Reflections on ’the Earl’ as part of Black History Month
He often called himself a “back o’ town” guy, and even after he reached what we could call “star status” Earl Cameron would often drop back to his “back o’ town” roots.
Earl and I met in the late 1960s – we were both Baha’is and he was visiting Bermuda. We were driving around, sightseeing, and this led to an incident which displayed his firm but gentle nature.
We stopped at a restaurant – though a more adept description might be a “greasy spoon”. Earl requested a cup of tea, but the waitress said the establishment did not serve tea. Spotting a tea kettle, Earl pointed out the appliance and asked if she could not make a cup of tea from there. “Surely the kettle can be heated up for tea,” he suggested. Eventually, with much tension we were both given a cup of tea, which we took outside to the terrace to consume. When we returned the cups and saucers, and paid the bill, Earl smoothed things completely by saying to the waitress: “That was one of the best cups of tea I have had, thank you.” One could almost feel the tension dissipate. That was our Earl – assertive, but down-to-earth and friendly at the same time.
Our Earl had dozens of stories, which he told repeatedly. But he also had the knack of making you feel you were hearing the story for the first time.
As a young adult he was working on a freighter, plying the oceans. Second World War broke out and his English-flagged vessel headed for the UK. There he landed – in a strange country, now unemployed, and homeless. He liked to relate how he did have one heavy sweater, required garb for English winters, so he knew he wouldn’t freeze. But, as he explained, he still had to deal with food and shelter.
Enterprising to the core, he managed to get a job in a restaurant, and also shared a flat with a few acquaintances.
One of his flatmates had a small part in a theatrical production, and our Earl asked him if he could get a similar job – “I felt I could do a better job on the stage than my flatmate,” he explained. Eventually, there was an opening and, as the saying goes, the rest is history.
Before he became a renowned film star, Earl Cameron discovered the Baha’i Faith. A mutual friend, LeRoy Stines, was in London to attend a Baha’i Congress and suggested that Earl might like to come along. “Roy” told Earl that he would see people from numerous countries, of all races and backgrounds, all working towards the same goals, and getting along together. Earl went to the Royal Albert Hall event, and saw for himself just what Roy had told him about. Soon after that, Earl adopted the Baha’i Faith as his religion.
On a visit to London, in the early 70s, I called Earl and he picked me up and drove me virtually all over the city. For dinner we went to an Indian restaurant because, as our Earl explained: “Here in London you can get the best curry outside of India.”
Through all these years, our Earl was making a name for himself as a movie star. Who can forget such productions as The Pool of London, Sapphire and various James Bond movies. The list is extensive. Throughout his career he did not forsake his principles and had various battles with producers. On one such occasion Earl felt that some parts of a script were denigrating to Black people and he told the producer/director that he would not use the script. The producer was angered and threatened to sue Earl – but the “back o’ town” roots came to the fore and our Earl replied along these lines: “I don’t care what you do to me; I will not use that script!” Fortunately, the two met and ironed out their differences and the filming got under way.
It was on another visit to Britain that my wife, Marie, and I took Earl and his wife, Barbara, to lunch in Leamington. It was about a two-hour train ride from London, and the two Camerons were on the platform to meet us. The lunch morphed into afternoon tea at their home, with Earl and I in deep discussion, which was abruptly ended just in time for Marie and I to catch our scheduled train back to London – with about 30 seconds to spare.
We called Earl and Barbara upon reaching London to report that our mad taxi dash was successful. Earl’s reply: “I knew you’d catch that train; next time you come out this way you must stay longer, and catch a later train.”
Fortunately, there was a next time – this occasion came just before he celebrated his 102nd birthday. Again, as was the norm, he was full of anecdotes both serious and witty. It was lunch again and then tea at their home, after which we took a much more leisurely ride to the station, in plenty of time to catch our train.
It was always a pleasure to spend time and chat with Earl. His passion for Bermuda, and for his roots, was obvious. He always asked about various people in Bermuda and the development of Bermuda’s youth, and he glowed with delight when informed of their successes. By virtue of his having lived for over a hundred years he still had lots of stories to tell – his experiences were worldwide and his memory was sharp. Explaining his good recollection skills, he would comment that he had had plenty of practice in remembering things.
Our Earl gave up the physical realm shortly before his 103rd birthday. Bermuda born, Black, Baha’i, all describe him. I have one personal description: My friend. May you rest in peace in the concourse on high.
Gary Kent-Smith is a member of the Baha’is of Smith’s Parish