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 to 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!