gall and gumption

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Long Absence

I can't believe I'm already this far into March without having posted anything here since January. Well, I mean, I can believe it, as there have been reasons. My computer was down for two weeks with a busted power cord. And then there was a feeling I had in weeks before that of self-doubt of the value of what I do here. Plus other personal things boring to relate. Also I've been writing a lot offline, way offline. With a ball point pen in a cheap composition notebook to be precise. I really like the feel of how the written-on pages physically just fill up. But it's there and then it has to be brought here.

I feel pretty sure it also has something to do with my recent addiction to the current affairs blogs. I gotta tell you, today Wolcott was just magnificent again. One thing about his blog I take some sort of perverse comfort from is that he misses the odd day or two.

I wish someone would explain to me how to use the blogroll so I could keep handy links to my favorite writers in this medium. Tom, are you there? Tom is one of them. Also not a daily poster.

I'm reading Clarissa again, got all the way through the first 400 pages without skipping. I do remember that towards the end the last time I read it I began to hate it or her or Richardson or possibly all three.

My mother did not join the big march against the war today. She usually does, which is interesting because my mother is not a marching and sign carrying kind of person. Today she opted to go have lunch with some friends who live in a thatched cottage somewhere in the country. She did, however, wear her "Stop Bush" hat which was a present from my friend Joey. Joey is a self-described "Yellow Dog Democrat" who is richer than God. I told him about my mother's first march against the war and he sent her the hat, even though he had never met her. They still haven't met even though they both live in London. My mother is not a slogan-hat wearing person but she wears that hat from time to time, today, for instance, as a sort of in lieu of marching gesture. At lunch, she tells me, an American woman was present and my mother had to explain the story of the hat. The woman turned out to be a founder of Democrats abroad or some such organization, but I guess my mother regarded it as a close call and thinks maybe the hat is safest in a box in the basement. I know, I know, it doesn't make any sense. She must have left out a few details. Got home and found herself with a case of hat hair, possibly.

When I was in Nevis there was a very nice American woman named Deborah LaLouche. She was from Virginia, married to a black retired merchant seaman from Nevis with the wonderful first name Auretius. With a first name like that you can see how I forgot his last name. Deborah was, as they say, a joiner. Joined things, did good works. She had Auretius hired an old stone mason to build them a stone wall around their property in the hills above Charlestown. It was a magnificent wall, really a thing of beauty, made without mortar. It took the old man two years, I think she told me. They kept sheep. Anyway she had helped start a number of organizations in Nevis for good works and for improving relations among Nevisians and expats -- one of them was a choir, even. And they had all gone rather sour, the inevitable spite and envy that overtakes anything successful there. It is a story you hear over and over. I could tell you my own version but it would be boring. Anyway one evening we were at a wedding together. The bride was Nevisian, from, technically speaking, the lower orders. The mother of the bride was a woman with social ambitions who was romantically involved with an Englishman who was the best chef on the island, a man who had cooked for Princess Diana and played hide and seek with the children of the Ducchess of York. Regular, nice guy, into boats. The mother was appalling is all I can say. Another long story. But Deborah was invited to this thing and came very elegantly dressed in a linen suit and a magnificent hat and all her kindness aboard. She and I sat confidentially chatting and in the course of chatting, she revealed to me that she was a member of Republicans abroad. It was a shock to the system I can tell you.

Now that I am on the subject of the wedding I do remember these details. The groom wore a white suit of some sort of watered satin with gigantic lapels that reached down somewhere near his fly. He owned a little van out of which he sold items of haberdashery at the side of the road. It was called Claxton's Mobile Mall. Mark, the wonderful chef boyfriend of the mother of the bride (who was boring), supplied a roast pig which is a famous specialty of the very expensive plantation inn where he is employed. They raise their own pigs there and slaughter them and Mark is the artiste of pig on Nevis, sans peur. My date, the mad Englishman Lee, and I stayed after all the guests left and helped with the cleanup. Then we drove everybody home, mother of bride, various younger siblings and the amazing Barford.

Barford was this big jolly man who owned the rum shop across the street from where MOB lived. His place was simply called Barford's. It was one of the two most squalid looking rumshops in Nevis, but it was sometimes fun to go there with Lee. Barford, also wearing a splendid white suit, was staggering blind incoherent drunk after the wedding, drunker than I had ever seen him before, and I had seen him quite drunk enough before. An enormous man with a big goofy face. Lee got him into his car and placed in his lap a plate full of leftover wedding favors which we were transporting to the house of the MOB where we would have a sort of small after party party. These wedding favors consisted of a handful of M & M's wrapped in a bit of fabric netting and tied with a ribbon. By the time we got to the MOB's house, less than a mile from the wedding reception, Barford had consumed the entire plate full of these things, without bothering to take off the wrapper. He just stuck the whole thing in his mouth, chewed on it until the chocolate could be sort of sucked through the wrapper and then tossed the wrapper out the window of the car. On arrival he divested himself of the jacket of his suit and his shirt and sat in a chair in front of the house with the rest of us. Someone gave him the pig's head, which he sat gnawing on and occasionally waving it at us while he said something totally unintelligible with his mouth full. Then he fell asleep still holding the pig's head. Oh, and the other thing about Barford is that he really really liked to dance.

It was funny, when I lived in St. Kitts I didn't like visiting Nevis, and when I had to go there I couldn't wait to get back on the boat. But when I lived there, after the first few months when I was working too hard to even be lonely, it really grew on me. When I moved up into Gingerland it got even nicer after a while. I had this rather ugly little house to live in but downstairs I had my neighbor Mike and just around the corner was Quentin the Bee Man, and up the road was Elmo. They were good neighbors and good allies to have. Across the street and two doors up was a little rum shop called Rino's. Rino's was owned by a man named Rino. It had started out as an ice chest on the steps of a shed. It moved into the shed and then Rino had done so well that he had built a big solid cement shop, painted that blue that they love in the Caribbean. It was ugly but it was impressive in its way. On Sunday afternoons all sorts of men would gather there and games of dominoes and simply mind boggling amounts of drinking would go on throughout the day. I could hear the noise from my house. Late at night they would gamble in a back room. I never went to Rino's by myself except to pick up a couple of beers to take back home, or buy some matches or dish soap or corned beef when I had let myself run out of dog food. But I would go there with Quentin or Mike or Lee or Elmo. Rino and his daughter, who looked exactly like him, were sort of slow and shrewd and decent.

From my back porch I could see Montserrat. My landlord, Mr. Manners, had planted a big mango tree in the middle of the back yard, blocking the view so that in order to see Montserrat I had to stand up and peer around the tree. But there it was, and also the sea with the constant clouds sweeping high above it. This was on the windward side of the island and the sea was deep and rough, not what people think of when they think of Caribbean shores. But every island has its windward side and it's like that, rougher and wilder. The sunlight on it made the sea go through these changes of color, pale blue-grey to violet to silver, patches of it. The prevailing wind was always blowing, it kept the house cool. My bedroom windows faced the sea and I could sit up in bed with that wind blowing through the windows and blustering about the house, and see all that sea over the tops of trees. It was really very lovely, though the house was sort of ugly and inconvenient. You could see a plume of smoke or steam from the volcano on Montserrat. At night you could see Antigua as well, a line of lights low to the water. Elmo told me that on a few days a year, when the weather was unusually clear, you could even make out a peak or two on Guadeloupe. A little higher up, a half-hour's walk further up the hill past Quentin's little house, you could see other islands, you could see St. Bart's and St. Maarten. All that from there.

I really liked taking my little hops, too -- to Antigua, to St. Maarten, to Dominica. To travel such a short distance and come into such different geographies and cultures was marvelous. St. Maarten was all built up and cosmopolitan. You could get on a bus in St. Maarten and find 20 people on it and hear 12 different dialects or accents or languages. Dominica was the complete opposite, hardly built up at all, and lush and mountainous with no beaches, just this unfathomable green, the people there very sort of slow of speech and movement. And Antigua, a place full of blatant secrets, shadiness in the sun.

But I learned that you can't really live simply in those places. Well, I can't. Not as in work and try to make a life there. Not a person like me, anyway. I don't feel after the two years there that the Caribbean is any less my home -- rather more so in fact and I think that's partly what I went there for, to feel that again. Little things spoke to me there. Like once when I was in Dominica I noticed this grotty little Portugese grocery store. I mean, once upon a time in the Caribbean there were a lot of those and that is what people thought of when they thought of Poteegee people. Long before my time, more in my grandparents' time. On Daddy's side there were such people belonging to both his parents.

When I wrote editorials for the paper in St. Kitts one of my recurring themes was that Caribbean history wasn't only about Africa. Or only about colonialism. No, people came there and underwent a sea change. To me, everything interesting and appealing about the Caribbean is that sea change: Chinese people who speak Jamaican patois with Chinese accents. Jews who married black Baptists. Europeans whose children ran wild in the bush. Fishermen going out to sea every day in those little boats. And the emergence of Caribbean character with its peculiar gift of irony. I listen to old calypso, I marvel at someone like Lord Kitchener. Not Lord Kitchener of Sudan fame but the calypsonian who borrowed the name of one of England's great Victorian military heroes, a man whose name was a byword for all the upright male Victorian virtues. When small boys were enjoined not to masturbate they were told that if they did they would never be a great man like Lord Kitchener. And here comes this sly, ribald, winking mischievous mocking black man, singing songs about the galvanic effects he has on white women, and says "Lord Kitchener, that's me." I don't think he was conscious of the irony there, as he got the name because of the sensation he created on his first big professional appearance as a calypsonian in Trinidad. But I think that irony pervaded the culture at the time. Calypso is very very competitive, something that isn't apparent from here, where you think of maybe Harry Belafonte strumming on a beach and that's it. It's very competitive, it's very political (I could tell you stories about that from St. Kitts) and it is serious business.

Kitchener is a really funny writer. His style is literate, but he also moves effortlessly between standard English and a sort of perfectly lucid local idiom. And he is funny. He has a song called PP 99, which, the lyrics tell us promptly, is the license number for his Jaguar. Somehow understanding this doesn't make it any less funny I hear the refrain of the song:

I go park me PP any place..."


Or the song about a dispute between a Trinidadian and a Barbadian. The two of them have pooled funds to cook up a pot of meat and rice but when the meal is cooked the Barbadian insists, in Kitchener's parody of a Bajan accent:

Trini, I'm a baan Bubajan
I don't like to foight
But when it come to the occasian
Man, I die for me roight
You put een a 12 cents meatbone
Man, you think that is nice?
[sorry I can't remember the exact line that goes here I'll get it tomorrow]
Tek you meat out me roice


With each stanza, with a slight variation of this refrain, the Bajan keeps lowering the price of the meatbone. At the end of the song the meatbone is down to eight cents in value and the Bajan is threatening to "squeeze you throat loike a loice."

Or "Handy Man" where Kitch goes to work as a handy man for a white woman and he's sweeping her room, in the dark, it turns out, while she's lying in bed and the broom handle is all over the place...

Part of the reason for his much more than local appeal is that his themes are so broad, as compared with a lot of calypso which is very topical, very much of the moment and very very local. A song like Socrates's "They Pay More That For Cat," which is as literate as anything by Sparrow or Kitchener, which names names and makes a passing reference to a true incident in which the deputy prime minister of St. Kitts, a married man, was caught climbing out of someone's bedroom window, is brilliant but not really meant to last and won't travel far out of the place where everyone knows the references and allusions, i.e., gets the jokes. But so many islands produce these songs and calypsonians frequently find themselves in dogfights with the governments or the officials they make fun of.

And the other thing that has to be mentioned about calypso is that, important as it is -- every island has a calypso competition, or two or three a year and to be named a calypso king is a big deal, even in Nevis. But what gets much bigger press is Soca, which has totally taken over the road march side of things. I mean, in the last 30 years Caribbean music's audience has demanded bigger and bigger sound. Where once you would have road marches behind trucks carrying steel bands (and I don't know anything on earth quite like the effect of a steel band on the march in the Caribbean, words like magical and glorious come to mind) the steel band can't satisfy the demand for sheer noise. So what you have instead is bands that play these very simple tunes usually with maybe one catchphrase that is just about all you can hear with the distortion. The trucks are even bigger, huge flatbed affairs carrying a great tower of speakers you might expect to see at a Who concert. On top of the speakers is a platform with the performers on it and a couple of dancing girls and then the whole crowd of drunken revelers dancing and winding and grinding behind it. It is deafening. Soca also is faster and more percussive than calypso, needless to say. If you go to any music store of a decent size you will find in the Caribbean section possibly a few Alan Lomax recordings from days before Noah's Ark. Folk music really. And what you will find a lot of is these compilations, unbelievably cheesy, of Caribbean music. All Soca. No calypso. You would not know that calypso is still being written and sung and produced and sold. If you are lucky you might find some Kitchener or Sparrow.

I could continue with this but it's almost one in the morning and I have two stories to write for Monday morning oh god oh god what a life...

14 Comments:

At 10:56 PM, Blogger Tom Matrullo said...

Hey now this is what you need to do - more than once every two months. I do agree, it's wrong to blog every day. Those who do so have very low thresholds, most, anyway. But more often, please?

Second, the best way I know to keep track of blogs is:

http://www.bloglines.com/

the other blogroll thingie was bought by some corporate enterprise.

I meant to say above: this is the sort of insight into the Caribbean I have longed for someone to provide. The place is anything but easy of access to USians.

And, in Italian, at least, in Neopolitan, a synonym for "doing" someone is scopare, lit., "to sweep."

 
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