This Is Your Life was a form of popular biography or life-storytelling. Originally a US radio documentary series that started in 1955, it became a weekly British TV show that over 55 years, on and off, presented a well-known subject with the abridged story of his/her life. It was such a popular way of getting a behind-the-scenes view of another person’s life that not only did the programme move between rival British TV channels, each one reviving and broadcasting it for years in turn, but the Aussie and New Zealand TV networks also copied the format.
Maybe the programme exists in non-English parts of the world too. There is something, obviously, that makes the lives of others fascinating to all of us and is making biography the fastest-growing book category.
I was reminded of the TV series on Wednesday when I attended the launch at UWI, St Augustine, of Selwyn Ryan’s latest book – a memoir entitled Ryan Recalls – not because of the potential for upset but for being quite the opposite.
In the TV show a special guest is surprised by the contents of a red book that reveals events of his/her life and the people present in it, some of whom would appear on the set and tell stories about the subject or, more accurately, “the victim.” It always had the potential to be deeply embarrassing, which is why the show drew huge audiences.
In contrast, leading social scientist Professor Emeritus Ryan, or long-time newspaper columnist simply known as Selwyn Ryan, sat in the audience whilst the well-curated programme of readings, speeches, a review and thanksgiving moved smoothly along. There were no unwelcome surprises, not even in the mixture of guests from both sides of the tribal TT political divide, nearly all of whom share an academic background at UWI with the author, from Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley to Dr Winston Dookeran, Dr Bhoe Tewarie and Dr Tim Gopeesingh. The happy surprises are to be found in the 446-page autobiographical text, which recollects Ryan’s engagement with the world during a long and highly productive working life that includes the authorship of 25 books, on mainly political topics.
The biography genre, including autobiography is a tricky one. Sir HOB Wooding, the illustrious legal mind, raised the basic issue of objectivity in memoir-writing, and it is something that Selwyn Ryan had to come to terms with when deciding, contrary to a previous determination, to put pen to paper (literally).
What does one leave out? How to deal with the unacknowledged parts of one’s life? How to balance the personal with the big, lifetime intellectual preoccupations?
Ryan gets around some of this by including an entire closing chapter of photographs entitled Memories Are Made of This and by dotting a healthy collection of other relevant images of correspondence, newspaper articles and book reviews throughout the chapters into an unusual collage. These photographs and documents speak louder than his own words and provide a useful insight into the author’s life.
As for the difficult personal matters, his chapter on the early years reasons that his father was mainly absent from the home because his mother “was a quarrelsome nag.” On the prickly issue of male dalliance and the failure of his first marriage, he sort of puts his hand up, “...(we) were quarrelling incessantly and I found myself being tempted to date others. I do not, however, remember philandering a great deal though I cannot swear that I was chaste at all.”
Apart from the personal, the text deals with issues of moment, such as the Black Power Movement and the expulsion of Indians from Uganda, where Ryan taught. The chapter Reflections collects his essays on polling, governance and constitutional reform. The rise of gang culture wins a separate chapter.
As in the most satisfying biographies, the interweaving of the life of the subject with history as we know it walks us back through time, fascinating us by adding an insider view of landmark events and bringing new understanding.
Slight irritants, such as abundant misspellings, random punctuation, poor orthography and inadequate editing, suggest that Ryan Recalls was quickly assembled, and the author, who mentions his degenerative illness, would have pushed himself.
The good-natured launch event also celebrated the Selwyn Ryan archive being added to the University of the West Indies’ West Indiana collection, which already includes the papers of Dr Eric Williams, CLR James, Derek Walcott, Sir Solomon Hochoy, Dr Winston Mahabir and Kathleen Warner (Aunty Kay of radio fame), to name a few.
In her short welcome, dean of the UWI law faculty and acting principal Rose Marie Antoine encouraged the audience to consider the value of autobiography, and with good reason. Looking around the room, TT’s modern history would be almost completely covered if a quarter of those present could be persuaded to see that how they came to play their part in shaping this country, economy, politics and society is of great importance for continuing to build our future.