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May - August,  2005

WALCOTT HONOURED FOR CULTURAL ACHIEVEMENT
 
       Caldwell Taylor

..Derek Walcott ( 1930- ), winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature, was recently awarded France's highest honour for cultural achievement -the Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters. The Award was conferred in Paris by the French Minister of Culture Renaud Donnedieu.

St Lucian -born Walcott moved to Trinidad in the 1950s, where he founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in 1959, as "a  theatre where someone can do Shakespeare or sing Calypso with equal conviction". Walcott frequented the Calypso tents during dem early years in Trinidad and he soon became a fan of the inimitable "Spoiler" (Theophilus Phillip). Indeed, Walcott managed to capture Spoiler's artistic mischievousness in a fascinating poem titled " The Spoiler's Return" in which the dead bard composes as he decomposes.

Spoiler died on December 24, 1960 after checking himself  out of hospital against the firm advice of his doctor. Grenadian-born "Bomber" (Clifton Ryan), Spoiler's greatest disciple, tells a heart-breaking yarn 'bout how the Master's casket was carried to the cemetery by a band of tear-soaked kaisonians.  Says the Bomber:  "We came out of the All Saints Church and we decided not to put the coffin in the hearse; we carried it right to the [Woodbrook] cemetery".

Bomber was the winner of the Trinidad and Tobago Calypso King (Monarch ) Competition in 1964 and one of his compositions was a nifty number called "Spoiler's Dream".  In his Dimanche Gras presentation, Bomber delivered just like his mentor, hitting an appreciative audience with multiple dollops of Spoiler's trademark sentence- "AH WANNA FALL"

WALCOTT IN GRENADA, 1954

Young Derek Walcott came to Grenada in September 1954 to take up an appointment as an Assistant Master of English and Latin at the Grenada Boys Secondary School (GBSS). Walcott did not like Grenada. He was turned off by the country's fixation on class and colour, says biographer Bruce King. Here is how King puts in "Derek Walcott, A Caribbean Life":

"Although he had a reputation as a good teacher and Faye [Walcott's first wife] was admired for her looks, dress sense, and having landed a job in the Governor's office, Derek was unhappy in Grenada. He did not want to teach. He wanted to live on St Lucia and paint. Grenada was called the Spice Island and, according to a long unpublished article he later wrote , Walcott made up his mind to dislike the nutmeg, ginger, and allspice for which it was famous. St George, the capital, is a beautiful town built in hills around a harbour; he decided it was Georgian colonial postcard pretty... Walcott disliked the social distinctions based on class and shade" (pp 108-109).

Walcott's observations about race and class in Grenada gained academic respectability in the work of the Jamaican -born social scientist M.G.Smith, who studied the island between 1950-1954 (The Plural Society in the British West Indies, pp. 262-303) Smith tells us that " a small near-white planter group was at the apex of the [Grenadian] hierarchy and that the "brown upper middle classes dominated commerce, official councils, committees, certain clubs and other organizations...The island beauty contest catered to the brown elite" p277.

All of this helped to set the stage for Eric Gairy , who came back to Grenada in December 1949 from Aruba. Young Eric Gairy spoke on "diverse occasions" ( he liked those words) about the "indignities" he suffered at the hands of "Grenada's whites, the so-called "upper brackets who played tennis at Dunfermline". Gairy probably sought to avenge those real or perceived indignities when, in his early teens, he served as lookout man for his brother George ("Bambam head") while the latter broke into the clubhouse of the Dunfermline Tennis Club.

The young men were found out and brought to trial: "Bambamhead" got a court-ordered flogging and Eric ("Barbadosbroomstick"), dressed in his best church clothes, walked out of the court with his little halo intact.

Walcott, who published his first book , 25 Poems, in 1949, has said  a great deal about race since his sojourn in Grenada ( September to December 1954):"Mongrel as I am", he has written, "something (body part)les in me when I see the word Ashanti as with the word Warwickshire, both separately intimating my grandfathers' roots, both baptising this neither
proud nor ashamed bastard, this hybrid, this West Indian."

Did the Grenada experience launch the poet into racial politics?  Perhaps it did . According to Mervyn Alleyne, Walcott tends to absorb  rather than shed influences.
 

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