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Broken stories, narrow mirrors

Sherwyn Walters

Broken stories, narrow mirrors

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I was flirting. With the wrong girl. With the wrong thing.
Nine years old, Class 2 at primary school, and I was trying to see how close to the sun I could fly without being burned.
I was part of a generation whose decent members could not say “damn” or “blasted” without receiving a box to the ears – or worse. Much worse if we put the words “kiss” and “ass” in the same sentence.
But she had offended me. She must pay.
So, let’s see . . . A little boyish cleverness, right?
Wrong. In church and in Sunday School I had learnt that Jesus was triumphant on a Palm Sunday donkey – and a few days later he was on a cross. I should have known.
The target of my boyish cleverness and the headmaster saw right through my flirtation with the dubious.
And to this day I believe that it was the fact that the puerile wordplay came from a li’l boy that saved me from the strap.
But big, hard-back men and women in calypso have for years used that same little-boyish approach to venture beyond the farthermost outskirts of what is acceptable. My excuse was that I was nine years old. What is theirs?
In truth, as we get older we may say that we are being playful. But we do tend to choose discretion in groups beyond a familiar circle, especially if our play deals with sex or involves frowned-upon words.
That is how it should be. Unless we are not intent on community, we recognize the divisive and self-indulgent nature of flouting standards for no good reason – even for entertainment purposes.
That, too, most people recognize, must have limits.
Still, we have these calypsos of people flocking up the country and hitting it and wanting to focus; of selling pussies (that are supposedly cats), of women begging for iron and doing “fuh Cree” and of Caribbean men with strange names like Benwood Dick and Long Ting. And the like.
I know that they are part of my “kiss my donkey” lineage. And even more on the black sheep side of the family too.
But you know what? Those who want to cross the limits with those kinds of songs never talk about why they should be allowed to cross the limits. Artists and artistes talk about those things all the time in other places. I say, start that conversation.
I’ll pursue another conversation here. Interestingly, these songs constitute one of the two types of calypsos that use story to any significant degree. The other type using narrative is the party song.
Now, story is indubitably a vital part of human living. Your own life experience validates that claim.
As if it was needed, so too have scholars and observers such as Brian Boyd, Robert Fulford, Harold Scheub, Annette Simmons, Marshall Gregory, Jerome Bruner, Jonathan Gottschall, Kendal Haven, Christopher Booker, David R. Roy, Keith Oatley . . . I was going to pass up listing people, and then I told myself that somebody out there may want to dig more deeply into this.
I don’t know who has put it as well as Christina Baldwin in Storycatcher: “Words are how we think; narrative is how we link.”
Anthony de Mello gives her a run for her money: “The shortest distance between truth and the human heart is a story.” (One Minute Wisdom)
And Robert McKee (Story): “Our appetite for story is a reflection of the profound human need to grasp the pattern of living, not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal, emotional experience.”
The story has been found to be so elemental to human living that there has been an explosion of research and publications about its feasibility as a tool in fields as disparate and as seemingly unlikely as therapy and business.
So I am pleased that somewhere in this major cultural form we can still find story. But these songs (double entendre? smut? clever ditties? bait for hypocrites?) present a narrow (mirror) image of us that seems to bother few people (so when it comes to calypso, we conveniently forget the Right Excellent Errol Barrow’s concern about that?)
I leave this for you to mull over: “Stories can be broken. Individuals and whole societies struggle to live by stories that cannot sustain them . . . . If our society as a whole is directionless, it is because we have abandoned many of the defining stories of our past without finding adequate replacements.” (Daniel Taylor – Tell Me A Story: The Life-Shaping Power Of Our Stories)
Yet, decency concerns aside, people say the problem with the saucy songs is their want of cleverness. I have a whole piece dealing with that and other things. Should I bring it next week? We’ll see.
• Sherwyn Walters is a writer who became a teacher, a song analyst, a broadcaster and an editor. Email [email protected]