Saturday, February 24, 2018

Gene Miles lives


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Tony Hall's play Miss Miles, which ran over the past two weekends at the Little Carib Theatre in Woodbrook, drew audiences not only because of Cecilia Salazar's virtuoso one-woman performance but also because of its historical significance.

Ms Salazar portrayed Gene Miles, the real-life heroine of a tragic riches-to-rags story who died 40 years ago, distressed and disgraced.

For older generations, her reputation has been reclaimed and she has become a folk legend, but to those not yet born when she died, Ms Miles's name means nothing.

The play has not only resurrected Ms Miles by breathing fresh life into her story, but, for those who can read between the lines, also served as a reminder of why it is important to remember her.

Ms Miles, a public servant, was the secretary to the senior factory inspector, who had sole authority over the granting of licences for running gas stations. Ms Miles discovered there had been irregularities, kickbacks and bribes, and blew the whistle, implicating several prominent figures, including Minister of Petroleum and Mines Johnny O'Halloran. She later gave crucial evidence at a commission of enquiry into the issue.

Mr O'Halloran's name later became a synonym for corruption in politics. But at the time, the Eric Williams government took two years to lay the enquiry's report in Parliament, and ignored the commission's recommendation that the senior factory inspector should be removed without delay.

Instead, Ms Miles was transferred and was given a bad report by the supposedly independent Public Service Commission. A vicious slander campaign was mounted against her. She began to suffer mental health problems and died at 42.

In an editorial published the following day, this newspaper noted:

"Her fault was believing that if she shouted from the rooftops about things she thought wrong, the society would put them right.

"We can only grope at the possibility,'' it went on, "that her death will stir some of us out of our complacency, our indifference, and our, at times, criminal apathy.''

Ms Miles's death — and her struggle to stand up for what was right — can only have that effect as long as they are remembered. Mr Hall's play has refreshed the collective memory, and clearly touched a chord.

The revelation of the gas station racket was one of the earliest exposés of corruption in government, but, almost half a century since, it seems corruption has become deeply rooted and only the sums of money involved have changed. Ms Miles's story has not dated.

The play and its enthusiastic reception, then, are a useful reminder of one of the roles of the arts, and of the importance of financial support and the provision of spaces for the practice of those arts.