KEN CORSBIE: THE ARTISTIC TEMPERAMENT: GROWING UP IN GEORGETOWN
In Ken’s own inimitable voice:
Main Street R.C was the beginnings of my “memories of life”.
In those colonial times, into at least the late 40’s, corporal punishment was the normal “behavior modification technique” for boys. Mr. Hope was the teacher in sixth standard and the most vicious of the lot. We privately called him “Hopey Goady”. Up to this day, I can’t help thinking that he perversely enjoyed beating kids.
A treasured institution at the entrances of all primary schools, and most high schools, was the perennial “sweetie ladies” with their trays of tamarind balls, long sweets, green mango sour, sugar cakes (grated and chipped), boiled or roasted channa in small brown-paper cones, and the most remarkable never-done-sweetie.
One of the stories I tell, “ORAL INOCULATION”, was inspired by those ladies from whom you buy a “neverdone” sweetie on Monday, suck it and put it in your khaki shortpants pocket where you also have broken up pieces of a crisp aniseed biscuit. All week you reaching in and digging out the mixture which getting worse each day until Friday when you turn your pocket inside out and dig out the last dirty nibble. “After that only death could kill yuh” (Paul Keens-Douglas)
There were other potentially deadly things we ate with relish, and the disgusting names we gave to cakes and fruit – alms-house poltice, stinking toe, bull balls, donkey collar, hitler balls, bird shit fruit, mum and dad … and we lived to tell the tale.
It was St. Stanislaus College next. We had moved to 310 East Street, behind the Fernandes two-storey house. I’m a legs man and Hazel Fernandes did ballet and so I had a secret crush on her. I wasn’t too good a student – Latin, Geometry, Algebra, Chemistry were impossible, English and Literature goodish. I can’t now think of anything school-wise I learnt or didn’t learn in Stanislaus that was of crucial importance to my life except perhaps ol’ talk, encouragement of my athletic abilities and comfortable social skills.
To pass our Senior Cambridge exam, my friend Neville Gomes and I voluntarily dropped unforgiving Latin and with a couple of library books we did “art” on our own, and passed! Just like that. Our graduation celebration was four bottles of cheap local wine – Key and Lily – that Bernard Vieira got from his family’s winery in Charlestown.
Those four years at St. Stanislaus helped to reinforce some of my natural talents – at my first year’s Sports Day at the college, I was headlined in the Chronicle newspaper as “King of the Colts”. I eventually won the Old Boys race five times and now it can be told, often with the running interference assistance by my friends Neville and Henry Gomes.
I was no good at cricket as I was openly afraid of fast bowlers like lanky Leslie Wight and big strong Rupert Trim gleefully running in to bowl at me. I am reminded of Dave Martins’ calypso “CRICKET GAME IN THE JUNGLE “–
“Elephant coming down like a express train,
The whole damn jungle shaking…
…Well when he see elephant coming down,
Poor Donkey start to shiver ….
…”Send another jackass to bat
‘Cause this Jackass done wid dat.”
Football was a danger to shins or ankles or worse and I gave way to hard tacklers and sheltered behind athletics, and a few years later, supposedly no-contact basketball. It was about this time that a book helped me improve. Dr. Harold Abrahams, the English super athlete of the 20’s, the central character in the film CHARIOTS OF FIRE, had written an instructional book, ‘SCIENCE OF ATHLETICS’ and somehow I had a copy. It was my bible on athletic techniques, and this will be good point of reference to segue into my teen times in the almost legendary Taitt’s Yard.
As I described in my essay on Georgetown Villages in Brooklyn’s GUYFOLKFEST 2010 magazine, it was just a climb over my backyard paling, hop over the alley gutter, squeeze through the galvanize paling of 294 Murray Street, and I was in the playhouse supreme. No technological gadgetry; so we created -– art, classical music, singing, theatre, athletics, basketball, dance –- and there were rubber guns, body building (although, if you saw us you wouldn’t think we did that), steel band, hurdling, high jump, pole vault, mud fights, “over the wall”, bat and ball, boxing, mud fights, rounders, ping pong, volleyball. We introduced to the nation the then more modern high-jump styles – the Straddle, Eastern Cutoff, Western Roll (from “Science of Athletics”).
Remember Stanley Headley who owned the bookshop way back in Robb Street? At an August Olympiad Sports day at the GCC, he was a track official at the high jump event. I was standing there, poised, breathing carefully, composing my mind, focusing, just as I’d learnt from “the book”. Suddenly Stanley shouts “Corsbie, hurry up and jump nuh man, we got a lot more events to run off today yuh know”. Crash! There goes my last and only chance to jump 6 feet. Most of third world living experiences have similar bizarre moments that make for good theatre and comedy. The most popular stories I tell from my repertoire are of those experiences.
The Yard had both free ranging and formal elements with most of us criss-crossing between the two. Taitt’s boys, Clairmonte is a violinist and theatre director/actor in Barbados; Lawrence was Britain’s best hurdler; Horace the pole-vaulter/psychiatrist; and there is Ron Savory one of the finest painters of the Guyana’s hinterland; Michael Gilkes, poet/playwright/dramatist; Helen Taitt was the dancer/choreographer; Wilbert Holder was one of the region’s best actors; Marc Matthews is poet/actor/performer; Ricardo Smith was a cultural officer in the Canadian Government.
At about 1951, we all went to see a black and white film at the Globe cinema – “GO MAN GO” – about the fabulous Harlem Globetrotters, and at that moment we decided that athletics would give way to Basketball partly because it was a theatrical team game. I patterned my play after the great ball-handling dribbling ace Marcus Haynes. The basketball playing in Guyana today originated in The Taitt’s Yard with a netless ring nailed and tied to the sapodilla tree. The rest is history.
We formed the Ravens Basketball Club and within a few years there was a Basketball Association with regular tournaments. I was, at one time or another, captain, manager, coach of the national team. Today, it is the third most played game in Guyana.
In the Yard we formed a theatre group called “Theatre Thirteen” and wrote and produced two original musicals set in Guyana. They were “Stabroek Fantasy” and “Amalavaca”. Helen was the choreographer and co-writer, maestro pianist Hugh Sam the musical arranger and pianist.
At age 21, I was chosen to act in a Bishops’ High School Old Girls’ Guild production – at that time I was the first man to act in one of their plays as previously women used to act as men. Then in the late 50’s the Theatre Guild was born and that ushered in two decades of high quality amateur theatre.
Theatre is an addictive activity, and I was hooked. After a while I was acting in three or four plays a year, learning from directors like Englishmen Graham Jones and Frank Thomasson and Guyanese Bertie Martin. Those were heady days when it was okay to be outward thinking and to learn from “foreigners”.
In the 60’s we produced with panache some of the world’s finest plays ever written. It was during these artistically productive times and also some politically turbulent times that I married Barbados-born Daphne Pendleton, a first cousin of the Taitts, and almost one of the “Yard boys”. We designed our own home in Dadanawa Street, Section K, Campbellville. Our three children are …Leonard (54) – freelance videographer in Guyana. Three children, Ellen, Alexander and Lisa. Kim, (52) – Married to Barbadian Mark Trotman. Living in Barbados. One child, Nicholas. Nigel, (44) – Freelance music producer in England. One child, Tai.
So now, reality check. At the unchartered age of 80, I have five Grands and one Great Grand! “Me caan believe it, me say me caan believe it”. (Jamaican Mikey Smith’s poem of the same name).
In the early 60’s I was directing and designing a classic Caribbean play “Moon on a Rainbow Shawl” and wanted to build the set with real wood. At the same time, the British Council brought in a professional designer who showed us how to make canvas look like real wood. It was from this experience that I realized I needed to know more. The British Council came through with a one-year scholarship to Rose Bruford College for Speech and Drama in the United Kingdom that was extended to three years, (1984—‘87) at the end of which I attended a BBC course in radio and television production. I was now a relatively competent technical and artistic dramatist and that led me to design and direct plays in and out of Guyana. I had willingly and thankfully learnt from “our colonial masters”. The Theatre Guild times gave me many lifelong friends with whom I’m still in contact.
It was now back to Guyana as producer/announcer with the newly formed Guyana Broadcasting Service (GBS) working with a remarkable team of creative people of whom I’ll tell you in the continuation. With that move, another life, or rather, an extended development of the old life began….
[Correction of Part 1 – My big brother, Percy, died in 2004, not 1995].
Continued next week.
The editor of THE ARTS FORUM Column, Ameena Gafoor, can be reached by e-mail: email@example.com or by telephone: 592 227 6825