As if to atone for last year’s over-indulgence in somehow misplaced celebratory excitement, T&T has appeared at Independence 2013 condemned to penitential self-preoccupation. A 50th anniversary more easily lends itself to spirit-lifting hype and hoopla. But this 51st has so hearkened to ho-hum that I was left unmoved about shopping for a patriotic something to wear on the big day yesterday.
There’s far less flow to go with, toward a gushing wave of popular sentiment for demonstrably cherishing this T&T. Even in 2012, jeremiahs were crying down any impulse to get a national something and wave.
An all-too-conventional wisdom had professed that, for the 50th anniversary, there was “nothing to celebrate”. Meanwhile, people wearing the national colours thronged the streets of Port of Spain, and flags—which didn’t come exactly cheap—fluttered atop windscreens. I bought a flag.
The doctrine denouncing “celebration” thus revealed itself as maybe elitist. In 2013, its upholders may feel themselves vindicated by the events and conditions now that depress enthusiasm for making something of a jubilee that isn’t quite.
“Allyuh see how it does be,” a senior police officer last Wednesday pleaded to reporters, covering murder 256 for 2013. Police and soldiers had mustered in force on the Eastern Main Road not only to check out the killing of a trade school teenager but also to suppress what looked like a gangland counterattack in the making.
The unbroken cycle of gun murders is held, in today’s conventional wisdom, to reflect at least one broken “institution”. It’s police helplessness that’s held accountable as professional hitmanship flourishes.
Uncaught, unprosecuted, unpunished, killers strike at will. The calling of killer remains costless and attractive for recruitment.
Killing for cash or other cause, and typically with impunity, figures in the characterisation of Independent T&T today. Police and other “institutions” such as the courts and public bureaucracies appear gummed up and incapable of so functioning as to deliver results that meet rightful public expectations.
Still, to a considerable degree, it’s the media clichés that remain unchanged. Annually, the budget is represented as the “biggest ever”, and crime and corruption held up to be “worst ever”, with little care for measuring the “metrics” of now against then.
Last week, however, two colleagues reflecting upon the past, imparted value and meaning to assessments often too casually offered. Writing on the same Wednesday, Raoul Pantin and Raymond Ramcharitar both claimed the Independence anniversary as occasions for revealing flashbacks.
For the Pantin exercise, it was an autobiographical reflection, noting that Independence 1962 was when he had begun work as a journalist. It was a sign of the times, as he recalled them, that the Guardian, then the leading newspaper, did not “show much interest in the (1970) Black Power eruption”. Or not as much as the still-fledgling Express lower downtown.
All that was imaginable then. It was not until the late 1980s, having gone away and come back home, that I found myself working in the Guardian newsroom.
By then, such had things changed that the Guardian building having been burned down, had been rebuilt. And I was news editor, conferring in his office with editor in chief Lenn Chongsing, on the morning after the Central Bank had shut down financially ailing Workers’ Bank.
It would be the single occasion on which I met Jeffrey Stollmeyer, former West Indies cricket captain, and then chairman both of Republic Bank and of the Trinidad Publishing Company. He had come to discuss the reporting and the editorialising on the Workers’ Bank closure.
Businessman, banker, and at least titular newspaper publisher, he urged the editor in chief against “any war dance on the grave of Workers’ Bank”. That, he said, would be good neither for the banking sector nor for the country. As the outsider, and the only survivor from that trio in Lenn Chongsing’s office, I was left to understand that a leading figure in the white business community wanted sensitivity in the coverage of the life-changing ordeal of a bank then considered “black”. The Ramcharitar column mined Guardian coverage between 1962 and 1980 to find compelling historical nuggets suggesting that the present may not readily qualify as the worst of T&T times. Abysmal health care, rampant corruption, painful utility failures, and runaway crime prevailed over the period.
Living abroad, I visited Port of Spain in May 1984. Diary entries read today like a chronicle of horror, recording a night-time walk up Frederick Street to the Savannah and then back along Charlotte to Independence Square: “It was a scary experience… Streetlights were off for long stretches. The stench of garbage and uncleared drains befouled the night air… The pavement was cracked and bumpy. I dreaded the sudden leap of an assailant from an unlit gateway… Port of Spain was a foetid slum.”
Twenty-nine years after that experience, eighty years after CLR James, then himself a journalist, published The Case for West Indian Self-Government, and 51 years after Independence crowned “self-government”, the street lighting and the city cleaning are observably better; the T&T Fire Service is certainly more reliable than Kenya’s; expectant mothers no longer lie two to a bed in hospital; telephones work. And I find more cause for celebration than for penance.