58 Years of Jamaican Journalism
by John Maxwell
This is your last chance for a while to savor Mr. Maxwell’s long, long view of Jamaica and the surrounding planet. “Last month made it 58 years hard labor and there is nobody in Jamaican journalism, living or dead, who has spent more time at it.” This one is a gem – as always.
58 Years of Jamaican Journalism
by John Maxwell
This article originally appeared in the Jamaica Observer.
“There is nobody in Jamaican journalism, living or dead, who has spent more time at it.”
As a toddler on Derby Beach, now Silver Sands, I remember asking my father what was the roaring sound we heard when we put seashells to our ears. His answer, I believe, was to the effect that the shell concentrated all the sounds around us, the wind, the waves, the sand, every noise in the universe, into the shells and perhaps, with enough patience, we could unravel and make sense of some of it.
If my grandchildren were in the neighborhood I don't think I'd need to answer that question, since I doubt that they would now be able to find a whole seashell on any Jamaican beach.
My father died when I was 12, of a heart broken (it was said) by the electorate of Northern Trelawny, who had forgotten the hard labor he'd put in as Member of the Legislative Council for the whole parish. His brother-in-law, Morris Thelwell, a comparative unknown, had won Southern Trelawny for the Jamaica Labor Party while the totally obscure Clement Aitcheson, head-teacher of the Duncans Elementary School, selected for that job by my father, had won in Northern Trelawny also for the JLP. Another brother-in-law, Hugh Cork, had won southern Clarendon for the JLP.
I remember as a ten year-old cowering in my father's library in astonishment as my father excoriated Alexander Bustamante who wanted to recruit him to run for the JLP in 1944. It was an unforgettable confrontation: my father, all 5'6' of him facing down Bustamante, nearly a foot taller with a hairdo that exaggerated his height. Busta, furious, simply went across the street and recruited Aitcheson.
“My father’s sympathies were with the PNP and he really admired Manley.”
My father had refused to join the PNP because he thought that there was still a place in Jamaican politics for independents. His sympathies were with the PNP and he really admired Manley, but a decade earlier, Manley had been the lawyer whose arguments unseated him on the ground that he was not wealthy enough to be elected. It wasn't Manley's choice; in those days lawyers were more or less obliged to accept the first brief offered and the first brief was from the losing candidate, the richest man on the north coast, the manager of the building society, the chairman of the Parish Council, the Custos of the Parish, the MLC and the attorney for more than half the land and sugar estates in Trelawny – Mr. W.U. Guy S. Ewen.
Manley regretted the result – as he wrote the Chief Justice afterward – why should people be prevented from being represented by the delegate of their choice simply because he was poor?
A few years later Manley joined a ferment with O.T Fairclough, Ken and Frank Hill, W. A. Domingo, Adolphe Roberts, Amy Bailey and the rest to first energize the Jamaica Progressive League in New York, then Public Opinion in Jamaica, and finally the People's National Party which was determined to give every man a vote and to bring universal human rights to Jamaica.
So, despite my father's defeat at the hands of Manley, he would tell me, as a toddler, that I had to grow up to become a lawyer like Mr. Manley, to defend poor people.
Shortly after the case Ewen's solicitors distrained on my father for the costs of the case. They were determined to finish him off. The bailiffs seized everything in the house, including my baby crib and announced that they were coming back for the "body" – they were going to arrest my father for debt and cast him into the debtor's jail in the St. Catherine District Prison.
”He would tell me, as a toddler, that I had to grow up to become a lawyer like Mr. Manley, to defend poor people.”
This animus was provoked by the fact that shortly after winning the case against my father Mr. Ewen dropped dead, felled according to the gossipmongers, by my grandmother's obeah. Dad won the ensuing bye-election with all his papers in order.
When the sale of my father's pitiful possessions failed to satisfy the lawyers a commitment warrant was issued for his arrest and incarceration. My father's roots are in Accompong and in Maroon Town and he vanished into the Cockpit Country. Not even my mother knew where he was.
The plan was that he could not be “attached” once he was sworn in to the Legislative Council. But Trelawny is a long way from Kingston; in those days of marl roads the drive was anywhere between four and five hours.
My father's best friend, Mr. A.B. Lowe, MLC for St. James and a very sober and upright Baptist deacon, was the unlikely agent. By prior arrangement Lowe picked up my father somewhere on the Burnt Hill Road and then drove south, through Manchester, Clarendon and St. Catherine, outwitting the small army of scouts on the expected North coast route.
”He vanished into the Cockpit Country. Not even my mother knew where he was.”
In Kingston my father was stowed on the back seat of the car, covered by empty luggage and a carpet. Instead of coming through Duke Street and the northern approaches to Headquarters House, Lowe came from the East on Beeston Street. When he drove around Headquarters House seeking a place to park, special constables alerted to his friendship with my father, asked Lowe if he had seen Maxwell. Telling what was probably the only lie in his life Lowe said he'd seen someone resembling my father at the Beeston Street entrance and the bailiffs dashed off. Lowe and one or two confederates, pulled some of the luggage out of the car, blocking the sidewalk while my father sprinted up the steps, escaping capture by inches.
He was duly sworn in and in time paid his debt to the solicitors.
Like Mr. Manley
My mother and various family members pressured me for years to become what the Americans call a trial lawyer. Unfortunately, as a teenager I had become hopelessly enmeshed in journalism.
Since January 29, 1952, except for 18 months or so spent as the first press officer for the Industrial Development Corporation (now Jamaica Trade & Invest) I have been employed or unemployed entirely as a journalist. Last month made it 58 years hard labor and there is nobody in Jamaican journalism, living or dead, who has spent more time at it.
There are others still alive who may have become reporters before me but they have spent most of their lives in other, more lucrative pursuits.
”C.L.R.James said he'd never heard anything as moving.”
Over that time there must be quite a paper trail, millions of words, hundreds of lost causes. Some of this is because my career paralleled to a certain extent, the development of modern media. In broadcasting for instance, I did things in the fifties that no one in Jamaica had thought of doing, a weekly political commentary and a thrice weekly economics-made-easy commentary called Progress report. We did things because we didn't know they were impossible. I did an audio montage of the people who lived on and off, the Kingston Dump. C.L.R.James said he'd never heard anything as moving.
Moving back into print journalism in 1963, having been fired by the Prime Minister, (and a certain Edward Seaga) brought me into direct conflict with the new government of Jamaica who behaved, as I and others said at the time – as if they had simply assumed the prerogatives of the British colonial dictatorship. I don't think any current Jamaican politician would even think about jailing a journalist; fifty yeas ago I was threatened with prison for my "rude, insolent, indecent" remarks, which verged, it seemed, on sacrilege. The threats were made in Parliament. The government tried to shut down my paper and eventually forced me into exile.
I spent a few years in Britain, doing what I'd been doing at the JBC, but half the work for twice the money.
I have never fancied myself a politician, contrary to my detractors. I returned from Britain to contest West KIngston in 1972 because the sad truth was that every other plausible PNP candidate was too afraid to run. I ran to prevent the seat being handed to the JLP on Nomination Day. Some JLP people who know the facts, feel I should have graciously allowed a coronation in West Kingston in 1972.
“The new government of Jamaica behaved as if they had simply assumed the prerogatives of the British colonial dictatorship.”
Perhaps the single thing of which I am most proud is the invention of the talk show, the Public Eye. There had been other talk shows, but none combining news, commentary and public participation. WE changed things. Despite attempts, there has never been anything similar.
Rosina Wiltshire and Gillian Monroe gave the program a vital push soon after we started . They had done a study of working conditions among domestic helpers, then, as now, the largest single class of workers in Jamaica. I interviewed them, let them talk and was amazed at the horrors they revealed. When I asked domestic helpers to phone in, giving their side of the story, it was as if a massive dam of years of hurt, oppression and cruelty had suddenly burst, sweeping away all the pretensions of the Jamaican upper classes to civilization.
In those days we used dial telephones and you could buy locks for them. It soon became a joke in Jamaica that every shipment of telephone locks was swept up within hours of arrival.
I have reported here before, how we recruited first the Prime Minister's wife, Beverley and then Michael Manley himself to the idea that only a national minimum wage with enforcement could rescue the workers.
“The government tried to shut down my paper and eventually forced me into exile.”
Public Eye went on to campaign for other workers causes, equal pay, housing, against capital punishment and police brutality, and for what I and others thought was the essential framework of a civilized society.
It was my opinion that radio could be used to mobilize pubic opinion in the non-partisan process of what Norman Manley called nation building.
At that time I was also the unpaid chair of the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (the Beach Control, Wildlife Protection and Watershed Protection Authorities) and the National Gallery.
We managed to do some serious work including organizing public opinion to clean up Kingston Harbor, to alert people to the government sponsored theft of public beaches and other lands (Hellshire, Long Mountain etc.) and to the need to guarantee safe land for housing.
Over the years I have accumulated some really good stories, for instance how I solved two murder cases that baffled the police, but the real story of my life has been in the small stories about the human rights of people without friends and most of all, the story of the defamation and despoliation of Haiti.
As I once wrote in this column, sometimes I think I can smell the blood of Haiti from here.
This column is the last one from me for a little while.
Some of you may know that I continued writing every week through my one-year course of radiation and chemotherapy for advanced lung cancer.
The cancers are no longer in evidence thanks to the esprit de corps, optimism, determination and skill of dedicated practitioners in Jamaica and the Netherlands.
“I continued writing every week through my one-year course of radiation and chemotherapy for advanced lung cancer.”
Having come out of what seemed a very long dark tunnel and having lost a slew of friends – Sonny Bradshaw, Trevor Rhone, Wayne Brown, Albert Huie, Rex Nettleford, to name only the most prominent – I remember that I want to publish my columns on Haiti, on Jamaican politics and on the environment. I also want to select from and publish some of the 6,000 pictures I call '”Portraits of Jamaican Birds.”
So, if you see my column only occasionally, depending on my arrangement with my editors, it is not because I have abandoned you, just that I'm taking things a bit easier.
After all I've been working for longer than most people have been alive.
The problem of course is that no journalist is ever free.
John Maxwell is a veteran Jamaican journalist. He has covered Caribbean affairs for more than 40 years and is currently a columnist for The Jamaica Observer. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright©2010 John Maxwell