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Starting Off

My Blog is meant to accomplish a number of things:

  1. My Writing: Over several decades I have documented my life in Journals on an ongoing basis, written a number of short stories, completed a novel JUNTA and am about to put closure on another: RACING WITH THE RAIN. The pleasure that I gain from writing is immeasurable. It will also feature my own perspective on the art of writing and how I manage to accomplish what I do.
  2. People: Our world is filled with interesting people and as they say, truth is stranger than fiction. I have met a substantial number of people in my lifetime, many of them fascinating characters worth chronicling in this Blog. Of course, names have been changed to protect the innocent.
  3. Places: I have visited many places in many countries and many of those places have held a fascination for me. They will feature in this Blog.
  4. Perspectives: everyone has a point of view and I have a few. So, you can say that I have something to say about quite a number of subjects. My Blog will provide an outlet for this, mostly about what I think needs fixing in this world of ours.
Hope you find this worth your time connecting…

Judith Gelberger -Author

 

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Judith Kopacsi Gelberger was born in February 1946, in Miskolc, Hungary, an industrial town located in the hilly North-East of the country. The family moved to Budapest in 1949 when her father, a police officer, was relocated to the country’s capital. For the first ten years of her life she was surrounded by people her parents and grandparents fought with in the anti-Nazi underground before and during World War II. She grew up on those stories, and it made her very proud to be a child of heroes. In 1952 her father became the Police Chief of Budapest, and she enjoyed all the privileges that came with his title. All this changed suddenly when on October 23rd, 1956 the university students took to the streets, supposedly to sympathize with the Polish workers. The peaceful demonstration soon turned into a bloody one. By then her father, totally disillusioned by the Soviet regime, sided with the revolution, and became one of its military leaders. The Soviet army crushed the revolution, and her father was arrested. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in a secret trial in 1958. His fate affected Judith drastically. Even getting a high school education proved to be a challenge. In 1965 she had a chance to leave Hungary and she came to Canada. It took her another ten years to get her parents to Canada. Judith is married and has had two wonderful children. Unfortunately their son, Leslie was killed in a boating accident in April 2017, leaving a wife and two small boys behind.



 

Judith, thanks for taking the time to do this interview for the followers of my Blog. I’d like to talk about your writing, especially your book Heroes Don’t Cry, released 2009.

Q. When did the idea of writing this book first come to you?

A. I got the idea after my father finished his autobiography in 1978, telling the world about the secret trial in 1958 in which he was one of the subjects. I realised that until now, none of the children of those directly involved ever shared their experiences, and I believed it was important to finally open the doors to those neglected voices.

Q. How long did it take for you to complete the book?

A. After many trials and errors I first wrote it in Hungarian. That version was published in Hungary in 1992. The English version is a much more detailed one and it took almost thirty years to complete.

Q. Was the most difficult part of writing this book?

A. It was like an operation, I had to dig deep into my heart and memories, knowing I must paint a true picture of those times to an audience who most likely knew nothing about it.

Q. Considering the political implications, did you ever consider writing this book under a pseudonym, if so, why, if not, why not?

A. The English version started out as fiction under a pseudonym. When a friend of mine asked me for an explanation, I admitted, writing under my own name and the non-fiction was still too close and frightening, causing me vivid nightmares. But somehow the fictional version didn’t happen. It was like an invisible hand stopped my writing it.

Q. Was the writing of Heroes Don’t Cry cathartic in any way for you? If so, please share it with us.

A. When I finally gathered enough courage to put the story down on paper I felt such a strong sense of relief as if I had dropped at least fifty pounds off my soul. It was as if I finally managed to separate myself from the past. It gave me a chance to look into the future. I didn’t even realise how the untold past dragged me down till then.

Q. What brought you to write this book?

A. For many years I was forced to keep many secrets. A wrongly worded phrase could have harmed my father and family. When my paternal grandfather died a day before my father’s release from prison in the early spring of 1963, I was standing by his coffin and I was so very angry that I could have killed somebody there and then.

Following my father’s release none of my dreams and expectation came to be, the nightmares continued, the family was still ostracized, and I was still just another silent soul expected to play a very small supporting role. I was supposed to pretend and preserve a sense of normalcy for my parents’ sake by putting on a cheerful face while I was bleeding inside. I couldn’t even blame them for our situation as I knew they could do nothing to change the circumstances. So, the book was my triumph to shake off my shackles of forced silence and announce to the world that I too existed, with the hope that announcing my silent suffering would be understood and maybe appreciated. I tried to give a voice to the child.

Q. What kind of research did you do for this book and how much time did it take? What were your sources?

A. As the book covers a large part of twentieth century Hungarian history that my family endured I had to dig into the past. As both of my grandfathers met during the 1919 commune, fighting against the invading ANTANT army, I had to find the relevant documentation.

The same thing happened when I described events during World War II, and my parents and grandparents role in it. I had to rely on historical documentation, books, articles etc. In addition I was lucky to have my father’s detailed notes about the underground movement. They were part of in the town of Miskolc, a truly unique organization of no more than five hundred people but they were so well organized that the German army believed them to be more that 10 thousand people, and as a result gave up the town to the Russian forces. I was also lucky to remember many large gatherings in our home by close friends and relatives, recalling those times.

Q. Your earliest memory, as written in your book, appears to be at the age of four, when you looked into the mirror and saw your reflection that did not seem to correspond with your own impression of what you should be. Can you explain what you mean by that?

A. From the earliest of times I totally identified with my father. First of all we connected in a spiritual level, and secondly I grew up on stories about his childhood and youth, told to me by my paternal grandmother. So, looking into the mirror as a four year old cute little girl didn’t come close to the image of the brave partisan I pictured myself being.

Q. In 1956, you started a diary. Have you kept a diary over the years since then? Did it form the basis for a lot of the research for the book?

A. The diary was mostly good for recording feelings, and some of the happenings. Not all of it, as I had to be sure that it would not fall into wrong hands and cause any grief for the family. Quite a lot of times I had to rely on my memories. Much later I managed to get many thousands of pages from the archive of the Hungarian Secret Service, who had been busy gathering information about the family. This reaffirmed my recollections of those times. I’m grateful to them for documenting our lives so closely, not to mention knowing how many people were employed with the task for so many decades.

Q. When you were ten, during the October revolution, you took all the books on Communism—works by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and placed them in the basement of your house, afraid of a fascist revolution that would place your parents in jeopardy if it were discovered that they had these books in their library. What eventually happened to those books? Were they replaced in the library later or disposed of?

A. The books that I managed to hide on the day of the revolution eventually found their way back to the shelves, but not for too long, as we were afraid that part of my father’s sentencing would involve the confiscation of our belongings, including the books. We had a rather large library, so my grandfather came by regularly, packed the books into his backpack and took them home in the outskirts of Budapest. Come to think of it, I can’t exactly remember whether Stalin ever found his way back to our shelves or not. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had been abolished from there forever.

Q. Your father was an MP in 1953, his nomination confirmed by the Communist party. He was a follower of Imre Nagy who was ousted by Rákosi in 1955. You said it opened your father’s eyes to some of the injustices of the regime. Did you father move away from Communism because of this and his subsequent imprisonment?

A. Definitely. He became a strong critic of Rákosi and after the 1968 Czechoslovak invasion he realized that the Soviet Union would never allow a Socialist system with a human face. It will always be a ruthless dictatorship, and he wanted no part in it.

Q. The theme of Heroes Don’t Cry resonates through the book. After being denied a visit to your father in prison, your grandfather tells you “We Kopacsis are heroes and heroes don’t cry.” Then at the age of four, you witnessed a little girl who falls and almost ruins her dress while chasing after a kitten. She erupted in tears. Her parents scolded her and her mother spanked her. You thought that her father should have consoled her and told her: “heroes don’t cry.” Was the idea of strength and resolve important to you even at such an early age, and where did it stem from?

A. As I mentioned, I grew up on stories of my parents and grandparents heroism during WW II, and that I totally identified myself with my father. Even as a four year old, when my father took me to the doctor he kept telling me, “Be a brave girl, partisans don’t cry.” Well, later on, the partisan was replaced by a Kopácsi, and it indeed gave me strength to face the difficult times.

Q. On March 5th, 1953, Stalin died. You wrote that you were crushed, and your father was deeply mourning the Great Leader. Your father even swore that he would never celebrate his birthday again since it fell on the same date that Stalin died. Stalin’s reign of terror was obviously not known at that time in the Communist world. When did you and your father become aware of the excesses during Stalin’s regime and what impact did it have on both of you?

A. In February 1956 during the twentieth Communist party conference Khrushchev himself unveiled Stalin for the monster he was. Although it was supposed to be a secret meeting, within a few days the whole world became aware of it. It was dramatic information and it shook the people’s faith believing in the Soviet Union and the communist party. And of course some of the people coming back from the gulag, or released from prisons, began talking about their experiences as well.

Q. What did you edit out of your current book Heroes Don’t Cry? Why?

A. If anything I was afraid I put too much in to it and some people might feel overwhelmed by it.

Q. The dialogue in the book is quite relevant and expressive of the events depicted. To what extent did this come from notes and diaries? Was some of it from memory? To what extent was it fashioned to suit the occasion?

A. As far as I can remember the dialogue came mostly from memories, but some came from directly from my father’s notes, and the many hours long audio tapes that formed the basis of his book as well. And as I mentioned earlier, many years later I was reassured about my good recollection, when I read the reports from the Secret Service archive. For instance there was a whole year worth of recording of our telephone conversations.

Q. Did you hide any secrets from the book that only a few people would know of?

A. If I did, it was not intentional. It was very important for me to put everything down on paper. It was in a way a form of purging.

Q. When you were travelling to Canada, your father selected a book for you—Colas Breugnon by Roman Rolland. It’s a story set in Burgundy three centuries ago, about a man who reviews his lusty life of fifty years with all its joys and sorrows. Your father said: “Having this book will help you to face just about anything with the right spirit.” Did this book in any way represent your father’s life and his philosophy, and did it help you, as he thought it would? If so, how?

A. This book had been and even now is a great comfort for me. It mirrors my father’s philosophy to face the world with good humour, and pick up the pieces after the walls crumble around you. I’m lucky to have a life partner who shares this idea with me. As you know, we recently lost our son to an accident. Before this I had no idea how a parent can survive such a tragedy. This book helped me again, and I could still hear my father’s voice in my head, saying. “Child, keep your chin up, while you can.” It is as if he were still reaching out to me, holding my hands and leading me forward.

Q. The Soviets hailed your father as a traitor—one of the leaders of the counter-revolution against a socialist state. The Western world and exiled Hungarians labelled him as the former Police Chief responsible for atrocities that a large segment of the Hungarian population suffered through. But, the book points out, painfully at times, that your father was one of the architects of the resistance to the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Has this ever been accepted by the exiles?

A. Some did, some not. He is still a controversial “hero”, who never fit the mold. Interesting enough, while the current Hungarian Government refuses to even mention him, the Minister of Interior and the Hungarian Police Force considers him to be their hero and each year place a reed on the wall of the memorial placket placed on the wall of the Police Headquarters, in Budpaest.

Q. With your father in prison, your family decided that if he were not released by April 4th, 1962, you would all commit suicide, in order to bring international pressure on the regime. Obviously, it didn’t happen. Was it really something that was seriously considered? And what caused the change of mind?

A. It wasn’t the first time that the idea of a communal suicide was entertained by my mother and then the whole family. After my mother’s release from prison on Dec.3, 1956, when she was told by the Russian officer to prepare ourselves for the fact that he will see my father hang from the tallest tree of Budapest, my mother informed Kádár, that in that case we will publicly commit suicide. By 1962 the idea resurfaced, and my mother was very convincing, when we shared our plans with everyone about the upcoming event. But when she was reassured at a high level that within the next year my father would be released in a general amnesty, and furthermore, when she was informed by “other sources” that my father’s name was on the list of political prisoners that the UN demanded to be freed, she graciously promised to postpone the act till further notice. However, this promise influenced my life to such a degree, that when we heard about my father’s death, later, I fainted and for a couple of hours my family was not sure how many people will be buried, one or three.

Q. In 1989, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, your father returned to Hungary. What were his impressions of the country? How was he received by the government of the day?

A. My father was much more optimistic about the possibility of creating a true democracy in Hungary after the fall of communism, than I. He returned after the new government invited him back, and made sure he was compensated both financially and morally for the past decades. He got his status and became the highest ranking officer in the Hungarian Police Force. At that time both the Prime Minister Josephy Antal, and the president, Árpád Göncz had been my father’s prison buddies as well, so it pretty much guaranteed that he was welcomed with open arms.

Q. Being on a visitor’s visa to Canada in 1965, working part time under the table so to speak, yearning for Bela, the love of you life back in Hungary, you must have faced the same emotions every illegal in Canada feels. Has this influenced your approach to asylum seekers today? If so, how?

A. The problem was that I wasn’t really aware of my status in Canada, and my relatives used my ignorance to keep me under their thumb. In reality, even though I was here on a visitors, non-renewable visa, a close friend, whose boss had close connection with the Immigration Department, arranged for my visa to be extended and even got me a working permit, and a part time job, and ensured that I could attend ESL classes as well. But none the less, I experienced first-hand what it means to live in limbo, to be a puppet in the hands of ruthless manipulators. So, yes, I do have very strong feelings about recent asylum seekers, who come here, with the hope to escape war, torture and find acceptance and a peaceful future for their loved ones.

Q. You led a ferocious fight, both here in Canada and Hungary, even internationally, to gain exit for your parents from Hungary and visas to come to Canada. What would you have done if you hadn’t succeeded?

A. I mentioned earlier, about the promise I made as a ten year old, that in case my father is executed the whole family will commit suicide. It was done voluntary from my part, as by then I had an experience to spend close to a month with strangers, thus I knew what it felt to be an orphan. Our good neighbour and my father’s close friend, Josepf Szilágyi, took me with them on November 5th to the Yugoslav Embassy with the rest of the Imre Nagy Government, who thought they found a safe haven there. But this promise went very deep in my soul. I became convinced that if anything happened to my family I would be effected. So as far as I was concerned, fighting for my parents’ freedom was equal to fighting for my own life as well. Quite frankly, many people around me were concerned about my fate, in case I didn’t succeed.

Q. What are your impressions of Hungary today? Do you think there might be a return to the old days or will democracy finally take hold?

A. I’m not happy with the current situation in Hungary. Sure it has free elections, many political parties, and “free press”. But the current leadership is openly advocating the return of the ideals of the pre-World War, a semi feudalist/capitalist regime, open anti-semitism, and hatred of foreigners as well. Both the political, and the emotional atmosphere is responsible for the very large portion of Hungarian elites, mostly young professionals leaving the country, trying their luck on the other European countries. My opinion: it is difficult to build a democracy in a country that never had a real taste of it, yet.

Q. What’s your next project / What are you working on now?

A. I have many projects lining up. Currently I’m in the midst of translating to English a book written by a close friend, Robert Schulz, a former Canadian Movie producer, who was one of the biggest Canadian Advertising Agency during the last part of the twentieth century.

After that I would like to complete two semi-autobiographical novels. In addition I still have one unfinished crime novel placed in Toronto. Then, if I have the energy and the courage, I would like to finish my book about my experiences in the Canadian Refuge Board, where I served for two years between 1988-1990. The working title, SEND THE BASTARD HOME is probably very revealing what the book is all about.

If you were to pass on one particular piece of advice to an upcoming writer of biographies, what would it be?

A. Be honest, and don’t be afraid to reveal the inner you. People, who are writing autobiographies are mostly driven by trying to send out a message, and for that you need to find your voice and paint a picture that will ring a bell with the audience.

What is your preferred method to have readers get in touch with or follow you (i.e., website, personal blog, Facebook page, Goodreads, etc.) and link(s)?

A. Followers could find me on my

Facebook page: under the name of Judith Kopácsi Gelberger

e-mail:

Judith.kopacsi@gmail.com

  

Judith, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Here’s wishing you all the best in your future writing and other endeavours.

The link to Heroes Don’t Cry

Permalink: http://a.co/4k2MToq

 

Story Of The Month

NOTE: “The Story Of The Month” changes every month and might also have been featured in my collection DOWN INDEPENDENCE BOULEVARD published by MiddleRoad Publishers in 2017 and available on Amazon.

Down Independence Boulevard: and other stories
by Ken Puddicombe
Link: http://a.co/4Fy5oBg

 

2017

December -The Touch Of Peace

″The Touch Of Peace”

Edith stepped into the corridor as Freddie followed her and closed the door behind him. She heard the squeak in the door of the apartment opposite, turned around and saw the door ajar. Just a slight opening—narrow enough to maintain a semblance of secrecy, wide enough that she could see the two eyes peering, staring, observing them.

She’d seen those eyes several times before, when she and Freddie were either arriving home or leaving their apartment. It was as if the person had a sixth sense about their comings and goings and was keeping them under constant surveillance, a scrutiny, strange enough, she’d never found unnerving.

The eyes were attached to a small head, about three feet off the floor. Deep, wide, brown eyes glowing in a dark apartment, like an owl waiting to start its nocturnal circuit. She’d nodded the first time she’d seen them, smiled the second, said hello the third. There had been no response. There was none now, as she did all three: nodded, smiled, and said, “Hello there, what’s your name?”

Eyelashes flickering rapidly, the eyes withdrew quickly into the apartment and the door closed— a swift fluid movement, as if the person had been caught doing something that was haram.

Haram: Edith had come across the word by chance one day as she was doing research on the Middle East, her curiosity piqued by the arrival of her new neighbours across the hall two months prior. Others had swiftly followed and before long, several of the apartments in the building were occupied.

Haram: Forbidden, and her exploration had found there was so much forbidden in Middle East culture. Ranging from food and drink—pork and any alcoholic beverage. Clothing—failing to cover the body properly, or transparency that made body parts visible in women. Mores of behavior—Adultery and sexual relations between two unmarried individuals; a crime punished with a harsh sentence. It made her wonder: was there something haram in her attempt to make contact with the little girl?

“Don’t know why you even bother, Edith,” Freddie said. “Why they came here in the first place, I will never know. They should have stayed in their part of the world!”

The apartment complex was filled with them. Over the last few months leading up to December­ the activity had never ceased—a virtual invasion is what Freddie had said. Edith followed the story in the news: bombings in Baghdad, sectarian violence following the withdrawal of the American forces, an unchecked flow of refugees through the porous borders of the Middle East. Canada had granted asylum to hundreds of the displaced. Freddie had the impression, though, that they were all located in his building. A radical transformation of everything to which they were accustomed, was the way he described it—the reason for his deep reservation. The skeptic in him said the change in their lifestyle was sure to happen sooner rather than later.

Some of them had been interpreters for the armed forces. It must mean they had a fair command of English, Edith realized. And yet, she’d been unable to engage any of them in conversation during the time they’d started taking up residence in the complex. They moved through the corridors, the men in white, like ghostly apparitions darting along, the women in their black abaaya, noticeable but hardly showing any sign of being accessible. One day she’d told this to Freddie and he’d shrugged, in his inimitable, indifferent way and said he’d be happy if they weren’t there in the first place.

Freddie said, “It’s a bloody waste of time. You’ll never get a response from any of them. I doubt if they even speak English.”

“Oh, I don’t know Freddie, there must be a way of getting through to her. I think she badly wants to connect with someone. She looks so young and sweet. Can’t imagine she’s more than ten, if that.”

“Don’t be deceived by her looks. She could be a lot older than you think. For all we know she might even be married. They do that at a very young age, you know. Might even be part of a concubine.”

Edith saw them all over the property: in the laundry room fiddling around with washers and dryers; in the lobby as they read their foreign newspapers; in the underground parking where they tinkered with cars. Sometimes she didn’t have to see them to know they were there—she heard the Arabic music with the distinct instrumentation of the Oud, the Santur and the Joza, as it streamed through keyholes or crept through the bottom of a door, or she smelled the unmistakable odour of the Middle East cuisine: the kebabs, the fried Falafel and the spiced Tabbouleh.

“If Canada had to take in refugees, why couldn’t they be from English speaking countries,” Freddie said. “And why couldn’t they at least know what it means to be a Christian. After all, this is a Christian country. The last time I checked, anyhow.”

“It’s a changing world, Freddie, and we have to change along with it,” she said. She wanted to add: Or be left behind, but restrained herself.

They were heading for the shopping mall to stock up on groceries for Christmas dinner. She was bracing for the complaints she would have to endure when they were there. About how Freddie was sick and tired of encountering all of those statistical men who always waited for the last moment to do their Christmas shopping, when his had been bought months ago and was lying wrapped under the tree in the living room. And how the stores seemed to be clogged with a preponderance of foreigners who had no idea what the spirit of Christmas was all about. His firm belief was that they were only there for the bargains.

They came back from shopping. Freddie was sitting in his rocking chair, reading the newspaper. Edith was in the kitchen, when she heard the knock on the door.

“Who the hell could it be at this time of day,” Freddie said, as he folded his newspaper and dropped it on the sofa. The time when people visited on Christmas season was long past. Their older daughter was in far-off Australia where she’d emigrated with her husband and two kids. They hadn’t been seen in over three years. The younger daughter, still unmarried, was doing a stint as a volunteer worker in Guyana. Then, there were friends either deceased or long moved to cottage country or south to warmer climes. Freddie had said: And just where the hell is Guyana, anyhow, that she had to go all the way there? Edith had looked it up in the Atlas and found it: a former British colony, sandwiched between huge Venezuela and gigantic Brazil. And who lived there—probably just another bunch of heathens looking to come to Canada as refugees. I hope she doesn’t bring one back with her!

Freddie opened the door. From the kitchen where she was preparing the turkey for the oven, Edith saw the girl with the brown eyes. She had a thin, blue headdress over her head, thin enough that her light brown hair stood out. The headdress was pulled down to her forehead, all the way to her brows. But there was no escaping the eyes: they peered curiously into the apartment. Was she looking for Edith? Two large, sleeveless hairy hands were resting on her shoulders. Edith had only gotten brief glimpses of the man in the building. He worked shift at the hospital as an attendant and was also holding down a part-time job at the local carwash. The rumour also said he had practiced medicine back in Iraq. The mother was rarely outside, and when she was, she moved with her head down, floating along in her abaaya as it grazed the rug in the hall. She never paused, not even to say hello.

“Yes, what do you want?” Freddie said.

“If I am permitted, I would like to introduce myself. My name is Isaah Al Qurain, son of Omar Al Qurain. I am recently from Basra in the south of Iraq. This is my daughter Sara.”

“And?” Freddie said.

Edith didn’t like the way the conversation was heading. Freddie’s tone was unmistakably hostile, and it seemed that it would take very little for the interaction to go downhill, even though there had been no change in Issah’s calm disposition. She hurried over to the door.

“Hello,” Edith said. “How nice to finally meet you. I’m Edith and this is my husband Freddie.”

Edith looked at Sara. She saw the features she’d grown accustomed to through the opening in the door: large eyes peering from out of deep wells and light brown hair flowing like a curtain at the back of her head. The little girl held something in her hands. It had a hand-towel draped over it.

Isaah removed the towel. It had been covering an ovenware dish. With his left hand he removed the lid and steam spiraled upwards. The aroma of a freshly baked dish filled the air.

“This is Baba Ganouj,” Isaah said. “It is one of our, how do you say it, national dish? Sara make it all by herself, for you and you. She wanted to make something for you for this special time.”

Freddie seemed dumfounded. After all his denunciations that the Arabs never communicate or connect on a social level with white folk who have been living for years and years in the building, he was speechless.

“Oh, that’s lovely,” Edith said. “And she made it all by herself?”

“Yes. From scratching. Is that how you say it?”

Edith nodded. “She must be a very talented young lady.”

Isaah nodded. “She can also sing and play the piano.” Then, he turned to Freddie. “I am sorry to be of a nuisance to you, sir, but I am wondering, that is,” the man tapped the girl on her shoulder, “my daughter was wondering, if you and your wife would like to join us in the courtyard for celebrations tonight.”

Freddie sputtered. “And what kind of celebrations might that be, that you would be having them in the courtyard, and at night?”

“It’s the feast of I du I-Milad.”

“Now, just what is Doo Milad? And what makes you think we would be interested in attending this… feast?”

Edith interrupted. “We would love to come.”

Freddie scoffed, shrugged, returned to his rocking chair, picked up his newspaper and buried his head behind it.

Isaah smiled. He had a thick, black moustache and when his lips parted, they revealed a chiseled set of glimmering white ivory that would have been the envy of Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia.

“So, it start seven. We have snacks and a fire to keep us warm. Looking for you out, then.” He turned to go, his daughter trailing behind. She looked back once and smiled. Edith waved at her just as she closed the door.

“What did they bring us?” Freddie said. “One of their pagan meat dishes no doubt. It has to be lamb—that’s all they ever seem to eat. I can tell from the smell every time I pass their apartment. If it’s lamb, I want no part of it.”

“Baba Ganouj is a vegetarian dish, Freddie. It’s called Babaganoush in the west.” She brought the container over to him and waved it in front of his face. He recoiled in the rocking chair and held his breath. “It’s made of eggplant, olive oil, garlic and lemon juice.” She took another sniff. “From the smell of it, they probably added Tahini. I’ve always wanted to make this.”

“Huh,” Freddie said. “What the heck’s Taheenie?”

“It’s a paste made of sesame seeds.” She waved the dish in front of his face again. “Don’t you think it’s wonderful that little Sara would take the time to make it for us? We can have this instead of a salad.”

He came forward in the rocking chair, slowly at first, as if he thought there might be something lurking in the dish, something that would spring out and bite him. Then, he sniffed the aroma, hesitantly at first, finally taking it in with a deep breath. “Why did you agree to go to their festival? It sounds like another pagan rite. And of all nights, Christmas Eve, we’re going to have to be there? I don’t like it at all.”

“Oh Freddie, stop complaining. It was nice of them to think of us and extend an invitation. You’ve done nothing but moan and groan about how detached they are. Here’s your chance to know more about them. Who knows, you might learn something from the experience.”

“What can I learn from a bunch of Arabs hanging around a bonfire in a parking lot? It’s not as if they’ll be roasting marshmallow or something traditional like that, or drinking warm cider. Would be nice if they spiked it, too, but they don’t drink alcohol, do they?”

“No, they don’t drink alcohol. It’s part of their religion, Freddie.”

“And just what is this Doo Milad thing he’s inviting us to take part in?”

I du I-Milad is the Day of the Birth of Christ, Freddie.”

“Oh? Jesus Christ? Are you sure?”

“Yes, I am. They’re Christians, just like you and me. They just celebrate Christmas in their own way, like so many other Christians all over the world.”

‘Well, I’ll be darned.”

“Christians are called Assyrians in Iraq, Freddie. And even though they’re a minority and the country is majority Muslim, Christmas is supposed to be a national holiday.”

“What’s it all got to do with lighting a bonfire in the parking lot? They can burn the whole place down!”

“The bonfire is part of their tradition. A child, probably the little girl, Sara, will read the story of the nativity from the Arabic Bible. One of their bishops will bless the congregation. He will then touch someone. That person will touch the next person, he will touch the next, and so on. It’s called: The Touch Of Peace. It would be nice if you can be one of the people touched, Freddie.”

END

 

My Best Shots (Work in Progress)

Some selections from the several thousand photographs taken over the years in my travels:

NOTE: ALL PHOTOGRAPSH ARE COPYRIGHT © KEN PUDDICOMBE. PERMISSION IN WRITING MUST BE OBTAINED BEFORE USE.

Racing With The Rain

CAN AN INDIVIDUAL MAKE A DIFFERENCE WHEN POWERFUL FORCES ARE ALIGNED AGAINST DEMOCRACY? CAN SOMEONE AVOID THE STIGMA OF HIS HERITAGE?

These questions are essential to the theme of Ken Puddicombe’s new novel JUNTA.

Expatriate Marcus Jacobson wants to make a difference on newly independent Saint Anglia where he is taking up a professorship but there are forces that will test his expectation. The military, under General Marks stages a coup, and Hurricane David is heading for the island.

Marcus also has skeletons in his closet. He’s descended from the Planter Class that once owned slaves on the island. He’s torn—does he have the right to get involved in the politics of the island or should he be a bystander?

The people Marcus encounters will determine his attitude to the Junta. These people include: Melanie, a student who thinks force should be used to restore democracy; Father Bert, a priest who believes in Liberation Theology; Clarence Baptiste, editor of the local newspaper who will use the media to oppose; The Reverend who runs a dirty tricks campaign for the Junta; Kentish, an islander who is a pacifist by nature and believes that events should run their course. Marcus finds himself being inexorably drawn towards Melanie and when she takes matters into her own hands, the decision is made. But, the Junta is determined to hold on to power at all cost.

Chilean Fjords 25 November 2009

 

Leaving the small town of Chacabuco in Southern Chile, we travelled the Chilean Fjords, navigating through a myriad of small islands, most of them sparsely inhabited, all part of the remote Magallanes. Islands had names like Desolacion (Desolation) and Ultima Esperanza (last Hope) that surely reflected the way the earliest settlers, many of them European, must have felt. Narrow channels bracketed by towering mountains partly explained the calm waters and isolated outposts. Maritime traffic consisted mainly of small craft like the one in the picture and with the mountains in the background, it was an opportunity for a snapshot that only partly succeeds in capturing the breathtaking and awe-inspiring scenery always evident in the Chilean Fjords.

POSTSCRIPT: This picture was published in the Toronto Star Travel section, “Where In The World” on 23rd October, 2010. 

Enrico Downer -Author

Rico Downer headshot

 

Enrico Downer was born in Barbados. In humble beginnings as his stories will attest. He attended multiple institutions of learning that began with elementary and secondary schooling on the island and continued to the University of Rio Piedras, P.R. and Ponce Technical as a recipient of a scholarship from the International Cooperation Administration (ICA) of the United States.

Rico immigrated to America in 1961 and did some courses at UWI (Univ of Wisconsin). He subsequently joined Value Line, an investment publishing firm in NYC and later was appointed International Correspondent with Airco International in NYC and Madison, Wisconsin.
From early, as an English major, he set about to explore the mystery and magic of literary expression, dabbling originally in poetry and later finding his niche in novels and short stories always steeped in historical fiction and drawn from his upbringing in a colonial society as well as from experiences living in New York, Wisconsin, Puerto Rico and from travels throughout the Far East.



Rico, thanks for taking the time to do this interview for my readers. In addition to your writing, I’d also like to focus on your book There once was a Little England, released in 2012.

Q. The title of your book, There Once was a Little England, is evocative of many things, including an island aspiring, once, to be like its colonial mother country, England. How did you arrive at the title?

A. Barbados has been known as Little England for reasons that could be linked to its topographical features but more significantly to the island’s strict adherence to British traditions. There is also the fact that Barbados, in contrast to other Caribbean islands, was never conquered and occupied by any other nation beside England.

Q. the word “once” in the title mean that Barbados is no longer aspiring to be a Little England?

A. I don’t think it was ever a case of Barbadians consciously aspiring to be a Little England. As a colonial possession of England, British traditions, ethos and cultural names and holidays, etc. were deliberated imbedded in the Barbadian psyche from early schooling. As I mentioned before, the island was never under the thumb of any other power but the English. Independence came along in 1966 and put a damper on those feelings of allegiance. Moreover, as I wrote in The Lure of America: In the faded light of Great Britain’s glory the children of colonialism have fallen in love with a younger and prettier face: America.

Q. Over two hundred thousand tourists from the UK, the largest segment of Barbados tourism industry, visit the island every year. Do you think this reflects a yearning for the old days by the British, and perhaps the reason for it is the acceptance of such a connection by Barbadians themselves?

A. No, I don’t believe it reflects a yearning on the part of the British for the old days but more of an affinity for customs, sights and settings that are familiar to the English. You would be hard pressed in Barbados to find a street or a parish or a building that doesn’t have a historical English name. And then add to that English familiarity the tourists’ taste of a tropical paradise.

On the part of Barbadians there is no particular preference for tourists from one country or another.

Q. In the novel, the character Ben Carson, who works for the Englishman Thorne as his stable hand, can’t bring himself to believe his master capable of shooting David Prince. Does this reflect the conflict in Barbadian colonial society on the whole, that Barbadians found it difficult to accept their white overlords as being capable of such a crime? Was this a sort of brainwashing, in some respects? Or was it a kind of awe and reverence for the white man, as was prevalent in many colonial societies?

A. In the case of Ben Carson it was a profound sense of gratitude that clouded his reasoning. As the stable hand for his master’s beloved horses, he was favoured by Thorne and afforded possessions and conveniences not available to other servants. Thorne rewarded him with living quarters equipped with electricity and running water on the Thorne estate. This indebtedness to his master is expressed in the following: How could Thorne be capable of committing such an act against a boy one-seventh of Ben’s age. He could not bring himself to believe that the Englishman had killed the boy.

But to address your question in a broader context, British colonialism in the early 20th century tended to be less brutal than other hegemonies, often seeing to it that her institutions were passed along to her subjects in the way of education, law and a parliamentary system that endure up to this day. In fact it is arguable that such benefits contributed to the undoing of British colonialism.

Q. Social Clubs like the Barbados Water Club, the Strathclyde area, and many other institutions in Barbados, were exclusive to whites only. Is there any trace of this on the island today?

A. No, those barriers have been toppled. The only restrictions now lie in whether one can afford financially to join those institutions or live in those exclusive communities. In the book the Barbados Water Club is really The Aquatic Club which exists today and which, like many other associations, may require member sponsorship but the colour barrier is today a thing of the past.

Q. In Curly’s barber shop, Henderson Cruthers, one of the characters in the novel, commented on the benefits of English colonization: Education and Rule of Law among other things. Slim, one of the other customers says: “Is independence we want, Mr. Caruthers.” To which Caruthers replies: “Bajans not ready for independence…we need England to protect us from weselves.” What did Caruthers mean?

A. The barbershop scene was meant to illustrate the differences in perception of Independence versus Colonialist rule, the perception that prevailed between the elders and the younger folk. Henderson Caruthers was from the old school and was quite content with the status quo in light of the benefits like the steady hand of education and the rule of law. He feared that the younger folk, once the island became independent and once they became controllers of their own destiny might one day weaken those institutions with which old man Caruthers had been familiar all his life. In his words, We need England to protect us from weselves.

Q. Harold Prince, at one time in the novel, says: “Bajans don’t take to the streets…we are not agitators.” Was this symptomatic of the belief that the English brought good order, or rather that Barbadians were taught to obey the colonial masters?

A. Neither. Harold was acknowledging that there was never a seminal insurrection on the island since the riots of 1937. He was explaining the passivity of Barbadians to Mickey Norris, the newly arrived from America, who had experienced firsthand the rebellious nature of African Americans in the civil rights struggles of the 60s.

Harold explained the reason Bajans were no longer agitators. When the riot was over, my old lady got a three-shilling raise from the plantation after cutting canes from the time she was a teenager. Barbados was different from Jamaica, British Guiana and Haiti in that regard. Their rebellions had resulted in more meaningful reforms.

Q. In an early episode, village boys refer to the landlord, Thorne I assume, as a “bullah man” and spread rumours about him. “Bullah man” is obviously a reference to homosexuality, (“as if the seeds of homophobia were already ingrained in their fertile minds.”) Was this homophobia really ingrained in Barbadian society back then, and is it still extant?

A. There was a certain degree of homophobia then, as it is today, in every society. But in Barbados it was always a subject for buffoonery and derision rather than for collective hostility towards homosexuals. In any case the suspicion that one was homosexual was rooted in ignorance more than anything else. The boys who threw stones at Thorne’s guard wall were ignorant of the Englishman’s sexual preference but were nevertheless eager to brand him because they needed any reason to ridicule him.

Q. What would have caused this homophobic tendency? Did religion play a part?

A. The Anglican Church (The Church of England), which was the dominant religion of the day, did not set about to espouse homophobia or any other phobia that would be divisive in the society. The Church was more concerned with keeping its flock in check.

Q. In the post independence period, like many of the Caribbean islands, tourism gained ascendency over manufacturing and processing in Barbados. Cane fields and factories became less important. Yet, tourism has its own dependency on the “new colonial masters” of Europe and North America. When these regions have an economic downturn, so does the Caribbean. Have the islands actually transferred their economic and perhaps political dependency from England to these new overlords?

A. That dependency is not unique to Barbados. Whether an island’s economy is agricultural in nature or bolstered by manufacturing or dependent on tourism, the reality is that they are all dependent on foreign exchange from Europe, Canada and America and are negatively affected when there is a downturn in those foreign economies. Barbados’ sugar industry which was at one time a gold mine ran into stiff competition from countries like Brazil and other third world sugar-producing countries. Without a ready-set manufacturing base the island had no choice but to turn to a service industry; hence the tourist trade which was always vulnerable as we witnessed in the global recession of late.

Q. The colour advantage is referred to often in the novel, in reference to the white colonial masters attitude to Barbadians of black descent. I read about a travel writer’s observation about the West Indies on the whole, where colour is stratified even up to today. Where pure whites still have an advantage over light or fair blacks (of mixed descent), who have an edge over dark blacks. He seemed to indicate that discrimination based on colour was still rampant. What do you think? And what is it symptomatic of?

A. In Barbados, skin colour is no longer the kind of hard factor that divided the society into layers as it did in the period of the book. But class discrimination may still be rampant. Blacks may still look down their noses at less advantaged blacks and whites at less advantaged whites. I describe this in the book as “the curse of classism”.

Q. The antagonist, Englishman Thorne is placed on trial for murder and the jury consists of six whites, four half-whites and two blacks. He’s found not guilty, despite overwhelming evidence. I can see that the six whites and even the half-whites were swayed by colour. But why would the two blacks have agreed to the verdict?

A. Good question! In describing the trial of the Englishman Thorne, I alluded to the captivating impression that Barrister Cunningham had on the two blacks on the jury. I can best describe it in the following passage:

Times were different now; the fracture was now blurred by the rise into the middle class of educated Bajans like Barrister Cunningham, who could cross over to defend the other side, if for no other reason than to proclaim himself a child of the new order in a society in the process of healing itself. The jurors were impressed. The two blacks on the jury were in awe of their ascendant black brother.

 Q. Was the writing profession something that struck you as something you wanted to do at an early age? If so at what age?

A. Yes, I began by dabbling in poetry which impressed no one else but one elementary teacher who encouraged me to keep reading and writing. My first attempt to join the Public Library in Bridgetown was declined by a very austere Chief Librarian who said I was much too young. (I don’t remember my age at the time). I persisted; so she placed a book under my nose and challenged me to read a whole page. In the end she relented. My first books included the British Bigglesworth series. There were no books by local authors at the time on the shelves of the Public Library.

Q. Many writers are influence by a particular period in their life. Is this how it is with you? If so, what period?

A. I am more influenced by remarkable historic events before or during my lifetime. All my stories were triggered by actual occurrences although I may stray from a true recounting of the events.

Q. Are the names of your characters in the book based on real people in the history of Barbados, or totally fictional?

A. It is interesting that you should ask this question. With a few exceptions, the characters in the book represent real people. I fictionalized the ones I considered unsavoury; but in a few cases I revealed real names. A few examples were Harry, the owner of the famed Harry’s Nitery on Lower Bay Street; Cyrus the motorcyclist patrolman, who would arrest his own mother for crossing the colour line in Strathclyde; also Piggott who owned the rum shop across from Gittens’s church. Brother Gittens was a fictional character, not to be confused with a Brother Gittens, known to me as an upright and honourable citizen in Barbados.

With regard to places in the book, I patterned The Barbados Chronicle after The Barbados Advocate. Also, as I said before, The Water Club is The Aquatic Club of those years. And of course there was no need to rename the streets and places of business.

Q. What is it in your life experience and career so far that has influenced your novel(s) and writing?

A. I would have to say my encounter with people along the way who rose up and conquered their limitations and the hurdles that lay in their way.

Q. In working on this novel, what was the most difficult part of YOUR artistic process?

A. The book is set in the decade between 1956 and 1966. I had to make a concerted effort to adhere to customs, places, and events that pertained only to that period of time.

The greatest difficulty for me was to kill off certain characters dear to me as the one who brought them to life; the ones I was sure my readers would regret their premature demise.

If your question, then, is why? Their deaths were germane to the theme of the story.

Q. How does a writer know he’s successful?

A. A writer measures his/her success by the degree by which readers grasp the significance and depth of the story. The reason that readers’ reviews are so important.

Q. Have you ever found yourself suffering from a lack of creativity, where you might have, perhaps stalled on a work in progress? If so, how did you overcome it?

A. Of course; it is the bane of every writer. I overcome it by immersing myself into a steady diet of reading. I reach out to the works of my favourite authors, even the ones I have read and reread a million times before.

Q. Is writing cathartic in any way for you?

A. The process of writing a book for me is indeed cathartic; but finishing the book is not. I often agonize over how I could have made it better.

Q. At what age did you start to read? Write? Were you a precocious reader?

A. As I mentioned before, I was at an age (which I don’t remember at the moment) when I was denied a library card at first to join the Public Library. I was thought by the Librarian to be much too young to borrow books responsibly. Precocious? Well, that might have been the opinion of the Librarian.

Q. Who’s your favourite West Indian author? What do you like most about him/ her?

A. Besides yourself of course it would have to be Caryl Phillips, a Kittitian. I like that he has lived and worked alternately in the West Indies, England, Canada and America and brings to his stories the multifarious experiences of having spent significant portions of his writing career in different cultures.

Q. What brought you to write There once was a Little England?

A. The story was influenced by a true 1950s incident in Barbados when a small boy from a working-class community was shot and killed when he trespassed on the private property of a white farmer in St. Peter. The farmer’s name was George Swayne. His defence in Her Majesty’s Court was that he mistook the boy for a monkey, whereupon the whole island erupted. The people were even more enraged when a brilliant Bajan barrister stepped forward to defend the farmer and advancing the same dehumanizing defence. That barrister was none other than Grantley Adams (later Sir Grantley Adams) who eventually became the prime minister of the West Indies Federation and ultimately one of Barbados National Heroes.
There once was a Little England is far from an actual recounting of that incident or an attempt to re-litigate the trial but is instead an allegorical fiction that borrows key elements from that historic case. The story also seeks to examine the conflict that might arise from a lawyer’s duty to a client who diminishes and denigrates his race.

But on the whole I wanted to write about the island’s travails along the road to Independence.

Q. How long did it take to write?

A. It took me nine months from cover to cover and before then three months or so to complete the research.

Q. Is there a message in the book, to the reader?

A. I was once chided by a fellow writer for not ending the story at the point of denouement where the killer was revealed to the reader. But the story was not intended to be a “whodunnit” but a story about the social ills that led up to the independence of a British colony which I covered in the final few pages.

Q. We all need a hero! Tell us about your protagonist(s)? Was there a real-life inspiration behind him or her?

A. Harold Prince and his woman Cissy Brathwaite were the principal protagonists, all victims of the racial, class and socioeconomic disparities that prevailed prior to Independence … and to some degree afterwards. Barrister Cunningham was symptomatic of the black man aspiring to rise into the realm of the privileged whites by hook or crook, even to the extent of joining with his own oppressors to negate the rights of his own people.

Q. A good villain is hard to write. How did you get in touch with your inner villain(s) to write this book? Was there a real-life inspiration for him/her/it?

A. It was easy. I drew on the true story of farmer George Swayne as mentioned earlier and the vengeful murder of a young boy from a working-class community. Rightly or wrongly, Thorne was perceived in the book as the devil incarnate. That was the way Mr. Swayne was perceived by most Barbadians of that day.

Q. What kind of research did you do for this novel and how much time did it take? What were your sources?

A. Three or four months of the year that it took to write the book were devoted to research. I consulted a number of historical references including the works of Sir Hilary Beckles, FA Hoyos, Dr. Karl Watson and Andrea Stuart, among other historians. Also the writings of Barbadians George Lamming and Austin Clarke were instrumental.

 Q. If you were to pass on one particular piece of advice to an upcoming writer, what would it be?

A. My first advice would be to write for the love of writing and not necessarily for monetary gain.

Q. What is your preferred method to have readers get in touch with or follow you (i.e., website, personal blog, Facebook page, Goodreads, etc.) and link(s)?

      A. Via Email: r.downer@rocketmail.com

 

There Once was a Little England
by Enrico Downer
Link: http://a.co/8PJMrQu


Rico, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Here’s wishing you all the best in your future writing and other endeavours.

Thanks, Ken. I appreciate the offer to do the interview. It was a pleasure.

Down Independence Boulevard and Other Stories

A taxi driver notices the changes in Independence Boulevard since freedom was gained from Britain. A free-wheeling spirit spends his time gambling and engaging in riots. A man is sentenced to death for the murder of his lover. Two women escape racial conflict and seek a better life at home and abroad. A housewife has faced the last straw with her husband. A mailman is caught in the middle of the World Trade Centre terrorist attack. These are some of the characters encountered in this engaging collection of short stories from the pen of Ken Puddicombe.


 

 

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