Tue | Oct 17, 2017

Tony Deyal: For whom the belt tolls

Published:Saturday | January 9, 2016 | 12:00 AMTony Deyal, Contributor

Apart from some mundane meanderings in meaning, like the identity of Twirly and Twisty, the possibility of a pig dancing a jig for a fig, the wanderings of Goosey Goosey Gander and the gustatory delight of 'monkey liver soup', the West Indian Reader books that were mandatory in my primary-school days formed the rock of my English language education. Now, many years later, I am not sure whether it was the Reader or the curiosity it spawned in me that led me to the shirt of the happy man.

There are different prose and poetry versions of the story, but it starts with the unhappiness of a king and its impact on the country he ruled. A Scottish version describes the remedy, "A prescription was given for royal despair:/ To banish sadness the king had to wear/ The shirt, just the shirt, of a happy man./ The queen sent riders, the search began."

Given the acute state of neglect into which the kingdom had fallen, the searchers found a lot of angry, sad, despairing people, but finally found someone who demonstrated and professed his state of happiness by blowing a tin whistle, and because people were too depressed to play football, the guy was not even a referee.

According to the poem, the king entered a glade where the sun gleamed gold and found that "The whistler was smiling, though his coat was old./ 'Are you happy?' the king asked wearily,/ And the happy man asked, 'Why wouldn't I be?'/ The king asked the whistler if he would lend/ His shirt to a man in need. 'My poor friend,'/ The old man laughed, 'What I have, I share,/ But under this coat my chest is bare!" In other words, the happy man had no shirt.

Now, every time I hear from our politicians and managers in the world, the Caribbean and successive Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) governments that we must tighten our belts, the poem comes immediately to mind, and I ask myself whether the happy or even unhappy man has a belt and, if so, can it be further tightened?

There is a story from the bad old days of communism when the Soviet Union and communist China were very close and supported each other in times of need. Chairman Mao of China reputedly sent a telegram to his Soviet ally, Nikita Khruschev, which read, "China is starving. Send food." The Soviet strongman replied, "Tighten your belts." Mao promptly responded, "Send belts."

An article in the Australia Herald Sun last year made what is really the crucial comment when governments impose or insist on cuts and reductions in spending and expectations. It stated, "But just when we're all tightening our belts, little is being done to rein in the comfort and luxury of those making our laws."

In T&T, where belt-tightening has become the most recent resort of political expediency, there is need for a lot more explanation, elaboration, discussion and communication. For example, over the years, apart from the many belts I received from my school headmasters and college principal, I have collected belts of different colours and materials. They all hang on a few nails on the door of an almost empty cupboard.

Having been told to tighten my belt and wishing to join the government in the process of bringing financial stability to a country which the Economist has recently placed in the last 10 in terms of financial decline in 2016, I have sought advice on which of the belts to tighten, and how I can do so when unemployed, not wearing any of them, and, clad in short pants or underwear, seek to make a precarious living in these hard times by writing a newspaper column.

In Trinidad, there are many different kinds of belts. The sugar belt is now no more, but given the overwhelming strength and politicisation of the trade unions, can the oil or public-services belts be tightened, especially when the new government, despite knowing the extent of the financial problem it inherited, gifted some of the unions with $15 million of our money without any kind of accounting or accountability?

Additionally, the government also has to decide whether the (free) money belt, started by the ruling party's first leader, Dr Eric Williams, as the 'CRASH' programme and subsequently reinforced by all successive governments and grandly institutionalised as 'Unemployment Relief' or 'Community-based Environmental Protection and Enhancement' programmes will continue to operate as mechanisms for retaining and even expanding political support. It is as ironic as the time Dr Williams fired most of the pilots of the state airline (BWIA) and decided on a crash course for the recruits.

Unlike the shirt of the happy man, the other problem with belts is that they buckle. This is a state of affairs which, in belt-tightening exercises in other countries, is inevitable. In Trinidad, since the government is willing to sacrifice education and the future of the country to retain and maintain the free-money belt, the middle class, squeezed by taxes on their income and purchases (VAT), is fast disappearing, and all that might be left of them are their belts.

Instead of buckling down to the sacrifices imposed by the government, they are inevitably and quickly buckling under the tremendous strain of responsibility for a surplus of workers who don't work and who are the major reason for the belt-tightening. In other words, we are all being hit below the belt.

As one of my friends said, "This whole thing is like a belt made of watches. A waist of time." He added, "I think instead of starting at the bottom with us, the process should start at the top. Every member of the Cabinet deserves a good belt."

- Tony Deyal was last seen asking, "Why did the belt get arrested for drunkenness and robbery?" It was tight and held up Prime Minister Rowley's pants.