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Walcott the journalist

Published: 
Saturday, March 25, 2017
DEREK WALCOTT

In his later big essays, The Muse of History, and What the Twilight Says, An Overture, when he assessed the society’s art and culture after the decade, the analyses were caustic and pessimistic. But his views of the society while he was in the midst of it are light, generous and often funny. As is inevitable for an arts reviewer, and a working artist, there were the occasional bad reviews and feuds, as, most famously, with Errol Hill.

Walcott the carnivalist

His views about the Carnival were, at turns, ambivalent and mildly interested. It was only piqued when he was able to review the calypsonians as poets, and treat the Carnival as drama and spectacle. From an article about the Carnival before Independence (March 5, 1962), dutifully reciting the mythology of the roots in the cannes brule, the African and European traditions, and the emergence of the steelbands, he writes:

“The magnificence of Carnival is, however, visual. It is a powerful combination of mass and detail. A Carnival band can literally have a cast of thousands, enough for a cheap historical movie, and while the first time visitor may be staggered by the numbers, as in any film the costume detail is carefully worked out, documented by months of careful research. The old-time masks are no longer worn and the competition is based on the splendor as well as the historical authenticity. The authenticity is often questionable, but the splendor compensates.

“The design of Carnival bands is the art of using moving colour in large masses and as such it is even more difficult than theatrical production. The challenge has produced genuine creative artists like Saldenah, whose dramatic instinct for colour was demonstrated in the magnificent Zambesi last year, in which black and white costumes were used in alternating masses with breath-taking impact.”

Being a theatre director and company manager himself, in a milieu of other theatre directors living and working in Trinidad at the time, some encounters and reviews of the local art scene were less than friendly. Reviewing the Dimanche Gras presentation in 1964 (February 12), Walcott writes:

“In a perplexing foreword to the Dimanche Gras programme, Senator Ronald Williams (to whom all honour and glory) has defined the show’s purpose as ‘not an attempt to portray Carnival on stage, because it is an impossible task’, nor ‘an attempt to summarise the brilliant 1964 calypso season’. But as an attempt to ‘present our to people…a production that embodies the best of our performing arts. To take over where the calypsonians have left off and introduce somewhat disrespectfully, but in the Carnival spirit, a little political satire.’ Senator Williams should have informed the production’s writer/director, Errol Hill, and its choreographer, Jeff Henry, of those intentions. The opposite took place Sunday night. Mama Dis is Mas?

“We were given by Mr Henry a curious mish-mash of style, a ‘cook-up’…of planned improvisation and Mr Henry himself doing a rooster dance around Julia Edwards, who was dressed like a fugitive from the Graham company.”

Revenge is a dish best served cold, and Errol Hill waited a full year before an opportunity presented itself, when Walcott was commissioned to produce the Dimanche Gras. Whereupon Hill, in these pages wrote (March 7, 1965) under the headline No Tears for Narcissus:

“Come weep with me. BATAI, the Dimanche Gras show, written and produced this year by Derek Walcott, was an unmitigated calamity. I take no pleasure in recording this. I am part of the Trinidad theatre. Any failure diminishes me. But BATAI was no failure. It was a selfish abuse of the Trinidad Carnival theatre to satisfy the ego of its producer.”

 

Walcott, Walcott, and Naipaul

Ironically, on the same page that Hill wrote his article on Narcissus in 1965, Walcott was otherwise engaged in interviewing VS Naipaul. It was one of many times he would write about Naipaul, with admiration. In 1961, reviewing a House for Mr Biswas (November 8) Walcott writes: “At 30, VS Naipaul has established himself as one of the most mature of West Indian writers. His reputation as a critic is also increasing.” A few years later, in 1964, after Naipaul won the Hawthornden Prize for his novel, Mr Stone and the Knight’s Companion, Walcott wrote of that work that it was “flawless”, but had more to say about Mr Biswas:

“In this book, which must have caused him profound, embittering pain, it is thinly hidden biography, he created the most real and most memorable character in West Indian fiction. Like the great Russian novels, its atmosphere is familial, its sense of generation and change is epic, and its depiction of rootlessness, failure, and disinheritance, conditions which produce material greed and spiritual emptiness, symbolic of all West Indian races.

“Yet the truest quality of the novel is its self-righting buoyancy, a compassionate sense of the absurd, not in the sense of all struggle being absurd that exists in avant garde, existentialist fiction, but of a determination touched with self-deluding, self-delighting flashes of grandeur. This is Naipaul’s finest gift, the way he endows the humble with dignity, whether it is Bogart, Titus Hoyte, B Wordsworth, or his prime creation, Mohun Biswas. Yet a refusal to be gracious, a pose of Waugh-weariness often gives a nasty edge to many of Naipaul’s observations in The Middle Passage.”

 

In the interview with Naipaul on the same page Hill took his turn at Walcott’s Batai, he asked Naipaul,

 

DW: In your book (An Area of Darkness) you mentioned you felt a certain anonymity in going back to India. Now you are back in your native country, do you feel you can resume your identification with Indians here or do you feel completely isolated?

VSN: I do not think one can ever abandon one’s allegiance to one’s community. This is something I feel must be said.

Q: I don’t mean that one can detach oneself from one’s community. I mean do you feel in any sense displaced in either country; displaced on your return here?

A: Oh, yes, I find this place frightening. I think this is a very sinister place.

Q: What particular elements in this society make it sinister?

A: So many middle-class people I met here are insecure and unfulfilled. They act and react on one another all the time to produce this old-time communal destructive instinct. Also, the manners are not very good.

 

Walcott’s style was always low-key and diffident, but a little conceit, and cheekiness, showed when he interviewed himself (on October 16, 1965). He also manages to get Naipaul into the conversation.

 

Q: You’ve interviewed yourself before, have you?

A: Yes, but somehow I never ask the right questions.

Q: You didn’t invent the form, of course?

A: No, I got it from Edmund Wilson, but I don’t want you to think I’m making comparisons.

Q: Well, what should I ask you?

A: Nothing profound. Anything serious will come out of this rambling duologue by itself. I don’t think any special questions, but I’d much rather talk West Indian…

 

This interview eventually gets to the point where Walcott asks himself about his nationality and his status in Trinidad.

 

A: …I am sometimes nastily reminded by people that I’m a small-islander because I’m taking advantage of things [here] that St Lucia doesn’t have. …

Q: But you like living in Trinidad?

A: You mustn’t make it sound as if you’re saying ‘as opposed to’…I’m very committed here. I’m so committed that for instance I’ll vote for anyone who promises a new theatre, that’s how…opportunistic I am. What I find shocking here is the neglect of talent. There are parts in Naipaul’s book (the Middle Passage) about all this that are too painful, too searing, and depressing to read because they’re true. All those calypsos describing here as a hedonist’s paradise are another kind of fantasy, a manic self-delusion. The horror is that any island thinks it’s more of a paradise than the next. There’s this persistence of avoiding reality. Maybe Carnival is a part of it. But there are moments I have to force myself to bridge this fantasy with the truth. The more one knows Port of Spain, the more the fantasy persists. It really is an erratic blow-up of any of the smaller gimcrack cities like Castries or St Georges.

Q: That could be your own psychic deficiency

A: Yeah.

Walcott and multi-culturalism

Moving from St Lucia to Trinidad, one of the things that always fascinated him was living in a society where completely different populations lived side by side, often at odds, and determined to ignore each other. On December 7, 1966, he writes:

“A long time ago, there was an official proposal for a school of Asian and African studies. This could have been modest enough. There was also some fuss made about a centenary of Tagore, but both came to nothing. Politically, all this may seem dangerous. We may appear to define the boundaries between Asian and African art too aggressively and we may even risk public incomprehension and laughter. I’m not too sure how authentic the local version of the Ramayana was. Like everything else, especially the Hosein festival, it may have been creolized. Our tendency is to spice everything up, to add a little pepper to things that are dull-looking, or old-timish, even art forms. Too often the dish is just a mess.”

This sort of looking back is not nostalgia. Our Chinese, Syrians, Indians, Negroes etc, are unshakably Trinidadian. Every generation may become bored with their rites, but fragments of them exist. If they were artificially revived their resurrection would be pointless, but they are here.

 

Walcott the arts activist

He lived here for more than 20 years, had a family, created an enduring institution, the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, and had an outsize impact on the society. In a sense, it was as bold and subversive an act of cultural imperialism as TS Eliot’s relocation to England. In his time, he made some observations about Trinidad which were as bracing as they were caustic. Commenting on artistic progress in Trinidad in the Independence Supplement in this newspaper on August 31, 1963, he writes:

“None of the arts in Trinidad is self-sufficient. They are not likely to be either since amateurism, which needs to be flayed as much as those dead horses ‘British Imperialism’ and ‘the colonial mentality’ is the chronic disease of West Indian life. Amateurism is the worse form of imitation which is the worst form of flattery. This cross-country enthusiasm for ‘a national culture’ which VS Naipaul mercilessly skinned in his book, The Middle Passage, because of impatience and fake pride, can retard artistic development.”

The idea of a National Theatre was another of his bugbears, and he returned to it time and again. On July 29, 1964, another auto-interview, he writes:

“The idea of a centre for the arts is looked on here as a waste, an impractical dream. They tell you that you have Queen‘s Hall or something when you bring that up. But Queen’s Hall wasn’t designed for that purpose. It has to make money, whereas this centre would always be available and people from the villages would come to it. It could be part time work for those who want to teach and those who wanted to perform.”

He was committed to the idea of a national and West Indian artistic institution. But he wasn’t always the most apt advocate, as in an article entitled Why We do Shakespeare Badly: (March 8, 1961):

“In the West Indies [Shakespeare’s] plays are taught as massive exercised in elocution and rhetoric. They are also taught as masterpieces of plot-structure, which most of them are not. … His work is presented as being born whole… Shakespearean speech is associated with ‘a good accent’, which for most audiences means a contemptible or enviable identification with Oxford or the BBC…. Until ideas of Standard English and the inferiority complex that goes with Commonwealth accents is explored by directors as a mine of possibility, Shakespeare will always be appear alien.”

When he wrote those words, In a Green Night had recently been published, and The Joker of Seville and the stage version of The Odyssey were far, far in the future. But here, in the pages of the Guardian, is where they were born.