Trinidad’s Michael Anthony: This Charming Man

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Returning to New York from Dominica this weekend, I read a beautiful feature article on Trinidadian writer Michael Anthony in LIAT’s in-fight magazine, Zing. I have always loved Anthony’s The Year in San Fernando and it was a pleasure to catch up with him in this article. I was happy to find that Zing is available online at http://www.zingmag.net and thought I would introduce you to the site by sharing excerpt from their lovely profile of Michael Anthony with you. (You can access the full text by clicking on the link below.)

He is one of our region’s most respected writers, and at 83 years old Dr Michael Anthony has no plans to lay down his pen down just yet…

“I’m going up to the wire,” author Dr Michael Anthony laughs heartily. “I have no plans for retiring. When I die I feel there will be something half-written, incomplete. I feel so because I won’t stop; not unless I’m physically incapable of writing.”

This attitude should come as no surprise from one of the Caribbean’s most prolific and respected writers.
Anthony, who is 83 and has penned 31 titles, may have called Trinidad’s capital Port of Spain home for nearly 40 years but his heart remains in the picturesque coastal village of his birth, Mayaro.
“I was always taken aback by Mayaro’s beauty – of the sea and the coconut trees, the broad white beach and Galeota Point in front of me,” he says dreamily casting himself back three-quarters of a century. “I sometimes think that if I hadn’t been born in Mayaro I might not have been a writer.”
The idyllic surroundings were inspirational for a young lad with a natural love of letters and a well-turned phrase. He was a precocious child and the abilities of ‘Sonny-boy’ (as he was known at home) soon became known locally.

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. . .
Anthony is seated in his Long Circular Road study, backed by shelves of books, and a broad smile breaks out across his face as he mimics the old lady’s dubious plea. The raucous call of kiskadees in the yard outside provides noisy accompaniment to the impromptu skit.

. . .

That world changed radically when, aged 11, the country boy was sent to spend 12 months in Trinidad’s second city, San Fernando.
“It was the first time I had seen electric lights and water in pipes.”
As homesick as he became, the experience would provide material for one of his most famous works, The Year in San Fernando. However poetry, not prose, was his first love and, with dreams of becoming a poet, he sent verse after earnest verse to the Trinidad Guardian for publication.
“Today when I go into the archives, looking at the old newspapers researching something else, I sometimes see my name on a corny poem,” he says pushing his spectacles back up onto the bridge of his nose. “It takes me back and I feel very nostalgic, as corny as they are.”
By the late 1940s,Anthony had also begun writing short stories, but life’s practicalities saw the young man studying at the San Fernando Junior Technical School for a career in Trinidad’s thriving oil industry.
“I was very unsuited for it, and the report on me as a young engineer was not so very flattering. I used to spend most of my time training for athletics.” A promising 100m sprinter, between the ages of 16 and 19 he competed at the nation’s Southern Games, coming third on two occasions. He trained with, and ran against, a man who remains to this day his best friend, Canute Thomas.
In 1953, Thomas gained a scholarship to England and the following year invited Anthony to join him. The 24-year-old accepted, arriving on 27 December, 1954, to gifts of a winter coat and a Remington typewriter.
“What a great friend. I am still very touched when I remember those acts of kindness.”
At the time, fellow countryman and future Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul was programme producer of the BBC’s Caribbean Voices radio show.
“I sent him four poems and a short story. His response was: ‘Michael Anthony, promise me you will never write another line of poetry. But your short stories have possibilities and I would encourage you to keep on’.”
Anthony is a charming man and easy company. The flecks of grey hair which frame his ears add to a kindly, avuncular bearing. A natural storyteller, his recollections are sharp and he pokes fun at himself with endearing regularity, taking delight in his old mistakes.
Caribbean Voices was taken off air in 1958 and Anthony turned to the publisher Hutchinson’s programme for new writers. However a first version of The Year in San Fernando was dismissed by editor Raleigh Trevelyan as autobiography.
“I agreed with him, so I threw that away and wrote The Games Were Coming.”
Based on the anticipatory fervour felt leading up to the Southern Games, the book was a triumph, and he followed it with a rewrite of The Year in San Fernando in 1965 and then, in 1967, his most successful fictional work to date Green Days by the River.
His career may have been launched, but England was not agreeing with Anthony’s health. He contracted tuberculosis and meningitis and altogether spent four years, across three spells, in British hospitals.
Anthony had married Yvette Phillip in 1959 and by the late 1960s they had three children. For a while it looked as though they would lose their father.
“The doctor told my wife that we should ‘settle up everything in England, because by the look of things Michael won’t make it’.”
He did make it, but a change of climate was needed and the Anthony family spent the next two years in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where Michael taught English and worked at the Trinidad and Tobago Embassy. Returning to Trinidad in 1970 he worked briefly at the Guardian, and then for Texaco producing an in-house journal, before landing his dream job at the National Cultural Council. Despite some naive pay negotiations, he was to spend 16 happy years there.
“I was asked how much I wanted. Well I was so glad to be leaving Pointe-a-Pierre (Texaco) I said, ‘I want how much you’re prepared to give me. Anything you offer me I’ll take.’ That was a mistake!”
Mistake or not, the position as a writer of cultural matters led to many important works chronicling Trinidad and Tobago’s social, political and urban history. He ‘retired’ at the age of 58 in 1988, to concentrate on other projects.
“I thought, if I don’t retire now I’ll never be able to do the things I want to do, like the Carnival book.”
The octogenarian author is referring to The Carnivals of Trinidad and Tobago: From Inception to Year 2000, an enormous undertaking that he sums up with characteristic humility.
“I felt it would make informative reading to go through and see how carnival has changed.”
With his trademark simplicity of style he does just that, reducing a mountain of data into an engaging journey through the history of an event synonymous with Trinidad and Tobago.
“I feel as if I’ve done something with that book,” he finally allows himself.
It’s a subject about which he’s passionate. Anthony, who received an honorary doctorate from the University of the West Indies (UWI) in 2003, talks with energy and enthusiasm about carnivals of yesteryear and laments the passing of its best days.
“Carnival has had its high point. I think the best days were just before the Second World War. What I loved about those days was that the bands told stories. There was a reason for them being put together. Often they would stop in the judging area and depict a scene or event. That doesn’t happen now.
“I remember seeing a band called The Loss of El Dorado in 1971. I was in the grandstand and I thought, let’s see what happened, what was the loss of El Dorado? Well nothing happened. They just jumped across the stage, dancing and whining.”
The veteran author survived a horrific car crash in 2009 when, exhausted from an overseas promotional tour, he fell asleep at the wheel on his way to Mayaro. He ploughed into a coconut tree, injuring his left leg so badly it was feared he would not walk again.
Happily, he is now almost completely recovered and working on another book of fiction. Coy about the content, he reveals only that it is based on an event in recent history and explores themes of honesty and dishonesty arising from situations of hardship.
His favourite book remains All That Glitters, which is set in his beloved Mayaro – a work which features many characters who played a part in that village’s life many years ago. It is a technique – the use of characters, events and scenes based on real life – which features heavily in Anthony’s fiction.
“People feel fiction is all made up, but it’s not necessarily that. I’ve known writers go overboard and invent a city and put people in it. Why invent a city when one exists already? I don’t have to invent Mayaro, Mayaro exists. So I use Mayaro.”
Mayaro is never far from the thoughts of this father of four and grandfather of six. He describes himself as “a friend of Mayaro” and retains many of his own in the holiday destination where he has two houses.
Anthony has the air of a contented man and, though he has spent many years abroad, he says there is no place like home.
“I believe the Caribbean has retained some of its innocence and it’s a lovely place to be. We don’t have the pressures of certain big countries. When I look at the news and see all this unrest in Syria, Jordan, Israel – we don’t have that here. I think we do very well really, nothing to complain about, and frankly I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
Venturing deeper into his ninth decade, this humble man says he has truly never thought about how he would like to be remembered. When pressed, he smiles gently and responds in typical fashion for a man whose life has been characterised by understated industry, endeavour and achievement.
“I just hope that people would say, ‘he wrote some useful things’.”

Michael’s advice for aspiring writers
1 Never give up. Don’t get disheartened or disillusioned by rejected manuscripts. That is not the way to succeed.
2 Be prepared to serve an apprenticeship. Not everything you write is going to be a gem. Writing is a craft and must be learned.
3 Find your own voice. Don’t think ‘Hemingway would’ve said this’, or ‘Greene would’ve said this’. What would you say? There is only one of you and you must tell your story.
4 Write. It’s the habit of writing that moulds your style.
5 Don’t try to impress with ‘big’ English. Write as simply as possible. Your main objective is to be clear. Don’t use words which become obstacles in the way.

For the original report go to http://www.zingmag.net/index.php/Current-Features/This-charming-man.html

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