The Cathedral of Our Memories


Recently I visited the now-silent National Library and Information System Authority (Nalis) and was reminded of how I love that library, notwithstanding its horrible name.

Not to borrow a book, mind you. They generally never have anything I’d want to read. You see something in a review in some magazine and think, Hm, that’s interesting. And you go to to see if a cheap second-hand copy is available. Or you surf around for a free pdf.

Don’t waste time checking a library: here, no doubt for budgetary reasons, they all operate with an unwritten principle whereby no book is allowed on a shelf unless it borders on the antiquarian. Good for researchers, but not me now that I’m no longer a researcher. Now I visit for the events, the lectures and exhibitions, which are much more exciting than anything in the comatose National Museum.

Still, I love our libraries. For one, they don’t have piped music or televisions. Then they are staffed, believe it or not, by people who, even when they have a reputation for hoggishness, I’ve found to be helpful, flexible and accommodating. With a few exceptions.

I used to frequent them, usually the UWI West Indian collection (which has grown very hostile of late) and the National Archives, mainly for research, scouring old newspapers and magazines, rare West Indian books, and the occasional PhD thesis.

Not only me. There are men who spend their years of retirement relaxing in the congenial atmosphere of the National Archives, whose workers are as friendly and helpful as anywhere else.

But others go for other reasons. My friend the late Keith Radhay, wherever he happened to find himself, would visit the nearby community library, even if it was just to peruse the foreign newspapers.

Despite their absence of conversation, libraries invoke a spirit of camaraderie. A researcher will share ideas with another in those hallowed walls, which he’d guard closely once out in the open. I even met one of the loves of my graduate student life in a library decades ago, when in my absence she “borrowed” a book I’d set aside on my desk to read. Must have been the ambiance of the place because she too turned out to be flexible and accommodating.

Consequently, I looked forward with increasing anticipation to the opening of the National Library as it took shape back in 2002-3. I wasn't keen on the canvas sails flapping on its north-east corner, but what the heck, Colin Laird is allowed a folly after having designed such an edifice so beautiful inside and outside.

The National Library of Trinidad and Tobago, design by Colin Laird.


Here I might let you know that the word “edifice” originally applied to medieval cathedrals, because that was where you were edified about the word of God. Today our libraries are our cathedrals of self-knowledge and the repositories of our memory.

Such was my enthusiasm back in 2003 that I momentarily contemplated attending the Library's official opening ceremony. I rashly cast aside all commonsense knowledge that politicians who probably hadn’t read a book since they were a schoolboys, if at all, were bound to talk rubbish.

Whew! The guardian angel of inertia saved me from a fate worse than terminal boredom, as I discovered to my relief when driving on the way home I switched on the car radio. What filled my jalopy was such a horrible caterwauling that my mouth dropped open. The anthem was performed by a choral group as if it had been written by a mediocre Italian opera composer.

Now, I’ve long thought that the national anthem, to truly express our spirit, should swing a little. You should be able to chip to it. The police band has put on some lovely syncopated performances abroad which wowed those stiff Europeans. Our anthem doesn’t have to sound like a dirge to be solemn, and if any producer is interested I’ve composed a lovely kaiso melody to which you can sing “Forged…”

But what I heard between the static that Wednesday night made the good old Pat Castagne version sound like it was written by the Grandmaster. O gyad, I thought as I listened in a kind of sick, morbid fascination, switching off only when another piece came on in the same castrati vein.

Why do they do things like that?


We opening a new brand National Library. Somebody in charge, maybe the same person who gave it that awful name (Information System Authority!) decide the gala ceremony must have music. And what they choose? Something pretending to be from 18th century Italy. Seems they hadn't noticed that this country annually generates music whose beauty and intelligence can stand comparison with anything else in the world today. I am talking of course about the Panorama arrangements for conventional steel orchestras, which at their best comprise the true New World symphonies. They are our Taj Mahal, our Eroica and our Illiad.

Every year two or three brilliant Panorama arrangements embody the genius and passion of Trinidad and Tobago more than could any other cultural artifact. That’s why pan is the national instrument: because it represents our technical and artistic creativity, our triumph over adversity. Not because a prime minister said so.

Pan is perhaps the major sphere in which anyone who can make a contribution is welcomed, regardless of race, class, education, sex, nationality, age or moral rectitude. It embodies the line, “every creed and race finds an equal place.”

In this benighted era of ethnic squabbling, Jit Samaroo isn’t a good example of pan’s inclusiveness because Indians were in the steelband movement from its beginning, and the palaver about pan being the same as the harmonium or tassa doesn’t deserve a response because it’s just politics at its most vile level. The true example is Anise Hadeed, because if there’s a group here which feels itself to be, and is often treated as if it were, an outsider, it is the Syrian-Lebanese community.

Pan is the holiest thing created in this country because it was and still is, ultimately, a product of the purest love. Not intelligence or creativity or talent, even though all of that and more comes into the mix, but worship at the altar of transcendent beauty and freedom.

More than anything else pan was forged from the love of liberty, in the fires of hope and prayer.


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