November 2012 Volume 9

Charles Johnson `Chester’ Burgess: The Erudite Observer

Ray Ford
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Charles Johnson `Chester' Burgess who passed on October 5th, 2012, might be best known to the public as a fearless, provocative and extraordinary social commentator whose pieces appeared regularly in the Jamaica Gleaner and elsewhere in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Mr. Burgess attended Kingston College from 1928 to 1934, and was headboy of the institution in his last two years of attendance. Among his many distinctions, is the fact that in 1934 he became the first KC student to win an island academic scholarship, the same year in which the school completed its relocation from East Street – where the Jamaica Gleaner is now located - to Clovelly Park. He represented the school in Manning Cup football, and during his time at school which saw enrolment move from 113 to 160 students, the institution made several noteworthy strides.

It was in his first year at school in 1928 that KC first entered the Sunlight Cup cricket and Manning Cup football competitions, and in the following year it became the first private institution to enter the Annual Secondary Athletic Championships. Four years later in 1932, the House system was established at KC, and then in 1933 the school became a government grant-aided institution. The Kingston College Old Boys Association was launched in September of that same year as well. Having been a witness to these early developments, Chester was rightfully considered one of the `builders' of KC. He also taught at KC as well, and was one of the first Jamaicans to study Commerce. He then spent a good bit of his professional life as a civil servant, for many years holding substantive positions in the Ministry of Trade and Industry headed at the time by the Hon. Robert Lightbourne. After that he was associated with Alcan Jamaica Limited in the Purchasing & Procurement Division. He rose to vice-president of the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce, and was an Honorary Director of the Chamber at the time of his death. 

Chester was a founding member of the Kingston College Old Boys Association, was Director of the school's Development Trust Fund, and also sat on its Board of Governors. When Jamaica established the Army and Air Cadet Force in 1943, Chester then an Army Lieutenant was made co-head of the KC Unit.  

His columns in the Jamaica Gleaner were always thought-provoking and sometimes outright provocative. He tackled a variety of social, governmental and contemporary issues ranging from the lack of use of `proper' English, public financial shenanigans and everything in between.

In October 1998, he predicted that the National Democratic Movement (the NDM) because of its focus on aloof issues such as constitutional reform might never be relevant as a third political party: nothing more than `a pretence as a political force'. So far he is right, as the seventeen year-old Movement remains only a watchdog.

Two months later he suggested a need to modernize Test cricket. The game, he explicated, needed to be shortened and spruced. Today, as it should be, Test cricket remains untouched. But alongside the 50-over version, a shorter version yet – the Twenty20, is much in vogue.

But his two most celebrated satirical essays might have been The lost island of Baboonia and Murder and Justice in Absurdia which appeared in the Jamaica Gleaner on July 1st, 1999 and November 17, 1999 respectively.

For the former, Chester received a lot of flack, for trying to establish causality between the widespread use of Patio (dubbed Yahoolish in the satire), and a cascading series of societal ills which would eventually ruin the country by 2031.

It has not been said outright, but gurgling in his lambasting, was as undercurrent that: Here is a high-brown bourgeois trying to disfranchise the small man of his vehicle of expression. Nonsense. All Chester was trying to say was that everything has its place, and one thing done in excess, could lead to undesirable consequences. One can take solace in the fact though that the giant wave to sweep across and destroy Baboonia was prophesied to occur on February 31, 2031 – a day that will never come. Some though, might quibble about his expressed primary concern - the effects that these societal ills would have on the tourist industry. Implicitly, the effects on our Jamaican society at large seem to have been subordinated.

As the conversation about reviving capital punishment in Jamaica resurfaces in light of an unprecedented wave of murders, heinous rapes vigilante justice and at least one beheading, the second satire is more instructive. Here Martin the `don' after all evidence clearly fingers him in the murder of Mildred, uses his strength-of-cash, not only to avoid the hangman's noose, but to rise to hold political office. `That's just too bad,' Martin was to shrug when the havoc left in his wake was pointed out – a brilliant and poignant piece of satire indeed.

The messenger is now dead. Long live the message!

I was first introduced to Mr. Burgess by Frank Morant one breezy Saturday afternoon way back in 1980 at the Kingston Cricket Club, of which he was a member. As we talked on the balcony overlooking the afternoon's play, he was gracious, accommodating and unpretentious. While keeping an eye on the game, I can remember how keenly he listened as we sketched the little venture we had in mind. And if his attention was only through politeness, it did not come across that way. His opinion was considered, and his encouragement was not feigned. In addition at the time, he dispelled whatever apprehensions I was harboring about joining Alcan Jamaica – a company about which he knew so much, and I so little.

And so say what you will. Chester Burgess had the welfare of Jamaica at his heart, and was `Fortis' to the core. If in doubt, one may want to revisit his Letter to the Editor, Jamaica Gleaner, March 13th, 2000, where he implored to all and sundry in: Give back to KC.

Rest well Chester!

By: Ray Ford,
Class of '70.

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