gall and gumption

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

"Great is Truth..."


Photo by Erasmus Williams

I meant a while ago to take note of this little news item, but it sort of got away from me, what with one thing and another.

But I've wanted to get back to it, because if I were to tell you all about me and Mr. Bramble you would think I had made it up.

So this is just a little.

When I was in my senior year of high school--the only year of school I had in the US before college, I lived in the U.S. Virgin Islands. This was the year after my year at the English boarding school. My father and stepmother and my new baby brother had been sailing round the Caribbean and settled in St. Croix, just by a sort of fluke, really, and we had all been reunited there, and I discovered that I loathed the place and was stuck there, miserable, miserable. First of all I disliked my stepmother (it was mutual and hardly a secret) and second of all it was such a small place--and the locals had this accent that was an affront to my Jamaican ear. I had gone to a place that was closer to Jamaica than England, and more similar to Jamaica than England, and I guess that was something. For a long while St. Croix for me was just the non-Jamaica, the almost-Jamaica, with just enough of a resemblance to offer a sort of teasing delusion that something real for me as Jamaica was might be hidden there somewhere. And my year there was one long lesson in the futility of that hope. But in spite of my resistance I learned to appreciate some features of life there for themselves. One of the first was Radio Antilles, The Big R.A. It had a powerful signal and broadcast from Montserrat, of all places, to all the Leeward Islands and even as far north as the St. Croix, where on Sunday afternoons I'd listen to it, partly because of the signal; you could hear it, it was the strongest and clearest one.

What I didn't know about the Eastern Caribbean then I am ashamed to admit now; but Jamaicans in those days did not condescend to know anything about the small islands. I began to learn from listening to The Big R.A. And what I was listening to was greetings. The format was familiar, but the accents weren’t, the names weren’t, the places weren’t. Norma in St. Thomas was sending happy birthday to her beloved brother in St. Kitts; a young man in St. Maarten sent his love to his special lady friend; Icilda sent love to Irvin; a whole family in Tortola said happy birthday to a great-grandmother in Antigua. It had nothing to do with my social or educational ambitions. I'd be loafing around the living room, with nowhere to go, reading and trying to think cool thoughts, and this noise would be the background and I would find myself drawn in, my attention arrested by all those messages of love crossing the water. It made me think, in my complete ignorance, that Montserrat was a big, important place.

And then I went away to college and escaped from the Eastern Caribbean. When I went to St. Kitts in 2002, Radio Antilles had long gone. It had had money troubles and then at last even the building was gone, destroyed by the volcano along with the whole city of Plymouth. Mr. Bramble had been a sportscaster for the big R.A., but I learned this from him long after he had become a hero to me anyway.

Except for his time at Radio Antilles, a whole generation ago, I don't think he has ever worked for a major news organization--even a Caribbean major news organization. Most of his fame as a journalist rests on his newspapers. He had one in Montserrat, and after the volcano he moved to Nevis, where he started another one. In Montserrat he had experienced his family connections to the government (he was the son of one Chief Minister and the brother of another) as both a liability and an asset. In Nevis, though, he was on his own. He wrote and gathered the editorial content; his female assistant, a young woman with a high-school education and singular presence of mind, tact and kindness, who laid out the paper, took in the few ads, and helped manage the commercial printing press that subsidized the whole thing, and a couple of printers who operated the press. If his circulation ever topped a few hundred issues of each weekly edition I never knew about it. Occasionally, because of one problem or another a paper wouldn't get printed, there'd be a gap. But it would always come back. It was about 12 pages in all, three spreads, printed on sheets of bond paper. He had to travel to Puerto Rico in person to buy things like printing inks.

When I first encountered it at the all-night grocery in St. Kitts, I didn't know what to make of it. On the front page, typically, the sort of screaming headlines usually devoted to major catastrophes (144-point block caps) would declare Mr. Edric Stanley's opinion of some latest piece of Nevis politics--a land deal, some proposed program, some bit of ministerial malfeasance. Below the headlines there would be a stock photo of Mr. Stanley. Sometimes it was not Mr. Stanley but some other prominent Nevisian, who would basically have almost the whole front page to air their views. These Nevisians were businesspeople, mostly, who found themselves in opposition to the government. Page 2 was usually occupied by a full-page ad for a hotel on the waterfront in Basseterre that belonged to Mr. Bramble and his wife. There was another regularly running half-page ad promoting, weirdly, gasoline and vitamins. This ad, I learned eventually, was for Mr. Stanley's gas station. The rest of the paper was mostly the same edited government press releases that filled up half of the other local paper, a puzzle and comics page, and a couple of regular columnists including a public health nurse. It sounds terrible, except that what it supported each week was one piece of serious journalism written by Mr. Bramble, and a funny, nervy, and completely original editorial written by Mr. Bramble.

In his one piece of actual journalism, and in his one weekly editorial, Mr. Bramble showed two rare virtues: one, he wrote beautifully, and two, he was tenacious. He did not let go of things. He did not move on, he did not forget or let you forget. He had a special gift for attacking certain sacred cultural assumptions. There was a minister of government at the time (he's dead now), he was actually the deputy premier, a big useless lump, grossly obese. The brother of this minister was considered a Great Man because he had a very successful ice cream shop in New York and had once been featured in one of those "model immigrant makes good" stories in the New York Times. The ice-cream shop brother's aura of fame and success sort of extended as far as the big useless minister brother. And Mr. Bramble did not spare them. I just remember one editorial in which he was attacking some government project of dubious public value but probably considerable private benefit, and announced that if it went through, "Mr. Guishard will be able to sit up to his neck in ice cream..." He was a genius at needling. He was shrewd enough never to come close to running afoul of the libel laws, but he just stayed steadily on the attack, he just wouldn't move on.

To understand what is at stake, you need to consider a couple of things. In the Eastern Caribbean newspapers first appeared as organs of political parties. Each party has its own paper, embarrassingly partisan and with almost no content outside of political exhortation, self-congratulation, and mud flung in the general direction of the other side. Governments tend to think of newspapers as extensions of their political arms, and have a history, throughout the region, of trying to make sure that newspapers stay in that role. Because of what I call the system of "status patronage" there are numberless opportunities for conflicts of interest between supposedly independent newspapers that, say, stand in need of subsidies from the government or want printing contracts (no newspaper can pay for itself in any single country in the Eastern Caribbean); and so the basis is found for little backroom deals, not to mention the multifarious family and business connections. All this, plus the actual threats, have been challenges to the emergence of independent media.

In recent years, attempts to require annual licensing fees on Montserrat and Antigua and to revise the penal code on Montserrat (both potentially punitive to the press), were proposed and withdrawn. The Newspaper Registration and Surety Ordinance, as the bill was called, stipulated a prohibitively-high EC$50,000 bond for publication. Considered an effort of the anti-Bramble political faction, it was written two months after Howell Bramble started the Montserrat Times in 1981. Montserrat's legislation must be approved by Great Britain, and in this case the British foreign secretary said he would not consent to the bill. The 1983 revision of the penal code, thought to be aimed at journalists, would have given the government the right to decide on potentially seditious material. (Mass Media and the Caribbean, by Stuart H. Sulin and Walter Soderlund, 1991)


What Mr. Bramble did in his newspaper career is, against great difficulties, hold on to independence. And he's not a man who has had an easy life, or a man of extraordinary brazenness or recklessness. No one was paying him a big salary to do the brave thing he did, just hanging in there. He did it because he couldn't not do it once it was there to do. But not satisfied with that only, he also insisted on being decent.

He told me once about one transaction involving his most vicious competitor in the newspaper business, a man who enjoyed all sorts of advantages because of his mostly favorable position in relation to the party in power, in other words, a man who had built a career in sweet little deals and a newspaper on what I call the "status patronage" system that operates even when you don't see any money changing hands. Despite all his connections this competitor was once arrested at his workplace. Mr. Bramble had gotten wind that it was going to happen, and a photo of the event would have sold out his little paper--but he wouldn't do it. And yet, when the same man knocked up a young woman on the island, he published a an account of it as told by her mother.

One day we were both down at the ferry terminal in Nevis, waiting for the arrival of some paper from St. Kitts. I was probably grumbling about something. Mr. Bramble and I were both unhappy in those days, for various reasons; you will notice that I don't work at that paper any more. Neither, sadly, does he--and that's a much greater loss. Well, on this particular day I was bitching and he, I presumed, was listening, gazing out past the dock to the sea. Well, you know how you can suddenly notice that the other person has not been listening and you've been talking to yourself? I had that moment, and I paused.

There was no sign of the ferry, but the coast guard's inflatable dinghy, the one with the absurd-looking wooden kiosk sprouting up out of it, was tied up to the dock. That meant the governor-general was on the island, having sailed over from St. Kitts in his little box. He was probably engaged on one of his main official duties in Nevis, which was shaking hands and delivering a birthday card on behalf of the Queen of England to every senior citizen who reached the age of 100. There are a surprising number of them in Nevis.

"I wonder how the governor-general gets in and out of that boat, though," Mr. Bramble said. I glanced over and I didn't know how, either. It was about four feet from the surface of the water to the top of the pier. The governor-general is a large, pear-shaped man in his eighties.

Mr. Bramble sold the paper to its current owners, and for a little less than a year I worked for them, alongside him, and learned things from him about real courage, real dignity, and real goodness that I hope I never forget. I was happier when he was in the office--the workings of his mind were a source of continuous delight and wonder to me, not to mention big, happy laughs. Of the days before my departure from St. Kitts and Nevis, the one I recall with the most sadness was the evening when I sat with him on the balcony of his hotel in Basseterre, and we talked and I felt the minutes speeding by much too quickly, knowing that when I walked out I would not know if or when I'd ever see him again.

For me Mr. Bramble's great achievement is that all the respect he now receives and so richly deserves, is for work that completely originates with him--from his own editorial judgments, which, as I said, are first of all moral judgments; from his own self-created writing style, formal, funny, and thoughtful; from all his struggles to do what he loves, to report and write the news even when the most ordinary contingencies (wife needs car) get in the way; to do brave and generous things because as much trouble as they are, it would be a lifetime of trouble if he took the coward's way; his large and kind human curiosity; his natural gallantry and magnanimity. He owed none of this to any boss, to any compulsion, to the hope of any material reward. It was a continuous struggle, for the thing for its own sake, with what modest resources he had, and I doubt it ever earned him a dollar. What he finally made was himself, as a source of action in the world, action that originated in his own considered values and out of his struggles with contingency, a self that's a good man and not a monster, standing for something. So maybe this won't mean much to you, but I'm so glad to see some recognition of his value.

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