On my whirlwind tour of Trinidad, to screen WORLDwrite’s documentary Every Cook Can Govern: The Life, Impact and Works of CLR James, I picked up a bit of Trini-English from the school students. James – the Trinidad-born revolutionary and author of Black Jacobins, Beyond a Boundary and many more works – would not have approved. He once berated a Trinidadian lad for his patois, when he referred to ‘Shack-us-peer’; James had standards. As did the OTT five-star hotel (my first) that I was put up in – sadly, these standards included no smoking.
Film festivals are very cosmopolitan affairs, and the filmmakers are spoilt rotten. The Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival is major-league. It has a fantastic Caribbean and world strand, and we were treated like divas. It was a strange experience. Any Cook Can Govern is an uncompromisingly Marxist film about a man with unshakeable principles: CLR railed against Imperial Britain; put the historic lie that Wilberforce ended the British slave trade to bed; heckled Marcus Garvey; was imprisoned as a Trot; opposed the Second World War; championed the ‘dead white European male’-dominated canon; and was persona non grata in his home country for two decades.
At a packed-out screening (many had to stand), the reception to the film was fabulous. We’d clearly done the man’s political mission justice. Everyone does have ‘their’ CLR James, though. The Q&A afterwards, with top Trinidad-based James scholar Bridget Brereton, was telling. She hailed James as Trinidad’s heroic Renaissance man – a man of letters with many interests. I begged to differ. He was indeed a man of letters, but he had a purpose. He gave up being a cricket correspondent for the Manchester Guardian and the comfortable life of a novelist to change the world. Marxists like James were not all weirdos, cut off from society and writing in unintelligible jargon. Serious 20th-century revolutionaries engaged in and wrote about all aspects of life. As our film shows, everything James wrote had a political purpose.
Brereton wasn’t too happy with this English upstart, but Trinidadians I spoke to afterwards were thrilled. Even Brexit came up in the Q&A. It was a fine opportunity to make the point – as CLR did in his critiques of Toussaint L’Ouverture, Eric Williams and Kwame Nkrumah – that conducting politics behind closed doors will always end in disaster. The EU has to be the supreme example. There was applause from a few. Trinidadians seem to get the anti-democratic nature of the EU, and, I was told, hate it for destroying the Caribbean banana industry. The quips were telling, though: ‘Great film. So are you off home to your monarchy now?’
Speeding around Trinidad is tricky. It’s an island of 1.3million people and 500,000 cars. Many Trinidadians have at least two cars, and good for them. But if green thinking doesn’t take over Trinidad, more of an urban spread might alleviate the jams. I managed to see a fair bit of the island. As Dr Roy McCree, one of my terrific hosts, put it, everything is called ‘Queen’s something’ here. I visited some of the landmark places from James’ life: Queen’s Royal College, the school for children of the colonial elite, which he attended; Queen’s Park Savannah, a mighty park where James would talk to the groundsmen; and Queen’s Park Oval, the holy cricket ground complete with its Learie Constantine stand.