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Roger Clarke: cane field to Cabinet

Published:Sunday | August 31, 2014 | 8:00 AM
Daniel Thwaites

Daniel Thwaites

I intended to lock horns with Gordon Robinson for saying I "try to appear non-partisan". Let me disabuse him. No, I don't. There are more than enough of the supposedly non-partisans. That field is saturated.

I don't have the luxury to pretend, nor do I care to have it. Apart from the obvious connection to the minister who wants children to carry water to school, The Gleaner has editorialised about my early political activity, and I've publicised my difficult struggle to vote for André Hylton despite Sapphire Longmore's good looks. Furthermore, if yuh look good pon de TV during conference time, de video camera always ketch mi.

Regarding JUTC welfare subsidy, in this time of Viagra and Black Stallion, 60 is not old. In my view, any man capable of pelting waist and doing damage must be asked to pay his way. I can envision an appropriate test to see who really needs the welfare. Plus, I don't see why elderly rural folk should subsidise comparatively well-off urbanites. As Roger Clarke understood, Kingston is not Jamaica.

So in the midst of thinking about all that, the news came that Roger had collapsed in Miami airport and succumbed to a heart attack.

Roger was a giant of Jamaican politics, and not just physically. He was a distinctive personality occupying a special place in the public imagination because, like the best politicians, he embodied an ideal and aspiration: moving from cane field to Cabinet.

The politically obsessed would be surprised to learn how often the public confuses politicians. People see a 'big man' and know 'is a pallytishan', but don't know or really care who it is. Not Roger. Everybody knew Roger by name: Red Poll Bull.

excessive charm, granite liver

I got to know him a little over a couple years on the party's executive. Thereafter, we crossed paths a few times. I once inadvisedly accompanied him through an impromptu rum-bar tour of Santa Cruz and its environs, but I couldn't keep up. However, from the initial semi-sober portion of the adventure, I concluded that he was a throwback to another gentler age of rural sugar-belt politics, whose basic toolkit was excessive charm and a granite liver.

Everyone will remember Roger's earthy humour. He would listen, pause, then a twinkle would appear in his eye before delivery. He was engaging, endearing, and self-deprecating. He invited you to not take yourself too seriously as well. His humour was often, though, pointed and subversive. Seriously funny people are funnily, quite serious, and the many attempts to paint Roger as a buffoon were way off the mark. Clarke experts will tell you he was among the most intelligent of the 63.

The last time I heard him at a rally was 2011, in NW Manchester. This was a powerful communicator at work.

For example, the average politician levels the accusation: "They made empty promises!" But this is Roger: "They came to you and made all these promises ... (Dramatic pause; wipe his brow) ... They promised to air-condition Santa Cruz ... ." The crowd erupted with laughter.

Some routines became famous. A favourite topic was how rural life had improved under the PNP. Remember when he dramatised phone density by mimicking a man needing to talk to himself, so using one phone to call another in his back pocket? "Hello? Hello! Yes? Oh, ah me dis!"

He would recall how, back in the day, going from St Elizabeth to Kingston involved waking before dawn and walking miles to catch Mr Moore's truck, and how when it inevitably overheated at Spur Tree, you would get out and push. Nowadays, he would say, the taxi drops you at your doorstep.

Roger and Victoria's Secret

It was a riot to hear Roger describe the technological advances in female undergarments from when "yuh used to mek panty outa flour bag an' put 'lastic in de waist ... an' if yuh did waan to rude, yuh nuh put nuh 'lastic inna de foot". Nowadays, of course, everybody has Victoria's Secret.

The hilarity was a dangerous political weapon. For example, in Opposition, he terrorised the Government for importing fertiliser with human faeces, causing every living John Crow to descend into his cane field. The parliamentary exchange could be a segment on Ity and Fancy Cat. Remember his withering review of the rice-planting project that he said couldn't even feed him?

Just last year, he shrugged off the viral 'daggering' photo 'scandal'. I thought it showed that he was up to any challenge, but those who need offence were duly offended. And truth is, he was often risqué. The story goes that when asked about his sizeable girth, he replied in straightforward workman fashion that "every good tool need a shed".

Last election, rumourmongers had it abroad that Central Westmoreland was in contest, but predictions of its fall were greatly exaggerated. Nutten neva goh soh! Roger triumphed by polling 11,558 votes, a historic silencing of the pundits. At the swearing-in, he crossed the aisle to hug Marlene Malahoo Forte, saying "Dis ah fi mi an' yuh!" His spirit was larger than his frame.

Internal party politics is more rigorous and unforgiving than inter-party politics. It brought Roger to tears in 2004. So P.J.'s innovative 'VP Emeritus' was perfect after ramjostling in anticipation of a leadership contest shuffled Roger out of the officer corps. It masterfully reflected the deep sentiment that Roger was, in fact, an indispensable leader.

RIP, Comrade Roger Clarke.

Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.