Scraps flung from the Gallery


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Category: Trinidad Society 10 Nov 13

At a recent “official event,” a government minister’s plumed self-important, interminable speech surpassed the usual expectation of boredom. People were shifting their weight from foot to foot, practically weeping into their wine, as the honourable minister struggled with pronouncing “fact” and words ending in G: “ComIN...GoIN...HavIN,” and so on.

I got comic relief in the form of an anecdote about another government minister from my witty friend X, who has mastered the art of speaking in asides with an elegant “lean-in” in low, clear tones. The minister, she said, was speaking at the opening of an exhibition on VS Naipaul. Academics, readers, writers, artists, diplomats and similar grown-up people attended. He began his speech with “Good evenin’.” The audience politely waited for him to carry on. Apparently the minister, blithely unaware of the difference between a speech and conversation, repeated, “Good evenIN.”

The audience waited politely still.

To the alarm of this tiny literary audience, the incensed minister excoriated them, saying that for three years he had been starting all his speeches with “Good evenIN ... with NO response,” which forced him to deduce that “THIS was the root of all the trouble in T&T.” When he calmed down sufficiently to read his speech, he made many references to “otters” that confused his audience, who must have wondered if this was an allegory for something profound that they didn’t get. This reference went on for a while, until someone figured out that he meant “authors” and not “otters.”

The story was too good not to repeat to fellow journos at an informal wake for our late colleague, journalist Anthony Milne. Our friend Anthony, who studied literature at UWI, would have appreciated the story of otters. I know this because in 1982 he interviewed poet laureate Derek Walcott and asked him why the way we speak is important. This is what Walcott told Anthony Milne then:

“If you live in a society in which bad language (by bad I don’t mean immoral but ill expressed language) is acceptable not only as a norm but as an expression of patriotism (so ... you become an enemy of the people [if you speak well] because the people don’t talk that way), you get a deterioration of syntax. A deterioration of syntax is related to the threat of deterioration in a society. Because the next thing that happens is that anyone with any talent or ambition is called a show-off; there is an attempt to force that person to become ‘democratic’. “But art is not democratic; art is hierarchical, and all artists know that. They know that it takes all your life to achieve some level where you can be among your peers. But if people feel self-expression is without craft, then the society is in danger. It is in more danger than it is from terrorists or revolutionaries.”

Although the generalised illiteracy of our politicians can be a source of mirth, it is actually cynical and Machiavellian; a developed intellect and moral compass actually hampers a maximum leader, and hamstrings power. An MP or an honourable minister is not required to have a vision. He or she is required to play to the gallery to wield the twin tools of race and dependency to retain or gain power; to be a master puppeteer to a massively functionally illiterate population. The politics of the simpleton leaves us permanently rooted in a kind of simple village standpipe rule, and politics as a crudely constructed spectator sport. That’s why goats are trotted out to the stage. That’s why parties are not differentiated by policy or ideology (there is none). The cancer of leadership by pappyshow has permeated every pore of every institution. Cathal Healey-Singh, an environmental engineer, recently summed up the condition of our small islands near-perfectly in a blog post: “In T&T the ‘poor’— 80 per cent-plus of the population— are not represented and have never got a fair, sustainable share of the oil/gas pie. In our own culturally distinct Trini way, we have ‘soft state fascism’ and ‘soft social anarchy,’ evidenced by galloping crime, corruption, poverty and pollution—top to bottom. ‘Soft,’ because we tend to fight directionless for everything except our rights. Plus there is puncheon and beer, which staggers a staggering number in weekly cycles, making them pliant fodder.”

Imagine the feeling you have when you drive around the Savannah at Easter time, blossoms brightening the range, skirting the grass, your pleasure at the Magnificent Seven.  It takes a culture (hopefully not pronounced cul-tiere, and not confined to chutney, soca, fetes, doubles, carnival and cricket) of reverence—for education, the arts, excellence in sciences, order, innovation, philosophy, aesthetics of architecture and open spaces, unending longing for knowledge— to build a civilisation. But how can a people think of beauty, humanity, or civility, when 80 per cent of the people among us live on scraps flung from the gallery, just enough to keep us from biting?

The real terror, as Walcott knew long ago, is within.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur