Selby Wooding, QC, loved family and good food

Ian L Benjamin’s eulogy of Selby Wooding, QC, who died on October 12, from Trinidad and Tobago’s Newsday.

Selby Wooding was not just a particularly literate and well-read man; he was a sensitive reader of literature.

Selby was a few years ahead of Vidia Naipaul at Queen’s Royal College, where their friendship began; they remained on warm terms for the next seven decades. He appreciated that Naipaul came from a family of writers – father, brother and sisters.

In literary terms 1992 was an annus mirabilis for Selby. First, in that year, only Selby could have prevailed upon VS Naipaul to deliver, at the Central Bank, a lecture under the auspices of the Beryl McBurnie Foundation for the Arts. It did not hurt, I am sure, that William Demas, then governor of the bank, was a QRC old boy and classmate of Naipaul.

Then on October 8, 1992 the Swedish Academy announced that the Nobel Prize in literature had been awarded to Derek Walcott. What the academy said about Walcott applied equally to Selby: “It is the complexity of his own situation that has provided one of the most fruitful sources of inspiration. Three loyalties are central for him – the Caribbean where he lives, the English language, and his African origin.”

Selby was ecstatic. He was fond of Margaret Walcott too, and adored their daughters, Lizzie and Anna. Selby’s wit made Derek and Margaret laugh, and according to them none could match Selby for elegance of language.

Now he was very pleased when eight years later his QRC confrere finally got the nod from the academy. Selby deeply admired Naipaul’s use of language. Yes, he was pleased and proud – but he was not ecstatic

Like both his father and his mother, Selby was a dedicated patron of the arts. Sir Hugh had served as chairman of the Little Carib Theatre from 1948-1962. He helped to establish and provided advice to the first permanent folk dance theatre in TT, which had been founded by Beryl McBurnie.

In his turn Selby was a regular attendee at the Little Carib Theatre, at Art Society gatherings and gallery openings. Selby was the chairman of the Beryl McBurnie Foundation for the Arts, with worthy denizens like Emile Elias, Prof Selwyn Ryan and Joseph Fernandes. His support went back to 1980 and only came to a close in 2015.

Selby supported scholarships and travel opportunities. He served on the board of Queen’s Hall for a decade. Selby was a constant friend and booster of the arts and artists. He enjoyed the company of artists immensely and respected. He was a trustee of the Art Society. Amy Leong Pang was an artist from South Trinidad who led the Society of Trinidad Independents and fostered a spirit of creativity, defining what Trinidadian art would look like. Selby was very responsive to that impulse and became close friends with a number of younger artists whom Leong Pang influenced heavily, such as Sybil Atteck, Carlisle Chang, Boscoe Holder and Noel Vaucrosson.

Selby’s affinity for art meant that he had a private collection of paintings and sculptures that was worthy of note and reflected these affections. At one stage he ensured that he had a piece of work by almost every major artist of TT. He even exhibited that collection for the purpose at the home of the Art Society. According to Lennox Joseph, Selby believed that “art” was a communal resource belonging to TT and was willing to sell, trade and pass on his art objects to others as he aged, insisting that art is a “public good” and for the joy and pleasure of humanity.

Selby returned to playing Carnival in his middle years, because of the excitement of mas, to experience a part of Trinidad that he always admired but had never truly entered. I understand that was in 1976, with Peter Minshall — who took over from Carlisle Chang to design for veteran bandleaders Stephen and Elsie Lee Heung.

Selby was also a collector of mementoes – pictures, brochures, programmes. His closeness to the artists, such as Carlisle Chang, meant that he became the repository of such items.

Selby worked alongside Carlisle Harris and the Trinidad Art Society in hosting a mural competition for the Central Bank art collection. His friendship with MOMA curator and QRC alum Kynaston McShine led to the latter’s chairing the final judging of the competition – Willi Chen beat out Peter Minshall to win the invitation-only competition.

According to artist Ken Crichlow, Selby’s cultural involvement and support held a deep resonance. Selby, with Chang, Vaucrosson and Boscoe Holder as artists, and the Hoytes, the Bynoes, Georgina Masson and many other patrons, grounded him and coloured the way he thought about art and artists. In short, Selby and his cohort influenced Crichlow to see artists in Trinidad as a special group with an image of ourselves beyond their talent and technical ability, and to add to that, a sensibility of Trinidad and Tobago as a unique place; all artists had to do was to explain to the rest of the world who we are.

Selby led these artists to reckon with their own indigenous sophistication; and he had this notion even before Independence. His enduring gift was always to envisage Trinidad as a whole and unique place and ask the artist to marry artistic gift to that sensibility.

Selby had bright epicurean moments – ask any significant restaurateur in and around Port of Spain. I am told he enjoyed sour apple martinis at Chaud restaurant, rack of lamb at Buzo, crabmeat-topped mushrooms wherever he could find them, and always a good drink or fine wine. But he also had abstemious Franciscan moments as well, as friends knew his penchant for gorgonzola and Crix.

Selby the private man loved family gatherings that went on for hours and had to have good food, good red wine and even better company and conversation. In these convivial and communal moments, Selby advised, guided and mentored the next generation teaching, informing, and challenging them to look beyond the narrow-bounded space they created of their lives and his beloved TT. Younger members of the family were ushered from the kiddie table to the grown-up. He would pen a note or a letter to let a nephew or niece know they had crossed into adulthood, and express pride and enthusiasm for their career and family endeavours.

At other times Selby was a gentle, considerate and meticulous writer of the most succinct and sensitive notes on the deaths of the relatives of and those close to his friends. To his family, friends and close associates he offered a comforting shoulder and was a keeper of sensitive secrets; to others a stern voice or reprisal.

To everybody he was a boundary-holder on the ethics of differentiating right and wrong – doing the right thing, in the right way, at the right time.

Selby first discovered his prostate cancer back in 1997 and got his treatment in privacy and secrecy. His oncologist repeatedly said that cancer was not going to kill Selby. His own fragilities prompted in him a willingness to provide consideration to the ill and disabled, comfort to the grieving and moral support and encouragement to those fighting for equity.

I have no doubt that he struggled with demons that he felt were his alone. Selby was a proud, self-contained man. Selby, as we all will do and have done, had his dark moments. But the mask of darkness never extinguished within him the light of love and loyalty.

For as long as he could he sought to live independently with resilience, courage, and stubbornness. At the very end he needed nursing help, and that was ably and lovingly provided by Gillian, Christene and Laura.

Selby, then, was a progressive before that became fashionable. He lived his life fully. I admired without reservation his ability to walk off the stage when he judged the moment right to do so. I shall miss him deeply.

But my gratitude is for his warm and unstinting friendship, which I shared with his nephew and nieces, colleagues and friends and confidants like Lennox Joseph, deeply loved colleagues Russell and Ynolde Martineau, Courtenay Williams and Colin Kangaloo.

His gift to us was to live his life as best he could, as graciously as he could, always seeking the best, and utterly without cynicism.

Go and do the same.

May he rest in peace.

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