– written for the memorial services held for him in New York and London
I first met Mac at the BBC, in London, where he was just finishing a TV course with some guys from Guyana Broadcasting Service. I was doing an extra week’s training in radio there before I went out to Guyana, to do Voluntary Service Overseas at Broadcasts to Schools with Celeste Dolphin.
As it happened, my group shared a lounge with the Guyanese crew, so I was introduced to them all. I was immediately drawn to Mac, and as I had to find someone to interview for a radio project, I rashly asked him if I could interview him about Guyanese folklore and culture. Of course, I could hardly have chosen a subject closer to his heart! He told me all about Queh queh and Cumfa; I found him fascinating, and as we saw a lot of each other for the rest of that week, I invited him down to stay with my family before he went back home. When I arrived in Guyana, some weeks later, I didn’t have to be part of the usual VSO crowd, as I had an open door into his world.
In Guyana, having always loved accents, I immersed myself in Creolese, and who better to pick it up from than Mac? I revelled in expressions like:
‘Ah gon kyaan do doh’, or
‘De people daata’, and
‘Wordsie deh?’ ~ ‘Ya, man, ’e deh deh.’
He was already an extremely well known and popular figure. Journeys to visit anyone were always interrupted by calls of:
‘Mac, Mac, Mac! W’appnin’ man? Leh we gaff, na, man?’, and it would be hours, sometimes, before we got where we were supposed to be.
I loved hearing him play the steel pan, and he taught me to play it, too. I also loved harmonizing to Guyanese folk songs with him and his calypsonian friends in Albuoystown. We flew kites at Easter, went into the bush, and swam in coca cola creeks. I learned to make roti, black cake, pepper pot, garlic pork, mettagee, curry hassa, guana, turtle, and crab soup with calaloo. We always had ‘swank’, sorrel or five-finger drinks on the go.
At the end of my VSO year, the plan was for him to come to England, but problems at work meant that he couldn’t leave the country, so after a few months at home, enfolded by streams of closely written airmail letters, I went back to Guyana, and we were married in March 1970.
The rumours of the famous bicycle ride to our wedding are absolutely true. I laughed out loud, though, when I read Ken Corsbie’s description of Mac “towing” me, without mentioning the bike, as I’d forgotten that bit of Creolese! For a moment, it conjured up visions of being towed in a boat, or a broken-down car, or even trailing behind him on the end of a rope! But I used to get a kick out of riding on the cross-bar or the carrier!
We actually moved house once with me sitting on the carrier, desperately clutching piles of his treasured 78s! The worst bit about that was the running to leap on, with both hands full, dreading that I wouldn’t make it, and that the priceless records would be smashed to pieces. What a responsibility!
Anyway, Mac had wanted to keep our wedding quiet, so we arrived at his chosen venue
(the Universal Church of Scientific Truth) at 7am one Saturday morning, in order to fit it in before he went off to work! Unfortunately for him though, a colleague of his lived just across the street. He saw what was up, and soon spread the word, so the whole staff were primed to congratulate him when he got to the office, with rum at the ready. To my amazement, the bicycle story was syndicated on Reuters!
The wedding service itself turned into an ordeal for me, though, because when I smiled at Mac during our vows, the Pastor decided that I wasn’t taking the ceremony seriously enough, and made me go right back to the beginning and start all over again! I don’t think such a thing can ever have happened anywhere else, before or since, and I was stung to tears of humiliation. Mac didn’t seem bothered by the Pastor’s reaction, and said nothing to stop him. He later announced that he thought I had been crying because I missed my mother… Not an auspicious start to our married life!
Neither was the rest of the wedding day… By the time Mac got back from work (after innumerable rounds of celebratory drinks!), I’d been waiting for him back at his mother’s house for hours. Luckily, Barbara and Stanley Greaves came round to wish us well, and brought a slice of cake, which had to serve as a wedding breakfast; and in the evening Rudi David, our best man, invited us round to his house, where Cheddie Jagan, the former Premier, and his wife Janet were also guests.
Sadly, as he predicted quite early on, I couldn’t always keep up with him, especially at those very late nights in liquor restaurants where the last drop of rum had to be consumed before anyone was allowed to set foot outside. Not being a late-night person or a drinker myself, I used to dread the purchase of yet another whole bottle!… And then, at the only Queh queh he took me to, I joined in the very suggestive dancing with all the other women (feeling particularly white and self-conscious), but it went on for hours, and I fell asleep before the crucial part of the ceremony. He didn’t wake me up to see it, and never took me to one again! ~ ‘DWD’ (Done Wid Dat!) was one of his mottos, and he was not easily swayed!
I spent much of the week after his death re-reading his letters to me. They bring back very vividly the strength of his personality, his zest for life, and his amazing gift with words, both for poetry and for irony; they have made his presence very real. I don’t know what happened to the love that is almost palpable, there, but for whatever reason, some time after we were married, joint outings were few.
“Eh eh? An I got a wife at home? Why I should tek her out?”
The life of a Guyanese wife, with the men in one room (or out somewhere else) and the women in the kitchen – which I tried hard to fit in with for a time; and the deputy system – with which I did not – didn’t augur well for a sustaining marriage though, and after a year or so, my ensuing pregnancy meant that he left me at home for most of the time. All the same, one day, enthralled by the sensation of the baby moving inside me, I risked asking him to feel for the next kick. He gave it about 5 seconds, but feeling nothing, sucked his teeth, and said:
“You en gat one ting to do!”
…And when our daughter, Shiri Ayanna, was born, he showed no interest in picking her up, or talking to her, so not long afterwards we separated and later divorced, and I returned to England.
Although we had heard nothing from him in the meantime, when Shiri was about 13, Mac came over to England for a writers’ conference. He made no move to contact us himself, but several friends of ours tried to persuade me that he secretly wanted to. One friend in particular, insisted that he was desperate to see his daughter, so I finally agreed to take her up to London for a lunch party, so that he could meet her on neutral ground. One by one, all the other Guyanese guests arrived, but although we waited for five hours, he never appeared. Perhaps he was afraid to face her? Who knows? But I wonder if he had any conception of the effect his failure to arrive would have on Shiri – a young girl already undergoing very mixed emotions at the prospect of meeting her father for the first time.
After his funeral service in New York, which was streamed live on the Internet, we discovered that he had another daughter, to whom he did remain close, which only compounded my daughter’s sense of loss.
Mac was a unique and special person, and it is a tribute to his extraordinary qualities that he is now being remembered with such affection and respect. I am glad that through the Wordsworth McAndrew Awards, he was made aware of some of this well-deserved recognition for the contribution he made to Guyanese culture, while he was still alive. Wherever he is now, I hope he can see the crowds of people who have come to remember him today, and maybe also the myriad Internet sites on which he is now so warmly celebrated!
Another more personal symbol was very moving to me. As I have indicated, our daughter Shiri, who now has a child of her own (Levi, the light of her life), never knew her father, and he never knew them. Yet when she heard of his death, she went out and bought a weeping willow tree, which she planted in his memory. What a tribute to him, and what a tribute to her!