I never thought of making a career out of it. I hadn’t even heard of freelance journalism back in the 70s. Even now, somehow I can’t think of it all as a “career” — it feels more like drifting, hanging on, and hoping for the best. But colleagues like David Renwick, Clyde Alleyne and David Jessop persuaded me. So I took the plunge: I resigned my teaching job, gave up my secure salary, and went round visiting every editor I could think of who might take material from the Caribbean. I just prayed it wouldn’t all end in failure and bankruptcy. My wife had similar feelings, I remember.
To my great surprise, it worked. It seems that things like this snowball — once you get something started, momentum builds, the word goes around, and work begins to trickle in. I was lucky with the timing too — the “cold war” was still being fought in the 70s, and editors were getting wildly overexcited by the thought of some Caribbean island switching over to the Soviet side. Maurice Bishop’s “revolution” in Grenada sent Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher apoplectic. Editors loved it, writing “Dark clouds gather over calypso islands” or rubbish like that.
After a few anxious years, I was doing a lot of freelance work in Trinidad and Tobago (the Trinidad Express and Radio Trinidad), around the Caribbean, and for international publications like The Times, The Observer (London) and the BBC in the UK. I didn’t dare to call myself a journalist, and I didn’t think that what I was doing was journalism anyway. But whatever it was, I was enjoying it. I never dreamed I could get that lucky.
My first editing project was with an odd publication called the West Indies Chronicle. Then one day in 1982, David Jessop called me from London, and told me about a new inflight magazine for BWIA, which was then the Trinidad and Tobago national airline. I ended up as the editor of the new magazine, called Sunjet. I resigned in 1990, the same year as the attempted Jamaat al-Muslimeen coup in Trinidad, which I found unbelievably stressful (the phone did not stop ringing for five days and nights demanding information I did not have). I knew it was time for another life change. For more than ten years I had been toiling away for other publishers: why not publish for myself? My little study, what was once the office, turned into the office of a new small business, MEP. I can’t think how it got that name, by the way — I remember wanting to call it Writers Inc.
At first there were only two of us, in one small office. My business colleague Joanne Mendes (who had worked with me on Sunjet) handled the advertising, and I handled the editorial. We worked hard, really hard. But I think, looking back, it was fun as well. It was really tough for a new small business to break into the limited publishing market. It was satisfying when things went well, and heart-breaking when they didn’t. Each step forward felt like a big adventure, a crazy risk. Our first staff hire! Our second room! Our first magazine (Discover Trinidad and Tobago, which is still going strong 22 years later), our first real book! In time, the staff reached the dizzy strength of 15 and we took a second floor in the building. But we stayed small, a family business. Some staff members have been with us almost from the start.
A year or so later, BWIA decided to phase out Sunjet and launch a replacement. MEP tendered for the contract and won it. We brought out the first issue of Caribbean Beat in March 1992. When Caribbean Airlines replaced BWIA in 2007, to their great credit, they saw the value of continuity in the inflight magazine, and apart from some natural rebranding they allowed “Beat” to keep its basic identity. That, by the way, is not a plug, it’s a fact.
I’ve travelled a lot for both Sunjet and Caribbean Beat, and what I enjoyed was the planning and copy editing. It might be polishing a text, checking facts, arguing with a writer, or doing major copy surgery. And I liked writing substantial pieces on people I personally found interesting — writers like Jamaica Kincaid, Derek Walcott, Sam Selvon, VS Naipaul and Jean Rhys; political activists like Albert Gomes or Frantz Fanon. I like to figure out why people do what they do and think what they think. I liked working on things we hadn’t done before, things I believed in, things I wanted passengers to read and think “Hey, that’s interesting, I never knew about that.”
Caribbean film, for instance. It’s much more fashionable now than it was then, but very early on we ran a sort of film survey (by Bruce Paddington), listing the main Caribbean film-makers with data on their lives and work. Many readers seemed not to know the Caribbean even had a film industry, let alone who its big names were.
Or space, another example. The search for life outside our solar system. In Puerto Rico, the Arecibo observatory is part of a huge global network sweeping the skies for signs of life. Right here in the Caribbean. And what about French Guiana, on the edge of the Caribbean region? That’s where the European Space Agency launches its Ariane rockets and their payloads into orbit. There’s all sorts of fascinating stuff going on. That’s the sort of feature I really liked to publish.
One of the most interesting books that I worked on at MEP’s book imprint Prospect Press was Dr Ken Boodhoo’s biography of the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago. The Elusive Eric Williams. “Elusive” because no one was ever quite sure they understood him, or what he was thinking. I’m curious about the way a person’s private psychology influences their political behaviour and action, and changes the course of events; and Dr Boodhoo’s book delved some way into that with Williams.
What we need in Trinidad and Tobago is a publishing industry that’s well organised and well capitalised. There are probably more magazines than the total advertising budgets can sustain at the moment. But I’m not as pessimistic about all this as I used to be. Maybe the Caribbean will skip a stage and move straight into online publishing and print-on-demand. Trinidad and Tobago has a new book festival since 2011, the Bocas Literary Festival and it looks as if it might really last and develop. And the Film Festival has been going since 2006. Caribbean Beat and Discover Trinidad & Tobago are proud media sponsors of both. Things are moving.
You have to know when it’s time to move over and let the next generation run things. You have to trust them. I’m still doing some part-time work for MEP, but otherwise keeping well out of the way. I’m still a director and part owner of the company, and they know I’m always available if needed. But isn’t it great not to have to get up and go to work for 8.30 in the morning?