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SATURDAY’S CHILD: Culled to the Bar


SATURDAY’S CHILD: Culled to the Bar

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WHEN I WAS a little boy growing up in Trinidad, the big-time lawyers were known as “barristers” and were household names. Their legal exploits were legendary. They were the superstars of the daily newspapers, the Guardian and the Evening News, which carried verbatim coverage of court cases. In the rum shops, taxis and buses there were big arguments about on-going trials and which of the big-shot “barristers” would win.

There were some major murder cases, including the trial of Boysie Singh (the pirate of the Gulf of Paria) and Dr Dalip Singh, whose wife’s body was found in a bag in the Godineau River. These cases, and the murder of Thelma Haynes, a dancer whose body was never found, but for whose death Boysie Singh and his accessory Boland Ramkissoon were hanged, were fodder for the prescience for which the people of Trinidad and Tobago are famous.

There were famous barristers like Gaston Johnson, Lennox O’Reilly, Courtenay Hannays, Sir Hugh Wooding and his son Selby, and Karl Hudson-Phillips. Mitra Sinanan and his brother Ashford were the darlings of the East Indians in Central Trinidad. Ashford tried to become the first Prime Minister of the West Indies Federation in 1958 but lost to another barrister, Sir Grantley Adams. Four other barristers parlayed their legal reputations into political currency, Norman Manley and his son Michael, Errol Barrow and Forbes Burnham.

It is small wonder then that as a 12-year-old I wanted to be a barrister. We used to hold mock trials and argue ferociously until I read the Three Musketeers, called myself D’Artagnan, and all of us became “sword fighters”, using our rulers instead of our mouths to deal with arguments.

I still wanted to study law but the barrister business went away especially when I graduated to Sherlock Holmes and all I wanted was my own magnifying glass and deer-stalker hat.

Now, having scored my three score and ten, a time of life in which, as Alexander Woolcott wisely observed, everything in life is illegal, immoral or fattening, if I had to become anything it would not be a “barrister” but more likely a “barista”. A “barista” is described as a “person who makes and serves coffee in a coffee bar” but that description does not take in the real role of the modern “barista”, who is responsible for serving all products with friendly, individualised attention towards each customer and educating customers about the different types of coffees and their merits. Decorating the froth in a cappuccino is only part of the barista’s armoury.

The fact is that I love coffee and since I use it black and do not buy it contraband, counterfeit or with sugar, it is not illegal or fattening. Because I now restrict myself to no more than two cups a day, it does not feel immoral. I started drinking coffee when I was five and have seen it evolve into a near-religion. In fact, what makes a “barista” more than a mere server is the way coffee has become ultra-sophisticated. Coffee is now a gourmet experience bordering on the decadent.

Commenting on different coffees served at a competition, one gourmet said, “Some were sublimely subtle and elegant in their flavour. Then you had the big symphony orchestra coffees that just blasted you to the other side of the room.”

Three days ago, on September 30, the world celebrated International Coffee Day for the first time ever. This was agreed to by the International Coffee Organisation and was launched in Milan, Italy, where even in the old days, baristas were big. The inaugural event was used to promote fair trade coffee and to raise awareness for the plight of the coffee growers who are underpaid for their products. The BBC, in a documentary called Black Gold, showed the “dark side” of coffee. Farmers in the developing world are typically paid around US$8 for one pound of coffee, forcing them to remain poor, while the brands like Starbucks make starbucks, selling a cup of coffee at US$2.35 per cup. As one commentator observed, the farmers literally have serious grounds for complaining.

However, nobody denies the appeal and romance of the beverage itself. Rush Hour star Jackie Chan, who says “Coffee is a language in itself,” speaks Chinese, English and Coffee. Abraham Lincoln cryptically told a waiter, “If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee.” Deepak Chopra, alternative medicine advocate and promoter of spirituality, plumbs the depths of the singular cup, “Karma is experience, and experience creates memory, and memory creates imagination and desire, and desire creates karma again.

If I buy a cup of coffee, that’s karma. I now have that memory that might give me the potential desire for having cappuccino, and I walk into Starbucks, and there’s karma all over again.” I don’t see that far but I can say with T.S. Eliot, the poet, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons” and, like the substance itself, invariably end up in hot water.

• Tony Deyal was last seen complaining that a cup of coffee was tasting like mud to which the barista replied, frowning, “It was ground just a few minutes ago.”