GOWANUS Spring 2002
by Ramond Ramcharitar
of Metropolitan cynicism must be assumed by the colonial in exile if he
is not to feel lost, unless he prefers the utter isolation or the desperate
noisy nostalgia of fellow exiles. -The Muse of History, Derek Walcott
His brow devoid of confidence, he said, "Who has denied me this abode of sighs?" Inferno, Canto VII, Dante
In many ways, London, arranged in circles, with its narrow car-jammed streets, history-crammed alleys, walkways bearing every manner of bereft soul, with the implacable cameras watching it all, is a city much like Dis. But that comes later. You expect, stepping into it, what every former colonial expects: grandeur, majesty, dignity. Then you turn on the telly and get Mr Methane, a masked man on the show “Eurotrash” who farts to music.
But even before that, the size of it all: so small—the vernacular style of the red-brick houses, the compact cars and cafes, the Coca Cola bottles—so ordinary against the towering backdrop of the history. You think about America. The initial comparison must be America rather than Trinidad—what else could a small island be but a satellite of a larger entity? The enormousness of America devours you. The airport halls are cavernous, the buildings tower vertiginously, the public monuments reek of Whitmanian excess. Heathrow is compact, its aspect less intimidating. Its officers reticent, accommodating, unarmed. Even its computers are discreet, invisible, indicated only by the hands that reach for them. So the scale is not so grandiose, the ethos not so intimidating to you who have been subsumed into the American ideas of space and territorialism. Later, you will realise the absence of another American thing: rage. In their small spaces, each here makes room for the other. Everyone on the streets, in the middle of it all, in Picadilly Circus, is polite, deferential, civil.
“The white man thinks he does you a favour by giving a black man a job. He thinks you have to be three times as good as he is....” Black IT professional, 33K per annum. Trinidadian psychiatrist at Maudesley Psychiatric Hospital: “The proportion of Jamaican immigrants with psychotic disorders in mental institutions is 300 to 1400 per cent greater than other groups in the population. The same trend is beginning to show up in Amsterdam among Surinamese emigrants.” The rage might just be better hidden.
But in the streets, in couples enrapt in doorways, in entwined black and white limbs on escalators, in bodies pressed close in bars, on the Underground, there is no sign of resentment. The cameras record it all without a flicker: no vengeful American Old Testament God hovers above every assignation. No strobe-lit boundaries indicate “just here, no further”. You have left a place where racial politics has begun to assume an acrimony that is evaporating a generation of Africans’ and Indians’ drifting together.
Have we maintained the mother country’s early vices and ignored her later virtues?
Channel 5 on Thursday nights. Sex and Shopping. Documentaries on porno-film stars. The men, say the women, are just walking penises. Display of some of the more impressive penises, the women’s genitalia: “Fuck me...” “Oh baby, it’s so big”... “so fucking hot...”. Public television. In the Guardian later that week: “It is implicitly understood that a stiff prick signifies power over women...”. Photo: a naked man next to a pillar.
Trinidad Express, November 23, 1998. Inside page headline. “Women must live lives worthy of praise.” Quoting a Minister of Government. Any American newspaper: the Clinton impeachment. Trinidad, 1991: actors arrested off a theatre stage for saying the word “fuck”.
Britain, freed from the weight
of the colonies, has sped up, arrived at unthought of places. The places
left behind, disconnected from their engine, have wilted, drifted in to
bizarre orbits. Multiculturalism. Puritan morality enforced by an
Islamic fervour for violence. The rage of desertion echoing 35 years later.
The pound is worth (TT) $10.56. England is accessible to only the lucky, the rich. The wise can rarely afford it. Consequently the place remains unexplored, the connections unmapped since the post-war waves of migration: VS Naipaul, Sam Selvon, George Lamming, Kamau Brathwaite—refugees of elsewhere amidst the throngs of desperate surplus labour. The desperate now have relatives in Miami, New York, Toronto where the opportunities are more prolific, the frontiers wider. England has dissolved into memory. The former colonies remain trapped in footnotes, old maps, old ideas. Are new maps needed?
The winning story of the 1997 BBC-sponsored Commonwealth short story competition described a barefoot black crab-catcher seducing a young middle-class poet-painter girl wordlessly on a beach with lush palm trees, pounding surf, a kaleidoscope of pastel shades. Described by Keith Jardim, in the Trinidad Guardian, as a tourist brochure. Commonwealth Prize winner (1997-8) "Salt," by Earl Lovelace. Poor black man works his way to glorious failure in colonial and just-post world, surrounded by natives breeding, stealing, playing Carnival. Technically interesting if derivative; ambitious if largely unrealised.
What feeds the insatiable metropolitan fascination with the lazy, satyric nigger? The drunken, emasculated coolie? What will they make of your strangeness, you who aspire to be just a man?
The strangeness of their streets
is detached, colourless. No face meets yours with the welcoming smile.
Even the topography is unsympathetic. The roads—winding, careening—refuse
to impart a sense of order, comfort. An overwhelming sense of spiraling
downward. Through rings, through the population of loss, to the sorrowful
state of souls unsure, whose lives earned neither honour nor bad fame.
Searching for a door to the walled city.
To our forefathers
it was right to raise
Dispatch from London some years ago: In a few years the national complexion of Europe will be cafe au lait. More recently, London was dubbed—by some repository of white, privileged fantasies—“the coolest city in the world”.
On the Underground, Central Line, late evening, early December. Twenty or so youngsters looking like an animated Benneton Ad—trainers, starter jackets, parachute pants, army surplus gear, ski hats, frayed pea coats. White, black, Asian, indeterminate. But if you closed your eyes they were all the same—the same tremulous, joyous babble; the slender, sylph-like androgyny.
“You’re so different when we’re with Jenane...
“No I hate you Satesh...
“No, it’s Eddie innit...
“Les all ’ave a moment’s silence for Rasheeda’s lost wallet...”
The British youngsters’ version of hip-hop/gangsta culture is noticeably different from their American or Trinidadian counterparts. The gear is a costume whose possibilities they enjoy, not a uniform of imagined ethnic solidarity—as the desperate lumpenproletariat across the Atlantic interpret it.
Somewhere behind all this, stoically witnessing the fall of Britannia, is a middle-aged chap wearing black square-framed glasses and a tweedy suit—archetypal British Man: a composite from years of old films and eccentric schoolmasters—the backbone of empire; he who stoked the engine of imperialism for 400 years. Where inside this locus does the true British character reside? Does it exist? Is its existence important? As the frontiers of British culture indiscriminately absorb the diasporic memories which immigrants infuse into the metropoles, Britain is moving to a different, evolving picture of itself, which includes, surprisingly, us. Not as colonials or former colonials, but as others.
Late night telly, talent show called “The Warehouse”:A steelpan band. A poor one, but talent is secondary to the show of the exotic object; the elaborate flights as the players skim through the runs, the ostentatious absorption in the tonsured bowl of the pan, the overdone display of pleasure.
The pose is their contribution to the putrid stew of multiculturalism. The exotica, derived from fourth-rate tourist brochures, is a charm against the anonymity—the price for the security empire bestows. The audience, seeking a few hours’ respite from a thousand years of continuous history, is obligingly fascinated.
After the panside, a West
Indian Indian music band—tacky sequined vestcoats and satiny shirts on
the men; campy, elaborate Indian costumes on the women. A transposition
of Bollywood costuming—cheap, glitzy fabrics and fashion from the mid-1970s—to
Trinidad and Guyana, and now, back to the mother country as something else.
Followed by an African man in a flowing white gown, singing in an African
language, accompanied by fez-wearing tribesmen in ethnic costumes and,
of course, obligatory daughters of the diaspora—slack-breasted, bare-footed,
wrapped in kente cloth, adorned with esoteric beads. Then a female calypsonian—I
want to wine, wine, wine on somebody. The nature of all native rituals
in the metropole—art, religion, festivals—is fetishistic. The transplanted
cannot fit into the new culture, but it does not attempt to: its state
is always juxtaposition, the privileged atavistic space inside the vanguard
of the future. Though the space itself is protean, even benign. Nowhere
else but on the television screen that night have I ever seen in the same
crowd—white, brown, black faces—such equal unease with all the offerings,
such genuine desire to acknowledge it all, such relief at finding in it
something they could dance to. End of the journey on the Central
Line. Outside East Acton Station, waiting to be picked up. Moody gray-blue
darkness surrounding the stolid line of houses, streetlights in rain-fuzzy
haloes. Waiting, absently studying the neighbourhood map. Tiny square
of white paper stuck to the plastic film covering the map. Discernible
only close up. Wogs Out. You scrape it off, noticing the contrast of your
dark skin with the white background of the map.
Hell is a city much like Port of Spain. -The Spoiler’s Return, Derek Walcott
Port of Spain, some months before, toying with the idea of London. Out with, among other people, a young white British woman who has made Trinidad her adopted home.
The bar is expensive, pretentious. “You know,” you remark, looking around at the polished mahogany everywhere, the brass railing girding the bar, the high stools, the bow-tied black bartenders, the carpets, the textured lightshades, the air of smug opulence; “inside here you might as well be in New York, in a Times Square or West Village saloon...”. “Ah don’t like it here,” the English girl wails. “This ain’t real Trinidad. Ah want to go on the Promenade an’ drink ah Carib.” The Brian Lara Promenade is a public space in the centre of Port of Spain which these days accommodates the indigent, the homeless. And the tourists. The parody of the accent infuriates you, for some reason. You turn on her, surprising everybody, including yourself.
“Why is it that you people are never happy unless you’re surrounded by poor black people? Why do you come here? Who the fuck do you think you are to tell me what ‘real Trinidad’ is and isn’t?”
“You can’t tell me what to think.”
“I’d be happy if you just thought quietly.”
“You ain’t know me, don’t be judgin’ me.”
“Know you? I’ve seen you here, saying that same shit, with that same sex-crazed gleam in your eyes a thousand times.”
“You ain’t know me...”
Later as you think about it, it becomes clear what we are: the heart of their darkness. You think of the white men who come here and buy the moon for sixpence: make wives and concubines of children, breed indiscriminately and live with astonishing profligacy. Once in their centre, you will come to understand why. It is because, after a lifetime of enforced civility, of distempering the instinctive brutality our primal forebears kept about them to stave off hopelessness—that which is being revived today in these island jungles—these people define our state as they will simply because they can: because there is no opposing definition of what constitutes our societies but politicians’ inanities and tourist brochures.
White man who has “lived” here for a few years: “In Trinidad, I can have my choice of a number of symphony [steelband] orchestras any night of the week. I can’t get that in New York.” And as he leaves the open-air concert hall, swimming in the raw, primal romance of it all, the musicians retreat to the hills, to romantic hunger, poverty, despair.
The rubric from any number of companies set up to export “indigenous” product. “We think this...is wonderful and we are pleased to make a contribution by helping to take the culture/music/art of Trinidad and Tobago to the outside world.”
They say and we echo in our tourist brochures: “Explore your fascination with primitivism on the fringes of the heart of darkness. Desert the cathedrals, the centuries-old architecture, history, and the dreary, existential order it places on the darker places of the heart. Trespass into forbidden territory: come to a place defined by the very absence of history, culture, civilisation.” And where romantic metaphors are subverted by immigration laws, decaying hospitals, crumbling infrastructure, endemic hopelessness, rage.
We have become victims of our perversions. We have become our tourist brochures.
Dwight Yorke, Tobagonian, one of the most talented and celebrated footballers in England being interviewed on British television. No accent. No trace of the Caribbean. Asked about his home. “My island is a laid back place...no traffic jams...maybe one day I’ll go home, live a simple life.”
Story in the Trinidad Express in early 1998: An entire generation of Tobagonians is in danger of being wiped out by AIDS. Recently, a growing recognition of the problems of Europeans buying land and pricing the island out of the hands of the islanders, making servants and whores of the men and women. A simple, laid-back life.
The Financial Times,
July 18, 1998: Travel article by Nicholas Wadsworth who “...tries to perfect
the art of accomplishing nothing whatsoever...” in Trinidad. “There
is no place like a dead end for indolent repose.” Or degradation, decomposition,
decay if you are trapped in one forever.
if you escape from this dark sphere
Dispense for a moment with the too-convenient myth of the colonial’s homing beacon. Why London? Why anywhere? Obvious answer: escape. But also to be elsewhere, the excitement of unfamiliar streets, strange argots, different people. And people are everywhere in London. The trains are packed from 4 p.m. every evening until 11 p.m. The crowds, jammed together on the Underground, in the streets, on the sidewalks...so many—African, Asian, European: every tribe on earth, it seems—so close together, so distant from each other. Here is the aloneness of floating free in the world, a state we cannot sustain too long, which drives us to earth, seeking physicality, contact.
Dear M,I didn’t know her that well. We’d worked in the same profession in a small island so contact was inevitable. But ours had been sparse. I remembered admiring some of her work, but no more. Email rather than the telephone—no awkwardness, no leaping to head off the fumbling refusal— “Of course, of course, I understand...”.
Dear R,Bowled over by the ebullience. Smiled and reread several times.
A wine bar in the West End, built into catacombs—dark, claustrophobic, crowded. As above, so below. (And here you begin to realise this city is bursting with people, indefinable longing, unfulfilment—casual sex is the emotional lingua franca.)
Drinks, talk, the incurious nostalgia that makes two from the same place in the middle of elsewhere confide in each other, tell things they guard jealously at other times, normal places. She had been there three years.
“I love it, it’s so free here, you can do anything, be anything, nobody judges you. And there’s so much to do.
“Really? And what free and exciting things have you done?
“Wouldn’t you like to know...
“I certainly would...
“Well, not as much as you’d think. I don’t get out as much as you seem to be...
“I’m just here for a short time, I have to get in as much as I can. Why don’t you go out?”
“Oh it’s not that I don’t want to, it’s just with work...you fall into a routine, things become mundane...”
“It’s a good thing I came along then...”
“Oh, London’s nice, but there’s no one I can talk to about things like books, writing, about home. Do you know I flirted with Derek Walcott once when he came here? I was waiting for him to sign my book and I smiled at him and he winked at me and afterward I felt awful. Here I am flirting with him and he won’t remember me two seconds from now.”
“So get a boyfriend.”
“Oh, don’t get me started...”
Which the next two glasses of wine did. Sitting across from her fresh young face in the flickering candle-light, it all should have meant something. Across from us—sharing a table with strangers, unavoidable in London—British man and woman: business suits, faces sagging as daytime masks dissolve. Caressing, kissing, fumbling with each other’s clothing. Giggling in the instants our eyes met. The circle of the lonely.
She lived with people she
cared about and liked her job working with autistic children. She was happy,
but unfulfilled. Something about her would always be disconnected from
the place, would always want to possess it more completely than the place
would allow. (It was an impulse we, who understand the place and
time we came from, all carry—the awareness of freedom from the greater
tyrannies that preceded us. That awareness, and an irrational sense of
entitlement to fulfillment, was an absurdist by-product of the excesses
and arrogance of an era of our nation, when all doubt about the future
was drowned by the flood of oil money that immersed our island for 15 years.
An anomaly. Those who came after us will never know it.) She was as alone
as I was. In the many times I saw her, she off-handedly helped me in ways
I had no right to expect. We confided in each other, shared a strange intimacy
without ever becoming emotionally or physically close. Therein the risk
of attaining the lightness to float free in the world. The romance of any
place is its sense of infinite possibility to alien eyes. But like everywhere
else, choosing one path consigns every other to oblivion. Familiarity is
the antidote to magic. Only lightness preserves it.
At the National Theatre, Lyttleton, the foyer restaurant. Alone. Awed by the newness; the security of encasement from the elements; the patient Thames outside the glistening chrome and glass; the powerful concrete plinths upholding it all; the Saint-Saëns sonata from every direction; the tinkle of glasses, snatches of words from the tables.
On this night, a special performance
for the patrons of the theatre. Tuxedoes, diaphanous pink gowns, pale powdered
faces, opulent jewelry—tradition, certainty of owning a place in the world,
of status. A sudden awareness of your own wretchedness, of not belonging
in the place you came from, of being unwanted here...an overwhelming sense
of displacement, a loss of recognition. Where am I? Questions of
another time, another state. What is my place in the world? Emotional
yearning for order, certainty, even love. Who am I? The rage
of aloneness that haunts all travelers.
Digs in London are scarce and expensive. I had a blind arrangement for a room from a Trinidadian who had lived there for several years, in Croydon. He had been to school in England, and returned to Trinidad where, confronted by the slothfulness, the corruption, the grinning thievery after the stoic British work ethic, had left. He would end his days here. He worked in a bank, counted each penny, and put a monetary value on each thing in his world.
First night. Small maisonette, a gray, unmemorable street. His living room: well-maintained, precisely placed furniture, a large television. He: tall, lean, spectacled, balding; just past middle age. The accent is flat, unmemorable. Distinguished only by the lack of distinguishing features. A life that knew excess of neither body nor spirit.
“Just got in today...trying to find a job, not sure how to get around...not sure how long the money will last, just have a couple of weeks...not sure I’ll be able to go past that...”. Unconsciously seeking empathy. Annoyed at the pathetic edge to my voice.
“You’ve seen the place, this is the situation. You give me three weeks’ rent up front, yes? It is not recoverable. You must live it out. And you will give me an extra £5 for heat, and extra for the phone, yes? And you will get your own cooking things, salt, oil, yes?”
But there was more to him. One night, a friend of his visited. A man similar but, it seemed, not so successful. They talked in the kitchen, over dinner, while I made my meal. After I brushed off the inane questions about Trinidad, they fell to their own matters. Something about distrust of the media. “Well, what you expect from the white man?” The tribal conflict that led to the Rwandan genocide.
“The white man again, you know.”
Kofi Annan negotiating with Muammar Kadhafy for the release of the Lockerbie terrorists. “That is the white man’s house nigger.”
Then on to white women. The friend suddenly rose from the seat, sat on the floor, supported himself on his arms, face up, with his feet flat on the floor, bent at the knees. Legs apart, mid-section raised. Something like the yogic bridge posture, with the stomach concaved instead of convex. “Boy, the bird was like this...” moving his waist up and down.
· “Like she was under some pressure....”
“Then she turn...” raised
one leg without moving his torso and spun his body around on the axis of
his spinal column. Doggy style.
· “Oooh boy...”.
I paid him two weeks up front, gave in to his outrageous (I’d find out) extra charges. When I told him, a week later, that things didn’t seem to be working out and I’d be leaving, he said: “Well, I can’t do you any favours, you know.”
So much for the solidarity
of the black man.
Last night. Late train to Croydon. You look around for the last time, taking it all in. Train tracks. Metallic parallelism of the metropole; the edifices, the geometry that defies the night in clusters of weak but relentless lights. The train a metallic passage through the night....you scribble the sentence and study it, then add: souls steadied, at rest, quiescent, the machine bulleting to its final end. People in the train: men in windbreakers, jeans, club scarves fill up my section. Loud, boisterous, comforting. Others. A man and woman, well dressed, gown and high heels, dark suit, expensive tie. He, balding, sure of himself and his station, content. She, happy, melting into him, head nestled in his arm, blonde hair spilling out.
“Cheese, plain cheese but better on bread."
“The key incident of tonight was the goal you gave away...”
Shooting by embankments, nameless stations. Who’s that dying on the runnnnway... . Rush of opposing trains. Who’s that lying in the snooooow... A silhouette in a lit window in the interstitial space between stations. It’s Matt Busby and his boys...” In the instant of contact all humanity erased. And he just can’t get the fuckin’ plane to gooooo... . What plot animates the figure? What worlds does it enter in other light? What words could it speak more eloquently than a wordless pose frozen in the instant of a passing atom?
I grow weary...I grow weary...(Raymond Ramcharitar earns his living as a journalist in Trinidad and Tobago, West Indies. He has been published throughout the Caribbean and the United States. He has had fiction and poetry published in the US and Caribbean. He can be reached at