no one was surprised when we turned west on St. Clair Avenue, in the opposite direction. Adam Smith Square, Victoria Square, South Quay--by now it was early afternoon, and we left the band for an hour-long break in Woodford Square, sprawled out on the grass.

It must have been five o'clock or so by the time the band started squeezing onto the Savannah track by Memorial Park, and we must have spent an hour creeping forward the last hundred feet to the foot of the stage, but I didn't notice the time, I was so caught up in anticipation. We edged forward, trying to stay in our sections, trying to figure out what was going on, then someone ahead shouted, up to the stage, now! And we scurried, and finally we could hear the music and knew the performance had started. Later I would find out about all the little and big things that went wrong offstage--missed cues, missing props, miscommunication among the crew--but from the moment I was within sight of the stage and the white halo of the lights, disbelief was suspended, and anything that happened was meant to happen, and everything was magic--or everything was mas, which might be the same thing.

I heard an aria on the loudspeakers--"O Mio Babbino Caro"--and saw the "diva", a dancer twenty feet in the air with a long white skirt, gliding across the stage. Then what sounded like Japanese martial music. By now I was on the ramp, but still couldn't see onto the stage, there were so many people crowding the edge. I don't know how I realised it was time for my section, "The Heart That Sings", to go on, but somehow I did. They were playing "Heart of a Man", "our" song, and huge banners like ships' sails were billowing above us, and I was about to cross the Savannah stage on Carnival Tuesday at dusk, Minshall's traditional hour, my first time, and for a few seconds I actually thought I might start crying, but then I was on, and the stage was enormous and open before me, shimmering with sailors' powder, the lights were so bright I couldn't see the stands, and I realised I had been waiting almost my whole life for this, and then I felt a surge of joy, and all I wanted to do was wave my red flag and dance. So I did.

Was I two minutes, five minutes, ten minutes getting to the other side? It wasn't long enough, so I turned around and went back on, and saw Son of Saga Boy loping across. I danced back to the end of the stage, and still I didn't want to come off. Then the Shiv Shakti dancers in their little white "moon" suits came on, and the music switched to what sounded like a Hindi folk song, and dozens of people who'd already left the stage came back on to see what was happening, and we made a semi-circle near the dancers to watch. Someone started stamping the stage in time to the music, and then we all were, stamping the boards and pounding them with the standards of our flags, and it sounded like an army on the march, wonderful and grave. Then the Dame Lorraines came on with the twenty-foot phallus, and Miss Universe with the "Hearts of Hope" behind her, red pennants high in the air, our last hurrah.

And then we were all on the western track, heading out of the Savannah, and it was all over, it was night, only hours remained, and it felt like a whole city just wanted to wring a last few drops of joy before Carnival was finished again. We were chipping down Victoria Avenue once more, and I felt jubilant. But Mr. Minshall, sitting in the back of the crew truck, looked haggard and grim. As I passed the truck, I caught his eye, and I waved and blew him a kiss. He blew it back, looking unsurprised, and he had no idea who I was.

The band was heading for St. James, but we left them on Tragarete Road, around eight, and the walk up Maraval Road to QRC, where we parked, now seemed a great trek. We were hungry and nowhere was open. We ended Carnival in an air-conditioned KFC, surrounded by beaded and be-sequinned masqueraders.

Now here I am, Saturday morning, a week and a half into Lent, wondering what it all means, what next, where next, and how to get started.

Attillah Springer, writing in the Guardian today about wanderlust:

We leave for various reasons, most of them having to do with what T&T can't do for us. We go and give our best to the metropolis. We contribute to mystery Babylon. We go, most of us, for the milk and not necessarily the cow.

And then we come back here, only for small doses, soaking up all the sweetness. Falling back in step with rhythms familiar and necessary to our survival.

I can't say if this is a good thing or a bad thing. I can't say if I am right or wrong to feel, after two months, that I've had enough.

Must shake off these post-Carnival blues. Time to get--in every sense--moving again.

Say what: