Horizon at Sandy Point

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Price is Right

How far would you go? What's your price?

Would you kill a man for 500$? Heck no.
Would you kill him for a million dollars? No.
Would you let a man die for five billion dollars? Well, as long as I don't have to do anything ...

Jesus was sold for 30 pieces of silver. Shylock wanted his pound of flesh. They used to say, in Trinidad, you could take out a hit on someone for five hundred dollars. Now see how we have evolved: you don't have to do anything, just wait for a man to die, do not pass go and a cool five billion passes hands.

There are those who say the world has gone mad. We distill and value everything in dollar terms. We are beguiled by the idea of wealth. And let no one dare to deprive a man his right to "eat ah food." That is t'ing to kill for.

Who cares if all around the mountains are falling, the rivers running dry. As King Austin asks:

When will it end
? When will it end?
 It is plain to see ... 
This land is not bountiful as it was
; Simply because
 in his quest for success
, nothing stands in man’s way. 
Old rivers run dry. 
Soon the birds won’t fly. 
The mountains will be no longer high
. And when I really think of it, 
I does wonder why?

The price of progress is high. And here in Trinidad and Tobago, the higher the price the better it seems. The latest high priced item, according to Trevor Sudama, will be the Debe-Mon Desir loop, the highest cost per kilometre of highway, anywhere in the world!

(Read Sudama's series on the highway which were first published in the Express:

You will kill a man for five dollars?
No way! But for free, I could watch him die!

(Hear Progress by King Austin, lyrics by Winsford Devine:

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Heart of a King

So it has come to this. It's an allegory for our times, with all the elements of Greek drama, pathos, hubris and an expectation of catharsis, an ending in doom or resolution that will make it tragedy or comedy.

The Prime Minister is the stoic, just and unbending protagonist with the power of life and death in her hands. King Lear Madam? The Citizen is picture perfect powerlessness - with the only remaining tools of the powerless, his voice, his body, his blood, his silence.

The story is no longer about right and wrong, authoritarian justice and the plea of the lowly. It has transcended the political and temporal arena, to the universal. The tale now hangs - as Lear did - on our interconnectedness, compassion, and love.

At this point in the tale, the fate of Citizen is already determined, and might only be changed by the Madam King. Indeed she holds all the cards with four distinct pathways to choose from in order to produce the outcome, and to create the transformation that we are waiting for.

She can let him die and pretend that he never was. This of course is the least satisfying, and will show her as a character that may be interpreted as lazy, arrogant, without pity, taking the line of least resistance.

She can be gracious and allow the independent review. Of course, the advisors and publicists will have to find the way to spin this. But wot-da-hell is wrong with a change of heart that says I cannot let a Citizen die over a highway, it's against my motherhood, my religion, my karma.

She can wait til he dies and have the independent review thrust upon her, or whoever happens to be in government over the next decade. And maybe the tale becomes serialised because the people of south want this highway - that they have been promised over a generation ago - so bad, but at what cost.
Why not simplify? Let's have the main highway by all means, and why not upgrade secondary roads through all those picturesque towns.

Well I said four paths to the outcome. The fourth is the option that makes this the best drama ever. It is the surprise happy resolution that only the one with the power can provide through her own imagination. It is the path that she chooses that will bring about her state of transcendence and glory. Citizen is already in his transcendent moment.

This is not the first encounter between the Ruler and the Beggar. We all know how they have ended in the past. "In robe and crown, the king stepped down..."

All the best stories have turned on the change of heart, even those that were tragedies. And in the end, the heart, it's all that matters.

Friday, November 23, 2012

This jamette life

"Do you know who throw the bottle?" Dinah asks Jean pointedly on this particular Carnival Monday.

Jean has arrived with the sailor suits for the two friends - now clearly middle-aged - to jump in a band. Dinah is not interested, and the sounds of the steelbands approach and pass on. Talk turns instead to their past lives. Jean as a girl in San Juan: she ran away to "town" when she could no longer bear the advances and abuse of a "male relative." Dinah was a country girl, from Freeport, with a proper upbringing, who came to town to waitress.

The bottle that Dinah refers to is the empty rum bottle that was hurled into the band in a long gone carnival, the bottle that broke and took her eye.

Forty years later, this Jean and this Dinah are the main characters in Tony Hall's play "Jean and Dinah" based on Sparrow's famous 1956 calypso:

Jean and Dinah, Rosita and Clementina
Round de corner posing,
Bet your life is something they selling
When you catch them broken, you can get it all for nothing.
Don't make no row,
Yankee gone, and Sparrow take over now!

Hall's "Jean and Dinah" - the play - takes us into the lives of the women who have been abandoned by the Yankees, and other men too - Leroy, Warrior, Ramon - and even their own children. Through the years though, they have had each other - for companionship, for support, to fight with. And finally, this Carnival day when Dinah is searching for the truth behind the bottle throwing incident.

I met Jean Clarke when I was working at the Guardian. At whatever indeterminate age she was in 1996, she was beaten down and tired, as people who have hard lives become old before their time. Her left arm was wizened, finny. That was the one which she used to fend off the cutlass in the steelband clash, she told me; whatever was severed and didn't heal never prevented her from doing what she needed to do. At the time she was sharing a small house in Laventille, living with a mistah. He was kind enough to take Jean in, but callous too in the way that men can be when they know you are dependent. And her self and security were always on the edge. She had children yes, but the daughters turned away from her and the son had been in jail. Jean died while I was still at the Guardian, not yet 60, ending a harsh and hazardous existence as a jamette.

To call a person a jamette is to suggest low moral standards, from the other/under side of society. If is a woman, you might as well call her prostitute, "ho" as we like to say in Trinidad, but she's usually a hustler, survivor, a fighter, a "sufferer," close to the street, close to violence. Jamettes were the match for the hard men, bad johns and sweetmen, hard-drinking womanizers, the outcasts who came together in barrack yards and in steelbands. Jamettes would be mascots or flagwomen, with the stamina to lead a band waving a heavy flag. The Lise Winer Dictionary of English/Creole of Trinidad and Tobago suggests that the word may have its origin in the French diametre, meaning someone of the underworld, outside the bounds of society, i.e. respectability; or possibly jam-ette (female slave). (In the same dictionary, I was surprised to find a reference to Jean-in-town credited to Ganase 2000. She was called Jean-in-town to distinguish her from another Jean from the country.)

When Tony Hall's play first "came out" in the mid 1990s, the story had been created from the primary research conducted by Susan Sandiford and Rhoma Spencer with aging jamettes, and then delivered in improvisational workshops conducted and massaged by Hall. In the almost 15 years of performances, Jean and Dinah who stepped out of the calypso and onto the stage have survived almost another generation of change and loss.

It seems to me that Hall's script always wanted to be a film: in order to span the 40 years of hardship and friendship; in order to see the "girls an dem" through the eyes of young Yankees stationed at the base in Chaguaramas, the foreign fellas who spoiled the local women for their own men; and in order to create the "dream" sequences - Jean as Baby Doll ("you de chile fadder?") and Dinah as Midnight Robber (foretelling the vengeance of the abandoned sons); and finally to see the jamettes in this final eye-opening encounter.

And so, forty years on, it's this Carnival that Dinah wants to know who pelt the bottle. Jean, reaching for that good natured comfortableness between friends, protests that it happened too long ago. It's not so important, they should instead just join the band, enjoy the day. Because you know if you miss the Carnival, is a whole year you have to wait!

But Dinah insists and goes down insisting. Until Jean has no choice but to relive the memory whole - the two steelbands approaching each other on the narrow Port of Spain streets. She with San Juan All Stars, Dinah in Desperadoes, each waving the flag. It's said that cutlasses were hidden inside the bass drums; rum bottles stuffed in pockets. The bottle Jean was carrying flew out of her hand. Her other arm went up to fend off a flying cutlass. The climax of lives lived close to the edge, where violence is a daily possibility.

But "Jean and Dinah" is much much more than this unfortunate and fatalistic "steelband clash." As Jean insists, it was so-ooo long ago. There's still time to seize the day, the carnival day. For in the midst of lives lived unforgivingly and hard, they were always there for each other, weren't they? Yes, there was always friendship - from the time Jean came in town, and Dinah chose to shelter her - and comfort and love. It is life that is the jamette: good times and bad, fortune and loss, carnivals and curve balls (or bottles). But we - we still here together - Jean might yet insist.

"Jean and Dinah" shows the way to rise above this jamette life, with dignity, with compassion, with friendship and love. Seize the day. Be the jamette - to celebrate each daybreak like it's jourvert morning. Join de band and play yuh mas! When you're done, it's gone. So don't make no row...

(The film "Jean and Dinah" is in the making!)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Meditation on cocoa beans

Cocoa tree, descendant of Mesoamerica's theobroma cacao
food of the gods

"Why are you sorting beans?" The dark man is puzzled.
"What are you, a bright woman, doing sorting cocoa beans in a chocolate shop? Why do you spend time there? Is it the lime?"

Another asks, "Hmm, so how is the chocolate making going? When are you going to start making your own?"

No sorry, there's not a personal purpose, an ambition to be released after apprenticeship. This is about the transformation of cocoa beans through many many hands. From those that pick the pods and scoop out the beans covered in sour-sweet sap. To those that sweat and ferment the beans. Til they are loaded into crude bags, beans worth their weight in gold. At the chocolate shop, they are sorted, roasted, winnowed. The nibs are crushed to release the flavours of earth and sunlight, and blended to release pleasure from a delicious morsel of chocolate. Sorting is one small step in the process that is an unbroken chain from tree and farm to bean, bar and bonbon.

Oh yes, the chocolate shop is a pleasant place to be. The smell of roasting cocoa is comforting as a daily fix. Sorting beans to remove the mouldy ones and those that you think may be mouldy inside even though you cannot see the inside - you sense it in the weight, the hole at one end, maybe even the smell - must be one of the most mundane jobs in the world. Surely you can't expect to be paid anything for doing a task that does not even use your brain - not much anyway.

But I put myself in mind of all those who spend years, decades, even lifetimes, doing the same things repetitively; taking care of children; cleaning houses; preparing breakfasts, lunches, dinners; those who pick the cocoa, the grapes, the tea leaves; the millions who return to the same shop or sewing machine, field or widget maker, weeding, picking, carrying, dropping, turning a small screw. Theirs is the life that is the hum of the human world.

Cocobel guava flavoured chocolates on the "production line"

There are many jobs that have to be done, in a life, in the world. Each fills a small gap in the continuum of progress or a production line. Human life today requires many hands to keep the wheels turning, ever so slowly.

See yourself in the continuum, instead of stuck in small gap. Today, I am an ant working in a chocolate shop. Om ommm xocolatl - I accept my place in the universe, and my rewards in chocolate!

Cocobel gift boxes of mango pepper, tonka, caramel and dark hearts
(This was written just about a year ago when I started my apprenticeship at Cocobel, where the finest single estate dark chocolate is made from Trinidad's fine flavour cocoa beans. Not published until now as I am reminded by on-line meditation exercises from Deepak Chopra.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The immortal Bim

Ralph Maharaj in his early 20s plays Bim
Unmoored from family, home and landscape when his father is shot on the day of his sister's wedding, Bhim (pronounced Beem) Singh is launched into the divided world of colonial Trinidad in the mid 1950s. Without a friend - where was his mother, his sister? - he travels from the sugar cane fields of Chaguanas to the home of his aunt Babsie in the congested Port-of-Spain suburb of Belmont. Babsie is married to Bolo who typifies the worst kind of macho husband, gambler, boozer and wife abuser.

Bim runs through Belmont

Worse is to come when Bhim enters the classroom. As the new boy, he is picked on and roughed up, threatened with death if he "crosses the line." He escapes by stabbing the ringleader with the compass from his geometry set, and runs home where the reaction of his foster family is "oh gawd, wha we go do wid you?" The boy from the country is starting a reputation as a bad seed, misfit, troublemaker. He runs away and ends up in the rumshop-brothel-gambling den run by Wahbam.

Ralph Maharaj (Bim) and Wilbert Holder (Wahbam): Trini actors for any age

Drawn to petty crime for a living, he robs a gas station, and is transported to Cedros in the trunk of a car. Three hours in the car trunk, his rage is fuelled by fear and discomfort. The "Captain" who runs an illegal sea trade - moving Grenadians to Trinidad - gives him a new name with his job as a crewhand. "Beem, Beem," he says, "what kinda name is dat?"
"Bim!" he pronounces, "a good strong name, Bim!"

When the immigration scam is busted, Bim flees back to Port-of-Spain. Wahbam has a new girl, fresh from the country for him. It turns out to be Anna, the childhood friend. "Anna, dis is no place for you gyul," he protests. And this confession, "My life is always full ah trouble. People does say all kinda ting about me."
Bim enters a life of crime; his childhood friend Anna becomes a whore

He takes Anna into his home and protects her like a sister. Outside, the political winds portend a coming storm. In the canefields, Bim destroys Baba Charlie, son of the feuding Gopaul who killed his father, and takes hold of the cane-workers union. In the town, more urbane political leaders emerge, ready to take the reins of power as soon as the British declare independence for the nation.

Bim preaches to his union members, "I say negro and Indian must live like one in this country, but if negro want to live by theyself..." However when he is approached by the black politician Ben Joseph at the Governor's party, he is drunk and retorts hastily,  "Nigger and coolie doh get together in this politics." Rude and insulting to everyone in his drunkenness, it is clear that even though he may have a certain degree of power, he is no politician.

An inward anger is getting the better of Bim as he leaves the Governor's party. Round the Savannah, in front of the emblematic Queen's Royal College, Anna - who has persuaded her guard-protector to go for a walk - is screaming for help, set upon by three men. Bim hears the screaming sees the scuffle and stops. The film ends as his rage explodes in a scream of anguish.

The wedding: his father's murder casts the son adrift

Bim was made by Sharc Productions in 1974, produced and directed by Hugh Robertson and his wife Suzanne (the S and H in Sharc); Suzanne's original idea scripted by Raoul Pantin. The premiere was preceded by a poster campaign that showed a grainy face with the haunted eyes of a fugitive. One suspects that its imagery and language would have been too strong for Trinidad and Tobago just twelve years after independence, and might even have been interpreted as seditious. Politically incorrect epithets "nigger" and "coolie" and the occasional "yuh mudder arse" cuss out were not easily tolerated in the nation where "all ah we is one." Words, we seem to believe, are intrinsically bad or good, rather than situational cyphers for the climate and times we live in.

I was newly returned from university having absorbed the much more deeply rooted rhetoric of the segregated - in 1970s de-segregation was still fresh and raw - south USA. They too wanted so badly to pretend that they believed in equality. Did they know that little tiny islands in the south Caribbean were also working out issues between nigger and coolie, between white and brown, and chinee and creole, indigenous and transported, pastoral fieldscape and barrack-yard town, had been at it for decades, and still continue.

Still, the initial run of Bim was brief, and according to the International Movie Database (IMDb) was banned, undoubtedly too strong language and too suggestive (especially the violence) for the Trinidad Censors Board. Truth is that real life reflected in movies like Bim (even sex scenes that appear comic and un-smooth by today's standards) is uncomfortable and meant to ask us to face what we might want to suppress. So I didn't actually see this important film until another 20 or more years had passed. And then, I am constantly delighted by the rhythms and musical track of Andre Tanker; riveted by the immediacy of the people and the world of colonial Trinidad -  Bim (Ralph Maharaj) and Wahbam (Wilbert Holder); Bhagwan Singh and Captain, Corporal Joseph, Tozo, the Commissioner of Police - with its tentacles curled yet around who we are in 2012.

Bim has been shown in a few local film festivals over the last decade. The audiences attending these screenings realise what an important piece of social, sociological and cultural heritage we have sidelined. Bim, filmed and released in 1974 - after independence, after our black power uprising, after sugar cane and union workers marched together - may have been forgotten like any year's Carnival costume. And with carnival mentality, we try to re-invent the film industry in as many different ways as there may be potential film-makers, story-tellers, cinematographers and animators. What might deeper consideration of Bim tell us about ourselves and our capacity to create with own stories, our own talents and vision.

Fortunately for us, it is a work that is still available for us to see ourselves in and learn from. As a production with all Trinidadian content and cast, it remains an outstanding and authentic expression in a global genre.

A window into the world of colonial Trinidad and our contemporary history

 (All images are stills from the original film Bim, copyright Suzanne Robertson and Sharc Productions)

Monday, November 12, 2012

Fertile valley of mist

A persistent memory from growing up in Santa Cruz and being driven to school, was looking back down the valley from the hairpin bend. At that hour, before seven, in the early months of the year, the immortelles in bloom at the eastern end would be a vermilion haze as the mists rose into the liquid blaze of the rising sun.

From a coll in the Santa Cruz valley looking south

The Immortelle blooms in January

Another would be waking up on some particularly moist mornings in December to February. The mist would still be sitting low in the bowl of our valley, and the trees holding on to the night's moisture looked like they were covered in snow. Temperature inversions - the term we had learned in geography - seemed to occur more frequently then, when the river valley held the night's coolness in foggy wisps near to the ground. As we travelled along Saddle Road to the Pass, we would rise through the cool mist  and emerge suddenly to a bright blue day. From above, the valley looked like a lake of white cloud which the risen sun would dissipate in minutes.

At night, it was similarly foggy near the valley floor, and - without streetlights - it was easy to believe in tales of soucouyant and la diablesse and lagahoo - or a man who came to negotiate with the devil - as trees and land forms appeared suddenly in the shifting swirl of headlights.

There were citrus orchards then, covering the land to the foothills. Today, the orange trees have given way to horse pastures and the Undercover plant nursery. Gone too are most of the clumps of bamboo curving and meeting over the Saddle road. Coming home to lunch at midday - an indulgence of my early working life - the pleasure was to feel the valley so much cooler  than Port-of-Spain left behind in just ten minutes; and to hear the sawing song of swaying bamboo, sharp in the noonday silence.

Over this ridge is the St Ann's valley

Woodpeckers love the tall trees in Santa Cruz

The hidden valley that is Santa Cruz was first settled by planters and their families who accessed its broad river plain and gentle foothills through San Juan, the place where the Santa Cruz river exits to become a tributary of the Caroni. (With recent flooding, it's not so hard to conceive that the Caroni was once a broad river route bringing the Spaniards to settle their capital at St Joseph, entrance to the Maracas valley.) The steep and winding route over the ridge from Santa Cruz into the adjacent Maraval valley may have once been a donkey track, eventually widened when the Americans created the North Coast road from Port of Spain through Maraval to Maracas bay. Part of the valley runs west to east, part north to south, with numerous smaller vales and crumpled hills and tributaries running to the big river.

Its plantation past is slowly yielding to more residential settlements as Santa Cruz becomes the valley of choice for suburban living, after Diego Martin and Maraval. Cocoa from some older estates is still maintained and reaped. But smaller farm homesteads now flourish, growing patchoi, lettuce, melongene, tomatoes and hot peppers; mixed livestock including poultry, pigs, sheep or goats. It is in  experimental home gardens too that less common fruit and vegetables are growing, with surpluses offered to the grocery or market.
Hills of my Santa Cruz home
The most comforting sight, however, remains these green unchanging hills of Santa Cruz, my home for over 40 years. Every morning I open my eyes to the hills. In the evening, the descending dark settles on the eastern hill as the last rays of the sun brightens the peak in the west. One hopes that the mists of Santa Cruz will continue to keep its forested hills green and luxuriant with tall trees, agouti, iguanas and whatever wildlife still hides there; even as the fertile river plain is cultivated to bring forth food in abundance.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Metamorphoses, not Ovid's

Does Cillian Murphy become more sexy as he metamorphoses into Kitten Braden? What happens to  Patrick Braden as he becomes more feminine? Is the soul of a female person different from that of a male? Does it matter? If Zeus could transform into a shower of gold or a swan, why not a boy into a girl, an actor into anything he chooses. What if, in truth, the body does not have a soul; but the soul chooses a body, much like a suit of clothes.

Cillian Murphy as Kitten
Breakfast on Pluto (2005), directed by Neil Jordan, is a film about the "coming of age" of an orphan abandoned by his mother in a tiny Irish town. Patrick Braden grows with dreams of being female. He wears his sister's dresses unashamedly. He also longs for the love of a real mother. Writing tales of erotica for school essays, wanting to be called Kitten, and the not-so-secret wish for a sex change deposited in the suggestion box, he is the adolescent that challenges his teachers. He is scorned by his foster mother and eventually thrown out.

And so begins the journey that takes Patrick-Paddy-Patricia St Kitten to her true identity. Cillian Murphy says that he prepared for the role by going out with transvestites, but that may be like saying you learned to swim by looking at fish. He also shared that it was a part which he first read in 2001 (when he was 25 and relatively unknown) imploring Neil Jordan to make it before he got too old. The novel Breakfast on Pluto (1998) was a useful source, even though there are some significant departures from the original text by Patrick McCabe who collaborated with Jordan for the film script. In the end, Murphy's Kitten is the fairy tale with the happy ending, against the saga of dark disappointment that was Jordan's The Crying Game (1992).

It is a role that could slide into the sensational and sordid. And it's a miracle - or less than plausible - that Kitten escapes the debauchery and destitution of many who choose persistently other than the gender role that life has dealt them. But there's a real quest - to find the mother that she never knew. Why are you in London, the magician asks her under hypnosis. I'm looking for the Phantom Lady; the city seems to have swallowed her up. And, under hypnosis, she spins around the room embracing strangers, a speaker box, anything.

Set in the Irish 1970s - aggressive IRA activity, Carnaby Street chic and a soundtrack of sentimental songs - the film's few allusions to unsavoury sexual encounters leave Kitten unscathed. She is also in search of a father figure. She enters and escapes relationships with older males - the raunchy Billy Hatchett and his performing group the Mohawks; the bikers on the astral highway; the magician (played by Stephen Rea); and drive by johns. When she's arrested as a suspect in an IRA bombing, Kitten begs the policemen to keep her in jail. Instead, she is released to the Peep Show where the girls give her a room and a role.  It is here that the priest  - in a confessional reversal - tells her where she might find her mother.

In the end, it is in friendship rather than sexual intimacy that Kitten finds the home of her heart. She meets the mother and family but does not reveal herself. Instead she returns to the village. Here she finds her best friend from school Charlie being sheltered by Father Liam (Liam Neeson) - whom she believes is her real father.

What keeps this typical tale of trans-genderism from descending into trite voyeurism is Cillian Murphy's performance. Much has already been made of his expressive blue eyes - even without make up - natural bee-stung lips and slender sylph-like deportment. His looks serve the film in its role of transformation from the male actor to the female character;  and from the androgynous playful teenager to the desirable and desired mature feminine. Kitten survives with steely wit and optimism intact, and transcends that life with its over-riding potential to be nasty, brutish and short.

So many transformations take place every day. The art of film is itself an art of magic. It is a wonder that we do not allow more magic into our daily lives. Indeed, so often we cannot, or refuse, to see the souls for the clothes.

See the trailer for Breakfast on Pluto here: