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Tale from a Strange Land

Updated: Mar 26


Trinity College, Moka.

Today you can learn anything on the internet, and everyone uses it. Why, there are even millions of idiots worldwide who study online how to deepen their stupidity.


On the other side of the spectrum, online learning is clearly the most important mode of education by a vast margin. Which modern person with internet access has not searched Google or Wikipedia to learn something? Donald Trump perhaps, but surely no one else. I doubt there’s anyone under 90 who has never typed into You Tube: How to…?


In the 90s, all of a sudden, almost every newspaper, magazine or journal in the world was a click away. With the exception of learning to read my access to the world of knowledge was the most profound intellectual emancipation anyone could have experienced. I was Express features editor at the time and I gobbled knowledge and information like a starving man. I still do.


And yet I view as a terrible disaster the shift to online learning, growing over the years and now an imperative because of Covid-19. You see, the most important lessons I consciously learned as an adolescent and young adult were from the social interaction with my teachers and lecturers at Trinity College, Moka and UWI, Cave Hill.


Here I’m not talking about any particular subject, biology or constitutional law or whatever knowledge some unfortunate was tasked to decant into my head. Rather, from those teachers I absorbed the most important knowledge, that being the need to be true to the best of yourself.


For instance, it was entirely due to former Trinity College schoolmaster David Cowie, who died in 1996, that many years before at least one Spanish word managed to enter my impermeable schoolboy's skull there to remain lodged until this day. The word is "el calvo" and it means "the bald-headed man".


As that suggests, Mr Cowie possessed a neat, quite smooth sphere that reached to the back of his head, which provided us with considerable mirth. I recall some boy reflecting the sun with a shard of mirror so the light danced on the ceiling above Mr Cowie's head as if being reflected by it. We were almost falling off our chairs with laughter.

And yet, despite our cruelty and callowness, which were profound, and despite the unrelenting mischief-making we got up to in his class, I think most of us held a very real affection for Mr Cowie. We'd sensed that beneath a formality which bordered on the eccentric, was a gentleness and caring; that his anger at our vulgarity was contrived.


His task was to teach us the rudiments of Spanish while we were condemned to resisting it to the best of our abilities, but it was never without an affection very different from what we felt for other teachers, including those who tolerated our rowdiness.


Very early on I abandoned Spanish, the better to make a nuisance of myself. "Don't drop the subject boy, you'll regret it later," he said in the slow, ominous tone he used for dire warning. Of course I dropped it without a second’s thought. And although, many years after, I found myself having to sign up for Spanish evening classes, I never regretted dropping Spanish in school because that had allowed me, ironically, to become friends with the Spanish teacher. By the time I was in fifth form a handful of friends and I would occasionally drop into the Anstey House office where Mr Cowie was to be found, as often for a chat as for a practical joke.


Our conversation was mostly about books and it is with the deepest, deepest gratitude I recall how Mr Cowie nurtured my interest in Latin American literature by lending me books, two of which I did very reluctantly return to their owner, only to get copies as soon as I could (bookshops here were hopeless in those days). The books were Mario Vargas Llosa's Time of the Hero and Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.


It speaks volumes that I can still recall their original names: La Ciudad y Los Perros, and Cien Anos de Soledad – even though it goes without saying that I read them in translation. Marquez to this day remains my master.


I left school to careen through my ADHD life, occasionally touching base with Mr Cowie to talk books. I had all the idealism of youth and was pleased to discover that he'd been a socialist back in the day. He'd worked for an oil company after the war but got fired for attempting to unionise the clerical workers. Radicalism got you blackballed in those days, and I think it was that which prompted him to flee to England, where he acquired a university education, not in the law or medicine as all good colonials chose, but in languages.


A man's days are relative and as mine drifted amiably along, his raced away and all of a sudden he seemed very old. After retirement he grew increasingly house-bound. He withdrew from the sordidness he saw around him, not only in Trinidad but generally in the world– the celebration of greed that passed for economic theory, the barbarism in Africa, the collapse of socialism and the ideals were buried in the rubble.


He’d recommended Cervantes’ Don Quixote to me long before and without knowing why I felt a kinship with its main character. Mr Cowie was himself a tall, thin man and as the furrows on his forehead grew deeper he increasingly came to resemble the novel’s doleful knight.


This occurred to me after I'd lent him an essay on Quixote by Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican writer.

For all Quixote’s madness, Fuentes pointed out, his essence was revealed early on when he asks Sancho Panza to go to the village of El Toboso and inform the beautiful lady Dulcinea of how her knight honoured her with great deeds and sufferings.


But Sancho, who is quite familiar with El Toboso, never heard of any lady Dulcinea so Quixote explains that some know her as Aldonza Lorenzo. Sancho immediately bursts into gales of laughter. He knows her only too well, she is “common, strong as an ox, dirty, can bellow to the peasants from the church tower and be heard a league away… a good one at exchanging pleasantries and, in fact, a bit of a whore.”


Don Quixote and Sancho Panza by Pablo Picasso


Quixote’s response is a beautiful declaration of love. He is aware of who and what Aldonza is, but he loves her and everything else is irrelevant. “It is enough that I think and believe that Aldonza Lorenzo is beautiful and honest; the question of class is of no consequence…. I paint her in my imagination as I desire her… And let the world think what it wants.”

Fuentes explains: “In Don Quixote, the values of the age of chivalry acquire, through love, a democratic resonance; and the values of the democratic life acquire the resonance of nobility. Don Quixote refuses both the cruel power of the mighty and the herd instinct of the lowly… His conception of love and justice saves both the oppressors and the oppressed from an oppression that perverts both."


Quixote was published in 1605, the year before King Lear, the two great madmen of Western literature, six years before Erasmus published In Praise of Folly, the height of the brutal Counter-Reformation, when the reactionary Catholic church had just shut down Galileo’s work.


Mr Cowie died in 1996, the height of the nihilistic nineties, an era of greed and venality established by Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher. He was sad but never disillusioned, like Quixote, who taught us to embrace our idealism, even at the cost of being considered a madman. That same year the mighty poet David Rudder sang:


“It was a chant of a madman/in this tale from a strange land/Give me the chant of the madman/Is the only salvation.”

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