Tony Deyal | Legs and legends
"The honourable gentleman is guilty of tedious repetition and monumental irrelevance."
This was a comment made in the Trinidad Parliament in the late 1950s by the Honourable Lionel Seukeran who, despite not being in the ruling party or because of it, was much loved. He was "the old Seukie" and people listened to his rhetoric at eight o'clock in the night when the Government Broadcasting Unit ran its parliamentary broadcasts.
One of my friends who, like me, was around in those days stingingly remarked that Mr Seukeran's comment could be aimed at his grandson, Faris al Rawi, who is the attorney general (AG) of Trinidad and Tobago.
I am much more charitable and believe that no offence was meant to the AG whether well-deserved or not, appropriate or inappropriate, relevant or irrelevant, and that my friend's comment was really a lament for the old days of repartee and retort that elevated our Parliament and made people listen to their representatives as they debated the nation's business.
There was a lot of byplay - Dr Williams turning around in his chair and showing his back to those opponents he detested, or ostentatiously switching off his hearing aid to make it clear that he was not listening. Then there was his boast of being a "back-seat driver" and unleashing his front-line team of hounds, in the early days, Gerald Montano and Winston Mahabir, and later, Overand Padmore and Errol Mahabir in all their grandiloquence and occasional bombast.
There were jokes, too. One member reputedly said, "Give the people bread. B-R-E-D, bread." His aide whispered, "You forget the 'A'." The member then corrected himself, "B-R-E-D-A, bread."
I have heard about famous battles between Norman Manley and his cousin Alexander Bustamante, Sir Grantley Adams and Errol Barrow, and even about Cheddi Jagan and his former colleague, Forbes Burnham. Unfortunately, these are for the most part unknown in Trinidad and even in their home countries. It is a great pity, and perhaps one of our historians will return to the Hansard of those days of roses as compared to the whines of today.
The last bit of repartee that I remember was in 1987 when Opposition Leader Patrick Manning asked whether Mr Robinson thought of himself as God, and Mr Robinson replied, "I am not God, I am only God's messenger."
Earlier this week, on the Ides of March, I was taking in the Prime Minister's Question Time in the British Parliament live on SKY Television. While unlike that memorable day of Roman destiny, no real blood was shed and no Caesarean murderously and fatally performed, it is a fascinating spectacle - gayelle (stick-fighting arena), bull ring, Centurion Park in South Africa and Colosseum all in one free-for-all controlled by a speaker who waves play on instead of overusing his whistle like our West Indian partial and partisan speakers.
The new prime minister, Theresa May, was on the floor, standing proudly and giving, for the most part, better than she got. Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Opposition, anxious to reinforce his shaky leadership and looking more like John of Gaunt than the famous leaders of the past like Benjamin Disraeli and Arthur Balfour, seized upon the fact that the Tory or Conservative government was now delaying legislation over a tax rise for the self-employed. What caused May to 'backtrack' was a revolt by senior Tory party members. Corbyn observed patronisingly, "Seems to me like a government in a bit of chaos here!" Prime Minister May replied, "When it comes to lectures on chaos, he'd be the first person I'd turn to."
EVERYONE SHOULD HAVE A WILLY
This flash of brilliance brought back the old days to me. In fact, when a Scottish MP referred to former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her "this lady's not for turning", I remembered two incredible examples of Thatcher's talent as a speaker. Speaking about William 'Willy' Whitelaw, she said, "I don't know what I would do without Whitelaw." She then paused and added, "Everyone should have a Willy."
She is also remembered for the classic, "I'm back ... and you knew I was coming. On my way here, I passed a cinema with a sign, 'The Mummy Returns.'" Unfortunately, not even the redoubtable Thatcher was able to top Clement Freud's reference to her as, "Attila the Hen."
The Telegraph newspaper was very upset when Nigel Farage told the former Belgian prime minister in a European Parliament session. "You seem to have a loathing for the very concept of the existence of nation states ... . Perhaps that's because you come from Belgium, which is pretty much a non-country."
The Telegraph commented, "Compare the insipidity of Nigel Farage's language with the silky venom of Benjamin Disraeli, who said of the Earl of Aberdeen that he plagued his colleagues with 'the crabbed malice of a maundering witch'. Or with the inspired word-painting of Winston Churchill, who called Ramsay MacDonald 'a boneless wonder'. Or even daring to bait the speaker of the House as Ex-Labour MP Paul Boateng did."
In the 1950s, Boateng was hauled over the coals for using the term "Sweet FA" because it was thought to have nothing to do with British football's governing body but a way of using the F-word. It turned out it could have been 19th-Century naval slang for packed mutton and referred to Fanny Adams, who was murdered in 1867, cut into pieces and thrown into the river at Alton, Hampshire.
Boateng must have sniggered all the way out of the hearing as I do when I listen to the insistence of the speaker to rowdy members in the Trinidad Parliament that she is on her legs but not recognising that parliamentary debate as an art form is on its last legs under her and others in the region, especially the politicians.
- Tony Deyal was last seen remembering Winston Churchill's description of Prime Minister Clement Atlee as "a sheep in sheep's clothing".