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Michael Anthony T&T’s literary giant

Published: 
Sunday, August 31, 2014
The energetic writer and history buff Michael Anthony at his home on August 27. Mayaro-born Anthony has published 30 books—and plans to write some more. PHOTO: SHIRLEY BAHADUR

No one has documented more of T&T’s history than Michael Anthony. The sprightly and spirited 84-year-old is this country’s go-to historian, a local literary giant, published author of some 30 books, with more looming on the horizon, he promises. 

Born in 1930 and raised in Mayaro, his passion for research and writing is boundless, and his impressive list of publications dates back to 1963. Once an avid swimmer, an athletics fan and supporter of the Tottenham Hotspurs—he resided near their home ground in London for some 14 years in his early days—Anthony is in the midst of completing Volume 2 of his series History of Trinidad and Tobago in the 20th century. 

While in England Anthony had the honour of communicating with Nobel prize-winning author VS Naipaul who encouraged him to pursue short story writing. Thus evolved his first published novel The Games Were Coming in 1963, followed by a long list of other novels up to High Tide of Intrigue in 2001. Other noted titles include The Year in San Fernando, Cricket in the Road and All That Glitters. Two of his notable non-fiction books are Towns and Villages of Trinidad and Tobago and Historical Dictionary of Trinidad and Tobago.

His latest, in 2012, is Christopher Columbus: A Close Look at the Man and his Voyages. A collection of his writings can be accessed at UWI, St Augustine. In 1967, Anthony was awarded a fellowship by the Arts Council of Great Britain. In 1979, he received the Humming Bird Gold Medal and in 2003 an honorary doctorate from the University of the West Indies.

Q: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
A: I was born in the village of Mayaro. I stayed in Mayaro until I was 11. I spent a year in San Fernando—from New Year’s Day 1941 to Christmas Eve 1941. I returned home for Christmas and did not go back. I won a bursary to the Junior Technical School of San Fernando in 1944, went to work at the Pointe-a-Pierre oil refinery from 1946, when I left the school and remained at Pointe-a-Pierre until I went to England in 1954.

What schools/institutions did you attend?
My first school was Mayaro RC, then I went to San Fernando Government School in 1941 and the Junior Technical School in 1944.

Who are the people who influenced and inspired you the most in your career and in life in general?
I was inspired by Canute Thomas, a school friend. In my literary life I was very much inspired by Charles Dickens, whose stories of childhood moved me very much. Later, I liked the styles of JD Salinger and Ernest Hemingway. While I can say their styles made me choose writing as a career, I cannot say they continue to influence me.

What prompted you to become an author?
I liked writing since infancy. I was always ready to learn and recite poems. In classes where you have to write compositions, I always made it my favourite subject. But I must say, I always wanted to seize the opportunity to write about Mayaro.

Which are your favourite books? Not yours, of course.
My favourite books are A farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger and An Island is a World by Samuel Selvon.

What motto do you live by and what is your recipe for success?
I live by the motto: Life is good; live it well. Success—if there is a recipe for success, I would like to know where to find it. I have a feeling that the formula is hard work and luck will follow.

Of all your accolades, prizes and awards, which do you rate as extremely special?
I regard as extremely special being given a doctorate by the University of the West Indies.

Tell us about your inspiration to do the type of work you do. What would you say and what advice would you give to anyone contemplating a vocation such as yours?
Inspiration is one of the words I don’t take seriously. If you like writing fiction, you think of a story to write about and if you have the ability, you make the scene vivid and charming; and on the whole, if you write your story well, it is good. If you want to write non-fiction, you try to think of what you need to write about. If you have worked hard at your craft and you 

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are able to say what you want to say and express yourself clearly, that’s good. 
My advice to anyone contemplating authorship is: Great! Go ahead. Write something every day. Don’t get downcast by rejections. Bounce back. Try and write simply, with the accent on saying what you mean. Don’t get carried away by grandiose words. Above all, be yourself.

Who was your hero or “idol” growing up—fictional or real or both—and why? And who do you admire most today?
I had two heroes while I was growing up. I liked Frank Worrell, the Barbados batsman. I also liked a college boy from Mayaro who lived in the same house with me in San Fernando and always defended me in disputes. He played cricket and football, he could skate using both skates, he was strong and muscular but very nice and gentle with people. He is now 87 and I am 84 and now we are friends, although in our youth he saw me as a little boy.

Which of your works do you rate as the most satisfying and memorable?
For me, in fiction, my best work I now think to be the historical novel In the Heat of the Day. I feel I happened to capture what I set out to capture, and to vent my anger about certain things I found ridiculous, and to [express ideas through] characters. The story is of the burning down of the Red House in 1903 and I am so glad I researched the story—so that if the man in the street or even Walsh Wrightson were to come back, they’d say: “Yes, it was like that.” So the book is really satisfying to me, and I hope, to others.

Which is your favourite calypso?
My favourite calypso was for years Death of Destroyer by the Mighty Ziegfield. Destroyer died in 1944, I think, but Ziegfield made him live by recalling so masterfully his life and times in calypso. I also liked Mae Mae by Sparrow and How Many More Must Die by Duke.

What was the most difficult decision you ever had to make?
The most difficult decision I have ever had to make was a decision to leave my son—who was in hospital for a few days when he was two—to go back home. I was really overwrought. This was when we lived in Rio de Janeiro. My son is now 46, but when I think back on that occasion, his crying after me because I was leaving—when I think of it I still feel pain.

What is the best compliment you have ever received?
It had to do with a student. She liked Green Days by the River. It was the simplicity of what she said that moved me. I can’t remember her words.

What are your plans for the future in terms of writing?
I don’t want to make my plans too long-range, but there are four books I have in mind to write. I hope I shall be able to write them. Anyway, as long as the writer has health and strength, he is always trying to write one more.

What are your greatest accomplishments as an author?
I have never really felt I had accomplishments. I am not being foolishly modest, as my friends might say, but I have never seen things like that.

What is your most prized tangible possession?
The love of friends and family. We are a big family. My sister has 11 children, I have four—Jennifer, Keith, Carlos and Sandra—my brother Rupert has five. We live well together. My family is almost all abroad but they are always here. As I write, my eldest child Jennifer has come to see me. Her fault is her generosity to me.  This and writing make up my world.

If you could dine with anyone in history, who would that be?
Who would that be? The man everyone would like to dine with—that is, everyone in the literary world. The poet John Milton said of him:  “...And so sepulchered in such pomp dost lie/that kings for such a tomb would wish to die.” Yes, I’d join the queue to dine with Mr William [Shakespeare].

What is your favourite meal or dish/food ...and drink?
My favourite meal is rice and pigeon peas with fish. As a drink, I like grapefruit juice.

Describe yourself in two words, one beginning with M, the other with A . . . your initials?
Mostly Ambitious.

How can our readers find out more about you or purchase your books?
99 Long Circular Road, Port of Spain; 628 2221; [email protected]; [email protected]; http://MichaelAnthonyTrinidad.com
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