Tony Deyal | Seeing the light
David Lloyd George was not very much liked by Dame Margot Asquith, the wittiest woman in England at the time and wife of the man he succeeded as prime minister of England in 1916, Herbert Humphrey Asquith. Renowned for her wit, Dame Margot said of Lloyd George, “There is no Lloyd George. There is a marvellous brain; but if you were to shut him in a room and look through the keyhole, there would be nobody there.” She also quipped, “He cannot see a belt without wanting to hit below it.”
It does not surprise me that one of the first instances of the use of what became a political catch-phrase of the time, ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, emanated from Lloyd George. He was attending a Naval Conference in the United States in 1921 and expressed his confidence that the event would end “in a real pact of peace” and that he saw “the light at the end of the tunnel”. Of course, there was a power cut and peace became a short, sporadic and occasional episode in the ongoing global drama of war.
Later, in 1962, American President John F. Kennedy popularised “the light at the end of the tunnel” in a reference to the war in Vietnam, the darkness from which still clouds and haunts America. By the early 21st century, people had become sceptical about light and tunnels to the point that when his political opponent, Prime Minister Patrick Manning, spoke about a light at the end of the tunnel leading out of the valley of debt into which the country was then plunged, Opposition Leader Basdeo Panday, known for his quick wit, responded, “That light at the end of the tunnel is most likely a train coming to bounce you.”
And this is how the public response to the phrase went after that. I remember my friend Jimmy responding to a political speech by a ‘promising’ politician who was sure that the hard times would end, “Light at the end of the tunnel? That has to be a feller with a torch light looking to see if anybody drop a ten-cents there.” Another version states, “The pessimist sees a tunnel. The optimist a light at the end of the tunnel. The realist sees a train ... . The train engineer sees three idiots on the railroad tracks.”
Two other comments that I like came from sceptics like myself. One said, “Light at the end of the tunnel? The first question to ask is, who is paying the bill?” The other added, “The light at the end of the tunnel was turned off by the minister of finance as an unnecessary expenditure.”
This is why when, just over a month ago, I saw a report in the St Lucia Star in which the prime minister of that country, Allen Chastanet, was promising a group of people who had suffered a very difficult 10 years that there was light at the end of the tunnel, I paused for a moment. I did not doubt his sincerity but, given the disrepute into which it had fallen and the humorous responses it was attracting, questioned his use of the phrase. Did his audience know that sometimes to see the light, you have to open the fridge door?
I don’t mean to ridicule the prime minister. He was very sincere in his seeing and sharing the light, but in my own light-hearted way I believe that this tunnel business is worth digging into as deeply as I can. You have to see the parts as parts, as one wit known for his off-colour remarks said, but you must have a feeling of the hole.
The mistake we continue to make is to believe that all tunnels are road or rail tunnels and they have entries and exits, beginning and ends, with lights on both sides of the area of darkness. This kind of thinking is called tunnel vision. In the coal mines and oil wells, Vietnam and South Africa, the tunnels only have one end – at the top where you enter. If you ever see light at the end of any of these tunnels, you have to pray that it is a Chinese lantern.
My fear about the use of the phrase ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ is really the tunnel vision that comes with it. Tunnel vision is “the loss of peripheral vision with retention of central vision resulting in a constricted circular tunnel-like field of vision”. When Henry from Siparia, whose cry “Help the blind!” was shrill and plaintive enough to cause people to stop and put money into the battered felt hat which served as his collection plate, sat under the awnings of Imperial Stores in San Fernando, chanting, we did not know that he might have been suffering from tunnel vision and not total blindness.
So, when one of my schoolmates held out a ten-cent piece in front of Henry and moved it in a circle above Henry’s palm, and Henry’s hand followed the movement, we declared Henry a fraud. “He eh blind!” we shouted. “He only fooling people.”
Then the rumours started, “We see Henry in Gaiety theatre watching a show!” and “Henry neighbour say he does maco (peep at) she.” Henry became history and had to move on, dark glasses and all, stumbling along the dim corridors of time and memory, white stick in hand, perhaps still muttering, “Help the blind” to a disbelieving world.
In straight political talk, I have never seen anybody’s optimistic promise of ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ ever materialise. It is not impossible that somewhere, some time, it will but I am not betting on it. What I will do is stick to the Almighty. After He gave humanity 24 hours of alternating light and darkness, His favourite angel, Gabriel, asked Him, “So what you’re going to do now?” God replied, perhaps intending it for all the present governments of the Caribbean, “I think I’ll call it a day.”
Tony Deyal was last seen saying that even the diehard evangelists no longer shout into the loudspeakers, “Have you seen the light?”