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The Kenneth John Prize for Literature

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by Dr. Richard A. Byron-Cox 27.FEB.09

My memory bank records that Dr. Kenneth John first came to my consciousness at the turn of the 70s when he addressed a public meeting I attended as a treat, a rare night-out in days when I was ordered to bed before 9:00 pm. This memory-bank entry has an unflattering footnote, “But he can’t talk.” Of course that conclusion had nothing to do with me knowing anything about oratory.{{more}} But, as in many households of the time, the Joshua-Cato political tug-o-war was a staple of adult discourse in my family. Then, Pappy Josh was the Apostle of the poor, fuelling their passion for change with high-voltage rhetoric, empathic with their plight and galvanizing their hopes. Dr. Ken’s was sophisticated politics, (indeed Dr. Politics is finally with us – minus any sophistication), poorly suited for a largely uneducated populace who adored firebrands, which he was not.

Turning the corner into the 80s, I meet one of the major signposts of my life – a political aspirant named Mike Browne. He, apart from pointing me to democratic socialism, (my political creed to this day), nudged me to the songs, lamentations and epistles of Dr. Kenneth John, known to you the reader simply as “This Week.” Mike emphasised, “Kenneth’s gift is not the spoken word, but the written. He writes beautifully.” Rarely is a politician that truthful. “This Week” led me to discover Dr. John’s revelations, i.e. his flambeau work and doctoral thesis. Thirty years on, I still harbour my boyhood fancy that I can be the next Kenneth John.

In the 3 decades that I have been a student of his art, Dr. John covered virtually every aspect of Vincentian life. There is no need to delay the reader with evidence to substantiate this. The Vincentian of those years bear living testimony. From a personal standpoint, these writings are important not solely because they prove Dr. John to be our Shakespeare and Dickens combined. Here our master wordsmith transforms George McIntosh from a forgotten symbol in history, to the pre 1951 radical voice of the disenfranchised masses who never thought they would see the sunset of “Massa Day”. Our post 1951 political history from the trials of the Great Josh, to our transition from Cato to Gonsalves with Mitchell and Eustace sandwiched between, is analysed most meticulously, with emphasis on the lessons that should be learnt.

In recent times, Dr. John, a “Beckonist” to heart, ruffles the feathers of those who occupy the seats of political power in SVG, often making his pen a torch that sets these seats alight. He has regular skirmishes with many of Labour hangers-on, resulting in verbal blows; he giving as good and he gets. But it is not just with this gravy-train bunch that his words tear into the flesh of men. His pen forces many to duck, plead innocence, or accuse him of malice aforethought, and a litany of other evils. Even his twin brother “Skinny,” must have swollen fat with anger, when Dr. John dared him to give up his “ivory tower” for the trenches of political battle. My own twin brother Jomo was exposed as force-ripe and half-baked when Dr. John using classic colloquialism as words of correction authoritatively instructed him “to wheel and come again.” And exciting times awaits, as the John/Williams duel is still to unfold. Dr. John has with swift dispatch advised that he will not take Blazing heat lying down. And rest assured, once the written word is the weapon of choice, Blazer might be forced to crank up his flame, if the Doc is not “to out ‘e light.”

Through all of this, I have admired Dr. John’s crafty use of his Shakespearian genius to express and promote his political views. He is the only writer whose style and form can make all substances palatable in one way or the other. Many buy the Vincentian and immediately turn to “This Week,” including yours truly. It is this exceptional gift of composition, expressed in his huge body of meaningful work that justifies the establishment of the Dr. Kenneth John Prize for Literature. Even if one agrees with Milton Cato that Kenneth John is a “Damn Foolish Man,” there can be no denying his rare mastery of writing in English, representing Vincentian excellence unsurpassed in this field before or since. This in and of itself is a singular reason why we should pay him this just and due homage.

But there is another more salient reason for the establishment of this prize. Future generations must go beyond present frontiers if we are to progress. They need shining beacons to follow. Dr. Kenneth John is one, for there is simply no better writing! The establishment of this prize would symbolise that Dr. John’s spirit forms part of the winds beneath our wings, as we seek to soar to greater writing and literary heights even as his soul prepares to take flight. (Yes, the ageing maestro recently reminded that he is in the departure lounge, boarding pass in hand). Admittedly, his is sometimes a very sharp-pointed pen, incisive and deadly as a cutlass sharpened back and belly. But the “crabs-in-a-barrel” mentality must not prevent us from seeing that when all is said and done, his real fault was too solid a conviction that the pen is mightier than the sword, and making this his philosophy for living.

Of course there is not a rat’s hole chance in hell that the present government would establish such a prize. I, therefore, call on the School of Continuing Studies, Lions Club and or the NYC to bring this to fruition. Indeed they would be fulfilling part of their charters, and for NYC, this would be a wonderful and well-deserved appreciation to its first patron. The view that SVG must always make of its finest, the symbols of aspirations that will inspire future generations cannot be challenged. And, with the national interest being a mere bridesmaid to that of the political party, this usurping wicked stepsister must not prevent national appreciation for the sterling contributions of Dr. John, who continues to inspire and move this nation with his words. And, lest we forget, “In the beginning was the word.” And that is the gospel truth. Don’t believe me, just read the word of John 1.1.

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