The newspapers often referred to my departed colleague and head of the Public Relations Division of the Prime Minister’s office when I was employed there in the Eric Williams days, George John, as the “doyen” of Caribbean journalism. I once asked him jokingly, “Boss, what is a ‘doyen’? It sound like they don’t like you.” He never replied but laughed uproariously, something that he excelled at. I later learnt that ugly as the word “doyen” is, it means “the most respected or prominent person in a particular field” which says that his media colleagues did not just like George John but put him where he belonged, at the top of our profession. That did not stop George from being his usual irreverent self. In fact, it gave him a licence to indulge in his highly developed sense of humour and appreciation of irony.
One day I referred to Dr Williams as “The Right, Honourable Prime Minister” and George blasted me to a withering presumptuous shrub. “The Prime Minister is neither right nor honourable,” he stressed. Wow! This was the great Dr Williams whose claim “massa day done” was tacitly replaced by “Williams mass now”. I knew that they had fallen out.
George had allowed a programme to go on television that was critical of the government’s energy policy and it seemed that some of the ministers had complained to the prime minister who said to George, “I have no problem with it but some of the boys are very upset with you.”
As he had done to the head of the public service at the time, Doddridge Alleyne, the prime minister stopped talking to George and ignored him whenever he was around. I sometimes found myself having to go to the prime minister for copies of whatever speech he had made and, to use one of his favourite expressions, he was always “blasted” vex.
One occasion I remember well was at the Hilton Hotel ballroom. Even before the applause had died down, George kept pushing me, insisting, “Go and get the speech. Go quickly.” The prime minister never gave us advance copies, made only one copy that he read from, and the media would descend on us like the plague of locusts on Egypt, demanding copies.
Dr Williams was still standing in front of the microphone. “What do you want? What do you want?” he thundered with the microphone still on or “live”. His voice echoed through the building. I could swear that people in the nearby Grand Savannah and all the downtown traffic had stopped.
No vortex appeared to save me. I am not sure, and have always wondered, what changed his mood or if there was somewhere in his make-up a grain of pity for a truly embarrassed young man. He thrust the sheaf of papers roughly at me, turned his back sharply and stomped off. I suppose that was the right and honourable thing to do.
George continued paradoxically (I thought), “Dr Eric Williams is right. Dr Eric Williams is honourable but the prime minister is neither. He is not right nor honourable.” It hit me then that it was not personal pique that had George speaking like that but a matter of forgotten protocol. The post of prime minister or minister for that matter does not carry an “Honourable” before it. In fact to say “Honourable Prime Minister” is not right as is “The Right Honourable Prime Minister”. The person who is the minister is “Honourable” and sometimes “Right”. Some are even “Most Excellent” but not the prime minister.
George used to refer to a Barbadian journalist who was once the press secretary to Dr Williams as “God”.
“The man everywhere,” he commented. There are many such people in the region, one of whom in his early days I used to describe as “ubiquitous”. The gentleman recently returned to the media after a stint in a legal institution and I had cause to say, “He is the kind of feller that figure if he spend a few months in a legal establishment he is a lawyer. However, he spent some time in an epidemiology centre so what does that make him? An epidemic?”
Talking about epidemics, I saw the coverage of what news conference featuring something called “CARPHA” on television earlier this week. At first I thought it was some kind of new bronchial illness to hit the Caribbean—something like people going into “carphing fits”. Or even some kind of mad cow disease affecting only immature animals and causing them to put on unsupportable weight for their frames—what the Bible would refer to as a prodigal waste in the sense of “Bring forth the fatted carpha…”
A medical friend of mine confirmed that it was but then laughed so I knew he was not speaking the truth. It turns out that CARPHA stands for “Caribbean Public Health Agency” and is a super conglomerate of public health agencies in the region incorporating what were formerly CAREC, CEHI, CFNI and other agencies. Then I saw the familiar face of Dr James Hospedales on the far-too-familiar theme of mosquito-borne diseases and realised that while CARPHA might be new, we were back to the same old, same old…
Twenty years ago, while I was a PAHO advisor, I worked on a 16-country dengue project in which CAREC was involved. In the intervening period the mosquito population has grown mainly because one of the effects of climate change is that there are many periods of intense rain followed by drought instead of one distinct wet season when mosquitoes thrive and a dry season when they are not as active. In the meantime, people throughout the region have to store water and so end up “mining” Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes that spread dengue. Now there is a new disease spread by this species. It is Chikungunya—which is more painful than dengue. My wife got it a few weeks ago and is still in pain. When I asked her, “How come you get a disease you can’t pronounce?” her reply was more virulent than the Chikungunya.
• Tony Deyal was last seen
wondering what would have happened had his
ubiquitous colleague worked in a pesticide plant.