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.