Horizon at Sandy Point

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Random conversations: education and work

The old are always wise. The young are always catching up. Are the needs and challenges of the 21st century more or different than in generations past?

Our education system is turning out the wrong people.  I agree. But inside I reflect, how could people be "wrong," it has to be the system that's not appropriate any more, that's outdated; lost its way - perhaps because there was no "way" in the first place. Yes, our ways of teaching children must be different. This envisages a different approach from parents; teachers; and the need for mentors, coaches and role models. The Trinidad education system is by its nature, conservative, a "factory" approach for twenty-thousand new entrants each year, unwieldly, inflexible and archaic. Through the system, we dispense information, with the love for learning an accidental by-product if it is ever engendered at all. One only has to look at the schools - large, institutional, impersonal.

The product of one of the best schools in the country, I absorbed everything like a sponge. The teachers couldn't decide whether I should be streamed to science or literature, geography or mathematics. I didn't choose. I tried to do everything. But math was my favourite; and I had great math teachers. I grew up on a farm; and school was the escape from manual labour. Farm work however gave me hours in my own head, day dreaming about everything and nothing. My mother made sure I could cook, that I knew what weeds to pull out of the garden beds. I became an expert with a broom and vacuum cleaner. My sister, on the other hand, with the same home and school background, gravitated to sewing and art.

I like to think that I grew up in a "golden age" Trinidad, without pressure and plenty potential. Today, I think that there are thousands of children who are lost inside and outside the pressurised education system, who are being deprived of the opportunity to make sense of who they are and what they might be good at. And who is to change that? Every one of us who grew up in the "golden age" must shoulder the task: in every interaction with children. Indeed, how did we lose our golden age?

The big companies would like to import labour. They can't find people to do skilled labour. Can't find, or can't keep? We weren't taught to respect the work of people who had to learn skills, do manual labour, who went to craft school. If there's a shortage of these skills, maybe it's because there's a shortage of respect for these skills. So good technicians are promoted to managers; and we have too many managers and become top heavy! There's something to be said for a system in which there's greater equity between manual and intellectual resources.

From an early age, we figure out it's demeaning to work with our hands. Most parents, even those who work with their hands, want the child to be something "better" which means doing something more respectable. It's re-inforced in schools: the academic over the trade. Most people coming through the school system want to work in an office. School does little to open the child to the possibilities of enterprise, making things, fixing things, cooking, building, manufacturing and services. Indeed, the "service" side of every profession is poorly developed. Being a doctor seldom conveys the notion of help and care. We fear doctors in the way we fear people with superior knowledge.

Bring in more people from China. They are good workers. You think I could borrow a few to build my house? So what are we saying: let's revive the indentured (and slavery) systems that brought so many of our ancestors here, shall we? Because those systems ended in us, they must have worked well, eh! Are our people inherently lazier or less skilled - or have an inclination towards brain work - than in other countries? Trinbagonians generally do well in other countries - in manual or intellectual jobs - where they conform to better systems. Why not at home?

 How do we change the education system? Should we educate heads or hands? We need to change expectations among people, from as early as possible. An early childhood education centre for every child that's born is a good thing. But we all know that learning and teaching is more than being in a pretty building. Teachers in these centres need to see themselves not as teachers, but service providers to a community. Each child represents a family. The child takes home the learning. Perhaps we need smaller schools, more intimate classrooms.  We certainly need teachers with purpose and compassion, seeing themselves responsible for the next generations. Teachers who identify disability, shortcomings, special talents, and who can provide useful alternatives for children who are gifted or challenged. Perhaps we need different approaches to training and motivating teachers; develop a version of national service in which everyone teaches for two years.

And what about those who don't even get to school? Social officers need to be the bridge between home and school for the children most "at risk." Children at school should be children at play, in an environment that encourages learning, and doing, and working. Some schools might again become sanctuaries for those who want to use their hands, as much as their minds. All schools should take their places once more at the heart of their communities.

And the Chinese workers? The fault is not in the Chinese or their workers. It is in our desire for grander buildings than we need; for more than we can use. It is the nature of our greed.

Are we who are wise, too late to make a difference? What might we yet do, so that the young may find the way that we lost.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Wild no more!

A certain familiarity with wild things was part of my life. There was the monkey that was kept on a chain at the back of the shop in Woodbrook. When it escaped, it led my father on a merry chase across the rooftops between Ariapita and Tragarete roads. It's not strange that all these cute and adorable wouldbe pets look to flee at their earliest opportunity. Monkey was not the only one. There followed a succession of rabbits, agoutis, iguana, tortoises, a couple snakes, pairs of finches and even cage bred birds that preferred to be free than hand fed.

Woodpecker in the tree off my porch

The monkey incident happened when I was about four. I don't remember if we got him back; and if we did, what happened to him after. Daddy also had budgerigars, picoplats and other cage birds. And there were tubs and ponds - with fish called mollies, koi, angels, telescopic gold - arranged in the narrow backyard in Woodbrook. Later, on the farm, guppies, guabine, oscars, coscarob and tayter, tilapia and cascadura swam in ponds, amusing customers to our poultry farm and hatchery.

When we first moved to the seven-acre farm in Santa Cruz, in the late fifties, we were sandwiched between a strip development and another farm,  but as far as "town people were concerned" we were in the bush "behind God's back." There was no end of possibility to find or keep wild things. My mother's great fear was snakes. Us kids feared nothing.  We roamed like wild beasts from the river that bounded one end of the farm to beyond the front gate.

In season, my father hunted with a neighbour or two, running - with or without dogs - through the forested hills that linked Santa Cruz to other valleys. They brought back agouti, manicou, armadillo (tattoo). On one rare occasion, when they may have gone further, stayed overnight or longer, they brought back a leg of deer dried and smoky from the forest boucan (French, smoke oven). And I imagined the camp, the riverbank, the woodfire as I tasted a small piece of the meat: not so dry as jerky but not moist either, something to keep chewing on. Wild meat was not something I could desire or develop a craving for.

There were times at the start of the rainy season when they would head out into the hills above Maracas-St Joseph or Arima to see if the manicou crabs were running. If they hit the right moon and rainfall, they would return with a couple crocus bags filled with these sweet brown crabs which were quickly cleaned and stir-fried in a sauce with hot pepper and shadon beni. As kids, we loved the communal casual way of eating with our hands, cracking the joints with the back of a big spoon, sucking the meat and piling up empty shells on the newspaper-covered kitchen table. We could eat crabs until our fingertips wrinkled, as if we'd been in the sea too long.

I actually didn't like the idea of eating any game animals; especially when we would have to see them dead before they were gutted and cleaned for cooking, before they looked like meat. Their pathetic small bodies, eyes staring, fur bloodied and matted, neither pet-cuddly nor meat. The stiffness of death is terrifying to a child, so rigid, unmoving, unnatural. No one could get me to taste even a little piece of 'gouti, far less manicou, and iguana - never. I would think to myself, we have chickens, ducks, pigs, goats - what need to eat some poor wild creature that had to hide and forage for its food; to eat what we would not count as food.

I did love the crabs, though, until I realised I was almost fatally allergic to shellfish. I well remember as a preteen, eating crab through the itchy throat, the "mad blood" welts on my body. But I had to stop, had to eschew crab, shrimp, and every other kind of shellfish; and then I realised I couldn't even be in the same room where shellfish was being cooked.

I like that the corbeaux are as curious about us as we are about them

Turtle too. Leatherback turtle - in the fifties - was on every hunter's list, the bigger the better. But there was a last turtle hunt for our family. My uncle had taken my father's pick up to Matura: a van load of young people, driving for two or three hours to get to a beach to slaughter a large turtle and then to return on a more treacherous ride in the predawn. I woke that morning to see my father hustling to get a ride to Grande, where the van had wrapped around a lamppost, cracking collarbones and disfiguring my aunt's face. Before that, turtle was a sweet and nutritious meat. But enough is enough. We didn't need to eat turtle did we.

On our farm, we had domesticated fowl, ducks, pigs, goats and some pond fish. We kept agoutis and a couple tortoises; the moroccoys were bigger than big watermelons. They might originally have been intended for some special Chinese meal but they were with us so long, no one could imagine slaughtering them. They would stand on their hind legs and dance against the fence when it rained. They too walked away at some point.

We've found snakes in the watering can, on the porch, on the gate and over the front door.

Much later - when I was the mother of two small children - we had snakes. First was a small rainbow boa, that would wrap around a wrist like a leather strap, a bracelet that moved. Once, it escaped in the car. For a week, we could not find it. The husband burnt hot pepper and blew the smoke in the car. Nothing flushed it. One day, I was driving and felt as if a shoe lace had brushed my ankle. It was Tuesday, the rainbow boa. Not long after, she escaped - or was released - somewhere on the farm.

Then came Charlie, a six-foot ten year old macajuel that had been captive raised by a friend. It was convenient to keep Charlie because we could feed him - with rejected baby chicks from the hatchery. He was followed by other boa constrictors taken off people who might have been planning to sell or kill them. There was Thursday, and there was Sky, both boas with their lovely gently patterned skin. Not sure which one bit the husband on his nose. These are, after all, wild creatures, unaccustomed to being handled even affectionately. They don't belong in human homes. Eventually, they all found their way to the zoo before the farm was closed.

In my present domain, still in Santa Cruz, there are iguanas, agoutis and manicous; we hope they are happy and safe in the high bush; we hope they stay away so the dogs - and humans - don't see them. The corbeaux watch from the trees. As do the woodpeckers. Scores of birds serenade us with their chirps and songs. They fly through the house as if this is still their space. Hummingbirds too dazzle us with their colours, their energy, their feistiness at the feeders.

It seems that I have lived with wildlife all my life. It makes me happy to reminisce. I am delighted to see  wild creatures, alive in the environment, even and especially if it has nothing to do with me. It's not necessary for me to possess or pen a wild thing. I don't need the engagement of the chase. I know already that every wild being is cleverer than I am; for being able to fend for itself and its young without walls or agriculture, without toiling or spinning, and especially without my having to do anything but leave them alone.

What was the evolutionary arc that took us from being one with the creatures, to dominion over them? If we can never go back, can we at least imagine the barrenness of life on earth without wild creatures. And if we can, then let us imagine what we ought to do to make sure that there's always life in the wild world.
Some days, lets try "not eating anything with a face" was one conservationist's advice.
We agree.

(A two-year moratorium on hunting was legislated in Trinidad and Tobago on October 1, 2013. Let us use this period to re-learn how to "live" with the wild. We certainly don't need to eat turtle, quenk, agouti, iguana, parrot, crab, manicou or armadillo to live.)

Sunday, September 29, 2013

10,000 hours

In 2008, Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, The Story of Success, launches the idea that 10,000 hours dedicated to an activity would bring success. He cites the Beatles, Bill Gates and J. Robert Oppenheimer to support his thesis. In his "10,000 hour rule" he posits that the key to success which is an indicator of mastery is a matter of practising for at least 10,000 hours.  And I think to myself, what have I spent 10,000 hours on, in my dilettante-ish life. Let's see, 10,000 hours, at say eight hours a working day and fifty work weeks a year comes out to five years. That's at least five years of diligent application to a craft or skill.

I can think of a few persons who have applied themselves with such dedication to a talent or gift, that I could say yes, they are masters. Many practising artists, writers, craftsmen - teachers, beekeepers, farmers -  in Trinidad and Tobago find themselves already in that category - that with success or not, they may be considered "masters."

Isabel Brash has spent the last five years making chocolate, for more than twelve hours a day on average. She has taught herself what she needs to know about processing cocoa from bean to bonbon; paid attention to the agriculture of cocoa trees; developed her own techniques while learning from observation and taste. Cocobel chocolate - in bars, or barks or bonbons - are works of art. And if they are not available anywhere else in the world but Trinidad,  they are more to be prized. Seek them out if you're a visitor. And if we live here, make sure we know the complexity of Trinidad cocoa blended with local flavours like mammy apple, Paramin basin mint, pepper pineapple and ginger.  Just because those of us who live here can, make sure there's Cocobel chocolate in our lives for anytime we feel like it. Isabel is one of those rare persons who has done 10,000 hours in her early thirties.

Isabel Brash's chocolate gems
Bunty O'Connor, the potter, started making pots as a young mother needing a creative outlet. When she moved her family to the wilds of Chickland, it was to operate a pottery built on a knoll of an old estate. For more than a decade, she worked at her craft, Trinidad clay pots and plates, bowls, art ajoupas. Her hands and the clay are dancing partners. Today she is making sculptures that celebrate our wild flora and fauna in organic forms: calabash bowls, vases and figures that are unique pieces of ceramic art. Going well beyond her 10,000 hours, she now schedules regular raku and mosaic classes to seed a new generation of potters.
One of Bunty O'Connor's organic pots
Helen Wong Chong has spent forty years in the fashion industry. As a maker of knitwear, a fabric and clothing designer, she made her mark with one of the oldest fashion houses in Italy. In retirement, she launched the secondskin label to brand personal fashion statements. Five years ago, she bought a hobby kit to experiment with glass beads. Lampwork - as the decoration of beads using lamps to melt the glass has been called - is now an ultra modern technology with high temperature torches fired with natural gas. Alone in her workshop, Helen may already have turned out 10,000 beads, and is well on her way to 10,000 hours in this craft.

Beads on a theme by Helen Wong Chong
Some people do their hours faster than others. I can think of Pat Bishop, getting to her 10,000 in the nights in panyards; and in daylight with her painting. Or her sister Gillian, who came to jewellery-making via a chemistry background, but whose fascination with stones and a flair for design developed the unique line of personal ornaments and signature gift items.

Chancy Moll - with a philosophy degree in her kit - married into a gardening life, and has co-created the most refreshing "secret garden" in Santa Cruz. Mary Hall is a master teacher, with many many more than 10,000 hours devoted to students - many productive creative students making their mark in the world - in the Michael K. Hall in Tobago. The Kariwak couple, Allan Clovis and Cynthia have certainly dedicated many more than 10,000 hours each to the small Tobago hotel that would be celebrated anywhere in the world.

Cherub in the San Antonio "secret garden"

Recognition and success have accrued to Derek Walcott and Sir Vidia Naipaul, who devoted their lives to singular craftsmanship and purposeful practice. Peter Minshall, with over 30 years of making mas art. David Rudder, lyricist, composer, performer, working at his craft for over 30 years. Behind great athletes like Brian Lara or George Bovell, you'll certainly find 10,000 and more hours. There are many who achieved success and fame. Many more who achieved mastery, but not necessarily fame or success. By considering those that are recognised, and those that aren't, we realise how civilization is built, and on whose shoulders.

I can only humbly submit two areas of endeavour in my lifetime. I think I have put in over 10,000 hours cooking, just cooking food for family and friends. It's one area in which I knew I had something to share with my children, something that they could enjoy and learn from. Hence my recipe collection, Comfort Food, with the premise that "these are the tastes of home, to be taken with you, any and everywhere you go."( The other is writing, still putting in the hours.

The essential idea of the 10,000 hours seems to be practice. And if you like what you do, it's easy to fall in love with practice.

Of course, it's unrealistic to expect that any hypothesis such as the 10,000 hour rule would remain unchallenged or untested. Studies (according to Time, May 20, 2013) are now on-going to measure the variables and extent of its validity; the particular fields or activities where it applies; and in the long run, whether there's any truth at all here.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Beaming The Beginning

How many of us have stories that would go with us to the grave, were it not for the unguarded remark or the encounter with the one person whose interest allows the story to come out. Such was the serendipitous moment that got Loren McIntyre to speak about his experiences. He was travelling down the Amazon in 1987, in the company of Petru Popescu - novelist and screen writer who had fled Romania in 1975 - and Jean-Michel Cousteau, environmentalist-explorer son of Jacques. To these fellow travellers, he mentioned his experience of communicating without words.

Loren Alexander McIntyre was born in Seattle Washington in 1917. He studied Latin American culture at the University of California in Berkeley. He spent World War II in the US Navy, going around the world to China, Japan, India, Brazil. After the war, he was assigned to the Peruvian Navy as a gunnery advisor. He later graduated from university in Lima in Ethnology, and became fluent in Spanish and Portuguese. Through the US Aid program, he travelled extensively in Peru and Brazil, recording everything in photographs. His first article was published in National Geographic magazine in 1966; the feature on Bolivia included 47 of his photographs. In his lifetime, he has published hundreds of features, and many books, on Amazonia.

Petru Popescu fled Romania when he was 31. In 1987, his interest was piqued by McIntyre's revelation that members of the Mayoruna tribe had communicated with him by thoughts beamed directly to his mind. Popescu spent the next three years researching, interviewing and corresponding with Loren McIntyre to develop the story that became Amazon Beaming, which was published in 1991. Popescu was already living in Los Angeles. McIntyre was working in Brazil and finally settled in Arlington Virginia with his wife Sue.

The story begins in 1969 when McIntyre goes into the Amazonian forest on assignment for National Geographic. He's not quite sure what he will find, but his party of three goes by light aeroplane along the Javari - one of Amazon's tributaries. They are well-equipped for an expedition, with camping, film and photographic equipment, trinkets for natives, canned food. One of the three got sick, and McIntyre insisted that the pilot take him back. He would wait at the river camp where he hoped to make contact with the stealthy group of naked Indians that was watching, keeping their distance.

On his own in the forest, McIntyre follows the group until he has lost the river. Then, he has no choice but to stay with the tribe, hoping they would lead him back out. Some have tattoos as well as labrets - spines through piercings in their upper lip - that look like cats' whiskers - jaguar people. McIntyre spends two months with the tribe at a time when they are on a ritual journey "to the beginning." They have no language in common, but McIntyre is befriended by an individual he deems the headman. Barnacle seems to understand McIntyre's thoughts. McIntyre perceives messages which beam to him with the force of complete thoughts. Some of us are friends. Later when his watch is destroyed and he has spent his frustration running in circles - a spell that Barnacle undoes by running circles in the opposite direction - he receives the message, the face of time.

He travels with them, back in time it seems, through ritual fasting, body painting, hallucinogenic potions, frog licking and dreaming. His concept of time changes. He perceives that the beginning is always within memory. In the deep forest, with no horizon, time is not linear, it envelops you. Later, having lost all his photographic equipment, film, notebooks, everything that connects him to the world of civilizados, he is flushed out of the forest on monsoon flood waters. He is glad to be alive, but equally certain that his friend of the forest is not.

Two years later, he leads the National Geographic expedition to find the furthest source of the Amazon river. This journey takes a group of three explorers  - McIntyre, Richard Bradshaw and Victor Tupa - to the Continental Divide. To the west of this crest, the Pacific; far to the east, the Atlantic. This ridge in the Andes is over 18,000 feet above sea level. Here the clouds touch the mountain to make rain or snow; here they expect to find the ultimate source. Here begin the many tiny rivers, cascades, ponds or springs flowing in a continuous stream to the mighty Amazon.

Unsure of how far they would need to go, the three adventurers plan to travel for twelve miles on foot around the Choquecorao (a long crest called "golden sling.") They are subject to the cold, oxygen deprivation and risk death. For McIntyre, there is certainty in this mission. He has a vision of the tribal ancestors who crossed the landbridge from Asia, trekking the mountain ranges through generations and  eras before their descent to a home in the deep forest.

He is connected to something primordial through the experiences with Barnacle and the Mayoruna tribe. He arrives at the beginning of the world's mightiest river, in a desolate uninhabitable landscape. He reaches the end of the tribe's ritual begun in the impenetrable bush. It didn't matter that it took another 16 years or so before he was credited as the explorer to go to the furthest source of the Amazon, a tiny perpetual lake fed by snow melt that has since been named Laguna McIntyre.

Based on the measurements of their trek, it is confirmed that the Amazon is still the second longest river in the world after the Nile. It flows through Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Guyana. However, the discharge that drains from the crest of the Andes through the deep forests to the Atlantic Ocean, is greater than that of the other top ten rivers altogether. 

In crafting a book that must certainly be one of the contemporary world's great adventure stories, Petru Popescu allows McIntyre to tell the story in his own words. The narrative switches between McIntyre's recollections and the Popescu's framework of deep research which provides the context of McIntyre's story. Though it is the adventure of one person, Amazon Beaming is vast and epic; it spans a continent, and the time and thought from primitive to civilized.

In the Epilogue, McIntyre returns to the Javari. It is 1976, over 17 years after first contact, but Barnacle still lives in his thoughts.  He anticipates the possibility of re-finding his tribe of Mayoruna but they have disappeared. Instead he finds many mixed children, tribesmen becoming civilizado; he finds disease and destitution. The sense of loss is haunting: we will never be that wild again. 

Aerial photography was one of the greatest assets in the quest to find the source. The Mayoruna believed that the source was "in the sky." It was not just a metaphorical concept, as McIntyre came to realise: the river on land is constantly fed by the river in the sky.
Go directly to this link to be able to zoom in to this view over the Amazon:
 "popcorn" clouds in the afternoon are the result of forest respiration.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Writing, my concubine

Writing is often an extension of thinking. I plod from stepping stone to stone - as in a murky river - sometimes leaping wildly hoping there's indeed submerged rock where I see ripple, hoping not to have to turn back and thread another way, hoping not to sink in still water. Hoping not to have to start over.  Reviewing (writing about) films is an exercise in writing, which exercises thinking.  Was the film, the action, the denouement (how it all came out) a worthwhile commitment in time, and whether it is useful at all, or entertaining. In the case of my writing, did it make me think?

When I picked up Farewell My Concubine at the video club, I was told, "That's old, you must have seen it already." I had not. I had no clue about this 1993 China-made film that won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Like so many films that come out of China from the post- Cultural Revolution era, it is layered through ancient tradition, revolutionary history and contemporary technique to present a face of multi-faceted China, to itself and to the west. Sometimes so much layering, so much texture can be confusing. In another age too, the unfamiliar cadences of Chinese language, the high sing-song would be annoying.

Prostitute turned wife, Juxian, played by Gong Li
The concubine in ancient cultures was a woman who lived with - or was dependent on -  a (usually high born) man, but was not accorded the status of a wife. He may already have had at least one wife. To the Chu king, waiting for the end of his reign (c. 200BC) - and his life - at the hands of the Han king storming the gates, the concubine is more than mistress; this is his last friend at the end of the world. Go, the king commands her. She stays.

The great irony of Farewell is that - like classic theatre, Noh or Shakespeare or Beijing opera - the concubine is played by a man. Two women - and only two - feature in this film. The first is the young prostitute who cannot continue to work at the House of Blossoms and raise a child. So we see her in 1924 following a street performance of the Beijing theatre troupe, with her five year old. She takes the child to the master who rejects him because he has a sixth finger. The desperate mother finds a sharp knife to do what is necessary to deliver a perfect child to the company. A hard life of sadistic brutality disguised as discipline and training ensues; but the young Douzi is never self-pitying. In the  environment of the opera school, the timid reserved Douzi is befriended by the boisterous Shitou. Together they have each other's backs against the world.

They grow to manhood with poetry and music in their heads, desiring fame above all, in the cloistered world of the Beijing opera.

By 1940's Shitou - now known as Xiaolou - attracts the attention of fans, among them the beautiful Juxian who is determined to escape old age at the House of Blossoms by marrying the actor. For his part he knows where the mask ends, and enjoys her attention. But Douzi - the adult Dieyi - is seldom out of his role: the concubine as best friend forever, status-less, yielding, always the supplicant.

Dieyi as the concubine Yu
We see Juxian, played by Gong Li, glad to give up her trade for the status of wife. She is a pliant but worldly woman. The loss of her unborn child in the scuffle with Japanese soldiers evokes no self pity. She is loyal to her husband, and supports his friendship with Dieyi, interceding on the latter's behalf even when he is betrayed by the foundling child who eventually replaces him to star as the Concubine. Wife, advocate, Juxian never again has the chance for the role of mother, and to love but be without love becomes her undoing.

The opera, the film, the intertwined lives of the characters are set against the turbulent fifty year span of contemporary China: from pre-World War II desperation, the occupation by the Japanese, the tug-of-war between the Nationalists and Mao's Communist forces, to the birth of new not-yet-confident China in the 1970's. The two actors meet again after eleven years. They intend to perform the classic Farewell.
Xiaolou as Chu the king; and Dieyi as Yu the concubine
Unencumbered by Western morality or ideology, Farewell My Concubine is rich in metaphor, symbolism, sexuality, and love manifested as loyalty, sacrifice, selflessness and devotion. And so, we come to the final performance of the ageless Dieyi and still vigorous Xiaolou. She sings the pain and pathos of fifty years yearning; and finally, Dieyi has the strength to take the concubine's way.

In the end, it is writing that is the concubine - often inadequate, stilted, weak, one-dimensional but as faithful as humanly possible - to the thought.

Looking back, it is remarkable the number of good films made in 1993 - among them The Remains of the Day; In the Name of the Father; The Piano; Jurassic Park; Groundhog Day; Schindler's List; What's Eating Gilbert Grape; Indecent Proposal; Philadelphia; Cool Runnings; Sommersby - each of which began as a thought in some writer's head. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A dolphin lies dead on the sand ...

"Infant dolphins were found dead at six times average rates in January and February of 2013. More than 650 dolphins have been found beached in the oil spill area since the disaster began, which is more than four times the historical average. Sea turtles were also affected, with more than 1,700 found stranded between May 2010 and November 2012 – the last date for which information is available. On average, the number stranded annually in the region is 240."

Sea animals in the Gulf seem to be responding to high levels of toxicity in their environment. By dying. And vast as the ocean might be - we are constantly reminded that it's 70% of earth's surface - it cannot wash away quickly enough the 4.9 million barrels of crude oil, followed by 1.8 million gallons of dispersant dumped in the Gulf of Mexico since May 2010. The very vastness of the ocean fools us into believing that we who live on dry land have less. But we air-breathers enjoy all of the thick blanket of atmosphere which surrounds the earth, with even the worst smogs and pollutions cleansed by the 70% in the cycle of evaporation and rainfall. (On the other side of the great mother ocean, Fukushima spills 300 tons of radioactive water every day into the Pacific, where we may never see a dolphin dead on the sand.)

Now that the stats are being collected, how should we regard beaching dolphins and high infant dolphin mortality? These are animals with intelligence matching our own. Beaching is a deliberate act. Imagine this: creatures whose natural environment has become so intolerable that they swim or throw themselves out of it; seeking escape from the very medium supposed to give life and sustain them. 

Is it possible? That an animal will commit suicide if it is unable to survive and thrive in its habitat. That it might refuse to fight for life; or that its struggle to live leads it to attempt the unthinkable. A deliberate act, not different from the person who fills her pockets with rocks and walks into the deepest part of the river; the man who runs his car into a bridge; the mother who hangs herself in the bathroom.

Is it a weakness to die like this? To let yourself go, back into the great churn of rank and fetid soil, to return your atoms and molecules to be re-ordered, into a tree, perhaps plankton, morsels for crabs to chew on, for worms to feast. 

Is there not a weakness too, in holding on, longevity a virtue, past productivity, past feeling useful, past joy, proving only the trick of survivability. Truth is, we who have caused the deaths of species - of millions of millions of individuals of other kinds, floral and faunal - we are afraid to die. Indeed, we live in the belief of a god-given right to dominion over the biodiversity of the earth. As if our species - alone - is beyond ecological retribution. As if we are children of the stars, with another home to return to.

Yes, we may be children of the stars, but why should we think that dolphins and whales, the turtles and fish, hummingbirds and dung beetles, bachacs and great trees, corals and all, are any less star-born. But that's always been our problem, that - even acknowledging that all the forms of life have the same origins - we believe we are more equal than any.

A dolphin lies dead on the sand. How did he die? 

Did he fall from the sky? Was he washed up with a wave? Were there marks of a predator on him? Were there signs of disease? Did he become disoriented? Was he chased by a shark? Did he take poison?

How did he die?

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Last Mango

My mango tree produced a crop this year. It is now seven years old, and about 12 feet tall, naturally rounded in the way that trees will grow if there are no other trees close by. Because it is on a hill, it leans a few degrees southward. The crop might have been bigger except that on a particularly dry and windy day in April, several lime-sized fruit were blown off the tree. But many still held on to become the cricket ball sized fruit in maturity, and just as hard as a cork ball.

Stone mangoes on the tree 
This tree that I call Stone, I've heard others call Buxton Spice. I've looked for images on line, and while it does bear resemblance to the shape of Buxton Spice, there are some differences. There's no spicy taste or aftertaste, just a bright sweet flavour. It is firm fleshed and ripens from the inside out, so while the outside may still be firm and tart, around the seed is orange and sweet.

This year, I noticed what I thought was a jep nest - they turned out to be black sugar wasps - growing on the tree. It appeared around the same time that the mangoes were "full" and starting to ripen. Through the season, at least one mango at a time would be abuzz with these black wasps following it to the ground to finish the fully ripened fruit. They always know - before us - when the mango is ready. It is a neat arrangement not to have rotting mango lying under the tree. The bees or wasps didn't bother me, and I was allowed to pick enough fruit every day to keep me happy.

Wasp nest in the heart of the tree
Now that the "season" is over, the wasps are gone.

Inside the Stone mango
I seem to remember that the other Stone tree on the farm had other patrons to keep the ground free of rotting mangoes too. July 1990 was a particularly fruitful season - lucky for us curfewed on the farm - but Valoroso (ex racehorse) was also with us. We would hear the mangoes fall, then the swift thud of hooves as Val cantered over. He would stand under the tree chewing, his big horsey teeth in a kind of smirk. Then he would spit the seed out. If we wanted to collect mangoes, we would have to pick them off the tree, or search around for those that the horse didn't particularly want - he chose the ripest and sweetest.

But Stone wasn't the only mango on the farm. Thirty years before, we met the Zabico tree there. It was a pale jade fruit that was crisp yellow inside when ripe. It was about the size of a pommerac, with a slightly elongated shape. It was a very tall tree at the end of the row of pommerac trees that marked the boundary of the big hatchery. We didn't like it very much - its flavour we thought watery, a bit too subtle. But the Zabico was my mother's favourite; she found pleasure in whatever the delicate aroma and taste reminded her of.

We all loved the Rose - another tall (oh, easily fifty feet) tree - and the windfall of hundreds of mangoes in season. We didn't know what to do with all of them. Some went to the pigs. Others were allowed to germinate for rootstock to graft Julies or other hybrids onto. But children adore Rose: a crunchy chow with garlic, pungent shadon beni and a stinging pepper. And whose mouth doesn't water for the aroma and taste of curried mango just picked from the tree? My own introduction to Rose was as a child - maybe four or five - on a bird catching trip with my father in Wallerfield. The traps were set with laglee, while the caged picoplat sang his heart out. It was while waiting for the untamed birds to come that the wild Rose tree would be raided. The memory of that stolen secret mango Rose chow shared among a carload of bird-catchers was the standard against which every other chow would be measured.

Inside the wall on the farm was the Starch tree. People walking along the road knew about this tree before we ever did. Mowing the lawn, we would clear the stones that littered the ground nearby. All the mangoes on the side nearest the road were picked first. Sometimes, it felt like a battle to get our own Starch mangoes. Only late in life - as an adult with two children - I discovered Starch, with its chemical smell - turpentiney and invading the house - and under the skin, tangy creamy sweetness. One Starch can never be enough, but if it was all, you could suck flavour out of the same stringy seed for hours.

The king of mangoes on the farm was Graham. There were three or four trees planted in a row near the house. Their canopy kept the area underneath cool and damp; and a great bachac nest thrived there for years; nothing would persuade these ants to leave. How they must have loved those mango leaves. Nothing prevented the Grahams from growing to whatever the full size and bounty might be. Some were the size of a hefty barbadine. Many were grapefruit size. We gave these away by the box load. I had a friend who ate them bruised, over-ripe or bird-pecked. Those were the most delicious to her. The year my mother passed away - 1998 -  gave us a bumper Graham crop. Some days, it sounded like it was raining footballs. Boop! Boop! Bo-dup! That year, a passion fruit vine had found its way above the Graham canopy to bask in sunshine. Underneath, you couldn't step without mashing mango or passion fruit. When the fruit was fresh, you could taste the essence of passion fruit in those Grahams. It was the year I learned to make mango sorbet, freezing litres of mango puree.

And Julie. Ah Julie - the inhabitant of every Woodbrook yard, together with the breadfruit and West Indian cherry trees. It seems that Woodbrook Julie mangoes bear all year round. Even in December, my uncle would offer a mango to any special visitor. The Julies on the farm in Santa Cruz ripened with a green skin. You had to know by feel and smell (especially!) when the Julie was ready to eat. But certainly the best Julie tree was the one planted by my godmother in her garden in Diego Martin in the fifties. By the time I made its acquaintance, it was a 50-year old, alone in its spot in the yard, soaking up sunshine and delivering fruit that would turn yellow rose and orange-gold, like a sunset. This was mango to feed gods - the skin tissue-thin, the aroma heady, and the flesh firm but pliant, sweet as my godmother's famous "sweet han'", running with nectar. No wonder the vagrant woman would jump the five foot fence, risk the barking dog rushing at her, for a mango or two.

Other mangoes that were abundant didn't interest us. We would pass basins of dou-douce on the road to Toco - apricot size fruit that you would roll to soften and then suck through a tiny hole in the skin. La Brea Gal - a near cousin of Starch - on the way to Point Fortin. Cutlass - shaped like a blade - is still an exotic, without a distinctive flavour.

And now, it's mid August. The wasps have left their nest - I don't know where to. The last mangoes high at the top of the tree have fallen to their nibbles. There's just one left, sitting on my counter. I turn it around at least three times a day. I notice the paling of the green with the hint of yellow emerging. I sniff at the skin like a dog, but Stone has very little smell. Others are eyeing it too. So I have to gauge when it is ripe enough for me, before someone else decides it's ripe enough for him. I know the flavour may be less than those at the prime, the plump fruit bursting like a midday sun, seeping sweet juice. But I will slice it and savour it. I will close my eyes and suck the seed dry. Another eleven months must pass before we enjoy another.

And so, if I call you the mango of my life, know that it is with affection and wonderful associations, and love that grows, ripens and is enjoyed in its season.

Stone mango = sweet sunshine! Plant your favourite mango tree today!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Writing from Life

Two images remain after reading Annie Dillard’s “The Writing Life” (published by Harper since 1989).

The first is of a man in a skiff, tethered to a log which he is bringing ashore against the tide. The place was somewhere in the northwest Pacific coast of America. He spotted the log drifting offshore, parallel to the shore, and rowed out to get it. He underestimated the gamble of bringing it in while the tide was still slack. By the time he secured the log, the tide was running south to the shore. He rowed and rowed and rowed just to stay in place. As the tide grew stronger, he rowed to remain parallel to the shore.  Sometime in the night, the sea calmed, and he took the opportunity to turn and row north again. Soon the tide turned, and it was all he could do to keep himself afloat, to keep the precious log bobbing along with him. It had taken him a night and most of a day just to get back to the place where he set out from.

The second is of a skilled stunt pilot turning tricks in his airplane; you might call Dave Rahm an artist in air and metal.  He would usually be the last flier at the airshows, the star, performing dips and rolls, stalling and spinning in mid air before pulling up and flying away to rising applause, which he certainly could not hear. Rahm drew lines in the air like graceful calligraphy. You would think that he enjoyed the acrobatics, like a gymnast or a bird might do. Until Dillard went up with Rahm, she could believe that the effortless grace of the airplane echoed something in the pilot. So she took off with Rahm in his single engine plane, to feel his art. His aircraft flew through cloud and banked close to the mountain slopes of steep valleys. Inside the plane rattled, the whine of the engine was terrifying and uncertain. “We felt flung,” Dillard wrote, “… parts of our faces and internal organs trailed pressingly behind on the curves.” The vertigo and the force of many g’s deadening the brain, the face flattened back on the skull, was the tremendous effort it took to make art with an airplane, to follow a line of graceful arcs, lovely vining curlicues, suspended in the sky. Rahm practiced daily.  Later, he was living in Jordan and performing for King Hussein when he dove straight into the ground.

Dillard describes her own writing life. It is the life of the artist in a windowless room; in a cabin in the woods. You have to love words, she says, to read everything, to read the best of everything. But of course, she says much more; and better than a review might do.

It’s worth reading, Annie Dillard’s slim book, “The Writing Life” whether you are a writer or any other kind of artist. It does not glorify the process, the many starts, the best words and phrases and paragraphs that you throw away in order to find what you are looking for, and which you don’t actually know that you are seeking.

Of course, not every writer has the same technique or goes through the process. But if you are a writer or want to write, Dillard knows what you're up against.

“When you write,” she writes, “ you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.”

Sunday, August 11, 2013

A Mighty Scream

Angelina Jolie's scream - it lasts at least 30 seconds - is the most heart-wrenching moment ever captured in film. The scream - its futility and anguish, deep irreparable pain and the torment of living - becomes the defining scene of the movie, A Mighty Heart. Her character Mariane Pearl has just been told that the father of her unborn child, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl has been killed by his kidnappers. Days of gut-wrenching tenuous hope disappear in a moment. This moment requires an aside, a time out, the interval in which her life is shattered but she's still alive.

Mariane leaves the room where police chiefs, federal agents, friends and investigators are standing about helplessly, concern etched on their faces, hearts full of useless pity. She closes the door to her bedroom. She screams. Again and again and again. The "no, no, no" mounts to an inarticulate howl. Tears stream. Then she gathers herself, cradles her pregnancy, and returns to the other room, composed but not consoled. With a gesture, she apologises.

In what must be her most powerful role to date, Jolie presents Mariane Pearl with grace and restraint that makes her riveting to watch. The performances of Jolie, Dan Futterman (Daniel) and Archie Panjabi (Asra) make this film more than an account of a kidnapping of a journalist by terrorists. It is a love story, about being in love with life.

In early 2002, Daniel Pearl disappeared on his way to interview Sheikh Jilani. It was to have been his last assignment before leaving Pakistan. The film tells of the events and the investigation to find Danny and to bring his killers to justice. In 2003, after the birth of their child, Mariane wrote "A Mighty Heart." It was made into the film and released in 2007. Mariane - of Dutch-Cuban ancestry, and living in Paris - wanted her character to be played by Angelina Jolie.

One of the greatest benefits of a film like A Mighty Heart is that it can lead you back to the book. In the prologue to her memoir titled A Mighty Heart The Brave Life and Death of my Husband Danny Pearl, Mariane explains: "I write this book for you, Adam, so you know that your father was not a hero, but an ordinary man. An ordinary hero with a mighty heart."

Even though it will take me a lot longer to read than the two hours to watch the movie, I am certain that the book will provide greater insights to Mariane, Danny, Pakistan and the "war on terror." It will also certainly need a more studied review. Stay tuned!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Cloud Atlas - simultaneous and sequential

Cloud Atlas (2102), the video club manager assured me, was rubbish, rubbish. And even though I depended regularly on his advice, I was intrigued. Don't bring it back to pelt me, he warned. Well, prepared like that, I steeled myself, and stayed entertained, surrendering cynicism and logic to the power of the story. In this case, six stories are lightly linked by literary references and other clues. They are powered along by the energy of the cast, each actor carrying several distinct roles in widely divergent eras.

What could possibly have ended up a tedious compendium of strange and separate stories, gels in the repertory performances of a relatively small cast of actors - among them Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, the relatively unknown Ben Whishaw and David Gyasi, and others. Aided by the artfulness of masque and make up; and finessed with editing for split-second sequencing. In three hours, we shuttle in time and tension, back and forth across 500 years.

Based on the novel by David Mitchell, the stories are shared between the directors (Andy and Lana on one team) Wachowski, and Tom Twyker. Each directs three stories; some are filmed simultaneously.

Over more than a hundred years of movie-making, we have learned how to make movies with more technology, greater complexity, with a grasp of simultaneity that matches the synapses in the brain. No longer restricted to linear sequence and plot, we have learned to perceive and order the story that loops and returns upon itself - like a DNA strand. Cloud Atlas is six strands intertwined, each affecting the others, snapping and sparking off each other. It is a seminal movie that matches the way modern humans - and cinema goers - respond to information from multiple stimuli.

There have been other movies about co-influencing human action and emotion. Crash (2004), with its cast that included Sandra Bullock, Thandie Newton, Matt Dillon, Terrance Howard, takes place in a day and two nights in Los Angeles. In this sprawling city that's a rich mix of culture, class and ethnic diversity, there is coincidence as human emotions spill over to generate misunderstanding, ill-will, prejudice, racism, death; and to a lesser extent, communion, hope and joy.

Even earlier, the movie Six Degrees of Separation (1993) proposed that every human being on earth is separated from every other by only six persons; perhaps no longer an existential view twenty years later.

Babel (2006) hangs on a thread that runs from California to Mexico, Morocco to Japan. "The single gunshot heard around the world" - as its tagline -  brings tragedy to the lives it affects. Babel might be a multitude, but it is a single tower, as we are a single species, on a single Earth. Our senses have been trained by multimedia as much as by movies - Inception with its many levels of reality - to accept simultaneity.

Cloud Atlas condenses the human story into a single strand: action and non-action; going with the flow or standing up to the fight; living before dying. At least two of Tom Hanks' characters summarise, "One governing principle that defines every relationship on God's green earth: The weak are meat, and the strong do eat." We cannibalise our kind. We build the future upon the bones of the past. We rise again, cells re-assembled. Everything is connected.

Somni 451, the clone that ignited the revolution, becomes the icon generations later: "Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future."

At every turn, there are those who uphold the system, however heinous, being met by those who refuse. Adam Ewing, who took pity on a slave bring whipped, turns his back on his father-in-law's business, refusing to become rich on the slave trade. "There is a natural order to this world, and those who try to upend it do not fare well," he is told. "This movement will never survive; if you join them, you and your entire family will be shunned. At best, you will exist a pariah to be spat at and beaten, at worst, to be lynched or crucified. And for what? For what? No matter what you do it will never amount to anything more than a single drop in a limitless ocean."

To which Adam responds, "What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?"

We are connected. We may even be the same. As the poet Tagore wrote: "The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures. It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers."

Our sameness comes from the common impulses of the human heart, and manifests in good as well as evil, in joy and sorrow, conflicts and complacency, greed and liberation, revolution and evolution. It instructs that we live before dying. Somni 451 said, "I believe death is only a door. When it closes, another opens."

And from Robert Frobisher, the composer of the musical score that is called - in the movie - the Cloud Atlas Sextet, "I believe we do not stay dead long."

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Signs on a Saturday at the end of July

Do you have days like these? When you can't see what's coming but you feel the apocalypse in the blood, the tentativeness in the bones. Today, a woman came to the Market, wearing the green t-shirt trademarked for the green party. The green leader - innocent until proven guilty, she declared. She continued, we will win the By-election on Monday. The green leader had instructed, she said, no maxis to his meeting - meaning no "imported" crowd - just people who living right in the area. And there were thousands. So you start to wonder, what if she's right?

Later that day, the illustrious yellow leader surrounded by a national cabinet is imploring the yellow people to question the motives of the green leader and vote for the yellow candidate. There's sense in her words, but the impact of the assembled onstage - backing a candidate, however worthy, from Tunapuna - rings like another Tobago campaign.

On Friday, the Muslimeen led by Abu Bakr paraded through Port of Spain in commemoration of the day 23 years ago (July 27, 1990) when they stormed the Parliament and the national television station. At that time, the Prime Minister and the members who were in the parliamentary chamber were terrorised and held hostage for five days. Employees of the television station were also shot at and held hostage for five days. The Abu Bakr terrorists killed or caused the deaths of about 24 persons during that period. They caused widespread destruction and loss of property in the capital city and urban areas. The curfew that followed lasted six months. All the insurrectionists were freed two years later; the courts allowing the validity of an amnesty that had been framed at the height of the hostage crisis.

Was theirs a just cause? Did they speak for a sector that was disenfranchised, disenchanted? Do they to this day command an army of hungry landless young men adrift? Who sanctioned a march of this man and his group, whose presence is a constant reminder of "Trini tolerance," a laziness that floats on the line of least resistance, in allowing "who shouts loudest", an unwillingness to look deep under the skin of "all ah we is one."

There was no uncertainty 23 years ago. My sister and her family were coming in from Italy. The son and I would be waiting to meet them at Piarco. I was sitting on the edge of the concrete pond facing the exit from customs at the airport, while the six-year-old son was shuttling between me and the doorway, wanting to be the first to see his two Italian cousins. A heightened scurrying among the porters. One came forward and addressed a man who was sitting on the edge of the pond next to me: they take over the parliament; the television station. We both asked at the same time, where? what country? Uncomprehending, unbelieving, that the event was taking place here in Trinidad and Tobago.

We returned home through some areas in pitch black. On national television, the Muslim leader held a gun. For the next five days, everything was rumour and extrapolation. Living in the country, we only heard of the explosions and sieges in town. Only heard of the destruction of Port of Spain; of the bodies piling up. But the country areas were under siege too - no electricity, no gas, no grocery supplies - even though it was difficult to feel besieged in the lush languid tropical torpor of Trinidad at the end of July.

In five uncertain days, we came of age, and have been treading water, barely unfloundering, since. We walk side by side with those who perpetrated murder, terror, who stole from us,. We are one people. Do we know what to do with this? Do we yet know what it will take, of communities, of individuals, to be the Trinidad and Tobago of our dreams?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Tonto: the silly one

You don't have to be a kid of a certain age to appreciate the new Lone Ranger movie, with Johnny Depp as Tonto, Armie Hammer as John Reid (the Ranger's alter ego) and William Fichtner the human-heart-eating villain Butch Cavendish. You don't have to be old enough to remember the television series, or even older to know that the first stories were made for radio in the 1930s. But you do have to have a developed sense of humour, a sense of the absurd, appreciation of the bon mot delivered dead pan or sotto voce. If you love bad puns, and ironic twists, if you are happy to talk back to the screen, giggle hysterically at silliness, laugh out loud, and thrill to the theme song, you should see The Lone Ranger on the big screen. Get your popcorn and sweet drink, scrunch down in a comfy seat close to the front, and two and a half hours will fly by.

Armie Hammer as the Lone Ranger; Johnny Depp as Tonto:
not exactly Abbot and Costello, but a well-matched pair!
In the old days of radio or black and white television, the escapades of the ranger and his apache sidekick Tonto were told in truncated episodes between the bookends of a rousing musical theme and "Hi ho Silver, away!" The horse reared up on his hind legs as the masked hero waved before riding into the sunset. This full feature version directed by Gore Verbinski attempts to tell the whole story - at the very least, to set the scene for Lone Ranger sequels. And this telling comes direct from Tonto. We meet him late in life, in a museum attached to an amusement park. Tonto is spending his days posing as "the noble savage" in a Wild West diorama. He comes to life and advises a youngster dressed as the Lone Ranger: "Never take off the mask..."

Without attempting to be revisionist, we learn why Tonto - the Spanish word means silly or foolish - wanders without family or tribe. He is more than a cypher for the native American; he becomes a symbol for the loss of innocence, but with no loss of humanity. And so if John Reid is the lawman to tame the wild west, is the chosen "spirit walker" - the one who cannot be killed - then Tonto accepts that he must be the guide because even a foolish Indian is wiser than a principled white man. When Tonto calls his charge Kemo Sabe, he might as well have called him stupid stubborn or naive. Silver also appears at the right moment, a horse with a mission!  On the other side, the bad guys have a singular objective, and all their actions - ambushing the rangers, building the railway, and provoking conflict so that the Indians are persecuted for breaking the treaty - are motivated by greed.

So, Tonto steps out of the shadow of the ranger. And who better than Johnny Depp to play the wise fool. Certainly, it seems that all his other roles were leading to this: the quirky quirkier quirkiness of Jack Sparrow, the tortured soul of Willy Wonka, and the timid unlikely hero chameleon Rango (also directed by Verbinski and Depp as the title character).

Tonto with "dead crow" and face lines like railroad tracks

Kirby Sattler's depiction of the "noble savage"

The character of Tonto comes - according to  Depp - from many other sources, among them a great-grandmother with native American heritage. He wanted the technicians to mould his face into hers. Another influence was the painting by an artist called Kirby Sattler. In this image, a crow flying behind the warrior's head seems to be part of the head-dress. Tonto uses his "dead crow"to channel his living spirit. The lines on the face are railway tracks in uncharted territory. And portends the climax of the action: the 20 minute train chase that involves moving through and riding horses on top two moving trains. We won't say more.

Tonto and the Lone Ranger's "spirit horse" 
This Lone Ranger and this Tonto, together with Silver the spirit horse, interact at a level of play and imagination that most of us leave behind in childhood. This movie - true to the spirit of the Lone Ranger radio and television series - allows us to suspend reality and enjoy childishness. It entertains us with more than a bit of silliness, the theme of that other deeply felt Depp movie, Finding Neverland. Ultimately, this may be Johnny Depp's gift - the silliness of a wise and playful heart.

(All photos from the publicity albums for The Lone Ranger 2013. Additional information from

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

More than words

In the early 1990s, the Guardian newspapers were riding a new wave, linking with readers, providing "information for life" with a modern edge. Or so it seemed to many of us. I had been there five years. We were attracted to the country's oldest newspaper by the ideal of journalistic integrity and the vision of a successful modern medium, articulated by Alwin Chow. Young people with computer savvy took charge of graphic and layout and dragged the "old lady of St Vincent Street" into the information age. Banks of computers replaced typewriters, proof-reading and layout tables, typeset replaced by plate burning and fast modern presses.

Between November 1995 and April 1996, shortly after the change of government, there were incidents that started like small cracks in the ground, but not earth-shattering. It is remarkable that when the worst happens, you are never prepared. You carry on calmly and unemotionally. Your heart is racing. Your mind is reeling. And then, it is over. I never stopped questioning the series of events, re-looking the twists and turns and what ifs, interrogating the past. But not my decision. When I think about the day my newspaper career ended, it is to look back to see what else it would teach me; or to remember the people and the partings.

It was April 1, a Monday, my precious day off because I edited the Sunday paper. We were also in the middle of the Easter vacation. My little car was packed with children, for the day at Blanchisseuse. (In order to have a day to myself or dedicated to the children, I would plan to go somewhere away from phone or office. Contrast Saturday when the children of editors and journalists had the run of the newsroom, the only way for many of us to get the newspaper out while keeping an eye on our youngsters.) I returned home to a ringing phone. It was Alwin Chow's wife giving me the news that Alwin had been fired from his position as managing director of the Guardian newspapers.

I went back to where the family were still off-loading the car, saying, almost to myself: "I have to leave the Guardian."

"Are you sure?"

"I don't have an option."

The next morning I returned to the office to submit my resignation and pack up my personal belongings. Why did I feel that there was no other way? The irony of April 1, All Fools Day, was the "constructive dismissal" of the person who was quixotic enough to stand against interference with the independent editorial process, ending three months of unsureness.

In January, in the run up to Carnival - that silly season - the Prime Minister (himself) had called the newsroom to complain about what he considered an unfair headline. It was unusual, a Prime Minister - the busiest, most demanding job in the land - calling the newsroom to complain. What was more astonishing was the emotion and ire in his voice. He was apoplectic, was the view of the reporter who took the call, and the editor who tried to speak low and slow to calm the situation. He never called again. Instead, there were nightly reviews by a member of the board before the paper went to press.

Compiling the Sunday paper one Saturday: the board member was apologetic; the production manager came to support the editor. These two gentlemen had been friends, colleagues, in another life. It was awkward, it was tempting indeed to slip something in the paper, something really outrageous. But editors are responsible people, keep the the public interest, keeping the public trust.

How much longer we might have tolerated this imposition by the paper's owner, I am not sure. Journalists on a daily basis operate on a treadmill. This is the industry where brains and perceptions and discussions and words are forced to a deadline, to create the product every single day. If the objective was to get rid of the editor in chief and reform the news bias, it was reasonable to assume that production would continue. But the adamant managing director seems to have got in the way and was axed precipitating the break up: six or seven editors followed him. The editor in chief responded by digging his heels in; and didn't leave until weeks later - notions of "going down with the ship"?

Was there another way, I asked myself, again and again. Indeed, the Caribbean Publishers and Broadcasters Association (under Ken Gordon as its chairman) had been attempting to intercede with the owner, and with representatives of the government.

Though I consider myself a perceptive editor, my forte was features, revealing the personalities, the background, the complexities and inevitabilities that create the news. The spotlight was always on the news. I may not have been a target of the owner. But to assume that as a reason for staying would have been disingenuous in the circumstances.

Pressure in 1996 brought by the government was passed on by the owner. It was the owner who invoked what he perceived as the right of his investment. Never mind the paper was in the black for at least two years. It was the owner who came to the newspaper office before the end of that week, to pound the desk and give the clearest message of his owner's right to those who remained, who had not yet resigned; and it was this, the door is there, all ah all yuh could leave too.

It's hard to say - in hindsight - what staying might have achieved. Continuing to be employed in the place that placed us at the centre of the most important story of the month - even the year - was surely more than conflict of interest.

I had been told many years before by a British consultant that the most powerful person in a newspaper is the owner. Words, photography, talent, skills are traded in service to the agenda of the owner. It might be a good bargain when there's alignment between the newsroom and the owner. But there's something inherently unsustainable, even cruel, if there is no independent guarantee of, at least, non-interference.

These lessons and more came home in that period between April 1 and May 3, World Press Freedom Day, in 1996. It is a lesson for everyone - not just journalists - to learn that the free press is a continuous negotiation; that an independent media rests upon one quality - trust -  forged among owner, journalists, readers.  Their agreement is to a principle, not - as is usual in industry - to profit. Furthermore, we learn that a newspaper survives, even thrives, on the most rudimentary skills as long as trust is intact.

In 17 years, I have moved from being an editor for the news, to a reader, a watcher. I watch the 24 hour television news with the same "grain of salt" that I give the daily newspapers. I believe I have a right to know who owns the media through which we receive the news; and I read regularly enough to understand the personalities of those who bring us the news, their strengths, their biases. I accept that every medium has bias; but bias does not negate trust. When trust is broken, it is seldom regained.

(Dear reader, the only news at the "old lady of St Vincent Street" is that the instincts of the owner haven't changed.)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Artist in Tobago

Mythic woman with wings, leg of a bird and another of a shark,
with additional protection of dogs looking in opposite directions:
this is the spirit of Luise Kimme overseeing the work of those like Dunieski Lora
who will keep her legacy alive.  
In 1985, Luise Kimme published the first book about her work in Tobago. She wrote in English and German, accompanied by hundreds of photos and drawings, some postage stamp size. Such audacity in her book, "Chachalaca" - named for the cocrico, national bird of Tobago - with its kaleidoscopic impression of people and events recorded during her early years on the island. Here's her immersion in village life, so much passion, such wild love, absorbed with complete and utter nakedness that was both beguiling and terrifying. This proper German bourgeois artist delighting in the details of an island, a small island. Swinging down the road on a bicycle, buying fish, dancing at Sunday School.

Among some of the larger sculptures in Luise's gallery in Mount Irvine

Christ figure

Lady with White Hat by Dunieski

Unfinished pieces by Luise
All of this, even as she carved out a niche for solitude and devotion to art.  Her artist's head and hands - conditioned in Europe and modernism, seeking for Apollo - still yearned for Dionysus, for Thoreau's "wild and original."  In Tobago, according to her friend Herbert Schmitz, Luise lived with "sensuality - far away from our habitual restrictions." In Tobago, Luise Kimme came home. She loved how the people looked - the men with voluptuous sheep's lips, the women wearing rubber slippers, lifting or tugging children - she loved how they walked and talked - such easy grace - how they danced and sang. So she stayed and crafted a new world of majestic personalities, a grander vision of island people. We miss her now, Tobago misses her. But Luise has surely left a legacy that's greater than "two sons." (She was once distressed when the man left her, because she said, "he wanted a woman and two sons.")
Mother with two children: small bronze by Luise

Small bronze by Kimme
It's 17 years since I was sitting in this passageway - a sitting room that was on the way from one end of the house to her workshop - hearing her life story. Even then, she was  thinking of what would happen to her sculptures, as if they were children. Not yet 60 at that time, she was also predicting that she wouldn't live long past 72. (On April 19, 2013, she would have been in her 74th year.) She always spoke softly, short sentences, staccato phrases. Her tone matter of fact, brooking no contradiction. As she said, so it was. Now I am in her house again, I wander off to look closely at what she's left behind, to hear what the sculptures might whisper.

Bunty O'Connor (middle) chats with Cuban artist Dunieski (left) and Luise's sister

Her sister is here from Germany to look after Luise's estate. She's establishing a foundation to administer the trust which will provide for young artists who wish to come, stay and work in Luise's Tobago. A Cuban artist is setting up the kilns to create bronzes of Luise's wooden sculptures. He is a young man with his own family back in Cuba. Dunieski Lora is delighted to be doing this work, eager to press ahead with Luise's vision, which will surely enable his own artistic growth.

When she came to Tobago and sculpted her "larger than life"creatures of myth and fable - soucouyant, la diablesse, Papa Bois, Zandolie taking wife, Heel and Toe and Bele Queen, a pantheon of heroes - Luise Kimme defied the convention of her day. Why was she adoring and adhering to the human form in the way that she did? "Like Egyptians", she called the Tobagonians, with narrow waists and broad shoulders. Whatever Europe may have thought, she made Tobago stand taller and prouder. No doubt one day, many words will be written about the white lady with her chain saw and chisel. She may be compared with Gauguin for his work among the noble natives. Or classified with Minshall - whose work she adored - holding up the mirror so that we living in paradise could see ourselves.

Original fretwork created by Luise

Patterned and crazy fretwork

She spent a lifetime - over 30 years in Tobago - obsessed with this work. She let nothing get in the way. She worked all the time, even when she was in pain. She went through phases trying to make the work easier: fretwork and flat pieces using a jigsaw; painting murals on the Black Rock church; always drawing. She was certainly on to another phase with the small bronzes, that are nothing like her ten-foot people. Here are the textures and details allowed by working in more malleable materials which are then cast in metal.

She has left her mark in the landscape of Tobago, in the way we think of Tobago these days, and certainly in the way Tobago may think of itself. There's possibility here, quiet power, and pride. And at the last, Luise will have her place: "Later on, they will forget what colour I was."

One of the Cuban musicians

From the Cuban nightclub
From the Cuban series

From the Cuban series


Luise's bronze horse with dog, cat and rooster:
the musicians of her hometown Bremen?

Do you see the human form hidden in this abstract?