Thu | Feb 27, 2020

Tony Deyal | Shrill whistles on a dark night

Published:Saturday | December 30, 2017 | 12:18 AM


Boxing Day night I sat in the dark thinking about light. I could not use the word 'reflecting' because the night was pitch black and I could not blame the government entity in charge of electricity since, for once, it was not a sin of 'Commission', a word left as a colonial legacy to the people of Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) which was retained and still used by successive governments. In this country, there are Commissions galore. The electricity provider is the T&T Electricity Commission and like the other Commissions is known for its incompetence, inefficiency, low productivity and high wages. The judiciary, police and teachers have their own commissions. 

There is even a Commission to deal with the 'public' service.  This is the group of Government-employed functionaries  known in other countries as 'civil servants' but in T&T are called 'public officers' perhaps rightly so since former Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams, once remarked that they are neither civil nor do they provide a service. Unfortunately, he committed the sin of omission in not commissioning a Commission of Enquiry into the many Commissions. 
Just before Christmas, two bone-weary public servants were working their hearts and souls out. Their department was just too 'busy' for the overworked staff to cope with the increased demand.  They had all used up their uncertified sick leave. The doctors’ offices were crowded with their colleagues with various complaints necessitating rest and relaxation. 

Their wives and children were pressuring them to make time to take the family shopping. So, the time had come to apply their 'spare' mental capacity to the problem. One of the two public servants suddenly lifted his head. “I know how to get some time off from work,” he told his colleague. “How?” the man asked. Instead of answering, the other man quickly looked around. No sign of his director. He jumped up on his desk, kicked out a couple of ceiling tiles and hoisted himself up. "Look!" he hissed, then swinging his legs over a metal pipe, hung upside down. Then he said, “Call the director, quick.  Tell him we have a serious problem.”  Within minutes the director, anxious to get rid of the threats from his wife about what she would do if he didn’t take her shopping, hung up the phone claiming an emergency and hurried to see what had happened to his worker.
The director saw the man and asked him what on earth he thought he was doing hanging from the ceiling.  “I'm a light bulb,” answered the public servant. The director, fearing the wrath of the union and endless questions from the Commission, was solicitous. “I think you need some time off,” he said sympathetically. “Go home, go to bed, get some rest and don’t come back here until after New Year’s Day.”  “Yes sir,” the public servant answered shakily.  In a corkscrew motion, he then slid down and sidled out of the office. The second worker followed.  "Where do you think you're going?" the boss asked.  “Home,” he said brightly. “I can't work in the dark.”
Unfortunately for me, I can, or at least my brain can and did.  I suppose it was the Christmas lights that my wife and children were trying hard to install relatively late on Christmas Eve, the new Star Wars Movie, 'The Last Jedi' with my own memories of the first Star Wars with the lightsabre duels between the dark-clad Darth Vader and heroic Luke Skywalker, or even my inability to suppress random bits of poetry that pop into my head and refuse to leave until I have acknowledged them.  In this case it was 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Some would say it was part of my colonial inheritance. I received a fundamentally English education and even though we got Independence when I was 17, the history I did for the Cambridge Advanced Levels (the equivalent of CAPE) was based on the reign of the Tudors and Stuarts in Britain, and the English Literature was the Romantic Poets and Shakespeare.  The 'Charge' was great reading and reciting.  

“Cannon to right of them,/ Cannon to left of them,/ Cannon in front of them/ Volleyed and thundered;/ Stormed at with shot and shell,/ Boldly they rode and well,/ Into the jaws of Death,/ Into the mouth of hell/ Rode the six hundred.” 

Enough stuff here to “stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood” as Shakespeare’s Henry V said in the siege of Harfleur.
The reality was different and enough to disguise fair nature with hard favoured rage. The Telegraph and other sources have now shed some much-needed light on the glorious escapade and have revealed that because of a breakdown in communications, the unit headed off on a near suicidal mission – attacked from all sides by artillery, infantry and cavalry. Of the 600 who set off, more than 100 were killed, with a similar number wounded. Blame for the miscommunication has remained controversial, as the original order itself was vague and Louis Edward Nolan, cavalry tactician and the officer who delivered the written orders with some verbal interpretation died in the first minute of the assault. 
I suppose this is what true journalism is about, ensuring that all sides of the story come out, not 160 years later as in the case of the Light Brigade but at the same time in the same story so that what we call the primary effect or what we read, hear or see first is balanced off by the recency effect or what comes last. It makes sense. 

Light and darkness are partners. English philosopher and statesman, Francis Bacon believed, “In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present.” Madeline L’Engle, author of 'A Wrinkle In Time', said, “Maybe you have to know the darkness before you can appreciate the light.”  So, I sat for a long time, lights out, thinking about the new year and renewing my trust in God and my commitment. 

As the poet Rabindranath Tagore said, “Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark.”  I actually saw the light, not in the sense of faith healers, but when someone switched it on and made me blink and return to a present from which I was many light years away. 

- Tony Deyal was last seen agreeing with science fiction writer Terry Pratchett. “Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.”