Wednesday, April 17, 2024

SATURDAY’S CHILD: A complex matter


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Just over a week ago, the present ruling party in Trinidad and Tobago, the People’s National Movement (PNM), announced that it was going to build a five-story headquarters complex which would be named the “Eric Williams Memorial Building”, after the nation’s first prime minister and major founder of the party, Dr Eric Williams, who is known as the “Father of the Nation”. 

While a few people complained about the party setting a poor example by spending a lot of money during a recession, a few of us remembered Dr Williams had made it clear that he wanted his death to be treated as a private matter and without fuss.

An article in the Trinidad Express (March 20, 2011) reminded us that in 1978, three years before he died on March 29, 1981, Dr Williams had stated, “I say it with all humility and hope not to be misunderstood or misinterpreted. I wish, and never have wished, no honour, no tribute, no commendation of any sort, no official or public ceremonies when the time comes. I have asked my daughter, who agrees with my decision, to ensure compliance and plead for your goodwill and your respect of what is a deeply personal wish, aimed at nobody, critical of no policy.” 

Of course, this is a request which is (to quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet) “more honour’d in the breach than the observance”.  Actually, the question is: why does the wish of the dying “father” go unheeded by those who call themselves his “children”? 

The first person to ignore the request from Dr Williams was his successor, George Chambers, who named the Medical Complex in Mount Hope and the downtown twin towers that dominated the skyline in the early 1980s after Dr Williams. Some of his advisors saw it as good politics to keep the Eric Williams name and mystique alive as part of a strategy to win the 1986 election. Unfortunately, capitalising on the legacy of Dr Williams did not help and the party got only three of the 36 available seats. 

 The Williams mystique was no great help to Mr Chambers. I remember after a particularly trying day he complained bitterly to me, “Tony, people keep pushing me to do what Dr Williams would have done, saying, ‘If Dr Williams was here, this is what would have happened and this is what he would do, and this is what you should do.’ And when you do it, they say ‘Look at he, who he think he is, Eric Williams? He trying to behave like Dr Williams, but he can’t even polish Williams shoes’.” 

Another prime minister, Patrick Manning, was taken to task both by the citizenry and electorate for comparing himself with Dr Williams and laying claim to being another “Father of the Nation”. 

 Dr Williams was not the first “father” or major political and national figure whose wishes about what he wanted after his death were sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. Vladimir Lenin was an earlier victim. Despite his request to be buried quietly next to his mother in St Petersburg, Lenin was mummified and put on display in a mausoleum in Red Square, at the centre of Moscow. However, following leaks and now further problems with the building, a white dome was built over the tomb and there is talk of finally burying Lenin. This has become a political issue, some arguing that burying Lenin physically would symbolise Russia’s escape from his legacy, much as Stalin was removed from the same mausoleum during de-Stalinisation in 1961. 

Recently a chiropractor in Pittsburgh had one last dying wish that appeared in his obituary: “Don’t vote for Donald Trump.” It is still too early in the game to see whether his wish would be ignored by his family and friends. However,  in another case, the media reported that Zack Snyder, the film director, stepped in after a Facebook page entitled Batman4Bazz was launched in an attempt to convince producers to allow Batman “superfan” Barry Henderson to watch the hugely anticipated movie before his death. The 48-year-old died from cancer last month, just weeks after the campaign was launched, and his sister Gwendoline has since confirmed that his wish was granted.

So, in the case of Dr Williams, why did his followers not accede to and honour their leader’s request?

More, he once referred to many of them as “millstones”, so is it political payback time?  Or is it once more an attempt to rally a party that is losing political support and sees Williams as its saviour?

 The one question few people ask is how Dr Williams feels about this. One of his closest friends was John O’Halloran, who was able to get away with crimes that many other people have done major jail time for.  When John O’Halloran finally reached the Pearly Gates, he asked St Peter if he could talk to his old friend and ally. St Peter was not very helpful: “Listen, there are a lot of Eric Williams up here and some due over the next few years. I need more information than that.” Johnny O thought a bit and then said, “We used to call him Bill.” St Peter was impatient, “Look man, we have thousands of people named Bill Williams up here. Is there anything else you can tell me about him.” Johnny O had a flash of inspiration: “Well he once told me if they ignored his wish and named anything after him, he would turn over in his grave.” “Oh,” St Peter said triumphantly, “you mean ‘Revolving Bill’!”

• Tony Deyal was last seen saying that Dr Williams was an extremely complex character with many stories told about his moods, so that perhaps his party thinks it fitting to have a five-story building for its headquarters complex.


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