John Spence—a true T&T icon
There is now no single person left in this country—no one I can think of, anyway—who can adequately, or at all, fill the void of knowledge, and experience and expression left by John Spence in all his diverse areas of interest: education, Tobago, constitution reform, agriculture, local government, tourism, governance, etc.
An unassuming man, he wrote and spoke unspectacularly, with true academic detachment, his words usually as restrained as he was personally. He was however a determined man, whose intellectual analyses were as rigorous as his unshakeable attachment to principle and progress. You may not have agreed with him, but you could not question his honesty, and integrity and commitment to what he considered right and beneficial to society.
In the variety of his manifestations—as family man, as University of the West Indies (UWI) professor and dean, as Independent senator, as consultant, as government adviser (formal and informal), as gadfly, as newspaper columnist—John never wavered from those tenets. His last column, completed minutes before the crisis that led to his death 12 hours later, was on constitution reform. With the Ramadhar committee now traversing the landscape, what he wrote, probing and challenging as ever, was timely—unfortunately, he will not now complete his intended series of articles on the subject.
What had been of particular distress to him in recent times, however, was the poor quality of governance in this country. It distresses many of us. But John, conservative almost to a fault, surprised even me: of all the political parties in the country, he would tell me, the one he would support was the Movement for Social Justice (MSJ). Why? Because the MSJ was the only one to place strong emphasis on the imperative of good governance; the others merely lip-served.
In the last several years, he and I had communicated often with each other, sometimes, several times a week. We would send each other our draft newspaper columns for comments; we didn't invariably accept the comments, of course, but that had no effect on our continuing relationship.
We would also exchange despair—should we continue to speak and write? Did it make any difference? Was anyone listening? Did anyone care? Or was life in this place essentially a matter of snide remarks on blogs and radio call-in programmes, and of an ever-present willingness to personalise, and politicise and trivialise everything? We would always end these sessions by convincing ourselves that we had a duty to soldier on in the interest of Trinidad and Tobago. I don't know with whom I shall now speak on these things.
John had a soft spot for Tobago. He felt it could be the microcosm for national development—many years ago, for instance, he had made proposals (ignored by the politicians, naturally) for the revival of the island's cocoa industry. And it was in Tobago, where he and Yolande had come to spend a few days, that I last saw him alive, on the Sunday before his final departure the following Wednesday. He was physically frail, as he had been for the last year or two, but there was absolutely nothing wrong with his mind, and I spent two pleasant hours in their company and that of their hosts. I shall forever be grateful for that.
In this country, we use the word "icon" with a cavalier imprecision that is little short of frightening. But if we have had a genuine icon—of intellect, independence, balance, courtesy, courage, honesty, devotion to family and nation— it was John Spence.
Few better deserve to rest in peace than he.