To Sir Selvyn, with love!

Sir Selvyn A Walter, Knight Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of the Nation, KCN. 1936 – 2020 (Photo contributed)
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He will be fondly remembered for his perfectly coiffed afro (see photo), his eloquence and erudition, and his sharp wit and cheeky sense of humour. He was a tall and imposing figure with a roguish charm and a zest and enthusiasm for life. Especially Antiguan life. He was fascinated by our history and culture (an avid collector of Antiguan artefacts and memorabilia), adored steelpan music (he was the founder of the Halcyon Steel Orchestra, along with Sam and Penod Kirby and Melvin Simon in 1972), and had a passion for a betterment here in Antigua and Barbuda. His watchword was, “SPREAD THE WORD AND SWEEP OUT BIRD”), and did he ever!

He administered a good old-fashioned shellacking on Sir V.C. Bird in St John’s Rural West in the 1971 general election that saw the Progressive Labour Movement (PLM) ‘sweep’ to power in a historic landslide. So thorough was the beating meted out by Sir Selvyn that a humiliated Sir Papa V.C. retreated from public life, eventually going off into exile. And yes, he so feared the charismatic Sir Selvyn, that when he decided to run again for political office in 1976, he switched from the St. John’s Rural West constituency to that of St John’s Rural North. Sir Selvyn has the distinction as being the only man ever to have beaten Papa V.C. in an election. Interestingly, one of the young, vibrant, political activists from the Grays Farm/Greenbay community who helped run Sir Selvyn’s successful campaign back then was our former Prime Minister, the Honourable Dr Winston Baldwin Spencer.

As the Minister of Industry, Trade and Commerce, in the PLM administration (1971 -1976), Sir Selvyn set about transforming Antigua from a moribund colonial economy to a vibrant, progressive country with a raft of new ideas and innovations. He was a visionary. Never mind that he was also one given to dancing to the beat of his own drum –  a maverick. It has been said that not even his brother, Premier George Walter, could control him at times.

 He was born in Grays Farm in 1936, and attended the the Antigua Grammar School (AGS). He went on to further his studies at London University and the University of the West Indies (UWI, where he distinguished himself as an athlete and a debater. History records that he and the great Dr Walter Rodney were quite an outstanding debating team. He was also a great teacher at his high school alma mater, and made a name for himself as a journalist with THE DAILY OBSERVER.

Of course, it was only natural that Sir Selvyn would get himself deeply involved in THE DAILY OBSERVER, after all, he was in the business of standing up against the one-man, one-party, one-media ‘Birdism,’ as Tim Hector dubbed it, that held sway in this country for so long. He was in the business of giving a ‘voice to the voiceless’ and ‘shining a light in the dark corners.’ Sir Selvyn, and one of the founders of Observer, Vincent ‘Tubby’ Derrick, were of the same political party and shared the same political philosophy and vision for Antigua and Barbuda. Moreover, another Observer founder, Winston Derrick, and Sir Selvyn were alike in so many ways –  opinionated, brash, and good-natured, with a can-do spirit and a deep and abiding love for this blessed country of ours. They got along swimmingly, from the earliest days of Observer by fax.

One of our current sub-editors here at Observer describes Sir Selvyn as a warm, jovial and fatherly figure who had a keen intellect and a remarkable ability to tell and write a story. She recently spoke of how very well-received were his DIS AND DAT, NOT A DRUM WAS HEARD and the BANK ALLEY TALES columns. This writer became familiar with some of his work by way of that last, and was struck by his excellent command of the English language, his graphic and gripping ability to weave a story, his attention to detail and his wicked wit, especially when describing the events and the follies and foibles of the fascinating characters of yore. For example, in Ole Time Christmas and Antiguan Characters, he describes how Mannie Diggum, Reg Henry and Lindo Wilson, three of the known imbibers in the community, “Joined in the Christmas caroling with the pronounced discord of those who had long lost touch with reality and sobriety,” then suddenly decided to discordantly sing THERE SHALL BE SHOWERS OF BLESSING, “a most uncharacteristic song for Christmas.” Well, Big Foot Baby, the Bank Alley obeah woman had heard all that she could abide, and suddenly opened her door and ejected a container of urine, “with a terrible vehemence and the sound of a nasty splash.”

Sir Selvyn also tells us about the Seventh Day Adventist School at the top of Church Street; of the entrance to the St John’s Police Station being on Market Street; of Archdeacon Branch’s son as the diplomatic Police Commissioner; of the famous Governor Fiennes at the Maucalay Baths on the waterfront in Point; of the Governor shaking Coco Bay Sam’s hand (Coco Bay Sam had supposedly been cured of leprosy); and of how the dead were carried on something called a ‘deadboard’, back in the day. He told us of John J Camacho’s hundred window house on Long Street; and the New Club aka ‘White Man Club’ just west of Government House. He told us of the wonderful festivities with notorious John Bulls like Isaac, Arthur 16 and Pharaoh. He recalled with relish, Teacher Merle, Huff-Me-Huff, Sauce, Mama Lou, Lazarus, Bow-Foot Ida, Nanny Goat, Raymond Chinee Rice, Sammie Haddem, Eddie Deble, and Crappo Gill, whose very monikers told the intriguing story of their lives.  He told us about the wonderful “music coming from the Mocka Jumbie and Jump-A-Ben drums at the rubbish heap in Point, just west of Mariner’s Lane near to a place called ‘Dung Heap.’”

Out of that came our great iron bands. Out of Point, and Sir Selvyn’s community of Grays Farm and Greenbay, came the great steelbands, athletes, pan men and calypsonians. Exceptional businessmen and scholars and teachers. Transformative political movements and activism (See the waterfront workers; see the sugarcane riot of 1918). Charismatic politicians and union representatives. Two prime ministers. Sir Selvyn was enormously proud of his roots, and he was reminding us that the ghettoes are the crucibles of much that is worthy and notable. Out of the teeming ghettoes; out of the deprivation and hardship, can be heard the plaintive cries of the people. Their hopes and fears, their dreams and joys, will find expression in calypso, steelpan, literature, and art.

Clearly, we have lost one of our finest thinkers and historians – a curator of that which made us who we are. Our Managing Director, Algernon ‘Serpent’ Watts, recalls those nights when Sir Selvyn would co-host with him a programme called HISTORY 101. It was a popular and enlightening look at our past, and Sir Selvyn was always in his element. However, one evening, Serpent had to take Sir Selvyn and his loving wife, Kathleen Lady Richardson Walter home, and it was such a long drive, that Serpent felt that it was too much to ask of an ailing Sir Selvyn. Sadly, that show came to an end. As all things must.

We here at NEWSCO wish to extend our heartfelt condolences to our dearest Kathleen Lady Richardson Walter and the entire family. We feel their pain. After all, Sir Selvyn was family. When he died, a piece of us died with him. May he rest in sweet peace.

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