18 June 2012

Errol Alphonso, my friend and benefactor

Two years ago (i.e. on June 24, 2010), I wrote in these columns about a friend and benefactor.  Errol Alphonso.  I called him Errol Abu al-Mughith Husayn Mansur al-Hallaj Alphonso.  The reason for the elongation can be found in the article ‘Say hello to Errol Abual-Mughith Husayn Mansur al-Hallaj Alphonso’.  I have, since then, referred to him on several occasions, for he has sparked my imagination and stimulated my mind through comments as well as through quotes, articles and facts he would email me.
I didn’t know him.  The name was familiar when he first wrote to me, commenting on something I had written.  That’s because he was a journalist.  You might know him from Fanfare for the Common Man, The Unimportance of being blind, Shakespeare was a Scriptwriter, Contemplations on a Cardinal Sin, Making Love in Many Languages and Geneva Ticks! I’ve known him now for almost two years and that’s long enough to know that ‘journalist’ doesn’t come close to describing the man. 
Here’s the ‘bio’ I wrote back then for those who place value on such things: 

‘He’s had a wide expanse of experience in mass communications and marketing.  He has been rated ‘the best’ by Sri Lanka’s Dean of Broadcasters, the late Livy Wijemanne. He has done his hours in advertising, ground up. He’s a ground-up person in all things, I might add. A voracious reader and a veritable super-sucker of what the internet offers and at rates that one would usually not associate with someone of his age.  Errol has seen the world. He’s been to Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Hamamatsu, Kofu, Honolulu, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, New York, London, Paris, Rome, Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Dusseldorf, Idar-Oberstein, Beirut, Kuwait and Tehran.’
I also wrote in that article, that ‘Errol had come home, like all prophets, to find the truth (of his heaven and hell)’.   He was a rationalist. Didn’t believe in god.  He described himself as a Buddhist and had pinned the Kalama Sutra on the door of his room at the Home for the Elderly where he lived.  

Errol taught me a lot.  He corrected every mistake I made, consciously and unconsciously.  He taught me a new word every day.  He would pick something I had written and comment at length.  He also sent me links to websites that inevitably widened the horizons of my knowledge on that particular topic.  He had a phenomenal memory and could quote relevant passages from relevant texts to substantiate claim or drive home a point. 
He was a word man who knew the limitations of text.  He left a lot unsaid. 

I’ve visited him a couple of times and was astounded by his Spartan ways.  He had little and the little he had was literally next to nothing.  He had a computer and had access to the internet.  He had installed all the software he needed and knew how to make maximum use of what he had.  
He told me once that he indulged in an Aristotelian hope; that someday the best flutes will finally go to the best flute players, and that he’ll end up, consequently, with a swank shop laptop.  He did not.  He passed on early one morning, exactly a year ago.  A few weeks before he did, he texted me, saying he was on his way out.  He wanted me to take his computer.  He had by this time already sent me brand new shirts he had received as gifts but never wore.  I never wore them either.  He passed them to me, I passed them on, as I did his computer a few days after he died and I helped clean out his room.    

I think Errol never realized that we don’t always know the dimensions of the flutes we deserve or need.  He lived a life. He made do with the material that he was endowed with.  There is nothing to say that he did not make the best flute music he could.  I certainly think he did ok, all things considered. He didn’t have a swank laptop, but he did wonders with the old, occasionally upgraded desktop that was his prized possession.  

Errol wrote to me on the eve of his 70the birthday, i.e. on the 13th of February, 2011.

In the last hours of my seventieth birthday, I send you the first of the great writings I promised.  James Agee wrote like an angel, and here he is firmly fixed in the firmament. I had this essay in a collector's edition called Great Reading from LIFE, shy of half a century back. It's to die for.’  This was followed by the relevant web link.    

In the first ‘Morning Inspection’ following a break of several weeks, on May 2, 2011, I quoted Walter Scott’s poem ‘Patriotism’.  Errol educated me.  He said it was the first part of Canto Sixth of ‘The Lay of the Last Minstrel’.  He was like that; always a teacher but one who never admonished.  He would not say I was wrong when I made a grammatical error. He would forward me a link that sent me to a webpage containing relevant information about the particular principle. 

He ended that email, quite uncharacteristically, with a command, though: ‘To help humankind, I charge you now to press your thoughts constantly before power, as to say, against all evil, and this you should do by many means.’  I will remember this. 

A year passed very fast.  If it was up to me, the first person I would have liked to hire after taking on the job of Chief Editor, ‘The Nation’, would have been Errol.  He would have been such a strength.  I pass the home for the elderly where he spent his last years, almost every day.  So I think of him every day, almost.  People come and go, we all know that.  Some stay, this too we know.  Some go, but remain, and that’s rare.  Errol was rare. Very. 
He ended all conversations with ‘Go well’.  He changed this to ‘Go well, Merchant’ after some time, the reference being Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis, written in England in 1623 and the "Merchants of Light" -- individuals whose job it is to traverse the world for intellectual treasures and to bring them back to share, and to create repositories of knowledge and learning.

I would respond, ‘stay well’. 

I ended the article referred to at the beginning this way: ‘Go well, Errol; carry your immortality light on your shoulders.’   I could say the same now, but I would add, ‘I hope you got that damn laptop-flute you wanted so much!’ 

[Also published in 'The Editor's Blog' of www.nation.lk