Wrecking Ball Press have teamed up with The Roundhouse and the BBC in a global project that will see Hull performance poet Joe Hakim travel to Trinidad & Tobago. Talking Doorsteps is for spoken word artists aged 16-25yrs and offers an accessible and interactive physical and digital community to share and platform work centered on the theme of HOME. Starting from next week, Joe will be observing and participating in workshops with young Caribbean poets before returning home and working with young Hull poets, then bringing the two artistic communities together for a performance in September as part of the “Contains Strong Language” Poetry Festival, which will be programmed by the BBC and Wrecking Ball Press. Joe will be writing daily blog entries so we can follow his progress. Here’s the sixth instalment.
We had been booked to appear on an early morning talk show, so it necessitated getting up at the ridiculous hour of 4 am to try and beat the morning rush. Luckily, this didn’t prove to be a problem, because the neighbourhood strays had decided to hook up for an early morning dog ruck, making the alarm I set surplus to requirements. There’s nothing quite like the barking, growling and gnashing of teeth to spring you from your pit.
To be fair, it was proving impossible to lay around in bed anyway. When the heat is that thick and close, you tend to sleep lightly, ready to get up and jump in the shower as soon as the sun shows up.
Realising that we couldn’t function without a morning hit of concentrated caffeine, the Mariposa team hooked up a coffee machine so we could help ourselves on these early starts. The fact we were prepared to get up and forgo breakfast was of grave concern to Marcia and her family. We had to convince them to not get up at some ungodly hour to fix something up for us. I restrained from telling them that my morning routine usually entailed missing breakfast entirely, instead relying on the double whammy of coffee and a fag. It would just upset and confuse them.
We made our way down the mountain road, heading out to the Macoya highway. As I keep mentioning, the average speed of the average Trinidadian driver is ‘Holy shit! Slow down’, so the early morning rush tends to make the traffic exist in two extreme states: either blazing quick, or not moving at all. Even though it was still dark, already the heat and humidity were beginning to rise, causing shirts to stick to backs. It was then that I had a sudden epiphany for one of the reasons why people drove so fast in a culture that prides itself on being laid-back. Let’s say you’re in a car with poor or non-functioning air-con. Find yourself in that position and it make sense that you’re going to want to drive at high-speed with all your windows down. The wind-rush keeps you cool.
We arrived at the TV6 studios early, so it gave us a chance to wander around Independence Square in the heart of Port of Spain’s centre. The streets were already filling up with commuters and traders. Homeless men sleeping on cardboard beds began waking up, and buses and cars beeped and charged through crossings. Hastily constructed stalls selling fresh fruit, water and sugary treats opened for business, and sound systems were being wired up to car radios.
Jean Claude took us to a popular little breakfast spot and bought a lucky bag of sandwiches and bakes (a bake is a type of flat, doughy bread, a Bake ‘n Shark being a particular favourite). Fortunately, I got one that contained a basic ham and scrambled egg filling, meaning that I didn’t have to fiddle with any bones, so I drizzled it in the regulation half a charge of hot pepper sauce and shoved it into my face.
After breakfast, we headed back to the TV station. After being buzzed in by security, we stood around in the lobby, watched over by a big 2 and a Half Men era Charlie Sheen poster. Television in Trinidad is a funny beast. The majority of it is split into three main categories: Educational programming, religious programming, and the commercial programming. The station we were appearing on was TV6, part of the Caribbean Communications Network, a national organisation that also has publishing interests like Barbados Nation and the Trinidad Express, which caters primarily for the English speaking audience. A large part of their schedule is made-up of American imports, shows such as CSI and The Big Bang Theory, meaning it has broad appeal and healthy audience figures.
A security guard led us into a lift, and we got off at the floor which broadcasts and edits Morning Edition, a popular early morning chat-show of the Good Morning Britain variety, featuring news and current affairs. We made our way to a small green room, with a little TV set in the corner displaying the show, a kettle and some instant coffee. We were told to help ourselves. In the corner of the room, another group of guests chatted and drank coffee as they waited to be summoned onto the set. One of them was a tall, reedy American with horned-rimmed glasses. For some reason, he reminded of a Bond villain. Not the main big-bad, but the right-hand man and chief henchmen, the one with the weirdly specific defining character trait.
We each took a seat around the table and guzzled our sugary coffee and waited for our call. I picked up a copy of the Trinidad Express. The headlines screamed about a series of brutal murders that had happened overnight, five in total. The photo on the cover showed the grisly scene of the aftermath of a shooting, a blood-splattered wall and pavement, while the inset profile picture showed a relative screaming in anguish.
It was at this point things took a turn for the surreal. I looked up to see someone dressed in a big foam cartoon Caesar costume being manoeuvred into the room by a woman wearing a laurel crown and toga. The cartoon Caesar didn’t have a neck, his big cartoon head sat atop an amorphous body, and his face was defined by giant roman nose. He waved at us amiably and we all waved back. I think it was the way in which he daintily raised the hem of his toga to sit down that set me off. I felt a slight pang of panic as the giggles took hold. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before the cartoon Caesar and the girl in the toga were summoned to the set. As we turned our attention to the TV set, the ad-break drew to a close and then cut to the studio. “There he is!” I exclaimed, and indeed there he was, cartoon Caesar waving out at us from the telly, sat to the next to the toga, his huge torso-sized smile beaming out for all to see.
Maybe it was a combination of the early morning start and rising humidity, but the giggling fit doubled in intensity, and as the tears rolled down my face, I had serious misgivings about my ability to function in an interview scenario.
Matters weren’t helped by the fact that the host of Morning Edition, Fazeer Mohammed, had a reputation of being a bit of ball-breaker. I was warned that his easy going demeanour could switch into a Paxman-esque grilling on a whim, so it was best to keep our wits about us.
Eventually we were called, and myself, Debris and Jean Claude were taken over to the set for our interview. As we took our seats and were miced up for the slot, our host Fazeer introduced himself. Debris is originally from East London, and he explained that his daughter was studying in the UK, and was familiar with Nottingham. He introduced himself to me by talking about Hull City and their current position in the Premier League (of course he did). All in all, he seemed like an amiable guy. So far so good.
With that the cameras rolled and Fazeer began the introduction to our section of the show by talking about the Talking Doorsteps project and the 2 Cents Movement. He spoke to Jean Claude first. Turns out Jean Claude had also appeared on the show the week previously to talk about a different project, so he made the necessary “You’re becoming a regular fixture” jokes. If footage of this show ever makes it online, take note of how I’m looking around, confused. That’s because cameras were pointing at us from all angles and we hadn’t been told which, if any, we should look at.
After his back and forth with Jean Claude, he turned our attention to us. Debris was first. After greeting her and asking her to introduce herself he went in with his first big question: “So tell me how your work is different from the average angry white woman approach to poetry?”
Wait a minute, what? What did he just say? Did he just say something about ‘angry white women’? What’s going on?
To her credit, Debris responded coolly, turning it around and turning it back to the matters at hand, namely the project and her role within it, as well as her work as performer, writer and educator. Now it was my turn.
“So Joe, tell me, Hull is characterised as being your typically depressed Northern town with a struggling economy – how do you think the City of Culture can possibly turn around perceptions?”
To be fair, the guy had done his research. Here I was, looking around the studio like a twonk, expecting a ‘hey, it’s very hot here, how you coping?’ type question, but he had steamed in with an actual question that I had to think about in order to respond. I did my usual trick of saying ‘Errrr’ for a long time while my brain came up with something comprehensible. I played it safe and gave the stock diplomatic response along these lines: “Well, one of the reasons that City of Culture is so important is that not only is it leading to economic regeneration, it allows us to communicate with our art and culture so we can challenge negative perceptions.”
You’re welcome City of Culture team; please put my cheque in the post promptly.
The interview didn’t last much longer after that. As we were led from the studio, I couldn’t help but think about how we had just a fraction of the space afforded to cartoon Ceaser and Toga girl, whom, as it turned out, were there to promote the opening of a new restaurant in a famous pizza-chain franchise. Those pesky sponsors.
We had the morning earmarked for getting some paperwork done; myself, Debris, Pip and Debo had things we needed to catch up with, be it copy for shows, funding bids, reports, blogs or whatever, but Jean Claude wanted to quickly take us somewhere. “I have somewhere special that you need to see,” he said enigmatically as we drove out of the studio car-park.
After passing a downtrodden market area, where stalls threatened to sell you dolphins to eat, we drove up another winding road, this time up the hills to the north of St James. As we got higher, the view of the Port of Spain spread out further, until we arrived at a place at the top. As we stepped out of the car and made our way over to a picnic area located at the bottom of the site, the entirety of the Port of Spain spread out before us. Here we were, high in the hills, this spectacular dizzying vista before us, the whole of Port of Spain reduced to a real-time, real-life google map, entire districts that we could pretend to cover up with the shadows of the hands we held up to cover our eyes. I can’t keep saying breath-taking over and over again, but what else can you say?
We were at a historical site called Fort George. Originally named La Vigie, or ‘lookout’, it was chosen for development precisely for its strategic panoramic view, and was built and developed by African slaves as a defensive post in the Napoleonic wars.
As we walked around, gasping and taking photos, Jean Claude took it as an opportunity for him to speak about Port of Spain, and his experiences of it. Up here, looking down on it from this perch, we were able to take in the full spectrum of the Trinidad experience, as related to us by one of its sons. We explored the full gamut of all it had to offer, with added benefit of perspective, both visually and figuratively. From the crime-struck areas of working-class Laventille, with its Rasta Cities and Muslim Cities that violently clashed, both with one another and within (“The drugs tend to pass through Trinidad on their way to America,” Jean Claude explained. “The guns, the automatic rifles, they tend to get left behind.”), through the suburbs of Belmont, to the night-life district of St James, leading to the sky-scraper strewn downtown area of Port of Spain’s financial hub, and finally towards the bays and harbours of Chaguaramas.
From the run-down shacks to the multi-million beachfront apartments. From the ghettos to the skyscrapers. From the murder-filled streets to the party-filled bars and clubs. From the no-go districts to the must-be spots. From the places without pity and prospects, to the places where anything can happen and the opportunities are endless. From the blood-soaked pavements to the sun-kissed bays.
It was all here.