Independence comes around every year, the first of Saint Lucia’s umpteen public holidays, and one which has always struck me as a bit officious and under-celebrated, at least until recent times when the blocko mentality has kicked in with fetes and boatrides galore. Any anniversary ending with 5 or 0 is deserving of a look back in nostalgia – definitely not anger – so I found myself wondering what the father of the nation would think of his thirty-five year old offspring on the run up to this 2014 Independence celebration.
Would Sir John at almost ninety be as proud of the country he gave his entire adult life to raise and nurture as he most definitely would of his own five extraordinary children? Or would he have blunt words for Fair but increasingly degenerate Helen, as government corruption, power games and general knuckleheadedness dominate the news alongside the murder, sexual abuse, rape, battery, suicide, economic and psychological depression rife on our beautiful island these days.
Sir John was a passionate sailor and a very good one by all reports. Dwight Venner said in his 2007 eulogy: “Sir John and his family have always been associated with the sea. He sailed between these islands as a young boy with his beloved uncle Malins Compton and continued to sail throughout his life . . . He was a master mariner and sea captain par excellence and without peer, who guided the nation with a sure and certain hand on the tiller.”
A beautiful nautical analogy, and one which accurately reflects Sir John’s relationship with the country he loved and worked to bring to its full potential. A “captain par excellence” needs a confident hand for steering through the waves, an in depth knowledge of the tides and winds, weather and geography, human nature and the stars. He will be plotting the course from weeks in advance, consulting charts, guides and the “twilight barking” of the sailing community’s VHF frequency; he will earn the respect of his crew, relying on them to carry out orders and work efficiently as a team; all the while he’ll be keeping one eye on the sails and the other on the horizon.
Surely Captain Compy was not that way only when he donned deck shoes and hopped aboard his boat? Perhaps he had a reputation for being blunt and controlling – that comes with the seafaring territory when the buck stops with the skipper, and good but quick decision-making can make the difference between life and death, between staying afloat or losing the ship.
But from Mr. Venner’s eloquent account of the former Prime Minister’s style of leadership and vision for a future Saint Lucia, I’d say the characteristics of that “captain par excellence” showed loud and clear throughout Sir John’s political life.
“. . . at a very early age he took on the mantle of leadership and from the bridge of the good ship Helen, using a combination of all the other skills, he steered this beautiful country into the modern age,” Venner goes on. And to do that, the skipper of the good ship Helen would have needed to network throughout the region and the world, making friends and connections as all yachties do in a way that forms a support system across the planet. Sir John’s global view and vision for regional integration gave Saint Lucia an outward looking perspective, and fueled the formation of the OECS, which despite its critics, has been a very successful model of economic union over the years.
So I shudder to think what the nation’s captain would have to say about this good ship in 2014, at a time when it can only be described as adrift – economically, socially, morally and strategically. No skipper wants to end up adrift, with no wind to provide the forward momentum and no fuel to power up the engine – it’s a sailor’s worst nightmare to be at the mercy of the ocean and the elements, and – as we recently saw when a Uruguayan fisherman reappeared after fourteen months at sea – no good can come of it.
At thirty-five, I suppose Sir John the skipper would have expected the nation’s leaders to have matured as sailors, honed their navigating skills, gained experience in trimming the jib and survived a few squalls along the way. He’d be looking for their course plan and charts, determining strategy and checking the weather conditions, making sure the crew played to its strengths manning the sails and maximising momentum. I suggest that on this particular birthday, the captain of the nation would have every reason to be disappointed in and a little afraid for our aimlessly drifting, rudderless ship and her dysfunctional, every-man-for-himself crew.
After all, as Compy’s inseparable sailing buddy Sir James Mitchell says in Beyond The Islands, “Politics is like sailing. You have a course before you.”
Time to call in the coastguard, perhaps?