I approach the columns I write for Stabroek News appreciating that, among other things, they are likely to trigger discussion. Pro or con, it doesn’t matter; when the subject is engaged, when different responses emerge, something constructive is happening; the creature is being examined and, hopefully, better understood in the end. Even if opinions remain unchanged, considerations have been raised, and we have at least reached a state of agreeable disagreement.
A prime example is a column I wrote some weeks ago, entitled “The Past is Overrated” which drew a spirited opposing view from a reader whom I highly respect. In the interest of massaging the subject a bit further, I am attaching here my private response to that person:
“I received your impassioned letter of 9 October, and while I usually let such things be I am taking a few minutes to respond to you, I hope dispassionately. In the overall, the column is my opinion – it is not a scholarly treatise – and you are obviously free to have a different view (I said so explicitly in the first paragraph) but since you took the time to write, three things:
“I never denied the past had value; I simply said it was overrated. You seem to have missed that point.
“Secondly, in all such examinations, subjectivity is at play because different people rate different things differently. Georgetown was indeed once the Caribbean’s ‘garden city‘ but at the same time our country roads were deplorable, health services outside town were meager, and women died regularly in childbirth. Certainly Georgetown was cleaner in the old days, but our life expectancy was low, people died from malaria and dysentery, and not many of us could afford to fly to Trinidad for a holiday; even a trip to the interior was rare.
“As a youngster at Hague, I suffered a very serious cut on my hand late one day and, with no taxis available after dark, I had to be taken by donkey cart to Leonora to find a doctor. I had my hand stitched, a nurse holding me, with no anaesthetic; outside the building, people could hear me screaming. As a student at Saints, I lost part of a finger on the Vreed-en-Hoop ferry boat one afternoon and had to be taken by car down the coast for emergency treatment. With no bridge, I had to wait until the next morning to get to Mercy Hospital. ‘Good‘ is not the adjective I apply to those memories.
“Living in a difficult marriage, my mother didn’t have many choices. That was a time when she, like most mothers, had to depend on her husband for her existence; the work place was not generally for women, in the good old days. Self expression among children was denied in those times, and young children were regularly flogged in schools. In my time at Main Street
School, 6th Standard students received one lash for every five points below 75 in math exams. In one case, a regularly failing student was whipped in the school by his own mother who had been brought there for that purpose, and it was done before the entire student body. Thank God, those days are gone.
“In the pre-independence days, Guyanese men were automatically denied any job higher than overseer on the sugar estates near where I grew up. Black men and Indian men were particularly disenfranchised in the work place under the British, and even “fair-skinned” citizens could not aspire beyond certain levels. That was the good old days. The fundamental concept of being Guyanese was often discredited and even mocked in the old days.
“Anyone who lived then knows that. Guyanese were consistently and manifestly told that we were second-rate; that our efforts were second-rate, that whatever we produced was second-rate, and that if we had any ambition we would strive to be more like the colonialists, as some did. That was the good old days.
“I appreciate the contribution that the clergy made to Guyana, but even there an objective appraisal will also note the often condescending attitude of many of them stationed here. Students at Saint Stanislaus in those days will tell you of the overtly homosexual priest who taught at the school. Known for his blatant fondling of favourite students while the class was going on, he would sometimes stand before us, elaborating on some point, with an erect penis evident in his trousers. I saw that, more than once, in the good old days.
“Finally, in that column, I was obviously speaking in a global context and ultimately, given the migrants we are, conditions in the “outer world” then affected us directly. There was a time, right next door to us in Suriname, when a Surinamese woman could not travel outside the country without her husband’s permission. It’s changed now, but it was so in the good old days.
“In the good old days, no person of colour could immigrate to Australia, and dogs were set upon human beings in America because of the colour of their skin. A man in South Africa saw 27 years in jail for arguing that black people should be allowed to vote.
“In Guyana in the good old days, the British lived like kings on the estate compounds in gated communities manned by guards; any Guyanese going in there had to be escorted or approved by one of the English staff – in our own country. To go back to the old days is to go back to that. No thanks.
“My father was mostly on his Pomeroon farm while my mother raised the family at Vreed-en-Hoop. A letter to him took two weeks. For emergencies, there was a telegram, via the Post Office; it took over a day to have a message sent to Charity and then relayed by boat to my father’s farm. His reply, if needed, took another day. Telephone was a luxury only people in Georgetown could afford. You mentioned many people having flush toilets, electricity, and running water in town… on the West Coast very few had those things in the good old days, except the police station and the District Administrator.
“I recommend to you the following from the late C. L. R. James in his book Cricket:
‘Barbados had produced a line of great batsmen and fast bowlers, but the white upper classes continued to hold all the economic and political power and social prestige. The blacks could learn all that there was to be learnt, at home and abroad, but they were simply excluded from what we know today as the Establishment.‘ CLR was referring there to a period that some of us now call ‘the good old days.‘
“Folks who disparage life now compared with ‘the old days‘ are cut from the same cloth as the many Guyanese, here and abroad, who continually find everything wrong with this place and nothing right. In both scenarios, objectivity has gone out the window, and passion is ruling reason.