Monday, December 21, 2009

“Spaciousness, intimacy, and silence”

Define happiness, someone asked me recently. Absorption, I said instantly (it was an e-mail interview), and anything that gives me an inner life and a sense of spaciousness, intimacy and silence. The world is much better for many of us now than it was 10 years ago, and I never could have dreamed so many of us would have so many kinds of diversion, excitement and information at our fingertips.

But information cannot teach the use of information. And diversion doesn’t teach us concentration. Imagine a seven-hour-long heart-to-heart with someone who
s been saving up all her life for what shes about to whisper in your ear. The medium that has been dying the whole century may be one way we can rebel against the hidden dictatorship of Right Now.

— Pico Iyer on “the tyranny of the moment” in the Los Angeles Times.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Slipping down the slope

Since the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago doesn't currently have a website, I've decided to post this statement, just received by email from the MATT executive:

It was with shock and dismay that the media association learned of the recommendations of the Privileges Committee of the House of Representatives with regard to Mr Andre Bagoo of the Newsday newspaper.

On finding Mr Bagoo guilty of an offence, the committee recommended not only that the newspaper publish an apology, but also that Mr Bagoo be banned from the media gallery of Parliament until the end of the session.

Matt considers this an unjustifiably harsh and highly unusual punishment.

Mr Bagoo had been accused by Information Minister Neil Parsanlal of committing a contempt of Parliament by publishing the proceedings of the Privileges Committee in another matter before those proceedings had been reported to the House.

The association admits that this publication by Newsday was indeed in breach of the Standing Orders of Parliament.

However, in previous cases involving breaches of privilege--including the case prematurely reported by Mr Bagoo, which involved Udecott--once the accused party apologises for the offence, he or she is almost invariably let off and no further action taken. It should be noted that the editor in chief of Newsday, Ms Therese Mills, appeared before the committee and apologised for breaching the Standing Orders.

In addition, in a minority report, three members of the committee disagreed with the recommendations and argued that banning a reporter contravened the constitutionally enshrined freedom of the press. They asked that members of the House reject either the entire report or that recommendation.

Matt endorses this call, and now awaits with apprehension the committee’s findings in the case of two other journalists also sent to the Privileges Committee.

In light of the recommendations in the case of Mr Bagoo, Matt notes with grave concern that a pattern may be emerging of attempted intimidation, by way of the Privileges Committee, of journalists whose reporting may have embarrassed or offended the Government.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Dear Aunt Jobiska

Off the roots. Come on, join
Perhaps—I gripped the chair more tighdy
African temper in amour

For his Aunt Jobiska said, “No harm”
They sailed away in a Sieve, they did
Return hot joy time!
No brakes in amour

— A found poem, if you will: my favourite spam email subject lines from the past week. Apologies to Edward Lear clearly required.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

“It’s quite practical”

I have no use for the idea that what needs to be written will get written. I am fully aware that if practical circumstances allowed, I’d write more, and of better quality, that now probably won’t get written. I don’t mean this to sound mystical. It’s quite practical really. I think many good writers never make it and much good writing is lost or undone.

— My friend, collaborator, and co-editor Vahni Capildeo, interviewed today at the newish arts blog PLEASURE (first of a series of interviews with Trinidadian artists called “This/discourse/has/no/start(middle)nd”).

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The day they “beautified” Hope

The spot where Tragarete Road meets Dundonald Street and Richmond Street is one of Port of Spain's in-between zones: just a little too far north to be downtown, too far east to be Woodbrook or Newtown — a neighbourhood that doesn't really have a name. One corner of the intersection is occupied by a gas station, another by a car dealership, a third by the old Strand cinema. Because the street grids to the north and south aren't quite aligned, in the intersection itself is a little traffic island, grassed over and roughly triangular. Thousands of people drive or walk past this place on an average weekday.

I'd wager not many pause to look at the piece of public art in the middle of the traffic island: a concrete sculpture, perhaps twenty feet tall, abstract in form. From a narrow base it widens into an organic diamond-like shape with an oval void at its centre, womb- or egg-like, then it tapers upwards into a kind of spire. I've often thought of it as a giant needle, its eye framing the view down Richmond Street to the sea. Perhaps thirty years ago, when it was still new, this object stood out in the city's bustle. Nowadays it recedes into the chaos of billboards and traffic.

This is Spirit of Hope, a work by the late Patrick Chu Foon (1931-1998), the artist responsible for many of Port of Spain's public sculptures, from the walking Gandhi (1969) in Kew Place to the Tribute to the Steelband Movement (1972) in Tamarind Square to Lord Kitchener (1994) outside the Harvard Club in St. James.

Spirit of Hope was installed in 1971, less than a decade after Independence and a year after the Black Power Uprising that expressed wide public discontent with Trinidad and Tobago's political and economic leadership. It was not a terribly hopeful point in Trinidad's recent history, to say the least, and I wonder if Chu Foon's sculpture was the manifestation of a genuine optimism or idealism, of an ironic detachment, or of an artist's inward-turning in the face of social breakdown and despair.

I thought of this today when I got a phone call from my friend Christopher Cozier, who had just driven down Tragarete Road and noticed that someone had painted over the sculpture in a shade of pastel green.

spirit of hope

Georgia Popplewell and I decided to see this for ourselves. We drove into town, parked on Fraser Street, and walked round the corner. Spirit of Hope stood there looking sheepish in its new coat of hospital-wall green. No doubt some civic or corporate entity had decided this isolated object, rather dingy-looking after thirty-eight years in the car exhaust fumes, needed sprucing up. Except the paint ran out before the workmen finished their assignment, or else their ladder wasn't tall enough: the pale green stopped a good four feet below the tip of the spire. It's anyone's guess whether they'll return to finish the job.

I don't know what's worse: this act of vandalisation in the name of philistine "beautification"; or the fact that it was probably the result of considered good intentions (of the kind that pave the proverbial road to perdition); or even the fact that I feel slightly guilty bothering about the whole thing, in the midst of a prolonged nationwide social collapse with far more urgent symptoms. Why am I troubling myself about an obscure piece of public sculpture instead of picketing Whitehall or UDECOTT or the EMA or the office of the Leader of the Opposition or the constituency office of the MP I didn't vote for?

Maybe because this too is a telling symptom. It tells me how unaware we are, as citizens, of the civic spaces we live and work in, and how irresponsibly we behave towards them. It tells me how little respect we have for the work of our artists and thinkers, and how eagerly the powers-that-be package that work in more palatable forms. It tells me we're far too fond of quick, superficial solutions to our problems. Sculpture looking dirty? It would be hard work to research the artist's medium and methods, come up with a serious restoration plan, strip away older layers of unsympathetic paint, and rethink the architecture of that intersection to give the piece context, relevance, poise. Much easier to buy a tin of green paint.

Much easier to pay a few hundred million dollars to drop some big skyscrapers into Port of Spain — look, we have tall buildings, just like Miami! — than to think about the real strengths and flaws of our urban infrastructure, how to preserve the former and fix the latter. (Who cares if downtown still floods if it rains too hard for too long?) Easier to buy a giant blimp to hover over the country like the Eye of Sauron than to understand and address the real social inequalities that drive the crime and murder rate. Easier to erect a prime ministerial palace, it seems, than to build schools and put equipment into hospitals.

So this is what we do with the Spirit of Hope when it starts to look dingy: give it a cheap coat of paint, don't even bother to finish the job properly, throw up three-four advertising signs around it, and congratulate ourselves on "beautifying" the city — secure in the knowledge that almost nobody will notice.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Town on lower George Street

town 1 george street

Broadsides from the first issue of Town, posted on the old Angostura Building, lower George Street, Port of Spain; 17 October, 2009

Friday, October 16, 2009

No license, no registration

Yesterday, Wesley Gibbings, president of the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM), sent the following message to media associations around the region:

This is to advise of the imminent introduction of a Model Professional Services Bill to Caricom member states which calls for, among other things, the registration and licensing of media workers.

The bill is meant to 'regularise' and harmonise standards among professionals in a wide range of categories under the ambit of the CSME.

The subject was raised at a CSME workshop in St Lucia on October 12 by Caricom officials.

I have already advised that this matter is not subject to negotiation. It is a well-established fact that the licensing of journalists constitutes an outright threat to freedom of the press and other rights. There is also a growing body of international judicial precedents which determines its unlawful nature.

The ACM is moving quickly to nip this in the bud. We are inviting a senior Caricom official to discuss this matter with us at the forthcoming conference and fifth biennial general meeting in Grenada on December 10-12. Hopefully, the outcome will be a very clear message to have this withdrawn as a proposal to Caricom member states.

This is dangerous territory and I am urging all of us to use the tools at our disposal to publicise this issue and to act decisively to ensure the model Bill, especially as it relates to media workers, does not reach anywhere near our parliaments.

We will be mobilising international support for the campaign.

Georgia Popplewell links to a copy of the draft bill here. She urges her readers to publicise this issue, and I want to do the same. (Georgia also notes that the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago, which forwarded Gibbings's message to its members last night via Facebook, does not have a "proper, public-facing web site" — their blog hasn't been updated since May 2007 — which, for a group of media professionals in AD 2009, is almost unbelievable. I want to add that although the ACM does have an informative website, they are yet to post anything about the Model Professionals Bill there.)

I also want to urge interested readers — and I hope you are all interested, not to mention alarmed at the possibility of regional legislation for registering journalists — to read the draft bill. It is meant to apply to a wide range of professions, but it takes no account of the circumstances and principles that make, say, medicine or engineering different to journalism. The draft bill, which is meant to be adopted by all Caricom states and leaves various blanks to be filled by respective governments, if applied to journalists and media workers, would:

= set up a professional council with some members chosen by media workers and some appointed by the government — the proportions of one to the other are left to individual governments;

= require all media workers to apply to that council for registration;

= further require all media workers to apply and pay for an annual license to practise their profession, with the fee to be determined by individual governments;

= require media workers to "display such License in a place in the facility where he operates, that is normally accessible to the public";

= forbid unlicensed persons from practising journalism, on pain of "summary conviction to a fine of [ ] or to imprisonment for [#] years". (Imagine the glee with which the Trinidad and Tobago Cabinet would fill in those blanks.)

With a few simple manipulations, this bill could essentially give Caricom governments the power to determine who can and cannot practise journalism. And it leaves citizen journalists — who the Caribbean mainstream media still don't quite understand or respect — in limbo. Would I be legally required to apply for registration and a license to continue writing on this blog? I don't "cover" "news" per se, but I have reported and commented on current events in the past, and insist on the right to do so in the future. Does that make me a journalist under the terms of the bill?

I don't have court clothes, and I don't intend to buy any. Please spread the word about this misguided piece of possible legislation and let's make it clear to Caricom that, as Gibbings writes, "this matter is not subject to negotiation."

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Urbi et orbi

town 1 abercromby and hart

The corner of Abercromby Street and Hart Street, Port of Spain

A new project, but one I’ve been turning over in my head for some time: Town, a modest literary magazine, publishing poems, very short prose, and images in broadside editions, and also (of course) online.

This is partly (I will admit) a response to my continued anxiety and uncertainty about the future of the CRB; partly a way to experiment with different ways of no-budget, non-profit literary publishing; partly an opportunity to make things, attractive physical objects—in this case, simple 8½ x 11-inch broadsides run off on ordinary office equipment (huge thanks to my friend Sean Leonard for his help with this). We’ve printed a few dozen copies of each broadside, and begun posting them around Port of Spain on walls, fences, lampposts, and elsewhere.

I asked my friends Anu Lakhan and Vahni Capildeo, brilliant writers both, to be my co-editors. We agreed to include one poem by each of us in the first issue—if we’re going to ask other writers to let us stick their work up on public walls, we thought, we should be willing to do the same with our own. We also included a wry and very short fable by Kelvin Christopher James, a Trinidadian writer based in New York (whose work I’d previously published in the CRB), and three beautiful, haunting images by Nikolai Noel (1, 2, 3), excerpted from a larger work in progress.

Town launched last week: Anu and I traipsed round Port of Spain on Friday with a sheaf of broadsides and a roll of masking tape. We hope people will be surprised, perhaps delighted, perhaps confused by these fragments of poetry and art scattered through the city’s urban topography. We hope people will like them enough to steal the broadsides and take them home (by Saturday night one was already missing from the hoarding outside QRC). Those who don’t live or work in Port of Spain can read the full contents of the magazine at our website, and if you like what you find there, you can download PDFs of the broadsides, print them from your desktop, and post them wherever you please.

More about the hows and whys of Town here. Find out how to contribute here. See images of the broadsides posted around Port of Spain and elsewhere here. The first issue is all-Trinidadian, but for future issues there is no geographical restriction on contributing writers and artists: we simply want to publish good work, whether its effect is to surprise, to delight, or to confuse.

And here is my own contribution to the first issue of Town: a poem called “A Place to Start”.

town 1 outside qrc

Outside QRC, Maraval Road, Port of Spain

Monday, October 05, 2009

Apologia Pro Vita Sua, ch. 2

His life was not very exotic, but he hoped his mind was.

Friday, October 02, 2009

The Englishman

Annai, March 2005

The Englishman had two sons, both by his Brazilian first wife, who was now dead. The elder son, he said, was twenty or twenty-one. He was in London, a student, studying film. The Englishman’s voice softened when he spoke of this elder son. There was a photograph of him in the library of the ranch house, a black-and-white photograph in a silver frame. It was a formal portrait, taken in a studio. The son — his features delicate, his hair neatly parted in an old-fashioned style, his mouth barely smiling — looked something like a film-star of the 1930s. There was a soft sheen about him, almost like a halo, a silvery bloom like the manifestation of something like sanctity.

This son, the Englishman said, would be returning to the ranch in July with some of his film-school friends. They would have their cameras, their equipment. They would make a film about South America, travelling south by motorcycle, or perhaps Land Rover. He was a hard-working boy, the Englishman said, with two jobs in London to pay for his studies. And though he didn’t say it, it was clear this elder son would return to the ranch only for short visits. He had grown up here, but his life was now elsewhere, in the city his father had fled forty years before. The soft silvery halo of his black-and-white portrait somehow confirmed this, was somehow a sign of his translation into that city, that life across the ocean.

The Englishman’s younger son was named George. Or perhaps it was Jorge. But everyone called him Georgie — or “Jargie”, which is how it sounds in a Guyanese accent. Jargie looked nothing like his brother. His black hair was long and shaggy, and he had a scraggly beard. One of his front teeth was chipped. He had a dark tan. He rarely looked anyone in the eye, and he said little, at least while his father was nearby. He may have been nineteen or twenty, but he looked older. He had the heaviness of gesture of a man of thirty, easy in the ways of the world, but when he spoke it was like a boy, with a note of sullenness. He often seemed unwashed, at all hours, as though he had just been labouring at some heavy job involving dirt and grease.

Jargie seemed angry when his father was nearby, and eager to be somewhere else, at some task. The Englishman didn’t seem to notice this. “A good son, a faithful son,” the Englishman said. “I couldn’t ask for a more faithful son,” but when he spoke to Jargie it was in questions and orders.

“The plane came in this morning. Did it bring our package? Yes? Did you check it? No? So how are we to know what message to send back? You must check it at once, and come to my office to tell me if the part is there. Without it, how will we fix the second truck? Good? Off you go, then.”

Jargie replied in grunts, and hardly raised his eyes from the ground. He strode off.

“I couldn’t ask for a more faithful son.”

Later, driving the Land Rover, with his father back at the ranch, Jargie spoke confidently, almost boastfully, of his work at the ranch, the vehicles, the horses. The men of the village seemed to like him but also to be a little afraid of him. You could tell by the way Jargie spoke to them that he was proud of this.

He never mentioned his brother.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Days of labour, nights of writing

"Most interventions frame the poor as objects of the discourse of
 digital access, and they are rarely seen as the subject of digital
 imaginaries. How do we think of the space created by ICT as one that
 expands not just the material conditions but also breaks the divide 
between those entitled to the world of thought, and those entitled to
 the world of work?...

"We all lead intellectual lives, but the distribution of opportunities 
to lead an intellectual life is unequal, and we need to think through
 the history of materiality also as the history of conditions which 
divide people on the basis of those who think and those who work, or 
the division of time between the days of labour and the nights of

-- Lawrence Liang, from "Access Beyond Developmentalism: Technology and the Intellectual Life of the Poor"

Monday, September 07, 2009

free+three poster 1

Sunday, August 23, 2009

“Before this was a poem it was a question”

“Here Is the Poem”, published today in tongues of the ocean.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Thinking aloud

Poetry ought to concern itself with the truth.

There are other things to do with the truth than tell it.

A lie does concern itself with the truth.

Monday, August 10, 2009

“A memory of anticipation”

What should young or emerging poets be doing that you don’t see them engaged in at present?

The basic mesmeric quality of poetry is rhythm. And rhythm means memory. I don’t think a lot of young writers write for memory.

Do you mean that they don’t write so they will be remembered?

No. The thing about a poem when it’s good is that you can feel as if you know it as you read it. So there is a memory of anticipation that is confirmed by the poem. And I think a couple of generations have been lost through a kind of anarchic attitude to meter that tells the young poet to “go ahead” because they might have an interesting personality, etc. etc.

-- Derek Walcott, interviewed in the August 2009 issue of The Wolf.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Amours de voyage, pt. 1

Night after night I dream of journeys,
I never know the names of these cities,
or my companions, or what are my duties....


"I came all this bloody way
to be mocked by the border guards."
"That accent--he tries too hard."


Enclosed: a little crocodile
preserved in native brandy.
Three bees pickled in wine.
Forty-odd new species of fish,
none of them yet named.


"I was brought up to speak and write the English tongue."

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Another geographical mystery

How many islands were lost to mildewing maps?

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Things people leave behind in books

= Receipt for "1 knife", Curaçao, 1971
= letter beginning "Dearest David, / I am returning the beautiful necklace you gave me", 2000
= ticket to a dinner and dance hosted by the Dreizpitzer Bowling Club, the Bronx, 1966
= note explaining that a "MINI JOB-- / is any job--project regardless of how frequently it should be done that takes / 10 minutes or less / to complete"
= photograph of a bush-pig


(Things I have found in books: Christmas cards; a cinema ticket; a photograph of a Barbados hotel, c. 1940; a letter written from the United Nations conference in San Francisco in 1945; a somewhat famous poet's British Airways boarding pass; a banknote; several squashed insects.)

(Things I know I've left in books: bus and train tickets; magazine subscription cards; book review notes; newspaper clippings; a paper napkin with someone's phone number written on it; ivy leaves from Drumcliff churchyard, co. Sligo, Ireland.)

Friday, July 24, 2009

“The answer is strange”

Two poems from the June 2009 issue of The Warwick Review.

Friday, July 17, 2009

To El Paují

6 April, 2007

We thought getting to El Paují would be a simple move, but not on Good Friday. After breakfast we went round to pay our daily call on Andreas at his workshop, where he seems permanently occupied making chairs, and he advised us to arrange our transport at once. In the sawdust on his workbench he drew us a map to the Gran Café, across from which the Asociacion Civil de Toyoteros de Santa Elena was packing Land Cruisers with passengers and luggage.

No, we wouldn't be ready in time to take a shared vehicle. So we'd pay twice as much to hire our own. We negotiated with four different men with no English among them and strong accents which made their Spanish hard to follow. Finally an older man with grey hair, a bulbous nose and a frown--if there was a boss it was he--took over. I wrote our request in my notebook, and the price, and showed it to him, to avoid misunderstanding.

On our way back we were accosted as usual by the moneychangers at Four Corners, the intersection of Calle Urdaneta and Calle Bolívar. Since last week we've been changing our dollars with the same man, who works out of a small office at the back of an arepa shop. The rate has gradually declined from 3,600 bolívares to the dollar last week to 3,500 two days ago to 3,400 this morning--the dollar keeps falling, he tells us cheerfully, bajo, gesturing with both hands.

After lunch we returned to the Asociacion Civil de Toyoteros, where our driver Ricardo and this morning's grey-haired bossman were affixing a new sticker to the Land Cruiser with a damp sponge. We piled in our bags, put B.--still feeling delicate--in the front passenger seat, and the rest of us perched on narrow ledges in the back cabin of the vehicle. We headed off, south, in the direction of the airstrip.

At the military checkpoint there, a soldier made us pull off the road. We couldn't follow his conversation with Ricardo. We began to fumble for our passports. Ricardo jumped out, came round to the back of the Land Cruiser, opened the door. A young soldier peered in. I put my notebook away. Suddenly a large box of groceries--coffee, sugar, cooking oil--was thrust in, followed by two big plastic sacks of frozen meat, followed by the young soldier. We were giving him a lift.

Private Jamarillo asked if we had cigarettes. We didn't. He asked if we were Spanish. He must have been eighteen or nineteen, with melancholy eyes, sharp crewcut, and a little pout. He told us El Paují was good for taking photos. Then he tried to fall asleep.

Half an hour outside Santa Elena the paved road ended and we were driving on red earth. Every few minutes Ricardo would crash over a bump or rut as if trying to achieve flight. One particularly giant crash sent me almost into O.'s lap and Private Jamarillo almost into his box of groceries. I tried a witticism. "Espero que no hay huevos." He chuckled politely and tried to return to his nap.

Another half hour passed. Then just before El Paují we stopped at another checkpoint, where Private Jamarillo and his rations alighted. An exceedingly stern officer looked at our papers. O. asked to use the baño and chivalrous Private Jamarillo showed her the way. She returned horrified by whatever she found there. B. asked for the baño also. The officer nodded in the direction of the northern horizon, broken by distant tepuis, and laughed. "Señor," he said, "La sabana es muy grande." B. hobbled off into the long grass beside the red road.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Possible title for future memoir

Vile Rumours Spread by My Enemies

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Pirated Nollywood DVDs for sale in the main market, Paramaribo, April 2009:

= Busy But Guilty
= Heart of a Slave

= Serious Calamity

= Desperate Sister

= Passion of the Soul

= Mending Pete

= The Anti-Christ Babies

= White Gold Setters

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A week in the life: 6 to 12 July, 2009

Read: Vahni Capildeo's new book of poems, Undraining Sea

Re-read: The Rings of Saturn, by W.G. Sebald (very slowly)

Discovered: a wonderful blog devoted to Sebald, called Vertigo

Wrote: emails; many notes to myself

Listened: to misc. ragas played by Ravi Shankar; Vivaldi's cello concertos

Scanned: some old Carnival photos from c. 1950 that I turned up while spring-cleaning last week

Downloaded: the special Erotic Art Week issue of Draconian Switch

Went: to hear Glen Beadon give a talk about the history of railways in Trinidad, at the National Library

Ate: lots of pasta; an aloo dosa; käsespätzle cooked by Brian and Natalie; utterly addictive stroopwafels brought back from Amsterdam by Georgia

Drank: lots of coffee and Jamaican ginger tea; one delicious Negroni, American style (straight up)

Desired: a cocktail shaker

Suffered: an awful day-long headache; a mild cold

Sunday, June 14, 2009


In a restaurant in Windwardside, Saba; 8 June, 2009; American man regaling friends at dinner:

"It was so dark, I couldn't see anything. I couldn't figure out how the man was steering the boat. It was pitch black. So I asked him, how are you steering the boat? He pointed at the sky and said, the stars. There was, like, one star!

"Eventually we came up to an island. You know what most of those islands are like out there. They're really just sand-banks. It was about a hundred feet long, and it looked deserted. Then on the other end I saw a little shack. It was a bar! So we pull up on the beach and the man gets out and goes into the shack. I can barely hear them talking. I picked up a little Trukese while I was there. And I swear I hear the man behind the bar saying something like, how much for the white man?

[Laughter from dinner companions]

"Finally the man comes out of the shack with a bottle of hooch, three quarters full...."

His friend:

"Don't they still have cannibals out there?"

Saturday, June 13, 2009

So many islands

From my hotel in Oyster Pond, on the east coast of Dutch Sint Maarten, to Cove Bay, on the south coast of Anguilla, it was a little over ten miles, as the seagull flies.

Last Sunday, with my official obligations at the St. Martin Book Fair completed, and the weather perfect for the beach, I decided I'd nip over one island to the north to have lunch with a friend and a swim. The drive from Oyster Pond to Marigot, the capital of French Saint-Martin, took maybe thirty minutes, skirting the island's central hills. The ferry from there to Anguilla leaves every hour or so, and the crossing lasts a mere eighteen minutes.

I sat on the upper deck of the ferry, the better to enjoy the view and the brilliant sunshine. A young American couple sat across from me--honeymooners, I decided--and in front of them sprawled a mixed party of twentysomething holidaymakers--I heard American, British, and Australian accents.

My friend met me at Blowing Point, where the ferry docks, and we drove a few minutes down to Cove Bay and a breezy beachfront restaurant with a stunning view of the sea. I drank two Caribs--brewed in Trinidad--and ate a bowl of delicious pumpkin-corn chowder, and we chatted about this and that. Eventually we strolled down the beach till I found a swimming-spot that caught my fancy. I had a good soak, reflecting that I ought to go to the beach more often at home, and reminding myself to re-read Naipaul's essay on Anguilla in The Overcrowded Barracoon.

The last ferry to Marigot left at 6.15, and by 7.30 I was back at my hotel, with the beginnings of a tan--and with two new stamps in my passport.

Because in order to make this afternoon excursion--far lass onerous than, say, driving from my house in Diego Martin to Blanchisseuse--I crossed two international borders and answered questions from three immigration officers, and the Anguillan customs besides.

On the one hand, it's deliciously absurd, the way the colonial history of the Caribbean has chopped these little islands up into micro-territories divided by language, political systems, and imaginary boundaries--and nowhere more absurd than in the northern Leewards, where my wish for an afternoon swim required me to travel from the Kingdom of the Netherlands via the Republic of France to a British Overseas Territory, and back a few hours later.

On the other hand, I was annoyed and surprised (I suppose I ought to have known) on arriving at Blowing Point to be told by the perfectly pleasant immigration officer that Trinidadians need a visa to stay in Anguilla. (A fellow Caricom member!) Americans don't, British don't; I didn't need a visa for Sint Maarten; I can stay in Britain for six months without one; but not in little Anguilla! Well, I wasn't staying, I pointed out--I was leaving that evening at sunset.

Cautioning me not to miss the 6.15 boat, the nice immigration officer stamped me into Anguilla--with permission to stay no later than that very midnight.

There are so many islands! As many islands as the stars at night....

Friday, June 05, 2009

The box of tea

On 4 June, 1989, the Chinese government sent tanks into Tiananmen Square to clear out the pro-democracy protesters--many of them university students--who for seven weeks had occupied this iconic ground in the middle of Beijing. No one knows how many protesters were arrested, beaten, or killed during what some now call the Tiananmen Square massacre, and many acts of courage and defiance went unrecorded.

On 5 June, as the assault on the protesters continued, a man whose name we don't know did something unbelievably brave. Dressed in a white shirt and dark trousers, carrying what seemed to be a shopping bag in his left hand--had he just left home to run an errand, and inadvertently got caught up in History?--he saw a column of tanks rolling down Changan Avenue into Tiananmen Square, and decided he would try to stop them.

He stepped into the middle of the avenue, right into the path of the tanks, even while other bystanders were fleeing the scene. We don't know what he was feeling or thinking as the tanks steadily bore down upon him, but he looked perfectly calm, as if facing down heavily armoured vehicles were something he did every day. The tanks bore down and he stood still, and for people looking on there were sickening seconds when it seemed the lead tank driver would call the man's bluff and crush him under the vehicle's wheels. But the man stood still, and then, at the last moment, the tank stopped.

We don't know his name, but the world knows about this man's courage because photographers and TV cameramen positioned near Tiananmen Square captured this now-famous encounter. By the next day, tens of millions of people all over the world had seen an image of this little man carrying a shopping bag and facing down not just four army tanks but an entire official apparatus of state oppression.

Yesterday the New York Times published first-hand accounts from four photographers who witnessed this event on behalf of the rest of the world. They took their photos and transmitted them out of China despite the best efforts of government censors and the secret police. One photographer, Charlie Cole, had to wrap his roll of film in plastic and hide it in the toilet tank in his hotel bathroom so the police would not find it. Another, Stuart Franklin, got a student to smuggle his film out of China secreted in a box of tea.

Since I read Franklin's account yesterday, I haven't been able to get that precious box of tea out of my head.

Twenty years ago, photojournalists still shot on film, and to share a life-changing image with the world, they might have had to get that little roll of emulsion-coated cellulose past various physical barriers to a safe media house willing to publish it. In 1989, the photo of "Tank Man" appeared on the front page of the New York Times and many other newspapers, but you had to find a physical copy of the newspaper to see it.

Today, there are millions of people all over the world with access to hardware and software--the right kind of mobile phone will suffice--that allows them to take a photograph or a video clip or write a brief report on an event unfolding before their eyes, and share it almost instantaneously with a global audience of many millions more.

I am proud to be a volunteer for Global Voices, a groundbreaking project harnessing the energy and skills of hundreds of volunteers to amplify the voices of citizen journalists everywhere. Global Voices Advocacy is the branch of GV that supports online freedom of speech and activism; it seeks "to build a network of supporters for online speech rights, provide tools and knowledge to help people avoid or surmount censorship, and understand and navigate the risks and challenges of online speech in repressive environments."

This blog post is part of Zemanta's "Blogging For a Cause" campaign to raise awareness and funds for worthy causes that bloggers care about.

I vote for Global Voices Advocacy, because if events like those in Tiananmen Square in 1989 ever happen in front of my eyes, I hope I can tell the world about them without the intervention of a box of tea.

Saturday, May 30, 2009


At the Calabash Literary Festival, Treasure Beach, Jamaica; 22 May, 2009:

"My last lover was a Maroon. Or so he said."

Monday, May 11, 2009

Herd instincts

(Written for the very belated February 2009 Caribbean Review of Books.)

cows reach the savannah

The herd waiting to cross the Savannah judging point

Even in the age of the spreadsheet and the sponsorship deal and the masquerader satisfaction survey, mas retains the capacity to surprise. Witness the apparition, last Carnival Tuesday, of this ragtag herd of cows, with their staring skull-blank faces and stark horns, swaddled in black and white, straying through the streets of Port of Spain and interrupting the flow of polychromatic spandex and spangles.

Conceived by the artists Richard “Ashraph” Ramsaran and Shalini Seereeram, designed and built in no more than the five days before Carnival, T’in Cow Fat Cow took its original inspiration from a song by 3Canal, an angry denunciation of power, greed, and social inequality: “Fat cow, the butcher calling you ... in the pot you going to go.” But the band’s two dozen masqueraders, many of them artists and actors, articulated a variety of themes through the simple costumes -- headpieces made from cardboard and paint, and ordinary white clothes splotched with black. For some, the band -- assembled with volunteer labour, using discarded and recycled materials -- was a commentary on the commercialisation of mas. Others discerned an environmental message. Each cow brandished a punning placard, borrowed from the tradition of old mas, some of them making fun of politicians (Patrick’s National Moovement), or with slanted references to international affairs (Dow Cow, Cownter Insurgency). One cow was festooned with a feather boa, another with black Mardi Gras beads. The gilded Emperor Cow was king of the band and golden calf at the same time.

The cows were not early risers, and it was eleven on Carnival Tuesday morning before they set out from their mas camp in Woodbrook, to the jangle of cowbells and a chorus of moos. The cardboard headpieces wilted in the intermittent rain, and the herd made frequent grazing stops. Still, they moseyed round the whole parade circuit -- in record time, squeezing past slow-moving larger bands downtown -- and, though officially unregistered for competition, crossed the stage at four judging points, to the bemusement of the official announcers. Spectators on the street squinted to read the placards. At the Savannah, the traditional climax of the parade route, the cows pranced past the TV cameras, making up with their enthusiasm for the small size of the herd. By five in the afternoon the band, re-nearing their starting point, began to split apart, and in their twos and threes the cows disappeared into the larger herd of las’ lap revelers.

But that was not the end of the bovine story. Two months later, the cows reappeared on the streets of Port of Spain. Dressed in black, with blood-red tears running from the headpieces’ eyes, and the masqueraders’ mouths bound with red cloth, they marched to Independence Square and sat silently among the decorative flowerbeds. It was the day before the opening of the controversial Summit of the Americas, hosted by Trinidad and Tobago at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars and the temporary suspension of civil freedoms in the capital (thanks to a security lockdown around the summit venue).

Through a printed manifesto, the cows declared: “We represent the voiceless. The many thousands of Trinbagonians . . . whose tax dollars are being invested in a display that does not address their most urgent concerns . . . Who is listening?” But the more eloquent message was the medium itself, the spectacle of these stray cows lost in the shadows of Port of Spain’s new skyscrapers. Red letters spelled out the rechristened band’s new name: The People Must Be Herd, a pun poised between the ideal of participatory democracy and the reality of a society stumbling mindlessly under the prods of cowboy politicians. Even Prime Minister Patrick Manning, famously oblivious to public opinion, might have got the joke.

Monday, March 30, 2009


(Written for the forthcoming e-catalogue of Christopher Cozier’s Available at All Leading Stores, published for the 2009 Trienal Poli/Gráfica de San Juan.)

nicholas jouvert 09 closeup

J'Ouvert morning, 23 February, 2009. Photo by Brian Kinzie

Some say that we lost Paradise
Some say that we living Paradise
Some say well if this is Paradise
Good God where the hell is Paradise?

Oh-oh, oh-oh, leh we go, oh-oh, to Paradise....

— 3Canal, “Paradise?”

It is the drizzly Friday morning before Carnival, and I am slumped in my chair, staring at the chaos of my desk, trying to invent a costume for J’Ouvert. This year I am playing with 3Canal. The theme of the band is Paradise?, complete with sardonic question mark, after one of the songs on their new album. Nowadays, most people don’t bother with costumes for J’Ouvert, beyond the obligatory layer of paint or mud. But I like the challenge, in all senses, of a costume. Last year it was devil wings, a bow tie, and a placard. This year, I’m stumped.

I stare at the chaos of my desk. Piles of paper, an empty teacup, my dusty laptop screen. A bowl of paperclips. A small brown cardboard box, not much bigger than a stack of Post-It notes, with plain black text on one side:


It is one of the original hand-stamped boxes from Christopher Cozier’s installation Available At All Leading Stores, shipped down from the gallery in Canada. It has sat on my desk for months, a mordant reminder of my time and place. I summon up iTunes and listen to the 3Canal song.

Buildings filling the skies
And people dying for another to rise
Black gold and crimson tides
Is this Paradise?

I pick up the phone and dial a number. “Chris? It’s Nicholas. What you think of this….”


I find a plain cardboard box lying around the house, 16 x 12 x 10 inches--not a cube, but close enough. I spend a couple of days figuring out how I’ll carry it through the streets. Should I strap it to my back? Attach it to a stick so I can hoist it into the air? I don’t want it to get crushed in the intoxicated J’Ouvert throng, and I want to carry it high enough that people can read the words from a distance.

“Put your head inside it and wear it like a mask,” one friend suggests. No, I won’t be able to see where I’m going, and I’ll stifle. Instead I imagine an old-time Fancy Sailor with some papier-mâché extravaganza perched on his head, and two cords dangling in front to help balance the weight.

In the end, the design is simple. I cut an oval into the underside of the box, just slightly smaller than the circumference of my head, and line it with strips of plastic foam. I try it on: the box sits firmly just above my brow, even if I jump around. Next I punch two holes in the underside. I thread in lengths of strong yarn and knot them on the inside. I can grab onto the dangling cords to shift the weight of the box as I move.

Now the text: Chris suggests I blow up a version of his original design, make a colour print, and paste it to the box. I decide on a more low-tech method, hand-lettering the box with a black permanent marker. I haven’t told Chris yet, but I’ve taken liberties with his text. The box now reads:


And in smaller letters:



The history of the Caribbean is a catalogue of trade wars, pillagings, predatory exchanges, bank heists on the scale of whole countries, and bills of sale enforced at gunpoint. Glass beads for gold, blood for sugar, self-respect for tourist dollars, oil for salvation. It sometimes seems there’s nothing we can’t or won’t offer for sale. In what Derek Walcott called “this chain store of islands,” independence only changed the faces of the salesmen, not their tactics.

Cozier conceived Available At All Leading Stores at a particularly anxious moment in recent history. As the wider world worried over the Bush doctrine, Iraq, Guantanamo, and the Axis of Evil, Trinidadians grew obsessed with a spiraling murder rate, garbage-can bombs deposited in downtown Port of Spain, and the latest popular business scheme: kidnappings for ransom. Fear was the hot global commodity, often packaged together with Security in buy-one-get-one-free deals; manufactured in Washington, DC, advertised on CNN and Fox News, traded in capital cities around the world, with special discounts available at the nearest airport metal scanner. Trinidad, always ready to adopt and adapt trendy imports, didn’t lag behind.

Three years later, the market has shifted. Global capitalism as we knew it took a tumble in 2008. American voters replaced Bush 2.0 with a brighter, shinier, and better-designed model. Now the world wants to buy an Obama t-shirt, the one with the new brand name: Hope.

Meanwhile, here in Trinidad, the populace has finally got the invoice for the PNM government’s Potemkin nation project, better known as Vision 2020. The costs are stated in trillions, the fine print seems to be in Cantonese, and the product was broken before it came out of the package. Port of Spain floods and traffic gridlocks in the shadow of half-finished skyscrapers built by imported Chinese labour with imported Chinese materials. They said we were buying Paradise. Well, if this is Paradise, where the hell is Paradise?


For three or so hours on J’Ouvert morning, Paradise is an empty space, an absence, in a cardboard box I balance on my head. Watch me, turning into a metaphor for a nation bearing the burden of false advertising and false hopes. If anything and everything is for sale, if art is just another product with varying profit margins, if Cozier can taunt us with the joke of commodified Fear, then I can re-commodify, re-sell, re-brand.

Down Ariapita Avenue and up Carlos Street. Oh-oh, oh-oh, leh we go, oh-oh. Hundreds writhing and rubbing up and gyrating, bareback and torn t-shirts and busted-up sneakers, rum and paint and around our necks the little plastic tags that prove we paid our $200 to play with 3Canal. Oh-oh. Down Tragarete as the sun rises, up Edward and across Gordon, and eventually we reach the Savannah. Oh-oh, oh-oh, leh we go, oh-oh, to Paradise....

But Paradise is heavier than I expected. At half past eight, by Memorial Park, I slip out of the band and stride off with my cardboard box, now spattered with pretty pink and purple paint. It’s early, but the sun is already too hot.

nicholas jouvert 09

Photo by Brian Kinzie

Sunday, March 29, 2009

"Everybody wore painted toenails then"

I had read and heard so many malicious accounts of Mrs. Jagan that I was prejudiced in her favour. Although she has suffered much from visiting writers, she received me kindly in her small air-conditioned office. She sat behind a large desk, neatly ordered, on which were photographs of her husband and children. Her bag was on the floor. I thought her far more attractive than her photographs: women who wear spectacles rarely photograph well. A plain cotton frock set off her balanced figure; large hoop ear-rings and red toenails gave her a touch of frivolity which seemed incongruous in that office, the door of which was marked: Hon. Janet Jagan, Minister of Labour, Health and Housing. She looked tired, and her talk was frequently broken by nervous laughter.

-- V.S. Naipaul, The Middle Passage, 1962

Janet ... talked of what I had written about her nearly thirty years before.

"People remembered two details mainly. You wouldn't believe. The first was that I painted my toenails."

I had forgotten that, forgotten the fact, forgotten that I had written it.

"I don't know why that should have caused such interest," she said. "Everybody wore painted toenails then."

"Everybody," Cheddi said.

She said, "I looked at the book just the other day. And the other thing you mentioned that people talked about--I checked that, too--was the book I was reading."

I had forgotten that as well.

"It was Colette. The Vagabond."

That would have made an impression: the boastfulness and shallow sensual vanities of Colette, in a setting so removed: muddy Guyanese rivers, old river steamers. And then, in a distant reach of my mind, the two details together did bring back an impression, rather than an idea, of a trip in the interior with Janet Jagan, when she was minister of health.

She said, "I looked for it among my books the other day. I don't think I have it anymore."

-- V.S. Naipaul, "A Handful of Dust: Cheddi Jagan in Guyana", 1991

(Janet Jagan, 1920-2009)

Monday, March 16, 2009

Phagwah faces

phagwah faces 32

I was drenched with abeer, caked with coloured powder, and stalked by a six-year-old girl with a pichakaree, and I was glad. My photos from yesterday's Phagwah celebrations at Aranguez Savannah are posted here.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A week in the life: 8 to 14 March, 2009

Read: The first half of Marlon James's new novel, The Book of Night Women; lots of random stuff online

Wrote: emails

Listened: to Horace Andy and Bob Marley; and a bit of Ella Fitzgerald

Swam: at Doctor's Cave Beach in Montego Bay

Hiked: up an old donkey trail from Top Jack into the southern foothills of the Blue Mountains

Flew: back home from Jamaica. My brother was co-pilot of the Caribbean Airlines flight--the first time he's flown me since a jaunt to Tobago in a four-seater 'plane nine years ago

Acquired: a copy of the very first issue of Savacou; a bottle of Busha Browne's planter's sauce

Ate: masala dosa at Pushpa's, with Annie; a whole wheat ackee patty (aka a "yattie")

Drank: Twyman Estate peaberry coffee; a mojito

Gave: Georgia her Christmas present, at last

Caught up with: Roxanne and Nicolas, friends visiting from New York

Felt: great affection for Jamaica

Worried: about all the work piled up on my desk, especially CRB business

Regretted: that I haven't been blogging the last couple of months

Plotted: a trip to Suriname and French Guiana next month

Other significant events: 2009 Commonwealth Writers' Prize Caribbean/Canada regional awards announcement ceremony on Wednesday night

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike, 1932-2009

I ate my sandwich, brewed a cup of tea, returned to my desk, and loaded up the New York Times. The first thing I saw was a photo of John Updike, with his typical air of worldly amusement. I started to smile, thinking there'd be an article or interview I could read before snugging back down to work. Then I read the headline and spilled my tea. Updike is dead.

I'm shocked by how shocked I am. People call Naipaul the greatest living writer of English prose. If by "English" you mean "in the English language", then for my money that was Updike. Until today.

He once famously remarked of Nabokov that he "writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically," which of course is just the way Updike himself wrote.

I almost never sit down before my laptop to write something--anything--without remembering a line from Updike's foreword to Hugging the Shore. The writer begins, he said, by "taking a deep breath, leaning out over the typewriter, and trying to dive a little deeper than the first words that come to mind."

I read the Times headline and the first word that came to mind was "No".

Friday, January 02, 2009

Happy new year

So as a new year's present to the nation the Express has fired B.C. Pires, that newspaper's best writer. His final column there appears today.

Sentence for sentence, paragraph for paragraph, insight for insight, B.C. is one of the finest writers at work not just in Trinidad and Tobago but in the Caribbean. He is fiercely intelligent, profoundly sane, a masterful craftsman of prose, and, on top of all that, funny. His column is one of the few things in the daily press worth buying a newspaper for. He is exactly the sort of writer the Express should be seeking out and nurturing. Instead....

The only consolation is that B.C. is now writing a column for the Barbados Nation--what has the world come to, when Bajans have more of a sense of humour than Trinis? And in a fortnight he will launch a new website, So he's certainly not disappearing. Still, it's sad and frankly embarrassing that the Express apparently thinks there is no place for a writer like B.C. Pires in our national conversation.