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Another One Dusts the Blight
DEBBIE JOHN is gone and another thread pops in the fraying old rope I know as Trinidad. Cancer. She was only 61. Funny, but I always thought she was much more than just two years older than me; she was probably just far more responsible and grownup.
My memory gives me (but I am often forced to give whatever it is back) that she was my first features editor back in 1988 (and it could well have been the other Debbie, Jacob), when I moved from the legal department of the Board of Inland Revenue to the newsroom of the Trinidad Express, a move that made my earnings plummet as much as it made my wellbeing rise.
It’s nice to imagine DeeJay sauntering into some great newsroom in the sky, where the coffee is always piping hot Hong Wing and the soft drink vending machine gets the Diet Coke frosty cold, and the assignment is always to cover the Tribe band launch or the Chaud champagne dinner.
And what a quality newsroom it would be, led by two of the best writers we ever produced, Wayne Brown, who taught everybody in Trinidad half-decent at the job to write and Keith Smith, whose throwaway prose sparkled brighter than the words I wear my arms out polishing. Debbie must be sipping a beastly with her old riding pardner, Raoul Pantin, who might at last have the backing to stage his play, Hatuey, properly, and perhaps Anthony Milne, the most undeservedly overlooked writer ever to set fingers to keyboard in the Trinidad papers. The old Ramjohn “Flags” Ali would be there, I hope, in his blue-and-silver coffin, to match the PTSC bus, the only form of motorized transport he could ever afford (as he often, hilariously, wrote). I’d like to think Keith Shepherd would finally have found his way in through the front door, instead of looking in a Mirror from the outside, as I imagine he often did while he was alive.
Sadly, there’d be many others in that dead newsroom: Sandra Chouthi, one of the nicest – and prettiest – people anyone ever met; the lovely Gail Massy, the old TJ, Terry Joseph, whose speaking voice seemed to come from the sole of his shoes, the Davids, Chase & Brewster, Angela Martin and Angelo Bissessarsingh; and Noel “Sally” Saldenha would be getting pix of everybody, including the ones I haven’t mentioned, like Naz Yacoob, the sports writer, and Therese Mills, who ran, first, the Guardian and then Newsday with an iron Catholic hand, and who could make even an imaginary afterlife Hell just by showing up as its boss.
Debbie John’s death I find harder than everyone else’s in that second paragraph, and not just because it’s the most recent. I don’t recall if Debbie John always looked a little sad when I first walked into the Express newsroom – and, yes, I concede readily that anyone might be sad to see me walk in anywhere, anytime – but, looking back a couple of decades now, it does seem, to me, that she looked sad for years.
Now, there was a lot for her to be sad about, as there always has been, for anyone who has ever lived a remotely conscious life. To carry with you the understanding of your own extinction is almost unbearable. This is why we invent gods and afterlives: because we cannot bring ourselves to accept that this might be all there ever might be.
And the lot of the newspaper person in this current age is a particularly hard one: newspaper people are dying like everyone else but it makes their lives – and deaths – that much harder that their industry itself is also simultaneously going belly up. How many people under age 40 today ever read a whole newspaper? How many people under 30 ever bought one? How many people under 20 even think about newspapers, other than to dismiss them as a really firetrucking bizarre way of trying to Google something.
So, even though she believed in God and had no illusions about the papers, I could see many reasons for DeeJay to be sad at work.
But, in conversation, she lit up like an LED on LSD.
Debbie John loved music and film and books. She found space for mini-film reviews in the Express even after Keith Smith and I almost reached fisticuffs in his office one afternoon, over his proposal to cut my lousy 500 words for BC on TV to 300, so he could make the firetrucking sudoku puzzle bigger!
No matter how sad she might have looked when you walked in, a short conversation about anything artistic would have her grinning from ear-to-ear. She could name the members of Earth, Wind & Fire and Santana. She corrected me, every time, that it was Starlift, not Harmonites, who covered the Beatles’ “Penny Lane”. She could make a case for “The Sixth Sense” being more groundbreaking than “A Nightmare on Elm Street”.
But, to me, at least, she looked sad for a long time.
And I don’t know if it’s me, or her, or us, but it really does seem to me that, with a few more threads popping, the weight of what we carry behind us will become too great.
And something will have to give.
And almost everything I know as Trinidad will be left behind, an overladen, rusting barge, rolling about in the wake of a party cruise boat in the Gulf of Paria, blaring soca so loud no one can think.
But it’ll be all right, for them.
Because no one will have anything worthwhile to say.
And I want to believe Debbie John was sad because she could see what was coming.
We’ll weep, perhaps, but at least there’ll be no more tears for her.
BC Pires is wearing a tie-dye T-shirt and wishing the Seventies could come back again