When I arrived in Jamaica in October 2001, the situation with my mother was disastrous. She was practically paralysed, only just able to move one arm and a leg and it was difficult to understand what she said. She had regressed mentally and wasn’t an adult anymore and found it hard to fathom what was going on. She would wail and cry for hours on end, frustrated at the state she was in. Nurses looked after her day and night. I settled into her apartment in Kingston, preparing for a long stay. But although she was in a terrible state, the nurses were loving and caring, and my mother sometimes seemed happy, surrounded by a love she had never really had.
But what was I going to do? I couldn’t look after my mother, she was too heavy for me to lift. And wiping the bum of someone who’d never looked after me was more than I could bear. So I set about finding a job. My friend Novia, who worked at the Jamaica Observer, one of the two main newspapers there, took me in to see the editor. They said they needed a reporter and I thought why not? I settled into life as a reporter at the Observer rapidly, covering stories from child murders to the tragic delay of a lobster at a hot local restaurant. I soon dropped my English accent, as I had to repeat everything fifteen times, and assumed a “miggle” class Jamaican accent instead.
I had a very unwelcome phone call from the UK. The artist I’d had a fling with was onto me accusing me of giving him bird flu and saying he was in quarantine. When I explained that I had never had bird flu in my life he said my father’s parrot had been singing the calypso song, “Feeling, hot, hot, hot…” and must have given it to me. I was astounded by this blatant parrotism which made me realise that casual sex can have a nasty sting in its tail.
“If you didn’t laugh so hard in Jamaica, you’d have to kill yourself,” my mother’s best friend wisely said. After I’d been in Jamaica for a couple of weeks, I knew exactly what she meant. I was always howling with laughter, or on the verge of tears. My first major task, apart from finding a job, was establishing the internet at home. This meant going to the offices of Cable and Wireless (a British firm) where convenience was a four letter word.
Upon entering the room, I was surprised to see an abnormal number of plants. On closer inspection, I realized that many were customers who, after decades of waiting in line, had sprouted roots.
Some customers had suffered an even worse fate and disappeared entirely – vaporized by the wait. There came a succession of phantom numbers called by the automated voice.
“One hundred and thirty three!……..” Silence followed. The representative adjusted her black rimmed monocle and pressed a hidden button.
“One hundred and thirty four!……..” Again a deafening silence…
I wondered if some of the numbers belonged to senior citizens who’d passed away in the queue.
Eventually my turn came. I leapt from my seat. The Sales rep looked pleased to see me. But then disappeared for an hour.
“Unfortunately,” he said, returning, “we won’t be able to set up your internet account today.” Then, with the magic phrase allowing every Ditherocrat to wash their hands of absolutely anything, “The System,” he said, “Is Down. You see that Christmas tree,” he muttered, looking darkly to his side. “It’s that…….”
“Your computer system is a Christmas tree?” I said confused.
“No,” he said, as if speaking to a deaf-mute of restricted intellect. “The Christmas tree has interfered with the computer system.” Then seeing I was stubbornly remaining in my seat he carried on: “it’s probably a virus.”
“What virus?” I continued. “The Ghost of Christmas Past……..? or Santa Claus……………?”
“Neither,” he said. “You’ll have to come back again on Monday…..”
After calling in advance to check everything was OK, I presented myself at Cable and Wireless on Monday. As I sprung at my rep, with Internet form in hand, I noticed a sorrowful expression descend on his face
“The System..” he said, a tear beginning to well in his eye, “Is Down Again….”
“Has it tried Prozac?” I screeched. “I find it works quite well!”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You’ll have to come back another time.”
Eventually on the fifteenth trip to Cable and Wireless, I managed to get online.
Life at work was pretty chaotic too. Due to the constant bungling of our Transport department, I re-christened the “Jamaica Observer” the “Ja-Later Observer” as we always arrived so long after everyone else. One day I was due to interview the Prime Minister at the opening of an Important New By-Pass. After driving at horizontal-hair speed, we arrived at this Major National Event. Unfortunately we were alone. Apart from a wizened tarmac layer stumbling along the road.
“Excuse me sir..” I cried. “Have you seen the Prime Minister going down this road?” He moved not a muscle – probably fazed by the “sir.”
“You dere!” the driver said. The man spun on his bony heel …”Di Pri’ Minista….where ‘im gone?”
“What ‘im look like?” the tarmac man asked. “‘Im a short man wid big ears?”
“Dat’s ‘im!” the photographer cried. “Where ‘im go?”
“You see dat goat?” MacTar said, pointing his finger at the wiggling backside of a fast-retreating goat. “Im go dat way”
“FOLLOW DAT GOAT!!!!” The photographer shouted to the driver. We quickly caught up with the goat and followed it some distance along the road. Until we bumped into a buxom higgler, selling sugarcane, squatting by the street.
“Where di Pri’ Minista’ deh?” the driver said, craning his neck out the car.
“Mi cyant seh,” she said, thrusting the drinks towards us. “Mi eyes is nat too good.”
“Here tek thirty dollars,” the photographer said. “Where ‘im gawn?”
“Left at dat gas station,” she said. “But mus be a hour ago.”
We hurtled down the street at 90 miles an hour until stopped in our tracks by a pack of wandering goats.
“Goat Man!” the driver said to the man in charge of the goats.
“Actually, I’ve got a PHD in Goat Management” said the man who was a British VSO volunteer.
“OK doctor Goat Man,” the driver said. “You see di Pri’ Minista pass dis way?”
“I believe I did,” the Goat Man said. “He was with a convoy of police going towards Old Harbour Town.”
We whizzed off down the street. Eventually a convoy of twenty police cars blocked the way.
We leapt out of the car in front of a small roadside shack with a hand painted sign saying, “Helpe yourself to Fishe.” Chaos was inside. Around fifty government officials, bouncers and journalists sat waiting around. The Prime Minister was in a low key mode – so low key that after 5 minutes looking around I still hadn’t spotted who he was. “The Prime Minister…” I whispered to the photographer. “Who is he?”
“Dat man in de cap over dere…”
I rushed to the bathroom for a Two-Minute-Tart-Up thinking that if I looked Hot he’d be more likely to do the interview. Although with the opposition spreading rumours about the PM’s sexuality this might have been a waste of time.
I sidled up to the table where everyone was still extracting fish bones from their teeth.
“Prime Minister!” I said. “I’m from the Observer. I’m very sorry we’ve arrived late,” I stuttered, “our car crashed into a cow.”
“I’m sure it did,” he scowled. “Let’s do the interview now.”
So all was well. But in the following day’s paper the Headline ran: “PRIME MINISTER OPENS NEW BY-PASS.”
Unfortunately the photo showed the PM with a large flounder falling out his mouth.
But it wasn’t all LOL at the Jamaica Observer. As Christmas approached, I was writing a much more serious story for them. 23 Jamaicans had been charged with smuggling cocaine after disembarking from an Air Jamaica flight to Heathrow; a week later another 16 Jamaicans had been charged with the same offence at Gatwick. The British High Commission in Kingston then said that up to 30 passengers on every flight from Kingston to London were drug mules. The deputy head of the Jamaican narcotics police said “the drug courier situation is the most available form of employment for most people in Jamaica today.”
I was covering this situation for the Observer but, of course, knew it would be of interest to the British press. But I felt that as the people I’d interviewed, especially the Jamaicans, had spoken to me thinking I was publishing a story for the Observer alone it would be dishonest to sell it on to the British press. Jamaica had been so kind to me, I wasn’t sure I wanted to paint it in such a bad light in the British press. Also the story was published on my birthday and my friend Susanna and her baby Tupai had come to stay. The British press went wild over the story, splashing it all over the front pages. It was the biggest story I’d ever broken. Not that I’d sold the story to the British press but they had “borrowed” the information from me. I could have had a front page exclusive in the Sunday Times to show people at the BBC that I wasn’t just larking around on my career break. But I think this incident shows I lacked the killer instinct to really make it to the top in journalism.
In the meantime, Susanna and I were enjoying the New Year in Kingston. Susanna had brought her baby and everywhere we walked around the city, people would point and mutter, “white baby, white baby. What you doing here?” We took him to Harry Potter, his first ever film, the greatest cinematic experience of his life. He went wild, shrieking at all the scenes, jumping into the hat of the woman in front and then, overwhelmed, fell sleep. He was obsessed with dancing to the doorbell at my mother’s house which had a ragga ringtone.
But whenever Susanna and I were together, mishaps would surely follow. Thus one day Susanna was smoking in my bedroom on the top floor of my mother’s house, when she dropped the cigarette end onto the roof below. This was unwise as the roof was made of straw and immediately started to burn. Someone called the fire brigade but instead of stopping at the address we’d given we could hear them circling round the block twenty times. In the meantime my mother had to be evacuated in her wheelchair as the flames grew higher and higher. My mother’s best friend, generally known as my aunt, swooped in and gave Susanna a very dirty look. We shot out into the street, hearing the fire engine moving further and further away. Then, as it came round again, hurled ourselves at the engine, hanging onto the ladders to make it stop. By the time the fire fighters got to the blaze, it was five hours after we’d called them and my mother’s nurses had put it out. Another little hiccup we had was getting rather pissed at an upmarket party and launching into a moving rendition of “Swan Lake” in the Ladies loo. Susanna was the dying swan and crashed, convincingly, to the floor.
My mother had always disapproved of the friendship between Susanna and I and her attitude to Susanna was chilly to say the least. But now Susanna was shocked to see the state my mother was in. When Tupai’s baby bottle was lying on a table next to my mother, my mother picked it up with her one good hand and suckled it in her mouth. She cried every time she saw the BBC news on the television, not wanting me to go home. And when I tried to explain to her about all the journalism I was doing she said: “but have you done your homework, I hope you’re not going to be late for school.” The greatest trauma of my mother’s life had been my father leaving her, and with the brain damage caused by the stroke she regressed to a time in the past when this hadn’t happened at all. So I was eight and still at primary school, and my father and her were still together at our house in Kensington. My mother became obsessed with Butch Stewart, the richest man in Jamaica, Chairman of the Sandals resorts and Jamaica Observer, who she’d been friends with when I was a child. Every time she saw a pale looking man pruning the poinsettias in a nearby garden she would whoop with delight saying “Butch Stewart is doing the gardening.”
After I’d been in Jamaica for a couple of months, I really felt I was blending in. I caught a cold when the temperature dropped to 85*. And I refused to walk anywhere on the street. “Miggle” class Jamaicans do not walk – for fear of being mugged. The only white people on the streets of Kingston are lobsters in green shorts with a map.
But after various problems with taxis, including being offered a vibrator by a taxi driver’s mum, I decided to Learn To Drive. Although a driving license can be purchased from any supermarket in Jamaica – between DOGFOOD and DIAPERS in aisle 39 – I decided that it would be safer to Actually Pass A Test. When I opened my wages and out fell a peanut shell I realised I had to go for value and low price. After skimming through the telephone directory I concluded that the “Lucky Strikes” school of driving had the cheapest rates.
As the car approached my house I noticed something wrong.
“The door!” I said. “It’s gone!”
“De doar?” the driver said with some surprise.
“Yes,” I said, pointing to the space where once a door had been.
“Oh dis door….” he said, as if I might have been referring to a door somewhere on Pluto…. “It soon come.”
“How soon?’ I said. “In time for my driving lesson?”
“Not dat soon,” he said. “I tek it off ‘cos de AC don’ work..Is nice an cool like dis”..
Some rules of driving in Jamaica I noticed on my first lesson were:
ALL cyclists (male, there were no female cyclists) rode with their legs sticking out at 90* from the bike – which looked as if it had been “liberated” from a 10 year old as it was much too small.
Despite this, all cyclists had Deep Faith and peddled furiously towards the oncoming traffic in hopes of a quick entry to the Afterlife.
A red light did mean red except at night when it meant “accelerate.”
The police were colour blind – all lights at any time of day or night meant “green.”
The Red Man/ Green Man – standard in most countries – was not here. The Green Man was bent double, as if elderly or wiping something from his shoe….The Red Man – a large hand with orange stripes – revealed the danger of applying fake tan in the dark. . The Green Man suffered from a skin disorder and was – oddly – coloured White.
Only the young and fleet of foot should try to cross the road in Jamaica, I thought. The gap between the Elderly Green Man and Orange Hand was (I timed it) 2.7 seconds.This probably explained why the pavements were crowded with the disabled, old and clinically insane – they hadn’t had a chance to cross the road.
As February 2002 approached, a very important visitor was about to arrive in Jamaica who certainly wouldn’t be allowed to cross the road without a platoon of police to smooth her way. The Queen was coming and was going to visit Rema, one of the most violent ghetto areas in Kingston, where drug gangs and political killings were rife. She wasn’t going to walk around, in fact the government had booked a tank to ferry her in. She was visiting a school, Hugh Sherlock Primary, where some of the children didn’t believe she was real. I was going to interview the children for a report on “From our own Correspondent” on BBC Radio 4.”
My guide to the area – Delroy Johnston – a short thickset plumber with cropped hair said that everyone knew the Queen was coming, as the moment the visit was announced the bulldozers arrived. “You see dat rubbish dere ” – he said – pointing to a mountain of rotten food, rusting fridges, cookers, mattresses and the remains of a wooden house. “Its five hyears it bin ‘ere. But dem tek away ten skip load in the last two week.”
“So you’re glad that the Queen is coming?” I said. “Fa sure,” he said. “We want her fa come all de time. Den de politician would affu fix de place up. In fact,'” he said – “I think she should move out of Buckin’am Palace an’ buy a h-apartment ’ere.”
He waved the machete at the school where the Queen would be visiting – inviting me to into the yard.
Half the school was newly painted in yellow, blue and white with panels showing Jamaica’s national heroes, birds and plants. The other half was a roofless concrete slab with vast open spaces where windows should have been. A wire from a pylon lay in the middle of the yard.
I approached a shy looking six year old with long curly lashes and asked if he knew the Queen was coming to the school. “Huh,” he said. “Who’s she?” Some older girls in their uniform of crimson skirts and braces gave him a withering look. “Of course we know she’s coming!” said Jaaliya – a tall thirteen year old her hair twisted into tiny braids. “And what do you think the visit will do for the school?” I asked. “She could give us some money,” she said. I replied that I wasn’t sure Her Majesty carried cash around.. “That’s okay..” she smiled, “she can write me a cheque. And,” she added hastily, “bring a computer and TV for the school.”
“And a bicycle!” said 6 year old Kaneisha who looked about 3.
“And a Nokia!” said 7 year old Monique Reed. By this time a crowd of over a hundred excited children had gathered around pushing and screaming to get their orders in. “I need a bicycle too!” said one “And I need a Playstation Two!” After being thumped in the face and pushed to the ground I decided enough was enough. We had already compiled a wish-list which included 25 computers, 20 bicyles, 18 scooters, 3 TVs, 15 Nokia’s, 23 Video Games, 4 dogs, 3 cats and a Barbie.
“I think you’re confusing the Queen with Santa Claus…” I said.
Fifteen pairs of bewildered brown eyes looked up at me in shock. “But the Queen is Santa Claus,” they laughed.
“Would any of you recognize the Queen without a crown?” I said to the children. They dipped their eyes and shuffled their feet in silence.
“Is she white?” eight year old Sachelle finally piped up.
“No,” said Jaaliya, in authoratative tones. “On TV she was yellow.”
“She’s sort of Pink,” I said diplomatically. “But she may turn yellow here.”
“Is she invisible?” whispered a six year old with ringlets. “Then where has she been all this time?”
“In Buckingham palace,” I answered. “What you mean a house like we?” said the six year old.
I glanced at the windowless corrugated iron shacks some of the children lived in, thinking the Queen would not put her dog in such a place.
Well what’s it like living in Rema? I said after a pause. “It’s nice…apart from the violence,” whispered the six year old with a hunted look in her eyes. “Night and morning we hear gunshots. But we just run and hide.”
I climbed into a taxi and left the area with some relief – until a shouting match erupted between mine and another driver. “Please stay in the car – that man looks dangerous,” I said. “Jus relax baby,” my driver said, pulling a six inch knife from his belt, “you’ll be totally safe with me.”
A place in which no one was safe (from cows) was the jewel in the crown of the Jamaican government’s road building programme – the “high speed” North Coast Highway, linking the island’s major tourist resorts. Stray cows ambled happily up and down the road, reducing the speed of motorists from a projected 80km/h to less than 8. The project was mired in chaos. The Transport Minister admitted he’d “completely forgotten” the original budget and completion date. And instead of starting the road at one end and finishing at another the government had built the road in multiple sections which were not joined up. So a smooth, perfect, section would be followed by a boulder strewn trench. The contractors had reportedly refused to guarantee the road would last a year. The government was rushing to complete the country’s biggest ever road building campaign not to buy votes in the forthcoming general elections, (clearly not), but to spread goodwill and work.
After six months in Jamaica I realised I wouldn’t be moving back to London at all. My mother was declining, her former aggression whittled down to the helplessness of a two year old. She was crying like an abandoned child, day and night, devastated at the state she was in. I couldn’t leave her on her own. And my career in Jamaica was flying ahead with my work for the Jamaica Observer and the BBC. The editor of “From Our Own Correspondent” said I was “an artist,” he loved my work and was eagerly awaiting more. I was drinking much, much less, it was barely a problem at all. I loved the magical realism of Jamaica and, with my new Jamaican accent, no one asked me where I was from. I would go back to London to finish my house and come back out to Jamaica to live. Sign up for updates on this blog
Next week: failing to sell my eggs (my eggs not my chickens’ eggs) getting a makeover from Vlad the Inhaler and more celebrities causing chaos in Notting Hill.