For many years, the late editor-in-Chief of this newspaper used to celebrate his birthday, which fell on Old Year’s Day, with an open house for his friends and acquaintances. It started around noon and often lasted well into the evening. It was the sort of gathering that was full of middle-class chatter about politics and sport and religion. In one corner you might hear an argument over Dylan Thomas, with a small faction maintaining that Richard Burton was an unsurpassable reader of the poems, while others shook heads at the idea that anyone, even the golden-voiced Burton, could out-Dylan Dylan. Elsewhere there were disagreements over the relative merits of Sobers and Lara, Schumacher and Senna, as well as more high-minded opinions on Liberation Theology, Europe’s Social Democrats, the many plights of Africa, and whether India or China was better placed to lead the world after America had exhausted itself in the follies of George W. Bush. Of course there were also many discussions of Guyana’s smaller, local dramas, but most of these were framed in the context of the wider world.
David de Caires loved these exchanges, and delighted in the easy way that Guyanese from every social, religious and political background held forth on these occasions. The conversation was often passionate but never less than civil. For a few hours it felt as though Georgetown had gone back to the late fifties and early sixties, before politics had consumed everything else and split a thousand rooms like this one along apparently irreconcilable racial and ideological lines. By the end of the evening he would be happily exhausted, and puzzled anew by the contrast between the warmth, intelligence and human variety inside his living room and the general torpor of the society that produced them. If an Old Year’s afternoon could be passed in such pleasant diversions, why did everything feel so out of joint the following day?
Throughout his long stewardship, de Caires hoped that Stabroek News would rekindle the energies that animated these discussions. However much the governments of the day may have felt that he stood against them, the truth was much simpler and less flattering than that: he felt that in Guyana politics had become the problem – at least the excessively partisan, crab-barrel variety that prevailed here. In his lifetime, the political culture had degenerated into a shouting match that had driven almost the entire middle-class abroad and neglected the human development of an entire generation. He often lamented the fact that he had found his calling as a newspaperman thirty years too late – at least in terms of the energy required to keep everything going from day to day – but de Caires still hoped that a paper of record could shape exchanges that went beyond the usual finger-pointing and name-calling. To this end, he willingly spent thousands of hours sifting through letters that were often rambling, poorly phrased and inadvertently hectoring, so long as he believed that the author was in good faith. Page by page, he dreamed that the paper’s editorials and letter columns might reinvigorate the national conversation, strengthen civil society to the point at which it might de-politicise daily life for good, and wean the public off the idea that politicians alone could, would or should determine our future.
The worldly skepticism he had gathered from a Jesuit education and a quarter of a century of legal work prepared him well for the repeated assaults on his paper’s independence, but Mr de Caires never came to terms with the moral and intellectual laziness that had overtaken so much of what passed for public discussion in Guyana. When his spirits were flagging, nothing restored him faster than a thoughtful comment from a bypasser in the street, or from one of his regular companions during walks in the National Park. When someone took the time to make a considered complaint about the way a story had been reported, or to agree or dissent with an editorial position, he came away thrilled that his readers were engaged, that they cared about the facts, that the nuts and bolts of life in Guyana still mattered to them. Over the years these exchanges deepened his conviction that this country would only become a mature democracy when enough of our so-called ordinary citizens were prepared to rescue our politicians from themselves.
Yesterday the editor-in-Chief’s house was silent and his family and closest friends felt his loss more keenly because of it. Fortunately, the longest conversation of his life is still going on in these pages and the people whose opinions most interested him remain an active part of the dialogue. Whether his hopes for this newspaper, and for the society it observes, are ever fully realized will now depend largely on how that conversation is continued by our readers. David de Caires would not have had it any other way.