Friday 12th December, 2008

Vaneisa Baksh
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Going to ground again

  • Going to Ground by Jeremy Taylor became the constant of my bedridden days.
  • I have always admired the language, the intellectual depth, the honest sturdi-ness of Taylor’s writing.
  • His range of subjects is gripping, and his views are strong, especially on politics and religion.

When I was sick and lay in bed, boredom was a challenge, and I would scrounge around my bookshelves looking for ones that had got away, or old faithfuls to revisit. It was defined more by moods than anything else, anything that would hold my shortened attention span and keep me from dreevaying around the house and fretting about its growing disorder.

One of the books that called me—I have to say called because it dropped into my thoughts, and I went and ferreted it out—was Going to Ground, a collection of journalistic articles by Jeremy Taylor published in 1995. It became the constant of those bedridden days because everything Taylor wrote about over that 20-year period from the 1970s seemed relevant still.

The 68 pieces are grouped under eight headings: Watching TV, Worrying, Music and more, Books and writers, Caribbean dreams, Politics and development, Soapbox and Questions of belief. Some are short radio commentaries; others range from articles that appeared in the Express and the Guardian and longer ones for magazines and periodicals.

I wanted to write about this book because as I drifted through it in no special order, the thought kept recurring that this was the kind of writing I wish we could have in our time, especially within the newspapers.

I have always admired the language, the intellectual depth and the honest sturdiness of Taylor’s writing; it is graceful, decisive, informed and stimulating—qualities so hardly present as a group within the current multitudes.

Taylor himself, in a 1982 post-Carnival comment on the quality of broadcasters covering the parade of bands at the Queen’s Park Savannah, was exasperated by the laziness and lameness of reportage on Peter Minshall’s Papillon specifically, but on preparedness on the whole, conceding that:

“There are still only three ways of handling that Savannah commentary. One is to do the necessary legwork in advance so you know what to expect and you can say something intelligent about productions and sections as they appear. The second is to get hold of a band member to guide you, as happened with several bands this year. The third is to rely on guesswork. ‘People are joined together in a convoluted kind of exuberance;’ ‘savages are streaming across the stage in a mixture of tights.’ This is what happens when commentators have nothing but their wits to fall back on. The only thing to do was turn down the sound.”

Mas bands now routinely provide their guides to commentators (although there is hardly anything to be said that cannot be seen), but Taylor’s comments are as true now about general media reporting, especially outside the news cage, as they were then. Legwork seems to have disappeared as an element for producing a story. Reviews on the work of hapless artists are either ignorant gushes or ignorant sneers. Either way it is uninformed, repetitive and provides a gross disservice to the artists subjected to it, because it offers no clues as to the quality of their work, not for them or to the public.

It is probably abetted because so few people read widely anymore. Taylor laments this in a 1988 essay called “The lost art of ,” which struck me for a prediction he cited by George Steiner that foretold the “imminent death of the serious, literary book as a genre. Not, as the conventional argument has been, because film and TV and video (and the Internet and DVDs) will make print redundant, but because not enough people in the world will still be capable of reading at the required level.”

As a writer, that prospect chilled my bones. There is so much evidence around us to substantiate it—the functional illiteracy of the majority of students, even at tertiary level—and 20 years ago, when this was written, Taylor was citing a Ministry of Education’s survey on school reading which found that of 4,023 junior secondary students, 73 per cent, had a reading ability below the level of Standard Three.

But I am going off on my own hobby horses, and Taylor has his own that are as worthy of reading today as they were when they were written. His range of subjects is gripping, and his views are strong, especially in the realms of politics and religion. His humour is pervasive, as in the opening line of a piece on beauty pageants:

“My name is Juanita Gonzalez, and I am a 22-years-old muddle.”

Because he writes so searchingly about the T&T that is very recognisable still, no matter what has changed, the book has a particular poignancy. It calls to mind something from the not so distant past, but because it reminds us how little things have moved on in any substantial way, it brings a sense of sadness that we seem doomed to wallow in one perpetual state of being. I don’t know if it is available anywhere anymore, but it is certainly worth reading.




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