“Limbo”: A New Jamaican Novel by Esther Figueroa

Sitting here in limbo
Waiting for the tide to flow
Sitting here in limbo
Knowing that I have to go

One of Jimmy Cliff’s most wistful songs, this one written in 1971, came to mind as I was reading Esther Figueroa’s recently published novel – described as arguably Jamaica’s first “environmental novel.” 

Limbo is, of course, a state of not doing anything. You’re not heading in any direction. While Mr. Cliff sounded calm enough in his song, quietly contemplating his next move, the hero of Dr. Figueroa’s novel is far from satisfied with her situation – and that of Jamaica in general. Flora is a feisty Jamaican woman approaching middle age, who heads an environmental NGO. Her mood veers between nervous anxiety and restless frustration throughout much of the novel, and she curses regularly. She cannot sit quietly in limbo, at all. Waiting for something to happen does not suit her temperament.

"Limbo" by Esther Figueroa.

“Limbo” by Esther Figueroa.

There are different kinds of limbo. The cover of the book depicts the “limbo” that was once an amusing attraction for the tourists (in the fifties and sixties) with “natives” bending over backwards under a pole, while others shake maracas playfully and beat drums. This reference to Jamaica’s tourism “product” is clever, and ironic. Flora’s expeditions around the island expose the negative impact of all-inclusive hotels on the environment and local people. She sees the monstrous Spanish hotels along the north coast, and in particular the cruise ship pier and the construction of a fake “Historic Falmouth” with oversized parking lots for buses. Of course, we know of the wholesale destruction of coastal mangrove forests that took place to create these tourist havens. Flora is also angry at a place called Sea Fun World, where the dolphins are “better off than when they’re living in the wild” (oh, sure…)

A part of Gustav Dore's illustration of Dante's "Limbo."

A part of Gustav Dore’s illustration of Dante’s “Limbo.” Nobody really knows what to do with themselves…

But let’s get to the real limbo, now. This is the limbo of Dante’s “Inferno,” between heaven and all those circles of hell. It’s a place where there are no struggles or torments; but those dwelling there are waiting for redemption, in the hope of reaching heaven. They just sit around there, powerless, waiting for their fate to be determined. Which will it be, heaven or hell? In the novel, the question is asked, “Which circle of hell is reserved for those who have done irreparable damage?” 

“Forget vision…It’s about money and power,” says Flora in one of her moments of deep cynicism; she is talking about the government’s vision, or rather lack of it. But she doesn’t have much time for philosophizing. She takes the reader along at a rollicking pace, moving through intrigues personal and political, complex deals and corrupt maneuverings, family entanglements, love affairs past and present – even a murder mystery. Flora may complain of exhaustion, but her life is never dull. We meet crusading journalists, shady businessmen, wise fishermen, unscrupulous developers and influential talk show hosts. It’s great fun.

Woven into the narrative is a moving and very personal tribute to one particular person: a journalist, a fierce environmental campaigner and a good and true soul – one who is no longer with us. He is a dear friend of Flora’s, and if we know Jamaica at all, we will quickly recognize him (as we may half-recognize some other characters in the novel). The book is dedicated to him, as well as to environmental activist Diana McCaulay – who also heads her own non-governmental organization, Jamaica Environment Trust.

Flora tackles all of Jamaica’s major environmental concerns head on. Apart from unsustainable tourism, these include the choking tide of plastic on our seashores, toxic waste, over-fishing, the devastating impact of bauxite mining on rural communities. She does not lecture the reader, however. She discusses, she argues, she seeks to persuade, she uses all her social skills to try to influence others. But the “everlasting arguments” exhaust her. She feels the burden of being an activist with little support. At one point, Flora realizes she is “absolutely sick of trying to save human beings from themselves and from destroying the planet.”

And as events unfold, Flora is increasingly seeking to bring balance into her life. There are interludes of rest, enjoyment, sheer pleasure. Her best friend Lilac cooks delicious meals for her; I enjoyed the mouth-watering descriptions of Jamaican food, in particular – cocoa tea, fish and bammy from Port Royal, fragrant cornmeal porridge and much more. One of my favorite chapters describes a visit to Kingston’s Coronation Market with Lilac, where an abundance of local fruits and vegetables is heaped into the van in preparation for an uptown party, complete with soca music. A fishing trip, an escape by boat to a small island, where she stays overnight, sleeping in a hammock with her lover. These are the kind of things one dreams about doing in Jamaica. I think the word I am searching for is idyllic.

These moments of respite, amidst Flora’s weariness and frustration, express her profound love for Jamaica (and one senses, the author’s, too). But the book does not portray a “Come to Jamaica and feel irie!” prettified Jamaica; far from it. There is nothing sentimental about Flora’s non-negotiable, unequivocal love for her home, Jamaica – the land, and the “real” people.  Flora simply cares, deeply, for her country, and she has fought for it. She travels, she has studied overseas. But we know she does not want to live anywhere else; why should she?

The message is clear: This island of Jamaica has riches, abundant. We don’t have to tear her apart and rob her of them. She can keep them, and we can nurture them, because they will benefit all of us, for generations to come.

As Bob Marley once sang (and I think he was talking about those “big men” Flora had to deal with):“Think you’re in heaven, but you’re living in hell.” Limbo is, perhaps, the worst option. But the novel ends hopefully, in a small quiet place by the sea, where the breeze blows and the light plays over land and water.

This book is not about Jamaica. It is, truly, Jamaica.

“Limbo” is published by Arcade in hardcover, and is available at Jamaican bookstores and on amazon.com.

Author Esther Figueroa is a Jamaican independent filmmaker who has produced several films on environmental issues, including "Jamaica For Sale," a powerful documentary on the impact of tourism.

Author Esther Figueroa is a Jamaican independent filmmaker who has produced several films on environmental issues, including “Jamaica For Sale,” a powerful documentary on the impact of tourism.

 

 

 

 

Thank you, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I was extremely saddened by the news of the death of Gabriel García Márquez, the great Colombian writer. He passed away at home in Mexico City, aged 87, after being hospitalized for a lung infection recently. 

"One Hundred Years of Solitude" has sold over 50 million copies in 37 languages.

“One Hundred Years of Solitude” has sold over 50 million copies in 37 languages.

Saddened is not a strong enough word, really. His works have always taken me into a world of intricate beauty and enchantment, infused with wisdom. Although I cannot speak Spanish, the English translations have always been enough to transport me to that world. The language alone is entrancing, but Márquez was always the greatest of storytellers. Importantly, he was my personal introduction to Latin American literature. He got me hooked. As you can see from the book reviews posted in this blog, I have remained absorbed and fascinated by the fiction coming from this continent – so close to our islands that I can almost feel its breath. In fact, I have just finished reading “Maya’s Notebook” by Isabel Allende – who has been a California resident for many years but keeps the “Americas” between the pages of her novels. And I do love that phrase, “the Americas.”

Here’s a wonderful quote from the Nobel Laureate’s speech, on receiving the Prize for Literature in 1982. He described Latin America as a “source of insatiable creativity, full of sorrow and beauty, of which this roving and nostalgic Colombian is but one cipher more, singled out by fortune. Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable.”

So, for all that, thank you, Mr. Márquez. 

Here’s a short review I wrote of one of my favorite works. I plan to systematically re-read and review all the others, now.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez at the University of Guadalajara, Mexico in 2007. (Photo: Getty Images)

Gabriel Garcia Marquez at the University of Guadalajara, Mexico in 2007. (Photo: Getty Images)

Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Petchary book review)

If you have not yet ventured into García Márquez’ world of vivid beauty and disturbing visions, this may not be the best book to start with. It has the seductive shock value of a really good horror movie (if you enjoy that genre); and the startling chill of a mountain stream on a hot summer’s day. Well, take a deep breath before you start.

From the very first line of the novella, we know that Santiago Nasar is to be murdered. I am not giving away the plot here, as we know this simple fact from the beginning – and in the next few pages, we know who did the terrible deed. So, this is no murder mystery. Where is the mystery then? Why read beyond the first page? The utter strangeness and bewildering puzzle of this tale is not how (this is horrifically described at the end), but why? Why did it still happen when everyone saw it coming, and why didn’t they stop it?

By “they,” I mean the residents of a small town on the Caribbean coast: a town of sea breezes and banana groves, almond trees and balconies around the main square. The narrator returns many years later to try to unravel the story. It begins early one morning (was it cloudy or sunny? Accounts differ) when the well to do, handsome Arab merchant Santiago Nasar rises with a hangover, and dresses in white unstarched linen, hoping to meet a bishop who is due to visit the town. The memories of those he encounters that morning, and those he had met the night before at the wedding festivities, are tinged with fear or scorn, pity or indifference. Moving through the story, pale and innocent, Santiago Nasar almost sleepwalks to his death – a death he does not understand.

The story is disturbing in its simplicity, yet intensely complex. The extraordinary characters are finely drawn with a few vivid strokes, and their conversations are brief; yet there are many things they do not wish to discuss. While the action is close to melodrama – sometimes slowing down, sometimes rushing headlong, like a movie – there is a quiet sense of nothing really changing, underneath. Life goes on.

I am reminded of that bleak little spaghetti Western: Clint Eastwood, cigar clenched between his teeth, rides into a town filled with guilt-ridden, silent inhabitants. But this story has none of the heavy morality of revenge. The murder happens because it simply has to, and that’s the end of it. The scent of it – the sickly scent of Santiago Nasar’s butchered body – hangs over the town.

“Fatality makes us invisible,” a magistrate notes, resignedly, in his brief. No one is punished, no one really mourns. And life goes on.

Dear reader, this tale will haunt you like a brilliant, yet troubling dream. And, even if you want to, you cannot change the ending of dreams.

Author Note: Gabriel García Márquez was born in 1928 in Aracataca, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, and brought up by his maternal grandparents. His grandfather, a veteran army Colonel of liberal views, and his grandmother and her sisters, with their love of superstition and folklore, were all strong influences. Following his parents’ wishes, he began to study law, but his real passion was reading classical and modern literature and writing; in 1950 he abandoned law and began a journalism career. He was European correspondent for a Bogotá newspaper, which was meanwhile shut down by the Colombian dictatorship. After living in Paris, then moving to Venezuela, he traveled through Eastern Europe in the 1950s, seeking socialist solutions toLatin America’s problems. He reported on revolutionary Cuba, where he befriended Fidel Castro. He finally settled in Mexico City, where he worked on screenplays and published his novellas: “No One Writes to the Colonel” (1961), and “In Evil Hour” (1962). In 1967 his masterpiece “One Hundred Years of Solitude” brought him instant fame and numerous international prizes. “Autumn of the Patriarch” followed in 1975. Still devoted to political and social causes, he sought political asylum in Mexico in 1981. In 1982 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. “Love in the Time of Cholera” (1986) and “The General in His Labyrinth” (1990) followed. Returning to his journalism roots, he bought a Colombian news magazine and wrote a non-fiction work, “News of a Kidnapping,” on the Colombian narcotics trade in 1996. Since becoming ill with cancer, García Márquez has focused on writing a three-volume memoir.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold was also made, rather unsuccessfully, into a film. Skip the film, READ THE BOOK!

gMyEN

The Mid-Weeker: Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The long Easter weekend is nearly upon us, and not a moment too soon. There’s a slightly “frazzled” feeling (or is it just me?) We all need a little break, I think.

“Time out”:  I agree with broadcaster Cliff Hughes that we all need to take a little “time out” in the matter of Youth Minister Lisa Hanna’s remarks regarding the issue of child abuse (a huge crisis, as she correctly noted) and the Alpha Boys’ School. Sadly, it has escalated. The Minister has “fired back” today at the school’s press release, which I published yesterday, with a letter to the Sisters of Mercy released to the media. Her communications man, former journalist Oliver Watt, insisted on radio this evening that her remarks were not inappropriate, and this is what she clearly believes. A Jamaica Observer cartoon on the matter was really distasteful and cruel – I’m not going to publish it here. We need to pull back now and allow all parties to work things out quietly and outside the glare of the media. (But let’s face it – if the Minister had not made those comments, there would have been no horrible cartoon…)

Terrence Williams, head of the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM), speaks with members of the media while Kahmile Reid, senior communications officer of INDECOM, looks on during a recent press briefing. (Photo: Rudolph Brown/Gleaner)

Terrence Williams, head of the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM), speaks with members of the media while Kahmile Reid, senior communications officer of INDECOM, looks on during a recent press briefing. (Photo: Rudolph Brown/Gleaner)

Excellent news: There has been a dramatic reduction in the number of fatal shootings by the police in the first quarter of this year – from 76 last year to 40 this year. That’s a decline of 47.3 per cent! Could it be that the police are aware that they are now being watched more carefully – and more importantly, that they are being held accountable? Last month they only killed four people, compared to 19 in 2013. This seems a tremendous vindication of the work of the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM) – which has been very busy this year, having completed 88 investigations and recommended that sixteen police officers be charged with criminal offenses. Congratulations are also due to Minister of National Security Peter Bunting, who seems to be getting a better grip on things and supports INDECOM’s work. Good. Now keep it up!

Signed and sealed (but)… Energy Minister Phillip Paulwell finally broke his silence and told us he signed the license for Energy World International (EWI) to supply 381 megawatts of power back on April 4. It was amended (what were the amendments?) and re-signed on April 14, and included a draft (draft) Implementation Agreement between the Government and EWI. The Minister will meet with the Energy Monitoring Committee (EMC) to explain everything to them and then make the license arrangement public. Shouldn’t the EMC have been involved earlier? The Private Sector Organization of Jamaica is still expressing concern over the lack of transparency, while the Opposition’s Karl Samuda is waffling away about it, as is his wont. Well, we shall see what we shall see. (What about the financing?)

Finance Minister Peter Phillips. (Photo: Jamaica Information Service)

Finance Minister Peter Phillips. (Photo: Jamaica Information Service)

An independent central bank: Something I thought would never happen anytime soon has just happened. The omnibus banking bill currently being pushed through Parliament at the behest of the International Monetary Fund includes clauses that remove certain powers from the Minister of Finance in relation to the Bank of Jamaica (BoJ). The Minister will no longer appoint the BoJ governor, nor will he monitor banking institutions, grants licenses etc. This is quite remarkable. If this legislation had been in place when Omar Davies was Finance Minister, the collapse of the local banking sector under FINSAC would never have happened.

Appealing: Lawyers for Deejay Vybz Kartel and his three fellow convicts have filed appeals against their life sentences in the Supreme Court. As expected.

One of the wider parts of the Bog Walk Gorge, looking towards the historic Flat Bridge over the Rio Cobre.

One of the wider parts of the Bog Walk Gorge, looking towards the historic Flat Bridge over the Rio Cobre.

Not feasible: Mr. Howard Chin of the Jamaica Institute of Engineers says the idea of the damming of Bog Walk Gorge, which the ubiquitous China Harbour Engineering Company is looking at, is not a new idea. Decades ago it was considered, but ruled out because of the porous nature of the rocks and other reasons.

National Security Minister Peter Bunting. (Photo: Gleaner)

National Security Minister Peter Bunting. (Photo: Gleaner)

 

 

 

 

Congratulations and cheers!

Professor Mervyn Morris is Jamaica's first Poet Laureate for fifty years.

Professor Mervyn Morris is Jamaica’s first Poet Laureate for fifty years.

  • Professor Mervyn Morris, who is Jamaica’s new Poet Laureate! I am not sure whose idea this was, but it’s a great one. The Jamaican public also got the opportunity to vote. Professor Morris is a poet with an economical style – every word counts – but he is not lacking in acute observation and often a wry humor. I love his poetry, and he is also a calm, quiet, erudite man (also a former Rhodes Scholar at my alma mater, and a Fulbright Scholar by the way). This is well deserved! And by the way, he is Jamaica’s first Poet Laureate since Independence. Pretty cool.
  • Five women who were sworn in as judges by Governor-General this week. Carol Lawrence Beswick, and Ingrid Mangatal, who will act as Judges of Appeal. Justice Audre Lindo, and Marcia Dunbar Green will act as Puisine Judges of the Supreme Court; and Rosemarie Harris, who will act as Master-in-Chambers in the Supreme Court. Kudos to all!
  • CVM Television, who are keeping the fires of investigative reporting alive with their reporting in the local news and on the excellent current affairs program “Live at Seven.” Their latest report was very well put together, and I look forward to a response from the police on their allegedly faulty firearms!
The Black River Morass, which is a part of the Portland Bight Protected Area.

The Black River Morass, a large wetland area in St. Elizabeth.

  • Nationwide News Network recently reported from the Black River Morass in St. Elizabeth – the reporter took a tour to take a look at the problem of invasive species – namely, the paperbark tree and the water hyacinth. Very good, and I hope they do more of this reporting, which reminded me of the BBC actually!

My deepest sympathies, as always, to the families of the following who were murdered this week, and are now grieving…

Owayne Barrett, 33, St. Catherine

Nigel Steele, St. Catherine

Jeffrey Silvera, 35, Ocho Rios, St. Ann

Dean Watts, Canaan Heights, Clarendon

Daniel Anderson, 22, Rectory Road, Clarendon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A woman prepares to make her way cross a section of Clock Tower Plaza flooded by water from a broken hydrant (inset) in the vicinity. (Photo: Joseph Wellington/Jamaica Observer)

A woman prepares to make her way cross a section of Clock Tower Plaza flooded by water from a broken hydrant (inset) in the vicinity. The usual incompetence (and waste) from the National Water Commission. (Photo: Joseph Wellington/Jamaica Observer)

Mid-Week Mutterings: Wednesday, April 9, 2014

This week has been hot, with a strong, restless wind. The reservoirs are low, and we need a few days of rain to restore us.

Which reminds me: The Meteorological Service has a new website, http://www.jamaicaclimate.net. A lot of work has gone into it and I highly recommend it. It has the regular weather forecast – but much more, lots of maps of drought and rainfall patterns, predicted patterns and long-term forecasts.  The Met Service says it is designed for planners and farmers. It’s well done.

Minister of Youth and Culture, Hon. Lisa Hanna (right), makes a point while addressing a press briefing at the Ministry, in St. Andrew, where she provided an update on the latest reports on child abuse. Beside the Minister is Chief Executive Officer of the Child Development Agency Mrs. Rosalee Gage-Grey. (Photo: JIS)

Minister of Youth and Culture, Hon. Lisa Hanna (right), makes a point while addressing a press briefing at the Ministry, in St. Andrew, where she provided an update on the latest reports on child abuse. Beside the Minister is Chief Executive Officer of the Child Development Agency Mrs. Rosalee Gage-Grey. (Photo: JIS)

Minister of Youth and Culture Lisa Hanna gave a press conference yesterday, which set us all in a pickle. Minister Hanna informed us that the residential part of the famous Alpha Boys’ School, which educates young, abandoned and orphaned boys – would be shut down in June. This is extremely sad news; as I have noted previously, the school (which has been around for 135 years)  is famous for the great Jamaican musicians nurtured under its roof, through its Boys’ Band. But Minister Hanna did not stop at that announcement (which she made apparently on behalf of the Sisters of Mercy, who run the school). She launched into a lurid account of the boys’ behavior – including “the sexual predatory nature of the boys on one another” - citing it as the reason for the closure. Of course, we all gasped in horror, and it made for dramatic media reports later that evening.

JN Foundation volunteers engaging boys at the Alpha Boys School.

JN Foundation volunteers engaging boys at the Alpha Boys School. (Photo: Gleaner)

Alpha has strongly denied that the boys’ misbehavior was the reason, calling it a “rumor.” I published their statement yesterday. Puzzlingly, local media houses (apart from the Gleaner) barely reported this denial. Did they not consider it important, or would they rather take the Minister’s statement at face value? There’s an interesting note in the “Jamaica Observer,” though: “A Jamaica Observer source indicated that the home was being granted less than a quarter of funds that was being given to Government-run orphanages despite repeated pleas by the nuns to be brought on par.” Could this be closer to the truth?

It’s not the first time that the Minister has regaled the Jamaican public with shocking details of child abuse and its consequent effect on children’s behavior. But, as Minister responsible for our youth, what action is being taken to deal with it? She vaguely mentioned some pending “initiatives” at the press briefing, but no details. If this really was going on at Alpha Boys’ School, is closing it down and moving the boys somewhere else truly a solution? How does this sensational speech reflect on the reputation of a revered and much-loved institution – and on the boys themselves and those who work with them?

The Health Minister has conceded that there is a shortage of prescription drugs at public health facilities. Why is that?

Josh Stanley and his brothers up to their ears in ganja on the TV show "American Weed." It's a family business, it seems. I think he's third left. (Photo: Critically Rated blog)

Josh Stanley and his brothers up to their ears in ganja on the TV show “American Weed.” It’s a family business, it seems. I think he’s third left. (Photo: Critically Rated blog)

Talking of drugs, a rather nice-looking fellow from Colorado has been in Jamaica, promoting the many economic benefits of legalizing ganja (marijuana). This is not the first time overseas lobbyists have visited, and one assumes they are eyeing some benefits for themselves, too. “What Jamaica stands to gain right now? Everything,” says Mr. Josh Stanley. Meanwhile, the government remains largely silent on the matter, although it seems likely that decriminalization for small amounts for personal use will happen at some point this year.

Dr. Winston De La Haye. (Photo: Gleaner)

Dr. Winston De La Haye. (Photo: Gleaner)

But psychiatrists disagree: Deputy Chair of the National Council on Drug Abuse (NCDA) and the Jamaica Medical Association representative on the board Dr. Winston De La Haye (who has many years’ experience in the field of treating drug addicts) disagrees with NCDA Chair Dr. Wendell Abel, who told the media the board had agreed to “consider looking at decriminalising for private personal use and also for religious purposes.” Not true, says Dr. De La Haye. They didn’t agree!

These men, some of the gunshot victims in the ongoing feud in West Kingston, yesterday join residents of the area to stage a protest, calling for an end to the ongoing violence. (Photo: Lionel Rookwood/Jamaica Observer)

These men, some of the gunshot victims in the ongoing feud in West Kingston, yesterday join residents of the area to stage a protest, calling for an end to the ongoing violence. (Photo: Lionel Rookwood/Jamaica Observer)

“Persons of interest”: Nine, including a member of the Coke family, have turned themselves in to the police today, in connection with the recent gang troubles in West Kingston. Meanwhile, the beleaguered Member of Parliament Desmond McKenzie struggles with credibility issues among his constituents. It’s sad, and miserable. I feel sorry for Steve McGregor too, the policeman in charge. He means well.

Earl Witter has resigned as Public Defender. His interim report on the Tivoli Gardens massacre was tabled in Parliament on May 1, 2013. (Photo: digGJamaica)

Earl Witter has resigned as Public Defender. His interim report on the Tivoli Gardens massacre was tabled in Parliament on May 1, 2013. (Photo: digGJamaica)

Public Defender Earl Witter – always a controversial and rather combative figure – has retired after over seven years in the position. He has handed all the files on the Tivoli Garden massacre of 2010 to the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM). Deputy Public Defender Matondo K. Mukulu is the interim Public Defender until the Governor General confirms a new appointment.

Will the DNA bill ever be passed? National Security Peter Bunting says not any time soon. A lot of training, infrastructure etc. would be necessary (of course). It seems he doesn’t have the time, patience or resources for it right now. So don’t expect it to go anywhere near Parliament this year, folks.

Remanded: Four policemen suspected of being part of an alleged “death squad” in the Jamaica Constabulary Force were remanded in custody yesterday.

Sprinter Sherone Simpson has been banned from competition for 18 months. (Photo: Getty Images)

Sprinter Sherone Simpson has been banned from competition for 18 months. (Photo: Getty Images)

On sports: Olympic sprinter Sherone Simpson is suspended for 18 months after testing positive for a banned stimulant called oxilofrine, during last year’s national trials in Jamaica. I understand she will appeal. Olympic discus thrower Allison Randall was banned for two years. Asafa Powell also tested positive and will hear about his fate tomorrow.

Edwin Allen High School's (from left) Christania Williams, Shawnette Lewin and Monique Spencer at the Penn Relays a year ago. (Photo: Gleaner)

Edwin Allen High School’s (from left) Christania Williams, Shawnette Lewin and Monique Spencer at the Penn Relays a year ago. (Photo: Gleaner)

I also agree with Sherine Williams and Renée Dillion, third-year journalism students, who wrote in the Gleaner this week that the amazing female athletes in the recent Boys’ and Girls’ Champs in Kingston did not receive as much attention from local media as the boys. I had noticed this apparent bias myself. Christania Williams ran the second fastest time ever in the 100 metros, for example. Perhaps there is also an “urban bias.” The winning girls’ teams are always “country” schools and the boys’ champions are high-profile “traditional” Kingston high schools.

In the ATM: A touching television report focused on a mentally disturbed man, who had locked himself into a bank ATM cubicle in May Pen. He was in there for an hour before firemen prised open the door. Those gathered outside expressed sympathy; they knew him. He had been a Math teacher at a local school, they said. But a Gleaner report flippantly noted the man was “putting on a show” for curious onlookers, and had to be “forcefully restrained” by the police - adding that something must be done about these people roaming the streets of May Pen. This is yet another example of insensitive reporting on mental health issues.

Professor Emeritus Norman Girvan. (Photo: Walter Rodney Foundation website)

A true “Caribbean man”: Professor Emeritus Norman Girvan passed away today. (Photo: Walter Rodney Foundation website)

Distinguished Jamaican academic Norman Girvan died today, aged 72. He had been very sick after a fall while hiking in Dominica. Professor Girvan was a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of the West Indies’ Graduate Institute of International Relations in St. Augustine, Trinidad. He wrote and discussed a great deal on Caribbean integration, culture and development, globalization and Caribbean history. But he was also a very active academic; he got involved in helping to solve regional matters. If you would like to browse through some of his work, you can go to his website at http://www.normangirvan.info.

Jamaica jerk conch. (Photo: Stephen Charoo from his Recollections of a Foodie blog)

Jamaica jerk conch. (Photo: Stephen Charoo from his Recollections of a Foodie blog)

Recommended blog! This time, I have found a yummy one, from self-confessed Jamaican “foodie” Stephen Charoo. His latest post includes recipes for non-traditional jerk dishes. The link is stephencharooblogs.wordpress.com.

Congrats and “big ups” to:

Celebrating: Jean Lowrie-Chin (far right) and other founding members of ProComm. (Photo: Twitter)

Celebrating: Jean Lowrie-Chin (far right) and other founding members of ProComm. (Photo: Twitter)

  • ProComm - a great PR company celebrating its 35th anniversary this year. Wishing you many more years of success!
Writer and filmmaker Esther Figueroa at the launch of Jamaica's first environmental novel, "Limbo" on Sunday. (Photo: Twitter)

Writer and filmmaker Esther Figueroa at the launch of Jamaica’s first environmental novel, “Limbo” on Sunday. (Photo: Twitter)

  • Two Jamaican authors: Locally-based filmmaker and environmental activist Esther Figueroa launched her first novel, “Limbo,” over the weekend. Stay tuned for my book review!
Jamaican writer Roger Williams. (Photo: Gleaner)

Jamaican writer Roger Williams. (Photo: Gleaner)

U.S.-based Jamaican writer Roger Williams published his first novel last year, but I am only just hearing about it. Interestingly, his novel “Turn Back Blow,” focuses on cruelty to animals and animal rights.

  • Columnist Grace Virtue really is one of my favorites, as you might already know. Her latest Jamaica Observer column is headlined “10 Things We should not be Confused About – Part 1.”  I like her comment: “Christianity and morality are not synonymous.” 
  • Mr. Keiran King has also written a very decent article in the Gleaner - heavily influenced by astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson and his current TV program “Cosmos” – he could have given Neil some credit, I think. But a good article on “Your God is too small.” Both he and Ms. Virtue thinking refreshingly outside the box on what makes people “tick.”

My sad condolences to the families and loved ones of these Jamaican citizens, who were murdered in the last two days:

Neil Brown, 37, Kitson Town, St. Catherine

Ronald Wallace, 32, Innswood Estate, St. Catherine

Cheaveast Hearst, Newlands/Portmore, St. Catherine

George Phillip Myers, Newlands/Portmore, St. Catherine 

Melbourne Smith, 60, Crawle/Riversdale, St. Catherine (mob killing)

Owen Cole (U.S. resident), Waterford, St. Catherine

On the road: Yet another young child – this time a six-year-old boy on his way home from school – was killed on the road. A sugarcane truck, loaded beyond the legal limit, ran over the little boy in Frome, Westmoreland. My condolences to his parents, who appeared dazed and distraught on the television news.

A Fondness for Fantasy

Forgive me, dear readers. Or rather, I should say, “I crave your indulgence, my lords and ladies.” 

Why the fancy talk? Well, in the space of just a couple of days, I have become addicted to – or perhaps enslaved by – the television series “Game of Thrones.” I was assured by friends that, if I did not immerse myself in the previous three seasons, I would not have a clue what was going on in the fourth. And I intended to watch the fourth (which started this evening). So, for the first time, I plunged in headfirst with three “marathons.” Yes, three.

I have never spent so much time on the couch before. I have had to remind myself to eat. I have done one or two basic household chores very swiftly, in between episodes. My husband has given up on me. Now, at the end of it all, my head is aching a little. But I am feeling replete – just as if I had finished a heavy meal and wish I hadn’t eaten quite so much, but not really regretting it.

"The Lord of the Rings" by J.R.R. Tolkien.

“The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien.

I have always had a weakness for fantasy and science fiction, having grown up on fairy tales in my youth. Some of my younger readers may not know, but in the late sixties and early seventies, when I was a wayward university student, the works of J.R.R. Tolkien became enormously popular among young bohemians. The sixties were a golden era for science fiction, and during our teens my brother and I had already devoured many of the great writers – Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Philip K Dick and so on. We didn’t live in the video age; it was all books. Anyway, “Lord of the Rings” almost became our bible. We taught ourselves to write runes, and speak Elvish even. And this was, of course, long before all the CGI stuff. The special effects were all in our imaginations.

A scene from Isaac Asimov's wonderful "Foundation Trilogy," a science fiction classic published in exactly the same era as "The Lord of the Rings" (the early 50s).

A scene from Isaac Asimov’s wonderful “Foundation Trilogy,” a science fiction classic published in exactly the same era as “The Lord of the Rings” (the early 1950′s).

This wedding feast scene at the end of last season ended in a bloodbath. It reminded me of the final scene of Hamlet, with some major characters littered about the set, and unfortunately not making it to Season 4.

This wedding feast scene at the end of the last season of “Game of Thrones” ended in a Shakespearean-style bloodbath. It reminded me of the final scene of Hamlet, with some major characters littered about the set – and unfortunately not making it to Season 4.

Anyway, “Game of Thrones” is based on books too – by George R.R. Martin (funny how the R.R. crept in). It’s like “Lord of the Rings” on steroids, and without the comforting quaintness of the hobbits. It’s definitely X-rated. Most of the main characters take their clothes off with the greatest of ease, and no one seems to wear underwear – at least, not the women. And then there’s the blood. Sometimes it goes slightly over the top, and I want the scene to move on so I can see what’s happening to What’s-His-Face or What’s-Her-Face. A lot of conversations seem to end in a fight of some sort, or a sexual excursion. But some characters actually manage to love each other.

One of the fearsome White Walkers. Not easy customers to deal with, as you can imagine.

One of the fearsome White Walkers. Not easy customers to deal with, as you can imagine.

How do I get one of these dragons? Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen.

How do I get one of those dragons? Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen.

So, how and why did I get hooked? Well, there is just the right dab of magic here and there, where it’s needed, and it’s not too heavy on the special effects. The sets, whether computer-generated or not, are beautifully done and very detailed. The locations are just perfect, from darkly dripping woodlands and snow-swept mountains to sunny Mediterranean cliff tops by a dreamy blue sea (it was filmed in six different countries). The music is moody, medieval and never intrusive (unlike the bombastic “Lord of the Rings” score). The costumes are beautiful. The dialogue is just right: a little flowery, a little clichéd at times, but that doesn’t matter in this genre. The story lines overlap and weave in and out of each other. There are several competing Houses vying for power; as my husband observed, it’s all a bit tribal.

Poor Jon Snow. I think he smiled during a love scene once, but he has a lot of inner angst going on. But it just makes him look even cuter.

Poor Jon Snow. I think he smiled during a love scene once, but he has a lot of inner angst going on. But that just makes him look even cuter. He is played by Kit Harrington.

 

Most of all, the myriad characters are a delight – from the once-debonair Jaime Lannister (now minus a hand but still rather endearing) to the cool slave liberator and dragon-momma Daenerys Targaryen; from the adorably tousle-haired, inwardly-torn Jon Snow (he doesn’t smile much) to the witty, smart and rather kind Tyrion. And several very interesting and strong female roles, which I love. There are not only grown-ups, but some very important children, too, who have their own adventures. Plus huge wolves, the aforementioned dragons, and a lot of dead people with bright blue eyes.

Queen Regent Cersei Lannister is a fascinating character, played by Lena Headey. She is cynical, secretive, bitter and only occasionally sympathetic.

Queen Regent Cersei Lannister is a fascinating character, played by Lena Headey. She is cynical, secretive, bitter and only occasionally sympathetic.

 

Lord Varys, the eunuch who knows everything about everyone at court, and is good at putting two and two together. Love him!

Lord Varys, the eunuch who knows everything about everyone at court, and is good at putting two and two together. Love him!

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jamie Lannister in the season premiere of “Game of Thrones” on HBO.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister in the season premiere of “Game of Thrones” on HBO.

 

So I am going to bed tonight (as I did last night) with the clashing of swords, the thundering of horses’ hooves and the screech of dragons in my ears.

And of course, I can’t wait until next Sunday evening.

 

It’s Not Raining: Wednesday, March 19, 2014

I am unhappy that two drops of rain fell earlier, and then stopped. So, our little corner of Kingston remains warm, sticky – and rainless.

FILE - In this May 20, 2010 file photo, residents gather outside their house riddled with bullet holes during a media tour organized by government authorities inside the Tivoli Gardens neighborhood in Kingston, Jamaica.  In May 2010, in one of the bloodiest episodes in Jamaica's recent history, over 80 civilians were killed over the course of a few days while security forces hunted drug kingpin Christoper "Dudus" Coke. We await the start of an enquiry into the incident, if it ever happens. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd, File)

FILE – In this May 20, 2010 file photo, residents gather outside their house riddled with bullet holes during a media tour organized by government authorities inside the Tivoli Gardens neighborhood in Kingston, Jamaica. In May 2010, in one of the bloodiest episodes in Jamaica’s recent history, over 80 civilians were killed over the course of a few days while security forces hunted drug kingpin Christoper “Dudus” Coke. We await the start of the enquiry into the incident. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd, File)

Some interesting developments this week: Ms. Velma Hylton, QC has stepped down (granting my fervent wish) as a Commissioner at the upcoming enquiry into the Tivoli Gardens massacre of 2010. Ms. Hylton stated: “The Commission of  Enquiry is important to Jamaica and should not be hampered by politics and petty distractions.”  I am glad that you have withdrawn, Ms. Hylton, but the concerns were far from petty. Putting the politics well to one side, your appointment seemed neither fair nor ethical, after the comments you made at another enquiry into an earlier Tivoli Gardens slaughter. The government should appoint someone who hasn’t been involved in any previous investigations. Simple.

Another positive development is the announcement of an adjustment to the Airport Passenger Duty that the United Kingdom had imposed on flights to the Caribbean. This has been a thorn in the side of tourism interests for a long time. Let us hope that it will make a difference to our anemic tourism performance. And at least the Tory Government in the UK has done something right in its new Budget.

Vybz Kartel, looking pale.

Vybz Kartel, looking pale.

A couple of twists in the murder conviction of dancehall star Vybz Kartel. Firstly, a juror has been charged with attempting to bribe the foreman and possibly other jurors to persuade them to return a “not guilty” verdict. Secondly, Kartel and two others are charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice and will go to court on August 11. The latter charge arose from a false report by a supporter, Ms. Gaza Slim to a police station which suggested that Clive Williams (whom Kartel and others have now been convicted of murdering) was still alive.

Mr. Derrick Latibeaudiere got into hot water over houses from as far back as 2006, and was eventually fired as Governor of the Bank of Jamaica in October, 2009.

Mr. Derrick Latibeaudiere got into hot water over houses from as far back as 2006, and was eventually fired as Governor of the Bank of Jamaica on October 30, 2009.

Former Bank of Jamaica Governor Derrick Latibeaudiere is the new chair of the Housing Association of Jamaica, after the entire board of the government agency resigned recently. I find this appointment amusing, in light of a controversy during the last political administration over Mr. Latibeaudiere’s low interest loan to himself to help build a luxury mansion in the hills. This eventually resulted in his removal as Governor. I suppose heading a housing agency is a fitting portfolio for him. (If you need to refresh your memory you can read this Gleaner report: http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20091108/lead/lead2.html)

On the topic of government agencies in general, I tweeted today, and I repeat: “The level of political corruption and victimization in government agencies is appalling. I will say no more.”

The dump: Late on Sunday, the government announced that it had “activated its multi-agency Emergency Response Protocol” in response to the fearsome fire at the Riverton City dump. Very impressive. Less impressive were the radio interviews the following morning. The Jamaica Fire Brigade complained that it did not receive any water for over seven hours, and when the chairman of the National Water Commission was asked about this he said something about “the blame game.”  Meanwhile, the Acting Director General of the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (clearly focusing on the emergency part of his portfolio) seems to have been pushed to the front as spokesman for this awesome coalition of government agencies.

Photo taken from West Kirkland Heights on Sunday of the horrendous tire fire at Riverton City dump.

Photo taken from West Kirkland Heights on Sunday of the horrendous tire fire at Riverton City dump.

I thought the National Solid Waste Management Authority (NSWMA) was the government agency responsible for the maintenance and management of the Riverton City dump. Yet, since the five-acre section containing tires (supposedly to be recycled at some point) caught light, Ms. Jennifer Edwards who heads the NSWMA has hardly spoken.  Why the reticence, Ms. Edwards? How do you feel about the dump operating in breach of the law?

And what does the Minister of Environment and Climate Change etc have to say? (*crickets*) Any word from the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) (*crickets*)

With so much talk/lip service about climate change, you would think we could do better at protecting our forests; but the denuding of our hillsides continues apace. Conservator of Forests Marilyn Headley says 350 hectares or so is lost every year in Jamaica. Remember, we are only a small island. She is doing her best, one supposes. Public education and lots of outreach to farmers would help. But it’s not just the farmers slashing and burning. As we noted in a recent Panos workshop, much of the forested land is being taken for large-scale housing developments, especially in western Jamaica.

EWI: Having made it clear less than three weeks ago that it needed a lot more financial and other information before recommending that Energy World International (EWI) receive a license for the 350 megawatt power plant, the Office of Utilities Regulation is now ready to give the green light “by the end of this week.” Yes! That was quite a volte-face, it seems to me. One minute, major concerns; now, everything cool. I know that Energy Minister Phillip Paulwell declared on television in January that he wanted to sign EWI’s license as soon as possible. Was there perhaps some pressure exerted?

Conservator of forests/head of the Forestry Department Marilyn Headley. With her are (from second left) managing director of the Water Resources Authority Basil Fernandez; deputy director of Meteorological Service of Jamaica Evan Thompson; and Adrian Shaw, also of the Met Service. (Photo: Naphtali Junior/Jamaica Observer)

Conservator of forests/head of the Forestry Department Marilyn Headley. With her are (from second left) managing director of the Water Resources Authority Basil Fernandez; deputy director of Meteorological Service of Jamaica Evan Thompson; and Adrian Shaw, also of the Met Service. (Photo: Naphtali Junior/Jamaica Observer)

Dr. Sonjah Stanley Niaah, Senior Lecturer at the University of the West Indies, is author of "DanceHall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto." Her blog is dancehallgeographies.wordpress.com

Dr. Sonjah Stanley Niaah, Senior Lecturer at the University of the West Indies, is author of “DanceHall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto.” Her blog is dancehallgeographies.wordpress.com

The dancehall trial: Some of my tweeps have upbraided me on this. If I am not a dancehall “fan,” they say (and I am not, I just don’t like it) then it is my loss, since dancehall is “the most relevant aspect of contemporary Jamaica.” Really? I stand accused of “living in a bubble.” Well, we all have our own bubbles, I guess, some smaller than others. Meanwhile, Dr. Sonjah Niaah from the University of the West Indies is very knowledgeable on the topic, so as a final postscript to the Vybz Kartel trial I highly recommend that you read her latest blog post here: http://dancehallgeographies.wordpress.com/2014/03/17/convicted-the-exceptional-werl-boss-and-the-dilemma-of-social-responsibility/  Social responsibility remains, I believe, a key issue in all of this. And having read more about him, I suspect that Mr. Kartel needs to seek professional help.

While we are still discussing the fire and the murder trial, it may have escaped our notice that tourism numbers are not looking so hot, again – down 3.2 per cent in January compared to January 2013; and that the Jamaican Dollar’s slide has accelerated this month. On Friday, it was J$109.27 to the U.S. Dollar; on Monday it went to J$109.31. The Bank of Jamaica put out a statement on Sunday evening that it stood ready to intervene in the market to avoid anything “disorderly” happening.

Finance Minister Peter Phillips

Finance Minister Peter Phillips is focused on one thing only: passing the next IMF test. He must dream IMF at nights…

The IMF at work: Parliament swiftly passed two laws yesterday that will help restrain public spending: The Public Bodies Management and Accountability (Amendment) Act and the Financial Administration and Audit (Amendment) Act. Me and many other cynics will agree that such legislation would never have been passed without the International Monetary Fund (IMF) breathing down our politicians’ necks – especially an administration that still includes former Finance Minister Omar “Run Wid It” Davies. But anyway, good going, Minister Peter Phillips.

Anyway, André Haughton, who teaches at the University of the West Indies, says Jamaica is “poised for growth.” What, again? How long have we been poised?

Parry Town residents demanding water in their pipes. (Photo: Renae Dixon/Jamaica Observer)

Parry Town residents demanding water in their pipes. (Photo: Renae Dixon/Jamaica Observer)

Irate and “bex”: Every evening on prime time news we see residents waving placards in protest at – well, it could be one of three things: lack of water, poor roads, or a police killing. On Monday night, the people of Parry Town, in Ocho Rios, were furious, shouting down their local councilor. They blocked the road.

The White Knight in "Alice in Wonderland" wore spiked ankle bands to keep away the sharks.

The White Knight in “Alice in Wonderland” wore spiked ankle bands to keep away the sharks, and recited a deeply strange poem.

The White Knight: In a nice little PR piece, University of Technology lecturer James McNish tells us that “China evidently is becoming the white knight for many economies of the world.” I am assuming he means a friendly investor. In one of my childhood stories, “Alice in Wonderland,” the White Knight is friendly enough, but one of Lewis Carroll’s strangest characters. Mr. McNish extols the virtues of the huge Baha Mar mega-resort and casino in the Bahamas. It is being built by 3,000 (yes, 3,000!) Chinese workers and with a huge Chinese loan, too. Hopefully there will be jobs for Bahamians at the end of it all.

And the White Knight has come to the rescue of JEEP (our Prime Minister’s Jamaica Emergency Employment Program) – which had broken down by the side of the road some time ago. There have been delays, but an agreement between the relevant ministries and the China Harbour Engineering Company was signed on Tuesday in the amount of J$5.4 billion (more or less) for the revival of the government’s Major Infrastructure Development Program. Some JEEP jobs will come out of that, one expects and hopes.

The Negril Morass and Royal Palm Reserve.

The Negril Morass and Royal Palm Reserve. (Photo: Island Buzz Jamaica)

Drying out: The head of the Water Resources Authority Basil Fernandez notes that water supplies in western Jamaica are drying up, and this will affect tourism. A year or two back there was a water crisis in the tourist resort of Negril that affected hotels. Once when we were staying there the entire morass was on fire; we had to leave the hotel. A lot of this is to do with climate change – the tropics are drying up; and also to do with bad planning, especially in the case of Negril, which is a mess in terms of badly planned developments and hotels.

Big ups to the following, meanwhile:

The Jamaica Fire Brigade, which was on the front line and worked round the clock to bring the horrible Riverton City fire under control. Special kudos to their spokesman Emilio Ebanks (I love that name), who is very straight forward and focused.

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Caribbean Producers (CPJ): It’s always a pleasure to eat lunch at their Deli on Kingston’s Lady Musgrave Road. Now I have even more reason to praise the food distribution company, which has announced through its Managing Director Mark Hart that it will be adopting the Glenhope Nursery. I have visited there on more than one occasion and this would tug at anyone’s heart: the sight of rows of cots containing small abandoned babies, and a sad little playground where the toddlers play. These are all abandoned children, most “in need of care and protection” as they say. Muchissimos kudos, Mr. Hart!

Jamaica's formidable Director of Public Prosecutions Paula Llewellyn has a broad, broad smile.

Jamaica’s formidable Director of Public Prosecutions Paula Llewellyn has a broad, broad smile.

Director of Public Prosecutions Paula Llewellyn, who spent considerable time on Monday morning discussing some details of the much-sensationalized Vybz Kartel trial on Senator Marlene Malahoo Forte’s morning talk show “Justice.”  I was very impressed at her diligence in answering many of the questions about court procedures and the investigative process that had been hovering around after the dancehall star’s murder conviction last week. Ms. Llewellyn clarified a lot of issues for me and other listeners. It was also a reality check on the over-stretched and inadequate justice system. Did you know that more than forty cases had to be rescheduled because of the long Vybz Kartel trial?  Anyway, thanks to both ladies!

Norma Walters being escorted by her husband, retired Custos of St Ann Radcliffe Walters during an inspection of the grounds of the Seville Great House prior to her installation as Custos of the parish.

Norma Walters and her husband, retired Custos of St Ann Radcliffe Walters at the Seville Great House prior to her installation as Custos of the parish.

The first female Custos of St. Ann Ms. Norma Walters, who has succeeded her husband Radcliffe in the largely ceremonial -but influential – position.The office of Custos is a colonial throwback; but Ms. Walters can still play an important role in guiding citizens and their leaders alike, up there on the north coast.

Videographer/photographer Zomian Thompson of Modern Media Services/Drone-maica. Photo stolen from his Facebook page!

Videographer/photographer Zomian Thompson of Modern Media Services/Drone-maica. Photo stolen from his Facebook page!

Mr. Zomian Thompson and his Modern Media Services/Dronemaica, who do brilliant aerial photography and post “virtual tours” online. Check them out on Facebook. Their recent postings of tours of Goat Islands (beautiful) and Riverton City dump on fire (fearful) are well worth looking at.

The sad part is that the murders continue, while everyone discusses everything else. My deepest condolences to the loved ones of the following Jamaican citizens, killed since Sunday (but at least the police have taken their fingers off the triggers, and we are grateful for that)…

Unidentified woman, Kitson Town, St. Catherine

Wiggan Bennett, 46, Bel Air/Runaway Bay, St. Ann

Norris Garvey, 70, Gayle, St. Mary

On our roads: Two women, both street sweepers, were run over by a speeding coaster bus that did not stop in Dunbeholden, St. Catherine this morning. One is dead and the other seriously injured. I am so sick of hearing of these hit-and-run incidents. How can one knock down two women and not stop? What kind of conscience do these people have? These street sweepers start work before dawn, very often. It is so sad. And why does the media use this expression “mowed down” to describe the running over of pedestrians? Human beings are not lawns. It sounds awful.

“Mary Seacole: A Very Great Victorian”

Further to my earlier blog post on Mary Seacole, I received a kind note from Dr. Elizabeth N. Anionwu, Professor Emeritus of Nursing at the University of West London. Professor Anionwu has directed me to her article and gave me permission to reproduce it below, in case you missed the link. You can find the article online at the Operation Black Vote website, here: http://www.obv.org.uk/news-blogs/mary-seacole-very-great-victorian Lots of fascinating information here.

Mary Seacole has received unprecedented media coverage due to the phenomenal success of the Operation Black Vote petition to keep her included in the national curriculum. In a period of a month over 35,000 people signed it since going online on Thursday 3rd January 2013. This nationwide and international response has been remarkable. So too the overwhelming display of respect for Mary Seacole, as demonstrated in the comments of thousands who signed the petition. A leaked draft of the proposed new history curriculum was featured in the Mail on 29/12/2012.

The report stated that ‘..pupils will again have to study these traditional historic figures’ and examples included Oliver Cromwell, Lord Nelson and Winston Churchill. In contrast, Mary Seacole and other ‘social reformers’ such as Elizabeth Fry, Olaudah Equiano and Florence Nightingale would be excluded. This was followed a few days later with an article in the Mail headed: ‘The black Florence Nightingale and the making of a PC myth: One historian explains how Mary Seacole’s story never stood up’ (31/12/201).

The rapid success of the petition led to extensive analysis in newspapers, online media and radio. Mary Seacole generated a debate: on the one hand there was acknowledgement of her achievements whilst on the other hand doubts were raised as to whether she merited this acclaim and admiration.
It was argued by some that myths created about Seacole need to be corrected; three examples are explored here.

1. Mary Seacole never called herself a nurse and was not recognised as somebody who nursed soldiers in the war zone. Instead it is asserted that she was just a kind and motherly sutler, someone who sold provisions to the army. An example of where this has been challenged is in a Ros Asquith cartoon (Guardian, 14 January 2013), citing Seacole’s obituary in The Times (21 May 1881). The latter included: ‘The deceased, it will be remembered, greatly distinguished herself as a nurse on the battlefield and in hospitals during the Crimean war.’ In her autobiography Mary did refer to herself several times as both a nurse and a doctress. Excluding testimonials in her book, there are many others who during her lifetime, praised her nursing expertise. Some are included in an article I had published last year: ‘Mary Seacole: nursing care in many lands’.

2. Mary Seacole should not be considered as a ‘black historical figure’. She was, for example, voted the Greatest Black Briton in 2004. Some suggest that accolades of this nature are dubious as Seacole is ‘three-quarters white’ and, it is claimed, was more at ease with her white and Scottish roots than her black Jamaican heritage. Evidence to back this up uses selected extracts from her 1857 autobiography ‘Wonderful adventures of Mrs Seacole in many lands’ including that her skin colour is “only a little brown” and disparaging remarks she made about her black cooks. Let’s look at other examples of what she wrote in that same book, published nearly twenty years after slavery had been fully abolished in Jamaica in 1838 and eight years before being outlawed in the USA in 1865. In chapter 2: “I have a few shades of deeper brown upon my skin which shows me related – and I am proud of the relationship – to those poor mortals whom you once held enslaved, and whose bodies America still owns. And having this bond, and knowing what slavery is; having seen with my eyes and heard with my ears proof positive enough of its horrors – let others affect to doubt them if they will – is it surprising that I should be somewhat impatient of the airs of superiority which many Americans have endeavoured to assume over me?”

In chapter 6 she recalls an American toasting her at a dinner in Panama, possibly in 1851, in recognition of the excellent nursing care of him and fellow countrymen during a cholera outbreak. He wished that he could bleach her skin: “and thus make her acceptable in any company as she deserves to be —.” Her outraged response included “I don’t altogether appreciate your friend’s kind wishes with respect to my complexion”. Further on in the chapter Mary shows her sympathy with American slaves, recounting how a young African-American woman had been rescued from being ‘bound hand and foot, naked, and being severely lashed’ by her cruel young American mistress. A magistrate, ‘himself a man of colour’, pronounced that she was free to leave her mistress. Seacole and others persuaded the petrified girl to flee to freedom and helped to purchase her child from the slave-owner.

3. Mary Seacole was never awarded the medals she is seen wearing in various images. These include portraits, photos and a terracotta bust sculpted in 1871 by Count Gleichen, a half-nephew of Queen Victoria. Some of these imageries have been known about for some time, whilst others have only been discovered in the last 10 years. The number of decorations Mary is reported as having during her life ranges from two to four. A week after the death of Mary’s sister Louisa Grant, on the 21st July 1905, the Jamaican Gleaner (27/7/1905) related that Mary had ‘… received three decorations for her services in the Crimea, which are on exhibition in the Portrait Gallery of the Jamaica Institute’.

Jane Robinson in her 2005 biography of Seacole (page 167) proposed that in a photograph, Mary is wearing decorative miniature or ‘dress’ medals. Helen Rappaport is the historian who discovered the lost 1869 portrait of Mary Seacole, now owned and hanging in the National Portrait Gallery, London. She was advised by medal experts that, in the painting, Mary is wearing ‘a set of three miniature medals: the British Crimea, the Turkish Medjidie and the French Legion of Honour.’ (Jamaica Journal, December 2006, page 38). These opinions are in sharp contrast to those who have either seen the two medals housed in the Institute of Jamaica, Kingston and/or the photograph of them that is owned by the National Library of Jamaica. Their view is that the medals are authentic and are the Turkish Order of the Mejidie (spelt in a variety of ways) and the French Legion of Honour. This difference of opinion has understandably created confusion.

So forgetting about enjoying my retirement and as the temperatures plummeted and the snow fell, I decided to hibernate in my flat and pull together some facts. Books and articles on Mary Seacole were taken down from my shelves and the computer was switched on to browse the internet. I also contacted Drs Corry and Jeroen Staring-Derks, Seacole researchers based in Holland, and am extremely grateful for all their time, advice and assistance. I focussed on research findings in four books; three subsequent editions of Mary’s 1857 autobiography and Robinson’s 2005 biography as all have attempted to investigate the status of Seacole’s medals.

1984 witnessed the first publication of the autobiography following the original 1857 edition. Edited by Ziggi Alexander and Audrey Dewjee and published by Falling Wall Press, Bristol it is now out of print. I attended the book launch and this was when I first learnt about Mary Seacole. The 37 page Editors’ Introduction is teeming with facts about Mary from her birth in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805 to her death in London in 1881 aged 76 years.

I was surprised to discover that she was buried in St Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in Kensal Green, London just half a mile down the road from my old school of nursing. On page 36 the editors write in some detail about the medals. They include The Times report (7 November, 1856) of Seacole’s bankruptcy hearing which noted that ‘the lady of colour’ had been ‘honoured with four Government medals for her kindness to the British soldiery’. Alexander and Dewjee go on to observe that: ‘the exact identity of these medals has till now remained a mystery. The Daily Gleaner of Jamaica, in an obituary article on Mrs. Seacole which appeared on 9 June, 1881, stated that she received ‘English, French, Russian and Turkish decorations’.

While it was consistent with the reception she received on returning that such awards should be conferred upon her, there seems to be no easily accessible record of when this was done. Even so, independent contemporary sources confirm their existence and on a bust carved in 1871 by Queen Victoria’s nephew, Count Gleichen, who knew her in the Crimea, Mrs. Seacole is wearing the four medals. This bust and two of her medals are held by the Institute of Jamaica. Through the recent researches of Anita Johnson of the National Library of Jamaica and Mr. J.M.A. Tamplin of the Royal Commonwealth Society, the surviving medals have been identified as the Order of the Mejidie, which was a commendation granted by the Turks to the British for outstanding service, and the French Legion of Honour. Identification of the missing pair does pose problems for researchers. A quick search I did on the internet identifies that John M. A. Tamplin is a recognised expert and writer on British Gallantry awards.

2005: Jane Robinson’s biography ‘Mary Seacole. The Charismatic Black Nurse Who Became a Heroine of the Crimea’ was published by Constable to coincide with the bicentenary of her birth in 1805. On page 167 she states that ‘None of Mary’s medals can now be found (although the Institute of Jamaica thinks it might have the French and Turkish ones, at the moment, at least, they are lost)’. Robinson notes that the four medals on the 1871 terracotta bust are apparently the British Crimea medal, a Sardinian award, the French Légion d’Honneur and the star-shaped Turkish Order of the Mejidie. They’re rather small though. A recently discovered photograph of Mary, taken at about the same time, only shows three decorations. And, judging by their size, they’re all miniatures, or ‘dress’ medals.’ Robinson was also unable to find any notice of awards to Mary Seacole in the London Gazette or the War Office archives.

Also published in 2005 was the Penguin Classics edition of the autobiography with a 52 page introduction by the Editor, Sarah Salih, Professor of English at the University of Toronto, Canada. She wrote that Mary ‘was eventually decorated with four medals for her services to the Crimea (page xxxviii)’ and had slightly better luck during her visit to Jamaica. On the one hand, in her Note 65 on page xlviii, Salih explains that two of the medals were said to be in the ‘Jamaica National Institute, but the staff there were unable to locate them when I visited.’ On the other hand, she did see the photograph of the medals in the Jamaica National Library which she compared with images in Ribbons and Medals by Captain H. Taprell Dorling (1944). One she concludes ‘is undoubtedly the Order of the Medijie, and the other resembles the description and image of the French Legion of Honour…’

In 2007 a reprint of the 1857 Dutch edition of Seacole’s autobiography, ‘Mary Seacole’s Avonturen in De West En In De Krim’ (Mary Seacole’s Adventures in the West and the Crimea), was published by Integraal Publishers in Nijmegen in the Netherlands and is available for purchase via http://www.maryseacole.nl. There is a 227 page Editors’ Foreword by Dr Corry Staring-Derks, a lecturer in Anatomy, Physiology & Pathology in the Nursing Department of Avans Hogescholen (Institute of Higher Education) in the Netherlands. When she and her husband Jeroen visited the Institute of Jamaica in 2006 they had the good fortune to see and measure the medals and view Count Gleichen’s terracotta bust of Mary Seacole.

As with Salih, they were satisfied that the two medals matched the descriptions of the French Legion of Honour and the Turkish Order of the Mejidie found in Dorling’s publication. Notably, on page xxiii of her own book, Staring-Derks includes the National Library of Jamaica’s photograph of the two medals. The Institute’s Journal of Jamaica features the same black and white photograph in an article ‘More Than a Nurse’ by Aleric Josephs, a lecturer in History at the University of the West Indies, Jamaica (December 2006, page 52). When the couple were in London in August 2009 they pored through Victorian newspapers in the British Library and unearthed over 30 unknown references to Mary Seacole (see page 72, Nursing Standard 1/10/2010). They compiled into a book, written in English, a selection of the cuttings together with twelve international reviews (from 1857-58) of Mary’s autobiography (Staring-Derks & Staring, 2010).

The couple enabled a limited edition of the book to be published in aid of the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal, a charity for which they are Ambassadors. On page 12 are some examples of scanned newspaper reports from May 1856 of Mary being awarded a Turkish medal. The Derby Mercury of the 14th May 1856 announced : ‘The Turkish government has given Mrs Seacole, of Balaklava, a medal for her services to the Turkish troops when they were encamped last winter near her iron house’. Similar accounts appeared in the Manchester Times (24/5/1856) and the Aberdeen Journal (28/5/1856). No equivalent written record has yet been found concerning the award of the French Legion of Honour.

When the Staring-Derks couple were at the Institute of Jamaica they met a member of staff, Staci-Marie Dehaney, who told them that Seacole had been awarded a Russian medal after her death, but could not supply any further information. In 1990 Mary was posthumously honoured by Jamaica with the award of the Order of Merit.

Research is still required to discover whether Mary Seacole was awarded any other medals, be they British, Russian or Sardinian. Verifying or dismissing some, but not all, historic claims concerning Seacole seems to be akin to a detective story. This is poignantly illustrated in this letter to the Jamaican Gleaner from R.A. Walcott (26 July, 1905): ‘Who can tell us…. where to find the Crimean War Medal and [clasp] that she received, or the bust of herself executed by a member of the Royal Family? Who can point out the resting place of the honoured bones of Mrs Seacole?’ Well, two out of three of the questions have been answered, but not the one about the location of the Crimean medal, notwithstanding tantalising accounts from people who believe they saw her wearing it. Enthusiastic history sleuths are needed to complete the whole of this fascinating jigsaw puzzle.

As for me it’s now time to see more of the family, including my 5 year old grand-daughter. She is one of the reasons that I am working with a team of volunteers to raise funds for the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue that will be located in the grounds of St Thomas’ hospital in London. Once erected, I want her and other children to visit it and touch history. As Sir W. H Russell, the Times Crimean War correspondent wrote about Mary Seacole in 1857: “Let England not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead.” If you agree, please make a donation via:http://www.justgiving.com/maryseacolememorial/Donate.

Thank you.

Elizabeth N Anionwu, PhD CBE FRCN, Emeritus Professor of Nursing, University of West London. Author: ‘A short history of Mary Seacole: a resource for nurses and students’ (2005) Royal College of Nursing.

A second photograph of Mary Seacole, in an album devoted to the Crimean War, was discovered in 2010 by Dr Geoffrey Day, the current Fellows' and Eccles Librarian at Winchester College, one of England's oldest public schools.

A second photograph of Mary Seacole, in an album devoted to the Crimean War, was discovered in 2010 by Dr Geoffrey Day, the current Fellows’ and Eccles Librarian at Winchester College, one of England’s oldest public schools.

Swept Away: “Werther” at the Met

I spent the afternoon sitting in the Carib Cinema weeping blissfully. At one point in the final act of Massenet’s “Werther,” I had the urge to throw myself down in the aisle and sob loudly. I am not sure if the small but devoted Jamaican audience would have approved – but some might perhaps have joined me.

Werther reminds Charlotte of his literary inspiration - the writings of a legendary Gaelic poet called Ossian - as he sings "Tout mon ame est la!" (All of my soul is there).

Werther reminds Charlotte of his literary inspiration – the writings of a legendary Gaelic poet called Ossian –  singing “Tout mon ame est la!” (All of my soul is there). His emotional aria “Pourquoi me reveiller” nearly brought the house down at today’s performance.

The brief ball scene in this production - not a part of the original libretto.

The brief, candlelit ball scene in this production of “Werther”- not a part of the original libretto, but done with great delicacy.

We were watching another in the series of Metropolitan Opera of New York’s live broadcasts, which are seen in some sixty countries around the world. There are just three left in the current series. There is little variety in musical offerings in Kingston – there is a dearth of classical music of any kind, and even anything approaching jazz seems to have died a death. So we are grateful, and lucky, and thank our local Palace Amusement Company for making it all possible.

The beautiful Werther, sung by Jonas Kaufmann. As you can see here, the sets depicting the changing seasons in the earlier part of the opera were very effective, with the use of video. Crows perched in wintry trees, burnt-orange leaves fell in autumn, and here was the dappled green of summer.

The beautiful Werther, sung by Jonas Kaufmann. As you can see here, the sets depicting the changing seasons in the earlier part of the opera made very effective use of video. Crows  flew to their perches in wintry trees, burnt-orange leaves fell; and here was the dappled green of springtime on a country estate.

Very grateful, indeed, for the  extraordinarily beautiful performances in the nineteenth-century French composer’s opera “Werther.”  This transported me back to my high school days, when I studied German for Advanced Level and was obsessed by the music, literature and art of the European fin de siècle. The heightened emotions, the melancholia, the world-weariness, the love of nature and beauty. As a teenager I just lapped it all up.

A young Goethe, painted in 1787 by Angelika Kauffmann. By the way, there was a 2011 film, "Young Goethe in Love." Please try to avoid it...

A young Goethe, painted in 1787 by Angelika Kauffmann. By the way, there was a 2011 film, “Young Goethe in Love.” Please try to avoid it…

I was very fond of the German poet, writer, lawyer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was actually pre-turn of the century, but working up to that same spirit of the times. At the age of 25 Goethe was already a superstar, with the 1775 publication of his first novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” on which the opera is loosely based. The vaguely autobiographical work (it is a “love triangle” of sorts)  was a huge European hit. And yes, Goethe himself fell in love a great deal, as you might expect. “Sorrows” is a classic example of the “Sturm und Drang” artistic movement of the time. It’s really hard to translate; but basically this was all about the individual and the vehement expression of one’s emotions, in response to the cool rationalism of the Enlightenment period (OK, it’s more complex than that, but in the interests of time and space…) In short, Sturm und Drang was a kind of eighteenth century punk rock movement (without the spitting).

Jonas Kaufmann in this production of "Werther." (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe/Metropolitan Opera)

Jonas Kaufmann in this production of “Werther.” (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe/Metropolitan Opera)

Well, let us look at this fictional poet Werther, in the handsome person of Jonas Kaufmann, the German tenor. Both Kaufmann and Sophie Koch, a wonderful French mezzo soprano who played Charlotte, have sung these roles together several times before, and it showed. There was nothing stilted about their acting; and as Charlotte sang, “Que ton âme en mon âme éperdument se fonde!” (“Let your soul and my soul merge desperately!”) their performances really did blend together effortlessly. (By the way, Werther was bleeding pretty badly at this point).

Charlotte (Sophie Koch) with Werther in the final scene.

Charlotte (Sophie Koch) with Werther in the final scene.

The New York Times recently described Kaufmann as “currently the most in-demand, versatile and exciting tenor in opera.”  Well, he’s in demand with me, all right. I would run a hundred miles and cross many seas to see and hear him perform again. His voice has been described as having “dark” tones. In the final act, his soft notes were as exquisite as his earlier passionate ones. And he is simply quite beautiful (see: http://www.jonaskaufmann.com/en/) I am quite tempted to go and see the encore performance, which will take place in Kingston at the Cineplex Cinema and in Montego Bay at the Multiplex on Sunday, March 23 at 11:30 a.m. 

The art direction included frames (sometimes asymmetrical and tilted) to create more intimate settings on the huge stage. Here in the final act, Charlotte gets ready to go and find Werther, who is already rather ominously contemplating a box of pistols in his room. This is a piercing moment when she stands outside in the darkness, fearful for Werther, while he moves about his room.

The art direction included frames (sometimes asymmetrical and tilted) to create more intimate settings on the huge stage. Here in the final act, Charlotte gets ready to go and find Werther, who is already rather ominously contemplating a box of pistols in his room. This is a piercing moment when she stands outside in the darkness, fearful for Werther, while he moves about his room.

You get the feeling that poor Werther is ready to end his own life from the beginning of this story. He is as much wrapped up in himself as he is in Charlotte. As Jonas Kaufmann himself jokingly said during an interview, you keep wanting to tell him, “Get over it… Give us a break.” 
But that wasn’t the way of the Romantics. They wanted to keep that candle burning. As well they should.
An image of the first edition of

An image of the first edition of “Die Leiden des jungen Werthers” (The Sorrows of Young Werther) by Goethe. Actually “Leiden” means more than sorrows. It means suffering.

The Jamaica-Crimea Connection

Sounds rather odd, doesn’t it? But actually, there is one, and it’s rather interesting.

A quiet afternoon at Mary Seacole Hall. (My photo)

A quiet afternoon at Mary Seacole Hall. (My photo)

A couple of days ago I was at a women’s residence on the University of the West Indies’ Kingston campus, Mary Seacole Hall. I spoke to a group of students from the I’m Glad I’m a Girl Foundation, which mentors teenage girls. It was a quiet Ash Wednesday holiday; small groups of students relaxed in the courtyard in the pale sunlight. Rain hovered in the hills surrounding the campus, but none fell. Nadeen Spence (a member of the 51% Coalition), who established the group, was talking about “The Realities of Girls in Jamaica” when I arrived.

This bust of Mary Seacole is tucked away to one side of the hall of residence at the University of the West Indies. Sorry I didn't grab a more close-up photo.

This bust of Mary Seacole is tucked away to one side of the hall of residence at the University of the West Indies. Sorry I didn’t grab a more close-up photo.

The only known photographic portrait of Mary Seacole, courtesy of the Amoret Tanner Collection.

The only known photographic portrait of Mary Seacole, courtesy of the Amoret Tanner Collection.

The residential hall was named after Mary Seacole in 1957. As a woman of mixed race, she also faced many tough realities, back in colonial Jamaica and in the UK where she lived for much of her life (and where she is buried). Ms. Seacole was born in Kingston in 1805, the daughter of a “free” Jamaican woman and a Scottish army officer. (I put “free” in quotation marks because many civil rights were still denied to Mary’s family). Her mother ran a home for invalid soldiers in Kingston and this started Mary’s interest in nursing. She was married for eight years, then widowed. Then she went off on her adventures – a few years after the “full free” of Emancipation (that was August 1, 1838). Over the next few years she worked as a nurse during a cholera epidemic in Panama and worked at Up Park Camp in Kingston during a yellow fever outbreak.

Why am I telling you so much about this extraordinary pioneering woman? Well, in 1853 war broke out in the Crimea – yes, the same Black Sea peninsula where there are currently uncomfortable standoffs between militia and soldiers waving flags and guns and singing patriotic songs. It remains to be seen whether the would-be-czar Vladimir Putin decides to annex the Crimea this time around, but during the Crimean War (1853-56) Russia eventually lost to an odd alliance of the British, French, the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia, after the siege of Sevastopol. It was a bitter and costly war (as they so often are) which devastated the Crimea. Since then, and throughout the last century, the Ukraine suffered terrible losses from famine and civil war – and at the hands of Stalin and Hitler. One hopes history does not repeat itself.

A commander at the Ukrainian military garrison at the Belbek airbase speaks to troops under Russian command occupying the Belbek airbase in Crimea on March 4, 2014 in Lubimovka, Ukraine. (Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

A commander at the Ukrainian military garrison at the Belbek airbase speaks to troops under Russian command occupying the Belbek airbase in Crimea on March 4, 2014 in Lubimovka, Ukraine. (Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Well, Mary Seacole was determined to join Florence Nightingale in the Crimea and care for the British soldiers. She was a middle-aged woman now, and pretty much on her own except for the support of Mr. Thomas Day, a relative of her husband’s. In London, she tried to enroll as a nurse in the Crimea, but was rejected several times. In the end, she raised enough funds to get there anyway. She traveled alone with her supplies to the battlefield of Balaklava, where she set up the famous “British Hotel” for sick and wounded soldiers. When the war ended, she returned to London, completely broke. But her autobiography, “Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands,” was a best-seller. A gala was held in her honor in 1857 and funds were raised to support her. She became quite close to the Royal Family at the time, received several awards, and a Count carved a bust of her.

Balaklava Harbor in the Crimean War. (Photo: Roger Fenton. www.old-picture.com)

Balaklava Harbor in the Crimean War. (Photo: Roger Fenton. http://www.old-picture.com)

Mary Seacole died in 1881. Back in England, there is an appeal for a memorial statue of her to be erected at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London. You can find out more, and contribute here: http://www.maryseacoleappeal.org.uk  And you can read much, much more at http://www.maryseacole.com.

A 2005 commemorative postage stamp.

A 2005 commemorative postage stamp.

Her fame lives on. In an effort to promote black history in Britain, the website and campaign “100 Great Black Britons” was launched in 2003. Mary Seacole was voted number one on the list. The BBC aired a documentary about her; a portrait of her was discovered and now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London; biographies have been written. A move by the Education Minister to have her (and Olaudah Equiano) removed from the National Curriculum sparked a huge protest in England and a petition, signed by over 35,000 people, ensured that the Ministry changed its mind.  Yes, the British have claimed Mary Seacole as one of their own.

Jamaican journalist, dramatist and cultural activist Dr. the Hon. Barbara Gloudon. (PhotoL Institute of Jamaica)

Jamaican journalist, dramatist and cultural activist Dr. the Hon. Barbara Gloudon. (Photo: Institute of Jamaica)

(Oh, is the story of Mary Seacole included in the Jamaican school curriculum? I hope so). Meanwhile, I am thankful to Ms. Barbara Gloudon, who wrote a column about her yesterday, for inspiring this blog post. Here is her piece: http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/columns/A-Jamaican-woman-was-there-before-Putin_16205851 And here is an article from the conservative UK Daily Mail, subtitled: “Claims of her achievements have been hugely oversold for political reasons, says leading historian” that made me feel uncomfortable:
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2255095/The-black-Florence-Nightingale-making-PC-myth-One-historian-explains-Mary-Seacoles-story-stood-up.html#ixzz2vQwA7iw5  Being a historic black figure is uncomfortable and complex, it seems…

March 8 (International Women's Day) is celebrated with lots of flowers in the Ukraine (and Russia) - mainly tulips, roses and spring flowers. I like this...

March 8 (International Women’s Day) is celebrated with lots of flowers in the Ukraine (and Russia) – mainly tulips, roses and spring flowers. I like this…

Meanwhile, I hope you all had a wonderful International Women’s Day! (Incidentally, in the Ukraine – of which the Crimea is still a part – the day is celebrated almost like Valentine’s Day, with flowers and parties for women. How do I know this? Because a blog reader told me!)

Mary Jane Seacole (née Grant) by Albert Charles Challen oil on panel, 1869 9 1/2 in. x 6 1/4 in. (240 mm x 180 mm) Purchased with help from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, and Gallery supporters, 2008 (National Portrait Gallery)

Mary Jane Seacole (née Grant)
by Albert Charles Challen
oil on panel, 1869
9 1/2 in. x 6 1/4 in. (240 mm x 180 mm)
Purchased with help from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, and Gallery supporters, 2008 (National Portrait Gallery)

Stuart Hall, Caribbean Thought and the World We Live In

I have to preface this article with a confession: Although I have lived in England and in Jamaica for most of my life so far, I had never heard of Stuart Hall, who recently died at the age of 82. He taught at my alma mater, Oxford University, a few years after I graduated. And I realize that Hall had actually lived in England much longer than I have, arriving there in the year of my birth, at the age of nineteen. I was preoccupied with other things than politics in 1980s Britain (including making money, and moving permanently to Jamaica). British politics was a mere backdrop for me, and perhaps I had moved on a little from my youthful radicalism (although, looking back on it, I may well have been influenced by Hall’s thought, without knowing him, from the late 1960s to the 1970s)

OK, confession over. A colleague shared this revealing article, written by esteemed academics at the Centre for Caribbean Thought, and I am sharing it with you below. I hope that you find it of interest, as I did. It begs the question, though: What is the state of “multiculturalism” in Britain today?

Jamaican-born cultural theorist Stuart Hall coined the term "Thatcherism." (Photo: Getty Images)

Jamaican-born cultural theorist Stuart Hall coined the term “Thatcherism.” (Photo: Getty Images)

There have been many tributes to the Jamaican-born thinker Stuart Hall. We at the Centre for Caribbean Thought  remember the 2004 conference “Culture, Politics, Race and Diaspora: The Thought of Stuart Hall,” where  with  mesmerizing eloquence Hall  addressed  ideas about thinking, activism, the Caribbean  Diaspora , politics and  the  complex relationships between culture, race, class and power. When we invited Hall in 2003  and informed him that his work would be the subject of a “Caribbean Reasonings Conference” his initial response,  typical of his character  was that he had not written much on the Caribbean; that  his work was not of the kind like that of Lamming, or CLR James. Yet in a lecture delivered at the 50th anniversary of the University of West Indies, Hall had noted that the 1998 event occurred at the same time as the 50th anniversary of the docking of the SS Empire Windrush in the UK. That landing began a new history of post-war Caribbean migration to the UK.

Hall arrived in the UK as a Rhodes Scholar in 1951. His life was a Caribbean life away, a diasporic life in which the new meanings of home were constructed while retaining  echoes of the former home. How could one forget the 1991 seven-part documentary series which he narrated, Redemption Song,” that deeply explored the past and present of the Caribbean? Hall was a Caribbean intellectual, one who was part and parcel of the post war Afro- Caribbean migration experience.  That he did not  return “home” like others – George Lamming, or Sylvia Wynter ( who returned for a while ) and others did not mean that he was not Caribbean . What it meant was that the Caribbean was now working through a different geographical and cultural location. He himself noted: “The fate of the Caribbean people living in the UK, the USA or Canada is no more ‘external’ to Caribbean history than the Empire was ‘external’ to the so called domestic history of Britain.”  

Living at the heart of the British colonial empire in its dying days and on the cusp of regional political independence was both a formidable intellectual and political challenge for Hall.  These challenges remained with him for a long time and as he said in an interview in 2012, “I am not quite English.” Hall’s preoccupation with Diaspora and race emerged out of this conundrum which he navigated. There is profound connection between Hall’s life and his writings and thinking about Diaspora and race for as he once said in a debate with a conservative political figure in London,“You cannot have at the back of your head what I have in mine. You once owned me on a plantation.”

When Hall became involved in British left politics it was at a moment when orthodox Marxism was reeling from the exposures and revelations of the brutalities of Stalinism. If in 1956 another Caribbean figure, Aimé Césaire resigned from the French Communist Party, stating that not only the bodies murdered by Stalin were an eloquent testimony to the negative practices of orthodox communism but that the colonial and race problems  required new and different readings of how societies were constituted, Hall along with others in 1960 founded the “New Left Review”  as one attempt to construct a new left politics. This desire to construct a  different left politics which was not a distant cousin of orthodox Marxism (what he would call in 1986 in an article on ideology, “Marxism without guarantees”) was critical  to Hall’s intellectual and political life. Indeed his work as the central founder of the field of “Cultural Studies” at Birmingham University was not so much about a study of the popular but more about thinking around the relationships between power and culture. It was to understand culture as a complex phenomenon which was always contested; but importantly he believed  that one could not think politically without grappling with the yeast of culture. It was this  understanding which made it possible for him to coin the term “ Thatcherism” as a hegemonic cluster of ideas, which were not just political but deeply rooted in  the cultural and social history of Britain.

Hall’s political thinking in recent years was to grapple with the ideas inaugurated by Thatcher and others  and what he called a year ago the “neo-liberal revolution.” He reminds us that Thatcher once said, “The object is to change the soul.”  In grappling with this new ideological configuration, Hall posited two sets of ideas amongst many which might be in part legacies for us today. The first is the notion of contingency. The idea that social and political life is not fixed, that there is no formal closure and therefore there is fluidity in what seems fixed and frozen. It is an important idea because it always means that in the darkest of times there are always “points of light.” The second is one which he took from the Italian political thinker, Antonio Gramsci – the idea of “common sense.”  His challenge to us was that we should understand how common sense gets  formed. In  an  article written by himself and Alan O‘Shea  in December 2013 , he argued that  the   “assumption that everyone is obviously going to agree with what is being proposed is in fact a means of securing that agreement.”  He also noted that the idea that “we all share common sense values … It is a powerful legitimation strategy.”

That months before his death Hall and others worked on the “Kilburn Manifesto’” a document about the possibilities of renewing the left in Britain, is indicative of a force field of determination. But perhaps even more so it was indicative of his deep desire to confront the world as we know it and challenge its assumptions. In London, Hall’s contribution to visual culture is well known, particularly his work with the group of Black Photographers and the establishment of Rivington Place. Hall had that rare gift of discerning the contours of the world in which we live. With unmatched generosity he worked across generations. He was open to the future and to the possibilities of a different world as he practiced a form of engaged listening and dialogue . For those of us at the Centre for Caribbean Thought he is a seminal figure and thinker of the 20th century.

Brian Meeks, Professor of Social and Political Change, Director Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of , The University of the West Indies, Mona

Anthony Bogues, Lyn Crost Professor of Social Sciences and Critical Theory , Professor of Africana Studies, Director, Center for the Study of Slavery & Justice, Brown University

Rupert Lewis, Professor Emeritus of Political Thought, The University of the West Indies, Mona

Short biography of Stuart Hall: Stuart Hall was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1932. The UK “Guardian” notes: “His father, Herman, was the first non-white person to hold a senior position – chief accountant – with United Fruit in Jamaica. Jessie, his formidable mother, had white forebears and identified with the ethos of an imaginary, distant Britain.” Educated at Jamaica College, he won a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University and moved to the UK in 1951, just after the migration of Jamaicans on the “Windrush.” He studied English at Merton College, and began doctoral studies on the work of Henry James. He was drawn towards Marxism and quickly became involved in the establishment of the New Left, after the Soviet repression of the Hungarian revolution in 1956 and other dramatic global events. In 1957 he founded the “Universities and Left Review,” and subsequently became founding editor of the “New Left Review.”  Moving to London and abandoning his studies, he became a supply teacher in Brixton and in 1961, a lecturer in film and media at Chelsea College, London University. He became increasingly involved in cultural activities and co-authored “Popular Arts,” with Paddy Whannel. In 1964 he married historian Catherine Barrett. He moved to Birmingham as the first research fellow at the new Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Birmingham University, founded by Richard Hoggart. The “Guardian” notes that during this period Hall “shifted the terms of debate on the media, deviancy, race, politics, Marxism and critical theory.” In 1979 he became Professor of Sociology at the Open University (OU), which had opened just eight years earlier during Harold Wilson’s Labour Party administration in an effort to make higher education (through distance learning) much more widely available to those who would not qualify for a traditional university education. He stayed there until 1998, later becoming emeritus professor. His move to OU coincided with Margaret Thatcher’s election victory; in “The Politics of Thatcherism” (1983) he pointed out that her political beliefs reflected an authentic popular British ethos. From 1997 to 2000 he served on the Runnymede Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain. Leaving academia, he collaborated with many young artists and film-makers, focusing on black expression and the immigrant experience. He helped secure funding for Rivington Place in east London, dedicated to public education in multicultural issues. A history of his life and work produced by film-maker John Akomfrah, “The Unfinished Conversation” (2012), and a widely distributed film, “The Stuart Hall Project” (2013) brought Hall to the attention of a new generation. In 2005 Hall was made a fellow of the British Academy. His published work (all collaborative volumes) includes: “Resistance Through Rituals” (1975); “Culture, Media, Language” (1980); “Politics and Ideology” (1986); “The Hard Road to Renewal” (1988); “New Times” (1989); “Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies” (1996); and “Different: A Historical Context: Contemporary Photographers and Black Identity” (2001).

Incidentally, Stuart Hall was a lifelong, passionate fan of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. His 1959 album "Kind of Blue" is recognized as one of the most influential of all time.

Incidentally, Stuart Hall was a lifelong, passionate fan of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. His 1959 album “Kind of Blue” is recognized as one of the most influential of all time.