Michael Anthony in 1991 sitting on the steps of Sealey house in San Fernando, on which he based the novel The Year in San Fernando.
The journey of Michael Anthony
Richard Charan firstname.lastname@example.org
BEFORE roads reached Mayaro from the north and west, the long ago traveller had three options.
Walk or ride the forest trail across the island from San Fernando, take the round-the-island ferry, or foot it from Sangre Grande, along the broad runway-smooth beach that emerges along much of the east coast every low tide, since forever.
The place has always been alluring. It was named and settled by Trinidad’s original people, the Amerindians, who ended up having to share their land with the Capuchin priests of Catalonia, Spain, when the holy men set up a Roman Catholic mission there in 1690 in order to convert the natives.
The takeover was complete in 1783, when then Spanish Governor Jose Maria Chacon, under the Cedula of Population, granted land to French royalists along the coastline, which is now too expensive to buy, except by millionaires.
The land would be developed into estates of coconut and cocoa—St Joseph, Beau Sejour, Plaisance, Beaumont, St Anns, Radix, Ste Marguerite, and Lagon Doux—and remnants of this plantation past can still be seen if you look close enough.
Some place names have been lost to time, among them are Lagon Mahaut, the village south of Plaisance, which is the birthplace of one of Mayaro’s most famous sons, author Michael Anthony.
His name is known to just about every secondary school graduate who has read one of his novels as part of the English Literature syllabus. His historical newspaper articles make essential reading. And his books on the people, places and history of Trinidad and Tobago are a priceless record on which others have built and added.
It’s an impressive career for a local writer, in a country where writers can expect little reward or recognition for work that would be celebrated elsewhere. But there are a few things about Anthony you will find even more remarkable.
He will be 84 years old this year. This is his 50th year as a writer. And he is about to publish his 33rd book.
The man from Mayaro, who now lives in Maraval (after sojourns in Chaguanas, England, the United States and Brazil) also has, as many citizens do, a compelling story of how it all came to be.
His mother came from the 34 square kilometre island of Carriacou, a dependency of Grenada, and his father from Fifth Company, Moruga.
Anthony (home name—Sonnyboy) has a memory as an infant of visiting the village shop with his father and being more interested in the pencils than the sweets, and of being able to read effortlessly from an even younger age.
He recalls that at age six, the family moved to a home at Plaisance, next door to the Mayaro Post Office (which still stands today...crookedly), where the post mistress loaned him dozens of books in exchange for him recounting the stories.
“If you had asked me at age eight, what I wanted to be, I would have told you, it would be a writer,” Anthony said during an interview at his home on Long Circular Road last week.
“I wanted to tell stories like the ones I read.”
Anthony’s father (Nathaniel) died when he was ten years old. And it was only at age 11, when he left to spend that year in San Fernando (an experience that would provide the material for his book titled The Year in San Fernando), that Anthony saw places outside of Mayaro. That was in 1941.
He returned to San Fernando in 1944, having won a bursary to the junior technical school, which allowed him entry into the operations of the Pointe-a-Pierre refinery, where he worked in the foundry for five years and never liked it.
However, as now, the company had a strong sports club, so Anthony took up athletics. By the end of the five-year apprenticeship period, he was composing poems that were being published regularly in the Trinidad Guardian, then the only daily newspaper.
The dream, however, was to write and have published the “short story”.
It was in 1953 that his friend Canute Thomas, someone with whom he trained and ran in the Southern Games (placing third twice in the 100 metres), got a scholarship from the company (then Trinidad Leaseholders Limited) to go to London.
Anthony recalled: “As soon as he got to England, he wrote me saying ‘why don’t you try to come up here? You are always talking of wanting to be a writer. This is the place to come. Publishers all around. Why don’t you try and come’.”
The next year, Anthony, following his dreams, was on a steamship bound for England.
Anthony said he settled in quickly with the help of Thomas, and contacted the Overseas Section of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), who ran a programme of verse and prose that was broadcast to the Caribbean.
They were just changing their programme producer. The new one was coming from famed Oxford University. His name was Vidia Naipaul, a literary legend who belonged to Trinidad for the first 18 years of his life and is now regarded as one of the finest living writers.
Anthony recalled sending Naipaul a short story and two poems for his consideration.
“He sent for me and he said, ‘Mr Anthony, your short story has possibilities, but promise me you will not write another poem’.”
It should have been a moment to crush the spirit. However, it propelled Anthony to become one of the most prolific local writers ever.
Next week: The advice that changed everything.
NOTE: The Writers Union of Trinidad and Tobago (WUTT) is organising the Michael Anthony/Mayaro Literary Festival, scheduled for February 8-9, at the Mayaro Civic Centre. The intention is to recognise the work of Anthony with a weekend of activity which will see the launch of his 33rd publication, The Lamp Lighter, during the festival.