OWEN Baptiste, who passed away last week, was not my friend at any point, but at a formative point in my earliest efforts as a journalist, he was a mentor.
To be clear, I wanted to be published in People, the lifestyle publication he produced for decades, so very badly that I offered up my first effort as a teenager when Inprint was still in a walk-up behind Semp Records on Mucurapo Road.
I failed to get into the glossy publication which sparkled as a local product alongside international publications on the magazine racks at Hi-Lo grocery stores.
I finally got a chance to sell a story when the Jacksons visited TT in 1978 and managed to worm my way into the Martineau brothers’ orbit via my cousin, Alfred Aguiton, whose new agency, Ample, was handling the publicity for the event.
The result was a multi-page story in the April 1978 issue of the magazine, photos on the cover and a tentative relationship with Baptiste, as irascible and temperamental a journalist as any I’ve ever encountered.
For two years we went back and forth. I’d propose stories, many inspired by my doting on the immersive journalism of George Plimpton and Tom Wolfe, and he’d shoot them down, often summarily.
Surprisingly often, I’d get cover photos, long stories in the magazine, even longer conversations about the work – and then; eventually, it all collapsed.
At the time, I couldn’t quite understand it. I’d shot extensively and badly for a planned Christmas cover at the Baptiste home, spending time in the family’s pool with the models and generally being an unprepared diva and producing no usable photos, but that didn’t break us.
Years later, I realised the breaking point came after Baptiste offered me a job, and I declined. I never quite understood why, but the frost set in quickly and solidly after that.
We never quarrelled, but except for some published photos and a short-lived column I wrote for Willys Marshall, who was editing You magazine for Inprint, my time with Baptiste was over.
In my life, I’ve managed to accumulate two high-quality nemeses. Owen Baptiste was one, and after working testily with him on The Last Carnival, I counted Derek Walcott as the other. After he won his MacArthur Prize, I’d seen Walcott at an event and extended my hand to congratulate him. He slapped it away.
Years later, after falling out with the TT Guardian, I’d written to Baptiste asking about contributing to the Express. He never responded directly, but sent a message through his secretary, whom I’d been pestering, that there was “no need for me at the Express.”
The slapped hand was easier to take.
I went on to spend several years writing a rather wide-ranging column at the Catholic News under editor Fr Peter Nicholas. Curiously, when Baptiste left the Express in the 70s, he became editor there.
Having Baptiste and Walcott dismiss you sets a high bar for antagonists, though their largely passive ignoring of my presence wasn’t a warzone.
Their lofty benchmark ensured that I would never take lesser assaults very seriously. If a man is defined by his friends, he is sharpened by his enemies, and I found none who could reach that high-water mark, despite their best efforts.
I took many steps up to becoming a journalist, but there was no bigger or more demanding jump than the one that Owen Baptiste demanded of me at Inprint. When that era ended, the past was razed, but never forgotten. I remain grateful for that opportunity.
Mark Lyndersay is the editor of technewstt.com. An expanded version of this column can be found there.