I got my first job offer in Queen’s Park one December afternoon a few days after Christmas in 1958.
With three other sons to feed and clothe, my mother and my aunt “over in away” in Harlem, could take me no further than fifth form with the weight of those quarterly $26-school fees and other necessities of a teenager. You had to pay for all of your schooling in those days!
Six months out of school and still unemployed, I sat relaxing on the steps leading up to the bandstand when my friend Robert Best—on his way home to lunch, with his characteristic rocking-and-rolling swagger—asked: “Carlo, how’re doing?”
On hearing that I was still awaiting replies to my several job applications, he suggested that I turn up the following morning at #34 Broad Street, The Barbados Advocate, for an interview with Editor Ian Gale, who employed me a week later—on January 2—as a junior sub-editor for the lordly salary of $100 per month.
The passing of our friend, colleague and mentor makes me recall the words of that maverick American World War II general George S. Patton:
“It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather, we should thank God that such men lived.”
I do not consider myself capable of paying tribute all by myself to this outstanding colossus so I have elicited the support of a few colleagues who also knew him, each having his or her own story to tell.
I warned them that as an editor myself, I might have to use my scalpel. And I did.
Robert Anthony Irving Best was a modest, self-effacing Barbadian gentleman from the old school. He always avoided confrontation. I once asked him if he had ever given any thought to joining the diplomatic corps.
As a journalist, his first order of business was to get the facts … and to be fair and honest in that pursuit. He cared little about “the scoop”. His six-decade career began at The Advocate in 1953 and ended at The Nation a few years ago.
He was the master of irony and could find it in almost any situation concerning the human condition.
He never tired of regaling us with the story of the chap who, in a game of cut-throat dominoes, accidentally “killed” double-six in his own hand.
He never lived it down. He grew into an adult and it followed him all the way into old age. Whenever he did something foolish there was always someone there to remind others that he once killed double-six in his own hand!
About corporal punishment Robert once wrote: “What is ironic about those who find themselves in a ‘chastising’ mode is that it is always the weaker person who usually is chastised. The stronger one, however wrong or deserving of being chastised, need have no such worry or fear.”
Although he held a law degree, Robert’s language was never pedantic or pretentious. Why reach for a long or rare word to confuse or impress the reader when a shorter one would do?
He supported William Strunk’s edict that “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words for the same reason that a machine should have no unnecessary parts.”
The Advocate in Robert’s time as chief sub-editor and later executive editor seldom surprised its readers, sending them scurrying for dictionary and thesaurus in search of the meanings of difficult and unusual words.
Nation Editor Emeritus Harold Hoyte remembers Robert as a man of great honour and a journalist of the highest integrity.
He says: “I revered this meek man as an unpretentious Barbadian patriot who saw his journalistic role as one who built up rather than tore down. This sense of devotion to country first permeated all that he lovingly shared with readers. His writing was therefore not stirred by grudges or motivated by jealousy. And he scorned “gotcha” journalism.
“Few ever questioned his judgment because he brought balance to his every effort, whether as an editorialist, columnist or editor. His moderation was therefore known to all men, as was his selfless dedication to a profession in which the first person singular was not a part of the language to which he resorted.
“Without exception, all of us who had the privilege of sitting at the feet of Robert fittingly regard him as a model of journalistic uprightness and reliability.
“He cared for new entrants into the profession whom he regarded as indispensable to our fledgling democracy, because he valued journalists as guardians of the heritage of Barbados and craftsmen of our country’s fate.
“His great legacy will be celebrated through the fine examples of those he influenced to aspire to professional excellence and personal decency. Thank you, Robert.”
Gercine Carter says: “I owe my career in journalism to Robert Best whose only demand for a testimonial when I walked into his office at age 17 and said I wanted to be a reporter was: ‘Do you like writing?’He nurtured me, encouraged me and sheltered me in a world of work where only his kind of guidance and example could have seen me through patches. I owe a lot of what I am in the field of journalism and as a female professional, to his fatherly guidance. He was the model boss who became a lifelong friend.”
Margaret Hope thanks Robert for twice befriending her: In the 60s when she was in her teens, he mentored her with his formidable journalistic skills, editing her work before she submitted it to the news editor. Those skills supported her throughout her professional career. She also thanks his lovely wife Margaret for parenting her in what she terms “this strange new world”
Two decades later their paths would cross again when he was a member of the Board of Tourism and she was the public relations manager. Margaret says: “I loved Robert Best. He was an institution and a national treasure with journalistic skill, honesty, genuine friendship and patriotism.”
Albert Brandford’s best memories are of a careful, cautious journalist who was deeply committed to the profession and sought to instil those values in those who walked through the doors of a mentor to many young men and women who sought out journalism as a career. He counselled and encouraged them especially during difficult times when they thought of giving up. Journalism, Albert says, is the poorer for his passing.
After spending four years in linotype and teletype departments, George Hall moved up to the Editorial Department in 1963 under the tutelage of Robert, the consummate professional who would accept nothing but the proper use of the English language, fairness and accuracy. George credits Robert for playing a significant role in the development of his career in journalism.
Hall adds: “He possessed a wealth of knowledge which belied his age and was a willing tutor and listener. His passing leaves a void which, given what is now presented as news writing, will never be filled.”
These days, from the perch of my retirement, as I pester newsrooms on a weekly basis when I notice inaccuracies, mis-spellings, omissions and sometimes the butchery of the language itself, I feel sorry for the young journalists, even armed as they are with their iPads, iPhones and other devices.
Back there in the 50s and 60s, we young upstarts benefited from no less than two layers of fatherly seniority and guidance.
Immediately above us were Ulric Rice, Robert Best, Alistair “Massy” Greene, Don Norville, Clennell Bynoe, Clyde Walcott and Duncan Chase.
Above them were Joe Brome, O.S. Coppin, Mitchie Hewitt, Tony Vanterpool, Louis Norville, Willie Burke, Ralph Morris, Gay Morris and Tony Hinds.
In those days, the authors of careless mistakes were bawled out across the open editorial floor. George Hall would remember the slip-up when he wrote “distinguished” instead of “extinguished”.
There are no more proof-readers like Budd Smith of The Daily News, who would sneak up behind you, gently close the dictionary you were consulting, and ask: “What word are you look for, son?”
“I’m looking for the word POTT-ABLE.”
“It’s not POTT-ABLE; it’s POTE-ABLE … from the Latin poto, potare, potavi, potatum; to drink.
Robert Best belongs to that pantheon of Barbadian journalists who stretched all the way back to Clennell Wickham, Barney Miller, Charles Bransway Rock, J.C. Proute, Joe Brome, Jimmy Cozier, O.S. Coppin, Neville Martindale and Ulric Rice, to younger practitioners like Tony Best, Harry Mayers, George Hall, Peter Simmons, Fred Gollop, Nigel Barrow, Denzil Agard, Charles O’Neal, Keith Seale, John Cumberbatch, Winston “Pop” Walker, Gercine Carter, Margaret Hope, Heather Greenidge, Al Gilkes, Glyne Murray, Ridley Greene and Harold Hoyte.
Robert and I shared a similar scepticism about the recently-minted individual known as the “citizen journalist”. Journalism is a profession … alongside all the other professions. Whether trained at university or in the noisy rough and tumble of a newspaper newsroom, we must not devalue our profession by buying into this clumsy nomenclature.
Simply because you have a cellphone in your pocket that has a camera built into it … and you come up on a tragic accident on the Ronald Mapp Highway and you whip it out and record the final moments of a bleeding motorcyclist and, instantly, record and upload that sad scene to a television station with a few seconds of commentary?
Sometimes long before the next of kin have any inkling of the tragedy?
That makes you a journalist? Not in my book.
When you can show me the “citizen cardiologist”—to open your chest, not mine; or the “citizen engineer”—to construct your 10-story building, not mine; then, and only then, will I concede the existence of the “citizen journalist”.
We’ve reached the end of an era and as I said to Harold Hoyte, George Hall and Harry Mayers when we last visited Robert: “We are now the new old men of Barbadian journalism.”
We must be thankful that we had the good fortune to sit at the feet of this modern day Gamaliel.
As we say farewell to Robert, I am reminded of a verse from one of the poet Longfellow’s works:
Each morning sees some task begin,
Each evening sees it close;
Something attempted, something
Done, has earned a night’s repose.
Robert has earned his repose.
Our condolences to his widow Margaret—a tower of strength these past 58 years; and their children—Roberta, Charles and Adrian.
Rest in peace, my friend.