Living close enough to a Pentecostal church can convert a neighbour into one of the virtual congregation. From my backyard on a Christmas morning, I heard the pastor holding forth about the “good news” of the coming of Christ.
His message became pointed. Such “good news”, he preached, T&T editors and journalists would never put on the front page, which they reserved for crime and bacchanal.
The pastor knew the calling of this neighbour. From the rhetorical height of his pulpit, he was throwing words over the fence, into the next-door premises sure to be within microphone earshot.
I took the hit as another example of the preachings and the teachings of non-media people on the subject of what journalists should write about. From editors more veteran and more knowing than me—Owen Baptiste and George John—I learned to avoid taking offence or being defensive about readers’ responses. Or even, as the late Mr John stressed, about a disappointing lack of response.
Messrs Baptiste and John exemplified the model of editors who wrote columns. In that capacity, they probably also agreed with VS Naipaul that a writer “works toward conclusions of which he is often unaware”.
Naipaul had actually said that of a “novelist”. But since he wrote those words in the foreword to his journalistic travelogue, The Middle Passage, I have taken them to apply equally to a “writer”.
Working toward unwitting conclusions certainly marks my own column-writing experience. Notes jotted days before didn’t eventually take such a form as to appear in last week’s composition in this space.
“What does a gunman look like?” I had scribbled in my diary, upon reading my pastor’s front pages, reporting successive hits by men so tagged. Repeated exploits by this “gunman” have all but succeeded in bringing an “underworld” within closer imaginative reach.
Still, no available profile makes for recognition of the gunman, any more than that for the aedes aegypti, also ceaselessly felling victims here and there with hits of dengue. What is recognisable is that Port of Spain, and areas I frequent or inhabit, and to which I remain attached, have come to be defined by “law enforcement”, the abstract compound noun which, by constant usage, has taken legs of meaning and walked.
Four early mornings ago, a police four-wheel drive was parked on my street. From the back, it looked unoccupied. As I walked past, however, an officer behind the wheel glanced at me and I at him. He was holding, finger on trigger, and upfront on the vehicle’s windowsill, a fearsome black Magnum.
A somehow chilling, start-of-day, experience, its effect was to straighten my stride, and unfold the newspaper, as if to demonstrate that was all I was carrying. The first event of an otherwise unmarked morning was that uneasy encounter with “law enforcement”.
We don’t know this place any more, I mused, and there’s little hope of making re-acquaintance. I still sometimes make bold to walk parts of Port of Spain familiar from childhood, but now bearing a character both digital and Dickensian.
Last month, the attendant at a dry cleaner’s in deepest downtown looked at me with round-eyed alarm. “Where did you park?” she asked. I gestured toward the spot, and she said, “You don’t do that.” She pointed to the chain around my neck, an item of modest Guyana gold. She helped me undo the chain. I haven’t worn it since.
This close to the end of 2013, I feel moved toward some personal testimony of the T&T experience defined by the “gunman”, by “law enforcement”, and by the media. Murderous crime, the gunman’s area of endeavour and achievement, like law enforcement, rises to attention mostly through the media.
Interested observers, such as those at their High Commission composing advisories, narrow the focus to implications of the T&T experience for British visitors. In their latest advisory, not a word, not a suggestion, is realistically challengeable.
For residents, though, the experience is largely what the media say it is. Or don’t say. Police influence dominates both content and style, including the language, of crime coverage.
With police dictating the tropes that apply, “detective” has gone out of usage. The detective persona resonates in history and in lore as a “law enforcement” high achiever, a virtuoso of the high arts of forensic discovery. By contrast, the “investigator”, today’s preferred usage, gets credit for ploddingly trying something, or just for being there in that alleged capacity.
Police-directed reporting entails the listings of officers “spearheading”, and of others presumably following the leader of, the “investigation”. All of which is repeatedly, even laughably, defeated by the “gunman”.
At least one “gunman” might have been a woman, whose own 2005 exploits gained fresh attention last week when she was herself shot dead. The gun-woman, tried for murder, had been acquitted by jurors in 2010. Presiding, short weeks before he became Justice Minister, Justice Herbert Volney denounced the verdict as a “travesty of justice, based on the evidence”.
No longer minister, Mr Volney might last week have recognised “justice” finally coming to pass. And neither pastor’s “good news” nor the content of Wednesday’s front pages is likely to change.
To be continued.