With concern, and amusement, I read in curtain-raiser stories about this House of Mr Biswas event that I was down to deliver a “lecture” this evening. Beyond “harping, carping and hectoring” to my own offspring, I cannot recall giving any “lecture” before—and certainly not in any public library.
Two previous House of Mr Biswas events I attended had featured certified university professors. So this “veteran journalist” wondered what he was being set up for.
Let me assure everyone, then, that—using this immortal form of words—I have no bucket to let down here with you this evening. This occasion is an opportunity for what may be called long-form storytelling by a journalist—and not the countdown for the launch of any other career!
But the “lecture” story angle must have had good effect, to judge from the encouraging turn-out this evening.
A good story is a good story.
This was the ultimate Patrick Chookolingo ideological justification for pursuing and reporting a story. A story is valued to the extent that it holds elements that would gain reader attention and interest, on the reliable basis of conventional news values.
Among those are: Timeliness, Prominence, Newness, Impact, Nearness, Likely Consequence, Human Interest, Need to Know…and so on.
Beyond those conventional ones, however, the Chookolingo approach emphasises another with proven marketability in the Trinidad and Tobago context. I call that indigenous news value “Bacchanal With or Without Socially Redeeming Value”.
A good story is a good story… for its own sake.
In 1956, long long before Twitter and selfies, Patrick Chookolingo broke, on the front page of the Chronicle, the story of a Kartik Snaan organized by Bhadase Maraj on Manzanilla beach. Mr Maraj had brought out the largest-ever assembly of 20,000 Hindus.
The Chookolingo story drew national, or colony-wide, attention to the political, and electoral, potential of such a hitherto under-regarded Hindu base. Hindus were seen as responding loyally to Mr Maraj, who was also leader of the PDP party. The Chookolingo story was headlined “Tiger in the Bushes”, and it appeared on the day before the epoch-making 1956 general elections.
In some assessments, Choko’s “Tiger in the Bushes” story had the effect of scaring non-Hindus, and of consolidating the black vote, to the benefit of the PNM. The rest is history. Bhadase and Choko would later come together to make more journalistic history. But, for the purposes of 1956:
A good story is a good story.
If nothing else, this evening, I can count my own success in selling to the House of Mr Biswas principals the line that Patrick Chookolingo is the journalistic outside child of the Seepersad Naipaul literary family.
Choko, no relative of theirs, could have been in First Standard in 1929, when Seepersad—father of Vidia and Shiva Naipaul, and patriarch of other blood-related writers—began work as a Trinidad Guardian reporter. (Find photo of George John and Seepersad at their desks in Guardian newsroom).
Seepersad fell under the direct influence, and mentorship, of Gault McGowan, a feisty Englishman brought down (that familiar term!) from the Times of London. “In Trinidad,” wrote Vidia Naipaul, recalling the period, McGowan “was like a man unleashed… He saw stories everywhere; he could make stories out of nothing.”
McGowan undertook a mission of his own to “modernize…a half-dead colonial newspaper”. In part, he did this by indulging what VS called his “taste for drama”. He encouraged “reporting on stories such as voodoo in backyards, obeah, prisoners escaping from Devil’s Island, and vampire bats.”
Seepersad, eagerly accepting on-the-job training in cutting-edge journalism of the 1930s, fulfilled his assignments as he was taught. McGowan’s coaching shaped Seepersad’s style, and VS noted that, in his father’s copy, McGowan’s “improving hand can often be detected”.
In 1930, Seepersad reported a story headlined “Fight Challenge Accepted—Jerningham Junction Bully Badly Injured—Six Men Arrested”. Casting expert eyes on the reportorial writing, VS appraised its elements: “a country brawl dramatized, the personalities brought close to the reader”. And he concluded: “this was McGowan’s style, and it became my father’s”.
Badjohn behaviour in Jerningham Junction; prison escapes from Devil’s Island; obeah and voodoo in Minty Alley-type backyards: Mc Gowan taught, and Seepersad learned, that “A good story is a good story”. Seepersad reproduced some of the reported material in his own later fiction.
At least some readers must have been turned on. Back in the 1930s, however, critics of the Guardian’s McGowan/Seepersad Naipaul brand of reporting claimed it was bad for tourism. Then and now, ill effects are readily ascribed to reporting that puts a finger into the wound of reality. But the ideological consolation available to reporters assures that “A good story is a good story”
VS Naipaul, himself a champion of breathtaking feats of journalism, must know something that lesser lights, going as far back as the Gault McGowan era, may only vaguely sense. Which is that the quest for the “good story” goes beyond harvesting negatives related to violence, death, and low-life exchanges in and around politics. As VS saw in McGowan’s Guardian: “his paper was like a daily celebration of the varied life of the island”.
More than 80 years later, Gault McGowan’s enlightened vision for covering Trinidad and Tobago remains to be fulfilled in any consistent or concerted way.
As the alleged “outside child” of the Naipaul literary family, Patrick Chookolingo must have inherited some flavor of what had been stirred into the DNA pot by Gault McGowan. The knighted, Nobel laureate, Naipaul must naturally be above acknowledging influence on his writing from a minor Fleet Street practitioner, who briefly made a mark in a tropical outpost of the Empire.
But VSN and Choko shared an unlikely partnership in the late 1960s and 1970s, when both were drawn, from different quarters, to coverage of an internationally breaking “good story” with essential T&T references. In those years, VS was drawn to Black Power, which he saw as a pathology equally besetting the newly independent black Caribbean and black America.
The Bomb, Choko’s flagship paper, came on the scene in July 1970, too late to cover that year’s Black Power events. VS, who kind of covered it, had dismissed Black Power in 11 lines, as a “spontaneous anarchic outburst”.
But as early as 1965, Choko had seen a “good story” in an especially bad actor in the black-consciousness dramas of those times. He was Trinidad-born Michael de Freitas, also known as Abdul Malik and Michael X
“He did capture me; he did excite me,” Naipaul reports Choko as saying about his 1965 encounter in London with Malik. By the turn of the 1970s, when VS confessed that “no novel offered itself to me”, the famous elder son of Seepersad had plunged into journalism.
In the coverage, by gullible white British reporters, of Malik (whom he identified as “a red man from Trinidad”), VS too saw “a good story”. By 1971, Malik had returned to Trinidad, one step ahead of British law enforcement.
Choko remained “excited” about Malik. He retained Malik to write for The Bomb a series of articles about brothels in Trinidad. He later discovered that Malik was using his Bomb pieces for “shake-down” effect with brothel proprietors, two of whom had handed over $10,000, in hush money.
Malik’s swift decline from black-liberation celebrity to convicted murderer brought journalist VSN to cover that big Trinidad-based story. His assignment resulted in a spectacular enterprise of investigative journalism. It filled just under half of the book titled The Return of Eva Peron, with The Killings in Trinidad.
In the would-be credits for this project, Chookolingo emerges as a source and junior partner. VSN had also interviewed T&T journalists Raoul Pantin and Randolph Rawlins. But it was from Choko he obtained the “good story” angle that Malik had obtained from then seer Harribance Lalsingh the misleading, and ultimately unreliable, prediction that he would not die by hanging.
The outside child was unremittingly helpful to his sibling, a novelist-turned-journalist. “I went to see Choko, and the first thing he did was to offer me two boxes of Malik’s papers,” Naipaul told his biographer.
Choko had been resourceful in preserving the boxes from the fire that destroyed Malik’s Christina Gardens home. Neither willing nor able to perform the long-form investigative journalism that is one of VSN’s strong suits, Choko provided critical support. The Killings in Trinidad half-book thus turns out to be reportage on a journalistic encounter of VSN, Chookolingo and Malik.
In a Q&A with Raoul Pantin, Naipaul later conceded, that no journalist who doesn’t, like him, get a month to report a single story “should feel guilty when he finds something very finished. It wasn’t written overnight,” he said.
The rise and fall of Malik entailed abundant wrenching ugliness. In the Raoul Pantin 1975 interview, Naipaul propounded a now-familiar theory about how Malik got by and got his way in Trinidad without too much questioning: “The society is in so many ways close to gangsterism that someone who is a gangster has a kind of natural camouflage.”
The Malik saga may thus show up a lot that is highly unfavourable about T&T, where it played out. But clear-eyed and unrelenting reporting on it, undeterred by how it go look, finds justification according to the ideological credo of “A good story is a good story.”
By when he emerged at the helm of The Bomb, Choko had fully paid up his dues. At 28 when he had given up teaching for journalism. He would go through the “seminary” that was the Guardian, rising to editor of its Evening News.
News editor of the Trinidad Chronicle; news editor of the Daily Mirror between 1963 and 1966; an earlier stint of newspapering in Grenada; and, topping them all, general manager and board director of the Express.
The career of Patrick Chookolingo of course assumes meaning more extensive than keeping faith with the “outside child” heritage ties to the Seepersad Naipaul literary family. It’s in the turbulent, last 16 years of his career that he made his most lasting mark as a liberated journalist committed to following his dream or realizing a sense of mission.
Following his premature exit from the start-up Express in 1968, he could have seen the end of the line. Options for him had disappeared in T&T’s two daily papers. Man having to live, with a large family to support, he became a car parts dealer.
But he was “never a good businessman,” says Sat Maharaj, adding that Choko needed to “borrow from Bhadase Maraj to keep the business going.” The Bomb title had belonged to Mr Maraj, a religious and political leader, and all-enabled business magnate. Under The Bomb title, he had occasionally produced a four-page “broadsheet” to advance his politics.
It couldn’t be that kind of paper he had in mind when he combined with Chookolingo to launch The Bomb weekly, on July 31, 1970. Bhadase, Mr Maharaj said, was “ecstatic” about the content Choko promptly began to deliver, as essentially a one-man operation.
Bhadase’s joy was short-lived. He died within 15 months of The Bomb’s launch. In the event, Choko assumed the roles of both editor and publisher, on some kind of lease arrangement with the owners, now represented by Sat Maharaj.
“You give us so much and run it,” the proprietors told Choko. He ran with it, evidently mastering the modalities of publishing, enough to make a runaway success of The Bomb. One New York dealer alone weekly took 15,000 copies. By 1975, The Bomb was claiming circulation of 50,000.
After more than a decade of financial and circulation success, Choko restlessly sought new challenges. “The people have outgrown the style of The Bomb,” he told his closest colleagues.
His ambitions turned to expanding and diversifying the weekly press, of which the public appeared never to get enough. While still at The Bomb, he struck out on his own to launch Target and the Sunday Punch.
Shortly, operation of his own-account titles came into conflict with the business of The Bomb. The break-up was unpleasant, especially as Choko’s health was failing.
The post-Choko Bomb stayed on course. In July 1982, The Mirror, in two weekly editions, owned and operated by Choko, hit the streets.
Choko had emerged as a weekly newspaper publishing heavyweight, with multiple titles in his suite of publications. The newspaper scene finally qualified him as someone who, for most of his past a newspaper salaryman, for the title of media “mogul”
Health failing further, Choko didn’t survive his second stroke. He died on Father’s Day 1986.
Any chronicling of those last 16 years, the ones most readily accessible today, should inspiringly focus minds of others in journalism. Choko made clear that his work, in the The Bomb, Punch, and Mirror championed a cause of journalism in the way he knew best.
“What has the today journalist got to show for himself?” he asked. “Nothing. He has followed a straight white line, never deviating. He is not enterprising because he is scared of his own shadow.”
Choko was moved to demonstrate his own fearlessness and to demonstrate in action what he rhetorically exhorted of his journalistic colleagues: “The time has come for some of us to blaze a torch, or…drop a bomb and scatter the pigeons who have gone to roost in our towers...”
Resources for extraordinary journalistic endeavor are always in short supply. In Choko’s case, from the days when he, with a single column from Sat Maharaj, wrote and produced all the pages of The Bomb, resources were in even shorter supply.
Defying such constraints, Choko proved to be highly effective. Tough and daring, at times driven by grievances, he never forgave a slur or a slight, especially from fellow journalists.
With no rule book, he followed only the dictates of what was needed for survival and growth. But his product was invariably compelling.
He played the game by his own self-serving rules; he fought hard, gave no quarter, expected none and would not have expected MATT’s Lifetime Achievement Award posthumously given in 2004, nor the City of Port of Spain award last year.
The Choko papers achieved success in circulation before they gained the approval of advertisers.
Readers evidently warmed to the techniques marked by in-your-face directness, human interest angles, straight from the shoulder commentaries, hitting out fearless of retaliation, and naming and shaming.
His papers broke sensational stories, typically by Choko’s own set standards of sourcing and validation.
The journalistic enterprise entailed dreaming up angles sometimes never dared nor imagined by the daily papers.
Such approaches incurred costs, including big lawsuits and, once, jail for a contempt of court conviction. When Choko eventually won his appeal, he reprinted the story of “The Judge’s Wife” that had so scandalized the legal fraternity.
The Chookolingo career was one of leadership capable of being widely inspirational for journalists. Contrary to some news reports this week, I never worked with the man, but derived indirect benefit from his performance of a role as editor at large.
As a novice feature writer, I had produced a profile of Diana Mahabir that played big in the Sunday Express. Days later, I received a message from Choko, long then estranged from the paper. Why, he asked, did my 1,000-word piece avoid mention of how a white Canadian woman had gained the Mahabir surname? From that distance learning experience, I absorbed something unforgettable about interviewing.
Eventually, the Bomb and the succeeding Choko papers constituted a stable in which a large number of today’s journalists, and even some media executives, got their early grooming. He won lingering loyalties, and earned as much friendship and support as he made detractors and enemies.
I-96 radio news editor Sharmain Baboolal, who transitioned with Choko from The Bomb to the Mirror, warmly recalled last week the man’s role as a “dream boss” for women in the 1980s. Choko made sure, she said, women were respected, cherished, and given opportunities to advance.
In closing, let record my appreciation of the fact that a journalist is recognized by the Friends of Mr Biswas organization, in seamless connection with the leading literary family of Trinidad and Tobago. This building, we may recall, had originally been designated the VS Naipaul National Library. Maybe the time will come when some building or activity is consecrated to remember a name as resonant in the field ofjournalism as Patrick Chookolingo.