There isn't another like him in the whole world


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Category: Profiles 09 Jan 11

When asked during an interview to make his own epitaph, President Ellis Clarke responded with—“Upon him was greatness thrust, he bore it well."’ Sunday Guardian March 15, 1987.


At the rotunda of the Red house, where the body of the late Sir Ellis Clarke lay in state the vivid images of the man who was president for 14 years, were incongruous to this sepchular scene before us. I was 17 when I met Sir Ellis. By default. My mother had a migraine. I was replaced as my father’s escort to dinner at Presidents House. In the Holiday Inn, desperately missing my mother, back in Tobago, I tied a sari for myself for the very first time, winding and unwinding the six yards of heavy silk until hearing my father’s impatient knocks I stuffed masses of material in the petticoat and hoped it would work. Reality receded, and a still childish imagination leapt to the occasion from the second we drove into the lush botanic grounds and the imposing Victorian stone facade, with its arched doorways, flaming by chandelier light was revealed. By the time we walked into the drawing room and I glimpsed the red carpeted grand staircase, I was already hearing a tinkling Chopin in my head; when I was introduced to the President, who, resplendent in a dinner jacket and bow tie, warmly took my hand, and his exceedingly kind wife, Lady Ermintrude Clarke in a long blue gown welcomed me, I had entered a party in Scott Fitzgeralds jazz age. I was star struck not so much by Sir Ellis but with poised beauty queen Suzanne Traboulay on his son’s arm.


Bluffed my way through

I bluffed my way through the conversation, and some gentle interrogation from Sir Ellis. Political nuances on world affairs being discussed by diplomats who had gathered on Sir Ellis invitation to say farewell to the Japanese ambassador went over my head and the one glass of wine I had, straight to my head. At the dinner table, Sir Ellis proposed a toast. We stood. It was then, in those short seconds that my world stopped. A waiter offered me some wine. I didn’t take the glass. I could only gesture in the negative with my mouth and eyes as both my hands were holding up my sari which had caught in my unaccustomed heels and was cascading to the floor under the table. I gathered the material with one hand, stood up with the glass. It wasn’t over yet. The ‘victim’ as my father describes him, was an unfortunate British High Commissioner. I tipped the wine onto his plate, and according to my father “flung and launched into the air, a piece of bread that landed in his lap.” My father caught my eye. Disgraced, I sat in stony silence with one hand clutching six yard of untied sari and sent away soup, main course and dessert which I looked at longingly, untouched. The snippets of small talk were the backdrop to my acute discomfiture Sir Ellis twinkled, and in his usual measured velvety tones managed to make me, and everyone at that dinner table feel like they were the only person in the room. It was the after dinner colonial tradition of the men retiring to their cigars while we “ladies” led by Lady Ermintrude Clarke went to a separate sitting room that saved me. Several well meaning women put me and my mother’s sari together again.


The second time I met him was just after he demitted office, as President in his London flat in Knightsbridge. He wanted some time away from Trinidad, he said, to read and think and walk. The rooms, solid and dark, expensively but impersonally furnished bespoke of a recent but intense solitude that settles on people who have retired from high office in public life. He looked better in a party. We talked on the sofa. For some reason he took a dislike to my fellow student from the University of London where I was studying journalism, (a Jewish white South African Oxford graduate, who was taking photos of us.) It was the only time I saw Sir Ellis look unhappy. The third time, more than a decade back, I was asked to do a documentary on him by TV6, It is only in retrospect that I am amazed that he allowed a naive and inexperienced reporter and a cameraman into his home and life for such a sustained period. For a month, I followed him around, to the races, to church, (he was a devout Catholic) in the kitchen where two cases of champagne sat with ease on the kitchen floor) and he showed me how he made his famous Brandy Alexander’s.


He invited his family and grandchildren to lunch so I could interview them, introduced me to his 90 year old aunt in Belmont (who made me weep over the piano over her rendition of ‘Oh Danny Boy’.) He submitted to relentless questioning, and in turn pressed several glasses of Brandy Alexander’s on me, so the month with Sir Ellis segued into an enchanted blur. I learned then, of his closeness with Dr Eric Williams (the weekly lunches of President and Prime Minister after Cabinet on Thursdays) that he was a brilliant constitutional and criminal lawyer, who ‘flirted’ with diplomacy, that his taste for champagne was well developed long before he became President. Being President he said “was a big come down” in salary for him. “When I qualified, others were making 150 a month in private practice, while I was saving 600.” From Father Lai Fook I heard of how Sir Ellis carried crockery, (tea cups!) to a boy scouts camping trip “like he was going to a party;” from Scotty Lewis how he charted the constitution of this country in two weeks, and how his diplomacy helped win many battles from the colonial powers; from his aunt, how he corrected the cooks grammar at age four; from his son Peter, what a doting grandfather he was, and from his wife, Lady Ermintrude who passed away a year later “I sometimes feel there isn’t another like him in the whole world.”


Guilty as charged

And on our last day of shooting: “I am charged with liking pretty women, horse racing, champagne, and I say, guilty as charged. What’s wrong with any of this?” I couldn’t think of a response to a man who combined excellence, unstinting service and celebration of life with equal aplomb. Over the years we saw one another often. He never failed to say, as if that sunny day in London in spring and gold leaves floated through the park decades back, was yesterday. “I didn’t like your boyfriend.” His relationship with everyone was marked by similar intimate motifs. He adored his country and his people. No one was too small or too big for him. Every cliché belongs to him. He really had the common touch, and walked with kings, he was to the manor born, and there isn’t another like him in the whole world. When I think of Sir Ellis, I am always young, it is always spring and he always the President, raising a toast, eyes brim full of suppressed laughter and bubbling beneath, a towering intellect. He was truly the jewel of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago (I see a magnificent statue) and must always be remembered as such.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur