The Arima Kid - pt I
You’ve been involved in media and culture longer than most people have been alive?
Since 1946! I should say a little before that because, as a child, I wrote little things to the Guardian’s Tiny Mites. I suppose I had that desire to be in the limelight, that vanity. My parents gave me the opportunity to feel, within limits, that the whole world was my playground. They taught me to accept what I had, be gracious with it and not to envy what other people had that seemed to be more than mine. Unfortunately, this is what is not being taught to children, privileged and underprivileged, today that makes them so vulnerable to wanting the material things of life and doing just about anything to get it.
Any regrets about your career?
None whatsoever. There were unfortunate moments but they weathered the storm for me. The things I didn’t have as a child, when I got them, it gave me a sense of value people don’t have today that causes a lot of unfortunate things. I had pitfalls that got the better of me but helped me to become a better person by having to overcome them. I was brought up by grandmother and I was her acolyte, her aide-de-camp. She had confidence in me. We spoke freely. She taught me everything possible in patois and a little bit in English. She had very stern discipline, a stern churchwoman. I said to her, once, I’m in school now and everybody has a birthday and is inviting me and I’d like to go. She said, “No, don’t go, because you cannot invite them to your birthday!” I say, “What is my birthday gift?” She say, in patois, “Kneel down”. And she give me a little tap on the face. “You feel that?” I say, yes. She say, “You can feel me, you can hear me, you can see me: that’s your birthday! The gift of God that you have all your faculties to make you enjoy one day at a time!” After that, I was in drama at school. I was in a play called Timon of Athens a Shakespeare play few people gravitate to. Adonis Taylor, my teacher said, “I’ll give you a part in the play” and I was very proud! The schoolmaster came to the rehearsal and said, “What is he doing there? He is not brilliant! I don’t want him in my production”. The schoolmaster was the executive producer. It was a letdown because I’d told my mother I’d be in the concert so he gave me a part as a guard. Then the schoolmaster said, “You ever see a short guard?” So I was off! I was really broken. I was about seven. So [Adonis Taylor] said, “You will come up in the intermission and be a buster. You will bust in everything you say!” I said, “You mean I will be a jokey man?” He said, “There is another word for it: comedian.” So said. I had my mother make a red suit for me with a white star in the back and the audience roared as I arrived. I stumbled in the curtain and fell. The audience roared! I sang a song – he told me not to sing it correctly, deliberately – the audience was roaring but this schoolmaster was outside, shouting, “Get that jackass off the stage!” And the people screamed, “No!” That was the beginning of my stage performance which, by God’s grace, I am still on.
Was it the blueprint for your Scouting for Talent persona?
Technically, technically. [Smiling] I was a slow learner. They used to call it a dunce. You become timid and less aggressive which I never intended to be. So I fought with that.
You beat it?
[Peers over glasses] Sort of. [Chuckles] As a boy scout, I became the star of my Arima scout group. When they asked for entertainment, I just had to put up hand. Everywhere I entertained, I got a proficiency badge. I eventually got six proficiency badges, which made me the first and still the only king’s scout in Arima. When King Edward VIII abdicated the throne and King George V took on, I was invited to the jamboree in London but did not allow my mother to know because I knew she could not have afforded it. She never forgave me for that because we had property she would have mortgaged to send me to England. So an affluent boy from Port of Spain got my position. No regrets! I moved on.
Do you feel the country has appreciated all the work you’ve put in?
When I go to the lower level of society, I feel very satisfied. I go abroad and at home and somebody come up and tell me, “I was on Scouting with you!” And the amount of people abroad who have made their mark on the world because of my Scouting! I feel satisfied. There are people who look down on Scouting. The administration of television never really gave it its due – not me, but the show. There was always a threat they would stop the show. I was walking downtown and an old woman, black like myself, shouted, “Holly!” – because you are the people’s people, you brought the pig to that market, and you enjoyed it – “Where you does get them black ugly people to put on Scrunting for Talent, boy?” And I say, “Just from where you come from!” With humour. The purpose for Scouting meant more to me than all the unpleasant and unkind remarks.
The arts did not and still don’t have the respect they should?
At all levels! People who do it don’t respect it! People who watch it don’t respect it! People who should contribute to it pay lip service to it. They say nice things but even at the higher levels, none of us in culture, art or show business get the support we should, except for the calypsonian at Carnival time, for a short while… When you come on the stage in Trinidad: “Hoooo, Boy! Look at the shoes!” It was not easy for all the people who went to Scouting. They had to have grit. The slander, the mamaguy, the picong in the auditions offered to some little girl whose mother sweated to get the little dress for her to put on and come. A next fella who win at the preliminaries, when it come to the finals, tell me, “I can’t come, boy. I borrow my brother’ shoe last week and he ent lending me this week!” I asked [about another contestant] and they said, “The man lock up, boy!” I asked the prison officer, a weight lifter who became Commissioner of Prisons, Michael Hercules, who is now departed, they shot him unfortunately, I had a good relation with him, if he could ease him up. He said, “This is a bad criminal!” And I said, “This is a fella with real talent”. So they found a way he could come and sing and he came first on the show. The girl who won the first car on the show, Barbara Absalam, she sat in the auditions and when it was her time, she let somebody else come up. I said, “What’s wrong with you, the audition over!” And then somebody say, “Let her sing!” and she was not beaten yet! Won the semi-final and then won the car, a Volkswagen, by Huggins, the first time that element of business bourgeoisie came down to Earth and assisted! [Chuckles]