There was a primed plastic water pistol, yellow or green, on every table at Derek Walcott’s 84th birthday lunch at the Ladera hotel on the west coast of St Lucia. The Walcott entourage had taken over the restaurant and after we’d dined on saltfish with green bananas, the staff gathered and the guests stood up to sing ‘Happy Birthday’. Then came the carving of a three-foot-square cake embossed with a likeness in icing of the poet’s head, his cautious smile carried on layers of sponge in blue and yellow stripes, two of the four colours of the island’s flag, blue for the sea and yellow for sunshine.
St Lucia likes to remind you that it has more Nobel laureates per capita than anywhere else in the world. The other winner was Arthur Lewis, who took the economics prize in 1979. Walcott won his in 1992. By happy coincidence they share a birthday and the government makes a fuss of its favoured children with a Nobel Laureate Week each January. Asked my business at the airport on my way to record with Walcott for BBC Radio 4, I pulled a copy of The Prodigal from my bag and was waved through. Did the taxi driver know where Walcott lived? He looked at me as if I was carrying a rare and deadly virus.
The jamboree included a lecture on Walcott’s work by Caryl Phillips, the launch of an edition of his poetry selected by Glyn Maxwell, a former student, and a screening of a new Dutch documentary about him.[*] The film was shown in the presence of the governor-general, who wore a St Lucian blue twinset. Alongside her was a quintet of elderly musicians performing dusty calypsos, their sockless feet in smart black shoes. For several years now, a number of Walcott’s friends, family and old students have travelled across the world to wish him well on his birthday, listen to him talk, and flit from one sort of jump-up or party to another. The official events were the only occasions I saw the laureate in long trousers. Walcott’s knees are well known. He’s often photographed barefooted, even barelegged. In Bristol, where I make my radio programmes, one of the first things I saw on my return from St Lucia were his feet planted in the sand in a photo portrait taken by Judith Aronson for her show Likenesses at the Royal West of England Academy. Many poets and writers are in the exhibition: William Empson, Seamus Heaney, Charles Tomlinson, Salman Rushdie, Robert Lowell, Geoffrey Hill. The only other bare feet besides Walcott’s belong to a corpse on a dissecting table in front of Keith Simpson, the forensic pathologist. An illegible name-tag is attached to a big toe.
St Lucia may not be the Isle of Man, but legs matter here. By the time he arrived on the island in the 1550s the French privateer François Le Clerc had lost one of his in a naval battle with the British off Guernsey and contrived a wooden replacement: Jambe de Bois, as he was known, is probably the original pegleg pirate. Amy Winehouse holidayed in this rum-rich environment in 2009, performing when she could and working on some new songs. One night she was snapped in shorts and a flimsy top, crawling from the beach to a tourist diner. In the garish flashlight she looks like a body excavated from Vesuvian ash. When she reached the holidaymakers’ tables she tried to relieve them of their drinks. This was a real case of leglessness. After she died in 2011 a bar in Rodney Bay where she had been to drink renamed itself Rehab. It’s open all night.
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[*] The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948-2013 (Faber, 617 pp., £30, March, 978 0 571 31380 8).