Sat | Feb 24, 2018

Author speaks of his journey to pen Manley biography

Published:Sunday | June 19, 2016 | 12:00 AMIan Randle
Michael Manley
Contributed Photo Michael Manley: The Biography (Cover )

What motivated you to write a biography of Michael Manley?

Since high school, I've been fascinated by the lives of the progressive, daring - some might say radical - political leaders of the Caribbean, among whom Manley ranked as the most charismatic. Through happenstance, his daughter, Rachel, was given a copy of a biography I had written about Belize's George Price, and when fate brought her to Belize in November of 2013, our paths crossed and the idea of a definitive biography of Michael Manley was born.

What, if any, do you think were/are the advantages and disadvantages of a non-Jamaican - a Belizean - writing about a character as complex as Michael Manley? What special talents and perspectives were you able to bring to bear in the research and writing of this book?

The clearest disadvantage I felt going into the project was that I had never personally seen Manley. I tried to make up for this by immersing myself in hours upon hours of video footage I got from the National Library of Jamaica of him giving formal speeches, on the hustings, hosting press conferences, and at international summits. I collected and viewed every available documentary or video recorded interview with him on YouTube. Of course, a great many biographers write about persons long dead who they never met. My objective was to attempt to resurrect Manley and let him walk gain. To successfully achieve this, I had to have a feel for the man, how he sounded, his gestures and nervous tics, how he dressed. My immersion helped tremendously with this.

There is a temptation to say that as an 'outsider' one might be more objective and less easily affected by ingrained perceptions and prejudices about the man than a Jamaican would be, but, on reflection, I don't think that's necessarily so. Much depends on the discipline of the person as a researcher and writer, regardless of whether that person is Jamaican or not.

My experience in writing the authorised biography of George Price and my 15 years at the centre of Belizean party politics assisted greatly in peeling back the many layers of this highly complex man and understanding him and the political context within which he operated.

How did you approach the research and writing? Talk about the range and extent of that research; how long did the entire exercise take?

I just jumped straight in and did what my instincts commanded. The bulk of the research was done from around February of 2014 to December of 2014. This involved face-to-face interviews with persons in Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad, Cuba, Canada, and the United Kingdom, as well as numerous Skype interviews with others. In-between interviews, I would read and sort through a trove of private letters and papers provided by Manley's children. As I read and started mentally reconstructing his life, I would come across events or subjects that needed research. With the help of a research assistant, these would be searched out through a number of online subscriptions to The Gleaner and major international newspapers, the Taylor and Francis academic database, the Caribbean Monthly Bulletin and a number of other journals. A substantial amount of declassified US State Department documents concerning Jamaica were also available online, as well as material from the United Kingdom National Archives. A tremendous amount is accessible online through databases like without the need to leave your desk. Naturally, every book, article, essay I could get my hands on about the Manley era was read and analysed.

As the holidays approached in December of 2014, I felt confident enough to start writing. I didn't begin from the beginning. I chose periods that I found most interesting to start with, and periods that I felt I had an abundance of material on. This helped to boost my writing morale. I hopscotched through the decades, going back and forth until, by July of 2015, I had a full first draft which was then circulated to a handful of readers - about seven persons in all, in Belize, Jamaica, and the UK - for review and criticism. While awaiting feedback, more research and Skype interviews were done. I constantly received suggestions of persons who I should interview. The draft went through a few more revisions and, by December of 2015, a final manuscript was in the hands of Ian Randle Publishers.

In doing the interview component of the research, what, if any, were the special challenges that you faced?

I very much wanted to interview D.K. Duncan. I still believe that, notwithstanding the extent of the research that was done, a forthright interview with him would have had a material impact on the final product. It was not to be. Mr Seaga also declined to give me an interview, fed up, probably, with another Manley book, and suggested that I read those particular chapters of his autobiography where he recounted Manley's time in government. It turned out to be a very useful suggestion. I don't know that in an interview he would have provided me with anything more than was contained in his Life and Leadership. I faced no special challenges. One of the biggest difficulties is usually getting access at all the right levels. Rachel Manley opened all doors for me.

Are you satisfied that you were able to tap into all the sources you would have liked, and equally, are you satisfied that you have captured in this book all the important aspects of MM's life?

I really can't complain. The Manley family opened up fully to me and provided me with all materials in their possession, a substantial portion of which had not been in the public domain before. I had no difficulty accessing information from the Michael Manley Foundation, the National Library of Jamaica and other repositories of historical information. I had good access to PNP ministers and officials who knew and worked with Manley. Of course, no matter how many persons you interview, there's always a handful that you missed or wish you had interviewed. So, yes, I'm satisfied that all major sources were tapped into. I expect readers to come away with a good sense of the several different Michael Manleys: his public life, his love lives, the books he read, the movies he liked, his relationship with his children, his running commentary on theatre and dance in Jamaica, his doubts, what he feared most, his greatest innings on the international stage.

What would you say is new and different about this forthcoming book?

I didn't want this to be just another book about Michael Manley. I wanted this book to be the definitive work on his life; the benchmark against which other works would be measured. In attempting to achieve this, I knew it had to be as thoroughly researched as could be. This is the only book that covers the full public and private life of Michael Manley. Readers will get a clear view into his private life based on first-time interviews with all his children, interviews with his surviving wives, confidential letters between himself and with his confidants like Rex Nettleford and his children, and his love letters.

On the public side, while his domestic policies and political life are fairly well documented and known, details of his tense relationship with the United States and that government's view of him vividly emerge from declassified State Department papers. His great friendship with Fidel is well known. What will emerge is the intrigue of Cuban Communist Party financial support the PNP after 1980. In fact, I think it's fair to say that fresh details of his life are offered at every phase of his remarkable life.

What would you say is the most surprising or enlightening aspect of the Michael Manley story that emerged from your research and writing?

The most staggering realisation for me was that Michael Manley managed to command the respect and attention of any given world leader of his day, I mean, truly had their respect if not admiration because of his charm, eloquence and magnetism. He could summon world leaders from every continent to a meeting in Jamaica and they would come. That's power and respect. He did this while, at the same time, being a prime minister, a ranking womaniser, writing intellectually rigorous books, producing prize-winning roses, avidly following sports, critiquing the latest theatre productions. His mental, physical, and emotional energy was simply prodigious, way beyond that of normal men. The most common description I heard from people who worked around him was that he was an "amazing man".

Are any aspects of the Manley story likely to evoke controversy?

Mentally and sexually, Manley was a turbine engine. I don't think women and sex were ever far from his thoughts. Some who read the manuscript and whose views I trust and respect felt some of his sexual "perversions" did not belong in the book. I disagreed. I argued that my loyalty was to resurrecting the man as he truly was in all his aspects. In the end, some of these revelations had to go.

What would you say is Michael Manley's greatest legacy to Jamaica, the region and the world?

By championing a progressive world outlook on the international stage with style, elegance, and eloquence, he came to be regarded as a leading spokesman for the Third World, putting Jamaica on the global political map.

To Jamaica, his greatest legacy was his unleashing of the potential of black Jamaicans for self-realisation. The casting off of the colonial shackles that prevented them from dreaming that they could aspire to become anything they wanted to be. He set out to achieve this, and he did. There must be few leaders in the world who were able to engender such a sweeping, epochal change in their society in terms of freeing people from 'mental slavery'.

Personally speaking, what amazes me the most about Michael Manley was the fact that from the outset, as prime minister he grasped, I mean really understood, how the international economic system worked and realised that only fundamental structural changes to the international system could move Third-World countries like Jamaica from their position of chronic dependency. It's so interesting to watch the resurgence of democratic socialism through leaders like Bernie Sanders in the United States and Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom, whose platform of fundamental reform is resonating wildly with the grass roots and the youth. That was Michael Manley in the '70s championing the cause of the "sufferers" against entrenched corporate and global interests. But more than that, he actually had the self-conviction and courage to try to make fundamental changes not only in Jamaica but internationally, through his championing of the New International Economic Order and through entities like the International Bauxite Association.

What are your hopes for this book?

That it will be widely reviewed and regarded as the most definitive account of the life of Michael Manley.

Now that you have completed this book, have you set your sights on any other Caribbean leader or personality other than in the political arena?

It's taking shape in my head already. Maurice and Bernard. A study in contrasts. Two able, gifted young men on a quest to liberate their country from a corrupt government led the only armed revolution in the English-speaking Caribbean. A partnership full of potential that ended in revolutionary plotting, a palace coup and assassination. The story of Maurice Bishop, Bernard Coard, the Grenada Revolution and its reversal is a compelling, naturally tense and intriguing story.