Is truth re­ally what­ever you choose to be­lieve?

The Star (St. Lucia) - - COMMENT -

Talk about the mouth of babes! It started with an un­com­mon re­quest. A long-time fel­low gym rat I’d not heard from since my last work­out some four years ago called out of the blue last Thurs­day af­ter­noon to ask if I could take some time over the week­end to help his son with a school as­sign­ment. For a mo­ment I thought he’d di­aled my num­ber in er­ror or that I had mis­heard him—or that life on this Rock of Sages had fi­nally robbed him of his mar­bles. He quickly as­sured me I was wrong on all counts. In that case, I said, and con­sid­er­ing how long we’d known each other, he should know I’m a lousy teacher, ab­so­lutely without pa­tience. Be­sides, I had all-day photo shoots set up for Satur­day and Sun­day. But then true friends know pre­cisely the but­tons to press that will turn their re­luc­tant quarry into putty.

“He’s so look­ing for­ward to meet­ing you,” he said, in his best con­cerned daddy’s voice. “Ever since I promised him you’d be happy help out he’s been boast­ing to his pals . . . No­body be­lieves him, not even his teacher and now . . .”

The sucker in me pic­tured the kid in his predica­ment. Not a pretty sight. Next thing I know the wimp is telling my friend not to worry, I’ll be happy to make time on Satur­day af­ter­noon, an hour or so be­fore my sched­uled shoot. “By the way,” said the real me, only half jok­ing, “I hope your son’s as­sign­ment has noth­ing to do with math or re­li­gion!”

He chuck­led: “Oh, I as­sure you it doesn’t. He just wants to ask you a few ques­tions.”

And so we met at my stu­dio, my former body­build­ing buddy and his two sons, 13-year-old Jalen and his younger brother stuck to some dig­i­tal con­trap­tion. Al­ready my hair­sylist and a make-up artist were at work in the dress­ing room prepar­ing the day’s model for my cam­era. In­tro­duc­tions over, my in­ter­viewer and I got down to busi­ness. “I have just three or four ques­tions for you,” he said.

And I said, “Good, fire away feller.”

“Well, how did you first get into jour­nal­ism?” I was taken aback. I’d half-ex­pected him to ask some­thing about build­ing mus­cles.

“What ex­actly is your school as­sign­ment about, any­way?” I queried, a tad im­pa­tient. His dad an­swered. “They’re sup­posed to find some­one es­pe­cially well known for his work and, well . . .” I got the mes­sage. Point­less tak­ing up more time with de­tails. But my friend con­tin­ued, any­way. “I thought of just two peo­ple, Boo Hink­son and your­self.”

“Ah yes,” I laughed, “Boo Hink­son OBE. Well, you chose well. Twenty min­utes with your son and Boo would’ve con­vinced him to pack up and en­roll at a sem­i­nary.” Ev­ery­one laughed but I doubt they got the joke that my friend the re­cently dec­o­rated ace mu­si­cian had heard per­haps too many times in the com­pany of oth­ers, al­ways to his em­bar­rass­ment. I’ve long con­sid­ered Boo our na­tion’s num­ber one se­cret good guy, not es­pe­cially ap­pre­ci­ated for his work with trou­bled young Saint Lu­cians— ab­so­lutely more de­serv­ing of the Saint Lu­cia Cross than the Paris-based Le­banese Gil­bert Chagoury.

“Ah, yes,” I said, re­turn­ing to my young in­ter­locu­tor. “How did I get into jour­nal­ism? Now let’s see.” For the kid’s ben­e­fit I re­called I was ac­tu­ally mak­ing mu­sic in Eng­land a hun­dred years ago when some­one in­tro­duced me to a book about the Viet­nam war, by the renowned jour­nal­ist John Pil­ger. I was later in­tro­duced to An­gus McGill, a hot­shot colum­nist with the Evening Stan­dard, who gifted me with Norman Mailer’s Mi­ami and the Siege of Chicago. After that I found my­self read­ing more of Mailer (The Naked and the Dead), bumped into James Bald­win via sev­eral of his non­fic­tion es­says and, well, I was bit­ten. I wanted to be a writer. Mean­while I had been dream­ing about be­com­ing a body­build­ing su­per­star (hey, that’s what be­ing young is all about—a time to dream im­pos­si­ble dreams!). Some­where along the road I started writ­ing for my own en­ter­tain­ment, mainly about my friends. And then I mailed a half-fic­tion, half-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal piece to Guy El­lis, then as now, at the Voice. To my pleas­ant sur­prise he wrote back to ask if I’d ever con­sid­ered writ­ing as a ca­reer, or some­thing to that ef­fect. Recog­ni­tion at last! Be­fore long I was sub­mit­ting ar­ti­cles to the UK rep­re­sen­ta­tives of an Amer­i­can fit­ness mag­a­zine (by then I had earned a rep­u­ta­tion as one of the UK’s top body­builders, with one or two hit records to boot)—and ac­tu­ally get­ting pub­lished (largely be­cause I had a fol­low­ing, I sus­pect). I later was in­vited to be editor of Joe Wei­der’s New York-based

Mus­cle Builder. Three years later the com­pany moved to Los An­ge­les, and well, as they say, the rest is his­tory.

As I re­called my in­tro­duc­tion to writ­ing, to jour­nal­ism in par­tic­u­lar, I sensed some­thing was stir­ring in my young in­ter­viewer’s soul. I knew the feel­ing only too well, hav­ing sat at the feet of some fa­mous writ­ers, ei­ther at over­seas work­shops or in more in­ti­mate cir­cum­stances. To this day my heart does flip-flops when­ever I’m in the pres­ence of Derek Wal­cott. Jalen pulled out his cell phone, put down his pen­cil and note­book, and started record­ing. I turned to his fa­ther, his face ablaze with the fire of pa­ter­nal pride.

“My next ques­tion,” said Jalen. “After all these years do you still like your job?”

And I said: “Job? What job?”

“Pro­duc­ing the STAR and all that.”

“Oh, but writ­ing has never been a job for me,” I said. For Jalen’s pur­poses I re­called hav­ing read years ago a book by Her­mann Hesse. I’ve long for­got­ten its ti­tle but I re­mem­ber well its main mes­sage: He is an es­pe­cially lucky man who has found a line of work he en­joys, for then it ceases to be work, ceases to be a job . . . some­thing like that. As I told Jalen: “There has never been a day when I did not look for­ward to do­ing what I’ve done now for most of my life. Writ­ing is for me ther­apy; a place to hide when I don’t feel par­tic­u­larly so­cia­ble, when I’m down in the dumps (sur­prise- sur­prise, he’s ac­tu­ally hu­man!); a means of es­cape. There is hardly a time when I’m not writ­ing, any­way; if only in my mind.”

“Okay,” said Jalen, his de­meanor that of a kid with a longed-for Christ­mas gift. “I un­der­stand. What’s the hard­est part of the job? I mean, the hard­est part of . . . what you do?” With shoot­ing time fast ap­proach­ing, I an­swered too quickly. “There’s no part of it I would con­sider hard, hard be­ing a state of mind.” And then an­other thought oc­curred: “The most dif­fi­cult part of what I do cen­ters on writ­ing the truth as I know it and still re­tain­ing friend­ships.” For rea­sons I’ve yet to come to grips with, even nor­mally en­cour­ag­ing friends—friends who openly have spo­ken highly of my pur­suit of truth re­gard­less of who is in­volved—when they are my sub­ject ex­pect me to lie, if only by omis­sion. I re­fer es­pe­cially to fel­low writ­ers, politi­cians and other friends in pub­lic life. Among those I had writ­ten about truth­fully is Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger, who re­mains a friend but back in the day was very, very up­set about what I had writ­ten with ref­er­ence to his com­ment on Kurt Wald­heim at the time he re­signed as U.N. Sec­re­tary Gen­eral.

Arnold had told re­porters cer­tain al­le­ga­tions about his fel­low Aus­trian were in ef­fect fake news, that Wald­heim was sim­ply “hav­ing some bad press” and would get over it. My pub­lished re­tort: “Yeah, just as Idi Amin is hav­ing some bad press that he will get over in due course!” To this day I can see the hurt in Arnold’s face when he said: “Okay, it’s true, I said that and it was fool­ish. But how could you have writ­ten what you have in the mag­a­zine? You are my friend.” Al­most a year passed be­fore we re­newed our re­la­tion­ship.

Jalen’s re­ac­tion: “So why did you write about your friend that way?” I tried to think about an ex­pla­na­tion that a thir­teen-year-old might ac­cept—some­thing about truth is truth and to soften or deny it is to lie—but was res­cued by the hair stylist. “We’re ready to shoot, Rick,” she cooed. Turn­ing to a wide-eyed Jalen, I placed a hand on his right shoul­der and said: “Let your dad ex­plain it to you!”

I hope the kid got what he wanted. His dad as­sured me he did. I await to hear about how things went with Jalen’s teacher!

Thir­teen-year-old St. Mary’s Col­lege fourth former Jalen Felix re­cently in­ter­viewed Mr. TALK him­self for a school as­sign­ment.

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