Wed | Jun 23, 2021

Resurrecting Morris Cargill

Published:Sunday | June 1, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Daniel Thwaites, Contributor

As part of celebrating 180 years, The Gleaner is running a wonderful series called The Gleaner Grew Me. Well, The Gleaner grew me, too, chiefly through cackling at Morris Cargill's columns, although of course, I hasten to add that neither he nor the newspaper bears responsibility for the misshapen results.

Coincidentally, just recently a library in New York was thinning its herd, and I had become lost for a few hours without realising. Being a bibliophile has the drawback that I find it impossible to go by a book sale without nosing around. And so I happened upon a copy of Jamaica Farewell, Cargill's memoir, like unexpectedly finding a little piece of home in New Rochelle. Standing there, I was soon deep in Cargill territory, because it begins with a riotous and irreverent story about rural St Mary life involving slander, sex and a cow.

By the time I was reading him regularly, he was already at it for decades and had achieved an incredibly economical style where an unpredictable turn of phrase, joke, or wry observation captured a whole thesis. Till today, people remember his bon mots.

Just recently someone quoted him to me, that if the Government really wants to eradicate ganja, it should subsidise it like sugar. Now, who else cuts through 50 years of agricultural and drug policy with such incision? That's skill.

Now, I'm mindful that the mere mention of Cargill can evoke Pavlovian responses: "He was a colonialist! Plantocracy!" Maybe. So what? He was also intelligent, humorous, charming, ironic, nationalistic, and big-hearted. I'm sure he didn't let criticism bother him too much, if at all.

Then there's politics. He is remembered, in part, for being on a team of columnists who gave Michael Manley a hard time in the 1970s. But one has to consider - difficult though it may - that perhaps the Great Joshua deserved some of it.

I like that Mr Cargill wasn't prone to glib resolutions of the country's problems in 21/2 paragraphs. I think this is because he had some politics in his background, and therefore appreciated that it's a lot easier to say a thing than to do it. He had served as a JLP representative to the West Indies Parliament.

He had the confidence that allowed him to lay out his opinions elegantly and entertainingly, but he didn't bother to argue for them much. Argument is the business of the essayist; the opinionator states his mind. That was, of course, one of the real strengths of Mr Cargill's own columns. He let you know what he thought without trimming too much around the edges. It was a bracing clarity.

Some 16 years ago when I began writing for The Gleaner, he took evident pleasure in calling me "The Gleaner's new boy" and smacked me about a little. But I've had to consider - difficult though it may - that perhaps I deserved some of it.

Quite quickly his opinion began to improve. Soon he was offering me advice about how to columnise which, sadly, I've been unable to adequately internalise. He specifically paused to enjoy my observation that Bill Clinton had the most expensive sex life of anyone in the 20th century. In the midst of the Lewinsky scandal, Clinton had hurriedly launched attacks on Iraq as a distraction.

It reminds me of another of his gems. Observing American efforts to rebuild countries they had previously levelled by war, Cargill suggested that we declare war on the USA, brace for the beating, then enjoy the rebuilding. It may still be our best strategy!

His remarks on the Church were always hilarious. Consider: "The great strength of the Church of Rome has always been in its capacity to change and adapt to new circumstances. I am therefore quite sure that when the present Pope is carried off to his reward in Heaven (which I trust will be quite soon), the next Pope, or perhaps even the one after, will abandon the position on birth control and will probably even permit priests to marry. This permission would be a very good thing, if only to relieve the pressure on choirboys."

I recall this story: Two nuns are riding bicycles through the backstreets of Rome. First nun: "I've never come this way before!" Second nun: "It's the cobblestones!"


How about this prophetic economic assessment? "If the false pride of the prime minister refuses to call in the IMF, we should repudiate our foreign debts which, in any case, we are unable to pay. Of course, everyone will point out that if we do that, no foreign country will lend us any money. This will be an excellent thing, for it would force our stupid politicians into arranging that we live within our means.

"Year after year, at those public auction sales which we call general elections, our politicians, in reckless pursuit of power, promise us goodies which the country can't afford and which involves the constant borrowing of money. It is this indebtedness that is the root of our present troubles. It is high time that we learned to live within our means."

Cargill was "Buddhist", and his columns sometimes evince the cool detachment and subtle wisdom:

"I know of only one genuine kind of freedom. This is the freedom which Buddhists describe as the freedom from 'craving'; the freedom that is the release from greed, envy, and the urge to power. Many kinds of people, the very rich, the politically obsessed, or those enslaved by their appetites will never understand what freedom means. There is another thing - the great blessing of laughing, chiefly at oneself. The impeccably solemn, the impeccably worthy will never be able to abandon their chains. My poodle Peanuts knows better."

For years Cargill gave us wit and wisdom, and that's not peanuts.

Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to