The paradise island drenched in pre-Vatican II Catholicism

The Trinidad coastline: 'This beauty, like all beauty, is only skin deep'

The Caribbean, as some people insist on calling it – I myself prefer the older fashion of designating it the West Indies – remains something of a fixation with a certain breed of British person. It is not for nothing that the BBC has recently produced another totally unwatchable series (at least I can’t watch it) called Death in Paradise, which brings together British obsessions with murder mystery and a fictional Caribbean island setting is the setting, one imagines, that sells the show. Who would want to watch a murder mystery set in Clapham?

The truth of the matter is that the Caribbean setting is a very attractive one. This has something to do with the astonishing beauty of many of the islands, and really, there is nothing more lovely than some of the white beaches of let us say Anguilla, or the verdant and mountainous northern coast of Trinidad, the place where the chaconia flower blooms. But this beauty, like all beauty, is only skin deep. Under it lurks something a little more harder to appreciate. I would not say ugliness, ever, but rather several layers of history each of which has left its mark. A trip to Port of Spain, even as a casual visitor, confirms this: one sees a city frozen in a moment of becoming. There are modern buildings of the usual type everywhere, but stuck amidst them are the leftovers of a past age: ramshackle wooden dwellings, some of them very beautiful, with the traditional fretwork and decoration that was once universal. These buildings are mainly doomed, sadly; and as with the buildings, so with the people who once lived in them. They too move around like ghosts. But Trinidad has always been like this, one imagines, always in the grip of the modern, always stubbornly resisting.

VS Naipaul, who is a fine writer, wrote a book about the West Indies some fifty years ago, in which he laments the brashness and vulgarity of modern Trinidad. The book is called The Middle Passage  and is still in print. It is well worth reading, if only as the opposite to the myth of the Paradise island. To Naipaul, the West Indies are the hell from which he escaped. It is rather an awful book, but an honest one.

More recently I have been reading another author whose subject is Trinidad. He is Lawrence Scott and his latest collection of short stories is entitled Leaving by Plane Swimming Back Underwater.

His subject is Trinidad, a Trinidad that is drenched in its past, particularly drenched in the piety and devotion of pre-Vatican II Catholicism. Scott’s writing resembles that fretwork familiar from decaying porches and window frames: intricate, almost rococo, and because Trinidad is such a multi-layered place, because nothing is simple, his style is perfectly suited to his subject. Scott comes nearest to any English language author I know to carrying off that difficult task of evoking a place that is real and at the same time completely other. One of the short stories is about the eruption of a volcano: it is a tour de force. The eruption of a volcano is a perfect subject for him: it evokes the strange dislocation between the everyday and the cataclysmic, the way our existence (for in this way we are all like the West Indies) is something that happens on the edge of disaster.

A long time ago, as people remind me from time to time, I too tried to write about the West Indies, and Trinidad in particular. This summer past I had a strange experience. I was in Trinidad and I went with one of my brothers to pick up a Chinese takeaway in a town in the south of the island. Yes, I know this sounds banal. But it wasn’t. The Chinese food was identical to Chinese food everywhere else. But the vast building that dominated the town, owned by the Chinese, which seemed to double up as a snooker hall and a gambling den, and perhaps another commercial enterprise besides; the way the small group of people were hunched over the electronic roulette table in the echoing, darkened hall, shuttered off from the reality of outside; the way the girls lounged behind the bar, half asleep, as if imprisoned in an enchanted castle – well, only the food was normal about the place. The atmosphere reminded one of putting one’s head underwater in a swimming pool, entering another world, one of silence and curiously slow movement. It was this that I had tried to evoke all those years ago with my book about a gambling den (among other things) in a town in Trinidad. That book is dead and buried or gathering dust on people’s shelves. But I do recommend Lawrence Scott. He’s fresh, he’s original, he gives the strange atmosphere of the West Indies a voice.