Among us lives a talent so immeasurably colossal as to be listed among the world’s greatest writers in the English language, going back to Shakespeare. When he was only eighteen it had already been clear to those who mattered that in him resided genius. As if in confirmation of their faith he would be showered with accolades wherever literature was appreciated: Obie Award for Best Foreign Play; Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts; Commonwealth Award of Distinguished Service; MacArthur Fellowship; Ainsfield-Wolf Book Award; T. S. Eliot prize; the list seems endless. Sadly, his own fellow countrymen seemed determined never to honor the prophet in the land that gave him birth. We were last to celebrate his specialness when in 1992 the John Compton government renamed Columbus Square for the year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Just before I sat down to write this piece for last week’s STAR (then decided to postpone publication) curiosity had led me to Google his name. This was the first entry that confronted me: “Sir Derek Alton Walcott, KCSL, OBE, OCC. Born 23 January 1930, he is a Saint Lucian-Trinidadian poet and playwright.”
His stated double-nationality reminded me of a visit several years ago to a renowned Port-of-Spain restaurant where the proprietor proudly introduced me to—but would not permit me to sit at—“Derek Walcott’s table.”
As for the above three listed awards, two were altogether new to me. So I turned to my more trusted sources of secret information, to no avail. They offered nothing that made sense. With few other reliable sources at my service, I revisited Google and entered KCSL. Several possibilities appeared before me, among them: Known Contaminated Sites List; Kake Community School Library; Keywood Computer Services Limited. Most astounding was Korean Conflict State Level!
Then I typed in What is OCC? Wikipedia served up several responses including Out of Character Chat; Original Character Creation; Old Corrugated Cardboard. I considered most of them but with all the imagination I could muster could not reasonably associate any of the suggested appellations to Derek Walcott. While even his best friends would agree sugar and spice had never been in his DNA, to suggest a relationship between “corrugated cardboard” and the author of Omeros and The Mongoose seemed a stretch. Other searches delivered Onondaga Cycling Club; Oxford Community Church; Outrage Control Center.
I persisted. Urbandictionary.com effectively shoved me up against a mutharockin’ wall. I mean, Obsessive Compulsive Cock disorder? Seriously? Derek Walcott?
The scales fell from my eyes after I had Whatsapped an MP friend (ok, an MP acquaintance!) who assured me OCC stood for Order of the CARICOM Community. Since its introduction in 1992, the award had been conferred on seventeen “Caribbean citizens of whom the entire region is proud.” Listed among the Magnificent Seventeen: William Demas, Dame Nita Barrow, Justice Telford Georges, Sir John Compton (all departed) the Mighty Sparrow and Sir Shridath Ramphal.
As for KCSL, it turns out to be short for Knight Commander of Saint Lucia. You know, as in KCMG that stands for Knight Commander of Saint Michael and Saint George, by reliable account “an order of chivalry” that goes back to “28 April 1881, started by George, Prince Regent, who became King George IV of the United Kingdom.”
So what’s with “corrugated cardboard” and “cock disorder?” My MP informant seemed convinced that in time the Kenny D Awards will be as respected universally as are the KCMG and the OBE—the first centuries old, the other introduced in 1917.
At this point, dear reader, permit me a small digression triggered by my earlier reference to William Demas. The Guyanese-born economist had been invited by the local OECS secretariat, then headed by Dr. Vaughan Lewis, to address an invited audience at Point Seraphine on the then hot topic of OECS unity, perceived with suspicion by a large section of the population not supportive of the Compton administration.
Near the evening’s end, that is to say, at question time, I took the opportunity to ask Mr. Demas why he had never graced opposition initiatives with his cherished presence. Was it because only opinions that proceeded from the mouths of incumbent MPs were worthy of his attention? The visitor left it to his largely UWP audience to respond with wall-to-wall jeers.
The next question came from Ava Noel, a brilliant young woman who just happened to be the latest recipient of the Island Scholarship. Ava wanted to know “what do young people have to look forward to from the OECS Unity Initiative?”
Again there were grunts and growls from the UWP Amen Corner. But this time the gentleman in Demas had his own response: “How can someone so young be so cynical?” The audience reaction rattled the walls.
Ava’s parting shot blew a hole in the economist’s ego large enough to render him mute: “Was that your final answer to my question?”
I bumped into Vaughan Lewis as we exited the venue. He had served as the event’s MC. “Rick,” he chuckled, “you’re a pretty intelligent guy. Pity you left school too early.” He did not have to say he was referring to my famous expulsion from St. Mary’s College where he and I had been classmates. Yes, touché. Not many years later, when Lewis had abruptly metamorphosed into a politician campaigning for the then UWP-controlled Castries Central constituency on his way to accepting John Compton’s booby-trapped prime minister’s chair, we locked horns a second time.
I said: “Remember how you once said I quit school too early?”
And he said: “Yeah, who knows how far you might’ve gone with a bit more education?”
And I said: “I may have left school too early. But you’ve never left!”
News that Walcott would be the first recipient of the Kenny Anthony knighthood (with the Queen’s permission) left me in a quandary. Should I laugh? Should I cry? Should I shrug it all off as more proof that the more things change the more they remain the same?
I recalled Walcott had been offered the real McCoy when Compton still held office and that he had refused, on the grounds that knighthoods were too closely linked to colonialism. Or so runs the story. Now that Kenny Anthony was licensed by royal warrant to manufacture awards for his particular purposes, well, who best to receive the first off the assembly line than our only living Nobel Laureate?
But just as I was getting over the irony inherent in Walcott’s acceptance (what might’ve been the reaction had he said thanks but no thanks?) from out of nowhere another slapped me in the face like bird droppings from the sky: Kenny D would on 28 February bestow not just one knighthood, not two, but three: one to the former school principal and ombudswoman known to nearly everyone over fifty as Ms. Laurent, and the third to the former prime minister Vaughan Lewis. By official account Lawrence Martha Priscilla Laurent had “dedicated the whole of her working life in service to her country as educator, cultural enthusiast, parliamentarian, ombudsman and international public servant” therefore was deserving of a made-in-Saint Lucia knighthood.
The reasons for honoring Walcott are as numerous as they are obvious. To cite the governor general: “His contribution to the arts and literature has been so very well documented that one would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the Western world who has not heard about this child prodigy . . .” It is his acceptance of a local politician’s copycat award without history that will start conversations till the end of time.
On the other hand many will wonder about the Lewis trophy. Surely there is nothing special about his academic life that merits more than his doctorate; certainly nothing so special as to merit recognition similar to that given Derek Walcott. As for his alleged contributions to the OECS Unity Initiative, no need to recall the details; we have only to revisit the recent case involving the Jamaican Shanique Myrie and the Barbados government to determine after some thirty years how far the project has come.
Indeed, some less kind than I might go so far as to say the Lewis award was altogether unmerited. And who would blame them, having read the following, taken from At the Rainbow’s Edge?”
“They [the UWP] are ashamed to admit Sarah [Flood-Beaubrun] beat Vaughan Lewis because she was the better [election] candidate. They refuse to admit that in his one year as prime minister Vaughan Lewis proved to be St. Lucia’s biggest Compton-made disaster. To this day no one can identify a single initiative inspired by Vaughan Lewis. Our approach to the management of this country is so different from that of Vaughan Lewis that I doubt whether he even understands what we are doing. He did not know in 1996, does not know it now, and he will never know.”
Moreover: “What is perhaps worse is that St. Lucia’s reputation in the world was being dragged down along with Vaughan Lewis’ reputation. It is one thing to be like him, a laughingstock in your own country, but when you are the prime minister and you are ridiculed abroad as well, then you cannot take the whole nation down with you.”
And this: “The UWP has tried to convince us that their party has changed. They have promoted Vaughan Lewis as the change. Time and the experience of this has [sic] shown that the UWP has indeed changed since the advent of Vaughan Lewis but it is clearly a change for the worse. Never before have we seen such vindictiveness, such narrow-mindedness, such pedigreed arrogance, mauvais langue and mepwis in an election campaign. Many had hoped that the entry of Vaughan Lewis into the political arena would have signaled a higher level of public morality and a higher tenor of political discourse and debate. There were some who thought that he would have attempted to clean the rot, cut the patronage and excise corruption. Instead of rising to his historic opportunity, Vaughan Lewis sank to the lowest common moral and intellectual denominator. Even Sir John Compton in his worst moments has never sunk so low.”
As earlier noted, the quoted paragraphs are from the pages of the widely distributed At the Rainbow’s Edge—also forever accessible on the Internet. The doubtless proud author was also the creator of the KCSL. By all accounts he personally determined who should be the first recipients of his award, not the nominations committee.
Following last Sunday’s investiture at Government House what occupied the minds of several members of the specially invited audience was Walcott’s demeanor as Dame Pearlette Louisy’s sword gently touched his shoulders.
The rest of us, who had to be content with televised clips of the ceremony, are free to speculate about why throughout his dubbing Sir Derek wept!