Gerard Besson: “I’m such a set of loose ends”

Trinidadian historian and publisher Jerry Besson on his eccentric relatives and colourful career — as told to Judy Raymond

Gérard “Jerry” Besson. Photo by Alice Besson

I only became white recently, you know. I remember the day — but that’s another story.

Daddy was white and blond, and looked like Bing Crosby. Joe Besson: he ran cocoa estates in the Heights of Guanapo and Mausica. I remember seeing him during the war, dressed as a soldier — he was an air raid warden — and then he left, and no one explained the situation for several years.

Mummy was from the coloured side of the Boissière family, a wealthy branch. Her uncle bought the gingerbread house round the Savannah [in Port of Spain]. She was liming there with her cousins — pretty little brownskin girls — in the gallery, one day in 1937 — and Daddy got off the tram and came up to them. The cousins probably ran off screaming, but my mother, Maggie, was very forward. She was about eighteen, he was nineteen. He was very charming. Grandma disapproved, because he was not a gentleman.

He worked on the American base, but by 1945 he had gone back to the estates. Mummy went to work in the Venezuelan oilfields.

I was a traumatised child. I grew up in a house called the Hermitage, on Hermitage Road in Belmont, with Grandma and my aunt and my grandmother’s friend, who worked obeah and did clairvoyancy — Fifine, an old white woman who spoke patois.

I was sent to Tranquillity [School], but after first standard Mummy came back and realised I could hardly read or write. Grandma would read for me: the Bible, Sir Walter Scott, how to make soap, the Encyclopaedia Britannica . . . I spent my time at school hiding, terrified. I couldn’t understand anything.

Mummy sent me to a school in Belmont, at the corner of Belmont Circular and Darceuil Lane. The teacher used to walk up and down with a cane and talk about all sorts of things. We had to learn long poems, like the Lays of Ancient Rome:Their van will be upon us / Before the bridge goes down . . .”

Then I went to work in the Bermudez Biscuit Factory, as a helper, for five or six years. I was going out with [fashion reporter] Rosemary Stone, who believed I could do more. [Writer] Arnold Rampersad was part of that crowd. I could fit in there. I couldn’t fit in with white people, because Mummy was a brownskin girl. We met Sam Selvon, Vidia Naipaul — he came because Eric Williams wanted him to write about Trinidad. Vidia said we were pseudo-intellectuals, so we called ourselves the Pseudo-Intellectual Club.

Then Mummy and Grandma died, so I was alone, but I inherited $40,000 or $50,000 — a lot of money then. I bought a ticket to England. I wanted to go to St Martin’s School of Art. I didn’t get in, but I met the registrar and showed him my paintings and short stories. I started showing up there anyway. I went to the Tate, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum. I went to classes in photography, graphic arts, typography, mortuary decoration — I designed tombstones. I worked as a waiter.

After a year and a couple of months, I came back. I got a job in an advertising company — I could write copy, I could do an odd turn of phrase, and one-liners. Then I became a window-dresser and showcase designer for Edward Habib [a chain of clothing stores].

The Black Power Movement was beginning, and I did a series of urban-guerrilla ads about “The Movement.” It was the first time black people appeared in ads like that. It made me famous, there were stories in the paper. On Friday evenings I used to stand outside Habib’s looking for models: tall, thin, broad-shouldered black men.

 

Then Black Power hit Trinidad, and I decided to be a black person. My father was appalled (I was friendly with him by then).

I met Sheelagh [his first wife] and we hit it off as friends — we’re still friends. One day we were driving up to Balandra and I said if we were doing the same thing the next year I would ask her to marry me.

We started Creative Advertising in 1973, with Clive Bradley [arranger for the Desperadoes steelband]. Then I wrote Tales from the Paria Main Road and printed it in the office, and it sold several hundred copies. Olga Mavrogordato [author of Voices in the Street, a 1979 collection of historical writings] got in touch to say douens [folklore characters, the spirits of children who die before being baptised] do not have eyes.

It was the beginning of a thirty-year obsession. Olga had a school. We saw her on Saturday mornings. There was me, Ian Jardine, Michael Anthony, Fr. [Anthony] de Verteuil, Adrian Camps-Campins, Gaylord Kelshall . . . John Newel Lewis was working on Ajoupa; Wenda Parkinson was working on Gilded African, about Toussaint L’Ouverture; Sr Marie Thérèse on Parish Beat; Douglas Archibald on his Tobago, Melancholy Isle. Everyone wrote something, or several things.

The next book was Borde [a translation of Pierre-Gustave-Louis Borde’s 1883 History of the Island of Trinidad under the Spanish Government]. Everyone thought I was crazy. It never made any money. I did it because of Olga, who was a combination of Grandma and old people I knew, and really liked me; she enjoyed my gaucheness.

I devoted more and more time to Paria Publishing, and Sheelagh and I began to feud and we split up. It took time away from the business — I wasn’t looking for new business.

I met Alice [his second wife] when we were working at Lonsdale Saatchi & Saatchi. I invited her to dinner and we stayed up till 4 am talking. I said, “I’d like to marry you,” and she said, “It’s a good idea, but I have to go to Piarco,” and she went back to Germany. She came back about six months later and moved in.

We operated the business out of one of the boys’ rooms. We do annual reports, company histories . . . We’ve produced over a hundred books, some commercial, some vanity publishing, some obscure. Some made money: Folklore and Legends, the dream diary, the folk remedies, The Book of Trinidad — that’s gone into several editions. More people are interested in history now.

I’m trying to finish my third novel. It’s about Roume de Saint Laurent [the Frenchman who enabled French royalists to migrate to Trinidad in the eighteenth century]. It will disturb a lot of people. He wasn’t a Catholic cardboard cutout. He survived in Paris in the teeth of the French Revolution. You have to be in like Flynn with the revolutionaries to be sent to govern Haiti. He came down on the wrong side: he chose Napoleon over Toussaint.

I don’t want to forget the Afro-French Creole past, to erase it. For 150 years that culture shaped Trinidad, for good or ill. The politicians of independence dismissed it; that was to do with Williams’s psychology. It’s my current obsession: I’ve been working it out for five years.

I’m very prolific, but I have no relationship to money. I’m such a set of loose ends without a sensible, intelligent woman in my life.