The year was 1979 and the time had come for the leader of the recently elected new government to present to parliament his Estimates of Expenditure, replete with promises of milk and honey for all in the land. Throughout his presentation the retired judge-turned-freshman politician had patiently tolerated table-thumping opposition hecklers, none more persistent than John Compton. Seated directly opposite the new prime minister, his elbow anchored to the table, clenched right fist stuck to his greasy right cheek, Compton appeared bored out of his gourd. In his fifteen or so years as head of the island’s government he’d delivered more budget addresses than any other local politician, living or dead—enough to fill a room at the Central Library.
While the unpracticed recently retired jurist strained to make hyperbole believable, Compton repeatedly groaned: “Talk, talk, talk!” At first the prime minister pretended not to hear. But not for nothing had Compton in his late 1950s heyday earned his “Jack Spaniard” sobriquet! No ordinary wasp was he. Over and over Compton punctured Louisy’s inflated offerings: “Talk, talk, talk!”—until finally the ex-judge lost it. Tossing sobriety to the winds, he slammed his script down on the table in front of him, the fire in his eyes threatening the plastic frames of his reading glasses. His arm stretched out in Compton’s direction, a near hysterical Louisy screeched: “Talk-talk-talk? Talk put you where you are today!”
Who cared about his meaning? There would be time enough to explore the possibilities when the House broke for lunch. Just then the packed gallery was too busy roaring with delirious delight over ex-judge Allen Louisy’s abrupt change of demeanor to care—everyone, that is, save John Compton. Throughout the ensuing din that finally demanded the Speaker’s stern intervention, Compton maintained his waxen composure and posture: inscrutable visage, anchored elbow, clenched fist glued to his pleated cheek, eyes absolutely blank.
The revisited House episode came back to me this week as I listened with amusement to several recalled lines that over the years allegedly had issued from the mouths of local politicians, proffered by respective defenders and detractors. The trigger was a reported Allen Chastanet reference to Vieux Fort as a “ghetto”—he may have had in mind Bruceville, until 1998 known as the Manng, spelling according to a locally produced dictionary that defines the word as “a swamp or mangrove”). To be uncharacteristically generous, the prime minister in his exuberance (rational or otherwise) had, a tad hyperbolically, put to his audience at a Vieux Fort rally last week this question: “Where would you prefer to come from: a ghetto or from the pearl of the Caribbean?” Mere hours later the old familiar hack voices were on the radio or on Fakebook desperately seeking to defend or to damn the prime minister—as if indeed to be a ghetto dweller were equal to being an AIDS carrier.
Most trustworthy dictionaries define the word ghetto thus: “A part of a city, especially an area occupied by a minority group or groups.” The most common etymology traces ghetto to the Italian barghetto, meaning part of a city. In Venice the barghetto was the foundry or arsenal section to which Jews were confined. A ghetto address, in modern parlance, while suggestive of an individual’s economic status, is by no stretch of the imagination a measure of his character, his talent, education, or skills. A ghetto’s very existence underscores governmental neglect. Such adjustments as were made to the Vieux Fort area still referred to as “the manng” despite that it was in the late 1990s renamed for the late Vieux Fort MP Bruce Williams, have never been sufficient to turn it into a magnet for the upwardly mobile and others able to rent in less deprived communities. But on this Rock of Sages politicians are nothing if not champion buck passers. They long ago convinced the particularly poor that they alone are blamable for their sorry predicament; which explains why no choice is too dangerous if it offers the opportunity to appear far better off than we really are.
We crave the chance to be conspicuous at every jump-up fete, from carnival to jazz at Pigeon Point, regardless of ticket prices; regardless of empty food cupboards at home; regardless of schoolbooks still to be bought. The sting of this particular nightmare is that our politicians feel no discomfort whatsoever for the plight of their near indigent constituents. Indeed they can be counted on defensively to point suggest that “if they are as poor as you claim, then how is it they can find the money to party all night? How come so many were at Mindoo Phillip last night? How can they afford to shop every Saturday at Hobbies?”
A couple years ago a UK newspaper reporter visited Saint Lucia, perchance to uncover new details concerning the murder of a fellow Brit at the hands of her local lover. Later he wrote about how the victim had chosen her Rastaman over her concerned parents and other close relatives, all of whom had pleaded with her not to come to Saint Lucia. The reporter had also noted in his piece that the young woman had deserted her middle-class circumstances to “live in a house with a tin roof!” Before long Saint Lucians who read the story were calling the electronic media to complain about “the insult to our country,” altogether oblivious of the fact that the story’s central figure was hardly the first U.K. citizen to be murdered or otherwise abused by lovers they had met in London, Birmingham, or Manchester, or while on vacation in “simply beautiful Saint Lucia.”
Words, words, words. In our notoriously Christian society the truth of what is said has seldom taken precedence over the words used to tell such truth. That the British newspaperman had dared to include our “tin roofs” in his report was what most concerned callers to the radio stations; not the unresolved murders that had earned our country the honor of being the most dangerous place for Brits on vacation. As one irate caller put it to Newsspin’s Timothy Poleon: “If he hadn’t meant to insult us, then why couldn’t the reporter have written that our homes were covered with galvanize? Why did he have to lie about tin roofs?”
A campaigner more seasoned, not to say, calculating than Allen Chastanet might’ve saved himself a whole lot of grief had he promised the sensitive residents of Bruceville 4-lane highways homes with tiled floors, indoor bathrooms, toilets that actually flush, under galvanize roofs painted green, red or yellow, depending on location. After all, as much as black lives matter, in this nation that produced not just one but two Nobel winners it remains conjectural what matters most: the color of your skin or the color you’re in.
As for Allen Chastanet, he had better learn quickly that the ability to speak kweyol is not nearly as useful to a local politician as knowing precisely when to call a spade a spade and when to call a spade a shovel. Had Chas avoided the G-Word chances are even the rats might happily have deserted their swanky swamps and joined him on the stairway to DSH heaven!