Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Tea with Presidents. RIP Robbie, Sir Ellis, Noor #TheEmperorsNewTools #LettersToLizzie

The passing of Trinidad and Tobago's former President and Prime Minister ANR Robinson provokes these reminisces from #unesco #194ex on former heads of state, now passed, I met, knew and with whom I was fortunate to have shared thoughts and ideas on the state of Caribbean development.
Among those passed were the country's First President, Sir Ellis Clarke; its second, Noor Hassanali and Mr Robinson, the third.  I have also known the Fourth President, Max Richards, as Principal f the UWI when I was a student there, but later too as President, and his wife, the First Lady Jean Richards partnered with me in my LiTTribute to the Republic on the special publication on the 50th Anniversary of the Independence of Trinidad and Tobago through my book LiTTscapes - Landscapes of Fiction from Trinidad and Tobago on the 50th Anniversary of Independence - but they are still with us.  
My first live encounter with Sir Ellis was when I was about ten, holder of a pichakaree filled with colourful abeer liquid one sunny Phagwa/Holi harvest festival day. I couldn't resist breaking ranks against official warning to only gentilly spray abeer on his garments, especially as his bald head seemed in need of liquid relief from the stinging Trini sunshine. He entertained the wetting goodnaturedly, as anyone from Carnival country (you cyar play mas' and 'fraid powder) will, whipping out his pristine white handkerchief to mop up the colourful liquid rolling down his face.
I reminded him of the incident many moons later, and just a few months before his passing as he poured me a cup of tea while we discussed the issue of the need for constitutional reform and his chuckle almost caused him to spill over the teacup.  He was in the midst of his own controversial virtual one-man redraft of the Constitution and my own interest in public processes and the role of our leaders in this, took me to his home. Sir Ellis could always be looked to for good humour, good conversation, good manners, supreme diplomacy and indeed impeccable teatime manners.
Noor too, could also always be counted on for good conversation and dry humour over a pot of tea, usually facilitated by Mrs Hassanali. My first encounter with him was as a cub reporter when he paused in the midst of his keynote address, looking directly at me, to ask rhetorically if the newspaper where I was then employed as a cub reporter was encouraging child labour - a comment on my then petite size. My last meeting with his was also a few months before he passed, as we sat down to tea at his home and his jovial reminisces on his boyhood exploits in courting the minute but statuesque woman from South Trinidad who would become the country's second First Lady, Zalayhar.
His Presidential inauguration was one of the most heartwarming occasions in public pomp and ceremony I can recall and to which I had front row seats in coverage, as with the inauguration of  Tobago's Castara kid who became Chairman of the Tobago House of Assembly, and leader of the Democratic Action Congress that paved his way for elevation to first Prime Ministership and later President.
But Robinson was altogether a different cup of tea, and not given to sharing or engaging in tea sipping, or not to my knowledge. Our encounters were less sociable and more socially or politically motivated as I was launching my journalism career covering what is still seen as the most historic of Trinidad and Tobago elections in 1986 and his subsequent political mobility. The National Alliance for Reconstruction which he led became the forerunner of coalition party politics that inspired the People's Partnership of the current +Kamla Persad Bissessar's regime - and she herself has admitted to being politically birthed through germination in the NAR's political incubator of social and political ideals that ANR's NAR inspired.
I have always viewed the almost mirror-like resonance of the acronyms in the above as deliberate in its egotistic reverberations and in every way the bad pun it might seem to be, as is the title of his 1986 compilation of speeches, Caribbean Man . 
Robinson's entire public career has been a mixed pot of tea,  mired as his political life was in controversies of various kind. He stands out at the centerpiece in a number of significant national occurrences -  including his breaking of ranks with Dr Eric Williams'  PNM Government in the 1970s, the break-up of the NAR in 1988; the attempted coup of 1990, the collapse of the UNC, the ensuing political deadlocks and the various constitutional challenges that showed up the growing irrelevance of our hand-me-down national Constitution.
He was also a figure who impacted the international arena, foremost among which was in his initiation of moves towards establishing the International Criminal Court as I discussed his passing with colleagues on the UNESCO Executive Board. 
The mixed reactions to his death is therefore no surprise, and reminds me of the barrage of historical and social bile that I encountered as they resurfaced in the UK last year on the passing of Britain's Prime Minister for the legendary iron lady Margaret Thatcher - resonance over unpopular social reform measures that took her out of office in Britain.
As Robinson's life is celebrated this week and in light of the focus on praise on his good deeds, his interment ought to be followed by retrospection of  his true impact as our societies also try to make good of our experiences and the contributions or failures of those who have been charged to lead us.
Humility might not be one of the descriptions one may use in relation to Arthur NR Robinson, but if anything, his life, and the lives of those who went before him should serve as a humble reminder to our leaders of today of the one unchanging reality of power holders - their mortality; and that their immortalisation rests with their mortal actions - what they might have done to break up, or build up, the spaces that accommodated them will linger long after they are gone, and even colour the tone of mourning them. RIP Arthur NR Robinson, Sir Ellis Clarke, Noor Hassanali.

                         Alas Poor King Richard's Bones 
                         Dem Red House Bones
                         The Ghosts of Journalism Past
                          A Tale of Two Skeletons
                         The Human Face of Constitution Reform
                          Making Local Government Work
                          Wave a Flag for a Party Rag
                           To Vote How We Party
                         The Magic and Realism of Marquez
                         LiTTribute to LondonTTown
                         LiTTribute to the Antilles 
                          LiTTribute to Antiguan Authors
                           Winds of Political Change

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