While “The Walcott House” would be the most strategically fitting title for the recently restored boyhood home of Derek and Roderick Walcott, “The Trusted House”, the poetic title given by the 1992 Nobel Laureate for Literature, may actually be the spiritual name needed to ensure the survival of the institution. Here, I am joining Walcott to harness all of my faith in the magic and inspiration of poetry.
The opening ceremony of “The Walcott House” on Sunday 24th January conjured up nostalgia of that pre-ghetto period in the communities of Grass Street and Chaussee Road. In his speech at the opening ceremony Prime Minister Kenny Anthony identified several prominent families who resided in the neighbourhood and highlighted the successes of several sons of the street. The Prime Minister’s hope, it seems, is to bring back the glory days of prominence and success of people from that community. To that end, the restored house itself is part of a larger project, “The Walcott Place”, which will include a museum and a theatre.
Thus for the government, the project would not only become a pivot of heritage tourism in Castries but would also be crucial to the social transformation of a very troubled part of the city. For Derek Walcott the house is a place of nostalgia and a sacred space in which the memory of his family is honoured. For Saint Lucian artists and intellectuals it is site of unending inspiration; an example of how success and fulfillment of talent can emerge out of love and modesty. Speakers on the programme, including the Governor General, expressed gratitude to those who assisted in the realisation of the project and all speakers, without exception, singled out the residents of Grass Street.
When the time came, as indicated on the programme, for Derek Walcott, the man of the moment, to read, he didn’t. In fact it seems that he couldn’t. Instead he wept; but not really. Robert Lee had accompanied him to the stage. Walcott spoke, or tried to, expressing his gratitude and love for Saint Lucia and, as he spoke, he appeared to be fighting against a total collapse into tears. He seemed charged with emotion and to be struggling to contain himself. This struggle meant that he couldn’t read the poem that he had written for such an historic occasion: the official opening of his boyhood home, restored! Fellow poet Robert Lee, whom Walcott referred to as a lovely reader, performed the task.
These moments certainly offered a deep insight into the character of a man who has always borne a tough exterior. More significantly, however, the moment also lent dramatic irony to the transformed setting of this “opening scene”; this scene that would provide the prologue for a brand new script for the people of Grass Street. Here, Walcott resisted a show of emotional frailty in the face of a community easily triggered into vulnerability by the words or deeds from society’s big guns. Physically frail at 86 years old, but still mentally solid, Walcott steadied himself through the experience. With grace and gratitude, he embraced the warm audience that shared with him the profound significance of his moment.
But the few words managed by Walcott must trigger an absolute focus of how “The Walcott Place” can make a difference. “Arthur Jacobs built this house,” were the very first words he shot at the audience. Jacobs, or “Jakes” as he is popularly known, was a star actor of the St. Lucia Arts Guild and undoubtedly a huge inspiration to Walcott who cast him in most of the plays that he directed in Saint Lucia. Walcott has also immortalized “Jakes’ in his most recent work “White Egrets”. Walcott refers to the actor as “a man without no money/despite his tremendous presence, light as a leaf/and as delicate dancing/coal black and like coal/packed with inspiring fire . . . a beauty of soul . . . a wit, an intelligence.”
In his short but powerful utterance, Walcott spoke of his love for his actors, those he worked with in Saint Lucia, Trinidad and Boston; a love he suggested that developed because of how willingly the actor gave to the director; how obedient he was to the director’s guidance. Grass Street and the youth who frequent there have to be re-shaped by skilled directors. Grass Street today is one of the most troubled spots in the city of Castries and the question is, will the youth give themselves in trust to the direction of the authorities. For many years this place has been one of the areas responsible for sporadic bursts of gang violence in the city. A casual walk through the area reveals that like the Grave Yard to the other end of the Chaussee, it is a home for predominantly male youth who find an identity in “badness”. Even during the opening ceremony, the volatility of the area was clear in the demeanour of one ‘dread’ who walked near the proceedings displaying his gangster style: barebacked, with dropping pants showing underwear, as he strolled leisurely and deliberately in full view of the gathering, swinging a bottle of liquor. Another walked around at quick pace shouting his displeasure at something or someone.
Clearly this is a project cemented in faith and trust. It is a huge trust! “The Trusted House”, the title of the poem written by Walcott for the occasion, puns on “The Trust”; that is, The Saint Lucia National Trust which led the initiative of the restoration. However, “The Walcott House” is also “The Trusted House” because it carries so much hope for its immediate surroundings. It must attract skilled and trustworthy directors. It’s the “front”, the lead structure of a project that must trigger spin-offs for the people of the community whether through directors who will shape the characters of the youth or through the market that it will provide for the artisans and artistes. It is a “Trusted House” for its own vulnerability. It is entrusted to a community who must care for and protect it, so that it may win the trust of so many who need to remain in touch with the beauty of their souls.