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Crown of Thorns
Keith Smith RIP—Part II
Even at the risk of drawing the fire of the Miss Big & Beautiful pageant organisers and, more worryingly, its contestants, I’ll say it plainly: no one could have looked like Keith Smith and been happy. I wouldn’t want to quarrel unnecessarily with real heavyweights so I’m happy to concede that there may be many who are both morbidly obese and entirely content with life; but I have never met any. Subtract the small numbers of people whose genes naturally “put them so” and, largely speaking, fat is modern man’s clearest outward indicator on internal misery. (The few groups around the world who culturally celebrate and cultivate obesity you could dismiss as misguided.)
But, if he was unhappy, Keith had good reason to be unhappy. Anyone who knows anything about his personal life, who saw even the tip of the iceberg that hinted at what Keith himself might have called “the massive mass” below the surface, would know he had complete justification to despair, if he chose to, or give in to it. In almost every aspect of sensuous life, Keith was given to excess, and often in a form that departed from what others would call the norm. For Keith, the unusual, the abnormal and the outright bizarre were all in a day’s work; or play; often before lunchtime.
Add, to a challenging personal life that gave an essentially good Fatima boy no end of guilt, a job that often required him to abandon the notion of a holiday or, sometimes, even a weekend off, and it’s no wonder Keith looked the way he did: his physical form manifested the multiple psychological stresses he lived with and under for most of his life.
But you aren’t finished adding yet: on top of the turmoil of the personal life and the relentless whirlpool of work—not his column-writing, that was his play, the editing of a newspaper—Keith took on a weight only a few people in any generation are given to carry, and one under which many crumble: where David Rudder might have represented Belmont or Peter Minshall, Woodbrook, Keith was Laventille and Keith was Trinidad and Keith was Tobago and Keith was pelau and panyard and panchayat and pulouri and pardner and pullst---s: at his best, Keith Smith represented the best of Trinidad and personified the hopes of an entire tribe. In the sense that he carried a cross for all of us, he was perhaps the unlikeliest version so far generated, but Keith was something of a Christ figure. And, of course, we crucified him.
Luckily for Keith, he was blessed with perhaps the most formidable writing gift of his generation. His writing was his keel, the only thing that kept him (in some semblance of) upright in a personal and professional life in which to be awake was to be awash. Unluckily for Keith, writing is one of the most despised professions in the cricket-playing Caribbean, ranking lower than insurance salesman and only slightly higher than sex worker (excluding weekend nights); because writers hold up a mirror in which others see themselves as they really are.
Approaching a half-millennium of the West Indies being Western, writing is rarely seen as a profession, hardly even a job worthy of the name. The story often attributed to Martin Carter, the Guyanese poet, was actually experienced by George Lamming, our greatest living orator, who once, at a West Indian airport, neglected to fill out the “occupation” space on his arrival form. “What you does do?” asked the immigration officer. “I write,” replied Lamming. “Hear nuh,” snarled the officer, “all o’ we does write: what you does do?” “I write,” said Lamming again, “novels, articles, opinions. I write.” The officer watched him suspiciously. “What you does write on?” he asked, finally.
A puzzled Lamming replied, “A computer or word-processor.” The officer smiled, bent over the arrival form and filled in the blank: “Typist.” When I was 11 years old, I met a grown man, a former CIC boy, according to the legend, who would sneak into school and into empty classrooms and write nonsense on the blackboard until he was discovered and ejected. It was “too much book,” I was told, that had sent him mad; and I was warned to stay away from books, lest I, too, went insane. Somewhere amongst his millions of words, I think, Sir Vidia also speaks to this.
It is no accident that sensitive types are drawn to idealistic work; but it is the deliberate strategy of the West Indian ruling sector to cheapen the vocation of writing into a day-work. This a part of the world in which it was once a crime to teach someone to read. In that context, several of our very best writers—who have all worked for newspapers—have been driven somewhere between mad and to distraction by the forces that employ them, in both senses of the word. In 1988, when this column began, it was greeted with what I like to think was celebration on the streets—but it was resented in the boardrooms.
I stopped writing for a short time, when I moved to London. When I resumed, the person then responsible for paying freelance columnists offered me an insult for a fee, ten per cent of what was then being paid to people who really worked in courtrooms or classrooms or corporations and dabbled in the papers on a Sunday: all o’ we does write; what you does really do? To answer that interrogatory and, more important, the interrogator, that you wrote was to be shown that you typed. The better you wrote, the worse you were treated, with the very best being utterly destroyed. Keith Smith lived and died on the pages of the Express, charting a course towards self-respect through raging seas of self-loath-ing and self-contempt, in a vessel everyone wanted to see sink. It’s no wonder Keith required his own bulwark of bulk, his own life-preserving ring around his middle; for all that we all admired his craftsmanship, very few of us actually respected the craft.
BC Pires is in dry-your-eyes dock.
Read more of his writing
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