Back on the rock: compassion is still kissing complacency

I never took my eyes off Jamaica while I was in Brazil, but things look different close up.

When I arrived at the airport in Kingston, I saw what the drought meant when I looked on parched brown grass, and noticed the hazy sky above. The rain has not come as usual this year and almost every part of the island knows it. Friends are trying different ways to overcome this. Some are looking to divert water from washing machines. Some are pressing for water tanks to be mandatory features of new buildings and for them to be placed in all existing structures. Government makes statements about ‘implementing’ projects, but too little, too late is what we have….again. We’ve reaped the harvest of neglect with water mismanagement again, and it’s just lamentable that our eyes seem unable to see the faults and address them before we reach another crisis. But, sadly, that is the Jamaican way. Our national anthem does not mention complacency, yet it’s part of our national character.

It did not take long to be hit by another Jamaican failing, our lack of integrity. On my ride home, I read reports of a CVM sports reporter making Zeig Heil signs and remarks after Germany won the World Cup on Sunday. I checked other sources, and yes it was so. Appalling, is the word that I have for that display. Some grubby apology was apparently made live later the same evening. There is bad taste and ignorance at work here, plus–by the public silence by other media–a worrying inability to challenge wrongs. CVM should have had no hesitation in firing the broadcaster as issuing a full apology. Rather than the broadcaster making that apology and the station staying mum. I would think the German Embassy has protested strongly, and that the Foreign Minister has spoken to CVM. But, being Jamaica, the cynical reaction could also be right, that heads remain buried in the sand and no one wants to look up and stare the elephant in the face. One good thing is that Jamaica is so small that this sort of ridiculous behaviour in a country of a mere three million people is passed over, even it makes it out into the international sphere. People still see us the sweet land of Bobby Marley.

The political playground has not offered much in recent weeks, meaning that no major changes have occurred in how the country is run. Most decisions still get made with little or no apparent consultation. It was fascinating to listen to the BBC Wordl Servkce this morning talking about developments in Iraq, and how rival groups are trying to get a real stake in government. We don’t have the same ethnic and relegious conflict, but divisions we do have. However, don’t expect them to get a good airing. The status quo is very powerful.

One area where that may change is in how patriarchy gets weakened. For months, some push has been made to give women a bigger voice in national politics. The talk has been of quotas, a bad idea, in my mind. Today, Britain’s PM has started to reshuffle his Cabinet, and so far doubled the number of women represented, “replacing the male, pale and stale” as it has been dubbed by the UK press. No quotas. True, general elections are due next May, and it would naïve to think that the ruling party that has tended to win the female vote would not help themselves seem nicer to women. Britain has and has had many very capable politicians, including one of the most dynamic world leaders. Britons are more comfortable thinking that privilege is not the reason for position, even with decades of leaders who have tended to come from privilege, either money or more commonly education, especially from the top schools and universities. The basic shape of Cabinet will change, with fewer middle-aged men, and younger females. They will still be predominantly white, but don’t be surprised by a splash of colour. Jamaica ought to be watching carefully.20140715-095337-35617841.jpg

What we’ve seen, though is one of the government ministers who’s had a hard time keeping control of his whippersnapper deciding that Parliamentary politics is not for him. Damien Crawford, known as much for his dreadlocks as his prowess in maths, will not contest the next elections. He could be a great talk show host, keeping pepper in the eyes of the interviewed, and knowing more than enough about how the whole funky business of party politics works in Jamaica.

The economy can’t change in a few days, but some people would like to think that fundamental changes happen in a day. The central bank intervened in the foreign exchange market last week. This is normal activity. What was abnormal was that they admitted it. Whoi, the Governor has no clothes! People keep hoping for the J$ to stop sliding but won’t accept or understand that it’s not a truck that can be held in place by a brick. We want to support Tessanne Chin by buying her album? Well that means buying US$, and selling J$. Oh, that’s how it works? So, not supporting Tessanne is good for Jamaica overall. Better, to get the rest of the world to buy her records, so that we can get some income via her, and save our money to buy more weave. That too? Yes.

Put differently, China is growing fast still. It buys commodities and sells manufactured goods. We are the opposite. We sell commodities and buy manufactured. We could make more, but we’ve never been good at the quality side. But, the J$ needs us to fix that imbalance.

One way is to get more traction from our athletes as manufactured goods. Our own doping agency, JADCO, keeps trying to trip them up and failing them in drug tests, only to have their decisions overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. That should tell us something. Either JADCO don’t know their hurdles from their javelins, or they don’t know their aspects from their ratios. Bottom line: JADCO must go, or be transferred to Scunthorpe United and play in a lower division.20140715-101741-37061586.jpgThis time, CAS also ruled that THE 18 month ban imposed by JADCO on Asafa Powell and Sherone Simpson should be reduced to six months, and be deemed as served, plus JADCO must pay their costs. Lashings from the lawyers were being meted out, in good Jamaican fashion.

We keep getting it wrong be paid we don’t spend time to learn how to do it right. Send me these ‘children’ for a few days of training.

Jamaica is crazy. You can still stand on a street and hail a car and expect to be picked up by a stranger and given a ride. If you see a friend on the roadside, you are likely to offer them a ride if they are headed your way. We will also drive people into the dirt for having views or acting In a way that we deem abnormal. We cannot translate our readiness to care randomly into something systematic. Rather, we encase hard attitudes. That’s one reason we get stuck. Our systems are savage when it comes to dealing with real issues. We would rather let everything slide by than address what we should.

Walking back down Memory Lane

I took my daughter on a little walking tour back through time, yesterday: it was essentially to let her see where I had grown up as a boy. I arrived in London from Jamaica in September 1961; it was cold and damp. My parents went to live in Shepherd’s Bush, and I went to St. Stephens’s Church of England School. I was a fan of QPR from early days, as they were 10 minutes walk from me. I played on Shepherd’s Bush Green, just 10 minutes away. I got to know most of the area in a short radius, especially the market. I was a frequent user of the library. My father and I used to go to the public baths and washhouse; our basement flat had no bath. I ate in several places, including Cooke’s pie and mash shop. All of that, and more, I showed my 10 year-old yesterday. But, I got some surprises along the way. I had arranged to have lunch with a man who, as a boy had been my best friend from age 6. He now lived outside London, but would make the trip down specially.

Much of London is made up of 19th century buildings; Shepherd’s Bush is just that way, with lots of structures dating from the late-1880s. Immigrants, like my family, were just one of the many waves of people going there to live and work. It became home for many West Indians in part because it was close to hospitals that were taking in migrants, and its having easy access to public transport. I used to live on the Tube and buses. Exiting a station was no special thing for me. But…

My first surprise was what had happened to Shepherd’s Bush Green. Of course, change happens. But, I was shocked to see all the development of shops and multistory buildings near the Central Line station, which I had visited just a few years ago. I took that in with a sigh. We walked on the green. I pointed out the disused public lavatories, with their large ornate gates.

What does that mean? One shilling; six pence; three pence.

No use had yet been found for their underground spaces. Maybe, none ever would be. We walked to see an intriguing moving play space. Where had the tennis courts gone? We crossed to where the cinema used to be. It was now an Australian restaurant. I showed my child the etched marking on the walls. I explained that they showed the prices, back from the days before decimal money, when pounds, shillings and pence ruled.

They seemed like hieroglyphics.

We went on to the public library and I walked proudly up the front steps. What! A bar and taps faced me. I blinked. I asked the young server what had happened. “It’s a theatre, now,” she told me. The new home of the Bush Theatre.

The Bush Theatre. The bar, where books used to be. Changes.

I took that in. I read that the change had happened in 2011; I was last there in 2010. We wandered around, and I showed my daughter pictures of the library that were part of the decor. A young lady was doing some research, using the wi-fi service, and she asked me a few questions. She had also gone to school nearby, and we talked about using another library a few miles away, in Hammersmith, when we were schoolchildren. She shared my amusement at the changes. Buildings grow out of their uses and create new homes. Better that, than they stay derelict. My mind went to Jamaica’s downtown, where dereliction was more the order of the day. Even the theatre had not found use in its original form. Where were the visionaries to take those buildings and make them useful again?

School and church from childhood days. Five minutes’ walk to and from home.

We walked on, and I showed my daughter a pub, that was now partly a supermarket; again, new uses. We stopped in front of my old primary school.

Down there in the basement was home. Nothing special, just very special.

I showed her the small playground, placed adjacent to the church. I told her a short story of a fight I had once. “You were a naughty boy?” Someone let us into the school, which was still running (till mid-July), and I explained my visit. I made the trip brief, but not before a young schoolgirl had let her jaw drop to the floor as I talked about being there 50 years ago. We moved on. We crossed the road, to the street where I used to live. The roads were always neat and clean, and that has not changed much; they were also wide by London standards.

I’d noticed years ago that the area was being gentrified, and that feature has just been getting more notice, as shown in a FT piece last week. Many houses go for cool million pounds, these days. I showed my daughter the basement flat where we used to live. “Why did you live in the basement?” I explained a little social history. The houses still looked solid and neat, with blinds and signs of European chic now dressing windows. I took her on a mazy walk through some nearby streets, stopping to admire a Victorian era post box, that looked as good as new. We arrived at Mecca.

The Loft, where fanatical young men stood and cheered for a team on Saturdays

I showed her Loftus Road Stadium, home of Queens Park Rangers Football Club, freshly promoted to the English Premier League. I explained what ‘The Loft’ was, and how I used to trek to stand there and look forward to a hot cup of tea at half time and maybe a hamburger.

We walked around three sides of the stadium, nestled with the houses. We went to the reception and I explained my journey, with a few reminiscences. I mentioned names from the 1960s, some of whom still visit the club. I had not expected to be able to show my daughter the inside of the stadium when no games were on. The club is also running to meet the higher standards of the premier league. We walked back the club shop and I bought her a jersey, which she can wear forever. I explained that back then, hardly anyone wore team kit to watch a match: that was for the players. Scarves, hats, and rattles were all we needed. Homage duly paid, we moved on.

Middle Eastern-feeling in west London

We walked along Uxbridge Road, part of London’s former Roman roadways. My daughter did not ask about the Romans. I noted how the ethnic flavour had changed even in the few years since I was last there.

Then, I noted how Somalis were evident. Now, many places had a Lebanese taste, and men sitting outside cafes drinking coffee were everywhere. I also heard Slavic tongues, often trying to tease a reaction from some passing young lady. I hissed “Boring” at one group and got a glare. I glared back. I traced aloud the changes: English, West Indian, African, Somalis, Lebanese…. “What about the f***ing Irish?” came a shrill question, as a half drunk man overheard me. And…the Irish, I added aloud. We came back past my school and church, and went on toward the market. I explained about Lime Grove, and where the BBC Studios used to be. My encounter with aliens, the day I played in a friend’s garden and saw Cybermen walking across the studio gangway. I must have been about 9-10 when that happened. Frightening! My daughter told me how much she loves Dr. Who. I did too. So, we reached the market. I asked her which way in she wanted to try. We opted to go via the hanging clothes. She’d already spied the fruit and vegetables stalls when we’d come by earlier.

Never pretty. Always functional and friendly.

The market has always been a bustling mess. Now, it is more bazaar than bizarre. Clothes and shoes and knick-knacks all over the place.

We heard strains of Jamaican accents, tinged with a strong London trait. We exited to the main roadway. We saw a fish seller, arguing with a man from Portland about the small kingfish tail he wanted to buy. “Is weh you cum fram?” He asked. We argued about our ethnic roots. A non-conversation. Walking on, we saw that mobile phones and their accessories were the main offering apart from clothes and fruit. Everyone seems to be giving away free SIM cards with a little credit. I wondered if people just took those and made a few calls, then repeated the process. I thought about how useful that would be for criminals. The villain in me? I got a seller to let me have a screen protector. He cut it to size and ‘fitted’ it, while a lady bought a cheap smart phone (ten pounds) and got a free SIM. The guy tried to up sell and offered me a case. No deal. Then, to the end of the market and another Mecca, though of different order. Cooke’s.

Cooke’s eatery

Pie and mash is a dish more found in East London, but I just happened to live close to two shops that happened to be in West London, and I got to love the meal from early childhood. One shop is by the market.

Refurbished and filled with modern baths?

Like a fish and chips meal, this is one of my ‘must have’ things when I visit London. My older daughter got her initiation a few years ago; her sister was due for hers. She asked about eels, the traditional dish. I explained. “I don’t like snakes!” Me, neither. The server asked what she wanted. She went conservative and took pie and mash, gravy and liquor (sauce made from the boiling of eels and parsley) on the side. She nibbled the pie; she loves mashed potatoes. She dipped the pie in liquor then tried the gravy; success. She nibbled on. We were hungry. I went smoothly through my plateful. She licked her lips. “Not bad,” she declared. We sat for a while. We were an hour ahead of my lunch buddy. We decided to take a walk then come back.

She was fascinated by where the BBC used to be. I told her it was just where people worked and that they only seemed different because we lap up television material like it’s nectar. She giggled. She saw an art college and wanted to go in. The building has been there for a hundred years and its style is clearly old, with lots of tiled steps. She adored being inside. I had visions of her at an old English college. We went back to meet my old friend.

Nearly fifty years between meetings is an incredible amount of time. We hugged and smiled at each other. We were no longer 11 year olds. We ordered food and started to recall. My daughter was going for her second meal, too. Impressive, I thought. We talked and talked, about old times. My friend’s memory was amazing. Many people from our class were still living close by. I told of times when I had crossed their paths later in life; very odd. We recalled some of the girls–all were beautiful. He told of his first kiss. My daughter smiled. We remembered how he had been assigned to ‘look after me’. How I was a fast runner; he was a great footballer. Together, we did a lot of damage on the football pitch–a cinder area, back then, not kind on the legs. Our teacher was a stolid man, who picked his team based on functional suitability: fast boys on the wings; big, strong boys in goal and defence. Oh, Mr. Cook! He also loved to use that ruler on your hands. We learned well, though, and were both good with both feet, a rare skill. We talked of races run and won; how he’d cheered. I soaked up the image of my running at White City. New boys and girls coming from the West Indies: Grenada, Guadeloupe, Guyana. Our friendships seemed unreal. It was so easy to get along? He remembered my parents, well. I remembered his, living just two minutes away. His uncle was the projectionist at the cinema and would let him in for free; he, in turn, would let friends sneak in through the side door. He got caught; we escaped. Naughty boys! Now, married with children. Working lives different; he’d worked for the Post Office for over 35 years (ironically, he might crossed my father’s path again). Education different, after primary school; he went to a good secondary school, but not university. Sporting lives different: he played for Chelsea FC as a boy and did well but was not kept; we’d both played football into our 40s, though.

I told him he had to visit Jamaica. We walked back to the Underground station. He had to head north. His wife suffers from MS. He gave my daughter a little gift and told her to spend it wisely. She gave a lovely thank you and they hugged. We hugged again. We didn’t cry, just parted simply.

The day didn’t end there, because we went on to Covent Garden, and enjoyed its usual offering of entertainment and people watching. But, a special stroll along Memory Lane had come to an end. Fifty years from now, what?