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31 Years Ago today

Robert Godwin Beresford Verity (c. 1939)
Robert Godwin Beresford Verity (c. 1939)

Today, 31 years ago, Bob Verity died, in Kingston, Jamaica. He was a brilliant, creative, joyful man, who lived life to the full, had many careers, and left behind a legacy of solid achievement, great memories for all who knew him, and a mountain of love. We miss him so.


The following photos were all taken in August 1939, on a banana boat travelling home to Jamaica, a few days after his marriage to Jacqueline.

anitascans007 Solitaireanitascans009

Rotten to the core

So, Apple was in a joint enterprise with the corrupt politicians and tax authorities of the Republic of Ireland, to ensure that it had an advantage over its competitors – and coincidentally all other honest businesses in the EU, competitor or not – that allowed it to avoid paying practically all of the already very low corporate tax – 12.5% – that country uses to attract so-called “inward investment”. In one recent year the largest corporation on earth managed to pay only £50 on every £1,000,000 of sales on three continents. Now it, and its corrupt partners, have been rumbled.

The European competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, has been investigating Apple’s complex tax dealings for the last three years. Yesterday she blew the whistle on this tax scam. She told Apple and Ireland that what they were doing was illegal under EU law, a law Ireland willingly signed up to and which is binding on all EU states. “Member states cannot give tax benefits to selected companies – this is illegal under EU state aid rules.” she said, adding “The commission’s investigation concluded that Ireland granted illegal tax benefits to Apple, which enabled it to pay substantially less tax than other businesses over many years.”

I suppose that after the ‘Panama Papers’ revelations, we should not be surprised that Apple is up to no good. I have always taken it as read that Apple is a company very much on the dark side. How could a company founded by, and modelled on, a sociopathic narcissistic bully, be otherwise? So it probably isn’t shocking for some people that Apple is little better than your neighbourhood money launderer, banana republic dictator, mafia don or Vladimir Putin. But it is, to me anyway, profoundly disturbing.

For here we have one of the leading technology companies in the world – makers of some of the most desired products on earth, whose profit margins are the envy of the business world, and whose skill at consumer packaging is unrivalled – being so greedy for profit that it is prepared to act like a common criminal. This is a company which, because of its exalted position and the love and loyalty it attracts from so many (misguided?) people worldwide, should be setting an example by paying its fair share of taxes. Instead, it funnels vast amount of its very real sales into an almost imaginary company that exists only on paper: it has no staff, no offices, is based nowhere, and is in no tax jurisdiction. It pays no tax what so ever. By comparison, Amazon and Starbucks and Google come up smelling of roses.

Meanwhile, in Ireland the country in which Apple really exists, in which those sales should be booked, and in which it should pay tax, its partners in illegality – some would say crime – make up the loss by passing Apple’s share to ordinary people and honest businesses to pay; or reduces their benefits; and, in the case of public servants, cuts their pay and pensions, because the tax take is not enough. You wonder, should Apple pay its fair share of tax, how many schools could be built, sick people treated, homeless housed in that Emerald Isle?

Is Apple abashed? Hell no. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook, almost in the persona of his dead master, is crying foul, supported by a phalanx of neo-cons and Ayn Rand groupies. Even the American government is threatening to rain down fire and brimstone on the EU for its impertinence in challenging the God given and manifest destiny of any American corporation to cheat the rest of the world.

Is the Irish government jumping with joy at the prospect of a massive windfall? Apparently not. It too is crying foul. The Irish finance minister said yesterday that he would appeal. “The decision leaves me with no choice but to seek cabinet approval to appeal. This is necessary to defend the integrity of our tax system, to provide tax certainty to business and to challenge the encroachment of EU state aid rules into the sovereign member state competence of taxation.” Or in other words, to defend his state’s right to break the law when it sees fit.

Now, there is a phrase in the ministers statement that keeps cropping up and which brings me out in hives: it’s “…provide […] certainty to business.” It crops up in the Brexit debacle as well. Now, only a fool would look for certainty in anything in this universe, for it is a universe built of uncertainty. Like all human affairs, business is based on uncertainty. Businessmen are supposed to take risks to gain profit, and risk is just a measure of uncertainty. Business without risk is not enterprise, it is rent collection. So when a business expects a government to give it certainty, and a government attempts to do so, batten down the hatches and lock your daughters, for evil is abroad. And funnily enough, evil is often Apple shaped.

A Declaration of Interest

I have long held that, whenever the subject of the Apple Corporation and its products are discussed on radio and TV, or written about in the press, the commentators and journalists should be forced to declare an interest if they own or use Apple products. For Apple products have a weird capacity to turn sane men and women into drooling idiots; to reduce them to an infantile state; or to persuade them that a perfectly serviceable machine is now obsolete because the great Apple has released a minor revision. Just think that tedious fellow Stephen Fry. And I even know some techno-literate people who are not immune!

As you know, whenever I write of Apple, I usually add the tag #rottentothecore. That should tell you all. But because I believe in honest journalism, I must declare an interest: I have never owned an Apple product. Nor have I ever regularly used an Apple product, except for very brief periods of less than half a day, just long enough to decide that I can get an equivalent, usually better, product elsewhere, and usually cheaper. Furthermore the alternative product will probably not stop working the day after the minimum warranty expires and will probably be repairable if a fault develops.

But I will admit that I have once purchased an Apple product. Many years ago I gave my faithful life companion, Mrs Bradypus, an iPod Nano, thinking she would enjoy listening to her favourite ‘tunes’ (Vaughan Williams, Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert, etc.) as she wondered around doing whatever it is life companions do keeping sloths like me in good health and grooming. She was delighted. After some struggle she managed to persuade the thing to accept her ‘tunes’ collection from her (non-Apple) computer without Apple forcing her to buy them all over again from something called iTunes. She listened for an hour or so, and then put the Nano in a drawer, where it remains even now, hoping I guess to be liberated, probably by Stephen Fry.

On Being Precise

I have been gently prodded to write this by my cousin in Tarn-et-Garonne. She writes that she is waiting for my comments the Paris Black Friday Bloodbath, and, you will realise, she is not talking about some American-import shopping spree.

It is not for want of trying that I have not written before. Nearly three weeks on from that terrible, bloody, pointless night, I have no coherent thoughts about the act itself, the men who carried it out, the cause in whose name they created such carnage, or what an effective response might be. Yes, I am revolted by the cruelty of it all. Yes, I have no sympathy with the killers ortheir cause. Yes, I am determined not to let any group of terrorists deter me from living life to the full. But of this particular barbarity itself, I can find nothing to say that will explain it or enlighten you in any way. So I take Wittgenstein’s aphorism to heart – Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

But even the most slothful sloth, made speechless by the event itself, must have thoughts about the context in which it happened, the fallout, and the way ahead. This sloth cannot ignore the constant news of our continent ‘going to war against terrorism’; of bad bills limiting our freedoms rushed through sundry parliaments; of decisions by many countries to bomb Syria to rid it of jihadist (oh, and also Assad) even if it means sending it back to the dark ages. All this is disturbing enough to make a sloth think.

I have form where terrorism is concerned. For more than thirty-five I worked in London, in buildings that were on IRA target lists; commuted through target stations; used targeted public buildings. We learned to take a few basic precautions, the IRA got through and bombed us from time to time, but life continued pretty much as before. We lived our lives as we would have done anyway, and survived to see the IRA, and their Protestant counterparts, for what they really were – armed, criminal thugs.

I lived and worked in Jamaica, in Kingston, during the first half of the ‘70s, when the civil war that we called ‘political violence’, first broke out in all its glory. Terrorism was the main strategy of both sides; nightly shoot-outs the norm; gun laws, gun courts, curfews the State’s response. We learned to take a few basic precautions, we didn’t drive through ‘war zones’, the violence was visited on people we knew from time to time, but life continued pretty much as before. We lived our lives as we would have done anyway, and survived to see the PNP and JLP militias for what they really were – armed, criminal gangsters.

So I have some experience of getting through this grim stuff.

Today I live, and sometimes work, in France, where we have been attacked twice this year by an enemy about whom we know amazingly little. France is not alone. The same enemy has staged terrorist attacks in other European countries, and in Asia and Africa. We know something of their numbers, where they live, what they do; much of what we know comes from unreliable sources – official and unofficial – and from their own, very effective publicity machine. So, in our public debate, we seem to characterise IS, or ISIS, or Daesh, in the terms of its own publicity, and rarely, if ever, in terms of what it really is.

If I am right about this, that we are as yet ill-informed about the true nature of our enemy, then, as long as that ignorance lasts, we will be unable to formulate an effective response. As a humble rural sloth, I have no idea what we should do, but I know that there must be something effective that can be done. I also know that we will not find it if we continue to flail out in ignorance – sending a bomber here, doing a deal with an evil dictator there, charging about everywhere. What we need is a good understanding of what is really happening out there; why these people are doing these things – the reality that lies behind their propaganda; their strengths and weaknesses.

But most of all, we need a dose of precision, to be minutely exact in the words we use about this situation and sharply define the realities. So, to get the ball rolling, here is a start in three paragraphs:

  • President François Hollande, like George Bush and Tony Blain before him, declares that we are at war against terror. Well, to be precise, terrorism is a strategy or a tactic, not an enemy. We cannot fight a war against terrorism, any more than we can fight a war against containment. To counter the strategy or tactic of terrorism, we must first know all there is to know about the enemy deploying the strategy. Basic Sun Tzu: Know your enemy. Armed with that knowledge we can work out effective counter-strategies and defeat him. I realise that President Hollande, and any other world leader, after an event like the attack on Paris and with everyone demanding action, will find it very hard to just take time to think precisely. But ill-informed action is worse than none at all: just think Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan.
  • Do we know precisely what is going on in the Middle East? I doubt it. Babies see the world quite differently from adults. Their view is distorted by awareness only of their needs and feelings; having not yet developed a sense of context that includes the needs and feelings of others, they only appreciate their own, distorted, point of view. We are like that when bad things happen to us. So a terrorist attack in our back yard looms large, obscuring an even bigger catastrophe that may lie somewhere behind. It seems to me that this is happening to us in Europe now. We are interpreting the attacks in Paris, and Brussels, etc., as an attack on our way of life, our culture, our very existence, when in fact it is probably a side-show to another circus, collateral damage from another battle. To find out if this is indeed the case, we must get a precise understanding of the real situation in the Middle East. This reality is, I believe, a civil war between Arabs. The sides in this war represent a confusing variety of causes, civil, political and religious, and this obscures the real nature of the conflict. We see what we want to see: brave youth struggling for democracy in the Arab Spring; repressive, entrenched elites enforcing their order; fanatical jihadists imposing Islam; gangster states protecting their criminal enterprises. But in reality this is a struggle between, on one hand, an older generation of supporters of a largely secular, Arab Nationalism that prevailed through the middle and late years of the 20th Century, but failed to deliver good government and growing prosperity for all; and on the other, a younger generation that wants a better world, but cannot agree what that better world looks like, but are still willing to shed blood to achieve their uncertain goals. Like in all civil wars, the casus belli are incomprehensible to those outside the civitas at war. We intervene at our peril. Paris, and the other attacks, are warnings to us that for as long as we don’t really understand what is going on, we should stay out of the cauldron.
  • There is a tendency in Europe to conflate the current refugee crisis with the terrorist threat from Daesh and other jihadists, and it is true that one or more of the terrorists who carried out the Paris attack entered the EU posing as Syrian refugees. But they didn’t need to enter that way: as EU born nationals of France and Belgium they could have come in quite legitimately by any number of other routes.  There are also a small number of deluded young men and women in our towns and cities who can be summoned to do carnage with a simple Skype call. The refugee crisis and the terrorism are consequences of the same civil war, but are not to be confused with each other. Nor, if we are rational, should we be afraid to welcome refugees from this civil was, even at the risk of some bad apples arriving in the crop. The ‘little-Europe’ lobby and the madder fringe-conspiracy theorists, would have us believe that ‘The Muslims’ are taking over Europe, are ‘swamping us’, and will force us all to be like them, i.e. like the jihadists. (They never mention the vast majority of Muslims: law abiding doctors, and lawyers, and farmers, and teachers, and shoe makers, and street cleaners and poets and scientists who lead lives indistinguishable from the rest of us.) To counter this way of thinking we must be very precise, this time about numbers:
    • The population of the EU is just over 500 million. Of this number, 31 million or 6.2 percent, were born outside the EU. The total population of Syria, as a immediate example, at the start of the war in 2011 was 23 million – that’s about 4.6% of the total population of the EU. So if every Syrian in Syria moved to the EU, still only just over 1 in every 10 members of the EU population would have been born outside the EU. Swamping? I don’t think so.
    • As for “the Muslims are taking over Europe”: of the EU’s total population of 500 million, 20.5 million are Muslims or from a Muslim background – that’s 4.1% of the population. Given current population growth and the total fertility rate (TFR) of the immigrant portion of that population, the figure will rise to 6% by 2030; but then begin to fall as the TFR falls to the same as the host population and the population ages. How would you imagine the 4.1% – or even the 6% – would go about persuading or forcing the rest of us, the 95.5% of largely sceptical Europeans, to convert to Islam?

Two final thoughts.

Despite the Paris attacks this year, the majority of terrorist attacks in Europe over the last 20 years have been carried out by political groups of the right and left, racist, anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim organisations and extreme nationalists of one stripe or another. Over that period the majority of victims have been either immigrants or Muslims. For some reason, most racist and anti-faith attacks are not recorded as terrorist related; although a petrol bomb through a family’s front window is a clearly terrorist attack, it is reported as a race crime throughout the EU. Nationalist attacks are often reported in crime statistics as ‘crimes of violence’.

Do not be afraid. Although the number killed in Paris two weeks ago takes the breath away, the odds of any one of us being affected by a terrorist attack, or being within 10Km of an attack, or knowing someone caught up in an attack are vanishingly small. So do not change your way of living, the risks are small, about as small as me being knocked down by an omnibus outside my front gate, on a road that is not a bus route!


Since my last post, as long ago as the beginning of the year, I have been a prisoner of writer’s block. I started three pieces – a short story, an essay, and a joke. Then I became stuck, the words would not come or when they did, they were unsatisfactory.

I apologise to my Reader for this lapse, and if you have gone away and never return to read this, I understand. It has taken me nine months, but what follows is the fifth version – not draft but version – of the short story. The other four versions are in the rubbish bin. I hope this one is satisfactory. Put any lapses down to my inexperience as a fiction writer.

Perhaps one day I will finish the essay. The joke was not funny.

The Czerny Exercises

He had not cried when he heard the news of his mother death nor had it left him shattered. He was sorry, but only in some ordinary way. Hers had been a long life and, for most of his, they have lived a continent apart. They had never been close, and her passing left a mark but not a gap.

At her funeral, sensing his brothers’ grief, he wondered if what he felt was sadness. There was definitely something, but it was not that emptiness that inhabited him when his Gran died, or again, later, when his father went. No, not sad, not grief, he decided. It was regret – regret that things turned out the way they did.scrollWhen the war ends, his mother decides to return to her original country, an ocean and a continent away. She takes his younger brothers with her, but not The Boy. He is left behind with his father. Divorce follows.

The Boy is not yet five, and does not understand much of what is happening. Or perhaps he does, but assumes this is somehow normal. Then, one day, his father disappears and he finds himself the property of his huge extended family; now with this aunt, then with that. Some aunts he knows are his father’s sister, but with others he cannot quite work out how they come to be his aunts. Maybe, he concludes, they are his father’s cousins. Perhaps the nicer ones are Fairy Aunts. He is not yet five.

Soon after his fifth birthday, The Boy sees his father again, in hospital. He, the father explains, was brought here the day he disappeared, because he was ill and nearly died. Now he is getting better, but slowly. He will rest here in hospital for some more months and then will go to the country. The Boy will stay with the aunts. Which the Boy does.

The Boy does not understand the world, its changeability, its uncertainty. All he knows till his mother leaves is a steady universe. A colonial cottage in a large garden. His brothers in their double push-chair, propelled by Nanny; him in a swing swung high by any available adult. Mother and Father coming home from work. Tea on the veranda, piggy-back rides on his dad’s back, all round the garden. Then, after bath time, dinner at the great mahogany table. Bedtime stories, sleep. Now all that’s gone, leaving just the ever changing circuit of the aunts.

But The Boy does not forget his mother. He remembers her smelling of sweet soap after her bath. Her dabbing on mercurochrome when he falls off the tricycle, grazing his knee. Her sitting him on the gate post, and keeping him safe as the troops march by at the time of the lunatic riots. Her telling his father that The Boy doesn’t have to eat fried onions if he doesn’t like them. The Boy does not stop loving her.
scrollThe eulogy dragged on, the unfamiliar facts of his mother’s life unrolled. Times of hers that he did not share, had no knowledge of. It seemed to him that there were in surprising number. His thought drifted. He wondered again about his absence of grief or even of personal loss.

Was this wrong somehow? Shouldn’t the death of his parent have a greater impact? Was he deficient in some way, emotionally lacking? He thought that maybe he owed it to her to be more moved than he was: that the failure to be sad, to grieve, might somehow be an offence against the very basic human instinct, the Biblical commandment, to honour your parents. But the instinct is just that, an instinct, he figured, part of the tools for survival in a species whose offspring take a long time to mature. Not needed once childhood was over. Anyway, the instinct was to honour and cherish, but did that have to include loving as well?
scrollNow, still not quite six, The Boy lives with his father’s parents. He can read, although he does not yet go to school. He has few friends, but he is close to Stanford, the trainee gardener. Stanford is 15, just up from the country, illiterate and with a most disruptive stammer. This latter he shares with The Boy. The Boy’s stammer is new, it started a year ago. Stanford has had his all his life.

Each day, over an open fire in the yard, Stanford cooks lunch for himself and the head gardener, George, in a one gallon cooking oil can, empty now of oil and with the lid carefully cut off. It is always a murky soup or a stew, the ingredients uncertain but usually there are bits of salted pig’s tail and cornmeal dumplings; and yams, green bananas, okra and scotch bonnets, grown in the patch by the fence shared with the Police Commissioner’s land. Sometimes there are lumps of king fish, or pork or chicken or all three together.

Some days the gardeners allow The Boy to share their lunch. When The Boy asks what’s in the stew, Stanford tells him it is su-su-su-su-su-su-snake. The Boy believes him but does not stop eating. He wipes his small enamel bowl clean with a chunk of hard dough bread. He tells no one in the house of his lunches with the gardeners.

Continue reading The Czerny Exercises

Charlie & Me

Charlie bannerI must admit that I have never bought a copy of Charlie Hebdo; nor, before last Thursday when a friend lent me his copy of the last edition before the massacre in Paris, had I ever read one.

When I first came to live in France, I glanced at a copy or two in the local maison de la presse, and found that I didn’t get the humour, what little of it I understood. I prefer my satire a bit more subtle than Charlie’s. I settled instead for the occasional purchase of Le Canard Enchainé – the satire was as strong, but subtler. I understood more and got a decent proportion of the jokes. Still, it’s years since I have read even that.

Like everyone else in France, I was deeply moved by the events here last week – the bad and the good: horror at the nihilism of the massacres at the editorial offices and the supermarket; pride that the people and the state for the most part supported the victims right to their freedoms to express their views or shop in safety and peace; amazement at the bravery ofNot Afraid the heroes, police and civilian, of the week; happiness at the peaceful turnout on Sunday to show that we are not afraid.

I don’t have much to add to the millions of words that have already been written on this subject. Just a little corrective to a common misunderstanding of freedom of speech in France shown by much of the Anglo-Saxon press.

France prides itself on it’s tradition of freedom of speech and the long revolutionary tradition that underlies it. But it is wrong to think that this freedom has no limits whatsoever. Indeed it has both legal and social restrictions; the first is rigid, the latter more elastic. One example of a legal restriction is the Gayssot Act, of 1990, making it illegal to question the existence of crimes that fall in the category of crimes against humanity as defined in the London Charter of 1945. So, Holocaust denial is a crime in France, for the press, for politicians …. well, for everyone. Interestingly though, efforts to extend the Gayssot Act to denial of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey early in the 20th century was found to be unconstitutional because it violated the right to freedom of speech!

There are many other such restrictions, the kinds of limits that you would expect in any civilised democracy where the rights to life and liberty are respected. The sort of things Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes of the US Supreme Court had in mind when he wrote in a famous judgment:

The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. […] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.

Social restrictions to freedom of speech exist in all societies, very often in the form of taboos, religious and otherwise. As you would expect, as religion declines in France, the religious taboos become fewer and fewer, as the presence of a strong anti-clerical element in public and private life, and the existence of Charlie Hebdo itself, demonstrates. The social and political taboos are harder to define but they are there, and they still occasion self-censorship. One clear area is in matters of sexual activity, which are generally seen as private and beyond public comment, although in the case of politicians and civic leaders, this is breaking down. None the less in many ways, in France, the right to privacy trumps the right to free speech.

So when you read in your papers, or hear on your TV, about the Frenchman’s absolute right to untrammelled free speech, remember that this is not really the case.  It is arguable that the French have more freedom of speech than most. The existence of Charlie Hebdo may be evidence for this, in which case long may it continue to keep pushing the boundaries. But total freedom of speech – the total right to say anything you want, true or false – does not exist in France, nor for so many good reasons, can it ever exist in any civilised society.

But there is a question that the attack on Charlie Hebdo, and by extension the attacks on freedom of speech, raises:  what about the offence I cause to others when I exercise my right to freedom of speech, even if I stay within the legal and social constraints? Do the offended not have rights, among them the right to be offended and the right to hit back?

Sloths, in general, tend to avoid hard moral and ethical questions such as these. But the events of last week force us all, sloths included, to try to answer.

As I see it, if freedom of speech gives me the, albiet limited, right to offend, then it gives the offended the right to be offended. It also gives them to right to act on that offence, but with the proviso that they act only within the same constraints as me. So they may attack  me in voice or print , publish cartoons attacking me or my ideas, try to persuade others to have nothing to do with me; but they may not punch me in the nose, set fire to my house, bully my children, nor slaughter me and my colleagues in an editorial meeting or at the supermarket.

Further, freedom of speech gives me the right to criticise, to correct and to mock what another person believes, including social, religious and political belief, even if such criticism, correction or mockery causes offence, because these are matters of opinion, and we are all free to hold what opinions we like no matter how ill-founded. (Yes Virginia, despite the limits on expressing them, you have the right to hold any cock-a-mamie opinion or belief you want. Just keep them to yourself!) Beliefs are elective, and we choose to adhere to them, or not, and such choices are open to criticism. Pope Francis is wrong to claim that faith is beyond mockery: he may have been born Catholic and a believer and he elects to remain both. I was born Catholic and a believer, but I elect to remain neither. We are both open to criticism and mockery for the views on faith we hold, and the views themselves are also open to mockery.

However, freedom of speech does not give me the right to criticise or mock another person for what they are. No attack on matters of colour, ethnicity, gender, looks, physical handicap, etc. is ever justified. What people are, is not elective, it is forced upon them at birth or by happenstance, and, because they cannot change, they may not be criticised or mocked. It is wrong to gun people down in a supermarket. It is doubly wrong to gun them down because they are Jews. Or French. Or in wheelchairs. Or gay.  Or blue eyed.

I probably will continue not to buy or read Charlie Hebdo but I think it is a healthy sign that it exists. That said, and in a spirit of solidarity, je_suis_charlie_et_ahmedI am happy to say ‘Je suis Charlie‘, just as I am also happy to say,  ‘Je suis Ahmed‘ and ‘Je suis juif‘, but most of all ‘Je suis humaine‘*

* and that’s not easy for a sloth to say!

The Bradypus Tribute Band

Bradypus is coming up in the world – he now has a Tribute Band. Here’s a photo of the drummer.

The official Bradypus Tribute Band T-Shirt
Dr Dom, our drummer, pictured in official Bradypus Tribute Band T-Shirt

So far the band has only the one member. But we will soon be auditioning!

Bradypus takes this opportunity to wish my reader a very Happy New Year!

“I think human beings very complicated, don’t you?”

I found this long article among some old papers I was clearing out. It was written in 1980, a year after the death at the age of 87, on May 14th 1979, of the Dominican writer Jean Rhys, one of the most outstanding novelists of the 20th Century. It was rejected by both the New York Times and the Washington Post magazines. “Not sufficient interest in Jean Rhys at this time” one features editor wrote to me. Perhaps now there is sufficient interest. The original title was ‘A Day in July 1969”.

This is an edited version of the original post. I thank Professor Emeritus Mervyn Morris for his very helpful comments and for reminding me of my duty to my reader to wield the editors red crayon with greater ruthlessness. 2/11/201

“Take her a bottle of Scotch” Diana Athill, her publisher said. “She’d like a bottle of Scotch.”

I picked one up at an off-licence in Paddington and now, as we twisted through the Devon countryside, it lay on the back seat of the taxi beside my tape recorder.

Jean Rhys in the Paris years

It was late in July, 1969. Two years before, I had discovered Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, her novel telling the story of Antoinette Cosway, the first Mrs Rochester, but seen not from Jane Eyre’s perspective. The first Mrs Rochester was a Jamaican Creole, and in Rhys’ novel we follow her voyage from her marriage to Rochester at her home in Jamaica, through the unhappiness of the crumbling marriage on Rochester’s estate in Dominica to the final, terrible scene in the attic of Thornfield Hall. It shows Antoinette’s progression through a number of alien worlds, in which she is gradually lost to view as she becomes the seemingly mad Bertha in the attic. But Rhys’ Antoinette is not the dangerously exotic Creole of the European fevered imagination portrayed by Brontë, but a real person, torn apart by the clash of the two cultures that define her as a Creole and by European ideas of racial and cultural superiority.

The exact meaning of the term ‘creole’ is hard to pin down; it differs from island to island. Although it had its origin in Portuguese, where it meant a European white person born and raised in the colonial empires, by the end of the 18th century it came to mean people of mixed African and European origins but whose looks and culture were closer to their European than their African ancestors. ‘Light-skinned’ was the label often attached to them. Although white people considered them to be better than the free or slave black people, they nevertheless saw them as somehow tainted and dangerously exotic.

Rhys was a Creole from the British colony of Dominica in the Lesser Antilles. For the most part, her heroines are Creole women coming to terms with European life and attitudes. An odd feeling of not quite fitting in bedevils them. I had wanted to meet her for a long time and it had not been easy to arrange a visit to her home in Devon to record an interview.

The sun shone as the taxi entered Cheriton Fitzpaine. It was a hot day and at first we could not find Landboat Bungalows. When we did, they were not picturesque, but part of a dull terrace, disappointingly low and mean and small and much too grey.

I walked up the short path clutching the bottle of Scotch, past a few scrappy bedding plants wilting in the sun. Before I could reach it, the door opened and an elderly man in a clerical collar came out, followed by a small, grey haired woman in an old, well cared for grey suit.

“We saw you arrive,” she said and introduced me to the man, a retired Church of England vicar who lived in the village and came from time to time to chat about books. “Goodbye Mrs. Hamer” he said and set off down the path.

Jean Rhys, known in the village by the name of her third husband, was much smaller than I had expected. Her large, fawnlike eyes dominated a face that in its late seventies still spoke of the prettiness which had earned her the nickname ‘The Dresden Doll’ during her career in the chorus line before the First World War. Her hair had recently been set and she wore a necklace of large wooden beads.

She showed me into the sitting room and I hit my head on the lintel as I entered.

“It’s dreadfully low for you.” she said, “Are you alright?”

I gave her the Scotch.

“Oh! that is kind of you. We’ll open it later.” She took it through to the kitchen.

“I’m a bit alarmed about this interview.” she said when she returned. “I tire easily and sometimes have difficulty getting all the answers right.”

I tried to reassure her, told her it did not matter, that we could edit the tape. We discussed how we would order the interview, worked out a system of signals for when she wanted to rest. She asked me about Jamaica. Had she got it right in Wide Sargasso Sea? (She had never been there.) We swapped the names of friends and relations back in the Caribbean and came up with some we had in common. She spoke of her brief visit back home to Dominica in the 1930s.

“I’ve never been back, you know. I don’t know anyone there anymore. I’m quite out of touch now.” A long pause. “No, that’s not quite true. I know the editor of a newspaper in Dominica.”

She lapsed into silence, staring out the window.

Then she said, suddenly “I’ve lived here six or seven years. I loathed it at first; then I got resigned to it. Fixed it up, found it better. I miss a lot living in Devon, miss meeting the people who wrote to me after the books were re-published. I don’t think I’m liked in the village, they think I’m strange. I’d like to get away but I won’t now.”

Another long, sad silence followed, after which she came and sat in a comfortable upholstered chair beside which I was setting up a microphone.
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