07 February 2010

Jamaican Mahogany

John Maxwell

There are lots of places in this world where, for weeks or months to come, people will be turning to other people and saying – "Let's ask Rex what he thinks …" before realising that there is no Rex to ask, that the man they depended on for advice or counsel is not there any more.
Rex is dead. Gone.
He has been part of the intellectual landscape of Caribbean society for so long that he seemed to be a permanent fixture, one of those features that were here when we came and will be here long after we've gone
That will be true in a sense, except that when we lose a tree of this size, the space it once occupied appears so big that it seems impossible to fill.
Trelawny and more specifically, the Cockpit Country and its environs is where the soul of Jamaica goes for rest and recuperation. It is the spiritual home of Jamaican culture, the centre of resistance to slavery and colonialism, the last bastion of the maroons and the first place where the British Army first conceded defeat in the Western hemisphere. And here, every little boy has a built-in feistiness, and the knowledge that he is no one's inferior.
As Rex Nettleford grew to young manhood he never appeared in any doubt that he was not simply destined to be 'somebody' but that he always had been somebody and he took it upon himself to carry this effortless self-confidence into the building of a Jamaican personality worthy of the Kojos and Akkompongs that populated the mists of Burnt Hill, Bunkers Hill and all of the Land of Look Behind.
But he was also acutely aware of the other side of his patrimony and embraced his European heritage as eagerly as the rest. In the Jamaica of the 1950s the idea of country boys dancing ballet was so outlandish as to seem bizarre, but that did not bother Rex Nettleford who knew what he wanted to do and refused to be fazed by opposition or even ridicule.
His determination to excel at anything he did swept away the ridicule and the opposition and by the time he won the Rhodes Scholarship it was clear that here was someone out of the ordinary. His selection by Norman Manley to be a member of the Mission to Africa on behalf of the Rastafari movement was recognition at the highest level, if any were needed, of his quality , and his career since then has simply amplified our understanding.
A little while ago, I had just returned from nearly a year of medical treatment abroad. Rex sought me out to invite my wife and me to the season's final presentation of the National Dance Theatre . At the very end of the concert came an electrifying session from the company's massed drummers – a performance that I told him deserved to be on DVD on its own. It was hair-raising, and with the dance, one of the most profoundly exciting theatrical experiences I've ever had; And I thought, this was the ultimate artistic tribute to Rex, who in the near half century of the NDTC has forged an instrument of national expression that is professional, imbued with enormous confidence and skill and with an elan that elevates them to the highest class. The NDTC's achievement alone would be the pride of any one auteur working full time. That Rex managed this intricate and demanding human enterprise along with his other 'day jobs' is an amazing feat.
Rex was above all a teacher dedicated to his students and to none more so than the Diploma classes at Carimac that he and (Sir) Roy Augier, by far the most senior members of the university, insisted on teaching, year in and year out in an extraordinary example of commitment to the welfare of the young. He never gave up even when he was Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies. He took the Extra-Mural Department and converted it into an open University, inadequately named the School of Continuing Studies and singlehanded he created the Trade Union Institute – in my view the crown jewel of his successful campaign for the 'smaddification' of Jamaicans like him
It is impossible to do justice to Rex Nettleford. It is, for instance, unprecedented and amazing that of Oxford's more than 7000 Rhodes scholars, Nettleford should be among four singled out for special centenary honour and even more extraordinary that the University of Oxford should create, in his honour, a special prize in Cultural Studies, a discipline almost unknown when he was at university.
I could go on, piling statistic upon statistic, fact upon fact, honour upon honour, degree upon degree, but none can add to the lustre that was Rex's.
I am proud, simply to say that I was honoured to have been his friend for most of our lives.


Albert Huie

    Albert Huie, the most renowned of all Jamaican painters, died a few days before Rex . Huie was another piece of Trelawny mahogany, having been born in Falmouth, a dozen or so years before Rex.
He was another feisty man of the Maroon country who knew what he wanted to be at a time when country boys could become sign-painters, not artists. Albert told me that when he was a bare teenager he threw stones to help chase away gangs of bullies who had been hired to break up political meetings held by my father. My father, a penniless country parson, had challenged the power structure of Trelawny, then the last bastion of planter power in Jamaica. My father was running against one of the richest planters in Jamaica, Mr Guy Ewen; the leading lawyer on the north coast, head of the largest building society, chairman of the Parochial Board, Custos of the Parish and Member of the Legislative Council for 25 years. Against all the odds, my father beat Ewen despite the fact, according to Albert, that Ewen's supporters had descended to hiring gangs of toughs to break up my father's meetings. The toughs would march up the road, liquored up, swinging their kukkumacca sticks and making as much noise as possible, to the alarm of those waiting to hear my father speak.
Huie and his friends would lie in wait for the marauders, armed with slingshots and rocks and at a signal would attack the surpised bullies who ran in all directions shouting 'murder!' Two or three such encounters stopped the rot.
Huie came into Kingston and headed straight for the Institute of Jamaica, then the centre of everything intellectual and artistic in Jamaica. There he was soon noticed by Mr Molesworth, the Director, but more importantly by Edna Manley, who was teaching art classes there.
Soon, he was selected to represent Jamaican art at the New York World's Fair. He was 18. Huie won several prizes at the fair and never looked back. He was a foundation member of the so-called Drumblair group. He did spend some time earning money by 'interior decorating' or house painting, but he never gave up his art and for years Albert could be seen with his easel, on various mountainsides or river banks, painting the Jamaican landscapes he loved. In a more civilised society Huie would have made a good living, but it wasn't until near the end of his career that patrons began to realise the importance of his work and began to pay for it.
I believe that Huie brought with him to Kingston something of the quality of light of his Cockpit Country backgrounds – adding a mysterious quality that pervades some of his best work.
His work is in collections around the world, not as well known as it should be, but now commanding the sorts of prices that should have made Albert a wealthy man But his wealth is in his vision and he, like his fellow Trelawny man, Rex, is a national treasure and he fortunately, like Rex, lived long enough to know that.
The title of this piece is "Jamaican Mahogany", because Huie and Nettleford remind me of the giant mahogany trees which during our lifetimes, adorned the Cockpit Country. Their lightness and grace belied their immense size and it was only after they were no longer there that it was possible to understand what an important part of the landscape they formed. In the case of Huie and Nettleford, these were not simply a part of our intellectual and cultural landscape, they were also, more important, architects of the very landscape in which they were such important components.

Dr George Proctor

    I first met Dr George Proctor when I was at school, spending my Saturdays at the Institute of Jamaica – either at the Junior Centre or at the Science Museum. I remember Proctor as a rather gawky American reputed to be very learned and aloof. He would not remember these encounters. It was much later that we had any real contact, and only a few years ago I at last did what I had wanted to do for years, interview him for a column

As I wrote in a column (Treasure in the Badlands) seven years ago, The Caribbean, particularly Jamaica, is the world's third most biodiverse region. and an almost unknown place in Clarendon called Harris Savannah is one of the jewels in our crown, unlikely as it may seem.

"I consulted the leading expert on Harris Savannah, Dr George Proctor, who has spent the last fifty years attempting to find and catalogue every species of plant in this part of the world. In the first 6 years of this somewhat quixotic mission, Dr Proctor collected and catalogued about 12,000 specimens in Jamaica alone. Since then he has catalogued and described well over 100,000 plants and has become one of the world's foremost botanists. He is THE expert on the Jamaican flora, particularly on ferns – of which we possess 609 taxa – a great many of them discovered by him. At the age of 82 he is still exploring, discovering, collecting, and cataloguing.
Dr Proctor thinks Harris Savannah is a very special place - not only by Jamaican standards, but by any standards. It is, he says, is a scientific treasury."
This column is not about Harris Savannah and the riches it may mean for Jamaica. It is about Dr Proctor who, at 90, has just been found guilty of conspiracy to murder his wife and three other women and sentenced to four years in prison.
I do not contest Dr Proctor's guilt, although I find it hard to believe that he has been convicted on the word on a man who is a professional liar and con-man with 70 convictions for various frauds and misrepresentations.
If a jury found him guilty, so be it.
My objection is to the sentence. I appeared in court on Dr Proctors behalf to give evidence in mitigation. I told the judge that I believed Proctor to be a man with a great respect for life, as evidenced by his life's work.
I told her I was there to try to prevent him going to jail because , I said, if you lock him up you are going to kill him. I thought it would be pointless to send a 90 year old man to jail in any case
The judge referred specifically to my appeal and declared that despite what I said, a 'balance' had to be struck
I do not understand what balance she meant and I implore my readers help me understand.
Prison sentences are supposed to induce remorse, to be deterrent, to set an example, to prevent future offences. Does this apply to Proctor?
Dr Proctor is 90 and in Britain and the US would be accounted legally blind. He suffers from diabetes, from macular degeneration of the retina and from glaucoma, any and all of which would tend to slow anyone down, particularly at 90.
Dr Proctor spent five days in the lockup at Central Station, sharing a cell with an accused murderer who he said treated him kindly. He was supposed to sleep on a concrete slab, to be shared with his cellmate. Dr Proctor can barely walk, cannot stand straight and in court was unable to sit up. His head rested on the pew in front of him.
He said to me, before court began
"John, my head has shrunk from the few days in jail," and it appeared to be true. As a diabetic he requires special food. None was available. He couldn't eat. He was not allowed to buy even a cup of coffee. The first cup of coffee he had in five days was at the Supreme Court.
I believe that conspiracy is notoriously the easiest charge for prosecutors to make. It is very difficult to disprove a conspiracy.
Whatever the merits of the Crown's case, I believe, in the end, that the proceedings cannot be described as either in the public interest, nor, as civilised.
Copyright 2010©John Maxwell jankunnu@gmail.com

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