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Only Feathers - Remembering Raoul Pantin

Sunday, January 18, 2015

There are many people bigger than me in the journalism dance in Trinidad who wouldn’t be where they are today without the now-late Raoul Pantin but I reckon I owe him more than everyone else: as features editor of the Express, Raoul published the first thing I wrote for the newspapers, a comic rant about traffic under the pen-name of Gabrito del Barrio when I was 26 years old and still at law school; and it was Raoul who, 27 years ago, come next Ash Friday (the Friday after Carnival), allowed me to vent/abuse my creative urges on the op-ed pages of the Express with a little thing called Thank God It’s Friday.

So there’s something else his detractors can add to the heap of kindling at his feet: it was Raoul Pantin who set me upon the nation.

To look at Raoul, as he has been remembered thus far, and is likely to be in the next few days and weeks, is to see only the tip of the iceberg: yes, he wrote three books, six plays and, in Bim, Trinidad’s first real screenplay; yes, he moved through the entire electronic mediascape comfortably, starting in radio, helping to shape the local movie industry, having an oddly commanding presence when he appeared on television and contributing millions of words, all of them good, to newspaper pages; yes, he was taken hostage for six days by the good Abu Bakr during the bloody 1990 coup attempt and lined up for a bullet-to-the-head execution three times and, yes, he never fully recovered from that dread experience—who could?—but that wasn’t the real Raoul.

The real Raoul, regretfully, can never be fully shared openly: it’s too good. If there is a life after death, and a newspaper covering it, I can already imagine the delight of Keith Smith and Anthony Milne to have Raoul stroll in and ask what the lead is; so I’ll content myself with three stories that typified the newsman. 

As a cub reporter at NBS Radio 610, Raoul Pantin was the first person in Trinidad to find out President John F Kennedy had been shot dead in Dallas: he was standing right next to it when the story started coming over the ticker tape. Then news editor, Patrick Chokolingo (the man who, for better or worse, created the weekly press in Trinidad), seeing the shock on Raoul’s face, plucked the tape from his stunned fingers. It was, for Raoul, the murder of idealism. As Choko shuffled off in his flip-flops, Raoul came out of his stupor and asked, “Pat! What do you think?” “I think,” replied the old Choko, “it’s a great story.” 

Another day, we were keeping one another’s company while smoking on the pavement of Independence Square and Raoul, then news editor of the paper, said, “BC, do me a favour and just lie on the ground behind that taxi and put your head under the back tyre before it reverses.” 

“Thanks a lot,” I replied. 

“No,” he said, “you don’t understand: it’s 4.30 in the afternoon and I don’t have a lead.”

And, finally, as I walked into the newsroom on November 7, 1995, the day after the UNC had won its first general election and the country was preparing for the swearing-in of its first Hindu prime minister, Basdeo Panday, Raoul looked up from his keyboard and said, “BC, there are apparently no ducks to be found anywhere in Central.” 

It took a couple of beats to catch his joke: they had all been curried in celebration and I chuckled and repeated, appreciatively, “No ducks, huh, Raoul?”

“Only,” he said, “feathers!”

Raoul’s response to the ordeal he faced in 1990—to never properly catch himself—was the correct one: it was what a well-adjusted human being would do, given the particular stimulus. It was how we all should have reacted, had we been well-adjusted humans. 

(Raoul would be the first to say it was how we all have, in fact, but he just happened to show it more than the rest of us: it’s not so much a case of us not being all we’re cracked up to me but of us being a lot more cracked up than we appear to be.)

Raoul Pantin was as Trinidadian as sticky mango juice and stingy brim straw hats. He was a very, very good writer, one of the few in Trinidad who understood that fewer, smaller words were better than lots of polysyllabic ones. He was also a fine editor: he would take a 1,300-word column submitted by a Sunday Express contributor and cut it to 900 – and improve it. I’ve envied many of his sentences over the years, particularly one in which he described an encounter with a person who harassed him severely. “Your mother,” he wrote. “How is she?” And how I wish I’d written that line.

We will all miss him, the ready wit, the sharp eye, the reading between the lines he made seem so straightforward. If he wanted to, Raoul Pantin could have made it somewhere else in the world, where writers are treated with less contempt and paid a great deal more. He gave his life to this little country; and about the best thing it did for him was to allow him to die peacefully in his sleep instead of with a big splash on the front page in July 1990.

He deserved more. And better. 


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