(She described Walcott simply as, “a poet”). Also interviewed was CLR James, author of The Black Jacobins, who was at the height of his political fame having been placed under house-arrest only months before (Mills described him as a “controversial writer-politician”).
CLR James made the kind of choices you would expect from CLR James. He chose: The Making of the British Working Class by EP Thompson (“I am never without it,” he remarked); The Masters and the Slaves by Gilberto Freyre (“a superb book”); and Black Reconstruction by WEB Du Bois. But his favourite was a book not published in 1965 (James ignored this stipulation for the feature). Of King Lear, he said, “If I had to choose one book, and one book alone, it would be this.
Shakespeare foresaw and here stated very sharply and clearly all the fundamental problems of the Western world for the next 300 years.” That said, he bestowed an honourable mention on Moby Dick by Herman Melville (“he too foresaw problems of our society”).
The “5 Best Books of 1965” feature, which led page 5 of the Sunday Guardian of January 30, 1966, is also a snapshot of Walcott’s poetic taste. He chose The Whitsun Weddings by Phillip Larkin; About the House by WH Auden (“books which I re-read and enjoy at least once a fortnight”); and Questions of Travel by Elizabeth Bishop (“one of the finest woman poets alive”). Surprisingly, he adduced some prose in the form of Christopher Isherwood’s Exhumations (“I never cared for Isherwood before but this collection has converted me”). St Lucian-born Walcott would, decades later, win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992.
Marxist James – who met figures such as Trotsky, Frieda Khalo and Kwame Nkrumah – would, decades after his spectacular fallout with Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams, be awarded the Trinity Cross in 1987. For Mills, the year 1965 marked something of a watershed moment in Trinidad and Tobago’s cultural life. A mere three years after Independence, she saw signs of a more assertive population. More people were reading.
“There has, in 1965, been some improvement in the choice available and in the public attitude towards book buying,” Mills wrote.
“And some say it is mainly due to a rising generation of young Trinidadians who browse – and buy – with the greatest of ease and none of the self-consciousness of their counterparts of a few years ago.” The feature appeared days after a signal event.
In 1966, the PNM was marking its tenth year of existence. It may seem inconceivable now, but one of the ways the party chose to celebrate its anniversary was to put on a nation-wide writing competition.
Prizes were awarded for essay-writing and poetry (the organisers preferred the term “verse writing”). But the biggest prize (carrying a purse of $1,000) was reserved for play-writing.
The winner, according to a story on the front-page of the Guardian of January 26, 1966, was Freddie Kissoon. Days later, Kissoon’s play, King Cobo, was staged in Tobago at the Bishop’s High School and reviewed by Walcott who said it was, “a powerful concept, and although it was treated by the author himself with an infuriating indifference to the possibilities, it gripped the attention.” Fifty years after the PNM’s competition and the Mills feature, what is the state of writing, reading and publishing in Trinidad and Tobago today? Do people read as much as they did in the past? Outside of educational materials, books have less of a role in our lives given the rise of television, computers, games, the cinema and the internet. We are reading still but moreso in the context of the barrage of media thrown at us. Meanwhile, books, as objects, have fallen out of sight partly because of the rise of e-books and similar formats. The global publishing industry is only now recovering from a serious slump.
Not every book sells like Harry Potter. Locally, there are few publishers.
In sharp contrast, there is an abundance of writers. Exciting annual events like the Bocas Lit Fest are soldiering on. Last week, the CaribLit group held a weeklong editing workshop at Guyana. These energies reflect the fact that the literature is not quite dead. While so much has changed, it still remains the case that you just can’t beat a really good book.
Perhaps the Government has wagered the literary industry will be on the rise, placing VAT on books to gain much needed revenue.
Or perhaps the State thinks book-consumption is just as bad as salt! Either way, the VAT move is at odds with the goals which the PNM had in 1966 when it sought to encourage literature amid an ever more confident, post-Independence population.
As the author of two slim volumes of poetry, I can attest that writing, with some rare exceptions, does not pay the rent. The work of literature is not mercenary.
Books help us understand our society and each other. We should facilitate book-reading, not encourage the conditions that result in books remaining closed.