De Boissiere: The Lion in Winter

De Boissiere: The Lion in Winter

Trinidadian writer RALPH DE BOISSIERE, author of Crown Jewel, Rum and Coca Cola and No Saddles for Kangaroos, turns ninety this year.

By Anthony Milne

RALPH de Boissiere left Trinidad and Tobago in 1947 and has lived in or near Melbourne, Australia for nearly fifty years. Vigorous and clear-minded, still a committed left-winger, though almost forgotten in the country where he was born nearly ninety years ago, has de Boissiere given up writing and settled into an easy retirement?

"You might as well ask if I've given up breathing," is his quick reply.

De Boissiere's best-known novels are Crown Jewel, set in the 1930s at the time of the Butler riots in the oilfields of south Trinidad--part of the general disturbances in the British Caribbean in the 1930s--and Rum and Coca Cola, which takes place during the Second World War when thousands of American soldiers came to Trinidad to build and man military bases.

Crown Jewel, which he began before leaving Trinidad, was published by the Australasian Book Society (ABS) in 1952. He has "largely rewritten" Rum and Coca Cola, published by the ABS in 1956. In 1964 the ABS published his third novel, No Saddles for Kangaroos. Set in Australia, No Saddles is informed by his experiences in that country in the early 1950s when he was working in a car assembly plant during a period of strong anti-Communist sentiment. The book has obsessed him for more than thirty years. Since 1965 he has "reworked" it three times, eventually renaming it Waiting on Dawnlight. "That book is a thorn in my side," he explains. "I have to work on it because it is not a book; it is myself, my beliefs, my visions."

De Boissiere's fourth novel, Homeless in Paradise, is set partly in a newly independent Trinidad and Tobago and partly in Australia. Written and rewritten, it remains unpublished.

He has also produced film scripts for all of these novels.

Some people think he is crazy to keep rewriting what has already been published. But de Boissiere sees nothing strange about it. "I develop constantly both as an artist and a person. What I wrote, say, in 1952, now seems too narrow in concept because I have learnt a lot more. If No Saddles for Kangaroos had sold five million copies, thorough rewriting would not be appropriate; it would have acquired too many friends. But it sold only 3,000 copies, it is forgotten, and many years have passed."

There is new work in progress too. "I'm writing my fifth novel, again set in Trinidad, and it goes well."

How can he write about Trinidad after half a century of living in Australia? "I am rooted in that island, that sing- song, that mauvais langue, that wickedly naive humour, that crazily colourful imagination, and that warm of the heart," he remarks. As a writer he still understands his Trinidadian compatriots better than he does Australians. "Between the former and me there is always a portion of our island's psyche."

He believes the "psyche" of a place changes slowly, along with the collective psyche of its inhabitants. "When I am writing about Australia I feel Australian, I feel I have grasped the essential spirit of the urban Australian of a particular time, the 1950s. But I would not try to write a novel about the 1990s in Australia."

De Boissiere is rooted too "in the suffering that no one can alter, try as he may, because we are stuck in a system which, all over the world, hobbles and crushes the lower levels of society." He has lost none of the early, radical vision that got him into trouble as a young man in Trinidad and helped drive him into exile.

RALPH Anthony Charles (RAC) de Boissiere was born in Trinidad in 1907, the son of solicitor Armand de Boissiere and his English wife Maude Harper. Maude died three weeks afterward, and de Boissiere was brought up by a stepmother. Growing up, he felt like a stranger in his father's house. This and a keen awareness of racial distinctions in Trinidad contributed to his own peculiar vision. To all appearances white, he sensed there was something in his family's past that kept them out of the best Trinidad society.

As a child he was influenced as well by his uncle, Jean- Francois de Boissiere, who wrote a theoretical analysis of the way social and moral differences affect people's well- being.

Educated at Queens Royal College, by the age of fifteen de Boissiere he had already started to rebel. He refused to go to church and grew his hair long, unpardonable offences in the early 1920s which scandalised some of his family. His father, himself an agnostic, was mildly amused and a little embarrassed by his son's antics.

The injustices of society gradually came to dominate de Boissiere's thinking and writing. As a young man he found sympathetic attitudes in books among English and especially Russian writers. "What first influenced me as a youth was Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga. I admired greatly many of Dickens's creations but learned to turn the pages quickly when he began writing about love. Dickens wrote at a time when England had grown rich from sea power, trade and slavery. His sympathies were with the poor and he saw the ugliness of developing capitalism."

But de Boissiere put Dickens and Galsworthy aside as soon as he discovered Turgenev. "After reading three of [Turgenev's] novels I found in the Public Library, I discovered Tolstoy, also on the shelf for the Ts. Then Gorky. Later, Chekhov, and much later Pushkin and Gogol.

"They wrote of a vast country in which the weight of tsarism was destroying millions. Under the Tsar came little tsars, the princes and counts who owned vast acres and millions of serfs whom they could and often did sell as they sold horses and cattle." These writers were "crying out against an entire system in which the guilt of the rulers was being ignored while millions were dying from neglect." They were addressing a "crime against mankind" with which de Boissiere must have felt colonial Trinidad was also familiar.

"The writers of that time are still my favourites," he says. "A hundred and fifty years later the crimes against mankind have multiplied and are choking us all. But not many today write with that call to humankind, that call which, though muffled by the censor, could still boom out its message."

After leaving school de Boissiere got a job as a salesman for a Port of Spain bakery which allowed him to travel all over Trinidad. He witnessed the troubles in the oil belt at first hand. He got to know the labour leader Quintin O'Connor and met Uriah Butler. De Boissiere subscribed to the radical left-wing politics of Alfred Mendes, founder of the United Front, and campaigned for Albert Gomes who won a seat in the Port of Spain City Council in 1938.

De Boissiere, Mendes, Gomes, CLR James and others met, talked, campaigned and wrote.

One of de Boissiere's early stories, "Booze and the Goberdaw," was published in the 1929 Christmas issue of Trinidad, a short-lived magazine edited by Mendes and CLR James. He also contributed to the Beacon magazine, edited by Gomes and published regularly from March 1931 to November 1933. Its pages featured fiction and radical social and political commentary, left-wing but not doctrinaire. These periodicals and those who wrote for them played an important role in the emergence of modern West Indian literature.

In June, 1935 de Boissiere married Ivy Alcantara. They had two daughters, Jacqueline Marie-Anne in 1937, and Marcelle Therese, born in 1938. But he and his young family had to leave Trinidad in 1947 after his political activities cost him his job.

"The colonial world was a stifling place. I had to get out come what may, so I borrowed money and fled." They went first to the United States, to Chicago. One day he read there in the newspaper that a group of Americans were leaving California to live in Australia. He made inquiries and by January, 1948 he and his family had arrived in Melbourne.

He found work there as a salesman, a clark and on the assembly line at a car assembly plant during which time he continued to write. He and six other writers, none of whom could get their work accepted by established publishers, set up the Australasian Book Society (ABS).

"We had no money, but we did have huge support from the trade union movement. Crown Jewel, the ABS's first publication, was sold mostly through house meetings, meetings at pit-heads, on ships and at factory gates." The first edition of 3,000 copies was sold out in three months. "I got nothing," de Boissiere said. "Most of the money went to the printer."

By then the ABS had 2,000 members paying subscriptions of two pounds, ten shillings a year. Rum and Coca Cola was more successful. "I did get something--no memorable sum, but useful. That was how I got published. No one else would have me. And it was the same in England and the US. I have had nothing new published since."

But in the 1980s his first two novels were re-published in Britain by Allison and Busby. Their reissue came about by a circuitous route. In the early 1950s a Polish-Australian friend urged de Boissiere to send Crown Jewel to a publisher in Warsaw. "I did so and to my surprise, three months later, received a letter telling me it would be published in translation in Poland." The book went on to be published in Germany, the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Romania, Czechoslovakia, China and Yugoslavia. British publishers Allison and Busby re-issued Crown Jewel in 1981 and Rum and Coca Cola in 1984, and finally de Boissiere came into some money.

"I now found myself free to stay home and write all day, which works well with some but not with me. After three or four hours the images become mixed up, I need time to disentangle them. Worse still, I was fictionalising the times through which I was living and soon found I was writing a documentary instead of fiction, not at all what I intended."

He had to find a job again.

In June, 1984 de Boissiere's wife died suddenly at their home in Melbourne. They had been married for nearly 50 years.

"What I write finds a grudging acceptance by society nowadays. "It fits in sort of uncomfortably, like an unwelcome disturbance. Publishers might say people are not buying that sort of thing these days but when I buy what people are buying I find it is not for me."

He has read contemporary West Indian writers and has a favourite. "The one who stands out for me above all is Earl Lovelace [recent Commonwealth Prize winner]. That man loves and respects people. Such writers seem very rare these days."

University of the West Indies Professor Ken Ramchand thinks de Boissiere is himself a rarity. "De Boissiere's work," says Ramchand, "combines social realism and political commitment with a concern for the culture of the feeling within the individual in a way that is unique not only among West Indian writers but among writers with a social conscience anywhere in the world."

Ramchand stresses that Crown Jewel and Rum and Coca Cola are essential reading for an understanding of the rich possibilities of young Trinidad in the 1930s and 1940s and the subtle makings of what renowned WI writer Sam Selvon called "the Trinidadian person."

(Anthony Milne (, was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1951, educated there at St Mary's College, and subsequently in Canada and at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. He has worked as a journalist with Trinidad Express newspapers since July 1981, covering politics, parliament and just about everything else under the sun.)