05 December 2005

Welcome to Maxwell's House

This site presents a collection of columns by John Maxwell, a veteran Jamaican journalist and commentator who has covered Caribbean and international affairs for more than 40 years for the Jamaica Gleaner, the BBC, and the Jamaica Sunday Herald. He is currently a columnist for The Jamaica Observer.

In 1999 Maxwell single-handedly thwarted the Jamaican government's efforts to build houses at Hope, the nation's oldest and best known botanical gardens. His campaigning earned him the region's richest journalism prize in the 2000 Sandals Resort's annual Environmental Journalism Competition. He is also the author of How to Make Our Own News: A Primer for Environmentalists and Journalists.

All columns are copyright © John Maxwell.

25 April 2004

Beset by Eddie Seaga, Betrayed by Mutty Perkins

DESMOND ALLEN Interviews John Maxwell

John Maxwell thinks he knows why Edward Seaga never liked him. Fresh from university in the United States, Seaga, feeling his oats, wrote a piece in The Gleaner, analysing why the People's National Party (PNP) had just lost the 1958 Federal (West Indies) elections, and why they would lose the coming general elections in Jamaica. Maxwell, while still working for Evon Blake's monthly Newsday magazine, fired off an article of his own to the Public Opinion, criticising Seaga's analysis as "scientific balderdash". When Seaga replied to that, Maxwell hit back with another entitled "Pseudo-scientific balderdash".

When the PNP won the 1959 general elections by a landslide, Maxwell felt that his own analysis had held true over Seaga's. "He has never forgiven me for those two articles," Maxwell firmly believes. But this was child's play, compared with what was to come 13 years later when he would face an unconquerable Seaga in a bruising electoral battle for the fearsome West Kingston constituency.

If men are born to a destiny that is designed and scripted somewhere in the heavenlies, John Maxwell must have been such. Although he and Seaga had come to prominence from different directions, fate, it seemed, would have it that the paths of the two men be intertwined and cross at intervals over time. In the period leading up to Independence, Maxwell had gained a reputation as a hard-hitting, fearless reporter, after a meteoric rise rarely known in the hard, unsympathetic world of 1950s Jamaican journalism. Never stopping long enough to think of personal material gratification, Maxwell wielded his pen like a mighty sword, in fact mightier than the sword. In the years to come, it would draw blood, not only of Seaga, but of many others. And the name of John Maxwell would be pronounced with either delight or disdain. It seemed as if Maxwell had determined in his heart that he would have no friends in high places.

NW Manley and Seaga's freedom fighters

The approaching Independence provided the grist for Maxwell's mill. It was foreshadowed by the 'no' vote in the 1961 referendum on whether Jamaica should stay or leave the West Indies Federation. Premier Norman Manley, having lost the referendum, promptly called general elections for April 1962. But just before that, in the final days of his premiership, Manley went off to London for constitutional talks. When he was about to return, Maxwell recalls, Seaga sent in a press release to the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC), calling on his "freedom fighters" from West Kingston to meet Manley and give him a warm reception.

Maxwell was acting as chief editor of the JBC. Neither Hector Bernard, then director of news and public affairs nor Peter Aylen, the general manager could be reached. Deciding that the release was an incitement to violence against the premier, Maxwell refused to air it, backing up his decision with advice from the station's lawyers. RJR, on the other hand, decided to run with it. But the JLP was not finished with the matter.

On an otherwise uneventful morning, Maxwell got a phone call from the attorney-general, J Leslie Cundall. The call was made from Bustamante's house. "Cundall put me onto Robert Lightbourne, who in turn put me onto Bustamante, who afterwards put me onto the commissioner of police. All of them told me that there was nothing wrong with the release and it should be published. I continued to refuse and they were clearly very mad with me," Maxwell recounts. "They said I was being PNP." As he had feared, Maxwell continues, when the premier arrived from London, it was to a warm reception indeed. There was "serious disturbance" at the Victoria Pier on the downtown Kingston waterfront. During the melee, Wills O' Isaacs' gun fell out of his pocket, Maxwell recalls.

No, thank you, Mr Wills O' Isaacs

He also found the accusation - that he had spiked the Seaga press release because he was PNP - to be unfortunate. What they didn't know at the time, Maxwell swears, was that a couple of years before, during the so-called Rasta Rebellion of 1959, as acting chief editor, he had declined to air a speech supplied by Wills O' Isaacs who was then acting premier. The speech had called on the people to round up all the Rastafarians they could find. Maxwell declared that it was an incitement to violence and he would not air it. He sought and received the backing of the JBC lawyer, Leacroft Robinson. Wills O' Isaacs hotly called up Norman Manley who was on vacation and complained. Manley phoned Maxwell, wanting to know why he was holding the speech. Maxwell held his ground and informed the premier that even the lawyer had agreed with his assessment of the speech. Manley said okay and that was the end of the matter.

So at 27, Maxwell had already had run-ins with the powers, defying them without a thought for his own well-being. But the stage was now set for his firing from the JBC.

Busta and Eddie were dressed in black

The JLP won the 1962 elections and Seaga was given the broadcasting portfolio. Bustamante led a delegation to London "to hear what was our coming of age present". In his radio commentary, Maxwell remarked that the British had been "exceedingly mean". He wrote: "After making enormous profits out of Jamaica for over 300 years, they have given us Up Park Camp, the defence force headquarters, which they couldn't take with them anyway, as well as enough money to run the country for 11 days!"

The following Monday, Prime Minister Bustamante arrived at the JBC, with Seaga in tow. Both men were dressed in black and were visibly in a dark mood, Maxwell remembers. "As if they were going to a funeral," he says. They went to see Hector Bernard. He had no comfort for them, telling them that he saw nothing wrong with the comment. "That got Hector into hot waters, too," adds Maxwell. The PM then asked for the chairman of the board, L A Henriques, the noted jeweller. Henriques agreed with them that the commentary was a bad thing. Shortly after, Maxwell received a letter of dismissal.

Maxwell's firing sparked uproar. Morris Cargill, who he names as a good friend while he was alive, defended Maxwell in one of his columns for The Gleaner, noting that he did not agree with him, but upholding his right to make the comment. Theodore Sealy, the editor-in-chief, refused to publish the column. "Cargill then informed him that the next column he wrote for the paper would be after the current one was published. So he stopped writing the column for several years. For him, it was a matter of principle," Maxwell reflects.

There was a stay of execution of the dismissal letter. But a few months down the road, the Government axed the entire JBC board and appointed a new general manager in Mickey Hendriks who carried out the dismissal.

The courage of Peter Abrahams

Maxwell threatened to sue, the station settled with him for a sum equivalent to three months' salary and he went home. Jobless now, the fiery journalist had more serious blows to come. In the middle of this mishap, his marriage broke up. The dark clouds gave way to happier events in November that year (1962). O T Fairclough of Public Opinion sought out Maxwell and offered him the job as editor of the weekly paper. Peter Abrahams had earlier left as editor to edit the West Indian Economist published by Eddie Young.

The name of Peter Abrahams evokes huge admiration from Maxwell. It was Abrahams, he says, who polished his journalistic art and from him that he learnt how to be courageous. Abrahams, a South African, had migrated to Jamaica, after long years battling apartheid. It was because of him, Maxwell reveals, that he was one of a very few editors in the world who thought it worthwhile to publish Nelson Mandela's historic speech at his trial for terrorism. Abraham's unique voice would be remembered long after on RJR and he would also become chairman when the station was nationalised in the 1970s.
But for the moment, Public Opinion was struggling under now editor Clyde Hoyte. Fairclough turned to Maxwell to rescue the paper. The three men discussed it and concluded that if something drastic did not happen, City Printery Limited, the publishers of the paper, would sink. Maxwell reported for work in yet another January - January 1, 1963 - in the midst of an uproar in the country, he says.

"The Government was behaving badly. Ministers were involved in punch-ups. I wrote in Public Opinion that they were behaving as if they had won this country in a lottery." His writings were always followed by threats "to do something to me".

The JBC strike

A year later, Maxwell was again in the thick of things. While he was at the JBC, he had mobilised the staff to join the NWU. Wage negotiations were underway when George Lee and Adrian Rodway prepared and aired a story on the talks. Board chairman, K Ivan Levy, father of the Levys of Jamaica Broilers fame, insisted that the board should have been shown the story before it was aired. They were supported by Seaga. Lee, now the first directly elected mayor of the Portmore Municipality, and Rodway were sacked. Their dismissal triggered the famous JBC strike.

Even though Maxwell was now at Public Opinion, his home was the unofficial strike headquarters. The work stoppage dragged on for thee months and seemed about to peter out. The workers were getting desperate. What could they do now? Maxwell, Milton 'Scully' Scott, Hugh Small, the assistant island supervisor of the NWU and Bill Carr, an Englishman who was lecturing at the UWI, knocked heads together. Drawing on the examples of the American civil rights activists, they turned to passive resistance. A plan was drawn up to block Half-Way-Tree and several other major thoroughfares over one weekend. It was decided they would not tell Michael Manley, who was the NWU island supervisor, fearing that his PNP would not sanction the move.

On the Friday morning before the blockade of Half-Way-Tree, the JBC staff decided to protest by lying down in front of the station on South Odeon Avenue. The demonstrators included people like Monica White, Jean Hill (later Barnes and mother of footballer John Barnes), George Lee, Adrian Rodway, Hugh Gentles and Leslie ChinQuee, among others. They were arrested by the police but were released the same day, in time to join the planned blocking of Half-Way-Tree square.

Maxwell says the square was blocked solid, as members of the public joined the protest. As soon as police dragged away some demonstrators, others took their place. The police resorted to tear-gassing the crowd. One shell hit Maxwell in the back and burnt through his shirt but he was not seriously hurt. The crowd panicked and stampeded out of the square. "We regrouped at the housing department and marched three times around Half-Way-Tree, going along Hagley Park to Eastwood Park Road, up South Odeon Avenue and into the square," Maxwell recounts.

Enter Michael Manley

Later Maxwell received a message from Michael Manley who asked if his support was needed. They met at Emerald Road and he explained to Manley why they had not sought his support in the first place. It was agreed that the NWU island supervisor would join them on the next demonstration - the blocking of King Street, the following day, Saturday. It was a big market day and King Street was already packed with shoppers when the marchers arrived. The police, under the command of Owen Stephenson, were waiting in great numbers, Maxwell notes. The marchers, about 12,000 of them with Manley in their midst, carried out their plan to lie down in the roadway.
By Maxwell's account, half of the JLP Government was there to witness the demonstration. He later learnt from Frank Hill that in a flat panic over fears that the protestors were going to attempt to bring down the administration, the Government had brought in the reserves, doubling the army overnight. Only the Public Opinion reported the events. In 1965, under the signature of G Arthur Brown, financial secretary, later governor of the Bank of Jamaica, an ominous circular was sent to civil servants prohibiting government departments from buying Public Opinion or advertising in the paper. No more printing work should go to City Printery Limited. They had gone for Maxwell's jugular by striking at the life-blood of the newspaper for which he worked. Not even a debate initiated by Florizel Glasspole in the Parliament could get the Government to budge.

Press Association, IAPA turn a blind eye

The Jamaica Press Association (JPA) under Sealy, refused to take up the case and Maxwell turned to the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), the United States-based media watchdog body. IAPA was meeting in Montego Bay. Its Jamaica vice-president was S G Fletcher, managing director of the Gleaner Company. Like the JPA (now the PAJ), IAPA declined to take up the case, saying it was not a press freedom issue. Maxwell was utterly disgusted: "So far as I am concerned, IAPA is and was nothing but a capitalist organisation which had nothing to do with press freedom," he charged. This statement would come back to haunt him.

Meantime, Public Opinion could not withstand the Government ban. The paper was bleeding red ink and Maxwell saw the writing on the wall. Beaten but unbowed, he and Fairclough faced the inevitable truth. Maxwell would have to be sacrificed to save the paper and the printery. Once again, the gladiator was thrown out of the arena. At home doing nothing, Maxwell contemplated the years in journalism, the battles fought and won, the controversies, the threats. It had all come down to this moment. But the author of the Maxwell script was not finished with him yet. Fairclough, his heart of gold swelling, and probably feeling that Maxwell was being unfairly punished, went everywhere, begging and borrowing. "He came to my house and presented me with five months' salary, because he did not want anything to happen to me. That kept me alive for a year." Even in recollection, Maxwell was visibly fighting back the tears.

In the world service of the BBC

In August 1966, Michael Manley told Maxwell he had a space for one person to go on a three-month trade union course in Germany and would he be interested? Maxwell said 'yes'. On his way back at the end of the course, he stopped in London and decided to try out for a three-month summer relief job programme run by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). He took the test, came first and was taken on, along with nine or so others. At the end of the programme, the BBC offered Maxwell a permanent job as a copy taster in their External News Department, the world service of the BBC.

The BBC was eventful for, among other things, an apology he received from a white sub-editor who had hurled a racist comment at Maxwell. Later he extracted a small change there too in the way the Vietnam War was being covered. Maxwell noticed that the Americans were regularly reporting high body counts from a certain Vietnamese province. When he did the math, Maxwell realised that if the Americans were telling the truth, the province should have long ago been de-populated. He pointed this out to the BBC editor-in-chief, David Williams, who agreed that the American claims were mere propaganda and promptly dropped the body counts from the news reports. And Maxwell was soon promoted to senior sub-editor.

London had its special moments. When the JLP Government banned Walter Rodney during the 1968 black power activities at the University of the West Indies, Maxwell, along with Trevor Munroe, Barry Reckord, Dwight Whylie and Selma James, wife of the Trinidadian author, C L R James, led a demonstration to the Jamaican High Commission in the British capital. They were arrested by police and later released.

Who will face Seaga?

This was 1969. He had been at the BBC for four years but Jamaica still stirred in Maxwell's blood. The next year, he took his six-week vacation and came home, with his girlfriend, Mary Kohler. During lunch with Michael Manley and his fiancée, Beverley Anderson, Maxwell was told that the PNP did not have anybody to run in the impending general elections in Western Kingston where Seaga appeared impregnable. Maxwell, half-jokingly, said he would run. Manley said "yes, please".

Another significant thing happened. Sealy also invited them to lunch and told Maxwell he'd like him to succeed him as editor-in-chief of The Gleaner. This nearly shocked the daylights out of Maxwell. He had not seen it coming. Sealy threw in an offer to give him a car and driver for him to travel around the country to re-familiarise himself with Jamaica for six months before taking up the desk job. He would pay him more than he was getting at the BBC. Maxwell liked the offer. But what about people like Ulric Simmonds and Ken Allen who surely were qualified? he asked. Sealy insisted he wanted the man he liked to refer to as "that turbulent journalist". S G Fletcher needed, however, to sign off on the offer.

"Aren't you a socialist?" the Gleaner managing director asked Maxwell at the interview. The reply was 'yes'. Maxwell saw that Fletcher had also remembered how he cursed off the IAPA a few years back. "I have to get back to Mr Sealy and he'll contact you," the Gleaner boss said, concluding the interview. Sealy never contacted Maxwell and he could not reach Sealy. Maxwell ended his vacation and went back to London.

Run John, Run!

Back in England, in his nice two-bedroom flat in Islington and his cushy BBC job, Maxwell mentally rehashed the events of the past six weeks and wondered what he had gotten himself into by volunteering to run against Seaga. Nobody would take his offer seriously anyway. He was wrong. Several months later, Michael Manley was on the line. "They had still not gotten anybody to contest West Kingston. Everybody was afraid. They needed me to run. Again, I said 'I'll do it'."

On March 1, 1971, Maxwell was back in Jamaica with Mary, his wife. The PNP expected the elections to be held during that year. Maxwell set up a constituency office upstairs a place called Maxwell's Bar (no known relations) at Oxford and Beeston streets. West Kingston was ghetto country. The constituency had become what they like to call today a garrison. Nobody seriously expected Maxwell to win. He'd be lucky if he could retain his deposit. The JLP unwittingly set the election date for February 29, 1972, a leap year and the birthday of Edna Manley, Michael Manley's mother.

'Joshua' and the rod of correction

Maxwell says the office was attacked several times and at least one campaign meeting was shot up. On election day, Seaga and a group of his supporters massed in front of his office to face him down. When the votes were tallied, Maxwell was, predictably, blown out of the water. But he laughs heartily now when he recalls that while Seaga had gotten more than 100 per cent of the votes in some Tivoli boxes, "John Maxwell got all five votes in the East Street box".

But the PNP had won by a landslide under the charismatic Michael 'Joshua' Manley, who had mystified the campaign mass meetings and the country with a "rod of correction", a promise that "Better must come" and an insignia that "The word is love".

After the elections, Maxwell again went into a slump. He was editing the PNP paper called the New Nation but that wasn't doing very well, and he wasn't being paid much, when he was paid at all. Then Dwight Whylie, who was by then general manager of the JBC, invited him to do some work for the station. Maxwell came up with a television current affairs programme named Press Conference which was later renamed Firing Line. A panel of journalists would ask questions of a newsmaker guest, under the guidance of a moderator. Maxwell easily dominated with his tough line of questioning. He didn't know it yet, but the programme would cost him his friendship with Wilmot 'Mutty' Perkins.

Why O Mutty, why?

The moderator at the time was deemed to be a poor one and Maxwell suggested to Whylie that Perkins be invited to take over the programme. Whylie agreed and Perkins accepted. Maxwell claims that on his first night on the show, Mutty refused to allow him to ask any questions. Here he was, the star of the show and the moderator, a friend whom he had recommended, was doing everything to block him. He couldn't understand it! After 45 fruitless minutes of trying to get in his questions, Maxwell stormed off the show, cursing the day he thought of suggesting Mutty for moderator. From then on, things have never been the same between the two.

And alas! We're running out of space. A newspaper is no substitute for a book and the John Maxwell story is vast. We'll therefore have to fast-forward a bit now - to the birth of Public Eye, the father of the modern talk shows, and for which he is perhaps best known.

The Public Eye

In 1974, Hector Bernard went to Maxwell, saying he had an idea for an afternoon talk show that should be news-based, and he wanted him to design something. Maxwell came up with the Public Eye, which first aired on February 4 that year. It wasn't long before the programme became the most listened and the highest earner for the station. What started it off was a discussion with Gillian Munroe, wife of Trevor Munroe, and Rosina Wiltshire, who had done a study on the working conditions of domestic helpers. What they found shamed Jamaica: sexual assaults, beatings, modern day slavery and other horrors. Maxwell then invited helpers to call and called they did. It was like a firestorm, he remembers. Their stories of shame had people glued to Public Eye. Only RJR's soap, Dulcimena surpassed his listenership which, at one point, was a whopping 64 per cent.

Fired from the JBC.again

The programme never looked back. Maxwell's reputation as an acerbic, penetrating and opinionated journalist cemented. He suffered no fool gladly, cutting off callers with a dismissive "rubbish". He took on causes, like police brutality, better conditions for workers, helpers and the voiceless. He never stopped until he had whipped up enough mass support to free Michael Bernard off Death Row for a murder he had not committed. But the Public Eye era too would end in his firing when a dispute with General Manager Whylie came to a head. Manley was angered by the dismissal but said he would not interfere in the affairs of the JBC, and Maxwell was out.

Out in the cold once more, he wrote speeches for Manley and chaired several of the state environmental agencies, notably the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA), forerunner to the National Environment and Planning Agency.

In 1979, he went back to the JBC as head of current affairs under the affable Wycliffe Bennett, and from there, with Franklin McDonald of the fledgling Office of Disaster Preparedness and Richard Thelwell, his cousin who ran the Natural Resources Conservation Department, masterminded the first mass evacuation of people from Portmore as Hurricane Allen powered towards the island in 1980. Then came the 1980 general elections. Maxwell was declared an "apparatchik of the PNP".

Seaga becomes prime minister

On election night, October 30, Maxwell was sweating like a pig on television. People said this was because his party was losing and some said he bawled down the place. He has no recollection of him crying and says he was sweating profusely because the air conditioning unit was out and the studio was packed with people. What he remembers saying was that "Mr Seaga is now my prime minister and I will give him the respect I have given every prime minister". Four days later, he received a letter of termination from the JBC.

But the Maxwell-Seaga saga had a happy ending of sorts. While at the NRCA, Maxwell had gotten the Government to agree to declare the entire Jamaica a watershed, meaning that no trees or forests should be burnt without state permission. The Ministerial Order was made but remained unsigned and was overtaken by the elections. When Seaga took over, he signed the Order. "At long last we had done something together for Jamaica," Maxwell says with deep satisfaction.

The 1980s would be tough. His wife, Mary left him and returned to England with their two children - Matthew, who is now director of a small corporate communication company, and Katy, a film animator. Maxwell gave up drinking, having concluded that "I had done enough for the industry" and now contemplates hexing the cigarette demon. Since 1991, Maxwell is to be found lecturing in ethics and legal issues in journalism at the Caribbean Institute of Media and Communication (Carimac) where he met the beautiful Dutch woman, Dr Marjan deBruin. She later became director of the institute, succeeding Professor Aggrey Brown. He treasures the Sandals Eco-Journalism award which he beat out the young journalistic Turks to get in 2002, at age 68. And he writes, as if his life depended on it, a compellingly vexatious weekly column, Common Sense, in the Sunday Observer. Above all, he remains the social activist he has been all his life.

So how will future men speak John Maxwell's name? Will they remember him for the unyielding commitment to personal integrity and the iron will that faced down prime ministers and men of the high order? Eli Matalon, the former PNP security minister, clearly driven to distraction, once described him as "an over-educated Rasta".

Or will he be known for a lifetime of devotion to a penniless craft whose only nobility might be that it watches fiercely over democracy and free expression? He can't retire yet, he says, because he can't afford to. Will they say that he gave hope to thousands of powerless domestic helpers - many slaving away in shameless households - by inspiring a national minimum wage? Surely, they won't forget his feistiness and aggression in the pursuit of his own truths. It really won't matter what they say. What is important is that they will speak the name of this John William Maxwell.

18 April 2004

A Gladiator Wielding a Merciless Pen

DESMOND ALLEN interviews John Maxwell

As a Gleaner reporter-in-training more than 25 years ago, I was verily warned by Wilmot Perkins to be careful of John Maxwell. Writing in the Jamaica Daily News at the time, Maxwell commended me on a position I had taken in a column in the North Street paper. He clearly did not expect the newspaper to publish the column, and he hoped that I was not a mere "flash in the pan". Perkins, who was also a columnist, writing for The Gleaner, cautioned me not to start feeling flattered yet. "Coming from John Maxwell, that could be the kiss of death," Mutty pronounced in a solemn tone, then broke out immediately into the now famous guffaw.

Then there was this obviously exasperated letter-writer, clearly at the end of his tether, who wrote to the editor asking: "Why can't Smirnoff leave John Maxwell breathless?" - a moment of temporary insanity but also a clever use of a line in a long-running Smirnoff vodka commercial. The Maxwell columns could do that to you.

The awesome spectre of John Maxwell has loomed large and impressive over Jamaican journalism, and every practising journalist under the age of 65, which is almost everybody currently in the profession, has grown up in the shadow of this enigma. Admirers and detractors alike have long run out of adjectives to describe him: enfant terrible, rebel without a cause, disgusting, cantankerous would be among some of the more unflattering terms that he shakes off as if it were water off a duck's back. But young reporters know that he is the journalist's journalist, someone the university people would describe as the quintessential journalist.

Who can adequately tell the John Maxwell story? Short of the voluminous book itself - which must come, and come soon if Jamaican journalism is worth anything - that story was never going to be easily written. His is a journey that meanders through an unending series of colourful, often controversial anecdotes, pregnant with historical significance. He is trenchant. Fearful of no one. Fully armed and suited up to do battle at the drop of a hat. A type of gladiator wielding a merciless pen. And he makes for good copy. That is why every talk show on Jamaican radio instinctively reaches for him.

John William Maxwell, if anyone, was born with that infernal ink in his blood. He entered journalism on the eve of Independence and has witnessed and influenced the changing fortunes of the profession since. And now, a half century of hard-fought experience later, this journalistic iconoclast is aptly shaping young minds at the Caribbean Institute of Media and Communication (Carimac). He'll leave his indelible trademark, for good or bad, on the future of journalism. We'll see how well we can tell this enthralling story over this week and the next.

Born into contention

Could it have been mere coincidence that John Maxwell was born in the very house at Duncans, Trelawny which slaves a century or so before had lovingly built for the Baptist missionary, William Knibb, after the anti-abolitionist planters had burnt his home to the ground? The house, he laments, is now a photo studio and a hairdressing parlour. But it might have been destiny, too, that he was born into a family of politicians. His father was a Baptist pastor and politician; and two maternal uncles were (JLP) members of the House of Representatives (MHRs).

At the time of his birth, on May 20, 1934, his father, John William Maxwell Sr, was going through a contentious period of his life. He had successfully challenged the sitting member of the Legislative Council, Guy Ewen, a grand-uncle of John Pringle, and became the first black to win a seat on the council. Ewen furiously contested the results on grounds that Rev Maxwell did not pay enough taxes and so was not qualified to sit on the council.

Maxwell Sr was represented by J A G Smith Sr. Ewen was easily over-represented by the barrister of them all, Norman Manley, later to become premier and national hero. Maxwell Sr lost the case and his seat after a long trial, but during the hearing he had formed a lasting admiration for Manley, so much so that he wanted his son to become a lawyer. Young John, not yet a year old, was taken by his mother to court every day. Rev Maxwell ran again in 1935, and won again, beating two opponents who both lost their deposit.

The Calabar years

Maxwell Jr, at eight years old, was sent to the renowned Mrs J J Iris Simpson at Claremont, St Ann to be schooled. From her, he got a rounded education, learning things like Latin, French and Algebra, he recalls. He won two scholarships and went to Calabar High School, his father's choice. His mother, Zelma Thelwell, had preferred Jamaica College (JC). Calabar, started by the Baptists, was located at Slipe Pen Road in Kingston and Maxwell became a boarder.

His father died some years later while his mother was away in the United States, training as one of Jamaica's first fashion designers. He was sent to live with his uncle, Hugh Cork, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) MHR for south Clarendon. On his uncle's farm, Maxwell grew up as a regular farm boy, tilling the soil, milking cows, keeping bees and the like. "My cousin and I ploughed land behind two massive steers," he relates with a mischievous chuckle. "I think that is where my connection with the land comes from."

He continued his schooling at Calabar, recalling that those were pleasant years. He remembers people with famous names today - like P J Patterson, Frank Phipps, Lloyd Barnett, Marcus Garvey Jnr, Carlos Malcolm (memorable for being "the first boy with whom I had a fight and we later became great friends"), Simon Clarke and, of course, Wilmot Perkins, among others. Hector Wynter and Neville Dawes were among his teachers there.

Numerous fights at JC

But his mother now decided she would transfer him to JC, a decision which "upset me to no end", especially because he had to revert to fourth form, considering that he had already completed fifth form at C'bar. At JC, he got into numerous fights, Maxwell admits without any visible sign of remorse. They thought his head was "too big" and he knew all sorts of things and had a reputation for being very bright. He didn't think JC was intellectual at all.

Maxwell recounts: "JC was a very prejudiced school at the time. It was attended by largely white and near white people and rich people 'pickney'. So I kept busy. They tried to bully me because I was smaller than other people in my form. My problem was that I refused to be bullied and I fought back, so I was always getting into fights. I was a bad example for the other small boys because they started to fight back too."

After he passed the Cambridge School Certificate, Maxwell continues, the JC principal, H C Chambers informed his mother that JC had no further use for him and the scholarship was being discontinued. So Maxwell, six months short of his 17th birthday, had to go seek his first job, landing one on January 29, 1951 at the Jamaica Telephone Company (now Cable and Wireless). He left the company at the upshot of a quarrel over a promised 10-shilling pay raise that did not materialise.

Beginning of an odyssey - The Gleaner

Exactly one year later - January 29, 1952 - Maxwell stepped through the doors of the Gleaner Company to begin an odyssey and a love affair with the written word. Like many before and after him, he had responded to an ad in the newspaper, inviting persons to apply to become trainee reporters. "It was an invitation to slave labour - long hours, low pay," he now reflects. The day he turned up for the required test, he was accosted by the feared editor, Theodore Sealy, who bellowed: 'Boy, don't you have a jacket?' I said 'Yes sir'. He said 'Go back home and put it on and come back here'. So I did."

Maxwell got the job, along with four others, including Ken Allen who, in time, would become editor-in-chief. He speaks highly of Allen, noting that he had earned his (Maxwell's) respect by refusing to give in to The Gleaner's demand that he quit a degree programme in journalism at the Columbia University in the United States and come home.

In keeping with the newspaper's vaunted on-the-job training programme, Maxwell was first dispatched to the proof-reading department and later to accompany the court reporters on their assignments. Then he was assigned to Hector Bernard, the farm editor who, until his death in 2003, eventually emerged as a colossus of his time. Maxwell is respectful as he pays tribute to Bernard, now deceased:
"He took me around everywhere he went, introduced me to every contact he had. He was the most generous person I had ever known as a journalist. Because he wasn't afraid that he was equipping somebody to take over his job, which is precisely what he was doing. He considered himself a gentleman. He was a damn hard-working gentleman. Like my father, his approach was to send me to find out."

Mentoring was a feature of their time. Vic Reid and Ferdie Williams, senior sub-editors, thought Maxwell was bright and took him under their wings. Calvin Bowen, the first editor of the Star, was also quite helpful to him in those early days. Soon, his news stories were hitting the front pages and his work caught Sealy's attention. Within three months of joining The Gleaner, Maxwell was made shipping reporter, after the sacking of the reporter who had the beat, thereby becoming a staff reporter before he was 18. That he was Sealy's blue-eyed boy sparked jealousy in the newsroom. People thought Sealy was using Maxwell's productivity to show them up. And he was being paid more.

Walking out on The Gleaner

In one of the memorable moments at The Gleaner, the paper received a cable from England saying that a Jamaican had won £25,000 (about J$25 million today, he says) first prize in the Irish Sweepstakes. Could they find this person and do a story? Maxwell was assigned by Sealy. There was no driver available, so the editor himself decided to take Maxwell in search of the prize-winner, going through places like Love Lane, the downtown Kingston red-light district; Newland Town, now known as Rema; Rose Town and adjoining communities. He was now on foot, Sealy tracking him in his Anglia motorcar. Irony of ironies, they learned eventually that the prize-winner was languishing in a debtor's jail in Spanish Town, St Catherine.

Throughout all this, Sealy was impressed with the way young Maxwell had acquitted himself and assigned him to reorganise the reference department, known as the morgue, to make it more user-friendly. This was January 1954. Sealy had noticed that he used to frequent the department, loving to read up on assorted issues and events. But this seeming promotion was to be the beginning of the end.

Bright and early the next Monday morning, Maxwell, assuming that Sealy had informed the head of the department, a man they called Bi Bi Barton, vigorously went about reorganising the reference room, throwing out stuff, undoing mesh-wired bookcases which he thought kept people away from the books anyhow, unscrewing doors and cleaning out mounds of dust. Barton was livid. All this in his department and no one had told him! He charged into Sealy's office and complained bitterly about what Maxwell was doing.

As Maxwell came off the streets one day from covering his shipping beat, Sealy was waiting for him: "I wasn't even allowed to sit. He just launched an attack on me. What the devil did I think I was doing. and Mr Barton is extremely upset!" All this took place in full view of the entire editorial department. Maxwell was flabbergasted. "And I was goddamned angry because I could not understand what was happening to me. After all, he himself had assigned me. I didn't say a word to him. You know a man like this was practically god. When he was finished with me, I went to my desk and wrote two stories from the beat. Then I wrote a letter of resignation, put it on his desk and went home."

Public Opinion

The next day, his mother reported that while Maxwell was out with his stepfather, Winston Lynch, driving a bulldozer in the hills above Ocho Rios, Sealy had phoned three times, sent a telegram and a letter he wrote himself, wanting to know what he was doing leaving The Gleaner, and ordering him back to work. Still smarting from the tirade of the day before, he refused to respond to Sealy. And Public Opinion, the weekly paper known for its ties to the People's National Party (PNP), was waiting.
O T Fairclough, the managing director, bettered the salary he was getting at The Gleaner. Vic Reid by then was the editor, and he knew Maxwell's work. "At the Public Opinion I made a sport out of scooping The Gleaner," he says with a wicked grin. There, too, he wrote his first environment story, not knowing then that he would become, some 30 years later, an activist of sorts. It was about the awful dust generated by the cement company, 14 tons of dust dispersed into the air every day, he recalls. Yet the company had made a profit on its operations in the first year. The paper led a campaign to get the cement company to lower cement prices and to end the dust menace.

In 1955, he got into many controversies over the stories he was writing. For one of those stories, the paper had received information from an Englishman, Don Ludlow, who worked for the Daily Express out of London: that travel agents in Jamaica were taking land from would-be immigrants in exchange for a ticket to Britain. Ludlow wanted a local angle. Maxwell, pretending to be an immigrant, went to several travel agencies and ended up with a big story confirming the information from Ludlow. The story hit the front page of the Daily Express and in Jamaica, where all hell broke loose, Maxwell relates.

Bustamante and the Judas Island story

He also recalls an incident in which the JLP leader, Alexander Bustamante, chased him and Ludlow from his presence. It was election day. Ludlow had come to Jamaica to cover the elections and wanted to interview Bustamante. Maxwell found out that the JLP leader would be monitoring the election results from a home in Clarendon and he took Ludlow there. As the results showed that the JLP would lose to Norman Manley's PNP, a furious Bustamante declared that this was "Judas Island" and "said some very nasty things about his people", claims Maxwell.

While they were there, Percy Trotman, who had also been very helpful to Maxwell at The Gleaner, came by the house. He was the news editor at the time and "the best news editor I had ever seen". Gladys Longbridge, later to marry Bustamante and become Lady Bustamante, asked Trotman about Maxwell who had only introduced himself as a stringer for the British Evening News. Trotman told her he was John Maxwell of the Public Opinion and she related it to Bustamante who let loose on him and chased him and Ludlow out of the house. Maxwell went back to his office and wrote the now famous "This is Judas Island" story. It created all sorts of fuss in England, Jamaica having been a favourite haunt of Lord Beaverbrook, the owner of the Express and who had a house at Fairfield near Montego Bay. That, of course, added to Maxwell's notoriety.

Establishing the Jamaica Union of Journalists

He moved on from the Public Opinion when Robert Lightbourne, then in charge of the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), later the JIDC and eventually Jampro, met Maxwell at a press conference, was impressed by his tough questioning and invited him to see him afterwards. "He said 'I don't have time for small talk. I need a PR officer and I want you to come and work for me. What is Public Opinion paying you?' I told him and he said 'I'll double that'. He wanted me to start immediately and I said I had to give notice. 'I'll call Fairclough,' he responded." Fairclough told Maxwell he could not match the offer and they parted amicably.

At the IDC, Maxwell virtually created a job for himself, as he had found only a desk and chair awaiting him. Nobody had been told what he should do and Lightbourne was away most of the time.

Although Maxwell was not in mainstream media, while still at the IDC in 1956, he started to sell the idea of a media-wide Jamaica Union of Journalists (JUJ) with guys like Terry Smith and Nash Herbert. He thought it should be run by working journalists and so did not take an executive position in the union, although he was on the board. Four of the key officers were employed by The Gleaner, which Maxwell describes as decidedly anti-union then: Aimee Webster-Delisser was president; Wilmot Perkins, vice-president; Frank Hill, vice-president, Alvin Wint, secretary; and Dudley Byfield, assistant secretary.

Maxwell claims that The Gleaner set out immediately to ruin the union. It re-established a western bureau in Montego Bay and sent Wint into "exile" there. Byfield was dispatched to a hastily created mid-island bureau in Mandeville, and Perkins flung to a newly invented eastern Jamaica bureau in Morant Bay. As for Webster-Delisser, "nobody could send her anywhere, that is why we made her president. because she was an independent woman, a member of the upper classes".

Buddies together with Mutty Perkins

Perkins, with whom Maxwell has exchanged prickly verbal barbs over the years, was not of much importance to the union, Maxwell offers. The two men had been buddies at one time. Not just buddies. Very good buddies. John was Perkins' best man at his wedding and Mutty, in turn, acted as give-away father for Maxwell's bride at his first marriage. Maxwell says he also helped to get Mutty a job on three occasions - at The Gleaner, Public Opinion and the JBC. Next week, we'll look at the circumstances leading to their falling-out.

Despite the Gleaner's efforts, the JUJ was registered and affiliated to the National Workers' Union (NWU), itself an affiliate of the PNP. The newspaper issued a statement saying it could not recognise the union because of its (Gleaner's) solos position as a daily newspaper. That provoked Manley and Florizel Glasspole into declaring that they were going to pass a law for the compulsory recognition of trade unions. Almost 20 years later, under Manley's son, Michael, the Labour Relations and Industrial Disputes Act 1975, came into being.

"The Gleaner also claimed that no journalist affiliated to a union which was affiliated to a political party could possibly be impartial. Yet, the chairman of The Gleaner, Sir Neville Ashenheim, talking about solos position, was the chairman of the JLP," Maxwell sneers.

But back at the IDC, Maxwell's stay after three years came to end when Premier Norman Manley fired Lightbourne. It was claimed that Lightbourne had promised an investor that if workers took industrial action he could close down the business without paying compensation. A fuming Isaac Barrant had complained to Manley, who summoned Lightbourne and when he confirmed the claim, fired him on the spot and replaced him with Vernon Arnett. Lightbourne would later become a famed minister of industry under a future JLP government.

Covering the Kendal Crash

This was now 1957. Out of a job, Maxwell went back to Public Opinion, in time to cover the celebrated Kendal Crash in Manchester. Peter Abrahams was the editor then. The crash was known as the worst rail disaster in this part of the world. Over 200 people were killed when the train derailed. Maxwell's story, carried by the Evening News in England, was a world scoop. It appeared in London before it was carried locally by RJR, which was largely dependent on The Gleaner for its news, he boasts.

Maxwell has graphic memories of the horrifying carnage: "Human bodies were piled high, stacked like cordwood in a Manchester school yard. There were bits and pieces of limbs everywhere. The train had ended up in a yam field. I remember all those shoes. those children's shoes," he shudders even now. "In the yam field I almost bumped into what seemed to be a small mound. It was the severed head of a woman."

His coverage of the Kendal train crash brought Evon Blake running after him. Blake, whose Spotlight news magazine had folded, had started another called Newsday, a monthly which Maxwell likened to Time magazine. He took the job. Vic Reid was there as a senior associate editor, so was Leigh Richardson, a former prime minister of Belize. While at Newsday, he and Barbara Goodison, now Gloudon of Gleaner fame, won US State Department three-month scholarships to pursue journalism in the United States.

JBC at the dawn of patriotism

About the same time, Manley decided to establish the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC). He hired Peter Aylem out of Canada to carry out the project. Aylem hired Hector Bernard, who then recommended that Maxwell be taken on. According to Maxwell, when Blake found out that he was being approached by the JBC, he fired him. As the scholarship was dependent on him having a job, the JBC had to hire him earlier than planned so that he could go to the US. He returned to the JBC and started there in 1959.

Maxwell used to frequent the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies to hang out with a gang of "thinkers and drinkers" like Derek Walcott, the poet. In 1956, he met and fell in love with Marina Archbald-Chrichlow, a Trinidadian girl studying on campus. Three years later, they tied the knot, becoming the first couple to be married in the University Chapel. From the union came a daughter, Leah, who now lives in Washington D.C.

The JBC years were special for Maxwell. This was 1960. It was the dawn of a new patriotism. Among the other notables there were J C Proute, a Barbadian, and Lance Evans. For them, it was a dream they could only whisper. So fragile was it that anything more than a whisper and it could vanish. "The whole thing ignited us. Everybody was on fire for this new Jamaican radio," he says.

Many exciting things happened there, Maxwell recounts. One was the coverage of the crash of the Avianca, Colombian airline at the Montego Bay airport. The airport was closed and no one could go down there. M G Robinson, chief operator and Cliff Jennings, chief maintenance engineer, were the engineers on duty, under the supervision of Gordon Stewart Sr, father of the business tycoon fondly referred to as "Butch" Stewart.

They rigged up a contraption connecting a microphone to the telephone. With the advance of technology, that is taken for granted today. From Kingston, Maxwell phoned a customs officer at the airport and asked him if he could see the crash from where he was. The officer said 'yes'. He interviewed him and gave Jamaica one of its most dramatic and sensational stories. "He was the perfect witness," Maxwell says of the officer whose name he could not immediately recall. He shared credit for that story with a Trinidadian named Randolph Rawlings.

The story established JBC as a station to reckon with and RJR had to play catch up, moving after that to set up a newsroom, in order to compete with the JBC. At the same time, the JBC was making its mark in the area of production, and creating stars like Louise Bennett, Ranny Williams and Charles Hyatt, who were becoming household names. "All of a sudden, people knew Jamaicans and they knew Jamaican music - Sonny Bradshaw, Carlos Malcolm." Maxwell produced a daily commentary called Progress Report discussing industrial and financial matters, sponsored by the Matalon companies; and a weekly one titled The Week in Perspective.

Political Independence beckons

Around this time, Jamaica was ablaze with talk of political Independence. Jamaicans had caught a vision of their own becoming leaders in their own land and charting their own destiny. Maxwell had, up to now, been fully consumed in reporting Jamaica to itself. He had lived a very eventful life as an ace reporter. And he was not yet 30. With the dawn of Independence, a new Jamaica would emerge. Maxwell had a ringside seat as this new history was about to unfold. It would be a time of change and challenge, but he was determined he would not be a mere spectator to that change. Marshalling all the experiences he had garnered, his pen sharpened, poised and at the ready, Maxwell now fixed his gaze firmly towards the uncharted waters of the new Jamaica.