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My Two Cents on 'fire in Babylon': And a Slightly Different Take on 'Calypso Cricket'

By Corey Gilkes
October 01, 2011

On Wednesday I went to MovieTowne in Port of Spain for the first time ever (no, seriously). Now before the last seven friends I have left in this world get vex with me, rest assured I haven't had a change of heart and decided to be like everyone else. It was only because that was where the documentary "Fire in Babylon" was being shown and allyuh know how strongly I feel about cricket and social consciousness. So yuh boy gone and took in the thing (and again on Sunday to see the documentary on the Black Power Movement "70s the Movie").

All in all "Fire in Babylon" was a very nice documentary that I do hope gave the young teenagers I noticed in the audience a better understanding of how sports in general and cricket in particular can instill pride and confidence at the social and political level. I think that in an era where we are constantly inundated with messages that the only important thing is the "bottom line" -- making money and plenty of it -- the idea that there are other things, intangible things that are equally if not more important than making money and achieving status cannot be repeated too often. Plus the sentimental side of me is always triggered when I see the old legends like Viv, Holding, "Big Bird" Garner and Lloyd. Their accounts of what inspired them and what they went through are invaluable if we want to inculcate similar values and commitment among this generation of young sportsmen and budding professionals


That said (yuh know it always have a "but" with me), I still found the documentary somewhat wanting. Don't get me wrong eh, I'm not pounding the director -- in fact parts of it were quite moving -- but I must state that this documentary showed just how important it is that WE need to start telling our own stories from our perspective. First off, I found that even though the film focussed on the glory years of the 1970s and 80s, it barely glimpsed at the preceding years. In my opinion to best understand how that period of the heady 70s and 80s came to be there could have been a little more detailed examination of West Indies cricket and social consciousness in the Caribbean from the late 19th century to the decolonisation period and the rise of Sir Frank Worrell to the captaincy. Note the use of the word detailed; I appreciate the constraints of time and the period the filmmakers were focussing on but in my opinion (and me eh no kinda expert really) I don't think that sufficient mention was given to this especially if one compares 'Fire in Babylon" to, say, "Empires of Cricket: The West Indies."

But what really prompted me to write this was something this neophyte first came across some time ago. In the 1950s the title "calypso cricket" was appended to the West Indies style of playing which brought flair and showmanship to what was a very plaid, dull form of the game when it was ruled by the British. Even with the more brutal Australians cricket was by and large a game in which the principal teams played among each other like "family" members who observed gentleman's agreements of reserved behaviour. This was not by chance; it must be remembered that since the late 19th century cricket was one of the vehicles by which the British, who truly believed in the superiority of their culture and the Anglo-Saxon, sought to project that idea and instill their values of "civilised" behaviour, fair play, deference to authority and especially restraint and self-control. Influenced by the ideas of Ancient Greece and the writings of Plato, Socrates and the other famous Greek thinkers, all facets of British middle-class life and mannerisms revolved around facades characterised by controlled, restrained behaviour; the famous stiff-upper-lip -- facades that tended to be put aside whenever they had to go into and "civilise" natives in the lands they colonised but that's a different matter I suppose.

Anyway, spontaneity and gaiety were viewed by the Greeks as irrational, uncultured behaviour, traits which were found in persons still shackled to irrational, uncontrollable nature and were thus unmanly (read "effeminate"). It therefore followed that the game of cricket represented the highest form of "man" -- the restrained, often expressionless masculine stoic. Black players (and spectators) coming from the Caribbean and societies that still had strong cultural retentions of Africa and India, brought flair and colour that were manifested in all facets of daily living and in so doing jolted the serene, near lifeless game. The problem was that for a certain period of time this showmanship and flamboyancy was not accompanied by sustained success in Test series and from what I gather the term "calypso cricket" came to be viewed in a decidedly negative light; a term that evoked images of a happy-go-lucky, laissez-faire approach to the game and life in general with little sense of discipline, commitment and focus.

Interviews of Clive Lloyd showed that he was particularly uncomfortable with the terms and sought to transform the style of WI playing -- which he did with devastating effect. Perhaps this is also one of the reasons why Steven Riley, the director of the film, chose to almost completely ignore the many calypsos that had a longer history of recording the victories and prowess of WI cricketers than the more directly confrontational reggae songs. I have absolutely no problem with reggae and rockers as those who know me personally can testify, but where was reggae when Lord Kitchener and Lord Beginner led hundreds of Caribbean migrants onto the field at Lords in 1950 when the West Indies won the second test ("with those little pals of mine/Ramadhin and Valentine")? Where was Prince Far I and I Roy when Learie Constantine, Sobers and the 3 W's were doing us proud? Didn't Kitchener and Maestro produce calypsoes when the West Indies mash up England and Australia and won the World Cup? Sorry, but in "Fire in Babylon," kaiso got short changed (as usual).

But more than that is this negative idealising of "calypso." For hundreds of years people writing on life in the Caribbean painted images of laid back living, which in some respects it was -- depending on what level of society you were of course. However, Europeans settlers, many of whom were themselves little more than commoners and even criminals back in England, coupled with racist justifications for enslavement and colonialism, projected the idea of the shiftless, lazy, un-industrious person onto the enslaved and colonised Africans and later Indians. To this day we often hear it said that we Trinis have a Carnival mentality (which by and large we in turn accept and internalise) because "Carnival" and "calypso" is almost unquestioningly accepted as being synonymous with any behavior not in keeping with being industrious. THAT I have a real problem with; I know too much about the work that goes into carnival, too much about the sacrifices that are made to produce Carnival, too much about the pre-colonial societies of Africa to accept that ours is an ethic of laziness.

We'd do well if we came to see "calypso cricket" and "carnival mentality" as forms of industriousness and resistance expressed differently. Yes, you read correctly, seeing the flair and showmanship, even the laid back approach as assaults on Eurocentric definitions of what it means to be productive. Now before you think that this is a long-winded excuse for laziness, un-productivity and the attitudes of many public servants, rest assured it is not. But it is a call for us as Caribbean people who still have links to African and Indian worldviews to start learning how to note the differences in cultural outlooks and to define things on our terms. Serious students of African culture know very well that Africans were always entrepreneurial, were always industrious. It didn't start in Greece and end in England. However, that industriousness was not accompanied by a worldview that saw nature as a constant and ever present threat that could annihilate us, unlike Western thought. Because we are not taught the history of the ideas that fed the work ethics of Western Europe we don't understand that behind the great inventions and improvements that have made our lives easier are deeply entrenched beliefs built on irrational fears of encroaching nature and death if "control" is allowed to slip and fluidity and spontaneity take hold. Cricket in many respects embodied the best display of the mask of control (cloaked in the mantle of "civilisation")

Until them damn black immigrants arrived

The idea that "calypso cricket" could be interpreted as a repudiation of Western industrial asceticism did not occur to me until I read Carol Boyce-Davies' examination of Trini-born activist Claudia Jones. In "The Left of Karl Marx" she argued that Jones' contribution to the Notting Hill Carnival sought to use the Mas as another vehicle to on the one hand instill consciousness and confidence among Caribbean migrants and on the other to defy the pretensions of the "reserved" British. By using the revelry, spontaneity and abandon of the Mas it challenged and stripped the veneer of "control" that even many British resented. Likewise, the showmanship of Constantine, Ramadhin, Sobers, Kallicharan, the swagger of Richards and Lara, the blast of the bugle and the conch shell that jolted the English out of his reverie as he sat in the stands, all in often barely perceptible ways helped us to "colonise in reverse" and make a mockery of English imperial ideas of being "civilised."

This is how I'd like calypso cricket to be understood. This is how I'd like us to apply the Carnival mentality. Not to lie around in indolent, un-productive stupor eh caring if Sunday fall on a Wednesday, but to transform whatever space or society we find ourselves in using our culture of creativity and inventiveness and matching it with our love for living, sensual pleasures and colour. And in so doing attacking and scaling back that frantic, unifocal approach to "progress" as defined by the self-hating West which, if left unchallenged will destroy us all.

So go get copies of "Fire in Babylon;" it should be shown in all schools along with "Empires of Cricket: The West Indies" (see it on YouTube). But more than that, let us start telling our own stories.

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