Friday, January 19, 2018

Fatima, Sparrow, Naipaul: Speak memory

Lennox Grant logo23

Mark Fraser

T he convent for men overlooking the Maraval River beckoned me again two weekends ago. I answered the call by Fatima College agents, who placed newspaper ads that compelled purchase of a September 7 “all-inclusive” ticket for dinner, and induced trust in the promise of an open bar. 

The bar delivered more reliably than the dinner served by gloved and uniformed young women, to a line-up of “old” boys, that snaked north, and wound south, inside the hall. The hall looked smaller than I remembered it from half a century before. 

The Fatima experience bred in me an expectation, still fulfilled, of respect for clean surroundings and well-tended landscaping. At the end of each term, somebody made sure to remove outdated bulletins from all the notice boards, and to arrange the brass thumbtacks in the form of a cross.

In 1962, when students were summoned from August vacation to learn the brand-new national anthem and other patriotic exercises, I had my single, life-time luck of the draw. Inside that college hall my name was called first to be among the favoured few to visit the USS Boxer, an aircraft carrier parked offshore at Chaguaramas, then an American naval base. We understood the gesture to be a salute to T&T’s independence.

Of that visit, I remember only the lavish servings of cupcakes and ice cream, and the orange-jacketed sailors who helped us onto and off the boarding craft. In TIME magazine later, I read of the Boxer as a staging point for bombing campaigns against Hanoi and elsewhere in Vietnam.

The college hall last weekend stirred memories of the school, and what it meant at the time, and what, in my own upbringing, it must since have shaped. My mother Cleopatra thought my going to Fatima a big deal. She used to attend the Fatima concerts in that hall, even when I played no part on the stage.

Having acquired my first tailor-made, midnight blue, business suit, I volunteered to serve as an usher. One high point of concert occasions entailed showing to their seats Cleopatra, and my godmother, Pearl, whose own youngest son, Errol, also attended Fatima.

Cleopatra and Pearl never missed those concerts, at which the Dominic Savio Choir, directed by Fr Tim Corcoran, performed show tunes from Broadway, and dramatisations inspired by the Stephen Foster songbook. In one of which, Keith Smith, unheralded, made an unforgettable cameo appearance.

Inside the college hall two Saturdays ago, women were on my mind. So many showed up that I asked around if, since my own time, Fatima had produced that many “alumnae”. 

I was reminded that women predominate among the teaching staff. The cassocked Irish (and some Trini) bachelors who once defined the school are now history.

As dapper as a male model, guest of honour Brian Lara focussed camera and smartphone lenses. Once an Intercol footballer, he had also been a wicketkeeper, sent in at number eight, until his incomparable batsmanship had revealed itself to the Fatima coach, and to the world. On that evening the superstar old boy and I shared a distinction in our choice of eyewear, and in the oversight of having failed to provide ourselves with female company. 

Yes, women were on my mind. I had already filed the column, which filled this space last week, speculating how a “Deputy Police Commissioner Monica” might otherwise have led her troops against the identifiably female Beetham insurgents.

On that, nearly nobody took me on. Trinidadian Linda, writing from Texas, suggested it was idle of me to imagine a woman’s role in such law-and-order decision-making.

Imagination ran riot in a week when The New York Times was calling around the Caribbean for “comment” about the Mighty Sparrow. Sparrow resides in iTunes albums saved on my hard drive. Having called him up, I regaled myself with Melda and Mae-Mae and Jane and Rose and Rosita and Jean and Dinah and Gemma, who shared the “phallocentric” world of the pre-diabetic Sparrow.

To an outstanding degree in Sparrow’s, but also in the works of Kitchener and Shorty (before he attached “Ras” and “I”), women were objectified.  

Many rungs down the ladder of government and politics, a multitude of women appear to hold up more than half the T&T sky. Listen to the national anthem being played and sung in public, and recognise the overwhelming prominence of women’s voices. In assorted departments of T&T life, ranging from Carnival to business, it is women who not only carry the flag, but also perform as foot soldiers. 

Patricia, uncredited late wife of VS Naipaul, had done the prodigious British Library research for The Loss of El Dorado, that showcased the 19th century Port of Spain red woman in Luisa Calderon. Though dispraised as a “dud” in his official biography, the book remains my favourite Naipaul, an inspiring triumph of journalism as history and vice versa.

Naipaul reported that, fulfilling a death wish, black slaves ate dirt. He cited a 19th century traveller’s observation about the Luisas: “for gait, gesture, shape and air, the finest women in the world may be seen on Sunday in Port of Spain”.