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#1 Jun 26, 2021 2:29 pm

New Historian

First impressions of Jamaica

I can’t say it was love at first sight with me and Jamaica - au contraire. The drive through downtown Kingston from Norman Manley Airport is daunting enough at the best of times, but at night as your first glimpse of your new home it was positively Kafkaesque - a vision of dystopia. From the back seat of Dad’s Hillman Minx I stared out at a rolling scene of pure chaos, as we drove along Windward Road: pushcarts, jerk chicken sellers, peanut sellers, rum bars with massive speakers blasting non-stop reggae, mad drivers, bad drivers, honking trucks, belching buses, dallying bikers, hustlers, stray dogs, dead dogs, vagabonds and beggars. Kingston was an assault on the senses - of monumental proportions. I looked on in awe: Shit, this place is kray-zee!

So here I was: yet another new country, yet again fitting in. Or trying to; I soon found out that fitting into Jamaica wasn’t going to be a straightforward affair: Jamaica was something else altogether: inexplicable and mind-blowing. First of all there was the race thing. On my second day I got a rude introduction into the complexities of Jamaican racial politics: I was walking in downtown Kingston when this street urchin shouts:

“Hey white bwoy, gimmie a dollar nuh?” I looked around: no white bwoy in sight.

“Who you talkin’ to?”

“You, white bwoy!”

I wanted to slap the little shit! But he was right, overnight I’d been transformed: from black immigrant to brown bourgeois: oppressed to oppressor. A change I abhorred. Mind you it was a mixed bag: the very next day a Rastaman greeted me loudly on the street with a broad smile:

“Hail, Jet-Black!”

I liked that one.

In 1971 Jamaica had been independent for nine years, but little had changed: whites and Chinese controlled the economy, browns worked in banks, and blacks lived a life of unending toil. I was amazed at the extreme gap between rich and poor – all living cheek by jowl in overcrowded Kingston. In Aylsham, a brand-new middle-class housing scheme in Upper St. Andrew, I became friends with the kid next door, Kevin Blackman. Like so many West Indian families, Kevin’s wasn’t quite colour-coordinated: Kevin was black, his mother brown (despite lashings of Nadinola ‘skin-toning’ cream), and daddy who clearly wasn’t daddy was what Jamaicans call a Syrian. Compared to our modest lifestyle they lived like kings: mom and dad drove big American cars, shopping trips to Miami, weekends in Ochie, boat: the good life.

But when I saw the source of all their wealth, my jaw dropped. A hole-in-the-wall hardware store in downtown Kingston, selling fridge and stove to poor people on layaway. THAT little thing can fund such a lifestyle? Back in England my friend’s father owned a transformer factory, I worked there one summer, the factory employed hundreds of people; but they didn’t live anywhere near as lavishly as my neighbours did, from one likkle shop down de lane. How much of each fridge went towards profits? Probably more than half. Sick. It was then that I started talking about capitalism, exploitation, socialism …

One night I went with Kevin to a ‘spot’, a private party in Cherry Gardens, and as we were milling around outside it dawned on me that everyone in the spot, except me and Kevin, was white. I was horrified and told Kevin I didn’t want to go in. He couldn’t understand my reaction and didn’t want to miss this ‘opportunity’ but against his wishes I dragged him away, lecturing him about Black Power all the way home.

It wasn’t easy, holding onto my Englishness while seeking to assimilate into Jamaica. Shacks and Maurice were mystified when I played my Led Zeppelin records: a wha dat? I had no such problems with reggae: Dennis Brown, Toots and the Maytals, Big Youth and of course the Wailers; all approaching their prime.

Then, after about six months, a strange thing started to happen. Almost without realizing it, my understanding of Jamaica began to deepen, and with it a new appreciation. With Shacks and Maurice I explored the nooks and crannies of the island, falling in love with its natural beauty and rich culture. Sure they still didn’t know who John Lennon was, but who cared? There were more important things to get stressed about: poverty, exploitation, politics, crime. Real stuff, stuff that could get you killed.



#2 Jun 27, 2021 11:34 am


Re: First impressions of Jamaica

Beginning of NH getting a different reality  of  the  world  and appreciating 'island life' .
" Glad you mentioned John Lennon. Lol.  "   


If I said something   ,,, seeing your old man ,  you would not believe me .
I remember my old man , playing , not chess but checkers  with us .


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