BLACK BITCH COMING THROUGH

The last few days have been thrilling. First Obama reached his magical majority of pledged delegates. Many people, perhaps more outside America than inside, felt hope that change was coming. Then Man United lifted the cup in the Champions League Final – in spite of nerves getting the better of Ronaldo in the penalties. First and Second Born had watched the game in full Man U. kit - all the while providing constant and annoying commentary. They say good things happen in threes so this myopic view of happiness will include the fact that I think I am hitting my targets for getting this little exhibition up. So why does life still feel so… hesitant, removed? It is as if it is being lived by someone else.

To answer this in a constructive manner, on a dull Thursday, at 11am, required me to dig deep in my soul. For that you need chocolate. I began asking around if any of the museum staff had some chocolate to spare.
“I doh have chocolate but yuh want some black bitch?” asked Ms. X.
“Hmmmm. Not really. I was thinking more of a Mars bar. Maybe even a Kit Kat would be great.” I said nervously.
“So yuh never try black bitch then?” persisted Ms. X.
“No. It’s OK. You know what, I’ll just go for a walk and get something from the petrol station. Forget about it.” I replied while walking backwards, panic setting in.
“Wait!” she commanded.
Ms. X. pulled out a tiny plastic bag from her purse and smilingly thrust some rather dark candy made from grated coconut at me.
“Dis is black bitch.” said Ms. X.
I sighed with relief.
“Give me a break. This ain’t no black bitch. This is meek, sweet, sugar cake.” I said.
“If you want it over here you have to ask for black bitch.” she retorted.
“Are you sure?” I inquired
“We always called it dat.” she replied, rolling her eyes.
“Fine. In that case, I’ll have a bit.” I said.

With life feeling so much more grounded after that bit of candy I went back to work. Before long we had run out of picture hooks so I set off to Carters – Bim’s answer to Home Base, or Home Depot, depending on which side of the pond you know best. It took 30 seconds to take them off the shelf and join the queue at the cashiers. There was only one person ahead with just a couple items to purchase. So, money in one hand, and hooks in the other, I was poised for a quick getaway. But the cashier had other ideas. She loved the telephone and appeared to be moonlighting as the operator for the Bridgetown switchboard. Every time she started to cash up the mop, brush and pan belonging to the elderly gent ahead of me the phone would ring. She would answer it immediately and lose track of where she was in the cashing up. This meant she had to start all over. And start all over. Again. After the third aborted attempt at ringing up the three items I left Miss. Multi-task for another cashier who had no customers and was stapling receipts from her register.

There I stood, in front cashier no. 2, picture hooks under her nose. And she continued stapling. And stapling.
“Should I go to another cashier?” I asked helplessly.
“No. I go finish jus now. Yuh cahn see I stapling.” she said, her voice rising.
“Please cash these things.” I pleaded, my eyes welling up with tears of anger and frustration.

Then she chupsed.

With eyelids almost closed so that her eyes became two thin slits, she launched into a long, slow, sucking of air through clenched teeth. Yes, I can confirm being on the receiving end of this most dreaded of chupses – the chupse provocative. In one small gesture she had conveyed disdain, disgust, and as much offense as she could muster. If this had been a dark alley late at night that chupse might have served as the precursor to actual bodily harm.

Slowly, with measured, deliberate movements, she reluctantly rang up the hooks. I dashed out trembling. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the elderly gent was still there. He was now trying to pay with a credit card but her machine was not working and she was looking for a supervisor. I seriously considered returning later with a picnic lunch for him.

At least I now had hooks and Andre and I could continue the hanging process. But things are never quite so straightforward in my world. On my return, still shaken from the impact of the chupse provocative, I found the room I had transformed into a beautiful, empty, white cube ready for my art, almost overflowing with files, boxes, trestle tables and papers. Papers were everywhere. Back at the main, open plan, office area I said in a loud voice to no one in particular,
“There appears to be a huge pile of junk in my gallery. Would anyone like to explain?”
Silence.
Just then I spotted K. who is coordinating the exhibition with me.
“K. Come here. Now.”
“Of course dearest.” he said. That man always manages to stay charming in the face of abuse or disturbance.
I led the way back to my invaded space and let the junk tell all.
“K. I am leaving now to go someplace and cry and when I come back in two hours I assume this f***ing s**t will be gone." I said trying hard not to sob.
“Of course. I am really sorry. I don’t know how it happened. Really sorry.” He seemed genuinely keen to remedy matters.

I sped off home and climbed into bed. From the safety of my duvet, I watched the last downloaded episode of Lewis, (the British ITV series that is a sequel to Inspector Morse), on Apple TV. Gradually my breathing slowed as a double homicide unfolded involving a computer nerd and a bunch of posh Oxford twits. Later when I did return to the museum the room had been restored to a gallery-perfect, white cube and my artwork appeared to be untouched.

Only then did it occur to me that of course if I had not been so angry and territorial I could have claimed the “junk” and turned it into an artwork. After all the show is premised on uncovering the museum’s archives. A huge pile of archives had been delivered to where I now stood – brought by the equivalent of Angel Gabriel to the gallery space. And I had demanded it all be sent back into storage.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere but I’m too upset to know what it is.

YOU GO DOWN THE LADDER, I’LL SHINE THE TORCH

The most successful relationships are those where all parties are clear about expectations. With this in mind I am giving advance warning that for three weeks there will be no blogs jammed full of nights partying under the stars, or discovering that a security guard at the airport is one of the best bird photographers in Bim. It’s not that I am physically incapacitated. And no, I have not joined the local sect, Closed Brethren, who lead cloistered lives attempting to avoid contact with evil, TV-watching, non-Brethren types. I won’t be doing much socializing because my days and nights are now dedicated to putting up my forthcoming show at the Barbados Museum and Historical Society. I have spent several months there as an artist in residence with a brief to make artwork based on research into the archives of Museum’s collections.

Delving into these archives has resulted in several artworks. There is a suite of twenty-nine etchings. Forget for a moment that they mimic the journeys of bookworms through various old documents. The etchings are gorgeous, beautifully framed, and may I say, a sophisticated addition to any interior-designed living space. Our lovely accountant, a kindly, older gent, nestled in the highlands of Scotland, says the rest of the artworks I described brought tears to his eyes. They are expensive to produce but resist the idea of art as a commodity. His plea is for some art as a definite commodity before the close of the financial year.

But I’m so steeped in the project that, like Macbeth, it feels “that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er”. Just to give you a taster, there will be sculpture, photography and sound works. Oh, and jars of dust collected from the Museum. I wasn’t kidding when I said it would be hard to shift this stuff. There is a rationale behind the dust but I suspect no amount of text will convince visitors to the show. The response will probably be something like this:
She tink we chupid? Man, eff dis is art den next time de madam sweep de house, I go tell she to keep de dust yuh hear. Put it in any ol’ jam bottle an it go be art jus like dem have in de highfulutin museum
.
But what’s done is done. If the criticisms don’t kill, they will put hairs on my chest and what are a few more hairs …

The first hurdle on this week’s “to do” list is to settle on a name for the show. The contenders include Archives Alive! (media savvy suggestion courtesy of The Husband). A poetic possibility favoured by the Director of said Museum is Echoes in the Archives. But if I had my way the show would definitely be titled, You Go Down The Ladder, I’ll Shine The Torch. You never know, I might still be able to convince the powers that be that a title like this will not bring the seventy five year old institution into disrepute.

But whatever it is called, the show will open in three weeks and be down three weeks after that, and I will have to move on to another gig. To test the temperature I went to see the final year show of the Barbados Community College fine art students. It was very professionally presented. At one end there was a painter clearly way ahead of the others in terms of skill and confidence but still not expressing a unique voice. The weakest of the lot looked decorative and lazy so really just a typical undergrad show.

The College’s external art examiner this year was the renowned Jamaican painter, Cecil Cooper. I went to his lecture after seeing the show. It was the usual slide after slide showing how he went from unknown, naturally talented, country boy to his celebrated international status today. But what was really interesting about him was a throw away remark he made about the influence of music in his work. I was intrigued and asked him to explain. Many fine artists envy musicians because deep down we are aware of the limitations of any attempt to represent the sublime. But music – ah, now that is an unmediated experience. It might, like with Bach’s music, allow a glimpse of the sublime – what Kant described as an “outrage on the imagination”.

Cooper revealed that he came from a family of musicians and had a trained voice. And before you could say “Haile Selassie” we had moved from Kant to karaoke. Truth be told the man can sing. But none of us were quite prepared for him to belt out Josh Groban’s You Raise Me Up in the auditorium of the Community College, at 9pm on a Friday night, when most of us wanted to hurry home before the start of CSI. Then, without a moment to recover from the shock of the first song, he launched into Love Changes Everything. This changed everything. I glanced around. The faces were a mixture of shock and awe mixed with a tiny bit of terror that we might be trapped here for several more songs. Well this was a bit of an “outrage on the imagination” for sure. Thankfully Lloyd Weber’s ditty marked the end of the evening and we all rushed out before the applause was misinterpreted as demanding an encore.

If you make it to my show, I promise not to sing.

I LOST MY HEART AT LEXIE’S BAR (OPEN 24 HOURS)

Whenever Strictly Come Dancing appears on the telly I disappear. It is a vivid reminder of what my two left feet will never accomplish. But there is no denying that as even the most amateur of couples glide across the floor to dances like the tango, cha-cha and mambo they are stepping to something of universal appeal. This is not the quick fix of popular dance, offering, if you pardon the expression, “pussy on a plate”. Rather it is the stuff we yearn for to feel alive. Wrapped up in every twirl, turn and twist is passion, seduction and desire.

On this small rock we can provide for both of these needs. I am reliably informed that Habour Lights, (a.k.a. known to some as Habour Whites, because of the pale complexions of the majority of its clientele), is an excellent joint for a quick fix. But for something with soul you really want to be grooving at Lexie’s Bar in Oistins. That’s where I was last Saturday night - accompanied by not one, but two, handsome men. Sadly neither of these was The Husband as the European Parliament had summoned him to provide wisdom on urgent matters of state. In these troubled times democracy demands sacrifices of us all.

My version of how we ended up in Oistins goes something like this. E. and B. popped round to borrow some art house DVDs and we ended up having a little wine and a long chat, during which I told them I had heard of a mythical rum shop at Oistins with ball room dancing on Friday nights, among the many stalls selling fried fish dinners to tourists. They knew the place and after a phone call we established that there is dancing on a Saturday and Sunday evening as well. E. is a native son and B. has spent so much time here he should be given citizenship. Yet it was not clear they had ever ventured there. I said they were welcome to join me. With the kids at a sleepover with the grandparents (bless ‘em), we enthusiastically agreed on an Oistins evening of dinner from George’s Fish Grill stall followed by hanging out at Lexie’s.

E. has stated that as a matter of natural justice, and mindful of the principle of audi alterem partem, I am obliged to give blog space to his version of events. He and B. popped round to borrow some art house DVDs. I insisted they stay and drink with me as I don’t as a rule drink on my own. Every time they attempted to leave I refilled their glasses or fed them cheese and crackers. Then I pumped them for information about this bar I had heard of in Oistins. Once it was established that ballroom dancing was on that night I whined and pleaded like a baby for them to take me to Lexie’s because I was too scared to go all by myself. Being well brought up gentlemen they could not refuse. That is how we ate dinner at George’s Fish Grill stall followed by hanging out at Lexie’s.

Whichever version of events you buy into, the evening was one I that will make me smile long after all my expensively straightened teeth have fallen out and been replaced by ones that float in a glass of water when not in use.

Oistins is a place that reputedly ninety percent of tourists will visit at least once during their stay - and usually on a Friday night. It used to consist of numerous small, tented, eateries selling fried fish, which you ate at communal picnic tables. Permanent booths have recently replaced these makeshift stalls. It is always heaving with people. There is even a stage where we witnessed some pretty dreadful karaoke. I’ll never understand how Brits, who behave with such decorum in their nice little suburbs, with their nice little allotments, can turn up to this rock and metamorphose into drunk louts who insist on murdering Kelly Clarkson’s Because of You in a public square.

But if you leave this tourist section of Oistins and walk to the farthest corner where the little fishing boats come in, you pass, like Alice through the looking glass, into a magical space. Neon signs inform you of Lexie’s Bar with pop hits from the 50’s and 60’s blaring from speakers the size of refrigerators. Next-door is Kathy’s Bar, silent by comparison, except for the distinctive sound of dominoes being slapped down on wooden tables. There are a few scattered picnic tables where people are sitting having drinks. The waves lap the shoreline a few metres away. There are no tourists. Gradually, I realized that people were staring. Could it be my bright pink dress and matching florescent pink flip-flops? Or is it that I am the only Indian woman there? Or maybe they are staring because, hanging off my arms, are the only two white boys to have made the journey from there to here. And these lads had the nerve to suggest I was the one in need of an escort.

Lexie’s is a small, wooden, single storey building with huge doors open on three sides –just another watering hole. It had a small bar at one end and an ancient, wall mounted TV that showed martial arts movies all night. Otherwise the space was clear of furniture, dark and stiflingly hot. We peered in and saw the most surreal sight. In this tiny shack, locals, largely from the fishing community, and aged seventeen to eighty-plus, were dancing away, by turns doing the quick step, or the waltz, or the foxtrot. Some were dressed quite formally - complete with hats. Others wore shorts and t-shirts. What united them was their passion for this most old fashioned of music and dance. This was what Bajans called a Grand Dance. Couples elegantly dipped and twirled around the room while Skeeter Davis crooned,

Why does my heart go on beating?

Why do these eyes of mine cry?
Don't they know it's the end of the world.
It ended when you said goodbye.

I am not boasting (much) but after about twenty minutes on the sidelines, the best dancer, wearing dancing spats, asked moi to dance. I politely declined even showing him my two left feet in the pink rubber slippers. He was having none of it. With some coaxing from E. and B., I landed on the dance floor. The next five minutes saw me moving in awkward jerks while he tried to sail around the room. I began appealing under my breath to Jesus, Mary, Joseph and all the saints, even the really minor ones who only just made sainthood. Please, I begged, let me get through the dance without stepping on his feet and making a total ass of myself. But he was a proper gentleman who graciously ended the dance with the words,
“Yuh gine get it if yuh keep trying darling.”
Translated, that was a polite way of saying, yup, that chick was not lying about the two left feet.

The dancing continued while we looked on in awe at the grace and beauty in motion. And with each inhalation of the night, all of space, and time, and what was good in the world, flowed through my body. I never wanted to leave.

Then around midnight the music changed completely from country and easy listening golden oldies to rank calypso. Ah! So that whole genteel, old world routine was just a fa├žade. We are back to the usual West Indian “wuk-up” of pelvic gyrations. Saddened, E. and I wondered off to sit near the sea and contemplate. We had just settled in when B. came running up.
“You have to come see this.” he panted.

We went back to Lexie’s. If the fishermen doing ballroom dancing was surreal, the Texan line dancing to calypso was even more so. We kept thinking it was a one-off routine and soon someone would break ranks and “ de wukking up” would start. But for an hour while the DJ treated us to songs like “Wait Fuh Me Gryner Baby, Wait Fuh Me” the dancers never stopped their country line routine. True they managed to add a little West Indian hip thing in there somewhere, but the essence of line dancing remained completely intact. They even line danced while singing along to the 90’s hit from Gaby called Dr. Kassandra that told of the good doctor’s acts of mercy:

She give me one injection,

In my mid-section,
I did not have to pay,
Den she give me something,
And tell me swallow,
Fever gone right away.


Some time after two am, and with my head spinning from the experience, I decided it was time to go home. This was a welcome moment of respite, clarity and grace that allowed us to escape absurdities, like an estimated 90,000 plus ordinary Iraqi people killed since 2003, that punctuate our daily lives. As we were walking off a Rasta wearing rags approached. He identified himself as a businessman.
“Yuh does use weed?” asked “de Dread”.
“No.” replied E., on behalf of the collective.
“Well dat is good, man!” enthused Jah’s disciple. “Yuh does use coke?”
“No.” replied E.
“Well dat is good, man!” agreed Mr. Dreadlocks. “Yuh have a light?”
“Yes.” replied E.
“Well dat is very good, man!” said my One-Love brother.
He accepted E.’s cigarette, lit up, wished us peace, and disappeared down the beach. Tomorrow we would wake to the news that tens of thousands had died as a cyclone hit Burma. But tonight, well that was as good as it gets man.

IT TAKES A VILLAGE TO RAISE A LITTLE EGRET

An evening with dead, stuffed animals and birds is not my idea of a fun night out (unless of course these are mere props in some particularly wild burlesque routine). But a man with the fabulous name of Dr. Karl Watson, who I imagine to be vaguely like Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick, is giving a lecture on our natural history at the Barbados Museum and Historical Society. We share this rock with lots of creatures I am only vaguely aware of and certainly can’t name. So, although I had a slight temperature and a runny nose, I dragged my sorry ass off on Tuesday night to learn more.

Turning up meant I immediately lowered the average age of the attendees by at least thirty years. Various technical glitches delayed the start, i.e. the dreaded power point presentation was not working. All I could do was curl up in my seat, stick Vicks Vapour Rub up my nose, and listen to the conversations around me. And before you get all huffy about snooping on other people’s conversations I must protest that I had no choice but to listen. Many of these folk, all properly dressed up, had either forgotten their hearing aids at home or just routinely shouted. The conversation up front centred on aliments. One lady complained to her companion about having “pressure” and noted “de doctor say to tek it easy or else I gine get tablet”.
“Huh. Yuh only got pressure. I gine and get pressure and sugar” retorted the companion.
A gentleman a few seats away turned to them and shouted out, inquiring if anyone had been to Mr. Griffith’s funeral. Mercifully, before they could go into any detailed discussion of the casket or church crowd size, Dr. Watson’s talk began.

He started by saying that, in the local parlance, he was not going “to give no long talk”. I don’t mean to be picky, but if ninety minutes is “short talk”, I will be bringing pajamas and a sleeping bag for any future lecture billed as either a medium or long talk. But his talk was actually very interesting and premised on a life-long passion for the environment. We learnt that DNA has confirmed that the raccoon, last sighted in Bim in 1964, was part of the heritage of this country’s connection with the Carolinas. There have been rumoured sightings of raccoons many times since then but the reward for a live raccoon, offered by the late Prime Minister Tom Adams, was never claimed.

Dr. Watson made no mention of Holmes in his lecture but he did say he was related to the late Rev. Watson. It was the collection of this good pastor of St. Lucy Parish Church that formed the basis of our Museum’s collection. In said collection there is an exhibit of a stuffed mongoose that has been on display for all the years I have been visiting Bim. I still shudder every time I pass the creepy, giant, rodent-like creature with its disgusting long tail. Some bright spark thought it would be brilliant to introduce the mongoose into Barbados as a means of controlling the rat population. However Sparky forgot one itsy, bitsy, teensy, weensy detail. Rats are nocturnal animals while the ol’ mongoose fancies hunting by day. So our rock still has loads of rats and now we have the added pleasure of mongooses. Unfortunately they will not be engaged as prey and hunter.

Indeed the mongoose is now so fully integrated into our small rock that he is even celebrated in song. For a negotiated fee of two Bajan dollars First Born once performed this folk song at his grandparents’ lunch party. It goes something like this:
Sly mongoose, de dog know yuh name,
Sly mongoose, yuh ain’t got no shame,
De mongoose climb in de lady kitchen,
Pick up half she big fat chicken,
Put it in he waistcoat pocket,
Sly mongoose.

With world food prices escalating we cannot afford to lose the odd chicken like this but our Dr. Watson remains compassionate towards these vile beings. He thought them easily domesticated and genuinely could not comprehend why more of us had not taken them into the bosom of our family and home. Eh, elementary my dear Watson. Remember Sir Eric Gairy? Why do you think he called his band of murderous thugs The Mongoose Gang?

On a brighter note Watson drew our attention to the potential for the Constitutional River Wetland to become a more permanent sanctuary for birds – right in the heart of the capital, Bridgetown. These wetlands, the inadvertent byproduct of various urban development schemes, now serves as a home for the Castle Egret, the Snowy Egret and the Little Egret. If you need a bird-related reason for visiting Bim we are the only place in this hemisphere where the Little Egret has nested. See, this rock isn’t just a good place to incorporate Canadian offshore banks and insurance companies. You can come here, incorporate, enjoy the beach, and satisfy your thirst for eco-tourism. We could even start marketing Barbados as the Isle of the Good Taxation Regime and the Little Egret – although that might piss off the sweet little birdie and make him move to Bermuda. So calculate your carbon footprint and come visit soon. You know you want to.