The book lay nestled among my collection of Caribbean writing. It came my way after I had run an appreciative review of it by Jarrel De Matas in UWI TODAY (August 2018).
Having inserted it among books I’d already read, it got lost until a few weeks ago, when I was looking for a particular novel.
‘Kitch: A Fictional Biography of a Calypso Icon’, is written by Anthony Joseph, a Trinidadian writer who lives in London. I was intrigued by the notion of the fictional biography: why did he choose this approach? Was it because he had found it difficult to confirm stories he had heard and didn’t want to put them out there as fact?
It’s a biographer’s dilemma. In my research on Frank Worrell I have heard all manner of stories—some frankly boggling—but unless I can establish their veracity, I have to leave them out.
It was going on midnight, so I decided to just skim a few pages to get a feel. The first few sentences perked me up. I would quote the entire first paragraph to show you why, but it would be too long, so here’s a bit:
‘The knockkneed dougla woman sets her stall by the market side, near where the road slopes down into tracks and rickety cratewood stalls. She stirs her cauldron of cow-heel soup and hums holiness hymns. She has been there since dew wet morning, from the first glimpse of light burst. Her pot bubbles and spits and the scent of wild thyme and congo pepper drifts through the market like a spell.
‘Soon, in the damp woody spaces of the covered market stall, chickens will be swung by their feet, to flutter against the grip of the abattoir man, with his cutlass hand and his hot water boiling on a fireside, to dip and pluck them beating, from wing and narrow bone. Morning opening like a promise above Arima.’
He’s describing a Saturday morning of the 1940s, a good 80 years ago, and I savour the prose. It is delicate, refined and measured, yet the subtly woven dashes of vernacular give it the truth that speaks of home.
I turn the page, and find him describing Kitchener—‘Bean’ is how he is known on account of his lankiness:
‘Up hill to the north, young Bean sit down on the worn wood of his front step with his head between his knees, making rhythm beat with a guava stick against the splintering edge and humming upright bass in the throat, comping with the high notes. Eileen, his sister, frying fish in batches in the outside kitchen behind the house.
‘Bean could smell the flour and oil burning in the skillet. A bee start to inveigle the stick. Bean get up, dust off the seat of his pants, catch a vaps just so and walk down St Joseph Street, whistling, his slipper clapping the gravel.’
If you know anything about the man Aldwyn Roberts—Lord Kitchener—you would immediately recognise him in Bean, the youngster, who was about to set off on an extraordinary journey that Joseph relates so convincingly, that at the end, you might not know where to separate fact from fiction; but you will know that this is a version you can believe.
I ended up reading deep into the night, and for a few days, I was gripped. My knowledge of Kitchener’s life had come from readings and interviews I’d done with him—but those were during his later years. What I found fascinating was the descriptions of a young, fairly wutless dandy, who relentlessly pursued his craft with an astonishing degree of confidence.
Kitchener went to England on board the Windrush in 1948, a time when negotiating the complexities of a discouraging climate (in every sense), demanded inordinate persistence.
Joseph’s narratives vividly convey the innards of that life; he juxtaposes events with comments from contemporaries of the man and that provides even more insight and a cushion of verisimilitude.
Later, I listened to an hour-long conversation he had with Shivanee Ramlochan on Bios and Bookmarks, in May 2020. He read from another novel, ‘The Freedom of Magic,’ but in comparing the two books, he said that ‘Kitch’ was the subject of his PhD in Creative and Life Writing, and it required a more stringent approach.
The burden of writing about Kitchener put a great deal of pressure to get everything right. By contrast, the other book was an opportunity for him to abandon himself to his creative impulses.
There are several outstanding elements of this book apart from it being a biographical work on a celebrated figure in the calypso pantheon (we need more of our stories to be told!).
Joseph has done a formidable amount of research, and without taking anything away from what must have been true scholarly obsession, I feel certain that if he were based in Trinidad and not London, he would not have been able to unearth as much as he did. Such is the paucity of our records.
His use of language is an exquisite rendition of the way we speak, influenced by the poet and musician he is.
This is an example of how we can celebrate our own: both Kitchener and Anthony Joseph deserved to be heard and to be known. It is time we work harder on building the repositories of our people.