Tuesday, April 23, 2024

PEOPLE AND THINGS: The curtain falls


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Several people who read these articles might understandably be unaware of the significance of its title, People And Things.

It is a badge of considerable distinction and honour which I have carried with humility since September of 2000 when my uncle, John Wilsden Wickham, passed away and this baton which he took from his father, Clennell Wilsden Wickham, was passed to me (Peter Wilsden Wickham). John opted for People And Things over the other title under which my grandfather wrote, It Appears To Me, presumably because it appeared to reflect the less combative focus my uncle would take.

I have always found the title to be a curious and perhaps somewhat old-fashioned “catch-all” phrase which identified the range of issues to which my grandfather spoke. He was easily the most versatile author of People And Things and a casual reading of his articles demonstrated the extent to which he moved effortlessly between fearless critiques of the harsh conditions under which we existed in colonial Barbados to the lighter literary pieces which demonstrated his command of the art of persiflage. 

Ironically, both subsequent authors were considerably less versatile than Clennell and took People And Things in different directions and, I hasten to add, directions to which he would perhaps not have objected.

John appeared averse to controversial issues and demonstrated a high level of literary flair and discipline, which was consistent with his father’s inclination.

I cannot recall an occasion when John devoted People And Things to any controversial social or political issue, but his articles were nonetheless a must-read each Sunday for many. He could captivate the reader with his description of a morning walk with his dog and I doubt he would ever have received a phone call or letter from a reader who was aghast at his violation of the rules of Standard English. (Sadly, I have received several of these).

 When the title was passed to me, the pendulum swung entirely in a different direction. My style could not have been more different from that of my uncle as I spoke only to social and political issues and avoided the lighter literary pieces, which I admit are far too rare today.

There have been occasions when I spoke to the People in a way that was not controversial, such as the tribute to my father and my reflection on the passing of my dog Suzie. Interestingly enough, readers appeared to enjoy these articles but I have always been concerned that I could easily bore people with reflections that mean more to me than the reader.

A little needs to be said about the literary excellence which might have been compromised when People And Things left the hands of the older Wickhams.

Certainly, I agree that it is important for a writer to have a command of the English language such as that which was reflected in the writings of Clennell and John, but while I admire them, I equally appreciate my own literary limitations.

It is most unfortunate that the generation of columnists who “wrote well” is virtually gone but this is in many ways the reflection of a literary environment that has become very “industrial”.

In Clennell’s time, writing and publishing was a complex chore that was approached with some delicacy and copious amounts of love. Clennell would have penned his articles which would later have been typeset by his sister Barbara in some instances before the press started to roll.

 The process was painstaking and messy and the end product was but a few pages that few could afford to buy and many were unable to read for themselves.

By the time that People And Things was resurrected, John would have written to a larger audience since literacy levels had increased and the process of publishing was easier, cheaper and more frequent. 

Nonetheless, John still wrote his articles with a pen (although not a fountain pen) and thereafter dutifully typed each word, using that opportunity to make amendments.

Naturally, I was somewhat surprised to hear this since to actually “write” an article always seemed like a duplication, but my uncle defended the logic of his strategy by reminding me that there is a good reason why one does not speak of “typing” an article. He therefore promised that he would continue to let his creativity come from the pen and not the typewriter.

 The era of development occupied by me, the third and now final author of People And Things, could easily be described as the industrial age of writing. It is now so easy to write and publish that just about everyone is doing it, which is, of course, not always a good thing. Papers are now larger, cheaper and more widely read than in the time of John and Clennell.

In addition, I, like most columnists, “write” using the computer and rely on spell and grammar check to ensure adherence to literary rules. We simultaneously publish in the papers and online, which means that it is not unusual to receive instantaneous comment from someone in Australia who stumbled upon an edition of People And Things which caught their interest. As a result we are now less careful simply because the opportunity to communicate presents itself regularly, without the need to write, type, typeset or print.

The falling standards are therefore unfortunate, but are equally a reflection of human development which can convey substantially greater enhancements. Perhaps in time we may yet come to see the closure of this chapter as one such development in the progression of the newspaper business.

As the curtain falls today on more than 100 years of People And Things editions “penned” by three generations of “Wilsden Wickhams”, I hope history will record that the legacy built by its original author in less than 20 years was not violated by his descendants in the 20-odd years that John carried the baton, or the 15 that I held responsibility.

Perhaps the greatest tribute is that I can say with some confidence that neither John nor I were given the opportunity to write People And Things because of our proximity to Clennell, but that we nonetheless used our ancestor’s cudgel to advance a struggle he started in a different time in a different way.

• Peter W. Wickham (peter.wickham@caribsurf.com)is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).

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