Eyes left

Jeremy Taylor on Tim Hector: A Caribbean Radical’s Story, by Paul Buhle

Tim Hector (standing, centre) with members of the Afro-Caribbean Movement, 1968

Tim Hector: A Caribbean Radical’s Story, by Paul Buhle (University Press of Mississippi, ISBN 1-57806-851-7, 272 pp)

 

Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada in 1983 went rather better than George Bush’s invasion of Iraq twenty years later. Reagan’s target was an island all of twenty miles long, with a population of less than one hundred thousand already traumatised by a genuine emergency. There was a clear and visible enemy: communists, Cubans, Russian advisers, some fellow called General Austin. And the enemy came out and fought, unlike the bomb-and-run critters of Baghdad.

But Reagan’s little victory did more than thrash the commies and revive a taste for invasion. It effectively shattered the Caribbean Left, such as it was. By the time the Soviet Union crumbled, those in the Caribbean for whom the term “Left” still meant something had learned to keep their heads below the parapet for good.

One of the very few exceptions was Tim Hector in Antigua. A disciple of C.L.R. James, he believed in people’s empowerment, pan-Africanism, federation, and a host of other lost causes. As late as 2001, he was writing excitedly from a conference in Havana about reparations for slavery, the Caribbean as a Zone of Peace, and the anti-globalisation movement as a rising unmatched since the Crusades.

Those who knew Hector (1942–2002), or read his crusading Outlet newspaper, knew he was a good and decent man, a Caribbean man in the best sense. Courageous, insatiably curious, a man who seemed to know everyone, as enthusiastic about cricket as about politics; a lifelong dissenter and an instinctive campaigner; a man who came back home instead of building a safe career “away”. He was “the best prime minister Antigua never had”. He was also a romantic and an idealist, and paid dearly for his beliefs: “fired, jailed, his wife murdered and his press torched”, as Paul Buhle puts it.

There is a wonderful story here waiting to be told, a deeply human and Caribbean story delving into politics, history, society, and identity.

But Buhle bungles it.

To be fair, he issues a warning to readers foolishly expecting an actual biography of Tim Hector. “A day-to-day accounting of Tim Hector’s life or of politics in Antigua” is not the intention, he writes in his introduction. He makes it sound as if this sort of basic research is really beneath the dignity of a biographer. “That would take an extensive oral history as well as pursuit in various archives unavailable to me.” In other words, the essential legwork for a biography has not been done. “Rather, it is the political and cultural world of the Caribbean and beyond through Tim Hector’s eyes, as close as I can attempt this daunting feat.”

The book turns out to be a history of the Caribbean Left as construed by a leftist American academic. There is not much about Tim Hector in it, and certainly nothing new.

Paul Buhle is the “authorised biographer” of C.L.R. James; he describes in his introduction to Tim Hector how he offered to complete a memoir that James had started and abandoned. He admits that the result was “desperately hurried” and “based on available sources, interviews, phone calls, and an extended visit with James”. He did not interview any “old-timers or devotees” except George Lamming, and did not find “a way to track James’s fast-disappearing British friends of the 1930s”.

“Desperately hurried” research and scholarship seem to affect Tim Hector too. It might explain the factual errors, the sloppy writing, and the deception in presenting political history as authentic biography. Buhle teaches history and “American civilisation” at Brown University, and is a prolific author; notwithstanding the pressure on American academics to publish, he might be wise to publish less and research more.

Tim Hector himself is eulogised in the introduction, during which Buhle stresses his personal connection with and admiration for his subject and the many years of work they had planned to do together. After that, Hector does not make a personal appearance until page 95, when a brief ten pages record some childhood data and pack him off to Canada to study.

He then disappears again until page 135: the influence of C.L.R. James is established and Hector suddenly drops out of graduate school and returns to Antigua, presumably to put theory into practice. Thereafter he drifts into the narrative from time to time, a name attached to an opinion or a quote, while Buhle retells the story of leftist travails in Guyana, Trinidad, Antigua, Jamaica, and Grenada.

On the last page of Buhle’s text, Hector is quoted as saying “I want to be remembered as a human being”. Yet that is precisely what is missing: the book offers no sense of Tim Hector as a human being, as a warm-hearted, hot-headed Antiguan man. He merely embodies a political idea. Buhle’s interest is in broad-brush political history and Marxist theory: Hector is useful as a radical abstraction, but that is all. The heart condition that killed him merits a single sentence. So does the fact that he remarried after his wife’s murder and had four more children; so does his “forty-year habit of heavy smoking”.

Buhle mentions in passing that Hector raised Libyan money for sports administration in the Caribbean, and organised a “Caricom bail-out for the most distressed nations”, matters any biographer would want to explore. But they too are simply noted (“a large accomplishment”) as Buhle rushes by.

What about Hector’s illness? His controversial climbing into bed with Baldwin Spencer and Antigua’s United Progressive Party (UPP), his appointment to and firing from the Senate? What about the arrests, the jailing, the gruesome murder of his wife Arah, the night the Outlet’s press was torched — doesn’t Buhle feel the need to tell a human story here?
Sorry, no. A sentence or two at best. Dry as old bones.

Tim Hector reads as if it has been worked up from lecture notes (Caribbean Radicalism 101: The Vanguard Party From Hispaniola to Hector), to add another title to an academic’s list of publications. Signs of haste are everywhere. Names like Kambon, Girvan, Beckles, Marryshow, Chaguaramas, are all spelt wrong; the year of Walter Rodney’s murder on page 153 is wrong; Buhle claims that US troops were brought into Trinidad in 1970 to save Eric Williams, and says that year’s upheavals still puzzle scholars —?which ones can he have talked to? He even seems to suggest that Antigua invented the steel pan. The prose is flat and cliché-ridden. One of my favourite sentences is “Antigua saw a Queen’s Privy judgement against Antigua’s Public Order Act”, which manages to raise mere inelegance to the level of scatalogy.

A biography has to be concerned with the humanness of its subject. This book is not what it claims to be; it lacks the human curiosity and empathy (not to mention the information) essential to biography. And it manages to make Tim Hector, of all people, boring. Which is unforgivable.

 

Reproduced with permission from the Caribbean Review of Books (CRB), November 2006. Copyright Media & Editorial Projects Ltd (MEP) and the CRB.