My meetings with the late Edgar Mittleholzer were never peaceful. I did not much like him; and this failure he justly returned. But I must say what I mean by like. First of all, I find it almost impossible to settle into a permanent dislike of anyone. Whatever the crisis of relationship, however treacherous the behaviour, it occurs to me that a way for communication remains open. Always I would like to make the first move towards a return.
I would have to know myself a great deal better than I do now to say whether this is a virtue. In moments of close enquiry into myself, into my way of being, I have thought that this instinct for return need not suggest a generous heart. It may be the very opposite. But I always kept the door open where Edgar was concerned.
I know of one absolute reason why this was so. He was a West Indian and a serious writer. Herein lies a combination which makes a claim on my attention, on my humanity, that surpasses (almost) anything else. And this has nothing to do with nationalism, or regionalism, in the vulgar and uncouth political or sociological ways these terms are used. The West Indian who is also a serious writer is bound up with my own conception of my personal destiny, of my relation to a world of spirit and the ‘foods that nourish my feeling’.
If I did not much like Mittleholzer, what remains more important is the truth that he evoked a recognition on my part which I would accord few of our colleagues. I respected Edgar: the courage of the man. We were both produced by societies born of a special brutality; a brutality which chooses the spirit of a man for its target; and when your natural enemies are about to strike, it is always at the very guts of you that they aim. That was so in 1909 when Mittleholzer was born. Today, it remains substantially true.
I met him for the first time in Trinidad. A boy fresh from the feudal restrictions of a Barbados childhood, I had an idea what I wanted to do with my life; and little doubt what I wanted the style of that life to be. One remarkable stroke of luck was my ‘failure to get into the Barbados Civil Service’. There are various stories in circulation about this. The only encounter I recall is an interview. A porter had been sent to summon me by name from a waiting room. I met three men. One pointed me to a chair, and looked again at the application forms before him. Then he asked: “What is your name?” I replied that it was on the sheet of paper he was reading. This interview was very brief.
My future had already chosen me; and this moment was to confirm that choice, to manure in a boy’s bitterness and fear the man’s later duty to his life. I was not only going to be a writer but writing was going to be my way of life. The only certainty I inherited from those days was the knowledge that nothing can force me consciously to alter that course. And I saw in Edgar Mittleholzer — whom I did not then know, except as a man who wrote — a confirmation of my duty.
As a boy making his frivolous rounds of the Queen’s Park Savannah in Port-of-Spain. I admired the man. And how 1 admired that man can be grasped only by those who know what it means to be summoned by the future to create a personal style of living. It was the sheer courage of Mittleholzer, the uncompromising nakedness of the man before the spiritual squalor, the atrocious lack of heart which characterised Port-of-Spain, that ordered me without a word being said to pay attention to the one and essential duty that would be my life.
He played no part in the formation, the evolution of my will; but I encountered him like a sign from heaven sent to tell me, to warn me, and yes! to console me in this madness of impulse which made my duty to my life so clear. I was a writer and any deviation from this would be my doom. It was clear to me that he could not deviate; would never. A certain aristocracy of will protected him.
It is in this connection that I am frequently reminded of my own protection. In moments of past distress when the slightest failure would slaughter forever my pride, my mother — a poor woman and an aristocrat in her own right — used to say: “The Lord never sends a bird without a branch.”
Shortly after that Civil Service interview, and a little before my departure for Trinidad, I lived very close to the possibility of suicide. An enforced idleness took me to the beach everyday, at all hours of the day, sometimes three times a day. And my mother knew, I believed, that I might not be going to swim. It was then this exhortation of hers, this motto that was to be a label on my future, was most poignantly uttered: “The l.ord never sends a bird without a branch.”
Later, when I was to lose that faith which might have provided me with my mother’s direct communion with the Lord, the motto acquired another meaning, my meaning. And I saw that meaning in Mittleholzer, I saw in him that symbolic branch that waits and until death still waits to accommodate the bird that has built it.
How can I explain this? I know with an absolute clarity of feeling what I mean; but how can I communicate the essence of this symbol, that is branch accommodating bird. Let me say simply that it has to do with style. Nothing matters more than a man’s discovery of his style, a discovery which is also part of his own creation, and style — not a style — but style as the aura and essence, the recognised example of being in which and out of which, a man’s life assumes its shape. The flavour of his thinking, the furious silences that fill his heart, and finally his function, the work that chooses him and for which there is no alternative; no other instruments he can select to fulfill that choice. These constitute the style of the man. Mittleholzer’s life had these: a special shape, a distinct flavour, and a function that was absolute. The person and the performer you call writer were inseparable.
Even the manner of his dying can be seen to be an example of the necessary logic of that style. It was a very sad death which our mutual friend and colleague, Andrew Salkey, has recorded in this way:
I looked into your open grave.
And I thought of the burnt ground,
A short walk away from your rented cottage,
So very much a bit of burnt B.G. ground,
A long salt-trek away.
And I heard myself saying.
I was there on that melancholy 2 o’clock afternoon: the green and near abandoned churchyard, an old grave-digger, unaware of what was happening, and lost in wonder at the silence and pain of four men — we were the only people to linger around that narrow, indifferent hole open in the ground. It was difficult, for a moment, to separate the meaning of Edgar’s self-burning from the total crucifixion of feeling which was obviously making Salkey cry inside. For Salkey had become the only person known to me with whom Mittleholzer maintained any real contact at all.
This sad and stubborn and always courageous solitude of style that was the essence and aura of Edgar’s living had persisted to the very last flaming second of his dying.
All I can recall saying on our way back to London was: “He would not have liked this,” meaning that he would have disapproved and with contempt of the ritual farewell we were making of his death. He would have hated the thought of my writing what I have written; indeed, of my writing anything at all about him. And this may be an example of the similarities which divided, and now eternally separate me from him. For what Mittleholzer thought about me has never made and can now make no difference whatsoever to the way I see him, meaning his style.
He was a writer before any of my generation had a clue what was truly involved in the commitment to such a function and he proved without the consoling blessings of the Lord, that a certain style of suffering may be the only branch available for many a bird to go on building.