It’s 2020. I was born in 1955. I left Jamaica to go to England in 1961. I have always loved Jamaica, even with all of the things I see and hear and sometimes experience that I dislike intensely. I also love England, in a similar way, but because I’ve not lived there for nearly 30 years, my sense of the place is dulled and I read about changes that make me feel that I would like it much less on a day-to-day basis now than when I was growing up and living there. But, I’m always happy to visit and my cousins who live there don’t seem inclined to move to Jamaica, so I guess that on balance they prefer to be there.
I spend an enormous amount of time trying to figure out where Jamaica is and where it’s going. To do that with any real sense I have to look back and ask myself ‘What has changed for Jamaica?’ Last week, I decided to try to list in my mind things that I could state categorically had changed, and try to assess whether those changes were for the better or worse. It’s a personal set of recollections and, though I would like to be really analytical and tabulate them and give them weights and say that overall they show clearly a move in one direction or another, I know I cannot. But, it’s a way of moving past things like macro- statistics that I know are incomplete because so many important things are not and cannot be captured.
As a starting point, I recall my feeling when I came back to Jamaica in the 1980s how startling it was to see the kind of housing and lifestyles of people living in ‘uptown’ Kingston. Then, I was a young man just a few years into a nice-looking career in finance. I could not imagine attaining some of the things I saw seemingly similar Jamaicans having. Admitted, they were mostly further along in their careers, but were on what I saw as a similar track. Housing was the thing that struck me most, being much larger and better appointed than anything any of my acquaintances could manage. When I look around Kingston now, that feeling is still there. But, let me cast my eyes further. I’m not good at remembering things in a biographical way, so I wont date them instead of listing them. Note that I grew up in downtown east Kingston until I was 6, around what is now Rae Town, and much of my earliest memories are of downtown Kingston and bits of St. Andrew to what was then called Racecourse (now Heroes Circle), and never extended beyond Hope Gardens to the north, Palisadoes and Harbour View and Kingston Harbour to the east, south St. Elizabeth to the west and south; I had no recollections to the north. One of our common trips was to go on my father’s motorbike to Harbour View for the ‘drive-in’ movie theatre, and to the airport (to watch planes land and take off), when there was no highway but the main route was via Windward Road.
Corner shops (mainly the image of Chinese traders, who sold everything and where I was trusted to walk to get small items like sugar, flour, matches, and who had things like pigtails in barrels and sweeties–very important for a child 🙂 ).
Markets downtown, of which I don’t really have vivid memories, but knew that most of our fruit and vegetables came from them.
Ward Theatre and Parade and King Street, always bustling.
My school (called a ‘prep’ school, run by a man called ‘Mr. Stone’), where I learned to read, write and do arithmetic, using a slate and slate pencil, with a large alphabet chart (A is apple, B is for bat…Z is for zebra) and a globe. It was a single room (in a house).
My home, a little house where we rented rooms, with a vernada around it, on which I recall sleeping outside some nights, and it had no grill bars.
The prison and Bellevue Hospital (where my father worked) and Jubilee Hospital (where my mother worked).
Country buses, gaily coloured and always packed with people.
‘Chi-chi’ buses (the former Jamaica Omnibus Service buses) with their hydraulic doors which made a ‘chi-chi’ sound, that looked so sleek and graceful.
Lambretta scooter vans (like Tuk-Tuks now seen in Asia) that used to fly around downtown, often taking things to/from record studios, but the most common form of motorized transport for those who could not afford cars.
Taxi cabs, yellow and checkered; Morris Oxford and Austin Cambridge cars.
Walking around and climbing trees and falling out of them.
Ice block trucks and the man on a bicycle coming around on Sundays yelling “Fudge and ice cream!”
Talk of crime was rare, though we knew criminals existed and were ‘bad men’: I was terrified of walking past the prison. My father’s work with mental patients made me terrified of ‘mad men’ and ‘mad women’ (and they came violently into our lives for real later).
Policemen (I recall no women), often standing tall and stately and sometimes directing traffic with elaborate hand movements.
No telephones or TV, only a radio and newspapers.
No mention of travel abroad for the family, though both parents had siblings who had gone to England in the late-1950s.
That’s where I’ll leave things, for now, not as a teaser but to let the images filter from me to you to give an idea of where my mind is heading. For context, I’ll say that I came back to Jamaica to live having visited many times since I first left and my situation as a ‘returning resident’ was somewhat similar to my parents’ in that I was retired, as were they, but I came to live in Kingston, while they chose the balmy location of Mandeville. I’ll let my mind pass through the decades and share some more in a while.
For clarity, I do not think of Jamaica as just being ‘the good old days’; far from it. But, I want to pass to where we are now, so that I can set a better (at least, personal) context for things like being able to do internet banking, make international phone calls without need for an ICAS code, and hear of my wife’s visits to the supermarket that have never had the words “The shelves were empty” attached to them. I think I understand well a lot about the economic turmoil that Jamaica has endured. I also understand something about the social turmoil through which the country continues to pass. I dislike how politicians want to carve Jamaica into two places not one and spend more time claiming ‘victories’ and trying foist blame on the other party for many things that have some negative aspects to them. I see a country that hasn’t had consensus for decades and know well (from the UK) where that can take you.
So, I’ll let more thoughts gel.