‘May the next gen­er­a­tion curse a gov­ern­ment so blind . . .’

The Star (St. Lucia) - - LOCAL - By Rick Wayne

These days, when we most need it, we hear not a word from Derek Wal­cott. Blame age, fail­ing health and com­mit­ments that leave this ge­nius son of the soil lit­tle time for any­thing other than work. Gone are the days when pre­dictably he would speak out against any of­fi­cial pol­icy not in the best in­ter­ests of He­len; when he re­ferred to cer­tain of­fi­cial state­ments as “the ar­gu­ment of whores,” and of­fi­cials with “minds in­ca­pable of metaphor.” Wal­cott has been for some time next to silent. And that’s a great pity.

Some might say we have his books that speak for him with stun­ning clar­ity. But then so many of our os­ten­si­ble best brains have been heard to say, with­out the small­est hint of em­bar­rass­ment, that Derek Wal­cott writes only for fel­low ge­niuses, not for the av­er­age res­i­dent of the Rock of Sages. Which may well be true—but only half so. The world’s most re­spected lit­er­ary giants have never been re­luc­tant to say how highly they rate the works of Derek Wal­cott, some hav­ing de­clared him the best liv­ing writer in English. Only in this land that gave him birth are his books largely ig­nored. As is the No­bel win­ner him­self. Some of us have ac­tu­ally at­tempted to jus­tify our lack of ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the man and his oeu­vre, in the process in­ad­ver­tently say­ing a whole lot more about our­selves.

Ask the loud­est mouth at your fa­vorite wa­ter­ing hole why he has never read Wal­cott and pre­dictably he will echo some adored mo­ron, quite likely an in­cum­bent politi­cian of du­bi­ous re­pute: “Gassa, dah man too deep.” Why is Derek Wal­cott so treated by his fel­low Saint Lu­cian? Might as well ask why some of us con­tinue to in­sult the mem­ory of our first No­bel win­ner Sir Arthur Lewis. Doubt­less he too was in life “too deep!”

Of course the po­lit­i­cally in­clined have al­ways been quick to sug­gest Wal­cott sup­ports a par­tic­u­lar party—as if that were a crime de­serv­ing of cru­ci­fix­ion—when in fact what Wal­cott cares most about is art, and the pro­tec­tion of our her­itage. Con­se­quently, the en­e­mies of art are Wal­cott’s nat­u­ral en­e­mies. Fol­low­ing was his re­ac­tion to news that John Comp­ton had in the mid-80s granted a group of Ira­nian busi­ness­men per­mis­sion to build a tourist re­sort on what the poet has al­ways con­sid­ered con­se­crated ground: “The sale of land be­tween the Pi­tons for a ho­tel devel­op­ment could have been ne­go­ti­ated only by minds in­ca­pable of metaphor.”

On the oc­ca­sion he wrote for pub­li­ca­tion ex­clu­sively in the

a poem en­ti­tled “Litany to the Pi­tons” (re­pro­duced in its en­tirety in my book “Lapses & In­fe­lic­i­ties”), from which is taken the fol­low­ing: These would sell their own sons/ They sold me, they sold you when they sold the Pi­tons/May the next gen­er­a­tion curse a gov­ern­ment so blind/It handed over a na­tion sealed, de­liv­ered and signed.

Back in the day, there was sel­dom a Labour Party rally that did not make con­ve­nient use of “Litany to the Pi­tons”— Wal­cott’s spe­cial gift to the

The poem may well have in­spired the for­ma­tion of the Saint Lu­cia En­vi­ron­ment and Devel­op­ment Ac­tion Coun­cil (SLEDAC), with Kenny An­thony, renowned artist Llewellyn Xavier and Dr. Len Ish­mael, then a lec­turer at the Cave Hill cam­pus of the Univer­sity of the West Indies. It is worth re­call­ing that at the time of the Jalousie con­tro­versy John Comp­ton and Derek Wal­cott were close friends. But that hardly mat­tered. Cer­tainly friend­ship did not hold back the poet from writ­ing, as the open­ing lines of “Litany to the Pi­tons”: Horns of Comp­ton Pay for us/Tenants of Ten­nant Pay for us/M for our Mother Pay for us . . .

That it was a Labour ad­min­is­tra­tion that first prof­ited from the UWP-Ira­nian ar­range­ments was never as im­por­tant to Wal­cott as was the deal it­self. Not that he ab­hors tourism, as some have des­per­ately claimed. It is what the poet sees as “whor­ing” and “the rape of fair He­len” in the name of tourism that causes him pain. Visit his book, “What the Twi­light Says” for val­i­da­tion.

At 82 he is as wary as he is weary, and ever so care­ful not to be mis­con­strued, es­pe­cially by politi­cians and their hacks. So, no sur­prise that in a re­called

in­ter­view, he an­swered a re­porter’s ques­tion this way: “I don’t want to make a judg­ment that is go­ing to in­crim­i­nate any one party or any gov­ern­ment. Saint Lu­cia is go­ing through a tough eco­nomic cri­sis and nat­u­rally the arts suf­fer. What we have to do is to keep think­ing that no mat­ter what the cri­sis, the arts are a ne­ces­sity. But we have to have the money to sus­tain them. So, yes, more should be done but we need to look for sub­si­dies . . .”

Ad­di­tion­ally: “We still do not have a mu­seum or a the­ater, and that’s crim­i­nal. And no party should ex­cuse it­self for not do­ing that for the peo­ple. These are things not for the artists; they are things for the peo­ple of Saint Lu­cia.”

How re­as­sur­ing to dis­cover the old fire of the late 80s con­tin­ued to burn bright in his 82-year-old belly. In re­sponse to an­other ques­tion about the “re­launched” Free­dom Bay project, Wal­cott asked: “Who is al­low­ing this to hap­pen? This gov­ern­ment? I didn’t know that. That’s very bad news to me. That’s ter­ri­ble news—and the mes­sen­ger should be shot!”

More­over: “How can they find room to build a ho­tel at the foot of the Pi­tons and can’t find a spot to build a mu­seum? That’s the rage that I have. That’s the anger I have. My brother died work­ing for the arts in Saint Lu­cia . . . I sup­pose I, too, will die and not see it hap­pen. This is shame­ful.”

Fi­nally it was his turn to ask the im­por­tant ques­tions: “And ex­actly where is this place? Will you see it in any pro­jec­tion of Petit Pi­ton? And no­body has ob­jected? So the deal was ap­proved by the Saint Lu­cian gov­ern­ment?”

You could al­most see the fire in his belly slowly dy­ing as he groaned: “I am ashamed of my coun­try, be­cause that’s whor­ing, and you can quote me on that. If you are telling me right, that there is go­ing to be a ho­tel built at the base of Petit Pi­ton, vis­i­ble as a ho­tel, then that is whor­ing . . . There can still be time for protest but what can you say when a coun­try ap­proves of its own dis­fig­ure­ment?”

You could call it a coun­try gone mad. What you can­not say is that Derek Wal­cott ever gave a hoot about any­thing other than art and the peo­ple of Saint Lu­cia whose her­itage, he truly be­lieves, should never be sold by their elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives in the name of mind­less and un­planned tourism. Or in re­tal­i­a­tion to what the prime min­is­ter of Saint Lu­cia re­cently de­scribed as crises “of our own mak­ing!”

No­bel Lau­re­ate Derek Wal­cott and Sir Arthur Lewis. As far as ac­co­lades go, their con­tri­bu­tions to Saint Lu­cia re­main un­matched.

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