Cliff Lashley, My Friend

February 2023

Jottings from my pen will be vignettes, snapshots of Cliff Lashley’s appearances in my life at different times and in different places over forty years or so and of the impact of these appearances. Elsewhere there will be detailed records of the academic, the poet, the critic, and much more. Here you will find an account of the considerate, humane, and forever faithful friend.

I met Cliff Lashley at a sixth form social in the early 1950s. He was from Kingston College of Bishop Gibson’s headmastership and I from Excelsior of Wesley Powell’s headmastership.1 He was of slight build, elegantly dressed, and well-spoken—indeed, too well-spoken. But he could dance, and he could talk while he danced without missing a beat. Not many young men could do that then; one always suffered in favor of the other, and I was partial to the dance.

We were to meet again a few years later at the University of the West Indies, where I had gone straight from school, while he went to work as a minor clerk on the Kingston Waterfront. I mention the waterfront because for the rest of his life he thought that that experience fitted him for dealing with Jamaicans of different social classes, a skill I think he overestimated at his peril.

At the university Cliff aligned himself with a crew of “philosophers” who were mostly studying history and mostly living in Gibraltar Hall, which was the last of the wooden bungalows used for student residents after their life as part of the village accommodating refugees from Gibraltar after World War II.2 Members of this group saw themselves as thinkers, a cut above the regular student population, and they spent time pontificating on the condition of the Caribbean and various aspects of its culture. Later Cliff joined another group whose focus was music, largely classical music. These students frequented the music room of the students’ union, where there were facilities for listening to records. Tony MacFarlane, a medical doctor in Ontario and Cliff’s lifelong friend, was one of these. Both groups allowed Cliff to stand out as a sort of man of letters, a man of culture—an aura he was to carry about him for all his life.

The university at that time was the kind of environment that allowed such a character to thrive. There were, for example, open lectures given by staff members across the faculties as well as by carefully selected speakers from the community outside to help give students an education beyond the subjects they were studying (in Cliff’s case, English). Lectures were informative and discussions lively. The fact that the campus was entirely residential allowed these meetings to go late into the night and sometimes continue over coffee or ice cream at the union. Young lecturers at the time who were always available to be part of any “lime” included Roy Augier and Elsa Goveia, whose names are part of the history not only of the University but certainly of the Caribbean.

Because of minimal access to transportation, residence on the campus meant that young people from all the islands of the Caribbean, as well as from Guyana and Belize, had access to each other’s food and music as boxes arrived from “home” throughout the three years of a person’s course in arts or science or the six years in medicine. By the time Cliff arrived on the campus there was already the institution of carnival (initiated by the Trinidad contingent), with its early morning J’ouvert and afternoon Road March led by the fledgling steelband and ending on the playing fields as darkness fell. The campus was already a federal site before the short-lived West Indian Federation had been signed into being.

Cliff was a small man who stood large in any crowd. Even in the picture of me walking down the aisle at my wedding, you can see him almost in the aisle himself, not wanting to miss anything.

In 1960 I left Jamaica and went to live in Trinidad, but in 1962 I had to rush back after my mother’s sudden death. In my distraught state, and with a one-year-old child to take everywhere, I was at a total loss. But like Jim Dandy, Cliff came to my rescue with a motorcar and placed himself at my disposal for three nightmarish weeks. The nightmare included having to get a passport for a child born in “foreign” and so not allowed to travel back to Trinidad on my passport, and the child’s being legitimate and therefore me needing permission from the foreign father in a time before e-mail and WhatsApp. Cliff understood all the irritating minutiae of this exercise and took over. When I think of this horrendous and complicated time, a kind of surreal incident stands out: Cliff following a motorist who had given him a “bad drive,” waiting until the man drove into his gate, then knocking and pulling himself up to his full height to give the frightened offender a proper telling off for being an irresponsible citizen. That was possible in the 1960s; the result might have been very different today.

A year or so later I am at home in Trinidad and the telephone rings. It is Cliff on a stop of the Federal Palm or Maple, I am not sure now which.3 He insists that he must not only see all of Port of Spain but also go to San Fernando, the capital of “South,” on this brief stopover. He does it all in our trusty VW. I am sure nobody else on that ship was so adventurous.

I did not see Cliff again until 1968, when I arrived in New York City with three small children and a husband attached to a mission at the United Nations and thus constantly busy. By then Cliff had studied at the School of Librarianship, University of London; finished a master’s degree at the University of Western Ontario; and was lecturing at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Before I can quite settle, Cliff calls me and informs me that I have landed on the most exciting piece of turf in the English-speaking world and that I need to make use of it. He informs me that I must buy the Village Voice every Thursday to see what is happening “free” each week. His advice coincides with that of Frank Solomon, another UWI eccentric from our time, attached then to the Trinidad mission to the UN. I take the advice, which proved to be the most important I was to get in my four years in New York. In addition, Cliff introduces me to the personnel at the Research Institute for the Study of Man (RISM), which is within walking distance of my apartment and has a library run by the most kind and thoughtful person in the world, Jane Lowenthal, a woman who had spent time on the UWI campus in Jamaica.

Unless you are a working woman who has just become a stay-at-home wife and mother and are a Caribbean woman with no domestic help, the importance of this introduction might just miss you. The youngest of my children is under five and so cannot go to school like the older two, but there are three afternoons each week when he can attend a UN-sponsored class for play and socialization. Cliff is influential in getting me work on those afternoons, operating a photocopying machine in the library at RISM. Three afternoons in adult company and pocket money at the end of it! Later I was to find more challenging employment.

And it was Cliff who introduced me to the shops of New York where I would buy fine kitchenware, fine wine glasses, and fine dinner plates of slate made in Vermont. To this day these are the plates I serve my guests on. Cliff and I would spend hours in shops at the Strand, pouring over and sometimes buying rare books about music and art and literature. These books would eventually become part of his extraordinary collection that was excellently shelved, as a librarian knows how to, in an apartment overlooking Kingston Harbor. Though he taught at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Cliff lived in New York City in a small apartment in the trendy Lower East Side. I left him there in 1972 and headed for Guyana, to eventually return to Jamaica for good in 1975. In the next ten years or so we met only on his visits to Jamaica from various sojourns around the United States or my visits to New York.

In 1987, I went to the University of the Virgin Islands as part of a Fulbright Research Fellowship. I arrived in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, where Dr. Lashley, then a professor of literature, took charge of me. In his quaint dwelling—two small rooms separated by a concrete courtyard—we spent that first Saturday afternoon making telephone calls to find me accommodation (always at a premium in St. Thomas). I found a hotel room for one night, and the next day Cliff took me to secure one of the three furnished apartments advertised in the weekend newspaper. It was an unlikely abode, frugally furnished and far from the university (farther than even Cliff’s apartment, which was already out of town), but I settled in and was glad to have a place at all. The view of Hans Lollick, a turtle-shaped islet out at sea, and the lights on the opposing hillsides at night made up for all the apartment’s defects.

That next Monday morning, Cliff drove me to town so he could use his influence to get me a bank account without any reference but him (no small feat) and settle me into my office across the corridor from his in the Division of Humanities.

Every Saturday we would “knock about” in town in the same way we had in New York, up and down Charlotte Amalie streets called “Gade” (remembering the Danish past) and alleyways called “Passage” (Straade on old maps), with shops on both sides. I looked on as he bought books and precious antique pieces. We would lunch in any of a number of exotic eating places whose owners and employees Cliff invariably knew. He was popular in that city. People greeted the professor wherever we went; students regarded him as a small but mighty oracle from a Jamaica that he made out to be a place of greater beauty and sophistication than anywhere else in the world. Eventually he added entrepreneur to his titles: supplying Jamaican art and craft to shops in St. Thomas.

Cliff was highly respected in the US Virgin Islands and had quite an impact on the intellectual life of the university. A comment I recently received from Roy Watlington, one of Cliff’s erstwhile university colleagues, substantiates this:

From the day he joined the faculty at the University of the Virgin Islands Cliff Lashley distinguished himself as a clear, creative and independent thinker. He helped his colleagues find the elocution to express their ideas and the courage to stand up for them. Students and everyone else so admired him when he spoke. If Cliff joined into an argument you could be sure that logic, objectivity and good humor would prevail. If he were on your side you knew that you would win.4

In the early 1990s Cliff traveled home to Jamaica to play what part he could in the development of the country. His return coincided with one of the dreams of the founder and chairman of the very successful Eagle Financial Network, Dr. Paul Chen Young. Dr. Chen Young appointed Cliff as executive director of the charitable arm of the group and gave him free rein in the creation of the Eagle Foundation for Enterprise. There Cliff would both institute in-house courses for employees to improve their level of education and create the structure for a high school equivalency program for youth who had fallen through the cracks in the local high school system. “Enterprise” was an essential part of the philosophy behind these programs. Personnel from UWI and other institutions wrote modules for the courses, and program officers were recruited to facilitate the delivery. At the height of this novel and exciting enterprise, Cliff, in Mervyn Morris’s timeless words, had to go.

We never leave,
we always have to go.5

I asked a colleague to comment on the impact of Cliff Lashley’s presence on the Jamaican cultural and literary scene, and I agree with him that it was mostly indirect. For those who are still here and who remember, it remains in the critical articles he wrote and the talks he gave. The title of his PhD dissertation offers some indication of the breadth of his literary concerns: “Towards a Critical Framework for Jamaican Literature: A Reading of the Fiction of Victor Stafford Reid and Other Jamaican Writers.” The work on Vic Reid is particularly noteworthy; it serves as an important and necessary memorial to one of Jamaica’s early and great writers. In New York in 1976, Cliff was influential in having Kraus Reprint republish (in two volumes) the 1943, 1948, 1956, and 1960 editions of the Jamaican literary magazine Focus. He had been working on a book when he died. The summary suggests that it was to be an extension of the concerns of his dissertation. I think that the work would have provided an even more complete expression of his critical ability, particularly with regard to examining the language of Caribbean literature. The working title of the book was “Sounds and Pressures: A Native Overstanding of West Indian Literature.”

Cliff’s personality; his dapper dress; his control of the English language, which he used equally to damn or praise; his fearlessness—these are what people remember of him. The poem “for the gentleman of the waterfront” was my way of holding on to a serious academic, an incredible friend, and an always interesting companion.6 When he returned to Jamaica from the Virgin Islands, Cliff was willing to walk the streets of downtown Kingston with me while I remembered my high school days, when “The Library” was the West Indian Reference Library on East Street (now the National Library) and lunch was fruit salad and ice cream in a huge glass at Kinkead Pharmacy and Restaurant. There were still remnants there of the old city that we both loved: banks, a Swiss jewelry store, the Jamaica Tourist Board building, though most businesses had moved to New Kingston. Best of all there was the ferry from downtown Kingston to Port Royal. I would meet Cliff at the waterfront and we would go across, order a fish lunch at the restaurant Gloria’s, go drink a coconut water while Gloria prepared it, eat, have an ice cream cone after, and catch the ferry on its return journey. I would retrieve my car and return to my ordinary life on the UWI campus.

Looking over my poetry I note that I do have, in each collection, poems celebrating friends who have died. Mourning is a common theme for poets. My poem for Cliff is longer than those for other friends and perhaps more intense, partly owing to the shock of his going and the manner of it but owing also to the depth and length of our relationship and the fact that he loved poetry and was himself a poet. The following excerpt from a letter to Cliff’s family and friends, dated 24 February 1993 and sent by Roberta Knowles, the then head of the Division of Humanities of the University of the Virgin Islands, sums up much of what I have been trying to say:

Cliff lives on in the memories of his colleagues, for his bright and penetrating mind. His endeavors as a scholar, teacher and poet survive in his students and his peers, for conversing with him or hearing him “holding forth” was inevitably a captivating, provocative and enlightening experience. . . .

A connoisseur of everything from crystal and art to rare books he was always ready to share his latest enthusiasm, to take you on a dizzying excursion to find some rare treasure. If trouble was on your mind he always had a bit of wise yet practical advice that had your best interest at heart.7

The only way Cliff’s last poems will ever be published is if some researcher unearths the manuscript among the papers of Rex Nettleford, Cliff’s great friend who secured the file. Nettleford kept promising me faithfully that he would find the manuscript and hand it over to me to be edited and published. But he too went suddenly (though not violently, thank God).

I end with part of a poem that will be in that volume, if ever it sees light:

Can a man of perception
and sensitivity
have any selfrespect
The naked mind realizes
masks are less suspect
than the warm heart surmises
—Cliff Lashley (1935–1993)



I owe a deep debt of gratitude to Mrs. Sonia Mills, one of Cliff’s best friends and the keeper of many documents associated with him. Mrs. Mills succeeded Cliff as executive director of the Eagle Foundation for Enterprise. She has been unstinting with her time and gave me information as well as documents that I have made reference to in the less personal parts of this essay.


Velma Pollard is a retired senior lecturer in language education at the University of the West Indies, Jamaica. Her major research interests have been Creole languages of the anglophone Caribbean, the language of Caribbean literature, and Caribbean women’s writing. Articles in these areas have appeared in local and international journals, and Pollard is the author of From Jamaican Creole to Standard English: A Handbook for Teachers (UWI Press, 1994/2003) and Dread Talk: The Language of the Rastafari (McGill–Queen’s University Press, 1994/2000). She is also involved in creative writing and has published a novel, three collections of short fiction, and five books of poetry.

[1] Percival Gibson (1893–1970) was a leading Jamaican educator and clergyman and was the headmaster of Kingston College in the 1940s. He later became Anglican Bishop of Jamaica from 1955 to 1967. The Bishop Gibson High School in Mandeville is named after him. A. Wesley Powell founded the Excelsior School in 1931 and was the school’s headmaster for many decades. He was also a central figure in the creation of the Jamaica Teachers Association.

[2] For a discussion of the history of the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies, see Suzanne Francis-Brown, Mona, Past and Present: The History and Heritage of the Mona Campus, University of the West Indies (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2004). Also see Suzanne Francis-Brown, World War II Camps in Jamaica: Evacuees, Refugees, Internees, Prisoners of War (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2022).

[3] The Federal Palm and the Federal Maple were sister ships that were given to the prospective Federation of the British West Indies by Canada. In the early to mid-1960s the ships operated throughout the Caribbean “generally on a two‐week schedule, with one sailing south from Jamaica as the other starts north from Trinidad,” stopping at various islands along the route. The ships were important to the region’s trade and tourist routes at the time. As an article published in the New York Times in 1964 notes, “Depending upon freight, the ships normally stay a full day at each of the eight British Caribbean islands between Jamaica and Trinidad. This gives the tourist ample time to visit old fortifications, swim, buy local handicraft, lunch at one of the many new hotels built recently in the Caribbean and take in other sights on St. Kitts, Antigua, Dominica, St. Lucia, Barbados, St. Vincent and Grenada.” Travel via these ships also facilitated crossings beyond the anglophone Caribbean: “The French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique can be seen by stopping over at Dominica or St. Lucia, flying to them and then returning to catch the next ship.” Theodore S. Sweeny, “‘Mystery Ships’ Ply Caribbean Tourist Routes,” New York Times, 12 January 1964, sec. 20, 18.

[4] Roy Watlington, email to the author, 10 April 2020.

[5] Mervyn Morris, “Checking Out,” in Shadowboxing (London: New Beacon, 1979), 51.

[6] Velma Pollard, “for the gentleman of the waterfront (Feby. 13, 1993),” Caribbean Writer 7 (1993): 8–9;

[7] Roberta Knowles, “Letter to the Family and Friends of Cliff Lashley,” 24 February 1993, in the possession of Mrs. Mills.


Related Articles