The more things change …
The Queen's Park Savannah in Trinidad is one giant 'roundabout' or what in Britain would be called a 'Circus'. Since this term is best applied to politics,especially in this silly season with an election due on September 7, we have to think about going round in circles, which is what politics is about anyway, and for a while, if you win, you go around in the best circles until you lose.
On one side of the Savannah, facing the rising sun, is Whitehall, which, in the old days, was the Office of the Prime Minister. When the Americans hold their presidential elections, it is called 'The Battle for the White House', and I still expect the old journalists among us to call the forthcoming election 'The Battle for Whitehall', although the old place is shut and in almost total darkness.
The White House, on 1,600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, is both the home and office of the American president. It is a Georgian mansion with 132 historic rooms and a river view. Every four years grown men and women fight for a chance to live in it.
When Ronald Reagan heard tourists downstairs of the White House, he told his wife, Nancy, "Honey, I'm still living above the store." Lyndon B. Johnson said, "It's not the kind of place you would pick to live in." Jackie Kennedy complained, "I feel like a moth banging on the window pane."
Whitehall, on the Queen's Park Savannah, used to be the Office of the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago. Fortunately, for the present prime minister, she neither lives nor work there. The corridors of power are haunted.
When I first started working at Whitehall, I was told the story of the police corporal who, on duty at the entrance, heard the galloping of hoofs in the nearby Savannah. While the Savannah was used to exercise horses, this was four in the morning, and very unusual. He peeped out of the guard hut only to see a huge carriage, pulled by two white horses, hurtle over the high wrought-iron gates. The vehicle then came to a stop in the yard where a man in a top hat and tight breeches, whip in hand, descended and tied the horses to an iron ring set in the concrete. The corporal reputedly fled to the nearby St Clair police station and quit the police force forever.
My office was in what used to be the stables. While I saw no ghosts, there were phenomena that defied logic and rational explanation. I do not only mean the way Dr Eric Williams, historian and our first prime minister, treated his top advisers. After a while, they all fell, or were pushed, by the wayside.
When I went to Whitehall, people like C.L.R. James, William Demas, and two permanent secretaries, Eugenio Moore and Dodderidge Alleyne, were already history as far as Dr Williams was concerned. I refer more to doors that would take great strength to close and then suddenly slam, or chairs that moved during the night. Late at night, the police swore they heard the clattering of ancient typewriters. A few members of staff talked about the headless lady on the back steps.
There were also other visitations. In February or thereabouts, in 1970, shortly before the Black Power uprising of April, the story is that a group of soldiers paid a sudden visit to Whitehall and were in the yard possibly evaluating its defences when Dr Williams called to find out what they were doing and why. He angrily demanded to speak to the person in charge, who (the story goes) was a Lieutenant Raffique Shah. The lieutenant was later among soldiers tried (and eventually freed) for mutiny.
My former colleague, Everton Smith, was attacked by a woman. Baulked in her attempts to see Dr Williams, she accused Mr Smith of holding the prime minister prisoner in a filing cabinet. One gentleman abandoned his two children in the lobby, saying that he could not afford to take care of them because of the high cost of living and that he had left them for Dr Williams to look after. I will never forget the short, quiet man who walked through the gates to see Dr Williams.
When the police asked him if he had an appointment, he claimed that he was sent by God. When it was pointed out to him that God had not yet spoken to Dr Williams to confirm the appointment, and that Archbishop Pantin's palace was next door and maybe he had the wrong address, he went berserk, and it took four policemen to subdue him.
I remember, too, other spirits, notably of Christmas, when we had the customary office party. I cannot remember her name now, but there was a very attractive young lady, in a miniskirt so short that if it were any shorter it would be a belt, going up to Dr Williams and asking him to dance. He politely declined. She brazenly asked, "Are you afraid of the generation gap?" He confided, perhaps referring to his daughter Erica, "No. I am not afraid of the generation gap. I have one at home."
Another Christmas, the entire accounts staff, normally the life and soul of the party, were missing. The permanent secretary had them tracking down a difference of one cent in the accounts and they were not allowed out until they found it.
Many mornings and evenings now I pass in front of the building and inevitably remember my last days there. We used to keep some of the books written by Dr Williams in the basement, books like Capitalism and Slavery. The telephone operator was in the corridor leading to the basement. The console was on the wall, so her back was to the corridor.
I went to get a book and when, on returning, I passed her she was pale. "You didn't go out before?" she asked, shaken. "No," I said. "I was in there all the time." "But I just heard your footsteps passing and I even called out to you," she said, close to tears. "Must be an echo," I said. Sounded hollow, I thought, but so are ghosts.
- Tony Deyal was last seen at Whitehall helping the Elections and Boundaries Commission to track down some ghost voters.