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We left Gatwick just before the much-heralded December storm descended, and arrived in St Lucia to glorious hot sunshine. My girlfriend Issy and I hurried out of the tiny Hewanorra airport, peeling off our clothes in the heat, and wondered how the island was so lush and green, steaming with goodness and health, without any rain.
We were soon to find out, because the storm caught up with us on Christmas Eve, after it had torn through the rest of the Caribbean, just as Issy and I were settling into the blissful Rendezvous hotel, on the north-west of the island, feeding the birds on our balcony with croissants. As the clouds darkened overhead, the birds dispersed in anticipation and the phone reception started to get fitful. I suppose there are few more reliable ways to become unplugged from the rest of the world, from your phone and your email and every other aspect of your daily reality, than by a tempest of epic proportions. The rain poured, the wind howled and I was logged out.
St Lucia itself, much fought over by the French and the British, is more than 200 square miles: it is north of Barbados and south of Martinique, with the Caribbean sea on one side and the Atlantic on the other. There's some farming, a banana crop, some Catholicism, many dusty Rastafarians, a little voodoo and a few witch doctors in the woods. The lovely marina at Rodney Bay hosts mostly American yachts and boats, but the island really lives off sunshine, and those, like us, who want to purchase a bit of it to sit under semi-naked.
Herod would have felt at home at the Rendezvous, a "couples hotel", with no children allowed, just partners of all ages, mostly from Britain and the US. And mostly, too, from the look of it, the couples –some retired, some young and even wearing Hawaiian shirts, such was the relaxation – were fond of one another, enjoying one another's company and even talking, when they looked up from their phones.
All islands, particularly those subject to tempests, should have a poet as their inspiration. The great Nobel prizewinning poet Derek Walcott is the presiding figure of this island, having been born in Castries in 1930 to an Afro-Caribbean mother and English father – "I'm just a red nigger who loves the sea…" – and I was glancing through his masterpiece Omeros, coming across the ominous line "as he watched the island through the slanted monsoon", when the lights went.
We had unpacked and gone down into the lobby for a cocktail when it happened. The rain had begun. It rained all night, and all day, and all night again. This was not mild, polite British rain, but a rumbustious, glutinous, violent downpour in the dark, soon accompanied by lightning and thunder which, again, went on interminably, like hours of strobe lighting followed by aerial bombing.
Jetlagged and tired, we sat in the lobby with our cocktails, which were plentiful and included in the package. To obtain marijuana, one of the obvious boons of the Caribbean, you have only to stroll out on to the beach, and it's good stuff, light and slightly hallucinogenic without being psychotic. And so, somewhat stunned and with our minds flying about, we collapsed into deep sofas for s
ome time, wondering if this dramatic hurricane might be a show put on for our interest and pleasure. It was certainly not something you get to see much of in Shepherd's Bush.
Soon there was water everywhere, except where you wanted it. The airport was shut and the island seemed to be disappearing as roads and bridges were washed away, houses collapsed, trees were blown about and crops ruined. The hotel held up, but the power went and soon you couldn't shit, shower or see. Otherwise, it was fine, and the only possible distraction was to listen to Blonde On Blonde on your headphones and wait for the world to return, if it would.
I have been both fortunate and unlucky in that I was brought up to work. Work, I was told as a young man, is a form of usefulness and dignity. So I have come to fear indolence and the hopelessness of inactivity. Holidays, it seemed to me, were always the perfect opportunity to hear your parents arguing over an extended period. However, the drowned island slowly began to recover from its drenching. The roads, some of them split down the middle, as if cracked with an axe, were put back together again. The beach, heaped with detritus from huge passing cruise ships – like floating council estates – was being cleared.
And so, as the sun came out, I was heading in the other direction, towards inactivity. It took me a couple of days to get used to the impossible anguish of sipping cocktails and staring at the sea. I figured that in such circumstances you can either die of boredom or learn to enjoy doing nothing guiltlessly. I have come to believe that doing nothing is a difficult art that should usefully be taught in schools; there could even be exams in it, which I'd write myself, if I weren't too lazy.
Not that there was nothing at all going on. I like a girl with a fine mind, and there's nothing as sexy as a girl who reads in a bikini. Before tucking into 600 pages of Herodotus in Italian, I saw that Issy was reading Laclos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses in French, an epistolary novel, an old form, rarely used now. I noticed that almost everyone around us, sunk in their chairs or sitting at the bar in shorts, was writing texts and emails, and sending photographs – an inundation of short notes and communications, flying about the world, and changing everything in a moment with words. So the epistolary is not dead.
I also noticed, with some regret, that the book seemed to have died since I was last on holiday. Who would have thought that such a perfect, portable object, bound paper with writing on it, cheap to buy and full of jokes, wisdom and sex, would have one day just expired, being, perhaps, too heavy to hold up? Everyone, I saw, was reading, but not as they had always read. Now they were staring into the bright lights of Kindles and iPads, where it was all there, everything in front of them for ever.
Not that the entertainments provided at the resort were not many, multifarious and fun. It's been a while since I've seen a Santa on water skis, or fire-eaters, limbo-dancers, stilt-walkers, devils and ghosts. The staff danced wildly with the guests on boat trips to the bay, where we caught sight of the Pitons, St Lucia's famous volcanic plugs. I was keener than I've ever been to be covered in seaweed while wrapped in foil as a method of extracting my "impurities" (they came pouring out).
I've rarely eaten so much fresh grilled fish, before being flown across a rainforest in an aerial tram, looking down to see not a wild boar, boa constrictor or even a Rastafarian – the forest had recently been cleansed of Rastas – but a German tourist in a purple mac and green crash helmet screaming through the forest on a zip wire. And no West Indian, you should be warned, is ever more than a few moments from attacking a steel drum with a rendition of Jingle Bells.
One of the waiters took me aside to say that, of course, in this small, quiet island, the people are poor and, worse, without opportunity. We were harassed most places we went by people attempting to sell us things we didn't need, as I was a great deal in India recently. Who knew it? The world is a market, a fury of exchange and demand, but underneath this artificial paradise, the subversive waiter continued to whisper while glancing nervously to either side, the people were seething with fury, already more humiliated than anyone should bear. Drive 10 minutes from Rendezvous and you soon find people living in primitive shacks without electricity, fetching water from standpipes in the road. The education system follows a British model, and it's impossible for the young to find a way out of here. Many struggle because they cannot afford the uniform and shoes that all are required to wear. The aim of the young, I was told, is to escape. The talented go to the US or Canada; the rest are left behind, working as maids and waiters, if they're lucky.
Meanwhile, as the army band in their smart uniforms played Glenn Miller in the lobby and I thought of my parents' dancing and struggled to remember what century it was, I recalled Frantz Fanon writing about "tourists avid for the exotic". At dinner you would see a sea of cheerful white couples sipping champagne served by welcoming, uniformed black staff.
The well-off of the first world have always used the third world as their playground, brothel, resource and factory. And the middle class of the third world – usually living elsewhere – have always been happy to sell off their prettiest things. This mild and often comic recreation of colonialism for the European elite, this suspended piece of the past – where ordinary whites can pretend to be aristocrats for a week – makes one wonder why there isn't anything more fruitful or intelligent for willing workers to do. The tourism industry recreates and sells a stultified form of domination that generates more conflicts than it does solutions, creating an endless cycle of infantilisation, dependence and resentment. A poet like Derek Walcott might be designated as one who remembers for others, but people have to do their own remembering, too. There is much beauty here – "emerald valleys and indigo hills" – but there is no beauty in being poor and without hope.
Right on. You saw it! It breaks one’s heart. In a sense, nothing has changed. We exchanged exploitation and destruction for illusions and tourism. Thank you Hanif!
I once recited a poem by Derek Walcott to an agency nurse named Mercy, one afternoon when we were working together on the Stroke and Neurological Rehabilitation Ward. The poem – I can't recall which one – was from his collection 'White Egrets.' Mercy saw me with the book when I returned from lunch – those striking Faber & Faber designs that are bold tonal swatches, with the title and the name of the author in different colour letters, as large as the cover designer can make them. She asked me if it was any good. My response, which seemed perfectly reasonable at the time, but now strikes me as unfathomable and maybe also inappropriate, was to read her one of the poems, out loud. I wasn't putting the moves on her. I liked the book. When I like something I want to share it with people. Maybe some of my social filters are out of whack. Two sets of girlfriends parents have, independently of each other, delicately enquired if I might be on the spectrum. I don't care to know.
I am not a good public reader, but the acoustics of the old building were very much in my favour. I don't think that I disgraced myself, or did Mr Walcott too much of a disservice. A year before, I had done some temp work, delivering and collecting medical records from around the hospital – a job that broke me physically and mentally in around six weeks. I recall one really snowy day when the hospital was practically deserted. I was on the second floor, which was mostly administrative, wheeling an enormous cage, that was filled with crated medical notes, the length of a spinal corridor that stretched along the front of the building,' all the while bellowing 'Powerslave' by Iron Maiden, and a bit of 'Alexander the Great' by the same band. Any building that can make you sound like Bruce Dickinson, is worthy of preservation.
I will never know whether my potted Walcott recital increased the sales of 'White Egrets,' or earned its author a new fan. Mercy was an agency nurse – an emergency member of staff who is drafted in when the hospital can't meet its own staffing quotas, either by shuffling around its permanent nursing cohort, or by calling on its own bank of in-house temps. I never saw her again. At worst she went away with the story of a lunatic ward clerk who read her poetry.
Walcott was only on my radar because a couple of years before he had been – we would now call it 'cancelled'. I can't weigh-in on the accusations that were made. What I did not like was the circle of anonymous assassins (some of whom I imagine were known to him personally) slipping in the knife. My thinking is that, if you are going to accuse someone of a thing that might ruin them, you should forgo all disguise and have the decency to own it. Reading about that drama made me seek out his poetry, which I might otherwise not have discovered.
I am naturally indolent and have worked hard to develop a work ethic. I think I have been quite self-destructive in the past. But I have also come to realise that if I give myself things to do, then I will naturally lean in that more positive direction. It is sometimes hard now that I am unwell. There are days when I wake up exhausted, as if I have run a double marathon, while also working at the vanguard of quantum physics. There are moments that are becoming more and more common, when it feels like I am straining to catch a glimpse of myself and my own thoughts in a thickening fog. I can entertain the notion that I will eventually disappear into myself, like Mahershala Ali in the third season of True Detective, vanishing into the Vietnamese jungle – a symbol of his permanent exit into dementia.
It feels good to end the day, knowing that I have accomplished something; when I have worked on some writing, even if it hasn't gone well; when I have written to friend, even if it is only to continue an ontological argument concerning the hard rock band, Manowar, and their outrageous and unsupported claim that they perform “true metal”. Something that I regard as a Platonic impossibility.
Reading is good, as I often feel oafish and ignorant and hope to eventually remedy that. I could never get to grips with Kindles and their brethren. The supporting beams of my parent's loft are the subject of a long running stress test I am conducting, using books I have accumulated. I tolerate what I must in the digital world. I write on a second-hand tower PC, on what a friend once described as the most disgusting keyboard they have ever laid eyes on. I have worked in a hospital and so have seen worse – one keyboard that was swabbed by infection control (not one that I ever knowingly used) was found to contain a dry cocktail of faecal matter, kebab meat, and Christmas tinsel. I had once had a mobile phone with a three-colour screen. When it was turned off, a crude rendering of a spinning globe would rotate above the open hands of a rather disturbing clown, before the screen jumped abruptly to grey. I put it in a drawer 20 years ago. It is probably still there.
An age ago, when I was a very different man, I was walking through the town of Crater, in Aden. There were all these archaic English school text books scattered across the road. It was not long after the anniversary of Independence Day. I was amused by the thought of someone finding this legacy of the English in a cupboard, years after the colonists had departed, and tossing them out on the street: “...And take your books with you!”
A few years later, I had boots on the ground in Eritrea. I had obtained an archaeology permit (I am not an archaeologist; you need permits just to visit archaeological sites in the country). I had been given the name of what I assumed was a village, a few miles away from a set of ruins I wanted to visit, but which turned out to be an arbitrary spot along the road, in the middle of nowhere.
I asked a goatherd for directions. He pointed across an arid landscape that was combed with crumbling ravines. I took a compass bearing off his finger. As I zigzagged up and down in that direction, I happened across a young soldier who was idly manning a checkpoint. He did not see me until I had gone past. He ran behind me, while pulling his trousers on, calling out for me to stop. Before military service he had been a flight technician at the airport in Assab. He hoped to migrate to the UK and find work in a similar position there. It didn't seem likely. The dial of his wristwatch was a tiny photograph of him and his girlfriend with their heads pressed together. He readjusted the hands so that I could get a better look at her. That's a keeper; a man who is willing to bend time to make you look good.