Sun | Jul 5, 2020

Oliver Clarke: In memoriam

Published:Friday | May 29, 2020 | 12:19 AM


OLIVER CLARKE’S passing filled me with great sadness. Though not unexpected, it was hard to believe. So, finally. The hard struggle was over.

I first got to know him decades ago while serving as the University of the West Indies representative on the annual think tank meetings of which he was the driving force. It was there that I came face to face with his terse style, as well as his wry and mischievous sense of humour.

Later, Oliver invited me to serve on company boards and I got to see him in action as a businessman with his eagle-eyed and unforgiving analysis of balance sheets. Although definitely not the garrulous type, whenever possible, we would have lunch and wide-ranging discussions on Jamaican and world politics, economics, society and culture ensued, full of anecdotes about various public personalities, always acute and merciless, hilarious but without an ounce of ill will.

What could not but impress was his rare ability to be blunt and exacting where serious issues were at stake, and at the very same time to exercise the utmost patience with, and concern for, individuals who fell short of what may have been rightly expected of them. His politics were indecipherable and very funny. He took much pleasure in showing me the exact spot upstairs in The Gleaner where he stood during the famous demonstrations of September 1979. In turn, I showed him exactly where I was standing on North Street. We looked at each other and burst into laughter. I can see him even now. He was a person of unusual breadth, full of mirth and incapable of malice, who wouldn’t take a one-dimensional view of individuals. Rare this combination of business acumen, blunt directness, personal compassion, broad cultural interests, and intellectual openness. Narrow-mindedness, short-sightedness and insularity he found abhorrent.


It is not possible to understand Oliver Clarke without appreciating that, contrary to what many assumed, he was not from the plantocracy. On the contrary, he was a direct descendant of the Rev Henry Clarke, the early 19th-century English missionary who pioneered the building society movement in Jamaica.

Edith Clarke, the famous anthropologist, was his aunt. From this source, Oliver inherited a nonconformist streak of which he was rightly proud and which gave him his unique personal, social, indeed, political qualities. He had deep faith in the common sense of the Jamaican people and worked hard to make room for this to find expression in Jamaican public life, ever the patriot. Given more to the laconic and hugely independent-minded, he was intolerant of humbug or sociopolitical arrogance of any stripe, not hesitating to puncture inflated egos. His role in Jamaican society was unique and, though we need many more like him, not likely to be filled any time soon. Nuff hugs to Monica and his daughter Alex who he loved so dearly.