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RICHARD HOLLEDGE: How Jamaica has transformed yet remains unchanged

Children play in the Trench Town neighborhood of Kingston, Jamaica on May 18, 2019. Picture: ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images - Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Richard Holledge was born in colonial Jamaica. Sixty years on, he returns to find the island transformed, but, in some crucial respects, surprisingly unchanged.

From the Blue Mountains view to the bay of Kingston in the Blues Mountains in Jamaica. Photo by Ghislaine BRAS/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images – Credit: Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Tea time at Jamaica Inn. Tiny tomato sandwiches. Cups of Earl Grey. Only the click of croquet mallet on ball to disturb the tranquillity. The hotel is a pastiche of England in the 1950s even though it has been owned by Americans for more than 60 years.

That’s Jamaica for you – or at least for most visitors to the Caribbean island who come to sip rum punches and relax in the soothing comfort of their all-inclusive beach holiday.

Outside those epicurean compounds is a more complex world. Noisy, vivid and friendly, but poor and often dangerous.

I have long had a fascination for the country because I was born there. I harbour an irrational affection for a place I don’t know – so much so that I am perfectly happy when the Windies beat England at cricket.

Members of the Jamaica Defence Force patrol a section of western Kingston in the Jamaican capital. Picture: AFP/Getty Images – Credit: AFP/Getty Images

My parents are long gone and all I have had for years are photographs of my childhood and their early life together which have left me with a strange nostalgia for a world and a time which exists only in faded black and white.

So this year I decided to satisfy my curiosity by visiting the places in the pictures.

I wanted to discover if anything was left of what, in the 1950s, was still a colonial outpost and also to gauge how the people feel about their old imperial masters.

I was interested to discover what life is like away from the resorts. Is it as dangerous as many say? Is it as impoverished as one reads? Is the government as corrupt as its critics insist?

These were not questions which troubled my parents – young, newly-married and, as a British army family in the 1950s, as protected from reality as a holidaying couple in a Sandals resort.

My parents were of a Windrush generation – the ship’s primary job was to transport troops to the West Indies, as well as bringing immigrants on its return.

Father was a young subaltern and life for him and my mother centred around the Up-Park army camp in Kingston – now the HQ for the Jamaican Defence Force – as well as Gibraltar Camp, once a base for Gibraltarian and Jewish refugees fleeing war-torn Europe.

So, with photos in hand I set off to discover what has changed and what stayed the same. The first difference is evident the moment the plane lands. I have a picture of a couple disporting in the surf of the Palisadoes, a long spit of sand that protects Kingston Harbour. Now much of it is under the airport runway and the main road into the capital.

A motorway funded by Chinese money speeds tourists to the north coast where instead of a deserted Bay Reach in Ocho Rios of the 1950s the shore line is crowded with hotels and overrun with mini buses ferrying passengers on day trips from towering cruise ships.

New Kingston with its hotels, office blocks and restaurants sprang up after independence in 1962 but the original Down Town has stayed pretty much the same.

Orange Street is a bedlam of pounding music, stalls piled high with fruit, women squatting on the pavements selling anything from gaudy frocks to beds to piles of bras. Everywhere the sweet aroma of ganja.

Many of the buildings are unchanged since the Victorian and early 20th century, some quite handsome but most sadly neglected. The Carib cinema is on the same site as it was before the war and Port Royal, once the home to Elizabethan pirates and the ‘wickedest place in the world’ until it was destroyed by earthquake in 1692, still has cannons waiting to fire at approaching galleons, from the time of Admiral Horatio Nelson, who was based here as a young man during the American War of Independence.

But what of my first home in Rose Cottage, in the Newcastle garrison high in the mist of the Blue Mountains?

Amazingly, the camp built in the 1840s is recognisable from my ancient photos. Still used for the military, it has the same red tin roofs over huts with peeling paint which tumble 1,000 feet down the mountainside, from the officers’ mess at the top to the cemetery at the bottom.

The badges of the many British regiments that were based there – among them the Manchester Regiment, the Royal Fusiliers – are on a wall overlooking the parade ground as they always have been.

Surely Rose Cottage must be long gone – a bungalow with a tin roof and a verandah, it looked pretty insubstantial in my lopsided old photo but yes, I was assured, still there, still lived in, still called Rose Cottage and, from a distance, still a little shabby. The sergeant sent to escort me wouldn’t let me get close – ‘security’, he muttered vaguely, but perhaps his reluctance was more to do with the fact that the house is a 500 metre hike uphill. Even from a distance I was able to bring the past into the present, with the pictures of me and the family dog, larking about with chickens and a goat sitting next to a local boy who, intrigued by my strange white skin, took a bite to see what I was made of. There’s me perching perilously on a donkey with a helping hand from the nanny. Yes, I had a nanny.

I should have had some Proustian nostalgia for those old days but it didn’t make sense to be wistful about a dog-eared family album when so much that it represents – empire and all that – has long been put on the shelf marked history.

The Chinese are the colonialists now, building roads and improving the infrastructure. The Japanese and Koreans provide the cars – though it was a treat to see an immaculate Rover P4 from the 1950s weaving though the pot holes of the road leading down Fern Gully to Ocho Rios. A coffee plantation, Craighton House, built for its English landowner in 1805, is now owned by a Japanese company.

Our driver, ex-military man Peter Headley, who had not heard of Windrush, let alone the recent British political scandal, and knew nothing of the return of ‘convicted’ criminals by the UK Home Office in February. (National newspaper the Gleaner had pointed out that the men sent back had served their sentence so, strictly speaking, were no longer convicted criminals.)

He was not alone in his indifference to Jamaica’s former masters and their politics. The curator of the museum in Port Royal gave a shrug of mock despair at the mess the UK was in over Brexit and swiftly changed the subject to discuss the one thing that really grips Jamaica when it comes to England – Premier League football.

Peter’s views were expressed as forcibly as the most opinionated cabbie in London; Europe and UK gave up on Jamaica years ago, he reckoned, and he had a passing regret for the loss of Britain’s organisational skills (it was too difficult to explain who and what Chris Grayling was), particularly when it came to the roads which are potholed and tortuous.

His own government was corrupt, healthcare was nonexistent and much of the crime and unemployment was caused by the legalisation of cannabis in the 1970s which he believed made the young men lazy and turn to crime. “They’ll steal a goat from your back yard,” he grumbled. “Steal anything.”

His diagnosis has been given a more nuanced analysis by a US-based charity, The Borgen Project, which works to end global poverty and points out that Jamaican healthcare is free, albeit with a shortage of health centres, while government figures indicate the unemployment rate stands at about 9.1%.

Though employment figures are an odd concept in a country where nearly everyone is chasing a dollar, whether selling coconut water by the roadside or Usain Bolt T-shirts in a ‘craft’ shop.

The main source of income is from tourism, which the government reckons will earn US $3.6 billion this year with 4.58 million visitors.

No doubt the fear of violence keeps visitors by and large confined to resorts and cruise ships, and it is easy to see why from police statistics which reported that there were 1,287 murders committed in 2018. No wonder the Gleaner often makes gruesome reading; eight dead in one bloody battle while we were there, a beheaded women found naked in a Valentine’s Day killing, three others murdered…

As we drive though Kingston, Peter explains how gangs control parts of the town, there is a Top Jungle and a Bottom Jungle. If anyone strays out of their traditional territory they are unlikely to return in one piece.

Understandable perhaps that the hotel manager at Strawberry Hill hotel in the Blue Mountains where we stayed tried to discourage journalists from visiting Trench Town, the turbulent, tumble down community which was built in the 1940s and consists of rooms built around yards of communal living.

As Bob Marley sang in No Woman, No Cry: I remember when we used to sit In the government yard in Trenchtown, Observing the ‘ypocrites As they would mingle with the good people we meet.

Ah, Bob Marley, the national icon. It’s tempting to claim some sort of kinship with him. His father also served in the British army, including in the First World War, though he never saw frontline action and ended up in the Labour Corps in the UK cleaning latrines. When he met Marley’s mother 19-year-old Cedella in Jamaica he claimed to be a naval officer but that was almost certainly an embellishment to impress his young admirer. So not much in common after all.

Not that it is possible to escape his legacy. It is hard to walk a hundred yards without a blast of reggae, ska or rocksteady and impossible in Trench Town, which has been the heartbeat of Jamaican music since the 1960s.

Far from threatening, the locals take guided tours pointing out where Marley played and fellow Wailers such as Peter Tosh lived and they display a pride in their heritage – oblivious to the painful poverty of the yards but mellowed by many a toke of ganja.

It is one thing to listen to a taxi driver with robust views or heed nervous hotel managers or even the policeman who warned against going into Ocho Rios market without protecting my wallet – actually a friendly lad warned me that my rucksack was open – but if you pick up the Gleaner you get an insight into what a tourist might be unaware of, with robust stories of possible corruption involving a petroleum contract, prejudice and poverty.

One of the paper’s most powerful commentators is Mark Wignall, who attacks corruption in high places and deplores poverty in low. In February, after a fire in a particularly poor district of Kingston – known, curiously, as Belgium – where two toddlers were killed, he lamented: “Many residents were once again reminded that a lifetime of poverty means existence on the most brutish plane that humanity can descend to and seemingly settle on.”

No doubt similar articles could have been written many years ago but I suspect little of those concerns would have impinged on army life in the 1950s. They would not have been threatened by violence, or affected by the poverty. As for crime, my father used to joke about the soldiers under his command smoking ganja. That at least remains unchanged.

My father, not remotely racist, would have taken black deference as the natural way – hard not to with a batman to shine his boots – but Wignall reminds his readers that a pecking order based on race persists in Jamaica. Not white over black, but those descendants of black slaves who are often among the poorest.

He recalled the time in the 1970s when Rastafarianism was becoming popular, when black was beautiful but brown skinned Jamaicans were insulted as ‘pork’. He argued that during the country’s many states of emergency designed to clamp down on crime and violence, few of the detainees would have matched the profile of ‘white, brown-skinned and wavy-haired’.

“For one to see the usefulness of such a profile one would have to visit the rare air at the very top of the society where real power in this country is still held. Many believe that successive governments have been quite willing to hold the hands of the new Chinese and Spanish investors while consortiums made up of black-skinned Jamaicans are conveniently ignored. Light skin, money and social strength are friends living on the same street.”

Maybe I had spent too much time reading Andrea Levy’s The Long Song and The Book of Night Women by Marlon James, with their gruelling accounts of slavery in the 19th century, but it was impossible not to be aware that it was the black staff pouring rum punches in Jamaica Inn and the white guests drinking them.

I know that’s a simplistic reaction, the guilt trip of a wishy-washy liberal but as Marlon James wrote in his book A Brief History of Seven Killings, about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976: “Jamaica never gets worse or better, it just finds new ways to stay the same.”

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