GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN!
SIR JOHN MELVIN COMPTON
there are those who insist “the Father of the nation” can never be replaced, that when he passed in 2007 much that made Saint lucia great died with him. His political detractors, on the other hand, blame him for every conceivable national shortcoming. For certain, the deceased prime minister will long be in the memories of Saint lucians!
Imay inadvertently have done the memory of Sir John a disservice. Over the last several days I have been underscoring his sincerity and the fact that he had always known the difference between adversaries and enemies. As proof of that I cited Sir John’s generous treatment of professional tormentors as George Odlum and Peter Josie, to say nothing of this writer. I seem to have left the impression in so doing that despite our legendary battles Sir John and I had remained absolutely respectful of each other, never mind the contrary public perception, but only from the late 80s. But what about the period before 1987? The whole truth is that I had been on John Compton’s case long before the Jessica and UN scandals.
Almost as soon as I took over the editor’s chair at the Voice in the very early 70s I had made myself a prime target for United Workers Party muggers. Even my then boss at the paper had been moved to summon me to his office and warn me that my articles were having a less than wonderful effect on his cherished relationship with the day’s incumbents, that if I insisted on journalism as usual I would have to consider alternative employment elsewhere—at which point I resigned. But even before I’d served my notice I was visited by a John Compton emissary. The big man wished to talk with me about my immediate future.
“Urgently!” I was advised.
A meeting was scheduled, from which I emerged as the premier’s personal assistant, answerable only to the premier himself. It was at that particular meeting that I agreed to produce a party organ that would have all the appearances of a regular news weekly. We called it the Vanguard. Much later, after the United Workers Party had been miraculously returned to office, George Odlum assured a seething audience outside the Castries market that Compton owed his reelection to the paper.
Of course George did not offer that as praise for the party organ that many St Lucians, regardless of political stripe, had purchased as a regular newspaper. But that’s for another show, as they say. My purpose here is to underscore the fact that while so many had regarded me as “the scourge of John Compton” and absolutely deserving of the proverbial fate worse than death, the target himself had retained a wholly different attitude to my weekly assaults on his policies. As far back as that, he had known the difference between enemy and adversary—to the extent that he had actually entrusted his political life in my care, if only where one particular election campaign was concerned.
I well recall his telling me during our earlier cited first meeting that quite apart from my actual writing style what he most admired about my journalism was the investigation that obviously preceded what I finally put into print.
“One of the reasons why I don’t enjoy practicing law,” the premier said, “is that it requires so much research. And boy, it’s clear that’s what you most enjoy about your work.” To my surprise I would learn in time that few lawyers actually do their own research. At any rate, in the real world, where appropriate help is both available and affordable.
Even those who knew the man well, were taken aback when he chose as his Cabinet secretary a staunch Labour Party sympathizer. Not just once but twice, first in the person of Graham Louisy, brother of the former prime minister Allan, and then Victor Girard. St Lucians are unlikely to see again a repetition of such trust, bearing in mind what currently passes for politics. As long as his staff did what was expected of them, Compton figured, why not allow them the opportunity to serve their country? Especially remarkable is the fact that Graham was Compton’s Cab sec while his brother was leading the opposition party that included then “radicals” George Odlum, Peter Josie and Mikey
Pilgrim. (Mention of the last named reminds me yet again of that adversary-enemy line. Students of St Lucia’s political history will know that Mikey had once been ready in parliament “to shoot from the hip.” That the last thing anyone imagined possible was his agreeing to be led by John Compton. As I write, Mikey is the chairman of a planning committee responsible for Sir John’s funeral arrangements. Nuff said?)
Only last week I was asked by a friend whether I had forgiven Sir John after our well chronicled wars. I was taken aback, for I had never given any thought to the matter of forgiveness; something about the sound of that word disturbs me. It presumes too much. In any event, I assured my friend that I had dished out at least as much as I had taken during my sometimes tumultuous relationship with “the father of our nation.”
Truth be told, I have always enjoyed the cut and thrust of politics (even when I’ve been deeply wounded!). So what if I lost a round here and there? It just made me more determined to be more careful next time. As it was with John Compton, as it was with George Odlum, so it is with Kenny Anthony and Stephenson King. At the end of the day there really was nothing to forgive. After all, do you need to forgive the winner of a sports event who had forced you into second place?
I will miss John Compton: among other reasons for his humor, his salty sailor’s tongue; his incredible lapses, his convenient memory. I will miss the dinosaur that he could be one minute and the cool dude that he could be the next. Several weeks after he had wiped a convention hall floor with Vaughan Lewis, Sir John was invited to speak at Rodney Heights before a gathering of young people. Afterward, a STAR reporter asked why he had chosen at his age to return to the political arena. His eyes narrowed down to mere slits, he smiled that smile that spelled mischief in capitalized italics, before delivering his riveting response.
Upon reading it from the reporter’s copy I called her to my office.
“Are you sure Sir John spoke those words?” I asked.
For a moment she was stunned. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“Well,” I said, “do you know where that line came from?”
And she said, “It came from Sir John.”
“Are you sure you didn’t put the words in his mouth?”
When I was certain the young reporter had not enhanced Sir John’s response, I let her out of her misery. “The words are from Hotel California,” I informed her, “by the Eagles.”
Her eyes went blank, as if I’d spoken a language altogether alien to her. “The Eagles?”
Time to move on. I let it go at that, reassured that I had not unknowingly hired a closet UWP hack determined to make the octogenarian politician appear more hip than he really was.
The line that was supposed to answer the reporter’s query about Sir John’s return to politics? You can check-out anytime you like/
But you can never leave. Much later I would discover that, like me, John Compton was the consummate Eagles fan. We also shared a love for black & white photography, especially by Yussef Karsh.
And cameras. I remember attending an official ceremony at the prime minister’s Vigie residence. There we were, surrounded by dignitaries foreign and local, but Compton chose to talk cameras the minute he set eyes on my gear.
“Hey,” he said, “so that’s Hasselblad’s anniversary version?” By which he referred to the camera put out in recognition of the first moon landing, recorded by the astronauts with an ELM Hasselblad.
I’ve still not gotten over his response when Nicole McDonald asked him to explain his famous toutes Layba say
voleurs line. While a lesser politician might outright have refused to entertain the relatively inexperienced reporter—or simply hung up on her—Compton chuckled, playfully served Nicole some typically Compton double entendres, then directed her as follows: “Your boss is the best person to ask that question. He invented that whole story.” Ah, well.
Then there was the morning, several months after the 2001 general elections, when he called me at the gym to ask a shocking question about Morella Joseph. I tell you, I almost dropped a dumbbell on my foot. Then again, pointless going there at this particular time. It’ll hold. The preceding first appeared in a special STAR supplement published in September 2007, following the passing of Sir John.
This picture was taken at the launch of a video company owned by David Samuels, at which the PM pointedly informed me that he was no ordinary mortal, that he was created, without a regular father.
Janice Compton signing the visitors’ book during a state visit with her husband to Caldera’s Venezuela circa 1973. Recognize the Afro-ed character at the extreme right?