PLAIN TALK is bad manners, as every Trini knows, so I declare, rudely, but right up front, that the headline above should probably be: “Denis (and a little bit about Denyse).”
This is not to diss the calypso queen, who, like the linguist, writer and thinker Denis Solomon, died this week, only to locate Denis properly in his influence over me.
I loved Denyse Plummer’s singing as much as the next culture vulture, but Denis Solomon was belligerent – and kind – enough to wag his finger in my face when I needed it most, and there are precious few people in the Limer’s Republic who can and will do you that favour. Repeatedly.
Denis and I were columnists at the same paper at least twice, to my recollection (which, admittedly, is probably less reliable than Donald Trump’s assessment of his “perfect” phone calls), neighbours in the old cocoa-estate residential development of Fondes Amandes and founder members of the TT Humanists together, and always got along well. He read everything I wrote critically, because, I think, he expected better of me than most, and contributed to making me better than most in fact by his criticism; the harsher it was, the more well-founded it was, and the more I benefited from it. After, eg, I wrote that someone had not “shuffled off” but “departed” this mortal coil, from across the page spread of the then journalist-owned weekly Independent, he warned me not to “firetruck with Shakespeare.”
And I owed him even more personally than professionally.
As an agnostic, I refused to baptise my children (who are now adult douens), but, after weeks of combined cajolements/threats, just to get a little peace, I agreed to let my son’s Catholic grandmothers take him to the font at St Ann’s Church. Denis heard about it on the Fondes Amandes grapevine and rang me.
“You must have the courage of your convictions,” he shouted down the landline, “and refuse to take part in what you know is a barbaric ritual.”
He was right, of course, both in principle and pragmatically: if I’d allowed the supposedly miraculous baptism, the grandmothers would parlay it into first communion, confirmation, perhaps priesthood. They retreated, routed, and never rallied for a second round.
I had no way of knowing then that protecting my children from an approved cult would leave them where they are today: fixedly rational people in a world determined to spread irrationality far and wide. But for Denis, I think I would feel today that I had failed my children just when they needed me most.
Not that I didn’t end up feeling that way anyway; perhaps if Denis, or someone with his good heart and piercing intellect, had intervened more often, I’d have been a better parent all round, but, regarding blind faith and the aggressive support of impossible causes, like Trump or Brexit, I think I did right by my children; with a massive assist from Denis Solomon.
On top of all else, I still laugh today over a column he wrote 20-plus years ago about his two great achievements as a teacher: 1. He explained parallax – the apparent relative movement of a fixed object due to a movement on the part of the observer – to a Jamaican Rastaman, who kept walking back and forth past a lamppost, staring at a fat full moon. (’Im a move! said the Rasta. No, explained Denis, YOU a move!); and 2. he taught a group of tiny, mischievous schoolchildren in Trinidad that the word firetruck is spelled with a u and not an o.
For all Denyse gave me, she couldn’t compete with Denis’s real-world benefits or belly laughs. I knew her husband better, having been at the same school, and her brother-in-law even better, having been in form five together. Any personal loss I feel is through them, though she and I do have the undeniable connection of having been transformed into human skeletons by cancer. And that’s as substantial as it is negative.
TT is lessened far more by their subtraction than by a mere minus-two. Snippets of Denis’s linguistic and writing brilliance won’t play on every radio station this week – not even Denyse can be sure of that – but I will carry them in my heart and mind until I myself shuffle off this mortal coil.
BC Pires has a broad love of humanity but in practice can tolerate only a few individuals