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Anthony Gambrill | The curtain is going up

Published:Sunday | July 17, 2016 | 12:19 AM
Anthony Gambrill

When Charles James Barton, MD, first came to Jamaica about 50 years ago to take up a post in the university radiology department, he made a point of seeing every stage play in Kingston. He had enjoyed theatre and cabaret in Edinburgh where he had studied medicine. When I met him, he revealed how much he enjoyed the Jamaican performances, but complained that when a show was advertised for 8 p.m., it seldom started for another half an hour.

Dr Barton was a generous host, skilled in the culinary arts, and a lively entertainer when he sat down at a piano. Who could ever forget his party piece embodying the phrase, "I can't keep my hands off your mammary glands," which combined his medical vocabulary with his ambition? It wasn't long before he persuaded me, with my humorous bent, and the late Norman Rae, a graduate of the Oxford University Foot Lights Club, to put together a topical revue. The title, inevitably, was '8 o'clock Jamaica Time' and began promptly at 8:30.

The curtain went up with a song welcoming the audience. But woe betide you if you arrived after 8:30. The cast would stop singing and personally guide you to an available seat before continuing. The word soon got out that if you don't want to be embarrassed, '8 o'clock Jamaica Time' began, on time, at 8:30.

For a while after 'Jamaica Time' became common parlance and contributed to an awareness that one should arrive at theatres, business meetings, school, the dentist, etc, on time. This suggested that habits can change.

Another anecdote that comes to mind is a Pegasus hotel two-day forum that Dick Pixley and I organised during the formation of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica. It was designed to elicit a broad consensus of opinions on the directions the country should be taking. Speakers from every spectrum of private- and public-sector life were invited to take part. Edward Seaga, then leader of the Opposition, gave a wide-ranging address that included pointing out that at the time we were growing papaya in all shapes and sizes. What the consumer really wanted was a pawpaw that fitted into the palm of the hand and could be sliced in two to make a pair of servings.

Little did he know that - at question time - my mischievous wife would ask him that if it was such a good idea, how come he didn't achieve it when his party was in power? I don't honestly remember what he said, but he probably dodged the issue.

These two anecdotes are reminders to me how reluctant Jamaica seems to be to not only accept change but also to do what is necessary to implement change, even when it is uncomfortable, unfamiliar or even, to a degree, painful.


When I am in the United Kingdom and talk to people who sometimes holiday in the Caribbean, I ask them if they have been to Jamaica. Usually the answer is "no" because, they say, of the crime, meaning the murders. I try to persuade them that the majority are gang-related and crime towards tourists was very limited. It doesn't help.

For decades, we have worried about rising crime rates. We have rehashed the same 'solutions', including most frequently increasing the number of police, providing more vehicles and weapons, increasing their pay, and appealing to the Lord for help.

The police repeatedly ask for greater cooperation from the communities in which criminals hide but usually fail to get the information they need (especially where reprisals are not uncommon). Until the national culture of corruption is rooted out and trust in the police is restored, a substantial fall in the crime rate is unlikely.

The police are currently the victims of another malaise: The time it takes for the bureaucrats to get things done. More than two years ago, it was announced that some police would start carrying body cameras with the object of improving accountability. This was intended to reassure members of the public that they would get the face-to-face treatment they deserved and reduce the frequency of complaints against the police. By the way, the US had originally committed $45.5 million to this initiative, but nothing, apparently, has happened yet.

Dr Alfred Dawes, in describing the bureaucratic nightmares bedevilling the health sector, critically describes it as a "comedy of errors". For example, he says cynically, "We continue to have multiple levels of management unable to make decisions without board approval at the next monthly meetings."

While our health services grind to a halt as a result of the shortage of drugs, equipment and buildings, there are countless individuals and charitable organisations prepared to alleviate at least at some of the sector's essential requirements. Time after time we are told horror stories of donors having to face archaic procedures, preventing urgently needed supplies to reach us.

Look at the admission of our new minister of health, Chris Tufton, of the steps required to overcome the delay of a paediatric cardiac centre. More than two years have passed, millions of dollars promised and the lives of hundreds of Jamaican children with heart conditions endangered. Shaggy and Digicel are among those left in dismay.

We aren't prepared to change our ways. We always think there is a threat to jobs. We expect that by continuing to complain will change things. None of those attitudes will improve Jamaica in our lifetime. We have run out of excuses. It is 8:30 and the curtain is rising.

- Anthony Gambrill is a playwright. Email feedback to