Tuesday, August 10, 2010

“With you giving them the real stuff”

ken laughlin fan letter lyons

“I must let you know how much I have been enjoying your broadcast.... I was awfully surprised when you said that it was the first time you stood before a mike. And would you believe me that there are still many fellowes [sic] around who in spite of going to the talkies so often do not understand some of the Americans and English people when they speak, but with you giving them the real stuff you can imagine how they enjoy it all.”

This is a fan letter written to my grandfather Ken Laughlin (the letter misspells his name) by E.C. Lyons of Woodford Lodge, Chaguanas, Trinidad, on 26 January, 1937.

My grandfather was a sports journalist for over sixty years. When his weekly programme Ken Laughlin on Sport went off the air in the mid 1990s, it was the longest running radio programme in Trinidad and Tobago, and possibly in the southern Caribbean. In January 1937, he gave the first live radio commentary on a cricket match in the West Indies. It was an intercolonial game, Trinidad vs. Barbados, at the Queen’s Park Oval. He was twenty-three. E.C. Lyons’s letter is one of several congratulating my grandfather on this pioneering broadcast.

(Note that the letter is dated 1936, but this is clearly an error. All the other correspondence relating to this broadcast is dated January or February 1937.)

I’d guess that over the decades he must have got many more letters from listeners in different parts of the Caribbean, but it was this batch, from the very start of his career, that my grandfather decided to save. After he died in 2001, I found them in a box of documents and memorabilia that came into my hands. I’d lost track of them a while back, but found the letters again yesterday (while searching for something else, naturally), and decided to scan a few of them and post them online in my little Flickr family archive. Some of the other fan letters came from San Fernando, Moruga, and Georgetown, British Guiana.

I posted links to the letters on my Facebook page, and got a few comments, including one asking whether the letters were important enough to be archived, and how I planned to preserve them. Well, they’re already in an archive: mine, and scanning and uploading them is one form of preservation. I’m pretty much a pack-rat, and a good couple dozen shelf-feet of documents of all kinds are filed away across several rooms of my house, in different degrees of sortedness — everything from family papers like these letters (or like my other grandfather’s certificates of discharge from the Royal Canadian Steamship Company) to correspondence with friends and colleagues to newspaper clippings on subjects that interest me; also exhibition catalogues, theatre programmes, set lists from jointpop concerts, handwritten notes from Alice Yard meetings, maps of just about every country and city I’ve visited, and masses of material related to the various magazines and other publishing projects I’ve worked on over the years.

This isn’t terribly unusual. I imagine most people working in publishing or in vaguely literary pursuits have similar personal archives. These dozens of feet of boxes and files are obviously important to me, and I hope some of the material I’m so carefully holding on to will turn out to be important to other people in the future. But I also know that my most important archive is one that can’t fit in boxes and manila folders — it’s the online archive anyone can access by typing my name into a search engine.

I can control only some aspects of this. And that’s exactly why I’ve kept this blog going for nearly eight years (and counting), why I have my own website, why I post images to Flickr and share thoughts and links at Twitter. “If it’s not on the web, it doesn’t exist.” Does anyone still remember who specifically first had this insight? Probably not, because it’s so irrefutably apt a summary of how we understand knowledge and our access to it in the Internet age that it might as well be a collective expression of faith. So why wouldn’t I want to use these various media to profess my version of myself, my thoughts, my hopes, anxieties, and dreams?

(A kind of digression: an archive is a record. It is also an assertion — of existence, of significance. It is evidence. It is a model for categorising and understanding the world. It can even be a creative undertaking, a work of art. And while historically the fact of being archived has often been a form of validation — this is important because it is in the archive, that is not and may be discarded and forgotten — cheap online storage available to (theoretically, almost) everybody forces us now to reconsider what an archive is, and again makes it possible for “anyone” to be an archivist, so that personal archives are easy to both assemble and make publicly accessible. The ability to make a public archive has radically expanded.)

In my mind, this is also tied up with bigger ideas of self-determination. Naturally, this is because I’m from a part of the world that historically has been described, portrayed, and defined overwhelmingly through stories told by people from elsewhere: stories about what the Caribbean, the tropics, and small island societies are and should be. I’ve never seen a pirate ship and never worn a grass skirt and, thanks, I do speak fairly good English, even if my accent amuses you. I live in a middle-class suburb of a medium-size city in a largely industrialised country that happens to be a small tropical Caribbean island. Many of my friends are writers, artists, and thinkers working hard to understand themselves as individuals, ourselves as a society, trying to understand what concepts like nation, culture, and history really mean, trying to imagine and build individual and collective futures. Whether or not we acknowledge the lines of succession, many of us are engaged in what the late Lloyd Best repeatedly described as the imperative to comprehend ourselves on and in our own terms. An essential aspect of this process is making sure my — our — ideas, stories, images, and languages are also represented in the global conversation and the global archive of the web. Because if we’re not there, we don’t exist.

It may seem that I’ve strayed a long way from my grandfather’s fan letters. There’s a specific reason I chose E.C. Lyons’s letter to open this post. This is the bit of that letter that I specially like:

... would you believe me that there are still many fellowes around who in spite of going to the talkies so often do not understand some of the Americans and English people when they speak, but with you giving them the real stuff you can imagine how they enjoy it all.

I’m moved by the suggestion that my grandfather’s voice — a Trinidadian voice, speaking Trinidadian English, and expressing a Trinidadian reality — was more meaningful to those listeners in Woodford Lodge seventy-three years ago than the voices of “the Americans and English people” who otherwise occupied the airwaves. It helps me understand the part he played in the still-incomplete epistemological enterprise Best described, and maybe it helps me understand the part I’m playing, or trying to play.

So, yes: these letters are important enough to be archived. They exist physically in my personal archive, and now they exist digitally — epistemologically — if necessary, defiantly — in the archive of the world.


Annie Paul said...


Wow, I think you've found ur voice! Would love to publish this in Small Axe...importNt to have this in print too...

Annie Paul said...

and wish i had this before i had to submit the piece on new media and digital archives!