Notes from a small island
A weblog by Jonathan Ali

Monday, March 26, 2007  

The Best accident

Considering the importance that Lloyd Best placed on accidents happening in his life, it gives me a wry sort of pleasure to note that that's exactly how I came to know him: quite by accident.

This was just about six short years ago, a time of much difficulty and uncertainty in my life. I had, in the preceding few years, made two aborted attempts to obtain a university degree, the first one abroad, the second one here. Then a number of things happened, in quick succession: great personal loss, serious illness, a period of recovery. I got a job, began to earn a living and sought to establish some type of stability to my existence, to carefully feel my way in the world. This was not enough, though. I had become too self-aware, was too curious, and couldn't help myself from seeing things around me with a critical eye. I couldn't simply continue along the conventional path, yet I could see no other road.

Then a friend of mine was commissioned by the T&T Review to write a piece, a theatre review, but because of other pressing matters was unable to do it. I had seen the play in question--a production of The Tempest, put on by an English theatre company--and my friend asked me if I'd be willing to write the review. I had never heard of the T&T Review. Like everyone else I knew who Lloyd Best was, but beyond some vague knowledge of the exploits of Tapia and the fact that he wrote a column in the newspaper I knew little of the man.

But this was a chance to write, an opportunity to express my opinion on something that was going on here, to be a part of the discourse. The review was written--in retrospect a somewhat diffident piece--and submitted. Up to this point I had had no contact with Lloyd or anyone at the Review, had no idea if what I wrote would be considered worthy enough to appear in print.

This is exactly what happened, however, and soon after I had a call from Earl Best, Lloyd's brother and the Review's then copy editor, saying that they had a cheque for me, and would I be willing to be a regular critic for the paper? Over the next few months I wrote a number of reviews, at first on theatre, then on books, my confidence perceptibly growing. I was still to meet Lloyd, and didn't believe that I would, thinking that as just one of many contributors to the Review, an unlettered upstart of a youth-man at that, he couldn't possibly have time for me.

Then one day Earl called to say Lloyd wanted to meet me, and I made the first of my many trips to 91 Tunapuna Road. There, in the verandah, looking out over that yard of mango trees, we talked. Lloyd showed a genuine interest in what I thought, in my background and my experiences. And the anxiety I had felt over the aberration of my university career was almost wiped away when, having told Lloyd I had never completed my degree at St. Augustine, he remarked, "That isn't surprising. That place is a morgue."

This, I was to learn, was characteristic of the man. He said what he thought, and expected you to do the same. It almost didn't matter what your opinion was, but you were required to have one. And he never spoke down to you, or acted as if his vast store of accumulated knowledge and wisdom was all there was, and that all you were supposed to do was listen and learn. He didn't lecture, and he listened as much as he talked.

Over time I got to learn that Lloyd's initial interest in me was not fleeting. Occasionally he would call to find out how I was, what I was working on, what I thought of some issue or the other: the increasingly absurd politics, the situation in Haiti, cricket. It amazes me still that he cared enough to make these calls, and could find the time to do so.

Lloyd was never a man for boasting (except, perhaps, when the proud papa was speaking of his children) but one thing that gave him much satisfaction to note was the longevity of the Review, the longest-running paper of its kind in the region. He had great plans for it, and I feel honoured to say that he wanted me to play a key role in making the arts and literature section--the most vital part of the paper, he never hesitated to say--truly vibrant.

Things being what they are, that was not to be. And the time came when I stopped being a regular contributor to the Review. I was still in touch with Lloyd; still saw him now and then. I knew he was ill, and I always felt a stab of guilt when he would ask, "When are you going to start writing for us again?"

(And, of course, things being what they are, when I agreed some months ago to write for the paper again, and went to Tunapuna to pick up the book I was review, Lloyd was resting and I did not get to see him. I never saw him again.)

Yet the intervention that Lloyd made in my life, brief as it may have been, has had, and will continue to have, an effect that will last as long as this body is mine. I have an almost pathological aversion to ideology of any sort, so while I will probably never call myself a Bestian--and if I knew Lloyd at all, he would have probably said I was damn right--so much of how I think about and see, in particular my immediate Trinidadian reality, and also my larger Caribbean one, is indelibly coloured by him.

So many of Lloyd's concepts have become essential to my way of being. Finding out. Getting to grips. Taking the long view. It was Lloyd who helped me to see the difference between an academic and an intellectual; that you didn't have to be the former to be the latter, and that being the former didn't necessarily make you the latter. It was Lloyd who impressed upon me that talk--real talk, critical, informed discourse--was in its way a form of action. And it was Lloyd who posed the essential question, the question we must continually ask if we are to genuinely make anything of ourselves, and to which I continually seek to address myself: How does a culture escape itself?

Lloyd's cheerfulness and optimism, even when he was moved to say--as he often did--that this was a frightening place, always intrigued me, and the last time I visited with him, I got, perhaps, a clue as to how he was able to remain, over the years, so sanguine in the face of such bleak odds. I forget the exact topic under discussion, but I must have said something about how hopeless I felt, because Lloyd then said to me (and I am recalling poorly from memory now) that there was no inevitability about us here in the Caribbean producing a civilisation, that, despite our best efforts, we could simply and randomly be wiped off the map, and disappear into that grey vault, the sea.

A typically contentious Best view, of course: that our existence as a Caribbean people, which began with an accidental encounter with a rapacious Italian mariner five hundred years ago, could just as easily end without us ever realising our full, enormous potential. But Lloyd was a man who placed much store by accidents. Meeting him was the best accident of my life, and I shall miss him dearly.

posted by Jonathan | 2:38 PM 1 comments


Hey Jonathan, thanks a lot for sharing that. Considering how swollen-headed people get nowadays, Mr. Best sounded like he was a lot more down-to-earth than I would have thought.

Lucky you to get to spend some time with him and get to know him.

By Blogger Mani, at 9:33 AM  

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