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On Lloyd Best (1934-2007): a personal note

By Nicholas Laughlin

First published in The Caribbean Review of Books, May 2007

When I heard, in the second week in March, that Lloyd Best was “on his way out”, I was not immediately perturbed. He had been despaired of before — often — in the six or so years since he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He himself liked to tell the story of the deathbed vigil he abruptly broke up when he opened his eyes and announced to his grieving daughters, “Rejoice, for I am the Lloyd!”

But this time there was no resurrection, and on the afternoon of Monday, 20 March, the news came: one of the great men of the Caribbean was gone.

Some years ago, I began writing book reviews for the Trinidad and Tobago Review, at a time when Lloyd was particularly unwell and not involved in the day-to-day editing of the “paper”. One day, after my second or third review had appeared, I got an unexpected phone call. It was Lloyd. He had been reading my pieces, and thought it was time we spoke. He was charming but matter-of-fact; he asked questions; he wanted us to meet; he wanted to know what I was writing next. He asked me, as though it were something I could toss off in the few days before the next deadline, to write a survey of Caribbean literature over the last quarter-century. I told him that, to fulfil the commission, I’d have to take a year off from everything else and do nothing but read. It says something about the scope of Lloyd’s own intelligence that he’d think to ask someone to do such a thing. And it says something about his generous faith in his much younger colleagues that he’d ask someone like me.

I’d been reading Lloyd’s essays and articles for years, of course, and I knew about the breadth of his knowledge, the depth of his comprehension, the high grandeur of his sentences. In the too-short time since that first conversation, I also got to know a little of the man behind the formidable public presence: his humour, his gentle thoughtfulness, and his genuine interest in the people around him, in people he’d never met — even in me.

No one has understood the Caribbean, its special privileges and special plight, better than Lloyd. His knowledge was hard-won but worn lightly. He had a novelist’s acute insight into character, whether of an individual, a community, a nation, or a civilisation. He had a philosopher’s clear understanding that our great and still incomplete task is “epistemic sovereignty”, knowing ourselves in and on our own terms. He had a poet’s instinct that this required a fresh vocabulary; that the Caribbean is, as Walcott writes, “a green world, one without metaphors”. No other prose writer, and few poets, have so enriched Caribbean English with phrases instantly defining aspects of ourselves, our history, our culture, our psychology, that we could not apprehend until they were named. “Independent Thought and Caribbean Freedom” is not just the name of his most famous essay. It was his ideal, his goal, his project — and, if we could only want it enough to earn it, his legacy to us.

But there are dozens of people better qualified to write about Lloyd, who knew him longer and more intimately, understood his work better, had more time to grapple with his profoundly radical ideas. What I can offer is a personal note on the two of his qualities that have mattered the most to me.

The first was his optimism, which he proclaimed at every opportunity, which survived nearly fifty years of the “fragmentation, segmentation, and disarray” of Caribbean public life, as he described it in 1971. He never ceased to believe in the potential of ordinary people to overcome that disorder — given the chance to express their needs and wants honestly, engage each other in real conversation, find common ground, find ways to agree. “That is all we have to do, we have to talk, we always have to talk.” Lloyd’s clear-eyed hopefulness continues to inspire and encourage me in this prolonged dark time, this time-out-of-joint that is Trinidad in the 21st century.

And this is the second remarkable quality: his real and abiding interest in me, my experiences, my opinions, my plans. I am not unique in this way. There must be hundreds of others who felt the same surprise and pleasure that Lloyd Best, one of the great minds of our place and time, wanted to talk to them, truly wanted to listen to what they might say. Lloyd took me seriously in a way that made me take myself more seriously. It gave me a new confidence in my own powers and possibilities, such as they might be. And that confidence, I can see now, is one of the things that made the revival of the CRB seem not just desirable, but achievable, and necessary.

I write this note just four days after Lloyd’s death. On Sunday, 25 March, his funeral will bring together many of the Caribbean’s brightest and most creative men and women. I won’t be there. I’ll have started on a long-planned expedition through Venezuela’s Gran Sabana to the summit of Mt Roraima. I thought about postponing my trip so that I too could pay tribute to Lloyd with my physical presence. But I didn’t know him to be a sentimental man. I suspect he would tell me to head off without delay, explore this new landscape, keep eyes and ears open, ask many questions; use my new knowledge to understand the world a little bit better, then turn that understanding to some truly good use.

I will try.

— 23 March, 2007