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The Trini Personality: Children of the Fatman
• Continued from last week
Even a casual glance around Trinidad today leaves the observer agog at the casual and pervasive anarchy—from the driving, to the rage of the oppressed at the prospect of $69 for four hours’ work, to Clico and the HCU, to Parliament. Everywhere, a distinct, perverse personality seems to be in ascendance. The question is, where did it come from?
The ubiquity of this personality has been described before, notably in VS Naipaul’s Middle Passage essay, his journalism and his novels, The Mimic Men and Guerillas. Many university employees and professional clowns have made careers out of trying to dissemble those observations as “racist” and so on, but in 2012, they seem pretty solid. The smartman still laughs last, the victims laugh harder, and the party gets wilder and more violent every year.
The most revealing Middle Passage anecdote about Trinidad described a conman who sold tickets for a Sam Cooke concert, which concert never materialised, and which ticket money, and the impresario, vanished. The victims didn’t mind, since it was something of an honour to be taken by so accomplished a maestro.
The maestro in question was Valmond “Fatman” Jones, who reappeared in Trinidad two years later, on the front page of the Guardian of May 16, 1964, via a disturbing photo of a very large, bare-backed fat man. His explanation for disappearing? When he heard Sam Cooke wasn’t coming, he went to Martinique to get another act. He was unsuccessful. The money? Aaahhhhh.
Fatman is one of the archetypes of the Trini personality: the harmless, even buffoonish rogue, who robs you with a guffaw. Many iterations exist today. Think of the HCU. There were and are many more malevolent archetypes in Trinidad back in the 60s, like Michael X, aka Abdul Malik, the loveable murdering rogue, and many degrees in between. Think of Clico.
It’s tempting to see the personality issue as just a historical quirk. But the reality is that Trinidad’s geography, society, ethnic mix, water, sand, or something, seems to produce a toxic personality, which misshapes its history. Looking through the papers of the 1960s, you notice the consistent references to Trinis’ many character failings offered by the prime minister, the judiciary, clergy, the clerisy, as reasons for the nation’s failure to launch.
On September 30, 1963 for example, the Manufacturers’ Association was quoted in the Guardian saying that the national developmental five-year plan would fail because of “greed among certain interests” – meaning the labour movement.
On August 31 of that year, Eric Williams commented that there was “far too much selfishness…individualism…personal ambition…too much of a determination to get one’s way by lawful or unlawful means.”
A year later, the prime minister would deride his own party (Guardian, October 16, 1964): “A lot of riff raff in the PNM [who] join the PNM to see what they could get.” On December 30, the Guardian’s front page reported the prime minister’s opinion that “there was more ignorance spoken in one week in a little place like Trinidad & Tobago than one could get in a month in a big country.”
Again, in the Guardian (May 26, 1966), Williams lamented that the streets in Trinidad were “possibly the dirtiest anywhere in the world,” a reflection of its people.
Chief Justice Sir Hugh Wooding (March 8, 1968) lamented that many citizens had “grown up amongst people who have themselves been demoralised…. so they start their life morally handicapped.
And survival often demands the adoption of vulgar attitudes.” Roman Catholic Archbishop Anthony Pantin (December 15) concurred, listing the faults of the society: “selfishness, racialism and idle gossip.” And on January 29, 1969, the Guardian reported on an address given by former Justice Noor Hassanali, and quoted him as saying Trinidad lacked “those who are honest.”
These aren’t all the examples, but the trend is evident. Perversity and misanthropy seemed to be rampant, and they had a large theatre to play themselves out, and this was the 1960s: crippled by strikes, protests, and gang violence. The Guardian’s editorial of January 15, 1963, titled “This Madness,” described a crippling port strike, called, apparently, because of a throwaway comment about the port workers’ irresponsibility.
The Guardian again reported, on February 11, 1965, that a CSO report had calculated that 2,084 years had been lost due to strikes between 1960 and 1963. Ironically, this was all happening at a time when incomes were rising and the country was rapidly industrialising. The Industrial Stabilisation Act was passed in 1965 to essentially outlaw striking, with wide approval.
The strike action was race and class wars continued by other means, and it created and was created by the self-defeating, self-destructive national personality. But where did it come from? No mystery there: from the top. By day, the prime minister was the committed nationalist politician. By night, he was the vicious demagogue. This performance made a tremendous impression on the young, developing nation.
Unfortunately, no one told Williams there was no off-switch. And he was probably most surprised, if not apoplectic, when, post-Independence, the anger and resentment would not go away, and his own inner circle and outer circle of the PNM began treating the country exactly the way the colonials had treated it.
These strikes and the attitude of rebellion continued to grow, and exploded in the Black Power events of 1970. Unfortunately, three years later, the oil boom hit and history ended because the flood of money allowed the government to begin a generational policy of appeasing and bribing angry, criminal people rather than giving them proper health facilities, public transportation and education and a working police force.
From here is a direct line to where we are today, living and reliving the legacy of Fatman Jones.
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