Kendel Hippolyte on the St. Lucian Folk Research Centre fire

Published Categorized as From the Archives, Literary Heritage

My bond with the Folk Research Centre reaches back forty years – to 1977, when I came back from Jamaica to spend a year to help me determine whether I would settle in Saint Lucia or in Jamaica. I had left home in 1972 and was not present during that miraculous burst of psychic energy which gave birth in the early 70s to FRC, among other powerful manifestations of the time. I can still feel sometimes a twinge that I was not part of the Study Action Group which, with the passion of youth and in that era of passion, followed Paba the radical priest into rural communities to receive and respect and spread knowledge about the folkways of generations of our fore-parents.

But since 1977, I’ve been connected with FRC (with varying degrees of strength) in probably every capacity: ordinary member, board member, staff member, general supporter and advocate of its work, its necessity – in truth, its indispensability – if our development (culturally, yes, but politically and economically as well) is to be whole.

Memories of its locations, its physical housings, float in the mind now:

… a light blue door downstairs of the Roman Catholic Parish Centre in Castries, opening into a light blue room probably 12’x12’; enclosed wooden shelves, with their doors frames of chicken-wire netting; a small but astounding book collection (I first came across Gurdjieff there); rows of now old-fashioned reel tapes of the ground-breaking radio programme, ‘Folkways of Saint Lucia’; a few of the traditional wood-and-straw chairs. Astonishing how to think much work was generated in that room, how much left that blue space and went out humming into the Saint Lucian socio-scape.

… years later, when I was a staff member, FRC’s location a solid, old-style, pink ‘upstairs house’ on L’Anse road. My job had a fancy title: Research and Publications Officer. The truth was that each of the three staff members multi-tasked as a matter of course. I learned a lot – and fast! If the cleaner had had any admin or secretarial skills, she would have found herself dragooned into service. (Maybe she had and, realising the situation, kept them well-hidden.) The work of FRC and its social profile was by then (I was on staff 1989-91) large and indelibly a part of Saint Lucia’s understanding of itself.

… its recent location (i was going to write ‘last’, then the ambiguity of the word twanged – an intuitive tremor) was (is?) a modestly grand structure, at one time the family home of a prominent family of the white merchant class. Solidly reposed on an acre of beautiful half-wild greenery, we all thought of it as the place (at last!) where another phase of FRC would unfold, vision would glow brighter still, marvellous happenings would emanate into the society. The area, on a hill with a calming view of Castries harbour, and even the city bustle muted and pastel-gentle from that distance and perspective, was called Mount Pleasant.

No one was prepared for what happened the night of Sunday, March 25th. Emotionally, no one can be. One month later, April 25th, my imagination is still failing to truly take in. I know this – and I also know I can’t really feel the failure. Something not ready.

When did the numbness set in? I cannot pin-stick the date. What I do know is that a blue door shut inside me. Paba’s abundantly optimistic public response didn’t move me: “FRC is not a building. It’s a vision.”

Yeah, Paba, what else can you be expected to say? The media are twittering and tweeting, looking for a sound-byte. You gotta give them something, I guess.

I don’t know where that cynical voice came from then but … there it was. An instant reflex. Of what? Self-protection against a vain hope?

The call to a gathering to reflect on the tragedy and to re-vision FRC felt like something I heard in the far distance. And meant for other people.

An intention to go to the site, visually take it in, absorb its reality … refused to solidify into an actual decision.

Later I found out that a friend and FRC colleague, deeply connected with its work in every way from its earliest beginnings, had the same reaction of numbness. I wondered, and still do, whether this numbness is part of a quintessentially male mode of coping with deepest feeling. Perhaps …

How long this would have continued, I don’t know. Meanwhile, every time I was out of the house, everyone proffering expressions of sympathy, of shock, of anger, of bewilderment, of helplessness … I didn’t know what to do with these outpourings.

Sometime in early April, Nicholas Laughlin. Asking if I will accept a writing commission to do a piece on the FRC fire. I answer yes – without the slightest pause for rational consideration, assessing pros and cons etc. And I know then that the burying will have to stop. And perhaps (though I do not know) I may even come to see what I have been burying.

The writing comes in fragments, shapes I can only half-anticipate. And I still don’t know what the overall architecture of the piece will be. What is being unburied, I do not know – yet? Is the numbness decreasing, pins and needles prickling in the psyche? The honest answer is no. The numbness has become streaked through with curiosity. And with an awareness of a vigilant demand for craft in stitching the fragments together. That’s all that can be said.

On Easter Sunday afternoon, I went to the fire-ruins. I asked a friend, a multi-talented writer, dramatist, painter, photographer to come and take some photos. He did. The Easter Sunday date was happenstance, not an attempt at symbolism. It was the only day in which I could scrape a couple hours in a frenetic schedule leading to my leaving the island on Tuesday. But still …

Burying, Resurrection, Transformation … In the workings of Our Mother Natura, none of these are strange.


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