Celebrating Norman Girvan: A Life for All the Islands, A Life for Family

Girvan_914186224Norman Girvan: June, 1941-April 2014

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Caribbean_general_mapA Life for All the Islands

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Many, and widespread, and well deserving will be the expressions of respect, admiration, appreciation and love from politicians, academics and from the general public for the distinguished scholar, activist for Caribbean integration and irrepressible, optimistic and uncompromising idealist that was Norman.

To add a more personal dimension to his public persona, from his extended family, we highlight the joie de vivre that Norman expressed, a joyous approach to life which was magnified through his enthusiasm, and transmitted to others. Norman was, among so many other things, an unabashed missionary for things Caribbean. One very notable example of his enthusiasm was his passion for Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago. And he succeeded in making enthusiasts of some of his cousins who would make their own voyages of pilgrimage from North America to Norman and Jasmine’s residence in Port of Spain at Carnival time.

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Playing Mas

Norman Caribbean Playing Mas

Norman retained a refreshing youthfulness and remained

relevant socially, politically and intellectually throughout his life.

He was also seriously funny in the presence of friends and family.

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 Precocious Prepubescent Professor

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Within the family, even at 10 years old, the “Little Professor” Norman had already announced his intention to be Professor Norman Girvan. He had even acquired the necessary vocal gravitas and an interest in international affairs which he paraded regularly to his entourage. I recall Norman reading out loud, in as much a stentorian voice as a 10 year old can manufacture, the bold face , banner headlines of July 26th, 1952 from a newspaper either the Gleaner or the Miami Herald. “EVA PERON DIES!‘ he proclaimed!

Over the next six decades of Norman’s life, our family has felt a vicarious glow from his many accomplishments in the Caribbean region and internationally. We have indeed been fortunate to have had Norman walk with us for over seven decades.

Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened!

Dr.Seuss

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The account below, an exerpt from Caribbean Roots in Canadian Soil, is a cherished souvenir of one of the most memorable occasions, a night of shared terror, spent in Norman’s presence during summer holidays at his home on Molynes Rd. August 1951.

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1951

Hurricane Charlie and Aftermath

Chi chi bud oh! Some a dem a ‘alla, some a baal!

(Jamaican Folk Song)

Charlie-Aftermath

Illustration by Greg Moran, Victoria, B.C.

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 With slingshots in hand, Norman and I headed out from the house at Molynes Rd. We walked along a fence line to some open land away from buildings. A hundred yards or so away, when the nearest house was beyond the reach of our catapults, we collected pebbles of the appropriate size and shape, the ammunition for our armaments. Although we were now in bird hunting mode, past experience made our expectations for success in this endeavour modest. Consequently our objectives this day were simply to harness the pleasant monotony of another August day before September imposed the inevitable and unwelcome commitments of school.

No trespassing signs on the fence line kept us out of the woods where birds sought refuge from our slingshots, where birds had breakfast, lunch and supper, where birds lived, loved and pursued happiness. Our imaginings ran wild as we contemplated the abundance of our bird kill if only we were able to have access to this thick area of forest. For the time being we did have the fence line where the occasional bird from deep within the forest would come out to forage for ground dwelling insects. Of course, in the absence of birds on the road and on the fence line, there were glass bottles on fence posts to shatter with our sling shots: there were rusty tin cans to puncture: there were lizards on the fence and on hydro poles to harass.

Projecting the fence line to its limits would lead to an important communication post, a wireless station with its barbed wire perimeters, secure against vagrants, miscreants, malefactors and little boys on holidays. Way beyond the wireless station on Molynes Rd., where the world ended and the Caribbean Sea became the Atlantic Ocean, further still, somewhere off the west coast of Africa, a festering menace came trundling across the equator. It loitered on its way, sucking up sustenance from the water of the Caribbean Sea, borrowing energy from its warmth, coming to interrupt the pursuit of birds.

We amputated several tails and legs from a variety of lizards, decapitated a few pop bottles and disemboweled several tin cans that day before heading back home late in the afternoon satisfied with the day’s kill. The day following our birdless hunt on the road to the wireless station, the radio newscasts began to incorporate an unaccustomed element; a progress report for a hurricane.

A New Experience

For more than three hours now we have been besieged this late August night, at home behind a thin wood, concrete and glass veneer of security, buffeted by winds exceeding 125 m.p.h. Earlier in the evening we had watched apprehensively through a glowing orange haze as towering clouds displaced the sun. Night approached with the atmosphere quietly radioactive. The sky was remarkably beautiful for the menace that it held. For those among us, the very young and those still naive, who marveled at the magic of electricity, who still found inconceivable the reception of uttering of voices remotely placed in some distant radio studio, the prophesy of the hourly radio broadcasts warning of the possible, then the probable arrival of the hurricane was like an epilogue to the book of Revelations.

As the storm approached, the radio accounts of the hurricane became more frequent and progressively more incantatory. Now the regular programming was interrupted at ten minute intervals to impress upon us the importance of preparing for the inevitable event. The repeated and nearly unvarying reports of the progress of the hurricane, its current location, its general direction, the speed of its winds, the area it occupied and its likely time and specific location of arrival. The repetition, the rhythm, the prosody, the stilted language, the jargon of meteorology, in a culture not normally given to much interest in meteorology, lent an air of expectant cataclysm to the 48 hours before the storm.

Less than 24 hours before landfall, we were assured that barring some miraculous intervention, we were to be the next victim of a hurricane with winds up to 135 m.p.h near the centre. With a diameter of 250 miles, moving at a speed of 15-20 m.p.h, we could expect to be involved with our nemesis for about 12 hours. We could expect that the winds would blow from the east, north east for the first part of our ordeal. There would be a short period, the eye, of about an hour during which there would be little or no wind. We should, however, be under no illusion that this was the end of our trial. We should stay under shelter because the winds would pick up, this time from the west, south west to batter us until some twelve hours after its arrival, it blew itself out and drifted, weakened, into the Gulf of Mexico.

It was especially impressed upon us to remain indoors to escape the possibility of flying debris from broken limbs of trees, lumber missiles and, the hazard which most caught my fancy, large airborne sheets of corrugated metal from roofs launched into the frenzied night, cruising horizontal guillotines to decapitate those who would be unfortunate enough to be without shelter. At dusk we had watched the vanguard of wind and rain, the leading edge, rip the leaves from supple shrubs. Then dense blue night fell. After this, visibility depended on the mind’s eye translating the cacophony of wind sounds out there. Tortured trees limbs humming, buzzing, at first resisting, then with a crack flying out into the evening to collide with a thump eventually with some part of the building. Flapping, bending, metal sheathing prying rusty nails from their hold in weathered wood members, liberating fences and roofs.

The magic communication of radio had long since been nullified for lack of electricity. A pounding rain percussion pelting the metal roof had made communication within the house virtually impossible. Concurrent and consecutive vibrations of all descriptions, some sonorous high pitched whistles, some dull monotonous drones. And in this agitated and fertile blackness grew our fear. In the dark, unable to assess the condition of the world beyond the house, I am persuaded that every experience in my eleven years of life has been a pleasant fiction. I am possessed with the certainty that this storm is the new reality; that from now until the millennium we would be buffeted constantly by the instruments of an irascible God. We would have to seek shelter in fragile wood-framed structures until they imploded in the uneven pressures of the winds. We would then grope about in the dark until we found scarce grottoes in the earth, only to be expelled from our cave homes by people equally desperate but more savage. Finally forced out into the open, we would spend our time dodging shards of wind blown glass, scraps of flying metal or sharpened fence posts uprooted and become spears or, failing the necessary reflexes and alertness, to be decapitated ingloriously by some one’s late roof. Surviving the hazards of the storm, we would inhabit some post Armageddon landscape populated by oversized scorpions, microscopic, nearly invisible red ants, biting, rabid rodents and scaly lizards conveniently able to camouflage themselves to render one unsure of the true nature of the ground on which one was walking.

The eye of the hurricane, perhaps more mind boggling than any other of its features, arrives. Now reigns the absence of the background roar of gusts succeeding gusts, sustaining gusts, of constant gusts followed by episodic, exploding gusts, of gusts become the baseline, like a Niagara become the ordinary river, only to be superseded by enormous gusts the size of tsunami. The silence at first a psychological relief becomes a bitter sweet suspense.You think: “Let’s get on with it then, let’s finish this nightmare.” We move about inside the house tentatively, afraid to disturb the soggy equilibrium of the first assault on the house, as if our very movements could provoke a new barrage from the battering ram wind and horizontal rain.

The house is dark save for two sources of light. An elegant, rose pink coloured, glass, kerosene lamp sheds light on itself and on a glowing circle on the table under it. The lamp has a modified hourglass shape, crowned with a fragile, fancy glass shade, fluted on the top. It is a treasured relic of a recent pre-electric era. The other light comes from a hurricane lantern of metal and glass There is water in the house everywhere. It drips rhythmically, melodiously and percussively from the ceiling into pots and pans of varying sizes placed on the floor to minimize flooding. It beads up and trickles down the walls, uniting its many tributaries on the floor to form one gloriously undifferentiated water mass. Here a pool, there a puddle. We slop about in the half light of the hurricane lantern talking nervously, exchanging impressions of the first half of screaming, banshee winds, taking stock of the damage, wondering what to do in this brief hiatus before the new onslaught. Some of the boards that were used to protect the glass in windows have been blown away. In the short interlude repairs are virtually impossible so we await the second act with apprehension.

The cork screw winds return, screaming this time from the southwest. We must endure another hour of the powerful gales near the eye before the gusts become less able to tear mature trees out from their decades old tenure in the earth. We undergo the other diabolical half of Satan’s tempestuous counter clockwise cyclone with a growing confidence that having survived this far, we will live to see the end of it. At dawn the winds abate and although a steady, drenching rain continues for another hour creating rivulets in the house, in the morning before daybreak we manage a little sleep on benches under a dry section of the roof.

On waking, breakfast seemed somehow irrelevant. We had triumphed over one of nature’s terrors, had felt fear emerge through experience into confidence. Needing to confirm that what we had imagined in the blackness had indeed occurred, we left shortly after dawn to explore the aftermath of the hurricane. Leafless trees, uprooted trees, trees across power lines, broken power and phone lines drooped to the ground, flooded roadways, roofs and porches ripped from homes, bewildered residents picking through the debris to salvage sheet metal for their fences become skeletons. The sudden transformation of the city is difficult to comprehend in this geography where changes are wrought through patient growth or gradual decay. In these times and in this place, positive civic changes proceeded at the pace of evolution. Destruction was equally unhurried for there seemed to be few precedents for demolition. The devastation obvious now was shocking! The nearly immutable had suddenly become transitory. And in the disorder of the city the absence of bird songs imposed itself. With slingshots in hand we headed out along the fence line to survey the damage from the storm.

Out of habit we collected pebbles of the appropriate size and shape, the ammunition for our armaments. We were not really in bird hunting mode since there was so much more to see this morning. Our motivation was primarily to marvel at the devastation in the city, however the slingshot, part toy, part weapon, was an essential part of our adolescent accoutrements. At this stage in our adolescence leaving to go anywhere but to church and to school without the catapult was to leave only partially dressed. No trespassing signs on the fence line would normally have kept us out of the woods where birds of all sizes lived, loved and sought refuge from slingshots.

Our imaginings ran wild as we wondered at the lack of bird life on the road side of the fence and the silence from the woods. We had longed to jump the fence and find the community of birds that existed in the mirage that we saw somewhere past the fence and the chaos in the neighbourhood after the passage of the hurricane was the permission that we needed to violate the prohibition to enter. We climbed the barbed wire strands and hopped over the fence. A short distance beyond the fence line the mirage became real. Our wildest imaginings were realized. Since the trees packed closely together in the woods guaranteed the survival of the forest, little damage was evident beyond the outer edges. In the shelter of the forest dozens of dazed birds hunched disconsolately on the ground were barely able to avoid being trampled under our feet as we walked. Bending down we were able to pick some of them up with little resistance. Many had been hurt by flailing branches or hurled by the wind against some object. Drenched and shivering, all were defenseless and in shock. In the face of their pathetic plight we, the hunters, squatted on the ground among the birds under the canopy of the forest, disarmed, slingshots and stones still in our pockets.

A short time later we retraced our steps from the forest, back over the fence and returned home to wonder at the transforming events of the past 24 hours in the lives of two adolescent boys. A mere 24 hours later, the radio warns of another approaching hurricane. The suspense begins again.

Some a cling cling: Some a dem a halla, some a bawl

Some a groun’ dove: Some a dem a halla, some a bawl.

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800px-Columbina_passerina_-near_Salton_Sea,_California,_USA-8-1Ground Dove

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2 thoughts on “Celebrating Norman Girvan: A Life for All the Islands, A Life for Family

  1. Refreshing memory of Charles. And my own experience of Uncle Thom’s home.

    Norman will live on in the chemistry of our mind’s in many different ways.He had a good life.
    Peace and love

    • Hey there Trevs,
      Peace and love to you also my brother. You are right. He will indeed live on in our minds as well as in the history books. He will also inspire some young people to have another go at Caribbean Integration and/or wider regional cooperation.

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