Spending a day or two with John Horne: A friend’s impressions
John Horne did not wait around to celebrate his birthday this week (May 22), but that does not preclude a celebration anyway. In fact, there is a great deal to cheer about as we continue to reflect on the life of this fascinating and downright beautiful man. And what is more, we would be doing so repeatedly for years to come.
John first captured my attention in the sixties. That was an exciting time in the history of the state. An array of talent was on display from many quarters: on the stage, in academia, and during the carnival. Even the agricultural sector got into the act with its own extravagant, once-in-a-lifetime exhibition in the buildings and space around the Grammar School playing field. Among the movers and shakers back then were Tim Daisley, Jean Duncan, Pat Prescod, Douglas Brisbane, Visiting Peace Corps workers, Hugh McConnie (agriculture), Samo (carnival), and the knowledgeable all-rounder Dr. Earl Kirby. Against that illustrious backdrop, John Horne made his debut as a rising star, rubbing shoulders with the brightest and best among his peers.
Like Roy Austin (Searchlight 3 May 2019), my first recognition of John’s promising star power was during his choreographed rendition of “Just one more Dance”, in a duet with Pat Clouden at the Peace Memorial Hall: “Darling, go home, your husband is ill…. Is he ill? Then let them give him a pill…,” they sang, as he giggled away and held the audience in the palm of his hand.
Here was this dashing young man seemingly having the time of his life at the expense of “…a poor old man.” But that was then. And it was, for all intents and purposes, mere theatre.
My next memorable recollection of our interactions was quite a few years later, after I had migrated to Canada. He had phoned unexpectedly one day, around midnight, to be exact, to share some exciting news: As I recall, Son Mitchell, taking advantage of a void in the political landscape, had cobbled together a group of individuals – some of disparate views and ideologies, allegedly — to run under his banner. They were successful in their bid, and John was among the winners. In that phone call, he and I chatted briefly about politics as “the art of the possible,” and about the realities of life; and we reminisced about attending the idealistic discussion sessions initiated by the young and enthusiastic UWI representative, Kenneth John, in earlier years. But most importantly, that call was to confirm that he fully understood that henceforth he would be playing, not on a stage of make belief, but one on which his every action would impact the lives of real people in a real world. And did he really deliver? That is the question.
The outpouring of tributes to the late John Horne in the days and weeks after his passing is a testament to how steadfastly he adhered to his commitment to serve his people faithfully and well. In fact, there is little I can add to embellish what has already been expressed so eloquently and effusively by so many—critical observers and simple folk alike— whom he touched in one way or another within and outside the political sphere.
And here I must confess that while I considered John to have been a good friend over the years, it was only within the past decade that our relationship grew increasingly close, to the point where it would be true to say he had become my best friend in the homeland. So what I propose to do from this point on is invite the reader to join me on an intimate journey in his company, to recapture down-to-earth, elemental episodes and events that shed light into the very soul of this extraordinary human being. Also, we will adopt the time-lapse mode to squeeze as much as possible into a tidy package.
A Day or Two with John
The plan was to meet John at his Galaxy office. What was not anticipated was that two young violinists were already there. One was the talented Nigerian medical student, Sam Toka, who gives so generously of his time in church functions and otherwise (and not surprisingly, eventually played at John’s own funeral). The other was young Elliot who, although he did not know it then, was about to receive a quality, made-in-Europe violin, ordered especially for him by none other than our dearly beloved. John had noted his potential as a budding musician and wanted to give support. It was touching to sit there and listen to those two young men perform for us, expressing gratitude in the most effective way they knew.
But it was not yet time to leave the office and go elsewhere as planned. John requested my indulgence as he wanted a private moment to address an urgent matter involving a mother and her young, school aged son who were waiting outside.
A bit later, we were walking along the fringes of the Argyle International Airport where he pointed out the engineering structure employed to break up the raging waves as they approached the shore.
From there, the next stop was to be at the charming and secluded Wa-ra-cou, a site just sitting there awaiting a dreamer’s touch.
Close to Diamond on our way to town came the announcement: “I am pulling in here for a bit: I want to show you something that you may find interesting.” Walking from the car, we had to push back thick bush that the grazing animals ignored. Eventually, we came to this dilapidated building draped in climbing vine, with walls covered with moss. “This was the old terminal building when Diamond was the original airport,” he explained. “With a bit of effort you can still read the name: That is the origin of the SVD airport code. The ‘D’ is for Diamond. Once the international aeronautical authorities assign a code to a country, it is never reassigned. So that is why SVD is still being used, although we have recently been assigned AIA for the new airport.” How fascinating! That John Horne, the man I am honoured to claim as dearest friend, was pure and simply a walking repository.
About 15 minutes later, he reminded me that I had expressed interest in getting a coconut plant. So at Indian Bay, he pulled over and approached the vendor running the little stall at the gap.
Addressing the gentleman by name, he enquired about his well-being, introduced me, then said: “My friend here would like to obtain a coconut plant; do you think you can have one for him when we pass by again tomorrow?” Our John had this knack for making every problem appear to be “a piece of cake,” as the saying goes.
The follow-up itinerary was established by phone: “We can have lunch upstairs at our favourite restaurant; then I can drive you to Layou for that meeting. We should be able to make it back by 3:30.” Anyone who has known John Horne would know how funny that last sentence was. Our meeting went like clockwork, so the next question came as no surprise. “When last have you been to Cumberland?” he asked…. On our way, the secondary school that serves Barouallie and the neighbouring districts was pointed out to me. “That looks more like a university than a school,” I replied. “The students in attendance must know how fortunate they are to be enjoying such modern facilities.”
Soon we were in Cumberland where John took great pride in pointing out features of the now famous site, and made reference to ideas being tossed around to capitalize on the prominence it has gained from hosting those daring Pirates of the Caribbean. It was clear that his interest in the nation’s well-being remained as intense then as when he was in office.
Again, we were on our way back to town and making good time – or so I thought. Then, without much notice, he informed me that he was turning off the main road onto a little side road to visit a family who would not forgive him for being in the area without dropping by. He inquired about the job situation. Apparently, there were periods of extended hardship he had known about, and it was good to learn that things had begun to improve.
The next diversion was onto a road on the right. This time he was calling on a couple who were struggling to cope with serious health issues. The ‘Hi and Bye’ treatment was not his style. He always had time to listen and to empathize. People who got to know him well had come to realize that with him “big shot” and “little shot” individuals were apportioned equal time, respect, and attention. That is a rare attribute that gives credence to Kiplin’s oft-quoted words: “If you can move in palaces with kings, nor lose the common touch….” Alexander John Clark Horne could, and jolly well did.
As we left Campden Park on our way to Kingstown, he mentioned casually: “this used to be my constituency.” And of course in a technical, limited sense, it was. But by now, even the casual observer would have learned that his constituents resided all over the state; so by definition, in the broader context, all of St Vincent and The Grenadines was in effect his constituency; and West Kingstown in actuality a convenient electoral demarcation.
A trip such as this provided ample time to wander off down memory lane and reflect on “the good old days.” He had a penchant for citing historical events and giving details of landmark buildings— although I was the one who reminded him of the tall, distinguished “high-ranking public official” who rode a live horse through the colossal Gates of Kiev in Samo’s carnival band by that name. He recalled; and for him that was nostalgic. Then there were the outstanding musicians from the distant past who held a special place in his heart. He mentioned “the banjo player from Sandy Bay.” That was the talented “Satan” Ince who stood in a class by himself.
For a while, as we travelled and chatted leisurely along Back Street, it seemed that we would make it home by sunset after all. Not a chance. “If you do not mind, I have one more stop to make, but it will be short,” he informed me, as he made a turn on Paul’s Avenue. We arrived at a place where members of a steel band were practising. After introducing me, he chatted with the musicians, listened to a few pieces, made critical comments, expressed encouraging words, and wished them well. I was to learn afterward that the band was preparing for a trip to Europe, and his stopping by and words of encouragement meant the world to them.
To be in John Horne’s company for a day or two and watch him do his thing is to capture the essence of what makes an icon; a people’s man; an honest-to-goodness patriot; the real deal.
John Horne was generous to a fault. And being a devout Christian, highly conversant with the Holy Scriptures, he most certainly had read St Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesians to remember the words of Jesus himself, that “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” Obviously, John took this as his maxim and ran with it. Even as he came face to face with his own mortality, he felt constrained to give some more. This brings to mind the story of the soldier who, being off duty on one of the worst days on the battlefield when his side suffered enormous casualties and news came that his best friend had been mortally wounded, begged leave of his general to go out there to be with him. The general, realizing the futility of the request, kept refusing. Eventually he relented. When the soldier reached the scene, his friend, lying there, barely clinging to life, looked up and whispered: “I kept hanging in, because I knew that you would come.”
That was not just a faceless soldier: That was a profile in courage of our John, the Christian soldier in action: Such was his level of commitment; such was his boundless sense of duty.
For quite some time, John worked assiduously with me on a plan to benefit school children. That is still a work in progress. When I informed him that I had met a young lady who shares our interest, he immediately replied: “Then we must take her out for lunch and exchange ideas.” I hinted that he needed to get better first. After several inevitable postponements, he declared that we will set a definite date and stick to it: “Let us make it for Monday.”
What a poignant remark, considering the fact that travel arrangements would already have been made by the family for his medical appointment in Florida. He was quite weak at that point. And as it turned out, that was the last time we spoke.
‘Selfless’ is not a word I can get my head around, as to me it implies without self. One must establish self in one’s consciousness to avoid walking into a door post. Similarly, self must be defined when you reach out to help someone else: What I would say about John Alexander Clark Horne is that he was the most unselfish person I have ever known.
He snapped at me once when I crossed a certain delicate line. But that should come as no surprise, since he was not shy to wag a finger at his own prime minister in whose cabinet he served. The latter reference is to a memorable case involving coastal water jurisdiction. He saw such a line being crossed when fundamental principles appeared to be getting at odds with diplomatic expediency, and spoke up with conviction. In my case, avoiding political pitfalls in the state was the cautionary thing to do. So in working on documents with John, I often inserted ‘non-partisan’ where appropriate. “You always say that to me!” he blurted out one day. “Please Stop.” The point was well taken.
You see, you cannot at once hold a person in highest esteem, recognizing him as a model citizen, and harbour doubts about his ability to transcend – to rise above the fray and stay there. In this case, the incident says more about my own frailties than about his.
Now we return to our point of departure: John could not advance his interests at the expense of a poor old man, or poor old woman, or poor child. Instead, he would internalize their plight, and go out of his way to bring relief and empower them.
If asked to summarise the virtues of this incredible Vincentian, I would simply say: The man had Soul.
John Horne’s story is the stuff of which legends are made. May all our people continue to find inspiration in it. And may he forever Rest in Peace.