Return to Little England by Enrico Downer

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BOOK REVIEW

Return to Little England

A Love Story…and more

Copyright 2019 By Enrico Downer 262 pgs

Published by KDP Independent Publishing

Review by Ken Puddicombe

Author of Racing With The Rain, Junta, and Down Independence Boulevard And Other Stories

In Return to Little England, Enrico Downer’s fourth book, Victor West returns to Barbados on a quest to take his mother’s ashes for burial in her native soil, in keeping with her wishes and, “he feels compelled to spend the rest of his days in the same chattel house close to his mother’s ashes.” In life, Wilhomena West clearly had an overwhelming impact on her son and in death she continues to chart a path for him to follow: “…some inexplicable magnetism seemed to be pulling him back to the spot where he had enshrined his mother’s ashes.” Will Victor also eventually end up with the woman she had earmarked for him?

Resentment thrives in the book, from all sides. In a farewell thrown by his company, an African-American tells him: “I never did like West Indian people…you people come here to my country and…you wanna take over…” Victor faces this dislike because he’s come to America and succeeded. But when he returns to Barbados the young immigration officer chides Barbadians for leaving in the first place: “Maybe they shoulda stayed home an’ put their shoulders to the wheel like the rest of us.” Success, it seems, breeds resentment, even in your homeland.

Victor stops in the Bojangles Bar prior to his return to Barbados. It is where he and Mickey “…anointed the floor with a few drops of Mount Gay (rum) Eclipse.” This seems to be a prevalent practice in the British Caribbean. On the same page, Mickey: “Man I been t’inkin’ o’ goin’ backhome f’r de last twenty-five yeas o’ my life an’ look I still here” is the cry of many of the Caribbean diaspora who long for the warmth and comfort of the land of their birth but continue to brave the cold climate of North America with all its related drawbacks, in order to attain the wealth unobtainable in their native land. For many, tied to their new country, returning home permanently is a dream they gave up a long time ago.

Victor is unapologetic for the four loves he will experience in the book. His mother, Wilhomena, who had a profound influence on his plans, his career and his integration into American society at a time when “race was raising its ugly head.” Valerie, his first love who gave herself freely to him. Zelda, who performed above and beyond the call of her nursing duties. And Barbados, unable to get out it of his blood stream, creating a longing that causes him to hear his mother’s voice “whispering over and over that it was time to go home…time to return to their little island in the sun, the island she called her Little England.”

Our hero thinks of himself as being like “Odysseus coming home after decades of battling the rigours and frictions…” At the time that he left, “Barbados was not free of this rigour and friction…caused more by a class structure and divide between dark and fair…” While abroad, “he longed for his home-grown fare of sweet potatoes…” with a nostalgia that opened up an unquenchable thirst for such fare. Victor is typical of many native sons who are blind to their country’s many appealing features, only to yearn for them when abroad and eventually re-discover them on return.

Barbados gained independence in November 1966 when British colonies around the world were negotiating theirs. Victor finds when he returns four decades later that the situation has not changed much. Valerie tells him: “We Bajans still have our hang-ups. Sometimes I am a white woman and sometimes I’m black and sometimes I’m neither.” The colour gap is alive and well in Barbados. This divide and overt bias also seems to be consistent among many Caribbean societies, at home and abroad. Colorism, described by Alice Walker in her book In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Proseis “Prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group. [my italics].” Valerie was “welcomed…in the banking industry in Bridgetown (the Capital) where white was almost as stellar a qualification as any other.” Caribbean and Guyanese societies, it seems, are still fascinated with and ruled by the old dominant colonial era policy of colour and creed, similar to the Divide and Rule doctrine.

Victor comes from a long line of strong, proud and independent women. His maternal grandmother traced her treeall the way back to (sugar) plantation workers and “she kept a bamboo-framed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation hanging above her bed…” His mother Wilhomena, an enterprising woman, leaves for America when she is in her 40’s, a bold and courageous step by any measure. And Victor, himself, at the age of 13 goes to America and is in his 50’s when he decides to leave all he’s worked for in the land of milk and honey and head back to a country with which he’s not kept in touch, and an environment with which he is no longer familiar. The entire West family, it seems, an enterprising lot, are not afraid to explore new horizons.

But Victor finds what he sees on the island doesn’t fit with his memories—“the roads had shrunken, and distances seemed half of what they used to be. People…standing still…this air of lassitude as if the island had been taking a break…” The risk every re-migrant faces—the drastic change in pace and the difficulty in adapting. “He was still possessed with that intractable sense of urgency…the frenetic rush of big city life was still in his blood.” Can he adapt? Only time will tell. He will also find that the village of Seclusion is not the same, the older folks he knew (the cobbler, the tailor, the carpenter) have all passed on and have been replaced with two new generations in the four decades since he left. There is also a hint that the changes in the society have not all been for the good since “Windows and doors were reinforced with decorative steel bars…not how he remembered them as a boy.” Victor has to face the challenge of coping with local jealousy over the perceived new-found wealth being brought back with him; add the bitterness of a local population faced with the vicissitudes of a post-independent uncertain economy and political structure. And “they told him the streets at night were riddled with crime and fights between the young broke out with frightening regularity.” In this, Victor’s challenge is no different from any re-migrant in every Caribbean island, and Guyana. Has he replaced the hectic pace with insecurity? Is there really security if he has to keep looking over his shoulder in his environment?

Author Downer paints a picture of a rural Barbados—like so many other societies— controlled by superstition and living with customs and mores that rarely change in time. “A black sheet had been placed across the mirror of her (his mother’s) bureau to frustrate the evil spirits that visited Bajan houses at night…” In a scene later in the book, “It suddenly dawned upon him (Victor) that the woman was not real flesh and blood, that she was an evil spirt.” Even after his four decades abroad, Victor is enthralled by the spirts that haunt his old country. Will he ever overcome this propensity to believe in the occult?

Downer’s picture of rural Barbados also includes no indoor plumbing and “Every morning…his (Victor’s) first chore was to grab two galvanized buckets and head off to the standpipe three blocks down…” Even on his return he finds the same conditions, heading to the same standpipe, relieving himself in the “doorless outhouse.” It’s a brave soul who would desert the comfort of his amenities in America to return to this!

Victor soon explores his native land and finds “rolling hills of green and quilted fields in the valley that reminded the English of England.” Indeed, with over a million visitors to the island every year, half of those come from the mother country. “His homeland had awoken from her spell, but his people had not yet thrown off the cloak of Britishness they had worn from birth…One-armed Horatio Nelson was still standing on his pedestal…(in) the Square of Heroes (which) was once Trafalgar Square.” But Victor also recognizes that “the crush of visitors” have driven the “400 thousand-year-old coral floor…sea anemones…on the way to extinction.” Will this move away from industry and agriculture and growing dependence on tourism, like so many Caribbean nations, result in an eventual Paradise Lost?

Panama is a recurring theme in the story. Close to 20,000 Barbadians (10% of the population and about 40% of adult men at that time) worked on the Panama Canal in its heyday. The effect on the economy of Barbados in the 1904-14 period of canal building cannot be overstated, nor can the impact of father-less households when Bajan men didn’t make it back to the island. Fifty-six hundred workers died on the project, about 4,700 of them West Indians and Bajans must have figured prominently in that death toll—the reason Victor’s father never made it back to his homeland. In Barbados, it was the mother who had to set the tone of discipline and run the household. The bartender in the local rum shop tells Victor: “They was strict, worse than de father, if de chile had a father. Dese mothers use-ed to rule de house like a general. They never spare de rod.” Such a woman must have been Wilhomena West.

In the days following his return to his native land, Victor will find, like so many re-migrants who’ve spent a life time abroad and are like salmon fighting an upstream battle to return to their spawning grounds—that only the bravest and most resilient will make it. While he lost a mother he gained a wife; lost a lover and gained a son…left the rat race behind and settled for the peace and calm of an island he couldn’t get out of his blood. Will this lead to true happiness? The reader will discover.

AMAZON LINK FOR Return to Little England

https://www.amazon.com/Return-Little-England-Love-Story-ebook/dp/B07QHJGJG6/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=return+to+little+england&qid=1564245944&s=gateway&sr=8-1

Under The Tamarind Tree by Rosaliene Bacchus

UNDER THE TAMARIND TREE

 Copyright 2019 By Rosaliene Bacchus 284 pgs

Published by Lulu Press, Inc. USA

Review by Ken Puddicombe

 

Front Cover - Under the Tamarind Tree

The fruit of the Tamarind Tree holds a puzzling allure to people in the tropics, its tangy and acidic fruit devoured obsessively, even as it stimulates the taste buds with spasms of unpleasantness that last long after the fruit is consumed. The tree becomes a symbolic forewarning of all that befalls the colony of Guiana and its main protagonist, Richard Cheong—taste at your peril, because there is a price to pay!

The book is filled with images that evoke this obsession with the tamarind tree, like when Richard “looked up at the bright green tree, towering over him like a vengeful judge. The way their fine feathery leaves folded up at dusk used to fascinate him as a kid. No more.” The Tamarind Tree reminded him of the guilt (over an illicit affair) and shame (that he had lost his son and heir). Richard’s best friend, Wesley describes Richard’s sister Mildred, who is Richard’s main foil in the plot: “She’s like tamarind: sour-face with a hard soul like the tamarind seed.”

The book starts in 1953, when Guiana is still a colony, the only British possession in all of South America. Nationalism is rearing its head in British colonies around the world and Guiana is no exception. The colony is a polyglot of languages and cultures: Hindi and Urdu from India; Chinese mainly from Hong Kong and some from the mainland; Portuguese mostly from Madeira, all of these passed down by the older generation of indentured workers brought to the colony by the British planters as a deliberate ploy to supplant the African slaves (after the abolition of slavery in 1833) and suppress wages. Add these languages to the pidgin English of the Blacks already there and you arrive at a creole mish-mash. Along with their languages, these people also brought the rich culture of their homeland. Richard Cheong, the main protagonist is caught between these societies throughout the book which is rich with the cultural heritage of the Portuguese and Chinese Catholics and British Anglicans, the Muslims, the Hindus getting married in their own rites.

Richard is also superstitious, like his forebearers. He has an ongoing conversation with his dead younger brother Eddie and his father. This is almost driving him crazy, and the reader gets into his head as he is thinking of his wife and deceased son: Pa, I don’t know she (his wife Gloria) no more. She want to live in dead people house, like she still holding on to jumbies (evil spirits). This obsession with his deceased son and the yearning to have another will eventually create a chasm between him and his wife. His older sister Mildred tells him: “All you wanted was a stupid son. Did it ever occur to you to ask your wife what shewanted?” At one time, beset by personal problems and conflict with Gloria, he thinks: I should-a know the damn tamran tree was a bad omen. He even threatens the tree at one time: “I going cut you down, limb by limb,” as if this would solve all his problems! He thinks of his wife: An obeah-man had given her control over his (Richard’s) mind. Superstition controls Richard and rules the land.

The book is filled with the Guyanese twang born out of this array of languages that has bred a paucity in the way Guyanese speak, creole like, at a rapid pace that takes liberties in the grammar that many in the English-speaking world would find difficult to decipher. It has a rhythm and meaning all of its own. Like when Richard tells his pregnant wife: “You ain’t sleep good last night. Go lie down. I making breakfast.” Or when he describes the death of his child to Mama Chips: “My baby son dead. The cord cut off he air.” The death of his son is a harbinger for all that subsequently befalls Richard, since his obsession with having a male heir is typical Guyanese male swagger and he grows blind to his wife Gloria’s needs. At one point in the book he even blames himself for his marital problems, but in typical machismo style: “It’s all my fault. I was too soft with her (Gloria). I should-a listen to Lach (his friend) and show her I was the boss…” Spousal and emotional abuse is not outside the realm of showing a woman who is the boss and infidelity is built into the psyche of the Guianese male of the era: He needed Gertrude (his mistress—called an “outside woman” in local terms) [for him] to be a man again…to numb the pain of losing his only son.

In1953 the Guiana constitution was suspended by the British under the perception that the country was threatened by Communism, this at a time when Britain was governed by the Conservatives under Churchill, an avid anti-communist. British troops were sent to “retake the colony from the upstart nationalist socialists/ communists” and the country lost its self-government. In the book the Guiana Labor Party under Lalkumar (actually the Peoples Progressive Party [PPP] under Cheddi Jagan) is swiftly thrown out of office and the leaders incarcerated. The Peoples National Congress (PNC) that was headed by Forbes Burnham is represented by an ambitious Baxter. The third opposition party, United Force (UF), “the newly founded Portuguese party” led by Peter D’Aguiar is headed by the fictional Xavier.

Bacchus captures the upcoming racial conflict, disturbances, racial cleansing (“Some-a-we gotta leave the village we great-grandparents live in and move to a more safe village…”), and insecurity between the two main races: Indians and Blacks. The riots and conflagration in 1962 when arsonists burnt down the business section of the city was a turning point in the security and stability of the country, a time after which police had to carry arms.

In a moment of lucidity, when his daughter Lizzie asks, “Why are blacks and East Indians fighting?” Richard replies: “I think it got something to do with old hurts. From the days when slavery did end. Trouble start when the white people start bringing ships full a East Indians to work in the cane fields.” And she, in a moment of precocious perspicacity, says: “But that was a long time ago.” It does not explain that this inherent hostility handed down through generations had something to do with slavery being replaced by an indentured system tying East Indians to the land. Nor does it account for the resentment of freed slaves that the hoped-for fair wages they sought from the plantocracy disappeared into thin air due to the cheap wages paid to those indentured workers.

Tamarind Tree is also a nostalgic walk through the yesteryear of a former British Colony where some of its inhabitants still yearn for the good old dayswhen they feel they were able to walk the streets safely, where they can claim things were much better off under the British. The local girls are said to be enamored with the white soldiers and look upon them as a way out of the colony into a better future. People suffer under the illusion that a move to the mother country is a means to living a good life and the road to independence holds untold risks. Richard’s mother-in-law Dorothy describes her husband, Winston Henry, a police officer and main antagonist: “But you know how father is. He more loyal than the Englishmen.” His is a typical colonial view shared by those who didn’t  think the colony was capable of self-government or independence. And who knows, perhaps the post-independence era might very well contribute to this outlook.

Richard: His dream of breaking away from the Lee-a-Shoo (his employer) family hung out of reach, like a kite trapped atop a coconut palm. It becomes an apt allegory for the colony as it strives for independence, its constitution (one of the most progressive in the British Caribbean at that time) suspended and the drive for self-government thrust decades back. But, ever the entrepreneurial spirit imbedded in him, like his ancestors and many Guianese, Richard starts a chicken farm and eventually strives to break the ties that bind him to his father-in-law, this in parallel with the drive for independence from Britain. His farm is in the outskirts of Georgetown and he ponders over his separate life from his family: Why me and my family gotta live separate like this? This is the price for we independence? His independence, it seems, has to come with a price, similar to the colony.

Elections are held before independence in May 1966 and the system has been changed to Proportional Representation—a deliberate move engineered by the British and American governments to keep the socialist Jagan (ala Lakumar) out of power and hand power over to the opposition parties. British soldiers patrol to keep the uneasy peace. The exodus has begun: “Richard passed people lined up outside the American Embassy in Georgetown.” The business class and the rich have started transporting their wealth abroad. The middle class seek visas for America and Canada and other nations.

There is hope. “…the tamarind tree, glorious with yellow blossoms and pink buds, leaves and blooms covered the rain soaked black earth.” In the end, Evelyn, his sister, tells Richard: “I’m glad you’re finally seeing the light.” It is too late for Richard to find the happiness he desperately sought with Gloria. But he is consoled by the fact that his oldest daughter Lizzie is devoted to him. His business has started to prosper, too. There is hope for his future, but we’re not sure about the future of the Tamarind Tree and the new country of Guyana. Richard says in the 1968 election which was manipulated with massive fraud at home and abroad: “Independence is only a big word. The white people still running the show.” The country is being turned into the world’s first socialist cooperative republic and a dictatorship runs the country, but life goes on.

Under The Tamarind Tree adds to the glorious collection of literature by Guyanese abroad writing about a tempestuous era that is too swiftly glossed over and forgotten in the world of power politics.

UNDER THE TAMARIND TREE CAN BE OBTAINED HERE

http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/Rosaliene_Bacchus

 

 

 

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A Cineaste Remembers…

[Cineaste: noun. Cinema enthusiast or devotee.]


 

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The cinema played an important part in my youth, for so many reasons.

For someone growing up in the Fifties in Georgetown, in what was then British Guiana, it was the main form, perhaps the only form  of entertainment. It’s importance and impact on our culture and development cannot be overstated.

Here are some recollections of what it was like.

[Comments and similar recollections invited from readers for moderation. Subject to editing].

My memory goes back far enough that I recall the price of a ticket back in the Fifties. We were still on the Sterling currency in those days and a ticket to see a movie cost Half-a-bit, which would be four cents. A Bit was eight cents. A Bit-and-a-half was twelve cents. A shilling was the next denomination. These were all silver coins, minted obviously in the mother country—England. —Ken Puddicombe.

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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.

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