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An elegy for Angelo

Published: 
Saturday, February 11, 2017
Angelo Bissessarsingh

It was Angelo's first reading at the Paper Based Bookshop.

The store's owner, Joan Dayal, and I both knew within moments of hearing him claim the microphone with an anecdotal flourish, that it would not be his last.

Fame and illness have ways of galvanising action. People produce some of their finest (and most foul) work when they're facing the gallows, or when they're polishing their Who's Who citations.

Neither of these—not terminal cancer, nor celebrity—initiated any brilliance in Angelo that he did not already possess.

What was within him burned with the need to make history accessible, the daily bread of the wage worker, maxi taxi driver and Charlotte Street grocer. His sickness and his popular appeal were not the making of Angelo; they influenced, but did not dictate the quality of his scholarship, and the range of its magnetism.

Yet “scholarship” may be too distancing a word for the substance and delivery of Angelo's writing.

Many history books hold themselves at cold, academic remove. I have read each of Angelo's four published books, and each of them seeks to bring the reader closer to history's living pulse.

From Walking with the Ancestors (2014) to Virtual Glimpses into the Past (2016), what impressed me most was the consistent readability of these volumes, the sense that by making the past prominent we might make the present all the more understandable.

If we measure men by what they leave behind, then the Virtual Museum of Trinidad and Tobago, Angelo's Facebook hub for historic findings, is a more powerful legacy than the brick and mortar mansions of many.

It isn't a wild conjecture to imagine that this virtual Facebook page is the site of more daily traffic than T&T's own National Museum.

The Virtual Museum, and Angelo's personal Facebook profile (now converted into a page of remembrance) are less like collegiate lecterns and more akin to village standpipes.

The posts were often as conversational, jocular and wryly witty as was Angelo himself, if you had the fortune of a half-hour in which he might bend your ear on vintage cars, goat racing, 1920s Port-of-Spain, or the Trinidad Railway Co.

It was in these rambling reminiscences on trains and classic automobiles, pottery middens and Roman coins, that Angelo's vast online readership alleviated its everyday woes.

Here, history became the very best incarnation of itself: not a palliative, but a promise that annals and archives had value in addressing the land disputes, item classifications and identity crises of 2017.

In the Virtual Museum, and in the books that brought it to print publication, the practical, hopeful applications of history had a space to make themselves heard.

Angelo was not merely raising budding historians; he was engaging his readers and followers to use history to think proactively.

Though he was thanked for this in his lifetime, one senses that the manifestation of that gratitude might never be sufficient.

Who, after all, stands poised to fill Angelo's shoes? The work of a popular historian is a marriage of meticulous, verifiable research methods and savvy, socially-attuned marketing.

T&T history has hardly ever been so entertaining and educational as under Angelo's capable, confident wing—and, there, tied up in a billowing patriotic bow.

Perhaps in looking to the future, it is futile to hope for carbon copies of Angelo, and more productive to consider the good work his deeds have wrought.

His history books reside proudly in homes, schools, non-governmental organisations; they have been gifted to presidents and prime ministers, whom we hope will crack open their glossy covers for more than photo opportunities.

Without the patronage of bookseller Nigel R Khan, what kind of publication tours might Angelo's volumes have received?

What instruments of state and private sector stand armed to smooth the trials of cultural archivists, research-oriented scholars and amateur historians in our society?

To wrestle with archives in search of illumination can yield rewards; we can but hope that that specific labour is given the prominence Angelo fought for it to possess.

In my last private conversation with Angelo, we spoke of cemeteries.

We reflected on them as landmarks of revelation, as well as cradles of despair.

I do not think Angelo Bissessarsingh would begrudge his mourners their despair, but he might point to the hope that lies in graveyards, nestled alongside the polished headstones of many a heartbreak.

He knew better and more intricately than most men how strong the spirit of human resilience is called to be, and how to honour that call til the last breath.

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