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‘The Life and Times of a Caribbean Surgeon’

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‘A Dream Come True – the Autobiography of a Caribbean Surgeon,’ by Dr Cecil Cyrus – a review as presented at its launching This book whose launching has brought us here tonight could well have been entitled “The Life and Times of a Caribbean Surgeon,” because that is what it is. In fact, the author himself says that this book “is a pertinent reminder of the times in which I lived, a catalogue of some of the island’s meaningful but largely unrecorded past.”{{more}}

Distinguished Caribbean personalities have not generally written about their life experiences. In the case of SVG, only three come readily to mind, Hugh Mulzac’s A Star to Steer By, Shirla Allen-Philogéne’s Between Two Worlds and Sir James Mitchell’s Beyond the Islands. Allen and Mulzac naturally devoted short space to their early upbringings, since they spent most of their lives abroad. Sir James’ emphasis is on his political life, with not much said about the society of his early upbringing. With Cyrus’ ‘Life and Times,’ you can almost separate the St Vincent part of the book from the rest of it. But to do that is to destroy the unity of the book which, in essence, shows how the young man who stormed the portals of Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Island, was shaped by his life in St Vincent; the nurturing and loving care of his mother and extended family, the guidance, security and sacrifice of his father and the camaraderie of his friends, those who were part of his early life that he described as ‘healthy irresponsibility’ and those in senior years at the Grammar School and staff colleagues with whom he shared his dreams. As he points out, too, his is a story of “his odyssey in pursuit and fulfilment of his childhood dream.”

This book will have wide appeal. It provides us with a description of what his times were like. The early part focuses on his childhood in Layou, as seen through the eyes of a primary school student. Although this was about Layou, it could easily have been about any part of St Vincent, particularly the rural areas, that we call leeward and country. His period in Kingstown constituted his final years of primary school and his days as a Grammar School boy and later master. Then he describes for us the circumstances surrounding his leaving his homeland and his period in Northern Ireland and England, when he pursued his studies with the fixed aim of equipping himself to return and serve his country and then finally, the first few years of his return…

I knew that this book was pending and anxiously awaited its completion, for I have an historical interest in the 1930s, the period of his early childhood. Additionally, having grown up in Barrouallie and being a regular visitor to Layou, I had some interest in knowing what the society was like at that time. He, in fact, notes the rivalry between Barrouallie and Layou in cricket and academics and in fact, in everything.

There is much about the author, revealed consciously or not, that is fascinating. First his photographic memory, as he calls it, is truly astounding. He remembers that he left Layou to live in Kingstown at 6:45 p.m. on Saturday, June 14, 1939 by Arnott Poker Agard’s bread van. He recalls most of the songs and choruses he knew then; has had them printed and put to music with the help of Mrs Jeanne Horne and Geoff Venner. There are detailed descriptions of so many things. He recalls the making of canoes from the Gumberlimba tree, and of the bum drum and the making and throwing of seines by the fishermen in Layou. Well-known characters are captured. One that I will single out is the well-known character Brown, the flutist of no known abode, shuffling around from place to place. Browne was still around in my time. Whenever he visited your area, you knew that someone had died – that period’s informal substitute for today’s radio and television death announcements. We are told that he played the organ and that the church at Layou had to be locked to keep him away. As he describes Brown, he “simply glided along as if on air, and one did not see a walking man but only a physical form of soulful music flowing as if on wings” – really, to my mind, our version of the Pied Piper of Hamelin..

Dr Cyrus’ sense of humour flows throughout the book and with it a number of interesting stories. Quite often we hear about someone having a dry sense of humour. I assume that there is also a wet sense of humour. I have, however, not been able to fit him into either category. He recalled the story of a seine being tied up overnight. When visited by the fishermen the next morning they met a shark that had eaten the fish and died in the process. I could see in my mind’s eye the author reflecting on that occasion and debating with himself about it. After capturing the moment, he says of the shark: “Served you right!”

He has a fear of flying that I suspect is well known to his friends. On his return to Ireland after a holiday at home in 1958, he agonized about the flight. He said that he spent the whole 24 hours looking again and again at the wing and horizon, for he dared not look inside too often. As he describes it, “I could not risk sleeping, for I had to re-start the engines whenever they stopped or threatened to, by simply swallowing; really I was involved in flying the plane.” There was an amusing incident with Ink Jug (Robert T Samuel) at church. He had carelessly put into the collection plate a 60 cent piece, his weekly allowance given to him by his father, rather than the penny he intended to. On realizing what he had done, he rushed back and appealed to Samuel, who refused to budge. It appears that the standard answer for this was to say that the collection plate was already blessed, so no dice. He refused to give any further collection, arguing that he had already paid up his full dues.

(To be continued)

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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