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Sir James Mitchell’s Beyond the Islands

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For a couple days during the holiday season amidst the hustle and bustle I was able to get a quick peak at Sir James Mitchell’s autobiography, Beyond the Islands. This book, I understand, will not be available here until later this month but I was able to look at one courtesy an individual who secured a copy at its launching in Europe. I read it through very quickly and will share here my immediate, initial reaction which I am prepared to revise where necessary when I purchase a personal copy and have enough time to thoroughly digest it.

There are not many autobiographies of Caribbean leaders although some of them like Eric Williams, Forbes Burnham and Michael Manley have written books, some, collections of speeches and in the case of Eric Williams, books on history. I should also not forget Cheddi Jagan’s The West on Trial. I therefore looked forward to Sir James’ work.{{more}}

Surely I now understand much more about the making of James Mitchell and what made him tick as a politician and as a Prime Minister. My initial reaction is, to some extent, one of disappointment but let me hasten to say that this probably has more to do with my expectations than with the book itself. To my mind the autobiography of a political leader, especially one who had been involved in the politics of this country and of the Caribbean for some 35 years, is not like any normal autobiography. I therefore expected to find out a lot more than I did about the politics of this country, about the political landscape that he shared, helped to create and dominated. Those were my expectations. In fairness to him we got to know a lot about the man who strode the political stage between 1996 and 2001. Isn’t that what an autobiography is all about? By reading it one is able to find out what made him tick and to understand the personality that influenced many of the things for which he took pride. But we have to remember too that an autobiography is a reflection on one’s life and to some extent an effort to get us to see what the author wants us to see and know about him. Quite often an autobiography is done with an eye to history.

The first part of the book dealing with his family and childhood is very informative. His treatment of some of the political issues was to some extent quite superficial, like the factors leading to his split with Labour in 1971, his holding out or acceptance of the position of Premier in 1972, and the Grenadines Declaration. We get to understand much about his candidacy for the South Central Windward area and the incidents involving threats to his life, the manner in which Calder Williams became a part of the NDP team and his building of the NDP, the splitting of the Grenadines’ constituency and his campaigning in the Grenadines. The book is also well written although confusing at times if you are not familiar with the era since dates, personalities and events tend to overlap. There is little about the Grand Beach Walk/Accord, little about Ottley Hall. Should one really have expected more? The Ottley Hall Issue is still in a state of suspended animation and he is yet to appear before the Commission of Inquiry so this is understandable. With the Grand Beach Accord and the whole issue surrounding it there are perhaps many sensitivities involved and even secrets. Should we have expected him to bare his soul and share his innermost feelings? We know that he was hurt that his pet project to undertake the extension of the Arnos Vale airport was not carried through. It might have been that those who were left to man the ship did not share his enthusiasm for it or it might even have been something simpler and more practical. Sir James left office when the country was still in a state of turmoil even granted the settlement reached at Grand Beach. The then opposition with things very much under their control had vowed to prevent implementation of the project. Sir James gave up his position as Prime Minister on Independence Day 2000. There were only about 5 months left before the elections for which he had committed his party. Little action on this could have been expected even if they wanted to.

There are some extremely personal and moving parts and Sir James was perhaps quite courageous to have made them public in the way he did. These had to do with his separation and divorce and later the birth of his new child. There were moments when he even felt like resigning when matters began to intrude on his family life. The memories of the death/disappearance of his father in a manner that brought no closure clearly disturbed him. There were parts that dealt with incidents involving persons still alive that one felt might better have been left unsaid. We get pen sketches of some of the regional leaders from him, bits about Eugenia Charles, Eric Williams, Errol Barrow, and Edward Seaga. There was something that to him was ‘aristocratic’ about Robert Bradshaw and of course, Karl Hudson-Phillips his dear friend, though not a leader in the sense that the others were.

The author’s stint in Europe, particularly his hitchhiking across Europe with Philip Greaves clearly left an impact on him. Sir James fell in love with European culture and European architecture and in his student days European girls. Projects like the Kingstown market were influenced by what he had seen elsewhere. (Not in Europe I believe). To me one of the least tasteful parts of the book had to do with what I would call name dropping even though they obviously meant quite a lot to the author. Much of the book is taken up with his meetings with world personalities and the way some of them responded to him. When he was introduced to Denzil Washington he stated that they were both surprised that they had not heard about or known about each other before. Sir James took pride in his cultivation of a taste for good wines and maybe that is the hotelier part of him that was coming out. He seemed also to have acquired a love for the theatre and other aspects of European culture. What he appeared to have disliked about carnival was on the other hand the loud music.

I have treaded a bit on dangerous grounds. I made it clear earlier that what I have given here are my immediate and initial reactions. Furthermore I am writing this without reference to the book and therefore based completely on memory of something I had only quickly read. I intend later to reread the book, this time much more thoroughly and do a proper review. If I misinterpreted anything or jumped to hasty conclusions I will certainly correct them when I undertake that much more thorough review. The book is well worth reading for there is much that one understands just reading below the lines. This is the story as seen from the author’s position. We must hope that more Caribbean leaders will produce autobiographies, their stories, to allow us to fill in the gaps, hopefully. What is the life of a political leader like? Is it all politics? What does it mean to be a politician? What are the forces at work, that impact on them? In a way Sir James has shared some of this.

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