Tue | Dec 5, 2023

Michael Manley – In his own voice

Published:Sunday | June 23, 2019 | 12:00 AM

Twenty-two years after his death – tapes of Michael Manley in conversation with his wife Glynne, over a three-year period from 1993-1996 – which were once hidden, have now been released. In these conversations, Manley shares his innermost thoughts, feelings, recollections, and experiences, which have now been epitomised in the new book Truth Be Told: Michael Manley In Conversation (available through its Jamaican publisher www.ianrandlepublishers.com).

Many books have been written purporting to tell the Michael Manley story – his controversial political career, his tempestuous Hollywood-type personal life, and his exploits on the international stage. This time however, the world is hearing it from the mouth of Manley himself, something he never chose or managed to do while he was alive.

What makes these interviews and the book itself so special and so powerful? To begin with, the interviews were done at a time when Manley would have known that his mortal end was not all that far away and he had one last opportunity to tell all, and nothing but the truth, because by then he had nothing to lose by speaking his mind. Secondly, the power of the interviews is to be found as much in Manley’s revelations as in hearing him speak, telling the story in his own voice!

Jeremy Corbyn, current leader of Britain’s Opposition Labour Party, who had great admiration for Manley, writes in the foreword to the book:

“Michael was a wonderful visionary man. These fascinating conversations with his wife, Glynne, reveal how Michael sought to build an independent and democratic Jamaica that was bold in vision and unapologetic in its ambition.”

In her preface to the book, Glynne Manley ends with the words:

“I believe that when these conversations are read and later listened to, Michael’s fans, supporters, and detractors alike will get fresh insight into the brilliant, sensitive, and patriotic Jamaican who always did his best for his country and for downtrodden people everywhere.”

Sunday Gleaner Arts & Education will publish selected extracts from this book in four instalments – a never-before insight into the life of Jamaica’s former prime minister.


Michael Manley was renowned for his great oratory and for speeches that kept audiences spellbound. He was also often described as charismatic, with an imposing presence, a sharp intellect, and an engaging personality.

In the following extract, Manley talks about these two aspects of his personality. We pick up the conversation where Manley is talking about his role as best man at the wedding of his close friend David Coore.


May 17, 1993 – The Manor

GM: Is that where you developed your speaking skills?

MM: No. I never opened my mouth.

GM: You never spoke publicly while you where there?

MM: No. Not even at David Coore’s wedding.

GM: Is it true that you paid somebody to give the toast?

MM: Not paid. I just set up with Dudley to do it. He loved to speak.

GM: Dudley Thompson?

MM: Yes. Dudley gave the best man’s speech.

GM: Surely that was you with another ‘first’?

MM: (Laughter) It was a first and a last. The last at being a best man. No one ever asked me to do that again.

GM: Was your refusal because of your decision not to compete with your father?

MM: No. That was raw terror. Terror. Terror.

GM: Was it because you stammered at the time?

MM: I’ll tell you the truth. It’s dead simple. I was terrified to stand up in front of a group of people. It was visceral ... an awful, crippling terror.

GM: You know readers are going to find that very strange considering that you have become one of the world’s best public speakers?

MM: Not really. No, not really. You know, people are kind about that. I really don’t consider myself a terribly good speaker, actually.

GM: But you do recognise that you have superior communication skills?

MM: Ahhh, that’s what I have. And maybe the same thing that made me so terrified of an audience left me with a kind of respect for how huge is the responsibility of speech. Maybe. I don’t know. You know… I used to watch people making speeches with ease, and I’d wonder, ‘How do they think of what to say? How do they have the courage to get their mouth to work?’ I used to sit and literally be agog.

GM: But, you’ve never been one for sort of ‘cocktail chatter’. Anytime you’ve spoken it’s usually for a purpose or with a message.

MM: I can’t speak lightly. Even now … I could never tell you how many weddings I’ve avoided, requests to do little church comments, which is a Jamaican habit, and I just find an excuse not to be there because I never know what to say. I can’t do it. Every speech I make ... to this day…whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent, I think, ‘What is it that might be worth trying to get into another person’s mind?’ and I really think about it. I make my little notes, which I may not look at but because I want to organise my mind around what I think is worth getting out of my head into your head. And that’s why I don’t regard myself as a good speaker. Because I will butcher a speech in the interest of communication. Butcher a speech à la’oratory. And my speeches … you know … when you hear them and then try to transcribe them, they’re a mess. But never when I make them. I’ll go over and around a subject to get across what I think is worth saying. I’m very reverential about the responsibility of speech, actually.

GM: I know you almost detest the word ‘charismatic’ when it is used to describe you.

MM: I really do. Because I think its a ‘put-down’.

GM: A ‘put-down’?

MM: Yes. I regard being called charismatic a ‘put-down’ because they are trying to dismiss all of your struggle, all of your sincerity, all of the agony you go through about issues and problems, how to communicate, how to move people to care ... all is dismissed as some accident of personality magic. I despise the term. It really offends me.

GM: But you realise it is not meant as an insult? It is used, I think, to try to describe a certain chemistry that you develop with your audience.

MM: Well … I don’t know. Maybe that is a kind interpretation. But I more hear ‘Oh, he’s charismatic. Oh, he’s a good speaker’, and I say, ‘But where is the recognition of the years of struggle? The tear gas you swallowed? All the hours you stood on the picket lines? All the time you spent organising to feed the workers and be with them? All the years of the thousands of things discussed at small group meetings? All of what you’ve done ... . It disappears as magic?’ I resent that. I really do. And I’m bristling at even the mention of it. It really offends me. To describe me simply as charismatic is partly born of laziness. You know, I’m going to confess, but I find it hard to have done all the real hard, bitter struggling work I’ve done, I find it hard to have given all the years of thought to political process, to a New International Economic Order, the years trying to figure out how to make the world better, and all of that is swept under two carpets? He’s a fine speaker and he’s charismatic. So all the work disappears because people can’t bother to go with you through the journey of struggle, which is what you have invested in all of this ... and so that you don’t end up talking gibberish ... you’re a speaker and nothing about your ideas. And because people have been kind ... or maybe there’s a chemistry ... . But even that ... . What the hell is that? You see, even the chemistry … I don’t think the chemistry is born of personality. I know plenty people that are taller than me, better looking than me, have more ease in public than me. They have a thousand things that I look at and say, well ... maybe they don’t get that degree of response, which ... not as tall, not as good looking, whatever, and certainly not as self-confident get ... because they don’t stir memory. What I think ... and I do feel ... I’m not any false-modest idiot ... I do feel the extraordinary kindness with which people receive me. I don’t think it’s about personality. I think it’s about memory. That deep in all their memories … the fathers, the sons, who remember me for years on the picket lines, the courage whether it was that I never ran from a gun, or I made them proud when I went to the White House ... whatever, whatever ... I don’t know what it is. But I think people respond to leaders because they remember, and out of that memory, they build up a total image of a positive force that worked for something that meant something to them. That’s what I think causes it.

GM: If you’ll forgive me ... I have been at several universities abroad with you, with crowds who are unfamiliar with all your local struggles, and you get the same response.

MM: Only after I speak.

GM Yes. After you speak.

MM: But in Jamaica, I get it before I speak. Very often the response is greater before I speak than after, which is the point I’m making. Anyway … I have a communication skill, I agree.

GM: OK. Was it something you consciously developed over the years? Did you try to emulate someone?

MM: No. I’ve never heard anyone who speaks like me. And I didn’t consciously develop it. Whatever skills I have as a speaker are driven by the compulsion to communicate, and they are fuelled by the fact that this is a gift that I have of an extraordinary audience sensibility. I don’t know anybody who equals me in Jamaican politics for audience sensibility. I have this enormous span of attention where you pick up from an audience what’s going on. What the audience is feeling ... thinking ... where you pick up if they have understood or not. I’m enormously audience sensitive; which a communicator – has to be. If you’re a communicator as distinct from a mesmeriser, people who set out to mesmerise – they use cadence, language, to inspire.

GM: You’ve never done that?

MM: No. I can’t ever recall that. Sometimes you’ll get into a wave of passion towards the end of a speech that takes you and the audience on a great roller coaster of empathy and shared emotion. But never at the start.

GM: And always with the touch of the dramatic.

MM: Well, I’m very dramatic (chuckle). Now that is true. And I’m second to nobody in body language.

GM: Yes. That’s true. I’ve watched you.

MM: I’ll tell you what happens. You see, you get stylised. You stylise things because you find that they work. Sometimes if you’re very tired or a little bored, you can summon a style, which you didn’t set out to create as a style. The thing about walking away from a mic happened because I used to get so excited and intense that I just had to go away and just think about what I had said. So that the movement is drama. And I wouldn’t lie to you that later on, I remember thinking, ‘Boy, if you ever feel a little tired in the speech, you can walk away to get an excitement. Like ‘Comrade, Chairman’. It’s a joke! I laugh when I say ‘Comrade, Chairman’ and I say ‘Ho, ho, ho’, and they start to ‘Ha..ha..ha’ (laughter).

GM: But when you say it originated because you had to turn away to think about what you’d said, had your mouth or your thoughts, as it were, run away with you?

MM: No…well, sometimes it was just sheer excitement. I’d be so excited about what I’d said. I’d really got through ... this is what I wanted to say. So, in excitement and exuberance, I’d turn away.

GM: The excitement would come from the fact that you were communicating well, your message was getting through?

MM: Oh, absolutely. When you feel, oh God, they’re getting it. Jesus! The whole thing is exhilarating.

GM: Because most of your better public speeches were on very complex issues, trying to get the ordinary labourer or farm worker to understand complex ideas, and realising that you were getting through, must have been exciting.

MM: Oh, yes.

GM: Now, I’m letting out secrets here, but again, people would be amazed to know how nervous you still get at the thought of making a speech. Any speech at all. You get butterflies.

MM: Yeah … It’s true.

GM: What causes it? Do you fear going blank?

MM: Well, I used to think that at first. At first it was just visceral. Just terror of the exposure. Later on I think that I worried about failing to get across, fluffing your words, or not coming out, and later on ... perhaps it became a habit. I don’t know.

GM: Plus, you had set such a high standard.

MM: When you are continually announced as this great speaker, you think, ‘There’s just no way I can do this all the time.’ In fact, one of the ways I try to get out of that problem? These days, almost every speech I say, ‘You know something, I’m not here to make no big speech.’ This is my way of saying, ‘Please, don’t ... .’

GM: You’re lowering expectations.

MM: That’s the truth.