By Chester Connell
Ken Graham was a man abundantly blessed. He grew more and wisely benevolent as he aged.
I recall our time as colleagues at Radio St. Vincent and the Grenadines where he worked as a technician and I a broadcaster / journalist. At that juncture, we also shared microphones as Co-masters of Ceremonies of the Miss St. Vincent and the Grenadines Pageant at Victoria Park. Ken Graham had presence, class, style, distinction, and delivery – on and off stage.
I greatly admired this gentleman. Ken had a voice rumbling and sonorous, and like a powerful stallion with reins on it, he harnessed those robust vocal chords by calmly and gently expressing himself. His vibrant voice, while independently powerful on its own strength, also sheathed a formidable vocabulary, the result I believe of British colonial schooling in Guyana of the 1930s and 40s. The British seemed to have paid particular attention to Guyana when it came to education – or Guyanese paid strict attention when they were being taught the ways of Step Mama England. That country of Ken’s birth produced some of the Caribbean’s finest scholars. Ken spoke with what linguists might refer to as an acrolect. Yet for me, the very distinct manner in which Ken Graham spoke was an idiosyncrasy, his particular brand of “vocal delivery” we might call it. In addition, Ken conveyed his words on a golden platter of splendid articulation that few professional broadcasters or orators today can equal. A natural diplomat, Ken spoke with a precision accompanied by an ever-present charm, the levels of which he would increase or decrease as the occasion required. All this was expressed on a linguistic foundation of a mature, Guyanese-based, British-educated, Caribbean-seasoned accent. We could say Ken’s speech was his own vocal version of a sweet, nutritious Metemgee. In fact Ken Graham’s whole life is a veritable rich stew of Caribbean heritage.
Serendipity may have caused Ken to be born and schooled in Guyana but opportunity is a global citizen. It knows no boundaries. As Ken approached the end of his roaring twenties, a good-looking opportunity knocked. Ken opened the door. A communiqué from St. Vincent entered his hands. As a result of his affirmative response to that missive, the life of Ken Graham became deeply interwoven into the fabric and texture of the modern history of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The roles that Ken Graham stitched and thread into the life and development of his second home was just as valid and closely knit as that of E.T. Joshua, or any other individual, whether mechanic or mother, father, farmer or fisherman, seamstress or sailor in our exploratory, earliest days as a burgeoning nation. If we use 1951 as a signpost of our country’s passage out of the past into contemporary times, then we realise that Ken Graham was here from “fore-day-morning”, historically, chronologically-speaking.
Ken arrived in St. Vincent in 1957, on the amphibian aircraft, the Grumman Goose, if I recall his words correctly, landing as it always did, between Young Island and the Aquatic Club. Almost 60 years ago, a colourful, tall, sturdy, distinct and distinguished-looking young man disembarked. He was dashing and full of panache. He possessed that sense of style with adventure. Ken married a beautiful lass and created a family, members of whom are today, like Ken, an influential part of our social and cultural landscape in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Ken Graham played several roles in St. Vincent’s history of radio broadcasting, not only as the main technical man here for the legendary, Caribbean-covering Radio Antilles but even before that, co-hosting a live broadcast called Dance Party, with its main anchor and founder, St. Vincent’s first radio broadcaster, Jean Duncan, at the Crows Nest in Villa where Ken was a leading “Life ah the party”. Many years later, he lent his voice to “That’s Jazz” a radio program with which I also had a connection. As significantly as radio, or maybe more so than radio, in terms of his substantial professional contribution, Ken played a starring role in the country’s history of aviation for many years, specifically at Arnos Vale and in Union Island as air traffic controller and manager.
Ken Graham’s contributions to the creation and maintenance of our heritage are multiple. He is St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ first air traffic controller. He was officially invited, by letter, to come to St. Vincent to be air traffic controller of what had not yet been constructed — but what was to become the Arnos Vale Airport. At the time, Ken was already a trained and experienced air traffic controller working at what was then the Atkinson Field Airport in what was referred to as British Guyana. Atkinson became the Timehri International airport and was later renamed the Cheddi Jagan International.
The invitation to Ken to come to St. Vincent was issued by none other than the Honourable Ebenezer Theodore Joshua, our then First Chief Minister. Ken accepted. He arrived in St. Vincent, he recounted to me, to find that “not a blade of grass” at the site of the airport-to-be at Arnos Vale had been moved and there was certainly no air traffic for him to control. But Chief Minister E.T Joshua kept him on the government payroll because, as Ken explained to me, air traffic controllers were at the time “difficult to make and therefore difficult to find.” The position of air traffic controller is one that requires highly specialised knowledge, skills, and abilities. Mr. Joshua was, therefore, taking no chances of losing the young specialist he now had at hand. While waiting for the airport to be built, Ken spent time as an overseer as the colony of St. Vincent went about building bridges and roads. Eventually, years later, he finally took up the position of air traffic controller/Manager when Arnos Vale Airport became operational in 1961. In those days an “operational” airport meant that an airport was, well, actually operating. Planes actually carried commercial passengers paying for actual flights. Paying passengers were actually on board the aircraft and aircraft were actually landing and taking off regularly and on a daily basis. This confident trailblazer was part of a pre-independent nation that was finding itself even as it founded itself — and he was one of those making it happen along with the other catalysts of powerful and heady changes in our Vincentian community in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Let it be noted that Ken Graham, with so many other Vincentians in the 1960s, most of whose names have been lost to us, were part of an emerging vanguard fashioning a vintage Vincentian heritage – now fast being raped asunder and ripped apart. The fragile cultural threads and social and economic fabric that Ken and others like Kerwin Morris, Shake Keane, Avis Yorke, Augustus Mitchell of Union island and thousands more – now all gone – worked so diligently to weave into a national tapestry, is now torn right down the middle. Let it be known that Ken Graham made a full half-century contribution to the heritage of St. Vincent – and to the Grenadines where Ken Graham is still a household name to the older folk in Union Island.
Conversing with Kenny G, as he sometimes liked to be called, was a most engaging, entertaining and enlightening experience. He possessed a prodigious memory – a useful tool to a man creating his heritage, his Caribbean heritage, his Vincentian heritage. One must remember who one is and where one comes from – with stories. Ken had many. I define heritage as “history distilled”. Heritage is one’s own particular history as one chooses to create it, live it and accept it. It is a beginning from which we create a vision of who we are – and who we want to be. Ken Graham did this. He was this. He lived this heritage. As I said, he was not only a part of our heritage, he helped form and define it.
Ken was apparently afraid of no one and sure of himself. Think about it. Besides his own personal, towering, inner strength, Ken would have amassed a battle-ship-sized confidence level as an air traffic controller. We have to remember that in the 1930s an aeroplane was a recent invention and few in number; air traffic controllers were even fewer in number as they were an even more recent creation. The first recorded commercial aeroplane flight was in 1914. The first air traffic controller started the profession in 1930 in the United States – waving two flags at pilots. Ken was already two years old. Then, World War 2 bludgeoned us from 1939 to 1945 with all industry dedicated to the war effort. So by the time Ken was a young adult in the 1950s, he was in a rare class of professionals – unique, few in number, highly skilled and more and more in demand. He was in the right place, British Guyana, at the right time, during and after the war, at the right age, in his twenties. Air traffic controllers have a significant responsibility while on duty and they make countless real-time decisions on a daily basis. The profession is consistently regarded around the world as one of the most mentally challenging careers and therefore, even in the St. Vincent of the early sixties, the position offered a unique and privileged degree of autonomy.
This anecdote may help illustrate. Ken related to me that, back in the 60’s, on one occasion, he was in the control tower when he looked down and saw a man who appeared to be a visitor, a Caucasian, casually walking about on the tarmac, which, of course, was a restricted area. He quickly sort to remedy this breach of security. What did this man think he was doing in a restricted area? Ken was informed that the man was a Scottish/British aristocrat, a certain Lord Glenconner, otherwise known as Colin Tenant and that the man had recently invested in Mustique. Ken related to me that he was unimpressed at whatever stature the man assumed and issued instructions that Lord Glenconner was to be told, in no uncertain terms, that he was in a restricted area, that he was to exit the area at once and that if he did not comply he was to be escorted by the officer on duty to another “location”. Apparently, the incident ended well, free of any fracas. This was the way Ken operated. He knew who he was as a person, and as a professional. He possessed a strong sense of identity and self-esteem. He knew how to do his job. He did it well. He knew he was authorised to carry out his duty. And he carried out those responsibilities without fear. This is how a wholesome worthwhile, personal and national heritage is created.
Ken was also on duty at the Arnos Vale Airport when the Beatles, then a brand new, four-man, musical band out of Liverpool, England, touched down at Arnos Vale to a small group of screaming Vincentian fans. The already internationally-known group were then taken to Young Island for a short holiday.
Incidentally, Ken was also a part of the response team to what was then the worst national disaster in the history of St. Vincent and the Grenadines — the eruption of the La Soufriere Volcano in 1979. Ken was at the time with Radio Antilles and again, he was one of the memorable characters that played a role in that chapter of the still unfolding drama that is our, still largely unwritten, Vincentian story.
Another anecdote from Ken’s life highlights how a proud heritage evolves naturally when leadership places community and people, not power, as a priority.
The story goes, according to Ken, that back in the early 1960s, not a wealthy foreigner this time but a certain cow wandered onto the grounds of the Arnos Vale Airport. Ken recalled that, as air traffic controller and manager, with jurisdiction over the airport property and precincts, he caused the animal, which posed a danger to aircraft landing and taking off, to immediately be shot dead. A short while after the demise of the said bovine, Ken received a phone call from the same gentleman who had personally written to him in 1957, now the man to whom he reported, Ebenezer T. Joshua, Chief Minister.
According to Ken, E.T. Joshua identified himself, then said, quite casually, “Ah hear yo shoot meh cow”. Now, that, in my book, is an example of heritage — and priceless too! It is history. Our history. Our heritage. We created it. It speaks our language and speaks to how we treat with each other — or at least how we should — and did — in those decent days.
That incident, as told to me directly by Ken Graham while I interviewed him about his role in our aviation history, connects with who we are. It is typically Vincentian. Ken’s life, like yours and mine, was one story after another. The difference, of course, is that only Ken could have lived Ken’s stories. Yet those stories are all interwoven as part of the same colourful cloth which we all interweave as Vincentians, as Caribbean people, seeking a way forward.
Ken Graham’s treasure house of many stories, which constitute that colourful life, reminds you, reminds me, that each in her or his own way, must remember our stories. These stories of the present slide quickly into the past. We must be able to reach back and pull to us — that which we can build on, that which we can call our heritage, our stories, something of inestimable value. It is something which is useful and of which we, Ken’s personal and national family, can be proud.
Often, in our search for identity, we find that the stone the builder rejects becomes the chief cornerstone of our heritage. This is the stuff from which personal and national identities are made – “good” or “bad” — upon which nations are founded. Life is a story.
And now the end of the happy tale … After Ken tied together the untethered details for Mr. Ebenezer T. Joshua, of how his cow came to . . . the end of its rope – so to speak — Mr. Joshua had the animal butchered. Later on that day, airport staff were surprised to receive cuts of beef as, once again, E.T. Joshua shared what was his with those whom he knew formed part of his identity, part of a heritage that he was in the process of creating for himself and for us today as a nation. He turned a negative into a positive — for all concerned.
Ken Graham was — and is — and will always be a part of our story, my story and the story, the heritage, of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. As I said, I was impressed with the man and his life story, his love of laughter and his ability to make one laugh with an endless supply of puns, picong, repartee and noted Ken Graham epigrams.
Like a sweet, creamy icing on a cake, to perfectly delight, along with his gravelly voice and diction, Ken often quoted from memory a particularly magnificent and moving piece of poetry. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to him recite it and I would ask him to say it over and again when we were at NBC Radio in the studio with its designed acoustics. And with that imposingly deep and full voice of his, with the immaculate articulation he possessed, it was a pure pleasure to hear him deliver, with that easy-going, raspy power, the magical words from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous poem, the Passing of Arthur. I think I can hear Ken’s voice now rendering it — now, as a last rite and ritual for himself as he makes his own final passage from this mortal coil to immortality. He intoned, “… and slowly answered Arthur from the barge: ‘And God fulfilled himself in many ways lest one good custom should corrupt the world. Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?
I have lived my life, and that which I have done. May he within himself make pure!
But thou, if thou shouldest never see my face again, pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.’”
I do pray for you, Ken, my friend. I thank you for the unique, maverick and distinct role you played in helping to shape and give wings to our Vincentian heritage. I wish you God’s comfort on your final flight to Glory.
In my final farewell I paraphrase some of the words you would have uttered many times from the control tower at Arnos Vale as you guided pilots in and onto their next destination:
“Kilo Golf 6.2.1 9 2 8, back track Runway 101. You are now clear for take off to heavenly skies. May fair winds accompany you. I wish you VFR. May everything around you be as clear as a sunny day in Union Island.
Maintain your attitude. Ascend to that altitude where the only wings in sight and flight are those of angels. The next air traffic controller you hear on your NDB, Ken, will be St. Peter, guiding you in for a smooth landing out of the clouds, through the pearly gates, onto that airport runway in heaven. Farewell Ken. Godspeed. Over and Out.”