by Alexis Keir
For Lenore and Winston
‘Sometimes we lose one of our own because we do not tell them enough that no matter how far they have been flung to the ends of the universe we still love them.’
Witi Ihimaera, The Dream Swimmer
“He should be swinging in trees in the Congo.”
I stood stock-still in my cottage perched on the edge of the Tasman Sea. Anger and shame burnt through me because of the views I had just heard broadcast on the radio that Sunday morning in 1996. Two years before, a Kenyan musician had been convicted and imprisoned in New Zealand for having unprotected sex with several women knowing he was HIV positive but deliberately concealing that fact. The radio presenter I was listening to was bemoaning the cost to the taxpayer of keeping him in jail. I didn’t disagree with the sentence and had no opinion on where the offender should be incarcerated, but the racism of the broadcast that morning cut straight through me.
Aside from the vicious echo of the host’s voice in my head, the sensation I felt most keenly was that of being alone. I knew that none of my family or friends had heard those words because they were 11,000 miles away in the UK. So I didn’t have to do anything. I could let it go, let it pass, and carry on quietly being a Black Englishman abroad. I knew that staying quiet would be unnoticed and understandable. I knew all this was true but I also knew that it was not a way I could allow myself to be and so, feeling sick with nerves, I picked up the telephone.
I never really knew where I belonged as I grew up. I was raised in Luton, a middling town whose economy was dominated by the (then) huge car manufacturer Vauxhall. The sprawling factory lay just off the M1 motorway at the southern entrance to the town, its yawning lawns of concrete waiting to be filled by shiny new vehicles. The company’s thirst for labour tempted thousands of couples like my parents out of London in the ’60s and ’70s. They came for a place on the production line for my father and a nursing job for my mother at the local hospital: with the employment our family could have a house with a garden and eventually a TV and a car. Like the journey to England for my parents, moving to Luton gave us opportunity.
As a boy born to parents from the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent I always felt connected to my Black heritage. Mainly because of our Sundays. Mornings were spent at the local Methodist church, where the slowly dwindling body of white congregants were boosted and enfolded by the new arrivals from a sunnier place, singing more loudly and smiling more broadly. And afternoons sneaking into our immaculate front room to listen to my mother and father’s friends fill it with loud happy voices and reggae. On the weekends when we didn’t entertain, we squeezed into the family car (always a Vauxhall) to visit relatives and other Vincentians who had also found places to raise and reunite their families after arriving in the UK.
In my early years, the Caribbean enfolded me in other ways too. My father first took me ‘home’ when I was seven; I remember the dizzy excitement of the small boy who couldn’t sleep a wink in the whole week before his first plane journey. My weary teacher had to call my father into school to try to calm my unending peaks of distraction and hyperactivity. All I recall of the journey is a moment standing transfixed on the airport concourse in Antigua – where we were changing planes to fly on to Saint Vincent – staring at the huge pinned swordfish that leapt its way across a wall high above. Flying all by itself, as it tried to return to the sea.
I was liked well enough and had plenty of friends of all backgrounds – bullying was hardly ever a problem. But it was as a ‘clever boy’ that I felt unvalued. As a teenager I didn’t talk in cool patois like kids who had never been near the jewelled isles of their parents’ birth like I had. But it was me who felt odd for jumping on the Thameslink to go and explore galleries in London (“What do you want to go and do that for?”), strange for going to university (“Are there any Black people there?”) and, later, weird for going to New Zealand (“Black people don’t go to those kind of places”). My chosen sport was hockey and when, at a conference, a stern socialist lady saw my injured hand in a cast, she told me off for playing the game of the oppressors. I wanted to reply that I played in a team with the sons of migrants from the Indian subcontinent; their fathers were car workers like my father, not businessmen from leafy shires. But I’m not sure she would have heard me any more than the other people who thought there was only one way I should be, look, or sound. I had to travel to shores distant in miles and memory to find out that it was alright to do things differently.
Hearing the voices on that radio show was a shock to me because until then my experience of New Zealand in terms of race and culture had been such a different one: I had found attitudes to be liberal, accepting, and inclusive. My leaving party from my first placement in Northland was on a beach in a hidden bay, banners and balloons hanging from the surrounding red-blossomed pohutukawa. The beach and the land belonged to the Maori community and the only way down to the foreshore was along a dirt track past poorly painted and unassuming bungalows. Just like ethnic minority communities in the UK, I had seen that Maori and Pacific Island people were more likely to be out of employment, face health problems, or come into contact with the criminal justice system. But what I saw also was a degree of commitment to enabling their representation, respect, and self-determination that to me was unfamiliar. Everywhere I could see bi- and multi-culturalism supported in a way that didn’t chime with my Black British experience.
I knew that my wide-eyed perceptions were not the full or only story. Yet it seemed to me that there was no denial of identity; just an acceptance that through the gaze of their children the ancestors still looked out on the beauty of the land. When I left New Zealand to visit Saint Vincent again for the first time in 20 years, I did so suffused with the spirit of Maori culture and whanau (family) which had surrounded me. Maori people don’t only introduce themselves with a name at a meeting or a gathering – they share their whole tribe and genealogy (whakapapa), their sacred places, and their links to the land and rivers and mountains. I wanted to be able to share too but had gaps to fill in my connection with my family’s history and their beautiful island cradle. Distant voices had started calling to me and, as I booked my flights and packed my bags, I ached to return to where my mother and father had sailed from.
And just like that I received my Vincentian title from my beloved Uncle Cluston, strange and familiar at the same time. Just before leaving New Zealand I had a spent a late summer’s afternoon in Whangarei leading a workshop with local Maori Deaf people about the many names by which we are known. I shared the names that had been given to me. My first name of course, and Smiler – the arc of forefinger and thumb that formed my sign name. And finally, the name that was mine in my parents’ house, the one my mother struggled not to let slip when she called up the stairs for me to come down and speak to my friends who were waiting and listening on the phone. Monty. Shortened from Montgomery, my middle name – when used outside our family home – had always made me feel like an alien. When the boys had teased me in the junior school playground I cursed my parents’ choice and implicitly lofty aspirations for me. I didn’t understand the significance of my other name until I went back to the Caribbean and uncovered the power of the belonging and connections that its intimacy gave to me.
The customs officer’s gaze took in my then partner, who was accompanying me on the trip. “How long are you staying?”
“Two weeks,” she replied and he stamped her passport for a month’s stay.
“Your father is a Vincentian?” he asked me, knowing already because my uncle had told him. I nodded.
“You … you can stay here for as long as you like.”
Later, I watched twilight begin in the village to which my mother and father had come back for their retirement and I thought simply that God had created the sweetest screensaver in the peach clouds and the disappearing sun. During the night, I was woken by rain. It rained for hours, water streaming through the ocean winds which buffeted the house my parents had built. But still I dreamt and slept and remembered the words of my father’s friend Cassian at the central shop, an echo of my own realisation: “Yes you’re home now.”
As we flew in, Saint Vincent had pushed up out of the ocean, appearing where there had been nothing before except bright blue sea. It was simultaneously green, fertile, mountainous, and bizarrely huge. As the island grew in the plane window I found I did not remember the coast – the flat skirt of land and houses dancing at the feet of jagged mountains. But I did recall the dragon that as a child I thought lived under the high and undulating line of hills above the airport. Sleeping and breathing and snuffling and waiting for someone to come back and believe in it. Back in my parents’ front room in England I had looked so many times at a dot on a single page in the middle of our worn atlas. The few Carib, French, and English place names which could fit onto the tiny green contoured oval were full of lilt and history, reflecting the tugs-of-war between powers colonial and native. And on returning I discovered that a ‘petit’ was still the way to ask for the tot of fierce rum that men gulped in between slapping down domino pieces with enough force to rock and shudder the tables.
Everything seemed to grow madly on the island. Trees bearing bola, avocado, guava, sugar apple, orange, and coconut tangled on the seductive slopes and verdant troops of banana crowded ‘up mountain’. Twenty years before I had taken away copious recollections of giant land snails and gorgeous hummingbirds, praying mantises trapped by me in jars to feed flies to, vicious Jack Spaniard hornets, and the fat lazy ‘crapo’ toads whose name was also French in origin. But now any insects seemed harder to find in daylight and the noise of creatures in the night’s darkness was only a muted hum. I thought that my child’s imagination might have exaggerated all the things I thought I had seen before. But my uncles told me how in the decades between my visits small farmers had drowned their hillside handkerchiefs of land in pesticide, wanting to ensure they had enough healthy produce to load onto the banana boat which sat waiting every week in Kingstown harbour.
From my parents’ veranda I watched the passers-by in the narrow road below carrying their heavy loads of provisions to be transported from village to town and from town to village. Seeing how they managed their burden I remembered playground teasing and realised that I had travelled a long way to find out that my body was exactly as it should be for the place it had come from.
My head, my beanhead as it was known at school,
Is the perfect shape for carrying baskets
(although my strength isn’t up to much).
Eyes straight ahead,
On the flat or the hill.
I wielded a cutlass today,
Low, flat and close to the ground
Ripping the heart and the feet out of those deep roots.
And watched a card game tonight
As exciting as Match of The Day.
Cards driven into Formica,
With exultation and scorn.
Tonight Ralph, Badders Hulk and I (Monty)
Remembered games of cricket in Massey
With coconut bats for young boys of ten.
This is my home and they told me so.
I revisited my grandmother’s crumbling wooden house up in Dickson, Soufriere mountain towering above. The house where, as a child, I had slept under her bed after reading myself into tiredness by the light of an oil wick lantern. We climbed the volcano, my Uncle Fitzroy and Handyman as guides, starting in hot, thick, dense rainforest where leaves were as big as rafts. By the time we reached the summit our heads were in the clouds, surrounded by mists that hid sea and island below. The fog stopped us seeing across to the other side of the magnificent crater which was terraced around its inner curve; in the middle a huge plug of rock still smoked, the former lake and courageous rowers long ago evaporated into legend. The volcano had been dormant since ’79 but still now I grin at the story of Aunty Jane and her crazy screaming sprint down the road yards ahead of her astonished fellow villagers, because of whispered rumour of eruption to come.
On my last night there was a power cut and I needed my Uncle Edson to come round and unlock the cupboard which held the candles – Olympian premium non-drip. I wondered if that meant they would light my way forever. I could not see the sea now but I heard the hum of the wind; rising, picking up, and fading away, carrying with it the sounds of a distant party. We talked about house pipes and cruise ships and travelling and then he was gone, leaving me my last night to get ready to fly back to London. I already knew that the opportunity to go back to the Southern Hemisphere was waiting for me. I was on the way back to the other places that felt like home knowing now that I could have more than one. I had worried that my travels would make me just another peddler with a pile of photographs and a bag of undeveloped rolls of film. But now I felt happy and proud to be an itinerant from England with New Zealand in my heart and Saint Vincent in my bones. National Radio was on for the final time and the reggae and exhortations of the Banana Rally bounced around my parents’ house: “Forward ever, backward never!”
A Beautiful Day Out
Biabou on a clear wet morning
Greets Monty and K, Monty still yawning.
Judy and Fitzroy, amaze that we up
For our journey to Kingstown in the back of a truck.
“The boat done gwan!” moan the people for Mustique,
“When we gwan get on” the Bequia crowd bleat.
We mek tru de channel and Judy ain’t sick
Tho de face dat she pull ah like she swallow lipstick.
We lan pon de wharf and head up de hill,
Ann ah curse everybody – de water too still.
Hulk and Anthony try to chat up all de gal
And we pass by a blockout, all dancing and smiles.
We check pon de airport; we have to take photo
’Fore spending the afternoon pon
Strong rum and pejo.
Cards slap on de table and rattle de glass.
We come pon a rasta who try overcharge
Till we tell him we know price inna this yard.
We nah get de mango but we have a good laugh.
It time to reverse now and gwan home sleepy and proud,
And dis time de porpoises come roun’ and sing by de bow.
It was 22 years before I could bring myself to listen to the tape of the radio show I had tuned into after I returned to New Zealand from the Caribbean. I received the cassette because I complained about the racism of the presenter to the Broadcasting Standards Authority and eventually my complaint was upheld. But that process took months and the first thing I did was challenge the presenter directly in the same hour that he had spread his spite. All I can remember of what I said was trying to get across the hurt and pain caused by his words: what it did to me and what it would do to all the people who shared my origins to have our dignity and humanity taken away by being compared to monkeys. I don’t know if he listened to me and I don’t think I said it very eloquently but somehow I got it out.
A few weeks later I went food shopping in Pak’nSave and an old lady stopped me in the aisle, using her slight frame to block the passage of my trolley.
“And where are you from?” she enquired peering up at me.
I paused, wondering how to answer. I knew that she wanted me to name somewhere tropical in line with the darkness of my skin. It was an often-received question which always had the potential to provoke me into unhelpfulness and obstinacy. I thought a while and then went for accuracy. “I was born in London.”
“Ahh how wonderful,” she said, hearing but not listening to me. “You speak English even better than the rest of us.” I laughed out loud, and, smiling widely and comfortably, moved on.