Sunday, December 17, 2017

A glimpse of Ray

 In his lifetime ANR Robinson never had a choir singing his praises, not simply because of his own reserve, but because the issues  he  faced had already split us into opposing camps, so that whatever side he chose he could not escape disappointing the other. Standing up to Eric Williams in the PNM, championing the Tobago House of Assembly, taking action that would mash up the National Alliance for Reconstruction, selecting Mr Manning over Mr Panday as Prime Minister by way of  the contentious application of “moral and spiritual values” were choices that required more courage than  it took  to  defy the insurrectionists in the Red House or to pursue the establishment of the International Criminal Court over the objections of the most powerful country in the world. They uphold the fact that his choices were rooted in  his ideas of duty and responsibility to the idea of nation  that he  stated  enthusiastically from the very onset of his political career.

…. the basic task before Honourable  members of this House  and before everybody engaged in public life  is to weld the nation, is to build, it is to organise the nation so that it can  move as a personality, as an organised, as a meaningful, as a purposeful personality into the international sphere, seeking all the benefits and discharging all the responsibilities and  facing up to all the duties which must confront a nation and a young peoples such as we. And this, Mr Speaker requires the activating of the West Indian people. It requires the awakening of a sense of purpose and a sense of unity; it requires a sense of mission, a sense of destiny in the world. And that means that the enthusiasm of the people themselves must be aroused.” (Presidential Papers; Fighting For Federation, Signature Themes, 1960)

The application of ideas of nation and leadership and purpose to the moral and spiritual for which he has been so rigorously examined raises questions that still need to be satisfactorily answered. Because, if morals derive from the mores of a culture, how can we apply morals to all of us when we come from communities with different histories and ways of seeing? And if spiritual values are somehow connected to religious values how are we,  who represent so many different religious expressions, to agree on spiritual values.  Robinson could be faulted for having made the call he did.  Of course there could have been an opposite result  made based on less abstract and more tangible grounds. But, it is clear that this was a less-compelling basis for his decision. The  important point is that he believed in something and had the courage when the time came to employ it to guide him, in the same way that he was guided by a greater responsibility when his own life was at stake.

Every day we discover areas of  behaviours in the public sphere that the application of laws cannot automatically resolve to  the satisfaction of all. Our first response might be that the laws need adjusting. It is not just laws that need adjusting; it is the idea of nation  that must be  clarified —or have we given up on that?  What, indeed, is nation, what is leadership? 

Mr Robinson has presented us with his thinking on these . “the awakening of a sense of purpose and a sense of unity …  a sense of mission, a sense of destiny in the world.”…

What faced us then and faces us now is not just that we are young, or that we come, as we must, with different experiences and different  assets and burdens, it is that we have inherited a society  with injustice and inequality  at its root  and we are left to pursue our own individual welfare the best way we know how to.   Our failure to tackle the question of nation  frontally is one of the principal reasons that has made us untrusting of each other.  The question Mr Robinson faced and that we face  is to find the means to get us all not only to acknowledge the  interests of the tribe but to find spiritual and moral principles—that transcend tribe—by which we can all be bound, principles that place us all together on the same  side, enabling us to work together “as a personality” to find our way  out of the quagmire from which disadvantaged  groups have been trying to lift themselves. These can only be found in common purpose.

The problem with Mr Robinson’s application of moral and spiritual values was not simply that he individually decided what these were, it is that he believed that we were  all with him. The fact is that these ideas  need to go much deeper than the means to address the choice of prime minister. Still, it would have been useful for him to spell out for us his own thinking. However, he has had his say. He has made his contribution. Now, it is  for us to set out what we are about  to propose for ourselves what is the role of the people and  the responsibility of  leadership in public life. 

ANR himself maintained a  clean bill of personal integrity. He  suffered the  devastating loss of  his  dear wife Pat to dementia, and endured humbling health issues of his own. He perhaps never felt embraced as the grand beloved native son suggested  now in the accolades surrounding his death and burial.  Through it all, he  accepted his triumphs with dignity and bore his  pain with  grace  and came away  awarded the rare and precious blessing of our respect and—at least for some—thankfulness.

Mr Robinson did not have the cultural ease of a Panday nor the forbidding and authoritative remoteness of a Williams. I remember him dancing. But there  was a formality that stuck to him, that did not draw out the man inside that he so  wanted to come out even to his friends. The last time I was in his company—maybe a year or so ago—he was concerned with the formality with which we in the company present addressed him. I was put on the spot. He asked me by what name  did I call him, I thought of it  quickly and I said, “ANR’’. It wasn’t quite what he would have wished. 

I prefer that my friends call me Ray, he said.


It was that Ray I wish that more of us had glimpsed. My condolences go out to his family, to his constituents and to his friends.

Let me say it now, Go well Ray.

• Earl Lovelace is a novelist