"Derek, we're here."
It was early evening and Melvyn and myself had finally arrived at our hotel in St. Lucia where we were to record an interview with Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott. We had flown down to the Windward islands for the Routes of English survey charting the history of the language as spoken round the world.
This was the final leg of a six day marathon of interviews which took us from Philadelphia to Boston, to Cape Cod and back to Boston, Boston to Kingston, Jamaica and finally, an early morning flight from Kingston to Montego Bay and eventually we island hopped eastward, arcing our way down the Caribbean archipelago to St. Lucia.
Our final interview was to take place the following morning. Here's the thinking: get the all-important interview done, and then and only then would we have earned the rest of the day lying back and frankly doing very little until the next day's return flight to London. Six days, over a dozen interviews, three countries, there's value for money.
"Good", said the Nobel Laureate. "Melvyn has his trunks?" Strange question perhaps for an interviewee to ask of his interviewer. Has he read my book? tends to be the question in my experience I had a good idea what was coming. "I think he has, but…" The Poet interjected. "There is going to be no interview in the morning. First thing I'll come and collect both you and Melvyn and we'll all go swimming." No question mark. This was generosity writ large. "And then the interview?"
I'm acutely aware that the way that Melvyn and myself were feeling that if there's any prolonged delay to this interview we might both find ourselves asleep at the feet of one of the greatest living poets in the English language. "After swimming we'll have lunch and then we'll do the interview. Ask Melvyn if all that's ok."
I'd arranged to meet Melvyn in the restaurant to talk through the morning's final interview. Now I had to tell him of the slight change to our itinerary. In the bar there was a lounge-singer, a kind of poor-man's Barry White accompanying himself on some sort of key board where all he had to do was press a single key and the Love Unlimited Orchestra were very nearly right there with us; us being the barmaid, myself, what turned out to be our dinner-suited singer's wife and Melvyn. We sat at the bar for a while whilst I composed myself to break the news to Melvyn. Of course it was a wonderfully generous offer from one of the great literary figures and personalities of our time. This was an opportunity we couldn't refuse.
I couldn't think of anything worse. Me, a non-swimmer, in between two substantial literary and intellectual giants, and both very comfortable with putting their heads underwater. They both have draws full of awards for artistic and literary pursuits in addition to swimming widths and lengths of various pools, probably oceans. I, on the other hand, used to fake sick notes from my mother to get out of swimming classes, anything from headaches to chronic verruccas.
The morning came. Derek had agreed to pick us up from the hotel. Not particularly prepared for beach activity we waited in the hotel lobby, me with bag of recording equipment plus towel, Melvyn, jacketed and notes in hand (right) and swimming trunks in hand (left). Derek appears and immediately notices that we are dressed more for work than treading water. "Melvyn it's simply illegal to wear a jacket to the beach" Melvyn retorts that all his essentials are in his pockets. I concurred with my pockets bulging with batteries and tapes and quite frankly fear.
So there we are up to our necks in the Caribbean when Derek, the perfect host, presents us both with our very own mango. This is a far cry from the pre-recording green room etiquette of Broadcasting House which rarely extends beyond tea or coffee and polite if nervous chat. What does one do with one's mango skin in a situation like this? "Throw it in the sea" Derek urged us. "…the fish will eat it ".
Melvyn and Derek then took it turns to help me through my inadequacy. Derek's advice was to the point: "Breathe…breathe - just don't forget to breathe". I watched as he launched himself slowly into the water, carving out long strokes with his head tilted first to one side, then the next, taking great mouthfuls of air on each side. I tried, and I breathed and it worked - a bit. Then Melvyn had a go. His approach offered a fuller explanation: "Now I know that you'll be nervous, Tony, but there's no reason to be. Just try to relax as much as possible. Relax…." And then it happened. Somewhere between relaxing and breathing I swam. And swam.
After a sumptuous lunch at Derek's we all gathered in the shade of his studio where he paints when he's not writing. A cool gentle breeze blew over us, reminding us why we were there. There was a silent pact between Melvyn and myself that should either of us feel defeated by the sheer weight of the Caribbean air we should nudge each other.