When I first arrived in Bim I could be counted on to be at the opening of an envelope. As a cultural producer I made it my mission to be at every gallery opening, play and music festival. Six years later I have to be persuaded that it is worth the chaos that ensues when I am not present to supervise homework and have dinner with the family. And truthfully I am a little jaded by the repetition. With few exceptions the same events happen in the same way with the same personalities year in, year out. You could write the programme yourself as there are few incentives to do things differently or yes, dare I say, better.
So it was with middling expectations that I went along to the book launch of Andrea Stuart’s Sugar In The Blood last Monday while grandma did homework duty. Her parents are dear friends and I was keen to show our support. What I dreaded was the pomp that is a necessary part of West Indian events. Depending on the importance of the speaker you often have to endure long speeches from a succession of poorly briefed government officials, government agencies and any Big Up that is in attendance. This event had all the hallmarks of being one of those where you are asleep long before the main act.
But nuff respect to the Barbados Museum. Each speaker who preceded the author was relevant, spoke briefly and contributed to a deeper understanding of some aspect of the book. And miracle of miracles – the most time was saved for the actual author who we had all come to hear read and speak about her work.
Now when I say you have to read this book I mean turn off the TV, stop flicking through that gossip magazine, disconnect your Facebook and Twitter accounts and start reading. I honestly thought that being reasonably educated I knew about the history of the Caribbean and the role of sugar in shaping it. After all, I am descended from Indian indentured labourers lured across the globe all because of sweet, sweet sugar. But Andrea Stuart’s epic tale of her own family made me appreciate the nuances and ironies of this bittersweet commodity more profoundly. The daily school run on roads that straddle the ubiquitous sugarcane fields of St. George and St. John has taken on a new poignancy. I can’t look at the sugar cane harvesting now taking place without being summoned to the world Stuart re-imagines of her white, black and brown ancestors. Beautifully written, she sets her personal narrative against a backdrop of global influences and events all the while weaving a mesmerising tale.
As Stuart read from her work and answered questions from the small group of about seventy people present it is clear this bright, charming, intellectual powerhouse pulls no punches. She acknowledges her white forefathers pioneering spirit but never forgets the inhumanity of the slavery they practised. I wish more Bajans generally were at the launch and I wish more Bajans of a lighter hue had come to listen. Barbados remains a society that has yet to come to terms with its own history. Race is a factor in every walk of Bajan life but we never talk about it as if acknowledging the elephant in the room would make the problem worse than it is. The Yacht Club my boys sail at is predominantly white and only started admitting darker skins in living memory. Many of my friends still refuse to join because of that history. The marriage of a prominent white businessman to a dark skinned beauty still creates a stir wherever they go. Cattlewash on the ruggedly magnificent east coast is the preserve of white Bajans while Bathsheba a mile away allows for a mix of hues. You can tour a gracious plantation house but slave huts are unceremoniously torn down. And so it goes on with Barbados neatly sliced - the black, white and brown faces coexisting but separate.
Sugar In The Blood should be mandatory reading for all Bajans. Maybe they would realise they aren’t so separate and different after all. Claims of race are far more contested than we would like to admit. Stuart pleads for mutual understanding in the Epilogue reminding us that “we are all descendents of migrants – those resilient souls making the best of history’s terrible twists of fate or those brave opportunists taking a chance on the future and striking out to forge a life for themselves in the new world”. Get hold of Sugar In The Blood. Now.
Of all the social events in Barbados none is more important than a funeral. There is an expectation that as long as you have known the family of the deceased in some fashion (i.e. it is your co-worker’s second cousin in the coffin)then you are expected to attend. Having spent too long in a country where funerals are small, private affairs I have never appreciated the importance of seeing off the departed. When the man who helps us keep our pool fresh lost his mom our housekeeper volunteered to represent the family. I am only now properly grateful we avoided the social faux pas that would have resulted had she not donned a black dress and headed to the Power in The Blood Church for the service.
Then recently someone I know and care for lost his dad. There was no way I could miss that funeral. Little did I realise the rest of the island shared my sentiments. We had to park a brisk eight minute walk away and to say there was standing room only would be an understatement. The church was jammed packed. The church grounds were heaving. People were standing in the scorching afternoon sun anywhere they could find a free patch of open ground. Anticipating a crowd, the family had set up a screen outside so that those of us silly enough to have arrived a mere thirty minutes before the start of the funeral could still follow the service.
From the kind words that poured out of each speaker the departed was clearly a towering figure in the Caribbean legal world – a judge’s judge - and deeply loved personally. He was born in St. Andrew parish, married a St. Andrew lass and remained loyal to the parish his whole life. The people of St. Andrew came out by the hundreds to show their appreciation. And being a retired judge meant that it was not only us lowly folk who came to give him a decent send-off. The Governor General no less was in attendance as well as most of the senior members of the legal profession from the region.
And it was this glittering guest list that proved irresistible to one speaker. Retired judge and former Attorney-General, known to all as Sleepy Smith, now in his 90s, took over the pulpit to speak of his deceased friend and colleague. He had an odd style. He would begin by saying,
“I’m not going to speak about him as a judge. But…”
We would then be treated to ten minutes of his friend’s great legacy on the bench.
“I’m not going to speak about him as farmer. But…”
He then proceeded to tell us all about the farm the deceased loved so much.
“I’m not going to speak about him as a husband. But…”
Yes, we heard all about his romantic courtship and lasting marriage.
Having dispatched his formal obligations Sleepy Smith decided to wake up the crowd. He said he was a believer. He knew the lord answers prayers. Just look at how the DLP gone and win the recent election. Then he turned to his brethren on the bench. If they knew what was coming some might have tried to sneak out of the church. Never mind Sleepy Smith was one of them. He hollered at the judges for not doing their work properly and in a timely fashion. People were getting old waiting to have their day in court. He lambasted them for the number of prisoners on remand - languishing in jail while cases took five, six years to be heard. More controversially he called for the appointment of high court judges (so-called puisne judges) to be taken out of the political arena and done on the basis of open competition. We commoners grinned with glee as the big screen showed My Lords squirming in their pews. I bet they were each longing for the quiet sanctuary of their leather-clad S Class Mercedes – the perk of all senior judges – parked outside the church.
Sleepy Smith entertained us with many more stories - none of which I dare repeat. He might not care about the libel laws but I am not inclined to sit down in Her Majesty’s Prison Dodds for years before my case is heard. You going have to ask Sleepy yourself about his work as a judge on other islands - the bribes that would be offered and the ugly politics he navigated. I ain’t saying nothing.
I hope the departed was looking down on us and, through all the laughter and the tears, he knew that his life had inspired enormous respect and love that went far beyond St. Andrew’s Parish Church. And I wish his family peace.
I cannot fathom how I have passed the half way mark of my natural life expectancy without buying a horse. By now I should at least own a piece of horse (rather than accidently eating it). I’m not greedy. One or two legs of a thoroughbred would be adequate. Clearly I made a wrong turn somewhere along the track of life. You see I was born with a dominant horse-racing gene inherited from my father’s lineage. For the first couple years of married life my parents lived in a tiny apartment below my grandmother’s house. Every day I would look out of my grandma’s upstairs kitchen window to see the back of the now defunct Union Park Turf Club in Marabella, south Trinidad.
My pram was pushed up and down that track and around those stables. As I got older my little cousins and I were allowed on race days to hang out around the periphery of Union Park. True we cared more about slurping Snow-Cones – shaved ice capped with red syrup and swirls of condensed milk - than if number ten came in first. But always horses, trainers, jockeys and bookies galloped in the background of our childhood. Two cousins are successful jockeys. One uncle works in a betting shop and my father probably sees more of his bookie than he does of his family. And growing up the year was demarked not by the rainy and dry seasons but by which of Trinidad’s three main race tracks – Port-of-Spain, Arima and Union Park - were hosting the races. It took serious old age and a broken leg to halt my grandma’s weekly Saturday outing to the races which she had been doing for perhaps sixty years.
All this is to say that after six years on this small rock I have finally made it to Ascot. No, not that Ascot – our Ascot - which we do with equal panache. Welcome to the world of the Barbados Gold Cup. Now in its thirty-second year, and in recent times sponsored by Sandy Lane Hotel, this prestigious race attracts horses from the USA, UK and elsewhere. The $107,000usd Purse cannot be classified as manure either. Plus the winner gets a genuine gold cup made specially and ceremoniously flown from the UK to Bim by BA.
But in spite of horses in my blood (long-lost family members greet each other with phrases like, Eh, long time no see man. You like eight in the 3 o’clock?)I didn’t go to bet. I was there for the lime. Between munching through the wonderful spread our hosts had laid on, I was busy checking which two-legs of Bajan society was there and who was wearing fancy hat and who seem to own most of the winning animals. For best themed Gold Cup head gear the prize undoubtedly goes to Mrs. Shelly Williams, business woman and the other half of millionaire Bizzy Williams, for her wide brimmed, gold creation.
Best-dressed male has to go to my date. I’m not biased. The Husband had on a crisp, white, linen suit, a green and purple stripped shirt with contrast collar and cuffs, all skilfully brought together by an acid green hanky artfully flopping out of his top pocket. The man was hot to trot.
With half hour to go before the Gold Cup race, the atmosphere was tense with excitement. The track was temporarily given over to cheer leaders, dancers, stilt walkers and the Barbados Police Band.
(The Parade at the Gold Cup)
By now I was hopping from box to box poking around to pick up tips and hear what bets were being placed. There was no choice. I would be betraying my father’s family if I didn’t have a flutter. But who to back? I checked out the names. There was no way my cash was going on a beast with a name like “Just Call Me Roger”. And “Show Me The Money” needs to show me the money first not vice-versa. “Kendal Moon” was too sugary for my taste and “Meteorite” seemed destined to self-destruct.
Continuing in this scientific vein I bet half my budget ($25usd) on number eight to win and place. The horse was called Daga which could easily be the title of a winning soca tune. It does not take a huge leap of the imagination to see Carnival crowds humming along to a refrain of,
Daga, Daga, Daga, Daga,
Oh, oh, oh,
Daga, Daga, Daga, Daga,
Eh, eh, eh
The other horse was a sympathy bet. Number eleven went by the unfortunate name of Aristodemus. Perhaps this was the moment for the name of a cowardly Spartan soldier to be rehabilitated. I put 25 bucks on him to win or place. Would you believe the horse come in first followed closely by none other than Daga himself? I pocketed a tidy profit of $42.50usd off the Barbados Turf Club and immediately earmarked these winnings for my “spa day fund”. But First and Second Born got whiff of the cash and declared that the only proper use would be four pizzas to be eaten while we watched the latest series of Top Gear. So much for that massage.
(The Husband at the Gold Cup)