Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Girl from the Sugar Plantation

The New York Times gets it totally wrong in this article. It's not as simple as that.

Read the post before this about the Charisma of Jock Campbell to understand more.

Better yet, read my new book, about to be published, TOMORROW.

Here it is:


"These books have taken me to a far off land, to another time, that feels nothing like the world I have grown up in. The experience is always a very overwhelmingly real and emotional one, but I just can’t get enough of it. The Girl from the Sugar Plantation is no different. The magic and power of music, the pain and pleasure of love, the destructive nature of secrets and lies all delved deep into my heart and I expect will stay there for some time. This is a powerful and emotional story that will melt even the coldest of hearts. I challenge you to enter the world of The Quint Chronicles and not fall in love."

From this review on Goodreads 

The blurb: An unputdownable story about a woman in search of the truth, the man she falls in love with, and the devastation of the Second World War. 
1934, Georgetown.

All her life, Mary Grace has wanted to know the truth about who her parents really are. As the mixed-race daughter of two white plantation owners, her childhood has been clouded by whispered rumours, and the circumstances of her birth have been kept a closely guarded secret…

Aunt Winnie is the only person Mary Grace can confide in. Feeling lost and lonely, her place in society uncertain, Mary Grace decides to forge her own path in the world. And she finds herself unexpectedly falling for charming and affluent Jock Campbell, a planter with revolutionary ideas.

But, with the onset of the Second World War, their lives will be changed forever. And Mary Grace and Jock will be faced with the hardest decision of all – to fight for freedom or to follow their hearts…

An utterly compelling and evocative story about the heart-breaking choices men and women had to make during a time of unimaginable change. Perfect for fans of The Secret Wife and Island of Secrets .
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The Booker Prize Backstory. Part 4: the charisma of Jock Campbell

So, I kept the best for last. Here, with kind permission of Ian McDonald, is an essay on Jock Campbell. Whereas the previous posts are more about what he did, this one is about who he was; which is the key to everything else. He was surely an Everest among humans, and if Guyana had been, say, a country more in the public eye Jock would have had his rightful place as one of the few greats of the last century.


JOCK CAMPBELL

An Essay by Ian McDonald

After reading

“Sweetening Bitter Sugar: Jock Campbell – The Booker Reformer in British Guiana, 1934-1966”

In my last months at Cambridge University, in early 1955, I was offered a number of jobs including one by the Shell Oil Company to work for them in Trinidad where I had been born and lived as a boy and gone to school. I had decided to take up this offer when out of the blue I was asked if I would be interested in a job in British Guiana with Bookers. The job sounded interesting and I went up to London to meet the Chairman of Bookers, Jock Campbell, for an interview over lunch. It is nearly fifty years ago but I remember that meeting as if I was there earlier today.

I had already met a number of very remarkable men including my tutor at Cambridge, the future Regius Professor of Modern History, Geoffrey Elton, the dedicated and daunting English lecturer, critic and editor, F.R. Leavis, the celebrated economist Arthur Lewis of St. Lucia and an astonishing sportsman named Dennis Silk who later became President of the MCC – but now I found Jock Campbell easily the most charismatic man I had encountered in my life.

It is impossible to convey by simple description the force and compelling attractiveness of a truly charismatic person. How can you exactly describe an emanation of energy, a unique aura that goes far beyond physique and appearance and words 0uttered? The word derives via ecclesiastical Latin from the Greek kharisma meaning a divinely conferred power or talent. That captures something of the essence of what is involved since it infers that the charismatic person attracts and deserves devotion. I was a Jock devotee from the very start.

Jock Campbell’s eloquence made the heart beat faster and my young undergraduate mind and soul responded to his fervour. That first meeting lasted for a long time, well past the cheese and liqueur part of lunch, and by the end I was completely and utterly converted to this extraordinary man’s vision of how practical good could be done in this world. I have been in the Guyana sugar industry for nearly fifty years and I have never stopped looking upon what has to be done not just as a job, though of course it is that too and has to be done well, but also as a sort of crusade.  The Jock effect has never really worn off.

I remember him at that meeting as restlessly enthusiastic, inspired with convictions that he could hardly contain. I recall to this day how one expansive gesture scattered green peas all over the table! I was enthralled by the man and the story he told and the ambitions he held and wanted to explain. Jock told me then of his early days in British Guiana and his shock at the terrible conditions he saw at first hand on his family plantations and his determination to introduce root and branch reform as soon as he had the authority. He described the steps he had already taken to reorganize completely the chaotic shambles of the sprawling Booker empire in British Guiana into separate companies with Boards and well defined areas of operation and responsibility – Bookers Sugar Estates, Bookers Stores, Bookers Shipping, Bookers Rum and Bookers Industrial Holdings. He had put in train and was determined to carry through a revolution in the whole ethos of Bookers, how it was run, what it would try to achieve, how people throughout the whole organization must be made to matter. He told me of the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement – I found out later that he was its principal architect – which provided a secure basis on which to build improved conditions for those who worked in sugar.

For the first time, and I was to have the concept elaborated often in the future, Jock gave me a glimpse of his belief that Bookers had to exercise a four-fold responsibility: to shareholders who provided the investment and deserved a return; to employees who were the company’s lifeblood and deserved decent remuneration and ever-improving life conditions; to customers without whose satisfaction no business could exist; and to the community and country in which the business operated since the ultimate test of a company was how much it contributed to the enrichment and modernization of the whole civic body. Nowadays, the concept in the business world of balanced responsibilities may seem well worn but fifty years ago it was new and revelatory. If any concept held sway then it was the imperative of maximizing profit which Jock rejected completely.

Now, fifty years on, I find Professor Clem Seecharran’s book on Jock Campbell magnificent.  Because I held Jock in such esteem, and still hold his memory in high honour, if this book had fallen short in telling his story I think I would have been the first to be critical.  But it measures up exceedingly well to the man and what he tried to do and what he achieved. It is a book of immense significance in telling the story of Guyana at a particularly important juncture in its history – the era just prior to independence. But for me it is also a book which tells the story, and fills in countless interesting details, about the life of an extraordinary man who was my friend and mentor in an unforgettable period of my life.

I joined Bookers, in 1955, at a time when the Jock Campbell revolution was in full flow. I found myself in the middle of a process in which Bookers was being completely recreated. In this process the sugar industry in British Guiana was transformed from a run-down, unprofitable, inhuman, parternalistic and plantocratic expatriate family concern into a rehabilitated, forward-looking, productive and dynamic enterprise basically run by Guyanese for the much improved good of Guyanese and Guyana.

Sugar production grew from 170,000 tons to 350,000 tons. Estates were consolidated and factories modernized. Drainage and irrigation facilities and the whole infrastructure of field works were completely revamped. Agricultural practices and applications were overhauled in line with current world-class technology. The first sugar bulk-loading terminal in the Caribbean was established to replace the drudgery of loading sugar in bags.

And the people side of the industry was simply revolutionized:  remuneration vastly increased, the old logies eliminated and 15,000 new houses in 75 housing areas built with roads and water supplied, medical services upgraded to cater for all sugar workers and their families and the scourge of malaria eradicated, Community Centres established on all estates and welfare, sporting, cultural and library activities expanded, training and education immensely stepped up, a world-class Apprentice Training Centre established, a cadet scheme and scholarships introduced and all along Guyanisation pressed forward until the time came when the industry was being run almost entirely by Guyanese. It was an era of tremendous growth and change for the better in the sugar industry and indeed throughout all the enterprises making up the Booker Group in Guyana at the time.

I cannot forget that wonderful time. All that was being done was captured in a phrase Jock Campbell as Chairman used in all his key addresses: “People are more important than ships, shops and sugar estates.” We tried to act in the belief that business could not possibly just be about making money if only because that would be soul-destroyingly boring. Business had to be about making the lives of people better and more fulfilled. People in any case always came first however you considered what you were trying to do in business. Creating profit was vital but not just for its own sake but for good, everyday, ordinarily human, immediately flesh and blood, life-enhancing purposes.

 Working in that old Bookers with Jock Campbell was marvelously exhilarating. There was a feeling of fervour and achievement – even in a small way of being involved in making history. Getting things done in a good, progressive cause was the essence of the job, not simply maximizing efficiency and making profits which were to be seen as necessary means and never as ultimate ends. I remember the clear purpose, the hard but satisfying work, the extraordinary leadership, the good humour, the enthusiasm and high spirits, the overall intelligent humanity of the operation, the camaraderie and the sense of fulfillment.

It was Jock who showed me the passage from Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago in which Strelnikov, caught in the in the huge ebb and flow of the Russian Revolution, amidst the tremendous events taking place all around him, the giant turns and turnabouts of history, suddenly realizes that the small concerns of individual men and women are what count in the end:

“And in order to do good to others he needed, besides the principles that filled his mind, an unprincipled heart – the kind of heart that knows of no general causes, but only of particular ones and knows the greatness of small actions.”

Understanding the importance of small causes, appreciating the greatness of small actions: that is the essence of compassion in the exercise of power and that is what Jock Campbell most certainly and most deeply understood.

I remember him as the man who told us in no uncertain terms that no person is ever redundant, only jobs, and we were never to forget that. I remember him as the man who often reminded me, and others, that it was important to pay attention to one man’s grievance as well as to Three-Year Plans. And I vividly remember him as the man who when he retired as Chairman asked me to keep an eye on six old pensioners who had given him good service in his younger days and make sure every Christmas to send them a card and a gift on his behalf – which I faithfully did until one by one over the years they died. And so it came to one last Christmas I only had one card and one gift to send and my last communication from Jock was a Christmas card of his own, scribbled in his distinctive hand, wishing myself and family the blessings of the season and, in a postscript, thanking me for again doing him the small service of sending that last old pensioner his greetings and gift for work done so long ago and still so well remembered.

In a letter to me once he quoted approvingly a saying of the American Irving Howe: “There is utopia and utopia.  The kind imposed by an elite in the name of an historical imperative, that utopia is hell. It must lead to terror and then, terror exhausted, to cynicism and torpor. But surely there is another utopia. It cannot be willed into existence or out of sight. It speaks for our sense of what may yet be.” Jock Campbell himself had a profound sense of what should be attempted and what might be achieved in the cause of a better society. All his working life he strove pragmatically to improve the lives of people whom his decisions touched.

 I remember it all so vividly. I see now more clearly than ever that we lived and worked in an exceptional time for an extraordinary man. I am more pleased than I can say that in Professor Clem Seecharan Jock Campbell has found a historian worthy of his remarkable personality and achievements and in Sweetening Bitter Sugar a classic book which preserves his legacy for new generations.

Ian McDonald.


(Note: this article has been abridged. S. Maas)


Sweetening Bitter Sugar  Jock Campbell  The Booker Reformer in British Guiana 1934-1966   Clem Seecharan Ian Randle Publishers 2005








The Booker Backstory: Part 3: Reform, Reform, Reform. And new houses!

When Jock returned to British Guiana after the war he found a senior management of crusty old men. Entrenched in their ways, confined in their thinking, these men were rooted in a framework of self-interest intrinsically opposed to change. He dismissed them all as hopeless. He was a new broom sweeping clean. He ran rings around them and knew it.

He whirled through the company like a hurricane, leaving the survivals exhausted, but exhilarated, removing the old and replacing it with new.

The company was in complete disarray, so splintered nobody knew what was making a profit and what was making a loss. The machinery was old and derelict after the war years, and a serious fire had destroyed several Booker buildings.

Worst of all, the company was universally hated, both inside and outside the colony, and even by the colonial authorities. It was the textbook example of an arrogant, imperialist juggernaut grown obese and unwieldy off the fat of the land; except that it was now making a loss. All that would have to change.

I believe that there should be values other than money in a civilised society. I believe that truth, beauty and goodness have a place. Moreover, I believe that if businessmen put profit, greed and acquisition among the highest virtues, they cannot be surprised if, for instance, nurses, teachers and ambulance men are inclined to do the same. Jock Campbell
Bookers, once a synonym for greed, would become a model of benevolence. And the process began with people. The company began to recruit new managers, efficient managers, ethical, hand-picked managers; a difficult task, which Jock solved by breaking it down into small and manageable units.

Most important of all, the new people were Guianese; qualified, home-bred individuals who had caught the infectious spirit of their leader. If they lacked the skills for the job, they were sent abroad for training. The glass ceiling of skin colour cracked and crumbled; and it fell apart not through protest by the workers, not through rebellion or revolution, but through a decree from above.

Housing
One of Jock’s main goals from the very beginning was the rehousing of the Indian workers, and ironically he was aided in his vision by the Marxist vision of a young Indian firebrand.



The logies
Cheddi Jagan had himself grown up on a sugar-estate and knew the squalor first-hand. With his equally radical American-born wife Janet he determined to change things, but from the bottom up. Jagan’s fiery speeches to workers up and down the coast had one aim: the ousting of King Sugar; and housing was for him, as for Jock, a primary issue.

In April 1953, just before the General Election in which he would triumph, Jagan wrote in a pamphlet:
Imagine the state of sanitation and the condition of the sugar estate workers during the heavy rainfall and flood periods which are frequent. The whole housing area becomes covered with polluted water from the overflowing latrine trenches. This polluted water remains in the land for days and sometimes weeks. Cheddi Jagan


Now homes under construction

Even the “crusty old men” on the Booker Board knew that change had to come. It had to come from above if they were not to be dethroned from below; and so, in November 1953, Campbell was able to announce that the sugar producers had agreed to finance the rehousing programme.

Workers were now able to erect their own homes on estate land leased to them for a peppercorn rent; they were lent money on easy, interest-free terms and so were able to build their own homes. Thousands of families were rehoused in this way. In the following years, more progress was made: the home-owners were able to buy the lots they leased at a nominal price of $1 per lot.


New home, painted and finished!

The eradication of malaria and the housing reform, these were the shapers of the post-War generation of sugar workers and their children, primarily Indian-Guyanese people. The reformist vision of Jock Campbell and the unwavering challenge from Cheddi Jagan’s incorruptible, Marxist-inspired mission, were inseparable. The social reforms fed an insatiable appetite for even more reforms; it is a tragedy for all Guyanese that Marxism, in one form or another, won out; that capital was seen as a necessary evil. The English-speaking Caribbean has had no such such parallel, not even Bishop’s Grenada. Clem Seecharan, Sweetening Bitter Sugar
Bookers was eventually nationalized in 1976 and Campbell returned to England, disappointed and disillusioned.
The Booker Prize

As for the Booker Prize: it was Jock alone who created the conditions wihtin the Booker Empire that made it possible. He had always been passionate about the arts, and under his direction Booker supported and even sponsored artists of all kinds.

In her memoir Journey to Guyana the English writer Margaret Bacon describes with obvious awe how such support might work; she recounts the story of a gifted Guianese artist whom Booker decided to send to England on a scholarship. Booker paid his passage, met him at the dock in England, found him and paid for his accommodation, and financed his entire Art studies. It was, she says, typical of Booker benevolence towards artists of all stripes; and Jock was the ultimate force behind the benevolence.

A few years after his return to England he was playing golf with his good friend Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels, who was terminally ill with cancer.

Fleming asked Jock for advice on securing his estate for his family from heavy taxation. Jock initially advised Fleming to turn to accountants and merchant bankers, but then had a new idea: Bookers could act as bankers for Fleming, beneficially for both parties.

As a result, Bookers acquired a 51% share in the profits of Glidmore Productions, the company handling the profits for worldwide royalties on Fleming's books, and the associated merchandising rights.

Out of this acquisition was born the Bookers Author Division, with the injunction:

It should make money, not to mention being entertaining, and there could be advertising interest in it for some of our companies.
Bookers Author Division later acquired the copyrights of other well-known authors, including novelists Agatha Christie, Dennis Wheatley, Georgette Heyer and the playwrights Robert Bolt and Harold Pinter. It was the copyrights of Agatha Christie which, over time, contributed most to the profit of the Author Division.

In the late 1960s the publishers Jonathan Cape suggested that Bookers might sponsor a major fiction prize, and the Booker Prize was launched in 1969. A new sponsor for the prize was announced in April 2002, the Man Group, after which it became known as the Man Booker Prize.
It would never have happened had it not been for Jock; and so, along with the shortlisted authors and winners, it would not be amiss to remember and honour the giant of a man who made it happen. His philosophy is one that can never go out of date, and is perhaps more relevant than ever in today’s unscrupulous world.


To be Continued...




Source: Sweetening Bitter Sugar  Jock Campbell  The Booker Reformer in British Guiana 1934-1966   Ian Randle Publishers 2005


Acknowledgments: all photos reproduced here with kind permission of Clem Seecharan, author, Sweetening Bitter Sugar

The Booker Prize Backstory. Part 2: Jock Campbell moves into the Booker stronghold




By the 1930s the majority of British Guiana’s sugar estates belonged to Bookers. One of these two was the Campbell estate, at Albion in the Corentyne district. This estate belonged to a Scottish family, the Campbells. The Campbells were of aristocratic stock; William Middleton Campbell was Governor of the Bank of England between 1907 and 1909, a man of great prestige. The Campbells had been in Guyana for many decades; they too had owned slaves, they too had grown rich through sugar.

In 1934 a young Campbell, Jock, came to British Guiana for the first time to take charge of the family estates.

Jock was born in 1912, and grew up in great privilege in Scotland and Ireland. He attended Eton and Oxford; he enjoyed the good life, liked fast cars and even faster women.
Neither of those were to be found in British Guiana.
This new world was to prove his Damascus.

Raised on romantic myths of the pleasant life to be had on a sugar estate, Jock received the shock of his life on being confronted with the reality: his family had been slave-owners. His family's fortune was founded on the blood, sweat and tears of African slaves and, more recently on Indian indentured servants. This stark truth shook him out of his hedonism forever.

There is an anecdote that perfectly illustrates the mentality he found as he arrived at Albion and was shown around the family estate by the manager, Mr. James Bee; here it is, in a dramatized version, just as I wrote it for a novel:
Jock stopped and stared, frowning. There in front of him stood several long, low, ramshackle buildings, rough constructions made of coarse wooden planks haphazardly hammered together, black holes for windows and doors. They were like piles of rotting wood set aside for burning, and they stood in a shallow lake of sinking black mud. A miasma of wretched despair hung over the site, a cloud of squalor that wafted through the air along with the stench of human excreta and rotting refuse. It was a scene in sharp comtrast to the clean green of the canefields behind them, and the crisp white houses of the white estate managers and foremen. 
‘What on earth are those?’ he asked Mr Bee, ‘pig sties?’
For indeed, pigs roamed the area, grunting in excitement at the dubious treasures they found in the mud.
Mr Bee waved his hand in dismissal. ‘Oh, those are the logies where our coolies live.’
‘You mean people live there? The stench is appalling. How can they stand it?’
‘They’re used to it – they don’t mind in the least. These people are not like you and me, you know. The standards are much lower.’
Jock swallowed the words on the tip  of his tongue, and said instead, ‘But why don’t the have proper homes?’
‘Well, we already had the logies when the slaves were freed so it was logical and cheaper to put the coolies here. It saved money. Why build new homes when we had perfectly good accommodation still standing? Bookers is a business, not a charity!’
Leaving the logies behind them, Jock and Mr Bee approached a freshly painted building, simple but palatial in comparison to the hovels they had just seen, and scrubbed clean. Mr Bee pointed to it in passing and said: ‘That’s the stable for our mules.’
Jock finally found his voice. ‘Why don’t you let the coolies live here and put the mules in the logies?’
Bee looked at him as if he were mad.
‘Mules cost money to replace!’
The shock sank deep, and turned his life around. From the very start, Jock determined to CHANGE the way the estate was run, and he set his sights high: the Booker Empire. His plans were quite clear.



His father and uncle owned the company Curtis Campbell, which consisted of two sugar estates, Ogle and Albion. But two estates would not be enough for Jock; his vision for King Sugar meant that structural and social changes had to encompass the entire sugar industry. Booker was the embodiment of King Sugar; that throne must be usurped. Jock convinced his father and uncle that a merger between Curtis Campbell and Booker Bros, McConnell and Co was necessary for the survival of the family concern.

Those two were on the Board of Booker, and helped negotiate a take-over of their own company in 1939. Shares were exchanged; Jock became a Director himself, the youngest ever, and moved into the Booker stronghold.




Jock spent the war years in England, working in the Colonial Office. There he prepared the groundwork for his vision. In 1947, aged 35, he became Booker’s Vice-Chairman. In 1952 he became Chairman, aged only 40: he had reached the very top. In fact, to all intents and purposes he had been running the company since 1945.

His standard line was, People are more important than ships, shops and sugar estates, and that was the basis of everything he did.


To be Continued...



Source: Sweetening Bitter Sugar  Jock Campbell  The Booker Reformer in British Guiana 1934-1966    Clem Seecharan  Randle Publishers 2005

Acknowledgments: all photos reproduced here with kind permission of Clem Seecharan, author, Sweetening Bitter Sugar

The Booker Prize Backstory. Part 1: Slavery, James Bond and an aristocratic Scottish hero

It’s Booker Prize time again, offering new debate material for the literary set and the chattering classes: who is she? is she that good? and so very young! never heard of her! I'm off to Waterstones/Amazon! And so on and so forth.

For me it’s a bit different. When this time comes around each year I remember the unsung hero who made it all happen; I remember the extraordinary story of how The Booker came to be, a story as original and as thrilling as all the great fiction we celebrate in its name. It’s a story of adventurers and pioneers, the Scottish Aristocracy and sugar; of slaves, slave owners, and hard labour in the broiling sun; of exploitation, cruelty, rebellion, revolution; and, finally, of reform and redemption and the triumph of good over evil, almost Disneyesque in its climax. It's even got James Bond.

And I lament the fact that hardly any non-Guyanese knows the whole amazing story, or that of the remarkable man at its centre.

 Trust me, you need to know. I'll tell you in a nutshell.

The setting is British Guiana, as Guyana was then known, nestling comfortably on South America's eastern shoulder.


A wild, dangerous, unexplored land, perfect for pioneers and young men eager to risk all to make a fortune in the New World. There was a perilous ocean to cross, jungles and swamps to overcome once they got there. But they did it.







In 1815, one such young man, Josias Booker, arrived in Guiana (not yet a colony) from Lancashire to work as company representative on Broom Hall estate in the district of Demerara. Within three years Josias had established himself as plantation manager of Broom Hall, growing cotton.


This estate had 155 African slaves.





























Over the years, production on Broom Hall increased three-fold. News of this success spread; soon other plantation owners began to copy Josias, sending their slaves to Broom Hall for training. Josias Booker thrived. He acquired his own plantation, then another, and another. When neighbouring plantations failed he stepped in and took over. His fortunes grew.


By this time Josias’s younger brother George Booker had followed him to the colony and had settled in the capital, Georgetown. George worked at building up a general merchandising and trading business, and acted as a shipping agent for the export of timber. A third Booker brother, William, joined them. All three brothers prospered.


By the early 1900’s, however, cotton production in Guiana was in decline; North America had overtaken it. The planters - first among them the Booker brothers - switched to another cash crop: sugar.

Before long the Booker Brothers owned most of the colony’s sugar plantations -- as well as most of the African slaves.


By now, British Guiana practically belonged to Booker Brothers and its partner company, McConnell. Booker Brothers, McConnell and Company held a tight stranglehold on the country's economy. The Booker ethic was "buy cheap, sell dear", and nothing else counted; certainly not the people who made their success possible.


Slavery had been abolished in 1838, but the freed African slaves had been replaced by imported indentured servants from India, whose lot was hardly better than that of slaves. They were kept in the most miserable conditions, worked from early morning till evening for a pittance. Work on a sugar estate is back-breaking labour; the sun was hot and the food was scarce and there was no chance at respite. Booker Bros did not care. All that mattered was profit.


The company held immense power over the colonial government. When Bookers snapped its fingers, the Government fell to its knees. It was the quintessential exploitative imperialist company. The sugar industry in particular, in the words of Ian McDonald, was a “run-down, unprofitable, inhuman, paternalistic” plantocracy, wringing every last drop of revenue from the colony. Bookers trampled through the land taking what it could. It watched while other companies failed, then snapped them up as bad debt, for a pittance. It sat like a giant spider ready to pounce, growing fatter, and uglier, by the day. It owned sugar estates, stores, shipping companies. It had a finger in everyone’s pie.


BG, as Guianese fondly called their homeland, stood not for British Guiana, the cynics murmured, but for Booker Guiana. Those who worked for the company loathed it with all their being. Those who didn’t work for it loathed it even more.


And then along came Jock.

To Be Continued...


(Source: Judy Slinn and Jennifer Tanburn, The Booker Story (Andover, Jarrold Publishing, 2003)

Friday, July 07, 2017

Writing Retreat in Sri Lanka


I've been here a week now, and settled in nicely after a rocky start in which I almost died of thirst on my first night! I will be here for six weeks. I will be doing no sightseeing until my daughter arrives on the 6th August. I'm here to write; or rather, edit. The first draft of my next manusript is finished and I'm now going through the marked-up version supplied by my editor. Deadline: 10th July! Which means I have two more days, as of today, to finish.  After that there is a pause, and then proofreading. We hope to get the entire editing process over by the time I leave on 13th August.

But in a place like this, work seems almost like play. This is the garden of the villa I'm staying at:




And this is my "office", the dining table where I deposit myself with laptop every morning. I work until the battery is empty...



...after which I take a rest, in the red hammock. My room is that edifice on the right; it's separate from the main house, at the end of a wide L-shaped terrace, so it's a bit private, which I like.


This is the house as seen from the gate:


The garden is huge, and adjoins another huge property which is just a coconut field. This in the middle of the bustling city of Negombo.




Monday, March 06, 2017

Down Memory Lane: Georgetown Cinemas of Yesteryear

So, the Astor Cinema is up for sale*. It’s now a derelict hulk, just one more eyesore in a city that was once deemed the most beautiful in the Caribbean. The tiny For Sale sign hangs on its façade like a timid afterthought, a hopeless plea to some rich saviour to swoop in and rescue this one-time Castle of Dreams; save it from crumbling to the ground. 
The Astor -- Palace of Dreams?

 With a pang, I stopped to take a snap. And I made a wish. Someone, please, do it! Someone save this monument to Georgetown’s Golden Age! Such wonderful stories have played out here; so many people escaped their humdrum lives within these crumbling walls. This was once the home of romance and glamour and joy. Bring it back! Cinemas took us Georgetowners to far-off lands and transported us into the exotic lives of others; they showed us the world beyond our shores, and took us on adventures and exploits beyond our wildest dreams; they sowed the seeds of  ambition within our souls and lit the fuse of our most daring aspirations. They did it in a way the now ubiquitous DVD—sold now in pirated copies at every street corner—cannot; and that Multiplex Cinema I heard is planned for Georgetown? Phooey! It can’t compare. 

Going to the cinema was a big event. You dressed up, and you were on your best manners. It was always a double-feature, back then, and in the pause between films you could buy soft-drinks and popcorn. Before the film started they would play God Save the Queen and show a short film with the Queen on horseback, and everyone would stand up in respect. Remember this? Though it may have been in black-and-white.






I remember well the owner and manager of the Astor. He was a young man named Gregory G., and he liked to hang around outside the cinema with other young men of his ilk, ogling us teenage girls in ways that, in retrospect, were decidedly creepy.
In this article another writer, Godfrey Chin is nostalgic for the good old cinema days:

In 1940 the Correia family built the magnificent Astor on Waterloo Street, and in spite of WWII the film fare of Hollywood’s best, delighted the locals. The classic Gone with the Wind which opened in Atlanta, in December 1939, debuted at the Metropole in March 1941, and all the great classic movies such as Gunga Din, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Robin Hood and Singing in the Rain, kept the locals up to date with the fashions, styles, norms, etc, of the outside world. Cinemas were our windows to the outer world. Even the British Council utilised 16mm shows to educate us about our then British ‘overlords.’

The Astor was the scene of an embarrassing éclat between my aunts and my Uncle Dennis. Everyone in Georgetown knew or knew of Uncle Dennis, an eccentric bachelor. The eldest of eight brothers, who rode around town on a rusty old bicycle wearing khaki short pants, long socks, and a hat. If he saw one of his many nieces and nephews he would immediately jump off his bike and call us to him, whereupon he’d tell us a joke and ride off again. Uncle Dennis was quite brilliant, though his formal education was limited. He had taught himself German and was well known for tutoring pupils who weren’t doing well at school, especially in mathematics; and never taking any money for his efforts. Uncle Dennis was a Christian and believed in Christian charity. Which also meant he had not a selfish or mean or snobbish bone in his body. And also that he was quite poor all his life.

Which was why, when he went to the cinema, he would always sit in Pit. In the classist, racist Georgetown of those days, the cinema was the one place that told you where you stood in the hierarchy. If you were black and poor, you paid a pittance and sat in the Pit, at the front of the cinema. Here there were only wooden benches; it was a noisy, raucous place and those who considered themselves better off would never set foot down there. Behind the Pit was the House, where the general populace sat. Above the House ranged the quiet comfort of Balcony, floating above House in velvet exclusivity. And at the front of the Balcony, if you could afford it, was the quiet luxury of the Box.

Uncle Dennis was fair-skinned, but he always sat in Pit. And there he was spotted by my aunts one day at a cinema outing. “Look; there’s Dennis down there in the Pit!” said Aunt Edith* with a shudder, pointing down. “I hope he doesn’t see us!” said Aunt Doreen* as they all moved along to take their seats. And just at that moment, Uncle Dennis looked up and spotted them in the Box.
Uncle Dennis immediately rose to his feet; he turned around and waved, his face a big joyful grin. “Doreen, Edith, Marjorie*! Hold on, I’m coming!” he yelled for all the world to hear, and proceeded to step over all the benches in Pit, climb over the barrier to House, and up the staircase to Balcony and Box. I don’t know if my aunts were required to pay extra for Uncle Dennis; but he certainly watched that film in comfort that day.

Opposite the Astor on Waterloo St was the Globe. Today, where the Globe used to stand is just an empty lot gathering the usual Georgetown garbage. But the Globe too has memories for me, and evokes for me one particular event.

Where the Globe once stood


 I was a junior journalist at the time, working for the Chronicle. Apart from the obvious perk of laying the foundation of my life as a writer, the job came with certain perks, the chief one being getting to meet interesting people—especially foreigners to our shores—and attend interesting events. One of the latter was a concert by Mahalia Jackson in the Globe Cinema; it must have been around 1969, a few years before her death in 1971. We of the Press got to sit in a Box, along with all the other invitees—for the most part, members of Society who sat in Balcony and Box rustling their programmes and clapping staidly at the end of each of Mahalia’s songs. The Pit, of course, was closed. This was a celebrity concert—they couldn’t have the hoi-polloi lowering the tone.  

Mahalia Jackson
However, one door, right next to the stage, stood open—only a chain closed it off from the street, and that’s where the hoi-polloi gathered, pushing and jostling to get the chance to see their idol. A guard stood there with a baton, pushing them back and trying to keep them from getting too rowdy.
Mahalia Jackson noticed the little rumpus down there in the corner, and assessed the situation in a moment. “Remove that chain!” she called. Next thing the chain was down and the city’s poor black population was pouring into the Pit. They filled the benches; they sat on the floor and stood on the sides and simply crammed themselves into every last inch of space.

Mahalia began to sing again, and this time, what a difference! The crowd in the Pit went wild. They clapped along, they sang along, they cheered, they rejoiced. Whether it was a slow and intimate Take my Hand, Precious Lord or a jubilant He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands—the Pit crowd was with her, heart and soul. Life came into that staid cinema hall, and joy and celebration. It was magnificent! Up in the Balcony and Boxes the Upper Echelons of Society sat stiff and silent, clearly out-privileged. And I would have loved of make the reverse journey to Uncle Dennis: down from the Box and into the Pit, into the midst of the rejoicing. For most of those people down there it would have been an evening they would never forget—just as I have never forgotten it.
The Strand de Luxe -- Now the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God



Other cinemas in Georgetown were the Metropole, the Plaza, the Empire, the Hollywood and the Strand de Luxe. The Strand was called de Luxe as it was a new build, the first air-conditioned cinema in town and quite special. Now it is another derelict hull; perhaps a church hall of some kind, judging by the sign across the building.


The Strand -- back in the day.

The Plaza was in Camp Street, just around the corner from my home in Lamaha Street. The Plaza showed all those Beach Party movies with Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. I saw them all in great delight; I was in my early teens, and American teenagerdom seemed to me the height of all that was good and worth striving for in the world. I watched every one of them.
The Hollywood in Alexander Road showed only Hindi movies, so I never went there. And I have no memories whatsoever of the Empire. There remains the Metropole, and with it a memory of little Charlie. 
Jerry Lewis

When I was ten years old I broke a bone in my hand and was in the Georgetown Hospital for a few days. I remember a huge ward full of screaming children; I hated it, but luckily my Dad came to visit regularly. In the bed next to mine lay a little Amerindian boy. Possibly, he had polio; I remember both his legs were in metal braces. My dad made some enquiries and discovered he was an orphan, and in and out of hospital. Charlie must have tugged at Dad’s heart-strings, because after I was released from hospital Dad took me to the cinema at the Metropole to see a Jerry Lewis film, and he stopped at the hospital to pick up Charlie. It was a Jerry Lewis film, and it was the first time Charlie had ever been to the cinema. So it’s thanks to little  Charlie that the Metropole gets a place in my Memory Gallery of Georgetown cinemas.
But there’s one more.
Which teenager of the 60’s and 70’s can forget the Starlite Drive in? Of course, for most of those years, my generation was too young to own a car or even have a driving licence, but if we were lucky we knew someone who knew someone and could wangle an invite. The big deal was Tuesday night: Carload Night! We’d load up the car with as many teenagers as possible and drive up the East Coast Demerara towards Ogle—that’s where the big screen of the glorious Starlite was to be found. We never went for the film. It was for the event, the experience, the company that we went. It was a party, and we were young; those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end.
I'll end this eulogy with another quote from Godfrey Chin:
Christmas 2008 the Astor, the last cinema standing, was showing a powerful action double, Casino Royale and Quantum Leap. As I sat in their balcony reminiscing, there were about 12 patrons in the entire cinema. I was impressed that the upkeep and maintenance in the balcony and house area was pretty good. The leather upholstered box seats are still there.

As I thanked Desmond Woon, the Manager, for his cinema tour, I quipped that his last stand reminded me of Errol Flynn in They Died with their Boots On, which opened at the Metropole around 1943. I should really name this Nostalgia, ‘The Astor’s Last Stand.’
So, any offers for the Astor? Or if not, why not post your own memories of Georgetown Cinemas in the comments?



* The For Sale sign is gone; but I don't think it was sold. Will find out.