R.I.P. Keith Smith, 1945–2011

by Nicholas Laughlin on February 10, 2011

Keith Smith

The photograph of Keith Smith that long accompanied his Express column

Keith Smith, Trinidadian journalist, died early in the morning of Tuesday 8 February, at the age of 65.

Over his forty-five-year career, which started at the now-defunct Daily Mirror and ended at the Trinidad Express, the newspaper he helped found in 1967, Smith was a reporter and editor, and a beloved mentor to scores of younger journalists. But to the reading population of Trinidad and Tobago he was best known as a columnist, in the most expansive possible sense. (And anyone who met him knew that “expansive” referred not only to his mind, his talent, and his personality, but also his physique.) The Keith Smith column, which for years ran daily in the Express, mixed personal anecdote and humour with social and political observation, street smarts and folk wisdom, delivered in a prose style his regular readers could recognise sometimes by a mere sentence.

The classic Keith Smith sentence seemed effortlessly endless, a stream of consciousness unto itself, rolling and eddying. A single Keith Smith sentence could contain assertion, qualification, question, disquisition on human folly, epiphany, moral lesson, and pun. And then, with barely a pause for breath, he would dash off another.

Kim Johnson, Smith’s former Express colleague, writes:

Keith Smith was one of the most remarkable men I’ll ever meet. He was certainly the most gifted writer I’ve known, and that based on the most lightweight of literary forms, the newspaper column. His are the only columns I’ve ever cut out to file away.

Column-writing is exhausting. Composing one weekly, in which you mine your own life’s experiences for things to say, drains the most talented in a few months, after which they produce dull, tasteless mud, usually uninspired opinions on whatever is the most recent political bacchanal. Yet Keith was able to churn out a personal column daily for years — decades! — and still regularly produce gems of prose, even the occasional diamond. And that without the shameless self-promotion that is so common among columnists . . .

And as he was vast in his talents so too, I felt — and told him so — that he squandered them with equal prodigality. Although Keith was quite aware of his talents he didn’t ponder on it or labour at honing them, as did other writers of lesser gifts but larger ambition — and I count myself in that group . . .

Now that I see the source of Keith’s brilliance was his capacity for wonder. He never became jaded or cynical but rather could be surprised over and over and over by the small things we encounter every day, both negative and positive, and that we take for granted.

From Judy Raymond, another of his colleagues:

At their best, Keith’s columns were like the most brilliant extempo calypsoes. They were dashed off at great speed, but they had their own poetry and they contained nuggets of great wisdom. Nobody could hope to imitate them, but they were an influence and inspiration for other writers nevertheless because of their depth and sharpness and the easy way they showed Keith’s huge understanding of the time and the place he lived in. Perhaps he should have written something grander or bigger or more lasting. But as it is he turned the newspaper column into an art form.

Keith wasn’t always easy to work with, because he was the last person who should have been put to manage anything. He should have been chained to a desk and made to write. That’s what he was born for.

He was a character. Everyone who knew him has their own Keith stories, not all of them printable. The Express newsroom and the world will be a duller place without him.

In a column published last October, when news got around that Smith was hospitalised, B.C. Pires — yet another onetime Express colleague — wrote a column parodying — which is to say, paying high tribute to — his style:

If Keith wasn’t in a hospital bed, was at his desk, instead, eating his hands, chewing his way to inspiration via his knuckles — the whole newsroom watching through the all-glass office wall understood that his concentration was deepest when his fist disappeared into his mouth — if Keith was working on yet another column that would touch the length and breadth of Trinidad & Tobago, from Belmont to Brooklyn and Brixton, would make them laugh, or make them angry, or make them smile, or make them weep, or — at his best — make them do them all at the same time in the same column — if Keith was in the black of health (because don’t ever think Keith “Laventy Rhythm Section” Smith would claim he was in the pink of health), if Keith was firing on all cylinders, I know I coulda send Keith to deal with bmobile for me . . .

Anu Lakhan, who knew Smith first at the Express and later persuaded him to write for the food column at Caribbean Beat — food and columns being two things he knew better than almost anyone — sends this note:

It is a small claim to fame, but it is mine, and I guard it as I would the mango vert once so hilariously and bizarrely defended by Keith Smith in a Caribbean Beat feature. The fame to which I refer is getting Keith to write for Caribbean Beat’s growing food section.

It was not his fine prose nor star byline that made his contributions such an honour. No. It was the fact that he agreed at all to do a piece. Then another. Then he startled the universe by submitting the actual written product for review. And then, unfathomably, each piece was on time. My agnosticism shuddered in the face of such miracles.

No one would deny this as one of Keith’s finer moments (triumph over sloth is no small achievement), but I know of one finer still.

There’s little risk of happening upon excessive displays of humanity in our time. I saw one once, though. It channeled through this man who always seemed to exist just beyond anything that could be defined. Through Keith, directly to me, then, in a far bigger and more extraordinary way, to all that might be considered civilised and good.

It was over a news story. The kind of story that can turn provincial tragedies into world news. He absolved me of a tiny but hideous mission to relate some instructions from a higher-up. “You told me,” he said. Just that.

There was nothing dramatic like silencing anyone or burying the story on an obscure page. But Keith — uninterested in gore glory — let a few survivors think, for a short while, that the world was not entirely barbaric. It was a beautiful elision. The media had not, in fact, offered any gesture of empathy. Keith Smith offered decency and humanity.

I met Keith Smith only once or twice, and I knew him neither as a colleague nor as a friend. (Though I had the privilege a single time, six years ago, of being his editor.) I knew him as one of his readers, starting when I was eleven or twelve and first taking the newspapers seriously. For what seems like always, his column was simply a fact of life, a fixed point in the universe. I’d even say it was one of the things that made Trinidad Trinidad.

Life, the universe, and Trinidad are a little less than they were, now that he’s gone.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Florabelle Lutchman February 25, 2011 at 11:27 pm

I loved reading the columns written by Keith Smith.
I would appreciate greatly a copy of his peom-”Long Time Days.”
Please Email it to me.
Florabelle Lutchman

Mark Lyndersay April 17, 2011 at 4:15 pm

And then there’s this…
To which Keith responded in a call, “why you wasting time writing all that in the papers and ent bring me some [stewed] oxtail.”
It is to my lasting and lifetime’s worth of regret that I ultimately failed him in that wish. I cooked several times, but never got it right enough to do a delivery.

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