Something excruciatingly embarrassing happened the other day in the bookshop.
It was well into the evening and the shop was almost empty when an old man shuffled his way in, announcing his arrival by means of a loud hacking cough. The cough was so bad that I was nervous of catching TB if I got too close. I tried to appear willing to help (albeit from a distance) but the old man completely ignored me and began to paw pondersously at some books, evidently happy to be left alone to browse. And cough.
Eventually he staggered his way further into the shop and at that moment another customer appeared, asking for some help. Ten minutes or so later, I looked around and saw that the old man was sitting down on a chair, not reading, just staring into space.
Oh no, I thought, it’s half an hour before we close and a tramp has taken up residence. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind tramps at all. I think the only reason we’re not really supposed to have tramps in the shop is because other customers have been known to complain. But, as I mentioned, the shop was almost empty, so he wasn’t disturbing anyone else. I was just nervous that he might refuse to leave when it was time to lock up.
I decided not to worry about it, and that I’d ask my colleague what to do when she reappeared – she’d been off helping a customer downstairs for quite some time.
At that moment, my colleague skipped up to me, out-of-breath, in a flap, rather stressed out. ‘Oh my god, Derek Walcott’s here and I can’t find any of his poetry.’
‘Derek Walcott? Wow, I love Derek Walcott. How amazing! Where is he? Have you been helping him downstairs?’
‘No, he’s just over there, sitting down. These two women who are friends of his have been asking me to find his books.’
Yes, you have deduced correctly. I thought the Nobel-Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott was a tramp.
In my defence, I’d like to point out that I never recognise anyone famous. The other day someone had to tell me I’d just been serving Orlando Bloom. (I’d assumed he was just a rather cocky, handsome chap, who had more money than sense, grabbing twenty expensive hardbacks off the shelf in about five minutes flat.) And, I suppose, writers are particularly hard to recognise because often one knows their work better than their face. Still, I remain suitably humiliated and embarrassed by the mistake.
Perhaps it was an attempt to make amends, more likely just curiosity, but I did some hunting around the internet to find out a bit more about Derek Walcott, who, other than seeming like a tuberculosised tramp, really didn’t come across as particularly charming. For instance, when I told him we’d sold so many copies of his new collection White Egrets that we’d completely run out, he just grunted at me. Yes, grunted.
I discovered there is a rather ungentlemanly snipey rivalry between Derek Walcott and V.S. Naipaul. This erupted particularly viciously when Walcott recited a poem called ‘The Mongoose’ a couple of years ago. The poem begins, ‘I have been bitten, I must avoid infection/Or else I’ll be as dead as Naipaul’s fiction’ and continues in this vein.
The poem is, journalists concluded, Walcott’s revenge for a rather backhanded article that Naipaul wrote about him in the Guardian, in which Naipaul praised his very early work, implying that his later work wasn’t really up to much.
I also read another poem from Walcott’s collection White Egrets, published on the Guardian website (so I don’t feel quite as nervous about copyright infringement by reprinting it here):
This page is a cloud between whose fraying edges
a headland with mountains appears brokenly
then is hidden again until what emerges
from the now cloudless blue is the grooved sea
and the whole self-naming island, its ochre verges,
its shadow-plunged valleys and a coiled road
threading the fishing villages, the white, silent surges
of combers along the coast, where a line of gulls has arrowed
into the widening harbour of a town with no noise,
its streets growing closer like a print you can now read,
two cruise ships, schooners, a tug, ancestral canoes,
as a cloud slowly covers the page and it goes
white again and the book comes to a close.
Perhaps it was because Naipaul was in my mind after learning about the Mongoose debacle, but the poem immediately brought to mind a moment from his book The Enigma of Arrival. I’m sure neither Walcott nor Naipaul would be thrilled about the connection.
About a third of the way through Naipaul’s book, the narrator – a writer from Trinidad, who’s moved to Wiltshire – remembers when he first left the Caribbean several years ago. He describes the view from the aeroplane window and notices the transformation from what is seen from the ground:
At ground level so poor to me, so messy, so full of huts and gutters and bare front yards and straggly hibiscus hedges and shabby back yards: views from the roadside. From the air, though, a landscape of logic and larger pattern: the straight lines and regularity and woven, carpet-like texture of sugar-cane fields, so extensive from up there, leaving so little room for people, except at the very edges; the large unknown area of swampland, curiously still, the clumps of mangrove and brilliant-green swamp trees casting black shadows on the milky-green water; the forested peaks and dips and valleys of the mountain range; a landscape of clear pattern and contours, absorbing all the roadside messiness …
Surely the effect is similar to Walcott’s ‘headland with mountains … ochre verges … shadow-plunged valleys and a coiled road’?
Of course a vital difference is that Naipaul’s narrator sees the island at his moment of departure, of taking off, of leaving a landscape of childhood behind. Walcott’s is an image of arrival, of landing, of the ‘streets growing closer’ rather than further away.
But Naipaul also describes an arrival in the Caribbean. This is right at the end of the book, when the narrator returns to Trinidad and describes the changes wrought on the landscape:
Where there had been swamp at the foot of the Northern Range, with mud huts with earthen walls that showed the damp half-way up, there was now a landscape of Holland: acres upon acres of vegetable plots, the ridges and furrows and irrigation canals straight … No narrow roads; no dark, overhanging trees; no huts; no earth yards with hibiscus hedges … But highways and clover-shaped exits and direction boards: a wooded land laid bare, its secrets opened up.
The romantic, nostalgic ‘roadside messiness’ of his childhood Trinidad has been erased; ‘hibiscus hedges’ and ‘shabby back yards’ have been replaced with clean ‘straight’ irrigation canals and highways. The narrator has seen Trinidad as ‘a landscape of clear patterns and contours’ before, when he first left the island, when looking down from the aeroplane. But when he arrives, the change in perspective is brought about by time rather than point of view. And what makes the arrival so tragic, so hopelessly nostalgic, is that it should be a return, a going back to the initial point of view of roadside shabbiness. The narrator has landed in Trinidad, but he can’t regain that initial perspective of his childhood. As he says: ‘we couldn’t go back. There was no ship of antique shape now to take us back.’
So there is nothing really particularly enigmatic about the arrival back in the Caribbean in Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival. The Caribbean landscape has been transformed irrevocably into something new – into ‘a landscape of Holland’ – and all that is left of the messy romance of the old is nostalgia.
Ironically, it is Walcott’s image of arrival that is more mysterious. He links old and new together. The road in his poem isn’t a brutal ‘highway’ with ‘clover-shaped exits and direction boards’, it is ‘a coiled road/threading the fishing villages’, seemingly organic, vital, part of the island’s indigenous way of life. The island is ‘self-naming’, retaining its own identity and its ‘shadow-plunged valleys’, rather than being like ‘Holland’ and ‘laid bare’, like Naipaul’s island.
And whereas Naipaul states, ‘There was no ship of antique shape now to take us back’, Walcott describes boats from all eras: there are ‘ancestral canoes’ sitting alongside modern ‘cruise ships’, seventeenth-century ‘schooners’ and ‘a tug’.
Walcott’s poem transcends time, binding old and new together in a beautiful image of hopeful synthesis – even if it’s only a momentary glimpse, in between the clouds. But for Naipaul, the present has erased the past, and, sadly, I can’t see Walcott lending him one of his ‘ancestral canoes’.