Monday, February 22, 2021

Eileen Cox: a Feisty Fifties Feminist

 

Eileen Cox – A Feisty Fifties Feminist

 

By Sharon Maas

 It’s quite  a responsibility, being the daughter of Eileen Cox. She remains an icon of Guyana,  always held up to me as a model; someone whose footsteps I should follow, even as she grew old and frail. This was never so clear to me as that day at the Republic Bank; she needed me, or rather, my arm. I helped her out of the taxi and, at a snail’s pace, she hobbled up to the bank entrance on Water Street, hooked onto my elbow with one hand, her walking stick in the other.

The year was 2012. She was 94, a fragile, bent old woman, physically a shadow of what she once was, but mentally still as sharp as a razor. By this time, Mum rarely left her home in Subryanville; indeed, she rarely ever left her bedroom, but sat there all day, near the bedside phone, because, then as ever, she was still President of the Guyana Consumers Association, and people still turned to her for advice. I lived far away, in Germany, and visited when I could, usually once a year to check on things. But that day, she had business at the bank.

  As is usual in the morning, the Republic Bank lobby was crowded. People milled about, having pulled a number, and waited to be seated, while those seated waited to be called to the counter.  But then a whisper went up: It’s Eileen Cox! And the crowd before us parted like the Red Sea, and we made our slow way forward, down a corridor of smiling faces, past calls of “Good morning Miss Cox!” and “Hello Miss Cox!”; past autograph books held out for her to sign --- oh wait, I got carried away there; that didn’t happen. But it really did feel like arriving with some celebrity at the Oscars, walking up the red carpet with my shuffling mother on my arm. Mum was served first, and nobody minded.

And Mum was, in her own way, a celebrity in Guyana. I’m afraid that in my younger years I never really appreciated her; I took her for granted, as young daughters often do. But whenever I returned to Guyana and people realized she was my mother, they never failed to tell me how much she meant to them. How much she helped them. How they listened out for her on the radio, or read her Consumer Advocate columns in the Stabroek News. How they loved her. “She was a phenomenon!”  “An icon!” Taxi drivers who dropped me off at her home would say, “Wait, you’re Eileen Cox’s daughter? I drove her once!” 

So yes, I am the daughter of a Guyanese celebrity: the real kind, the deserving kind, the kind who really DID something to deserve her fame and wasn’t just famous for fame's sake. Mum was internationally respected for her consumer activity, invited to Consumer seminars and conferences around the world, from Chile to India to Canada.

She lived a public life, and her accomplishments are well known: starting with her activities as women's rights activist as a young married women, advocating for the rights of women i Public Service to keep their jobs after marriage. After her divorce when I was three, she must have been one of the very first single working mothers in the colony. Later, she was active in the Public Service Union and in the Credit Union, but it was in founding the Consumers Association that she found her final calling. She remained  the GCA's President of right up to her resignation aged 93.

As a public figure she was outspoken and very direct; but she had another side to her, a private side, that others did not see.
 It would be true to say that though she was not a Christian in name, she very much embodied true Christian values and ideals. She has always lived a most simple life, never expecting special favours, never living beyond her means. She loved flowers, nature, the fresh air of the sea wall. Up to her very last day, when she could no longer walk, her carer Sego would carry her downstairs so that she could enjoy the evening Atlantic breeze.


Photo below: Mum with Guyana President Dr Cheddi Jagan

With Guyana's President, Cheddi Jagan

She never wanted more than what she had. She cared about people regardless of race, religion, political affiliation, sex. As Hansard Editor at Guyana’s Parliament she worked hard all her life, supporting not only me but other members of her extended family – the breadwinner of the family. She was without wile and without guile; a divorcee by choice, she was married to her mission, the well-being of every single person in Guyana. At times, when I was a child, I was even jealous because I thought she spent more time helping others than being with me. But in the end it was all good, because it gave me a sense of independence and adventure, of daring to seek the unconventional. I learned that selflessness, not selfishness, is the true secret to a fulfilled life.

 Which doesn't mean being a doormat.  She taught me that there is strength and dignity in humility, in putting the needs of others before your own, in caring, in serving. These are the values she truly lived  all her life. Though she was not typical for women of her generation, these are all typically female strengths, subtle strengths that tend to go unnoticed and undervalued, crushed by the typically male "strengths" of domination and aggression, which are not strengths at all as they accomplish nothing.

Yet water wears away stone, and women have at all times and all places been the very backbone of society, precisely through those quieter strengths and values. For Mum, these strengths brought results. Men adored, respected, and bowed before her.

Yes: Mum was Guyanese royalty, for it is the heart that really rules. She died in her sleep in November 2014. She lives on in the hearts of many.

 

Sharon Maas is the author of  The Far Away Girl, The Sugar Planter’s Daughter and several other novels set in Guyana, India, France, Germany and England.

 See also:  Eileen Cox: a Tribute to my Mother

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Dr. Peter Pritchard: "You don't have to be a dinosaur."




Note: This post was first written back in 2012, on another of my blogs . In view of my soon to be published novel set in Guyana, in which Peter and his wife Sibille make a cameo appearance, I'm reposting it so that it is new on this blog.

Sadly, Peter passed away in early 2020.

There’s no way I can call Dr Peter Pritchard an unsung hero. He’s already been named a Hero of the Planet by no less than TIME Magazine, and he’s already famous in animal conservation circles as the leading expert in marine turtles. 

 Yet he’s a prime example of those people I mentioned in my last post—people who go about their work quietly and diligently, doing what they know is right; if they ever do call attention, it’s to the objects of their ardour, not to themselves, and that’s Peter all over: a big, unassuming man beating the drum for a humble animal he’s determined to save from a ruthless world.

 I was little more than a giggling teenager when I first met Peter, working at my very first job as a staff journalist at the Guyana Graphic. My own personal hero at the time was one of my editors, Sibille, a few years older than me and already a household name in the country due to her bylines. A tiny woman with a huge personality, Sibille was everything I wasn’t: confident, outspoken, spunky and funny, and I looked up to her no end. She was also a great writer, and I wanted to be a great writer; I couldn’t believe it when she took me under her personal wing, and in time we even became friends, close friends, in fact. She drew me out of my shell and helped me find my feet as a journalist.

My other friend, Pratima, and I would tease her mercilessly about her “Turtle-man”—the gentle giant who every now and then would swoop in from Florida to take her, and sometimes us as well, out to dinner, or off on expeditions in Guyana’s swamps, forests and beaches. One day, Sibille flew off to Florida, and didn't come back.

Reader, she married him.
That was over 45 years ago.

More about Peter and Sibille, "one of Central Florida's most exotic, and unlikely, power couples".

A few days ago I called their home in Florida—where in 2004 I was their guest for three weeks--just to let them know I was going to Guyana.
“I’ll be there myself in March”, Peter told me, and so yet another case of serendipitous scheduling slotted into place.

Of course, knowing that Peter will be in Shell Beach working on that project means that, once again, my plans have changed.
Karanambu. Jonestown. Shell Beach. I just hope I will have time for the real reason for my visit: my mother.
She’s my third Earth Hero, to be introduced. Coming up tomorrow.

About Peter Pritchard:

From Wikipedia:

Dr. Peter Pritchard (born 1943) is a leading turtle zoologist. Educated at Oxford University and the University of Florida, where he earned his Ph.D. in Zoology, he is most commonly known for his campaign of almost 40 years for the conservation of turtles. Appropriately, his privately funded Chelonian Research Institute, for the study and preservation of turtles, is located in Oviedo, Florida, United States, just a half hour's drive from Disney World. Frank Sulloway had noted that Pritchard 'has amassed nearly 12,000 tortoise and turtle skeletons - the third largest collections in the world.'

 

From Time Magazine:

Pritchard has done his most innovative work along the Atlantic coast in Guyana, a haven for sea turtles. By the 1960s, overhunting by local Arawak Indians--themselves an endangered group--had ravaged the turtle population. But Pritchard helped save both turtles and tribe: he has lobbied Guyana and private sources for grants that have weaned the Arawaks off turtle meat and into chicken farming. And he hires Arawaks to tag turtles for research and defend nesting grounds. The killing has largely stopped, he says, because turtle protection is now "a family discipline thing" among Arawaks, "rather than an outsider laying down the law."

There's a wonderful video interview with Peter on this site: Oceanology. Watch it, below this post; it's about far more than turtles. There's real wisdom here:

Narrator: Turtles are slow and not very smart, but they've been around since the day of the dinosaur.

Peter: I think the moral of the story is: don't try to be dominant. Try to have your place, but you don't have to be the big dinosaur. That lasts for a while, and, you know, it comes to an end.




Only These Grandmothers: a poem by Maggie Harris

 

Only these Grandmothers

 

Only these grandmothers can see down the long road travelled

where all the love and pain converge like cars in a traffic

jams. Only these grandmothers carry the scent of kitchens

infused by cooking pans and garlic pulled out of the wild woods

to layer the earthenware pots where rabbits simmer.

 

Only these grandmothers smell of milks suckled at the breasts

of Amazons and lowly countrywomen whose babies

make do with Cow & Gate, make room

for others who will inherit the world.

 

There are grandmothers who left those kitchens long ago

for factories and offices where the typing pool

and the cleaning women all walk on rollercoaster

ledges, keeping their determined stares ahead

not looking back the way they came where sheer edges

mark the abyss of failing

to be  mother  father  provider   teacher.

 

Generations on, the mother’s sleep is haunted

by dreams of a succubus inhabiting her body

and soul, when every fever of your child ushers

in the terror of gravestones

fists beating where the heart should be

pounding into midnight

the long hours of midnight

cloaking the bedroom floor with a terror

unnamed.

 

Blessed are those who remember the burial place

of the navel string

Blessed are those whose faces still glow faintly in daguerreotypes

whose gold bangles circa 1903 swing from the wrists of a favourite child

Blessed are those whose memories string like fairy lights

between balconies and high-rise flats

villages of lamplight

country lanes and cane fields

blackberry bushes and mango trees.

 

Only these grandmothers can raise their rifles over the gates

and shoot into the trees where the limbs of young men

flail into the foliage.

Only these grandmothers can halt the slingshots aimed at birds

in the knitted palms of their hands.

Only the grandmothers can look down the long roads travelled

into the histories of yesterday

and back to the future where the children test the waters

with their toes

and languages ricochet like gunshots.

 

Only these grandmothers can stand between yesterday

and tomorrow

and tremble, at the knowledge they have gleaned.

 

MAGGIE HARRIS



Maggie Harris is a Guyanese writer living in Kent. Twice winner of the Guyana Prize, she was the Caribbean Winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and has travelled to the Caribbean, Europe and India. As well as poetry she has written short stories and a memoir, Kiskadee Girl. She has taught Creative Writing and was International Teaching Fellow at Southampton University. Guyana continues to inspire her and her latest poetry collection is ‘On Watching a Lemon Sail the Sea.’

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Writing by the Seat of my Pants

 I'm going to reproduce a few blog posts I wrote a few years ago for Amy Sue Nathan's blog Women's Fiction Writers. Here's the first, with a link to the original post.)



I write my novels flying by the seat of my pants, without a plan or even an outline, not knowing where I’ll end up when I write that first word. I plunge blindly into the story with nothing more than a vague idea of a character, and go along wherever she takes me. I’m often surprised at the results.

Sounds like a recipe for chaos, but there’s a method to the madness, and I quite clearly learned the method back in 1971-72, when, as a very naïve 19-year-old, I left my home in Guyana and plunged into the heart of the Amazon for the adventure of my life. I had no plan, no goal, and very little money; I just knew I had to go. I certainly had no idea that I’d end up learning not only how to navigate South America flying by the seat of my pants, but a whole new approach to life and, several decades later, how to write a novel.

Parents of teenagers will be relieved to know I didn’t travel alone. Two friends, Margaret and her boyfriend Salvador, decided to come along with me when I left my journalist job at the Sunday Chronicle and crossed the Brazilian border, bound for Manaus.

A month later, there we stood on the Manaus dock on the river Amazon, waiting for a riverboat to take us further. But in which direction? East, to Belem, the Atlantic coast, and then south to Rio? Or west, deeper into the Amazon basin, to Leticia in Colombia at the point where three nations meet, and Iquitos, in Peru? We didn’t care; we’d take the first boat that would actually leave with us on board, instead of promising to leave the next day but stealing off in the night, without us. It took a few days, but in the end we left on the Evandro, towards Colombia.

And that was the motif for the whole year-long journey. We never knew where we’d end up. We’d meet people who’d invite us to stay a week, or run into others who’d give us an address in a village we’d never heard of; we zig-zagged across the continent, up the Amazon, across the Peruvian Andes, and up the west coast through Ecuador and Colombia.
All that year  we moved on, from here to there, taking life as it comes, day by day and never knowing where we’d end up.

It meant ceding control to where life would go, and to cede control we needed an almighty trust that somehow, it would be good, better even, than anything we could deliberately plan. And it was. It was almost as if there was already a plan in place; people we had to meet, places we had to see, and by letting go of our own plan of what we should do where, we allowed the real plan to kick in; we were following a blueprint greater than ourselves, a wonderful story in which we were the characters.

It turned into a voyage of discovery. We explored the continent—that is, the four countries we traversed, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia—from the ground; we lived in native villages, learnt Spanish, and eventually, by trial and error, learnt to think like a native. We met the right people at the right times. Events fell into place. We learnt to let go, to let life take us where it wanted. We learnt to adapt and flow like water, to deal with obstacles and assholes as they came along. Most of all, we learnt about ourselves, discovered who we really were, deep down inside. It was glorious, magical. It was once-in-a-lifetime.

Fast-forward twenty-five years. Here’s me in my late forties, a stay-at-home mother by choice, with no particular desire to get back into the stress of working outside the home as a social worker. My husband earned enough for us all, and so our physical needs were cared for. Life was organised, planned out, as it should be. After all the struggles of the previous years—with my first child I’d been a single mother for several years, working part-time—I finally had the time to do something I had always yearned to do: write a novel. My second child was now five years old, in nursery school; I could get back to my true calling. What a glorious situation!

For I had always been a storyteller. When I was a child of eight or nine I used to scribble Enid-Blyton knock-offs, adventure stories featuring a bunch of children with dogs and horses who had great fun and loads of adventures catching dangerous criminals. I had always been a dreamer, easily caught up in wishful thinking, dreaming happy ends to some of the not-so-nice situations I found myself in—particularly romantic ones.

But could I write a whole novel? How even to begin? Some people might have advised me to start small, with short stories, but I always knew that wasn’t for me: I didn’t like reading short stories, and if I were to write anything then it had to be long.

But surely you needed a plan: to know all the characters and what they would do and how they would do it, and all that in advance. I was never any good at making plans. The idea of writing a novel seemed an impossible goal, a pipe dream, far beyond my limited capabilities. I read books on the technique of writing, books on how to hone one’s craft, how to create compelling characters; I learned about three-part-structure and foreshadowing and the perils of multiple viewpoint. But the more I read, the more paralysed I felt.

But then I stumbled across Dorothea Brande’s slim volume, Becoming a Writer. I read it in one sitting, and I knew it had been written for me alone. Here there was not a word about technique; it was all about discovering the writer’s magic. There is such a thing? There is! Said Dorothea, and the book was all about how to reveal it.

It is, she says, a voyage of discovery. The planning, conscious mind must take a back seat to the creative unconscious mind. This can actually be learnt.

The unconscious is shy, elusive and unwieldy, but it is possible to learn tot tap it at will, and even to direct it. The conscious mind is meddlesome, opinionated and arrogant, but it can be made subservient to the inborn talent through training.


And it all came back to me: the art of letting go, of trusting in life, or, in this case, trusting my own unconscious mind; letting it take charge, and following where it would take me.

A character came to me, a first sentence; I wrote it down, and the rest followed on from there. I flew by the seat of my pants. Just the way I’d travelled South America, one step at a time, one day at a time, one page at a time. It was as if the story was already written, and all I had to do was turn to it, deep inside me, to let it out.

After a few years practice on a first novel that found an agent but didn’t sell, I picked myself up and started again. A chaotic first draft was the result; there followed months of revision, during which I put into action all the good advice I’d learnt on writing craft.

That book was Of Marriageable Age.

It sold, at auction, to HarperCollins.

Now that I’m a veteran writer, participating in the international online writers’ community, I know that there’s a word for people like me: I’m a “pantser”. I also know that, more and more, writing this way is frowned upon: it’s a method, they (“they” being other veteran writers) say, for beginning writers or, at the other end of the spectrum, genius writers. Real writers—professionals—plan and plot, outline and structure; we don’t just follow each random story impulse, each imaginary detour. The controversy is illustrated perfectly in the blog post A Modest Proposal to Pantsers: Don’t and the subsequent comment trail. What the sceptics ignore, however, or don’t seem to even know, is that there’s a method to “pantsing”, a technique, a discipline, a skill; and we who work this way need to learn and develop that skill for ourselves.

I’ll tell you my own secrets in my next guest blog here on Women’s Fiction Writers: coming up in April.  And here it is: Stories: Not Carved in Stone

Sharon #5

Sharon Maas was born in Georgetown, Guyana in 1951, and spent many childhood hours either curled up behind a novel or writing her own adventure stories. Sometimes she had adventures of her own, and found fifteen minutes of Guyanese fame for salvaging an old horse-drawn coach from a funeral parlor, fixing it up, painting it bright blue, and tearing around Georgetown with all her teenage friends. The coach ended up in a ditch, but thankfully neither teens nor horse were injured. Boarding school in England tamed her somewhat; but after a few years as a reporter with the Guyana Graphic in Georgetown she plunged off to discover South America by the seat of her pants. She ended up in a Colombian jail, but that’s a story for another day.

In 1973 she travelled overland to India via England, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. After almost two years in an Indian Ashram she moved to Germany, got an education, got a job, got married, had children, and settled down. She still lives in Germany after three and a half decades, but maintains close ties and great love for both India and Guyana; and, somewhat reluctantly, for England.

Her first novel, Of Marriageable Age, was published in 1999 by HarperCollins, and is set in India, Guyana and England. Two further novels, Peacocks Dancing and The Speech of Angels, followed.

Sharon will soon be entering the digital world with the e-publication of Of Marriageable Age through the British women’s fiction publisher, Bookouture. Find out more: www.sharonmaas.com

(update on this: I've now had ten novels published by Bookouture, with the eleventh due for publication in 2021.)

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Stories: Not Carved in Stone


Not Carved in Stone: Excavating for a Story



https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LNo__dgoVJQ&feature=youtu.be

(This article was first published on the website www.womensfictionwriters.com in April 2014)


By Sharon Maas

CoverfinalLast February I spent three wonderful weeks in South India. The best part of my morning routine was a walk up a nearby mountain to visit a little ashram where I could sit and meditate in silence. On the way up, dotted here and there along the cobblestone path, sat a few of the local sculptors, selling their work and creating their next piece. Always I stopped to watch, fascinated.



These were simple men. They sat on the bare earth, their basic tools laid out before them. In one hand they held the stone they were working on, either soapstone or marble; in the other hand was the chisel. With all the patience in the world they carved away, scraping and sculpting to mould from the stone their works of art: effigies of gods, or elephants with babies in their innards, or ornate lampshades, candlesticks, incense holders, jewelery boxes, and, in one case, a snarling tiger. Each piece was perfectly formed.

They had no blueprint or model to work from. Each sculptor knew innately, with an uncanny surety and minute precision, how much to remove and at what angle, and did so as naturally and confidently as you and I would tap a keyboard. Sometimes he held the stone with his toes, and hammered (hammered!) away to get it right (see photo). A millimeter to the left or right would have ruined the finished product; but it never did. Symmetry and balance flowed from those sculptor hands, perfection in stone. It was as if the final product was already in the stone, waiting for the sculptor’s thought, the chisel’s touch. Some of these artworks may have lacked the sophistication of their expensive lookalikes in the boutiques of Chennai Airport, but each one was a miracle in stone. I was spellbound, hooked. I was probably their best customer in those three weeks; I bought several pieces to bring home as gifts.

I also brought back new inspiration, new insight into my own work as a writer.

“It’s not carved in stone!” is one of the maxims that comfort me as I write my first draft. It’s all right to make mistakes, as mistakes can be corrected in second, third and fourth drafts. Words are not stone; a clumsy word can be improved on, typos put right, ham-fisted scenes rewritten, dialogue made snappier, characters made more evil. I can chisel away at a story as much as I want; I can add new scenes if necessary, or remove ones that don’t work. I can polish, mould, move story elements around; and one day, hopefully, the story will be as perfect as my ability allows. There is no absolute perfection in storytelling; a different choice of words would produce a different story, or a different slant to the story, or a new nuance to the story. That is the beauty of writing; it is fluid, flexible, not carved in stone.

And yet I brought with me the insight that indeed, each story has its own innate truth, a form it has to be, a form it wants to be and needs to be – and that as surely as the Indian sculptor digs from a formless stone a beautiful Buddha’s head, so it is my task to dig within myself to find the inherent truth of each story I create. That takes time, and experience — and method.

In February I wrote a guest post here on “writing from the seat of my pants”. Very often, this kind of writing is dismissed as shallow, random or chaotic, and perhaps in some cases it is. But it doesn’t have to be. Done properly there is, or should be, skill involved, the skill of digging deep inside to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what the story is: its truth, which is the truth of its creator, the writer.

I was 49 when I started my writing career. I had no confidence in my writing abilities, no trust in the stories within me, or I would have started at a much younger age. I didn’t even know that stories were there in me to be written. But then I discovered Dorothea Brande’s classic Becoming a Writer, first published in 1934 and still in print.

Brande opened my eyes. Brande believed that hidden within the unconscious mind is an intelligence that must be tapped by the conscious, allowing it, the unconscious, to freely flow, “bringing at demand all the treasures of memory, all the emotions, incidents, scenes, intimations of character and relationship which it has stored away in its depths. The role of the conscious mind is to control, combine and discriminate between these materials without hampering the unconscious flow.”

In the “born writer” Brande believed, this process takes place smoothly and rapidly; by some fortunate accident of temperament or education the naturally gifted writer can put that unconscious flow completely to the service of reasonable intention, whether or not he or she is aware of doing so. There is a magic to writing, says Brande; and it can be learned.

For me the book was a turning point. She put into my hands the basic tools for excavating my own depths, for finding that hidden lump of story buried within me, and carving out its truth into a readable form, a process that indeed sometimes feels like magic.

I am basically a shy, elusive and clumsy person, and so imagine my joy when I read the following words:

The unconscious is shy, elusive and unwieldy, but it is possible to learn to tap it at will, and even to direct it. The conscious mind is meddlesome, opinionated and arrogant, but it can be made subservient to the inborn talent through training.


Brande taught me to trust the unconscious mind, to know that it is the repository of all the ingredients that make good stories. She gave me clues, hints to the many ways and means of tapping into that source. This turned out to be the method that worked for me, and worked well. In the 14 years since reading that book I have written seven novels; three were published by HarperCollins, and two became French bestsellers. The others are waiting in line for publication, and two more are waiting to be written. To any writer who struggles to find their story, who feel that his or her problem is not with the actual craft of writing, but antecedent to that, with the finding of a story to tell; anyone who finds the actual storytelling the hardest part of writing, that inspiration has dried up, that writer’s block has set in, that his or her story is hidden away behind a locked door I would say: read Brande’s book. It just might provide a key.

At present I am revising a novel I wrote in 2004, a novel which didn’t find an agent or a publisher back then. I thought it needed just a spit and a polish, but now, ten years later, I realised that the flaw ran much deeper. Something was missing in that first draft, a vital dimension to the story without which it fell flat.

Fresh from India and inspired by the work of those Indian sculptors, I finally found that missing dimension. I found it because I’m now a better, more mature writer, and can dig deeper. I’m a miner and a sculptor. And I am more thankful than ever that stories are not carved in stone.

See also: Writing from the Seat of my Pants

Sharon #2Sharon Maas was born in Georgetown, Guyana in 1951, and spent many childhood hours either curled up behind a novel or writing her own adventure stories. After a few years as a reporter with the Guyana Graphic in Georgetown she spent some time travelling in South America and overland to India. She ended up in Germany, married with two children, and now has a day job as a social worker in a hospital. She writes novels in her free time.

(Update: she now lives in Ireland and has ten published novels with Bookouture.)

Friday, October 30, 2020

Down Memory Lane: Georgetown Cinemas of Yesteryear


So, the Astor Cinema is up for sale (* see update at end of blog post).
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 behaviour. I went on my very first date to the Astor: I was 14, and it was My Fair Lady, and I was petrified. 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'd play God Save the Queen and show a short film with the young Queen Elizabeth II in Royal military scarlet uniform. She'd be sitting side-saddle on a horse, at the trooping of the colours. Everyone would stand up in respect, except those in the Pit, who continued laughing, talking, shouting, cursing. We ignored them. This was before Independence in 1966, of course. 




After the Queen they'd show British New Reel, Pathé and British Council films, which showed new developments all over the British Empire, where the sun never set. This would be followed by Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse cartoons, and trailers for coming films.

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 story goes, the scene of an embarrassing éclat between my aunts and my Uncle Denis. Everyone in Georgetown had heard of or knew Uncle Denis, a rather eccentric bachelor. The eldest of eight brothers, he 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, guffaw loudly, and ride off again. So very embarrassing! 

Uncle Denis 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 Denis 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 serene luxury of the Box.

Uncle Denis 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 Denis 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 Denis looked up and spotted them in the Box.
Uncle Denis 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 Denis; but he certainly watched that film in comfort that day. And I don't know how true the story is, but knowing Uncle Denis -- well, let's just say it's credible.

The Pit, apparently, was quite a ribald place, to put it politely. Another writer describes it thus: 

To venture into the Pit toilet (urinal), which was usually at the end of a long, dark tunnel, was to enter a stinking, crowded, noisy hell hole that only the brave, reckless and desperate could deal with! I usually held my waste in, almost giving me "nara" pains by the time I got out of the Pit.

During a show, a Pit patron may let off a stink bomb, or a firecracker squib, which would create a stir, or an argument and a fist-fight may break out among the brethren. I say brethren because few women, with the exception of ladies of the evening, would venture into the Pit.

These ladies were often welcomed with open arms and pants, sometimes going to the back of Pit, where House overhung Pit, and setting up business there. In the middle of the show, it was not unusual to hear groaning and rustling from that section, providing a distraction from the main event on the screen, and causing some patrons to complain loudly. I wonder if this perhaps gave rise to the term "Passion Pit"?

          (from Moving pictures: a nostalgic look at Guyana's cinemas

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 advantage of laying the foundation of my life as a writer (though I didn't know it then), 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 at 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, while all the other invitees—for the most part, members of Society  sat nearby in Balcony and Box rustling their programmes and clapping staidly at the end of each of Mahalia’s songs, or maybe rattling their jewellery. 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 banished 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 to make the reverse journey to Uncle Denis: 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 with 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 classic Hollywood movies from the 50's to the 80's. The Rio/Rialto in Vlissingen road showed almost exclusively Hindi or Urdu 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 each day. Mum was working in Trinidad at the time. In the bed next to mine lay a little Amerindian boy. Possibly, he had polio; I remember both his legs were in callipers. 
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 Georgetown 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 license, 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.
* New update: 2019: the building has been pulled down. It's an empty site. Something mew will go up there one day.
*Aunts' names changed to save them further embarrassment.