Anthony Bourdain captured my attention and enraptured me several years ago by his brilliant story telling. He described cultural practices of other peoples as joyful discoveries, ending mostly with the food they consumed and the traditions that gave rise to the particular dish. He visited places that I would never see, tried dishes that I would never taste, related cultures that I would never experience, all with a rare gift of dialogue and expert camera work that brought to life the country, its traditions, its people and its food. As he was investigating foods and restaurants in Queens, New York, he discovered the birdmen of Guyana and devoted part of an episode on Queens to them. Relating this story, is the best way that I can think of paying tribute to Anthony Bourdain.
There is no time that I do not remember not being revolted by the caging of birds. Whenever the occasional report appeared in the press of a Guyanese being caught by the authorities smuggling birds to New York in the horrendous conditions that smugglers do, I would unsympathetically turn the page, considering the method of smuggling and the life of captivity of birds too painful to contemplate. But the darker reality of the ‘pastime’ came to me a short while ago when I was told that not far away from my home a motor cyclist stopped, dismounted and attempted to rob a passerby of a bird in a birdcage in his hand. Weeks after, it was reported that a young man on a motor cycle was shot dead as he tried to rob someone of a bird being carried in a birdcage. I don’t know if it was the same motor cyclist. Upon inquiry, I was told that a bird can fetch up to $200,000.
I am not a monarchist, a trait I share with many British people, including Jeremy Corbin, the leader of the Opposition Labour Party, although his views on this matter are now muted. I believe that heads of state should be elected. I hasten to add that if elections were held in Britain for head of state, Queen Elizabeth would win hands down. Not being British, my views are of little consequence. But Guyana has had a sympathetic view of the British Monarchy because we were a colony of Britain for 150 years during which we were indoctrinated into loyalty and support for the Monarchy. Since Independence we have been in the Commonwealth of which Queen Elizabeth has been the head, which is soon to be Prince Charles. In recent years Queen Elizabeth and members of the Royal Family, including Prince Charles, Prince Andrew on a private visit and Prince Harry, have visited Guyana. Therefore, Guyana’s connection with, and even respect for, the British Royal Family is long and enduring and remains current.
The entry of Princess Diana into the Royal Family by her marriage to Prince Charles in 1981 added a dash of glitter and glamour to an otherwise conservative, staid, reserved, unsmiling, unadventurous, stiff upper lip, emotionless operation, referred to by its members as the “firm.” Her charitable work and the causes she undertook, both before and after her acrimonious divorce from Prince Charles in1996, catapulted her into international stardom. Princess Diana embraced the underprivileged and disadvantaged, ended the myth that AIDS was transmissible by contact by shaking hands with AIDs victims and highlighted the dangers of land mines. Her iconic life and good deeds after her divorce attracted worldwide support and attention and it has been suggested that her presence in the Royal Family and separation therefrom started the process of bringing it into the modern world.
Neither Marx nor his contemporaries would ever have believed that his name would survive for 200 years. For his entire life, he had been known only in limited revolutionary and activist circles. His journalism and published works reached only a small audience. By the 1860s his works had not been in print for twenty years. He had hoped that Capital, published in 1867, would sell enough to liberate him from his lifelong, grinding, poverty. But only 1,000 copies were sold in five years in Germany. His funeral in 1883 was attended by 11 persons.
But he left a vast treasure of learning. Only in their twenties, both Marx and Engels wrote works which made little mass impact at the time, but which have become vastly important in the history of ideas. The most famous of them, now the most recognised political tract of all time, the Communist Manifesto, written in 1848, is still revelatory of capitalism’s contradictions and its trajectory (Yanus Varouflakis “Marx predicted the present crisis and points the way out” April 20 2018). Marx’s ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts’ and Engels, ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England,’ both published in 1844, were to become important classics in the nineteenth century discourse on political economy. Other major publications by Marx include The German Ideology (1845), The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), The Eighteenth Braumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1850), Contribution to Critique of Political Economy (1859), Capital Vol 1 (1867) and dozens more.
On Wednesday last the public was treated to a brilliant and expansive lecture by the former Chancellor (ag) of the Judiciary and now Distinguished Jurist-in-Residence at the University of Guyana, Carl Singh. The subject was “The Constitutional Guarantee of Fundamental Rights and the Citizen. The lecture, to a packed hall and attentive audience at Herdmanston House, was the third in the series “Conversation on Law and Society.” Chancellor Singh started by pointing out that while citizens may not always be cognizant of what their right are, they are certainly aware that the Constitution guarantees them, which they are often prepared to aggressively defend. He related the story of a visitor to a hospital in Georgetown who was being prevented from entering because the visiting hours had come to an end. During the argument between the visitor and the hospital staff, the visitor loudly proclaimed that it was her constitutional right to enter the hospital to visit her relative!
Chancellor Singh explored a wide range of issues, not all of which can be examined here. A few are selected.
Divided societies like Guyana suffer from a phenomenon whereby historic events which, when they occurred, gave rise to allegations of ethnic bias, never seem to go away. The West Indies Federation, which lasted from 1958 to 1962, is one such. It is an historic event which is hardly relevant to contemporary Guyana today. Yet the debate on Jagan’a attitude to the Federation rages, as if the event occurred yesterday, and not more than 50 years ago. It is contextualized to the current ethnic controversies, one of which is to seek to continually paint Jagan as a racist, or at least to allege that he was motivated by ethnic considerations. His role in the establishment of the University of Guyana has become another. But that is for another time.
An editorial in the Stabroek News of December 19, 1986, on ‘Regional Integration’ stated that ‘…others, notably Eusi Kwayana (then Sydney King) attributed Jagan’s opposition [to the Federation] to his unwillingness to be swamped in a predominantly African grouping. C.L.R. James is also reported to have made a similar assertion. In response to the Stabroek News editorial, Jagan replied as follows: