The rain came down on Port-of-Spain like the media on Jack Warner last Friday afternoon. I sat in a corner of the broad, covered, Paris-sidewalk caf�-like pavement that national library architect Colin Laird included in Trinidad's most lovingly designed public space, watching the heavy sheet rainfall curtaining off the old Parliament building across Hart Street like the fog around the courts of Chancery in Charles Dickens' own Bleak House; I was waiting for Irvine Welsh.
The hugely successful Scottish writer was the star of the third NGC Bocas Literary Festival and the main reason I was there. Soon, I'd be sitting with him to talk about his life, his work and torturing dogs as comedy. Trainspotting, his first book, had been visually remade by the amazing Danny Boyle and they'd just wrapped production on Filth, the fourth of his books to become movies. He was, at my age, rich enough to write, and to do, whatever the firetruck he wanted anywhere in the firetrucking world.And he'd come to Port-of-Spain!
I marvelled at the coup. If Marina Salandy-Brown, prime mover of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, could have Irvine Welsh reading at only the third festival, what would she put together for the tenth? Gabriel Garcia Marquez doing a tap dance? Naomi Wolf doing a pole one? vs Naipaul and Derek Walcott duking it out live? But Sir Video and Sabine-There-had-already-Done-That: in her introduction to the Pauline Melville story she'd read at the Bocas launch the day before, Lloyd Best Institute head Sunity Maharaj had pointed out the delicious irony in the old fire station being named after Walcott and the library occupying the rest of the same city block being named after Naipaul, uniting them forever side by side; I chuckled, and watched the rain, and did a bit of Irvine-spotting.
And, though Irvine Welsh was both professional and polite enough to give a considered answer to what I'd intended as a joke question: "Tell the truth about Trainspotting: did you prefer the movie?" and had thereby moved himself higher in my books, as it were, there was still another writer I thought of as my own festival "headliner": Ian McDonald, author of the definitive novel of Caribbean childhood, The Hummingbird Tree, who sat in conversation with Caribbean Beat editor and lit fest multi-functionary, Nicholas Laughlin.
How good it was to see Ian, now aged 80, and to hear him, particularly the last lines of the last poem he chose to read, What It Was Like Once Forever: "At home, I leap heavenwards as high as I can/ Not far but bravely done; my wife smiles/ She shakes her head, after all I am close to seventy-five/ There is no limit to our love/ Even death will set no limit/ Our sons are content, healthy as snorting horses/ They will be coming soon/ I write this absurdly happy verse/ To tell what it was like once forever."
How much better off were Ian & Mary's snorting offspring than those of a far more famous, far more "successful" artist whose name will live on far longer than Ian's: at yet another excellent festival event, I listened, rapt, to Prof Ian Robertson's Bocas Lecture, adapted from his book, The Winner Effect: How Power Affects the Body and Mind, which was not a "self-help" book at all, as Mark Lyndersay painstakingly underlined in introducing the professor, but a chemistry one. As Robertson outlined how merely having power changed the mind (and, ergo, personality) encouraging the powerful into, inter alia, limitless hubris and self-entitlement, I heard two names whispered around the room in awed recognition, "Manning!" and "Jack!"
But the names that struck me most forcibly were not Trinis, but Spaniards, Paolo and Pablito Picasso, son and grandson of the great painter. Picasso destroyed his own son as magnificently as he created art, Robertson reported, telling him, "I am the king and you are nothing!" The son depended on his famous father even for his daily bread; and Picasso rarely wasted an opportunity of humiliating him. Pablito, the grandson, killed himself after being refused entry to his grandfather's funeral by Picasso's widow, choosing to drink bleach, an even slower and more painful death than our own "Indian tonic," the pesticide paraquat, marketed as gramoxone; it took Pablito a month to die. Picasso's widow and lover both took their own lives; such was the effect, on the people he was supposed to love most, of one of mankind's greatest artists.
And I thought about the bit I'd asked Irvine Welsh to read (page 77 of the Vintage paperback edition of Glue) in which two guard dogs, captured in a theft, are tortured at the Scottish seaside, one hanged by the neck over a blazing fire until it falls into the flames; and Juice Terry drawls, "Ye cannae huv a f---in' beach barbecue withoot the hot dogs."
Some people had been horrified. But Guernica is regarded by many as Picasso's best work.Leaving the festival on Sunday, I walked through Colin Laird's beautiful sidewalk location and understood that, when the energy money the National Gas Company itself puts into Bocas ends, that lovely spot would become prime vagrant housing.And, in my own heart, I felt the eternal Trini torment of failing to decide whether we should either let sleeping homeless lie or stand on principle and chase them away from what we hold to be higher than ourselves.
BC Pires would rather burn dogs than books. E-mail your TTSPCA membership applications to him at [email protected]surf.com. Happy bir'day Sisi & White Boy Dell.