This is the second part of an article on Michael Anthony, one of Trinidad and Tobago’s foremost novelists. Part I was carried in last Monday’s Express.
THEY knew nothing of one another while in Trinidad. But the lives of Trinidad-born writers Michael Anthony and VS Naipaul would intersect at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in London, England, in the 1950s.
The men would later take different courses in their personal and literary lives. Anthony (born 1930 in Mayaro) remaining loyal to the country of his birth, writing novels and publishing original historical research in an engaging and elegant style that made it accessible to more people.
Naipaul (born 1932 in Chaguanas), whose early novels unmasked often unpleasant things about Trinidad, would go on to chronicle his travels, with an often grim view of people, politics and places. Naipaul, Nobel laureate in 2001, chose to live in England.
Anthony would recall arriving in England in 1954 at a time when much of the West Indies was the property of the British Empire. With the help of friend Canute Thomas, he contacted the BBC’s Overseas Service, which had a weekly programme that gave Caribbean poets, playwrights and the writers of prose the chance to submit work.
If selected, it would be edited, recorded and played on the BBC’s Caribbean Service, which was then the most important source of news and information, and which also gave voice to the work of later-to-be-famous Caribbean authors and poets George Lamming (Barbados), Samuel Selvon (Trinidad and Tobago), Derek Walcott (St Lucia) and Andrew Salkey (Jamaica).
Anthony said he arrived just as the BBC was changing its programme producer, with Oxford University graduate Vidia Naipaul. Anthony submitted a short story and two poems that were reviewed by Naipaul, whose response was, “Mr Anthony, your short story has possibilities but promise me you will never write another poem.”
Anthony’s stories were used on the airwaves, until 1958 when the programme ended with the advent of the Federation, a political union of the Caribbean colonies of the United Kingdom, which existed between January 1958 and May 1962, when conflict caused its collapse.
Anthony turned to a publisher Hutchinson & Co, who advised that short stories did not sell, but would be published, if Anthony could send a novel manuscript.
Anthony recalled, “I thought of a theme for a novel and I could not help remembering that year in San Fernando and I thought I would write about it. But when the publisher read what I had written, he exclaimed: “I did not tell you to write an autobiography.” And that is one of the first lessons I learned. If one is writing an autobiography that is all right, but if you are writing a novel you can use the experiences you went through as a background but you have to tell a story”.
Anthony said: “The publisher had said to me “Put this story down and forget it. Take up something else and write, then after about a month come back to the work you had written and you’d see what’s wrong.” And this is exactly what happened. I tried to find another theme, and I remembered those lovely days at Guaracara Park when the games were coming. The days when I was an athlete. This led me to write The Games Were Coming.”
Anthony recalled a meeting with Naipaul, who had by then written his breakout novel, The Mystic Masseur.
“He (Naipaul) told me about publisher André Deutsch, who was bringing out his first book and Naipaul said, “I told them someday you’ll send them something.”
Anthony submitted his book, The Games Were Coming, which was published to critical acclaim, and personal triumph.
He remembered “when I took up the manuscript of The Year in San Fernando, I could hardly read it. I knew exactly what was wrong. I rewrote this book and sent it to André Deutsch, and after that one was published, I turned to the Mayaro scene”.
Anthony said he wrote Green Days by the River because he wanted to highlight Mayaro, a place that some people felt “was behind God’s back where nothing happened”.
However, illness threatened to end it all, with Anthony fighting the debilitating effects of tuberculosis and meningitis over several years. Anthony said he needed to go home, but also needed a job. With none available, he went, on the urging of friends, to Brazil in 1968. And his life would take another turn.
Anthony, by then married to wife Yvette Phillips, and the father of three, worked for two years at the Trinidad and Tobago Embassy in Rio de Janeiro, before heading home in 1970, during the height of the Black Power emergency.
He was employed by the Trinidad Guardian before being offered a job at Pointe-a-Pierre editing the Texaco Star.
Anthony said of the experience: “I actually made very heavy weather at the job. Being a writer has nothing to do with editing a newspaper”.
Then came the job that would make Anthony Trinidad and Tobago’s historian. Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams founded the National Cultural Council in 1971. The council’s chairman, anthropologist, author and educator Tobagonian Dr JD Elders (1913-2003), employed Anthony as a writer. He worked there for “16 happy years” before retiring in 1988.
By then, he had written for the council Glimpses of Trinidad and Tobago, Folk Tales and Fantasies, The Making of Port-of-Spain and Port-of-Spain in a World at War, and published the books Sandra Street and other Stories, Cricket in the Road, King of the Masquerade, Streets of Conflict, and Profile Trinidad.
In the 1980s, he wrote the Mayaro-based novel All that Glitters (which Anthony considers his favourite), the historical novel Bright Road to El Dorado First in Trinidad “Heroes of the People of Trinidad and Tobago, A Better and Brighter Day (a constitutional history of the country) and the book Towns and Villages of Trinidad and Tobago.
In 1989, he wrote the book Parade of the Carnivals (commemorating the first Carnival on the streets of Trinidad after the abolition of slavery and end of apprenticeship in 1838). This was followed by the 1992 book recording Christopher Columbus’s rediscovery, titled New World 500.
Much of the decade was spent on the book of short stories called The Chieftain’s Carnival and the novel In the Heat of the Day, and The Historical Dictionary of Trinidad and Tobago.
At the turn of the century, Anthony was writing his study of San Fernando, a book published in 2001 titled Anaparima. And at age 74, he was publishing the books The High Tide of Intrigue and the novel Butler to the Final Bell.
In the past few years, Anthony, ensconced in a room of his Maraval home filled with books and memories, and accessible to all, has continued to write. Among his most recent publications History of Trinidad and Tobago in the 20th Century, Christopher Columbus — A close look at the Man and his Voyages, Builders of the Nation of Trinidad and Tobago and a novel titled The Briefcase. He is about to publish his 33rd book. He had arrived in England to chase the dream 60 years ago. His first book was published 50 years ago. It appears he will be writing to the very end.
Next Monday (February 10), Anthony, who received an honorary doctorate from the University of the West Indies in 2003, celebrates his 84th birthday. This weekend, The Writers Union of Trinidad and Tobago puts on the Michael Anthony/Mayaro Literary Festival. It will be held at the Mayaro Civic Centre, down the road from Anthony’s childhood home in the village where he fell in love with the written word. The festival will take the form of street fair, creative writing workshop, readings, performances and panel discussions. Publishers and literary agents from the United States, and print on demand service providers will be in attendance. The objective is to create the atmosphere to allow writers of all genres who are domiciled in Trinidad and Tobago the opportunity to be published, according to Writers Union president Cecly Ann Mitchell. The Festival, which runs from 9a.m to 6p.m. both days, will also celebrate Anthony’s birthday. The highlight will be the launch of Anthony’s 33rd book, the novel titled “The Lamplighter”.