When Michael rowed his boat into The BookYard!

Last week I had several reasons to be happy. The main one had me feeling honoured to be honoured. Another took me on both a nostalgic and futuristic trip: Down Memory Lane and Back to the Future. Being inducted in Saint Lucia’s Hall of Fame has its rules of entry. So, while on my week-long trip in the company of others, I couldn’t reveal my share of the day’s state secret: that I was about to be pinned with gold for having labored so long in the vineyards of my craft. So, when I attended Michael Chastanet’s book launch on Saturday 20 February at The bookYard in the STAR Publishing compound, I knew something nobody else knew that I just couldn’t share — not even with my better quarters.

I’ve known Michael all my life. Historically, our families have been close. His father (Arthur Chastanet) and mine (Charles V.E. Bousquet) were the senior seafarers in the two families who cared for their respective brothers. Our fates also somehow intertwined, though separately: Mike eventually moved on from his dad’s boat and headed for the seven seas. And so did I . . . In the late 60s Mike and I met often in the then Prince Alfred Basin in Castries where we both cared for boats. I’d see him on the Canaries – his father’s local coastal cargo and passenger boat. I would be taking care of a huge tug named Lundy Gull, of which my father (then also Saint Lucia’s chief marine pilot) was Captain. Back then I was all of 10 and 11 years old and, every time we met, “Mister Chastanet” would offer seafaring advice that would all come in handy during my later years traveling the seven seas.

Michael Chastanet (far left) signs copies of his book at Saturday’s launch at The bookYard.

Our generational difference apart, we spoke like two big men on Sunday mornings. And he would often remind me not to forget when sailing on my first ship that “There are no little boys at sea!” His advice, each time, was that I should “Always think and act big!” Fast-Forward a few decades . . . After building his first boat at 17 and leaving here in 1967, the sea salt in Mike’s veins had taken him across all the oceans through all of the world’s major shipping lanes, spending more than three decades buying and selling ships as fast as each good deal came. By 1984 he’d decided it was time to drop anchor and return home.

Mike has long rowed his boat ashore. He’s lowered his sails and seen a brighter future on dry land. He’s now in the real estate business. He told me back in 1987 (when I was the STAR Editor and he was the company’s landlord): “Where others see an abandoned lot or a patch of wasteland, I see what I can build on it.” Hence his transformation of acres of mosquito-infested swampland with leeches and snakes, frogs and Jack Spaniards, into the busy business lot that currently stretches from Northwest Ltd to Colony House on the John Compton Highway in Castries, alongside the Vigie Airport.

By the turn of the century Mike had turned into everything: from Chairman of the National Development Corporation (NDC) to Chairman of Caribbean Metals and Chairman of an emerging supermarket chain that would forever change that business in Saint Lucia. By 2014 Mike had long been writing. As artful with a pen as he’s been at any ship’s wheel, he’s written more articles in the local press than the number of times he’s been quoted. But before he bowed to the pleas to write his life story, I did three hour-long audiovisual interviews with him. My plan was to feature him in one of the first editions of my program earl@large, which was first intended for TV before its Talk Radio launch took precedence a year ago.

The businessman in Mike is mechanical. He keeps thinking ahead of time. And he moves from new plan to new plan like clockwork. Where others procrastinate, he moves at nautical pace, full speed ahead. Before I knew it, he’d launched Open Mike – his own weekly TV program. By now, my “Brother Mike” had not only rowed his boat ashore, he’d also dropped both his anchors in my waters. And he’d started his show before I could even script mine. But if I thought that was all, the ancient mariner definitely had more salt water line-up for me. When I got the electronically mailed invitation to Mike’s book launch, it confirmed what I already knew: he’d permanently tied his boat alongside jetty. I would attend his induction into the club — and there came that other source of happiness that week: my introduction to Mae’s New World.

I’ve known Mae Wayne from way back, when she was Mae Sabbagh. I know when and how her name changed. Where everyone else entirely credited her husband Rick for what The STAR newspaper was, those who knew well, knew the paper would have been nothing and nowhere without Mae. Mae’s always been the brain behind Rick’s brawn in their shared businesses. She started off here by turning one of Mike’s highway warehouses (referred to earlier) into the thriving STAR Publishing Company. It quickly swallowed-up the local advertising market because of Mae’s insistence on producing ads and other paper products of the best local quality possible. Same with Body Inc, the physical fitness business that she and Rick ran alongside The STAR at another of Mike’s buildings, this time at his Gablewoods Mall at Choc.
And in all of that, Mae also wrote. I worked with her on launching the Tropical Traveller and She magazines.

Mae always stood behind Rick, but not because she saw that as her eternal place. Her fingers are always in more pies than the naked eye will see. So, I wasn’t surprised when I read or heard somewhere that she’d launched a new business at The STAR in Massade. An informant also told me it was called “The Yard” and “You can get plenty of local things there too.” But she was most impressed by the fact that “The Yard sits between a set of containers Mae turned into stores.” As it turned out, my informant had understated the facts. First, the place’s real and full name is The bookYard – and apart from “plenty of local things”, it’s also a bookshop pushing the works of local writers and poets, artists and artistes. And Michael’s was the first book launch there.

As I listened to Mae introduce the place and the man of the moment, I looked across at Andre Chastanet, the former CEO of Consolidated Foods Limited (CFL). Before their departure from the helm at CFL, he had been to Mike exactly what Mae still is to The STAR Publishing Company: the invisible hand pumping the iron and beating it while it’s hot. That Saturday evening I had a good time. I’d so decided before leaving home. Very early, the boozing landlubber in me several times noted the absence of a “Rum Shop” in The bookYard. His laugh aside, Rick sounded to me like he had — very reluctantly — agreed. But the businesswoman in Mae had seen what her husband had also aptly noted long time ago – though regrettably — that there just had to be that other essential lubricant for intellectual discourse. Indeed, when I mentioned it to her, Mae pointed to exactly where the intended literati’s watering hole will be – and immediately assured me that “Rosie will soon take care of that!”

Mike bared his soul that night. He told of his 33 years at sea and 28 years in the supermarket business, but hardly hinted how much of a writer he’s been from as far back as 1987, when he started penning articles regularly for the STAR – and very, very long before taking to his open mike on his own weekly public platform. Derek Walcott was present, he and Rick sharing an up-front, on-stage table. Peter Josie publicly returned Mike’s unused photos in the form of a cardboard display. The patriarchs and matriarchs of the local aristocracy, business magnates and other doers and shakers behind much that happens here sat with diplomats and mingled with scribes and fellow hewers of wood and water, all to pay tribute to Mike. And, of course, Mae invited everyone to “Buy a book tonight and let Michael sign it – even if you already bought one!”

Some who would have liked to share in Mike’s moment of glory just were not there, for reasons they would have preferred did not exist. Politics both makes and breaks bedfellows. But blood is always thicker than water – and that’s crystal clear. As it turned out, that night I couldn’t leave The bookYard without something from the place with “plenty of things”. I scanned the rows of wide ranges of local goodies and eventually solicited help from someone who knows my wife to fulfill her wish that I “bring something back”. I didn’t bother to feel that was both her way of taking back the “vex money” she learned to give me when we lived back in Guyana 20 years ago. Nor did I think it was her way of certifying I’d been where I said.

But after securing the lady’s “thing” I definitely wouldn’t have left without mine. I scouted a circled set of dozens and settled for a small pillow that would look good on the large chair behind my Home Office desk. The crowded desk occupies more of the drawing room space than my wife would wish, but she’ll be the first to confess there’s a method in my madness, as I always know where to find every piece of paper. The marked pillow is a fitting signboard that reads: It’s not a mess. It’s called character.

And I also got two bars of 100% Natural Saint Lucian Organic Chocolate, ‘Hand-crafted from bean to bar’, made right here in Belvedere, Canaries by Maria Jackson. Like Mae asked, I did purchase a copy of Mike’s book – even though he promised me one. But the line that night to get his signature was too long. I opted instead to bless the The bookYard’s future watering hole with the bottled likeness of the blood of Christ. I also left The bookYard with an exercise book – obviously aimed at popularizing the place among tomorrow’s writers at an early stage in their lives.

Indeed, I left The bookYard happy. Alone on my way home after my first night out where most there had first heard the story of when and how Michael first rowed his boat ashore, I couldn’t help but hum Harry Belafonte’s fitting song of the same name — and sigh at the end of each chorus: “Halleluiah!” Now I’ll make time to go to Mike’s home or office for his autograph . . . THE BOOK: At 20 chapters in 120 pages, Michael Chastanet’s book ‘Room at the Top’ is so short and interesting you’ll read it in less than a day. Hearing the words from Mike’s mouth through the ten tongues of his own fingers is an experience like no other. You will certainly want to recommend the book to those interested in the understandably enviable story of a ninth-born who became Number One!

POSTSCRIPT: That evening I wasn’t the only one sharing a state secret. I would learn that Derek Walcott and Bernard Theobalds (also present that night) had also been informed they were to enter the National Hall of Fame tomorrow (February 28th). The bard and the engineer are each of Mike’s type in their own way, both having climbed the long ladders to the top of their respective vocations. They were now to receive the highest honours at the first investiture ceremony since Saint Lucia was granted the right to name its own knights and dames. Like me for my 40 years of chronicling as a chronic chronicler, they too had been able to keep that shared state secret buried deep within – and without choking.

Read more about The bookYard and Michael Chastanet’s book launch on page 22 and also in this weekend’s 2nite Magazine.

(A STAR Exclusive)

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