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A kind of immortality

Sunday, April 3, 2016
The late Pat Bishop

I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time. —Banksy

Pat Bishop’s first death came suddenly on Saturday, August 20, 2011. With her boots on, at a high-level meeting discussing the state and future direction of the arts in T&T, and in the company of so many of her colleagues in the arts community, she collapsed.

That a state of emergency was declared the following day at the then prime minister’s bidding is ironically fitting, for in Pat Bishop’s passing, T&T lost its quintessential Renaissance citizen—one who embodied and practiced a love of, an expertise in, a passion for all areas of the arts, culture, scholarship, education, people and the environment—and a loss of that magnitude would have rightly plunged the nation into a state of cultural crisis had it not been scuppered by a political crisis.

But, since we correctly boast that we are a nine days’ wonder society, who says Pat Bishop’s name today, almost five years since her passing? At Panorama, you hear somebody declare how they miss Pat Bishop’s erudite commentary; at beach clean-ups, there is a whispered wish that they would bring back Charlie, Bishop’s creation when she was at SWMCOL; in private homes and public spaces, a person passes one of her art works, catches their breath, says something like, all that talent gone, then exhales and moves on. 

Certainly, at the newly restored and packed-out Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception one Saturday evening in March this year, the appreciative audience at the Lydians concert paid homage to Pat Bishop’s legacy. And there’s the PALM Foundation whose vision and responsibility it is to continue Bishop’s mission in art, literature and music. But one day, and I hope it’s a long, long, way in the future, no one here will call her name. 

It’s not that we do not honour our people in a lasting way. In my own little corner of T&T, the children of the Siegert family are there in the names of Woodbrook streets, Arthur Lok Jack is a school of the University of the West Indies. There’s a Cipriani Roundabout, Boulevard and Institute. Wendy Fitzwilliam Boulevard replaced Diamond Boulevard, Brian Lara Promenade on Independence Square is the Marine Square of my childhood. Landowners, business magnates, statesmen, beauty queens, sportsmen have memorials there and elsewhere.

Where are the icons celebrating cultural figures? I struggle to think of one in my little corner, apart from The Lord Kitchener Auditorium in Napa, matched in Sapa by the Sundar Popo Auditorium. Where the statue of The Mighty Sparrow stands is called the St Ann’s Roundabout. Naming something lifts it from the generic to the specific. Naming something after somebody confers a kind of immortality on that person.

How fortunate we the people of T&T are then, that when the last person alive today who knew Patricia Alison Bishop, when that last person dies and her name ceases to be said, Pat Bishop will not yet meet her second death. Her name will be called for centuries to come in Rochester, New York State, thanks to a serendipitous and enduring friendship forged a long time ago between two Bishop Anstey High School girls.

Dr Wilbur Downs, an American virologist, first came to Trinidad just before America entered World War II. The epidemiological survey of malaria he conducted here at that time remains a classic in the field. A decade later, he returned with his family to continue his work. He was founding director of the Trinidad Regional Virus Laboratory (later the Caribbean Epidemiology Center (Carec), now The Caribbean Public Health Agency (Carpha). His daughter, Helen Haller (née Downs), whom I interviewed by email, tells the story of her first encounter with Pat Bishop.    

“We met in January of 1954 at Bishop’s, on my first day there, as a totally baffled American! You cannot imagine the culture shock of suddenly finding myself in a classroom with girls who were Hindu, Muslim, Chinese, Black, and all combinations thereof, with accents I could hardly understand, and in a setting that I was quite unfamiliar with.

I had lived in Trinidad for one year already and had gone to St Andrew’s School in Maraval for that year (…) but Pat’s way of doing things was very new to me (…) there I was, suddenly the new girl in a roomful of people almost all of whom had already spent a year together. Being who she was, she took me under her wing, befriended me, explained to me all the things I needed to know (the lockers, the different notebooks, when I could use a pencil and when I must use a pen, where the classrooms were, etc, etc, etc) Somehow my admiration of her art ability drew us together.

I was hopelessly inept, while she could with a few strokes sketch a cartoon, or paint a gorgeous watercolour. I still have some of those early works of hers. I guess at bottom it was what they call ‘chemistry’—some people get along easily together, have rapport is another way to put it.” 

The friendship grew and deepened with a mutual love of intellectual pursuits. They did school work together, visited each other’s homes, and simply grew up together as young women until each went her way to university, Pat to the UK, Helen back to the USA, keeping in touch by letter. Bishop eventually came back home after stints in California, USA, and at the UWI Mona Campus. It was 25 years before they saw each other again.

“In the early eighties, my husband and I went to Trinidad on a birding trip (you know, the Asa Wright Nature Center, Caroni Swamp, and that sort of thing). We stayed a few extra days and visited with Pat, which was lovely, and established that we still were indeed friends of a wonderful sort.”
    When Pat was in Florida for heart surgery, Helen visited her. 

“…from then until she died, I went down to Trinidad every two or three years to see her for a week or more. I managed to time most of those visits so that I could hear a couple of the operas she put on, or attend the opening of a show of her art, and be present when she received her honorary doctorate from the University of the West Indies. I stayed at her house, and we spent hours and hours (…) talking and talking. In between, we would talk on the phone once each month or two (…) Now (and even then I sort of foresaw it) I wish I had tapes of those wonderful conversations, in her bedroom, on the street, in the car, as well as on the phone.”

Among their many pursuits, Helen and Chris Haller engage in change bell ringing. That is, they ring huge bells that are housed in towers, usually in churches, by pulling on long ropes that link each ringer in the ringing chamber at a lower level, to a bell mounted on a wheel structure in the tower. When the ringer pulls on the rope, it causes the wheel to turn and the bell to swing; its clapper hits the rim and makes a note. Change-ringing bells are rung one at a time in a series of permutations to create changes, that is, rounds of harmonious sounds.

Each such group of bells, most usually six or eight or ten or 12, is called a “ring” of bells. While there are thousands of towers with active rings of bells in England, they are comparatively rare in North America, numbering just over 50. The nearest one to Rochester is the 12-bell ring at St James’ Cathedral in Toronto. New York State can boast of two other towers—eight bells on the property of the Community of the Holy Spirit in Brewster, and 12 bells (the only 12 in the US) at Trinity Church, Wall Street. 

When they moved to Rochester, NY, in 1994, Helen and Chris, looked for a suitable tower in which to install bells. The Church of the Ascension was a promising possibility. With permission granted, specialised structural engineering and architectural expertise was secured to ensure the tower structure could support ten swinging bells, and their housing, altogether weighing almost three tons.

It was many years before a sufficiency of funds was raised to approach the Whitechapel Foundry, London, UK, to cast the bells. Part of the casting process involved the incorporation of a name and an inscription for each bell. The bells were cast, assembled, tuned, disassembled, shipped and finally they arrived at their new home. Helen tells of their welcome.

“The truck with our container arrived on the church premises on August 6, 2015, and was unloaded on August 13. The bells, wheels, and other fittings were stored in the container while the frame members were hoisted up into the bell chamber and assembled. The five little bells were hoisted into the bell chamber and placed in their locations on August 21, and the five big bells went up on August 26. (…) On September 12, we were joined by six capable and helpful ringers from Toronto, and all ten bells sounded in Rounds for the first time. In many ways it was the thrill of a lifetime, the culmination of much hope, much planning, and much work on many people’s parts.”

Each bell is inscribed with one or two lines of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Stanza 106 of his In Memoriam. In an article for The Ringing World, Helen tells about the naming of the ten bells. Honoured are two family members, Chris’ father and step-mother, Chtistian and Trudy, and other people who were significant in their lives. Among them are Geddes, a deceased fellow bell ringer, and Pete (Seeger) and Woody (Guthrie), musicians. 

Important figures in the history of the city of Rochester also feature in the naming. Susan is for Susan B Anthony, a tireless worker for suffrage and human rights, and Frederick is for Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who became a social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer and statesman.

There is Martin, for Martin Luther King, a visionary orator, a champion of civil rights and the rights of the poor. Julian, named for Saint Julian of Norwich is Helen’s and Pat’s favourite saint. She lived as an anchoress in 14th century England, and is the earliest woman whose writings in the English language have come down to us. 

How many times have we Lydians heard Pat recite to us, in our moments of self-doubt, one of her favourite quotations from St Julian: All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. 

In the article, Helen says this about Bell No 4:  
“Bell  No 4 is ‘Patricia’: Pat Bishop was Helen’s dearest friend from age 12 on, in high school in Trinidad, West Indies, until her death four years ago. But she was so much more than just her personal friend. She was Trinidad’s ‘cultural icon’: artist, musician, environmentalist and conscience.” 
Bell No 4 reads:
Patricia. Ring in the love of truth and right. When the PATRICIA bell is rung, the note F# sounds. Helen says she chose bell No 4 for her friend, Pat, because it is the bell she is likely to ring most often. “I like to think F# stands not just for a music note but for friendship, sharp and true.”

The oldest active change-ringing bells in the world, a ring of five bells, is housed in St Lawrence Church, Ipswich. Called Wolsey’s Bells, after Cardinal Wolsey who grew up in the area, they date from the mid-fifteenth century, almost half a century before Columbus set sail for the New World.

Cast in the same Whitechapel Bell Foundry, they are unchanged and unmodified, still with their original clappers. If that is any guide, Patricia Alison Bishop and all the people honoured by Helen and Chris Haller, in their naming on the bells of the Ascension Episcopal Church, Rochester, NY, can look forward to more than half a millennium of having their names sounded when the bells ring out. Achieving an immortality of sorts. 


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