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On things unsaid

For a sloth, three-toed or otherwise, I am unusually garrulous. As a species we are shy and retiring. If we have thoughts, we tend to keep them to ourselves. What we think, and what we think of, usually goes unshared. Sloths rarely do social media.

But I am different. I am always happy, at a party, in a bar, over dinner, to talk, lecture sometimes, on almost anything. This often annoys my friends; why they continue to tolerate me, I don’t know.  But there are many, many people who would rather be in Slough than exposed to my tedious flow. There is one, in this part of the forest, who, seeing my approach, develops an absorbed interest in the nearest verge, in each blade of grass, each tiny ant, each purple vetch; an absorption that lasts until I am well out of sight.

And yet….

There are certain subjects for which I reserve a very slothly reticence. These include feminism and feminist writings; the possibility of love; the state of English cricket; the rights, and wrongs, of both the Palestinian and the Israeli causes; the taste of bara lawr, laverbread; the hurts siblings visit on each other; the meaning of poetry; whether her bum looked big in this. The list goes on. It’s very varied: the important, the trivial, the purely academic, the highly personal.

Over the years that I have been unable to write or speak, about these things, but have never fully understood the reasons for my silence. It is not that I don’t have views, or couldn’t develop views, about them. I most certainly do and could. But on these subjects there is just The Silence of the Sloths.

Perhaps there is some sort of early warning system in the brain which detects a social minefield ahead, and inhibits comment? There could well be; evolution is full of such mechanisms to preserve the species. But if there is, in my case, it is highly dysfunctional. Where was it on all the occasions I bored a dinner table into slumber?

Could it be a fear of giving offence? In some cases, yes. But in general, I’m happy to discuss sensitive subjects like religion and politics and faddish diets, all guaranteed to cause offence to someone. And, anyway, who could take offence at thoughts on the meaning of poetry or the delights of laverbread?

Maybe these things are too painfully personal to explore, even in the privacy of my own head, much less in the open forum. In some instances, yes, but surely not in all. The case is often that I may be happy to discuss my last operation in great detail, but not my last visit to the proctologist. Both equally personal, both equally uncomfortable, so where is the logic in laying bare the one but not the other? Consider also that you may be prepared to discuss your own mortality, but do not choose to explore in public the reality of the process of your own death. But truly, in both cases, you could quite easily swap the subjects around and still be none the wiser about why you can talk about the one, but not the other.

Why is this? Why, when we struggle so hard to be logical, rational, consistent sloths, is the brain so capricious? Is there some survival value in this? And if so, why do some people have the enviable capacity to remain silent when they should, and speak only when wisdom dictates? Is that the direction in which the survival value works? It’s possible, because the silent man is less likely to provoke the deadly one.

Then, if judicious silence has survival value, why do so few people have the mechanism that promotes it? For I am not alone in this deficiency. It is my observation, speaking as a rather too voluble sloth, that the majority of us say too much, to too many people, all too often.

In the past, the harm done by engaging the mouth before the brain has had a chance to edit the content, has mostly been limited by the small group we can reach at the dinner table, the party or the pub. But in the new virtual world of instant communications, the likes of Facebook, of Twitter, and of WordPress, which powers this blog, allows all of us to speak our minds without fear of the consequences. That can be a good thing, but only provided that the mind is well prepared, and the words well chosen. But it can be incredibly harmful to us, and to others, when they are not. Pardon me for being a grouch, but a lot of what I see out there is pretty harmful.

Social communications tools can fool us into believing that, when we write, or speak, or make a video, and post it online, we are talking in a private space – a virtual dinner table, party or pub. But we are not. We are shouting to the world from a platform so vast in its reach, and so compelling in its influence, that Hitler or Stalin would have given half their empires to have it at their disposal.

Whatever we write or say in this space can come back to bite us; it can even destroy us, and those around us. Our words can be weapons of mass destruction. Already, global companies are trawling social media to build up our own words (and those of others) to use against us when we apply for jobs or ask for a loan or rent a house. I know of people who have been fired for comments they made, in privacy (they thought) online. If private companies do it, you can be sure that government departments are at it as well. And we haven’t yet touched on trolls…

So it would be best for us, for our own survival, to look into ourselves, and consider not only what we think, but what we should do with the thoughts we think. We need the wisdom to know which of these to communicate, how to phrase them and with whom to share.

Take it from me; you need the wisdom to know that it’s alright to leave some things unsaid.

A Nice Dilemma (Part 2)

In the first part of this post, I told you that my friend and sponsor, Jeremy, although Jamaican, a descendant of many national strands, felt a strong secondary attachment to his Scottish roots. That he was opposed to all forms of nationalism, which he felt were dangerous. That he felt conflicted about the Scottish Independence Referendum.

So now, at last, we come to the nature of his conflict.

Despite his feelings about nationalism, when it comes to Scotland, he finds himself deeply nationalistic.

“In the sixties,” he told me, “I was friendly with the Scottish journalist Bill Carrocher who claimed to have once edited the Rhum Muck & Eigg Times, but I doubt it ever existed. However, the BBC local radio in Gaelic for the Highland and Islands certainly did exist and Bill was its first manager. When I met him he worked for the Foreign Office and, would, after a few drams, most undiplomatically and loudly say ‘What I look forward to, is becoming Scotland’s first Ambassador to the Court of St James!'”

Bill was a very funny man and a great story teller, so at first Jeremy thought he was joking. Probing a little, however, revealed a serious thinker about the place of Scotland in the world and its need, as he saw it, to stand apart from the rest of the UK as an independent nation. Remember, this was before the arrival of oil wealth and the ravages of M. Thatcher on the Scottish social services and its industrial economy. Bill’s thinking was not a reaction to the devastation of Scotland wrought by London, but a thought through nationalism based on a long view of Scottish, and of English, history. “He made a very convincing case for Scottish nationalism.” Jeremy says. “My grandparents would have bought it. I nearly did, but in the end I held back, partly because of my mistrust of nationalist causes.”

Bill lived to see devolution and a resurgent Scottish Parliament, and was he alive today he would be out on the hustings pushing the Yes case with all his eloquence.

Part of Jeremy’s problem back then, and even now, was that, and still is that, other than the distrust of nationalism, any argument based on a long view of Scottish history, and it relationship to English history, is certain to be unreliable. Unreliable because that history itself is unreliable. The incompleteness of its sources; the partisan divisions of the peoples it records; the conflicts of ethnicity and language and culture and class and religion: all contribute to an absence of consensus even among Scots as to what happened and why it happened and what the true consequences were. “This worries me,” Jeremy has written, “for in my view a people who do not have a largely shared view of their history cannot have a largely shared identity.”

It is true that out of the devastation of the Thatcher years, a sort of Scottish identity seems to have emerged to which most Scots can subscribe. But Jeremy feels it is an identity based on a mythical Scottishness, one that papers over the cracks rather than repairing them. It is an identity born out of a reaction to English callousness, but does it have utility in a devolved or independent Scotland? He thinks not.

So, here is his conflict in a nutshell. His heart hopes for an independent Scotland. But his head tells him that there must be reasons stronger than just nationalism to occasion this constitutional rearrangement.

What could those be?

Well, firstly, a more reliable account of Scottishness than the kilts and haggis and peat fire mythology currently on offer. An account of Scotland and Scottishness which recognises the fault lines in the communities and offers a path to repairing them.

Secondly, a vision of what an Independent Scotland will be. It’s the same as the Polish Question at the start: Scotland, yes – but what sort of Scotland? Jeremy thinks that in the campaign so far, this question has not been addressed by the Yes campaign. It seems beyond the First Minister to rise above bully-boy posturing over the pound, or EU membership, or Anglo-bashing, to provide us with a comprehensive, solid vision of what an Independent Scotland will be like to live in, to be the neighbour of, and to encounter in the wider world.

Jeremy doesn’t have a vote in the Referendum. Even so, he is conflicted. While he wants Scotland to be independent, and would want to vote ‘Yes’; based on the uncertain prospectus the Scots Nats are promoting, his common sense would insist he vote ‘No’.

For Jeremy’s greatest fear is, that on the night of the referendum, when a resounding ‘Yes’ vote has rolled in, Alex Salmond, standing on the podium acknowledging the cheering crowds, will turn to his deputy, and echoing the words of the Robert Redford character in The Candidate, say: “What the f**k do we do now?”

A Modest Proposal, or three

A Modest ProposalI have over many years given great thought to the sorry state of our nations, the sad decline of the social contract, and the seemingly unstoppable rise of the wealth and power of rich individuals and corporations. I have tried to understand the reasons for the rot, and imagine remedies, but this has been a slow progress, as sloths tend to do things slowly.

Today, I want to propose three simple reforms that in themselves cannot entirely remedy the situation, but will, I predict, start a wave of reform that should re-empower the powerless and harness the energy and creativity of the powerful in the interests of the commonweal.

Proposal No. 1.
Abolish the offside rule in Association Football

Football, the kicking only sort, is often called the ‘beautiful game’. But is it? Really? How can it be beautiful if it attracts so many  unpleasant supporters worldwide? Men, mostly, easily prone to violence, racism, sexism and most of the other -isms that corrupt our world. Why doesn’t it attract more women? Why don’t you see more families at football matches? After all rugby, both codes, has great support from both sexes and all ages, who enjoy their game without the hatred, violence and crime that often marks soccer.

I believe it has something to do with the frustration of the relative absence of goal scoring in the modern professional game. High scoring games are more satisfying than goal-less draws, fans come away happier, and happy fans are less prone to vice. But as long as the offside rule applies, few games will be high scoring. So we should abolish it.

It’s a very simple rule change, and need not involve paying any monies to bribe any FIFA official, because each national ruling body can decide on implementing it without regard to what the others are doing. After all, the original codification of the rules of soccer was decided by one body without reference to any other.

The effect of the change will be immediate. Games will be improved because many more goals will be scored. The people who pay for the sport will be given more of what they pay to see, i.e. goals, and enjoy, the moments of triumph and despair as the ball bangs into the net. Violence will be reduced. First because of the joy spread by the multiplicity of goals and resulting happiness of the fans. Second, because so many of the occasions for argument and debate about whether a goal was a goal, whether the ref was blind, partisan or bribed, etc. etc. will be eliminated, significantly reducing the excuses for fights to break out.

Thus improved the game will attract a whole new audience. People like me, rugby league fans, who cannot be arsed to get their heads around a rule that nobody, least of all the participants, really understands. Women and children will be encouraged to take part in greater numbers, both in playing and in watching the game once the aggression and violence is reduced or eliminated, to the great improvement of all our lives.

Proposal No. 2
Privatise Royalty

Royalty is an anachronism. It underpins a system based on rank, privilege and inequality. It breeds a fundamental injustice in any state where it is established, and we would be better off without it. But how to get rid of it in a civilised, graceful way? Without chopping off heads, for example?

I propose that in all monarchies worldwide, the government should sell off Royalty to the public in a grand IPO. Arguments that the public already owns Royalty are just so much legalistic nit-picking. Shares in Royalty could be offered in the first place only to citizens, or in the case of the United Kingdom to subjects, of the country concerned.

Based on previous experience, once trading in the shares begins, people will sell them off at the first opportunity, and pretty soon Royalty the world over will be owned by International Corporations, hedge funds and Sovereign Wealth funds, mostly that of China. It won’t really matter that Royalty will be in the hands of foreigners, after all, in many places, it already is.

After some years, Royalty enterprises will be owned by the giants of the entertainment business – Sony, Time Warner, Disney and the Murdochs. Even Lego might have a go. After all they are already in Windsor with a Legoland, so it would be natural for them to expand it into Royal Lego Windsorland. Or perhaps Lego should settle for a smaller monarchy, perhaps Belgian, and then there could be real competition with Royal Windsor Disneyland up the road?

The benefits of this are threefold: money for the various governments at the initial sell off; profit for the citizens when they sell on their shares; and the greater competitiveness of the newly privatised Royalty will generate greatly increased direct and indirect income year on year for the nations.

How come Mrs Thatcher didn’t think of this?

Proposal No. 3
The National Lottery of Life

Over the last forty years, wealth, influence and power have been concentrated in fewer hands. The vast majority of people around the world have become poorer in real terms and have lost the power to control the people and corporations that control their lives. I have a simple proposition which, if implemented, will correct this drift in very short order and restore our world to some sort of balance.

Each country should institute a National Lottery of Life. There could also be Regional Lotteries of Life to take care of supra-national agglomerations such as the European Union.

The National Lottery of Life would work like this:

Each month the names of say 10,000 of the movers and shakers in any country would be put into a grand tombola basket. The exact number is immaterial, but it should be based on the size of the country and, more importantly, the number that makes up its power broking elite.

Whose names would be included? Well the politicians, obviously. Top civil servants. Church, Temple, Mosque and Synagogue leaders. Judges, top brass in the military, police and security services. Leaders of industry and business. Bankers, lots of bankers. Influential journalists, actors, entertainers. In fact anyone with significant quantities of money, of power and of influence. Probably not Royalty, we took care of them in Proposal No. 2, but many of their hangers on would be in the tombola.

The exact details of the qualifications needed to be one the list needs to be worked out, but when it is, it must be published widely. This is nothing less than a totally open lottery.

So now we’ve got all the names in the basket. Here’s what happens. Every fortnight, or every month in countries with small populations, a draw is held. This must be available to everyone to witness if they want to, so Saturday night TV would be a good medium. So far not much different from what happens every Saturday night in most countries.

The draw would consist of pulling out an arbitrary number of names; ten would probably be the optimum. Great care must be taken to see that the draw is truly random. If this proposal is to work, no one must be able to suggest that power, or money or influence could affect the outcome.

Now the people whose names are drawn are given this challenge: “We will place at your disposal all the facilities of the best film makers and writers, to create a 10 minute TV package justifying your position, wealth, etc. and your continued existence in our nation or, possibly, on earth. We will give you two weeks (or even a month) to do this, but at the end of it you must return and, on the next edition of The National Lottery of Life, play your film to the watching nation, which will decide in a telephone vote whether, or not, you will continue to enjoy your power, wealth, influence or life.”

A bit like Big Brother, or Strictly Come Dancing, but without the tacky ‘E List’ celebs.

Winners in The National Lottery of Life are returned to their normal existence, and their names removed from the tombola for at least three years. Losers, sadly – or maybe not sadly – are taken out and disposed of in any way a particular nation sees fit.

Of course I realise that to be a totally fair lottery, we will need to put in the names of good people alongside those of the bad. That means, there will be a fair smattering of ‘National Treasures’ – Sir David Attenborough, Dame Maggie Smith, bloody Stephen Fry. But, because it will be a perfectly fair process, they will not have to worry, everyone will vote them winners. In fact I have already written Sir David’s script. It consists of simply one sentence: “My name is David Attenborough.” That’s it – he wins. Not so sure about Stephen Fry though.

Wondering how this benefits the nation? Well it’s this. Once The National Lottery of Life is up and running, every time a civil servant or politician makes a decision that affects our lives, he or she will pause, and think how they will justify it in their 10 minutes on the NL of L.  Every time a banker decides to pay himself a gigantic bonus or a business leader decides to pay herself 175 times what her average employee earns, she will pause and think of her 10 minutes in the limelight. Every time a bishop or imam issues some bull or fatwa in the name of God, they will pause … well, you get my drift.

If we adopt The National Lottery of Life, I promise you that the level of attention that the rich and powerful pay to our welfare will increase a thousand fold.

See, I told you it was simple.

A Nice Dilemma (Part 1)

The bus party, a dozen or so of us, writers and musicians, had decided not to urge one particular answer to the biggest question, the one on the referendum ballot for 18 September: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ We preferred the question-slogan of the Poles during their 123-year struggle to regain independence: ‘Poland yes – but what sort of Poland?’

(Neal Ascherson: ‘What sort of Scotland?’ London Review of Books, 21 August 2014)

Scotland votes in less than a month, and my friend Jeremy is conflicted.

“But what has it got to do with him?” you ask, “I thought he was Jamaican? What does he care about Scotland and how it votes?”

You are right to ask, of course, and it probably has nothing to do with him; but still he is conflicted. Let me explain.

It’s all about ancestry, his ancestry in particular, and that is  complicated. The least complicated is his mother’s side. Although she lived most of her life in London, she was fundamentally French. She had a Breton mother, ‘Granny Poulard’, and her father was born in Poland, Warsaw probably, but naturalised French before he was out of infancy, a Parisian. What Perigordian neighbours would call un étranger. His family may have been Christianised Jews, or maybe not. It is not important. One will never know anyway, for he abandoned Granny Poulard and jumped ship to New York and a bigamous second marriage when Jeremy’s mother was a baby.

His, Jeremy’s, Dad is where it gets complicated. On his Dad’s side is a long line of Franco-Scottish Calvinists – South-Western Huguenots, who fled to England. Silk producers and merchants, they moved further and further north, almost to the borders, where they could be in easy reach of other Calvinists, lowland Scots Presbyterians, for trade, and for marriage if an appropriate Huguenot lady wasn’t available. And they didn’t limit themselves to lowlanders. Jeremy’s Dad’s grandma was a Miss Jopp from Aberdeen.

Jeremy’s Dad’s mother, Mother Granny her grandchildren called her, was a creole from Belize. Wikipedia says of Belize Creoles that they are “Creole descendants of Black African slaves brought to Belize, and English and Scottish log cutters, who were known as the Baymen. Over the years there has also been intermarriage with Miskito from Nicaragua, Jamaicans, other West Indians, Mestizos, and East Indians, who were brought to Belize as indentured labourers. These varied peoples have all mixed to create this ethnic group.

Mother Granny, I know for certain, was descended from four Scottish Baymen (two McDonalds, an Erskine and an Armstrong), two black free-women, former slaves who arrived in St George’s Keye before 1750 from Jamaica, and a Miskito lady. Family legend has it that she was a princess from Honduras. But that’s a story for another day. Mother Granny’s real name was Lena Isabel McDonald and she was a pianist by trade.

Most people grow up with a single clear national identity. An Englishman feels proud of being English, a Frenchman is certain that there is no other identity worth having. But for Jamaicans, probably for all Caribbeans , there are almost always two national identities making up their character: one strong, the other weak. The strong is where they are born or grew up. In Jeremy’s case it is, naturally, Jamaican. The weak is one of the places their ancestors came from. Sometimes they can pinpoint the place – such and such a county in England, Hong Kong, Canton province, the Lebanon, Ghana, Uttar Pradesh. Sometimes it’s vague, as much as a whole continent or entire region – West Africa, Asia, The sub-Continent, Europe.

So Jeremy grew up strongly Jamaican – he describes it as “my first and essential identity.” He once said he would not give it up, even though its passport will only admit him visa-less to one country, Jamaica. And I believe him. “As a teenager,” he says, “I was a passionate nationalist, a staunch supporter of Jamaican independence and I danced a joyous jig as the new Jamaican flag rose above the National Stadium, wet and limp in the rain, on the first Independence Day in 1962.”

But his second, weaker, identity, selected from the rich pot purri of options available, is Scots. No, not French as you might expect. At home when growing up, both his greadparents talked about Scotland as home, although neither had spent as much as two weeks in the country. Their sense of an ancient loyalty was the inheritance they left him and with it a certain Scottish nationalism which spoke of an independent Scotland but without expecting it to come about.

As an adult, Jeremy rapidly outgrew nationalism, as he saw the harm it could, and most often did, do in the world. He came to distrust all forms of nationalism. “I embrace a sort of casual internationalism.” he told me the other day. “I believed, and still believe, that we need to see all countries and nations and communities for what they are, not for what they pretend to be. I believe this is as true for the nations or countries or communities we love as it is for the ones we fear or distrust. Nationalism blinds us to the faults in ourselves and to the virtues in the other.”

“Yes, yes,” you say tetchily, “but what has this got to do with him being conflicted about the Scottish referendum?” Well, I was coming to that, but I think you have had enough for today. I promise that I will explain all next time in A Nice Dilemma (Part 2).

Ambition

I admit to having two unfulfilled ambitions remaining .

The first is to be born Italian.

The second is the ability to wear a white linen suit, look good in it, eat pasta, and keep it clean all day.

Unfortunately, it appears that achieving the first is a precondition of the second, for it is a well known fact that only born Italians can carry off this trick. It is also a fact, probably by now well known, that I only have to put on something white for tomato sauce to search me out and attach itself to it.

Riffs on a famous headline

Headline in The Sun, Thursday 13 March 1986
Headline in The Sun, Thursday 13 March 1986

I don’t know if you remember this clearly untrue headline, from The Sun in its relatively innocent days, before phone hacking and all that overtook Murdoch’s  News International. Or at least, I assume it was before the wide-spread phone hacking, but I might be wrong. I may also be wrong that The Sun ever had even relatively innocent days.

I was reminded of this headline the other day when clearing out the attic and I came across an old rodent cage which used to house the various beasts, various children kept for various periods of time.

Then I turned to wondering how British newspapers would treat a ‘Hamster Eating’ story today:

Hamstergate: Miliband calls for  full  public enquiry                              TheGuardian

Director of CPS says hamster eating ‘probably not an offence against  public order.’                                       The-Independent-logo-645x295

Alex Samond claims Hamster eating will be illegal in independent Scotland                                                                              thetimes-masthead

ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS ARE EATING OUR BRITISH HAMSTERS!                                            daily_mail_preview

GOTCHA! “I ate hamster” Boris texts girlfriend.                                                       the_sun

WARNING – GRAPHIC CONTENT

Romanians ate Princess Di’s hamster                                                                                      daily-express_628

A School Where Differences are Celebrated!

On my last visit to Jamaica I was introduced to a truly remarkable school, The STEP Centre. Founded and managed by parents, it educates kids with profound disabilities, with a teaching programme that has been individually designed for each child.  It is the only one of its kind in Jamaica.

Lessons on the computer - but sadly there's only one computer to share.
Lessons on the computer – but sadly there’s only one computer to share.

The work done at the Centre is remarkable; as are the staff, the parents and the children themselves. When I first visited them, they carried out all their activities in a church hall in Liguanea. Now, through selling cards and notelets, various fund raising activities, and with grants from the Digicel Foundation and the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives, they have managed to buy a piece of land and put up a purpose built school on it.

I have added a link to the Centre’s blog in the menu at the left, and just below this there’s another link to their web site. So click on them and discover for yourself all about this wonderful place. And support them too, if you can.
Visit the STEP Centre


{Here I must declare an interest – Hilary the school’s Principal, is my friend Jeremy’s cousin.}


The Garden at Santa Elena

I sit in my garden today, in the shade, out of the heat of a Dordogne sun, sipping a cool rosé from down the valley. I am surrounded by flowers – pink oleander, white lemon blossom, light purple June Roses (Lasgerstroemia, known as Crepe Myrtle in English or Lilas d’été in French), lavender, delicate pink Rain Tree blossoms (Albizia saman), roses, yellow and red and orange snapdragons. I could go on.

Shade is provided by a large oak, species unknown but too large to be scrub; two pollarded Indian Bean trees (I love their binomial- Catalpa bignonioides ); what I think is a small-leaved lime, also pollarded; and a grape arbor over the patio dining table, heavily laden with just-ripening purple and grey-green bunches .

Elsewhere, providing shade in other parts of the garden are two conifers, a willow, weeping beeches, horse-chestnut and more large oaks. And fruiting trees – apple, pear, a couple of cherries, hazelnut and a truly massive walnut.

I enjoy gardens, but not gardening.  So, with the help of a young friend who does the heavy lifting, I do the minimum of work needed to keep this garden going. As a result it is still pretty much as I found it when I came here. A little has been subtracted here, something added there. There’s a copse of young trees on a hilly bit where only grass grew before; more shrubs, fewer bedding plants, but you wouldn’t not recognise the garden had you known it 15 years ago.

The oleander, June rose and Rain Tree blossoms take me back to the tropical garden of my childhood, my grandparents’ at Santa Elena, in the St Andrews foothills. These too grew in my grandparents’ garden

Santa Elena c. 1953, image recovered from a degraded Ektachrome slide
Santa Elena c. 1953, image recovered from a degraded Ektachrome slide

along with yellow allamanda; red poinsettia; bougainvillea in purple, and white and pink; single, double, triple and probably quadruple hibiscus rosa-sinensis in all its possible colours (its cousin the Hibiscus syriacus, or Rose of Sharon, grow in my Dordogne garden). There were beds of red and yellow haliconia, canna lilys and monkey tails. Hedges of Pride of Barbados (Caesalpinia pulcherrima); a fence covered in Mexican creeper; and, around the circular front drive , a low hedge of blue plumbago.

Of the trees, I remember a gigantic Flame of the Forest, to the left of the front driveway, and a very similar Royal Poinciana or Flamboyant to the right of it on the edge of the drive. You can see the branches and giant pods of the Poinciana in the picture. The pods became swords when my cousins and I went jousting! There was a yellow Poui, and two pink ones. My grandfather’s pride and joy was a Frangipani with great waxy ivory coloured flowers. We also boasted a Lignum Vitae which had delicate little blue flowers, and an Ebony, which burst into vivid yellow bloom as soon as the October rains began.

The back garden had orchards of oranges, tangerines and limes; one of paw-paws; yet another of avocodos. There were five mango trees:  Bombay, St Julian, East Indian, hairy, and blackies if I remember correctly.  And what every Jamaican house had, a breadfruit tree. There was a banana patch that also had plantains; beds of kalaloo and a couple of hills of pineapple. Up by the fence shared with the Commissioner of Police’s house, someone had planted a small bed of ganga, for medicinal purposes my grandmother maintained.

Most magical of all was an extremely tall, majestic yoke-wood tree that seemed to tower into the sky. Yoke-wood is a Catalpa longissima, sometimes called the Haitian Catalpa or Jamaican Oak.

Similar Yoke-wood showing hurricane damage (thanks to Davison Shillingford of Dominica for photo). The one at Santa Elena is no longer standing
Similar Yoke-wood showing hurricane damage (thanks to Davison Shillingford of Dominica for photo). The one at Santa Elena is no longer standing

Our yoke-wood was at least 150 years old, possibly 200. It was a youth when the land on which Santa Elena stood was part of a slave plantation on the Devon Plains. The tree must have been over 20m high and between 2m and 3m in diameter at its base. The lower trunk housed a small cave, hollowed out earlier in its life, probably by a fire caused by lightning strike. Despite the hollow base, the yoke-wood was strong and firmly grounded, and, but for the woodsman’s axe, would have outlived us.

The cave in the trunk of the yoke-wood was inhabited by my grandfather’s Dwendi, who had travelled with him from Belize in 1917, when the family first moved here. Dwendis normally live in rain forests, so our dwandi was quite happy with his cave in the Dwendi Tree.

If you look them up on a famous internet search engine (FISE), you will see dwendis described in the same terms as the yeti or bigfoot. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are in no way furry, but short and stubby, with ginger reddish hair. Probably just over a metre tall, they have very long arms, thumbless hands and long incisors that can be seen when they smile, which is rarely.

Although dwendis have a fearful reputation for attacking humans, and killing them when they can, living with one in the garden is quite safe provided you take a few basic precautions. Do not make loud noises in proximity of their homes; respect their privacy; and should you encounter one face to face, fold your thumbs into your palms so he, or she, cannot see them. For it is by their thumbs that dwendis recognise humans.

The garden at Santa Elena had no overall architect or designer, but its perfection was the combined genius of my grandmother and of my grandfather, each operating as a separate and individual creator with no reference to the other. How this worked was that each mid-morning, after my grandmother had finished her protracted piano practice, she would walk around the garden with the head gardener George and the under-gardener, Stanford, giving instructions for plantings here, diggings up there, dead-heading everywhere. In the late afternoon my grandfather would return from work and, after tea, would walk the garden with George and Stanford, giving instructions for plantings here, diggings up there, dead-heading everywhere.

Somehow, between the two sets of instructions, George and Stanford would work out a course of action, resolving conflicting wishes of the owners, and imposing on the garden a small foretaste of paradise. George was a long time family employee, now very old and without any visible teeth. He was of East Indian descent, but Jamaican to the core. East Indian descent didn’t mean that his ancestors came from Eastern India. Most probably they were Tamil from the South. He was East Indian to distinguish him from the real Indians, the West Indians. George was a very gentle man, who never lost his temper, loved plants, tolerated the company of small boys, and cooked a mean stew of pig’s trotters, salted pig tail, dumplings and gungu peas in an old kerosene tin over an open fire in the back garden.

Stanford was young, a teenager when he came to work for us. George taught him how to be a good gardener, how to graft plants, how to take cuttings, to prune and to plant. Stanford had the worst stammer in the world and should never have been named Stanford. But he lived with it, and never complained when callous boys teased him about it. He had a wicked sense of humour, and, when George wasn’t looking, would mix ganga with the kalaloo which George cooked to eat with the stew. When he was about 23, Stanford was recruited by London Transport to work as a conductor on the busses. He left for London full of optimism, not having told them that he was illiterate. Knowing Stanford, he survived, and I hope that he is today the patriarch of a huge family, enjoying a good retirement.

So today, I sit in my garden which I love, and think of that other garden, in that now inaccessible land, my childhood. Good gardens are like your children, you must love them equally. But, I have to confess, that, of these two, I do have a favourite. It is of course the Garden at Santa Elena. But why? Is it just the charmed memories of childhood? or the tropical extravagance of the plants and flowers? or the secret places that I thought only I knew?

I have been thinking about this a lot and I think I have an answer. It is all of those, but mainly this – every garden since, I have had to be a part of the effort of designing and implementing. For every garden since I have been aware of the aim, and of how far short of it we have fallen. But the garden at Santa Elena was different, because for me it was forever perfect, and I will never know if it fell short of the aim of its creators – my grandparents, Mother Granny and DJ, and their co-creators, George and Stanford.

On a personal note…

Last October, my good friends and sponsors, Brenda and Jeremy V. celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with the renewal of their vows in a ceremony at La Grange de Lanquais, and of course a dinner party for about 60 of their friends.

But sadly, not all their children and grandchildren could be there: four couldn’t make it. However, earlier this month, almost all of them were in England at the same time. So a family reunion was organised at Bow Brickhill, near Milton Keynes, the village where Brenda and Jeremy lived for nearly 25 years, and their children grew up.

Well, they all survived lunch! The Verity Family, with relatives and friends.
The Verity Siblings
The Verity Siblings:
Victoria, Dominic, Genevieve and Christopher
Jeremy & Brenda's grandchildren. Parents name in brackets L-R Front: Benjamin (Chris), Willow (Vic), Emmy & Toby (Genevieve) Middle: Samuel (Chris), Dylan (Vic).  Back: Storm (Vic), Matthew (Chris), Kal (Vic), Florrie (Dominic)
Jeremy & Brenda’s grandchildren. Only Lottie, Dominic’s first is missing. She couldn’t get away from uni. Parents name in brackets
L-R Front: Benjamin (Chris), Willow (Vic), Emmy & Toby (Genevieve)
Middle: Samuel (Chris), Dylan (Vic).
Back: Storm (Vic), Matthew (Chris), Kal (Vic), Florrie (Dominic)