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‘I’ll always be Trinidadian'

Patriotic: Sir Trevor McDonald is “proud” of his Trinidadian roots

A MAN who needs little introduction, Sir Trevor McDonald is, quite simply, a British icon.

Arguably the most memorable presenter on ITV’s flagship news programme News at Ten, McDonald – who is recognised as Britain’s first black newsreader – is celebrated for his contribution to British media, most notably being knighted in 1999 for his services to journalism.

But while the famed newsreader is appreciative of his British media experiences, he is equally grateful to Trinidad, which he proudly describes as “the place which gave me my life.”

Leaving his Caribbean birthplace in 1962 and heading to London to report on Trinidad and Tobago gaining independence, McDonald, has fond memories of the experience.

“I came to London for the first time in 1962 to cover the conference, in which Trinidad gained its independence,” the 73-year-old recalled. “It was at Marlborough House in London, and needless to say, I was about 100 years younger then!"

“One memory I have is of writing an introduction and an ending to what I hoped would be an interview with Eric Williams, who became Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago after independence. He came out of the conference and I was as nervous as hell, as Williams was not given to talking to reporters. These were the days when Prime Ministers in the West Indies didn’t condescend to talk to lowly people like me!"

“But I said to him, ‘Prime Minister, I have a 10 minute broadcast to Trinidad and I have written an introduction and an ending, which total one-and-a-half minutes. So you have eight-and-a-half minutes.’ He looked and me and said, ‘But I intended to speak for much longer.’ I replied, ‘I’m terribly sorry Sir – you have you have eight-and-a-half minutes.’"

McDonald continues: “He did it and it was the time when he issued what became like Trinidad’s creed. He said: ‘I have given to the nation as its watchwords, discipline, production, tolerance.’ At the end of it, he said, ‘I hope I haven’t gone over my eight-and-a-half minutes.’ I said, ‘No, Prime Minister, you haven’t.’ With that, I grabbed the tape recorder, ran into a taxi and went to do my report."

“That is a fond memory for me because in those days, radio was the main means of communication, so my reports were the only things informing the nation [Trinidad]. That was my first big break in radio and every time Trinidad’s independence comes around, I always remember that. I’m terribly proud that my first big break was covering the political independence from Britain of the country in which I was born.”

Needless to say, McDonald isn’t one of the cynics who views Trinidad’s independence critically. While some look upon Britain relinquishing control of its Caribbean colonies as a bad thing – arguing, for all sorts of reasons, that countries in the West Indies were better off under British rule – McDonald doesn’t subscribe to this thinking.

“Absolutely not,” he says fiercely. “I look at Trinidad and Tobago’s independence with enormous pride. However many mistakes we’ve made since independence, there was absolutely no reason why Britain should have held on to colonies in the Caribbean for one second longer than they did. Trinidad deserved its independence. The time had come for Britain to let go."

“So to use the mistakes we may have made to justify the assertion that we should not have been granted our independence is entirely misplaced and ludicrous. I regard that opinion almost with contempt. That’s not to diminish the contribution Britain made to West Indian countries, but I believe we got our independence when we deserved it. If anything, it should have come sooner.”

Though McDonald has lived in Britain for longer than he did in his country of birth, he says that being Trinidadian “has never left me.”

In fact, he remembers speaking about his birthplace at a time when he never imagined he would: whilst waiting to interview the notorious former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein.

“When I went to interview Saddam Hussein at the beginning of the first Gulf War, I was given quite a runaround. I had to meet several ministers, who had been told to meet me – but had absolutely no idea why I was being showed into their offices, because I wasn’t coming to see them!"

“So we’d sit down in these large offices with large, white leather sofas, and there’d be great silence for at least five minutes. Then, they’d say to me: ‘Who do you work for?’ I’d say, ‘British television.’ They’d then say, ‘But where were you born?’ I replied, ‘Minister, it’s a place you’ve probably never heard of.’ Don’t forget, I’m in a palace in Baghdad!"

“But they’d insist on knowing where I was from, so I replied, ‘It’s a little island in the West Indies called Trinidad.’ One minister whose office I was in, said: ‘Oh, I know Trinidad. I was on my way to a conference in Venezuela once and my plane developed trouble, so we had to stop off at the airport in Trinidad.’ I thought to myself, ‘Oh God, I hope they treated him well in Trinidad, otherwise that’s the end of my interview with Sadam!’"

Thankfully, he said, "They were terribly charming. They put me up in a hotel near the airport and the following morning my plane was repaired and I went to Venezuela.’ I thought to myself, ‘Thank God!’”

Also amongst his many memories is an encounter with former Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi – who was also intrigued to know where McDonald hailed from.

“At the end of my interview with Colonel Gaddafi, he said to me ‘Where are you from?’ I said, ‘It’s a place in the West Indies called Trinidad. We all came to London because we were a colony of the British Empire.’"

“He said to me: ‘Oh yes, I know about Trinidad – and I know much, much more about colonialism.’ "

“So being Trinidadian has never left me. I’ve often been asked, ‘where are you from?’ and I’ve always been very proud to say I was born in Trinidad."

“It’s the place which gave me my life, and I will always be proud to be associated with Trinidad.”

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