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!

Apologia

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

Uncle Bob

Bob Verity (1911 - 1985)
Uncle Bob Verity (1911 – 1985)

Today, 4th October, is the anniversary of the death of a remarkable educator, poet, librarian, pacifist, producer, theologian, pastor and thinker. He changed the lives of thousands of young Jamaicans at a time when there was little available to nourish their minds, by simply introducing them to books, and art and poetry and music. His legacy is all too rarely celebrated, except in the hearts and memory of those whom he most influenced, two generations of now old and middle aged Jamaicans, from all backgrounds, whose intellectual life he enriched and whose future he improved.

He was Robert Godwin Beresford Verity – Uncle Bob –  born in Belize in 1911, son of an Afro-Scottish Belize creole mother, the concert pianist Lena Isabel McDonald, and a Scottish-Huguenot father, Douglas James Verity. With his four brothers and sisters he moved to Jamaica in 1917, where he grew up and became 100% Jamaican, devoted to its people, their welfare, their freedom and their independence.

Growing up, neither school nor sport enchanted him, to his teachers despair. He preferred retreat into the imagination, into music and literature, art and drama. He wrote from an early age and was a talented pianist and cello player. He was an untidy boy and grew into an untidy man – his bowtie forever askew, his jacket crumpled, his hair too long for the times. But he had a magnetic and loving personality, and a burning intellect, which made even the  fastidious oblivious to the untidy exterior, revealing underneath an organised mind, with a vision of how things could be and a determination to bring them about.

Act I

He lived his adult life in three acts – Ill Health, Creation, and Ministry. After school, he studied for the Catholic priesthood, at Campion House, Osterly on the outskirts of London. A bit to his own surprise, he was a good student, and made excellent progress through the early stages of the novitiate. But, two years in, he contracted TB and was forced to abandon his studies. There followed long years battling the disease – in the days before antibiotics, this meant long stays in cold air sanatoria, improvement, recuperation at home in Jamaica, relapses. He wrote for newspapers when he could, and music criticism for the New York Times when he was in the US for a surgical lung collapse.

It was the operation that both nearly killed him and saved his life. It was a new procedure; Bob was only the second person to survive it. It lasted over five hours and was carried out without anaesthetics. He said that, to cope with the pain, he gripped the hands of a young intern so hard, that the imprints of his nails were visible in the young man’s palms for weeks after. But the operation was a success, and he eventually recovered, closing Act One.

Act II

In August 1939, recovered and healthy, he left for Europe and a job in Norway to get experience he could use at home in Jamaica. He never made it to Oslo; during a stop over in London he was summoned back to Jamaica by his father who realised that war in Europe was about to break out. In London, he also met Jacqueline, and in a whirlwind romance, married her.  They arrived back in Jamaica on the day that Britain declared war on Germany.

JuniorCentreLogo2
Monogram of the Junior Centre of the Institute of Jamaica, designed by Edna Manley

At the prompting of his future brother-in-law, Philip Sherlock, Bob Verity now joined the staff of the Institute of Jamaica, where the creative phase of his life began. At this time, Kingston, and all of Jamaica, lacked any facility where children could explore the world of books, or music, or art. Bob and Philip had the idea that they would create a place where children could have access to books and records, paintings and sculpture, free of any charges. Not only would there be libraries and galleries, there would be classes, where children could learn to draw and carve, make pottery and music. This would be The Junior Centre of the Institute. Bob was tasked to make it happen.

And happen it did. Despite the war, and shipping restrictions, a new building to Bob’s specification was built and filled with books, in time for the opening in 1940. This took place on a Saturday morning, so that children could come in, register their membership and pick up their readership cards. When the staff arrived at the Centre to open up, they found a queue of children starting at the front gate and stretching back three city blocks. As the staff prepared for the 8 o’clock opening, more and more children arrived.

To deal with the rush, every available adult was given a table, a stack of forms and membership cards, and a rubber stamp with the new monogram designed by Edna Manley, the sculptor. Even Bob’s 7-month pregnant wife was summoned in to help with the deluge of children. Enrolment was limited to 10,000 places and it was expected to take two years to fill that number. By late afternoon, however, it was clear that there would be more than the ten thousand turning up. By six o’clock the queue was still as long as in the morning, and children at the back of the line were turned away. It was after nine that the last child, the 10,000th member, was processed.

Within weeks it was clear that the Centre, one of the few of its kind anywhere in the world, was a huge success. Children streamed in to use the reading rooms and borrow books. Bob insisted that the library should offer a wide range of popular fiction and non-fiction titles, as well as the classics and important reference works . The books had to be challenging and enjoyable. The Hardy Boys and Just William shared shelf space with Popular Mechanics and the Junior Encyclopaedia. But standards were high, and Enid Blyton never made the cut.

Each book in the library had a lending slip inside the front cover. Bob had the words “This book is alive” printed below the Archangel monogram, along with a plea to the children to treat the book as a living thing. The children however needed little encouragement to look after the books and their enthusiasm for their contents was astonishing.

Edna Manley, an enthusiastic supporter of the Centre, roped in a number of artist friends, and soon after the opening day they began art classes in the purpose built studio on the first floor. A young multi-talented librarian, Carmen Lawrence, started teaching music, and dance classes were soon added with help from Ivy Baxter. These activities grew and prospered, and are still going on today at the Centre. Out of them grew three great Jamaican schools, for art, music and the dance. These have now come together in the impressive Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts.

Throughout all of this Bob Verity was ever present. He enjoyed the company of the children and would feed off their ideas and opinions. He was known as Uncle Bob to everyone, and the door to his office just off the front lobby of the Centre was open to everyone – child, adult, or tramp off the street. He always said that he had 10,000 children, and they always came first in his thinking. His own child, Jeremy, didn’t seem to mind being the 10,001th!

He lavished love on everything he did, and in the continuing success of his creation, the Junior Centre, that love is returned. It is appropriate that his memorial stone is in that front lobby for all of the successors of those first 10,000 children to see.

Uncle Bob’s innovations didn’t stop there. He initiated and presented Lunch Hour Concerts in the Institute of Jamaica concert hall, a tradition that carries on today at the Edna Manley College. He obtained a budget to acquire paintings for the IoJ exhibition gallery, which became the foundation collection of the National Gallery of Jamaica, a department of the IoJ that was his creation.

All this was only the start of the Creation Act of Uncle Bob’s life. For over 10 years, up to 1950, he was the voice of Children’s Hour on ZQI, the local radio service. He acted in plays and pantomimes. Between 1945 and 1970, he organised cantatas of over 300 voices on the playing fields of Wolmer’s High School, and, in 1955, Jamaica Bandwagon, a massive travelling road show featuring Jamaican music and popular performers which took place on a portable stage in the open air in all 14 parishes of the island. He was highly amused that all of this was in celebration of 300 years of British colonial rule, a rule he worked hard in his spare time to bring to an end.

He rescued the historic 100 year old cast iron Victoria Market, a derelict fruit & vegetable market on the water front at the foot of King’s Street, turning it into a remarkable Arts & Craft market, providing a huge space for the display and sale of Jamaican handicraft and fine art to local buyers and foreign tourists. The existence of the market encouraged a phenomenal growth in the handicraft industry in Jamaica and provided much needed new jobs for people with skill and talent. It is sad that, while the Crafts Market still exists, it is no longer housed in the old classic building; this was destroyed in a breath-taking act of vandalism as part of Edward Seaga’s project to redevelop the waterfront.

In the later part of this middle period of his life, Uncle Bob served as Principal of the Jamaica School of Art and then of the Jamaica School of Music. He was always proud that he helped encouraged Sir Willard White to give up the day job and become a professional singer.

Act III

In the 1970s Uncle Bob’s life changed completely, and in a sense he returned to where he had started. He left behind his secular activities and took holy orders as a Deacon in the Catholic Church. He married Carmen Lawrence, who had been his partner in the development of the Junior Centre, and succeeded him as Director when he left. He became a co-pastor at the UWI chaplaincy at the Aquinas Centre, Mona, and a chaplain at the University Hospital. He taught in the Theology Department at UWI.

In resuming his theological studies, he became an active participant in the worldwide debate on morals and faith that  was part of the reforms of Vatican II. He was a pioneer in developing Catholic Social Action in the Caribbean. He also made a major contribution to the development of a Jamaican flavour of Liberation Theology, an important and little known body of work now once again worthy of consideration because it corresponds closely to the ideas and example of the new Pope Francis.

It may look like a coda to his career, but in fact it was as important a part of his life as anything he had done before. It was an outward expression of his deep spirituality and faith, which allowed him to be closer to his God while still serving those around him in need of loving care, support and guidance. The poor of his parish, the distressed in the hospital, and the students in the seminary were all now his children and he continued to change their lives until the end of his.

Epilogue

To know him, was to know someone gentle and loving, wise and learned, witty and humorous. He was often very funny. He had a massive store of jokes: some good, some corny, some you could tell your maiden aunt from Troon, others a little bit naughty. He was generous to a fault, and would often give away his last farthing, or pattie, but never, I think, his last scoop of ice cream. But most important of all, he was the most unprejudiced and forgiving person this sloth has ever met.

It is a truism that success has many authors, failure is an orphan. In some ways, Bob Verity’s life adds verisimilitude to the platitude. Our Jamaican social history is not very well recorded or very accurate. We do not seem good at diaries, biography and personal archives. Perhaps we are too busy to keep them. If you look around at the enduring legacy Bob Verity left Jamaica, you will see few mentions of his name. Credit for the creation of this or for that, is claimed or given to other people; he is often just written out of the history. This is not to say that those people are in any way unworthy.  They were, most of them, involved in the work; but they were neither the architect of the vision nor the chief engineer of the build.

It must have irked a little, this lack of recognition, but I suspect not a lot. He was never vain about public honours, although he was proud of the C.D. and Musgrave Medals he was awarded, but largely, I think, because they were Jamaican. He also accepted an MBE, a colonial British honour. When chided by his son for accepting this Imperial bauble, he replied “Son, you can make a big gesture rejecting an OBE or a knighthood, but so many thousand MBEs are handed out, rejecting one would be feeble.”

Uncle Bob knew that the only recognition worth having, was to be remembered by all the ‘children’ whose lives he changed, and continues to change through the institutions he founded or helped build, and which still function today. It was his gentleness and love that built these things and changed these lives: that is his monument. So happy rest, Uncle Bob, you have earned and richly deserve it.

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?”