What Would Walcott Do?

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An Op-Ed piece by Claudia Eleibox for St. Lucia’s Star.

While standing outside the Cathedral with my mother and a dear friend (a past student of Derek Walcott), waiting patiently for our ride, a man approached us. He had on seriously threadbare jeans and one worn-out shoe. From about four feet away, he asked my mother if my friend and I were her daughters. Then he turned his attention to my friend and me. My mother had always taught us not to judge people by their clothes. We exchanged pleasantries. It was when we informed him that we had just attended Sir Derek Walcott’s state funeral that the presumed gentleman underwent a shocking personality sea change right before our startled eyes.

Announcement of the sad occasion seemed magically to turn him into a horror movie zombie. Suddenly it was as if a dam had busted inside him, unleashing a tsunami of Kwéyòl expletives, more than a few touching on female bodyparts. Yes, right outside God’s house.

“If wasn’t for Walcott we wouldn’t have no Pitons,” he said. “You know that, my lady? Walcott had to tell Compton to haul his backside when they try to give him an award. Walcott say they have to leave his Pitons alone!” Barely pausing to catch his breath, he ranted away while his body shook with anger. “Sir Arthur Lewis have a school,” he fumed. Pointing to his right, he asked: “What they give Walcott? That ole square? If it wasn’t for him Saint Lucia wouldn’t even have tourism because we wouldn’t have Pitons to show off!”

He continued to scream about the perceived disservice to Derek Walcott, every other word punctuated with unspeakable Kwéyòl obscenities. As I watched him hop-and-drop his way up Micoud Street, I offered a silent prayer of thanks. Meanwhile I was thinking: “Mate must be mad!” Why else would he have chosen this particular moment of unbearable sadness, when the nation was saying its final good-byes to the last of its two Nobel winners, to spew such poison into the atmosphere?”   

It was only while perusing some archived editions of this newspaper I realized that while the man I had encountered outside the Castries cathedral may have been crazy, the greater truth is that he was actually “crazy like a fox”. In other words, he may have sounded off his rocker but  this particular crazy man knew precisely what he was talking about, expletive-ridden exaggerations notwithstanding.

Consider this STAR headline of May 26, 1990: Walcott to Compton: Keep Your Awards… Lay Off the Pitons! The story by Rick Wayne centred on information not yet officially validated, that a foreign developer had received from the day’s government approval in principle in relation to a project that included blowing off the top of Gros Piton. That possibility was enough to cause widespread negative reaction, enough to attract the attention of Los Angeles-based Derek Walcott, then two years away from receiving the Nobel award for Omeros and other contributions to literature. In articles exclusive to the STAR, Walcott let it be known that the planned desecration of Saint Lucia’s Pitons (now a heritage site) would materialize only over his dead body. The day’s prime minister finally was forced to address the problem. In effect he said he wished his “friend Derek”, instead of protesting publicly, had called him to discuss his concerns privately. Compton declared the published story invalid (never mind that the writer had published evidence to the contrary). Walcott was unimpressed. He publicly chastised the prime minister for reacting only after plans relating to the Piton decapitation had been made public, with telling effect.

The Piton story of 26 May 1990 brought home to me the fact that there’s nothing new under the Saint Lucia sun. Only this time around the focus is on Pigeon Point, the proposed site of a dolphin park.

Last Thursday the current prime minister was the featured guest on Rick Wayne’s TALK. The night’s topic centred on the controversial Desert Star Holdings project. The previous evening the prime minister, members of his Cabinet and leading residents in the island’s south took to a makeshift stage to inform a cheering crowd about the government’s plan to rid Vieux Fort of its ghetto image and turn the south into “the pearl of the Caribbean”.

Meanwhile things are far from cordial between the government and the National Trust, the main reason being their differences over establishing a dolphinarium in the vicinity of Pigeon Point. As the writer of the Piton story likes to say: “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” Soon enough we shall see how appropriate to the current circumstances is the quoted line by George Santayana!

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