Island Strong

October 16, 2017 — 2 Comments

This is a story about a woman who lived on a rock in the Caribbean 130 years ago when the US Virgin Islands were under the Danish crown, and the dannebrog flew proudly from the flagpole at Fort Christiansvaern. Her name was Anna Clausen, and she was born on St Croix on a sugar plantation called Anna’s Fancy, so named for her maternal grandmother, the first Anna.

Our Anna, at age sixteen, was taken by her mother to England after the devastating hurricane of 1867, when the tidal surge on the western tip of the island had been so huge, the American warship Monongahela had been thrown ashore at Frederiksted. The storm had been the final straw for Anna’s mother, who was determined her daughter have the opportunity of a ‘good’ marriage, and the benefit of cultural activities that, to her mind, only London could provide.

Anna lived, unhappily, in London for ten years until after the death of her mother she returned to the island she loved. Her father, who had remained on St Croix, was ailing and alone after the death of her brother the previous year. Ivy, a girl from the East End of London accompanied Anna, filling both the role of lady’s maid and chaperone.

The homecoming was not as she had imagined, and the great house of Anna’s childhood was no longer the imposing, air and colour-filled home of her memories. Emiline, a surly woman was now the sole servant and was resentful of the young mistress and, more particularly, her white maid. “Chuh! I tell she, soon as, me not de maid. Me de housekeeper,” she mutters as makes up a bed for Anna.

Fireburn, the name of this story, tells of Anna’s struggle to keep the plantation afloat, with the help of Sampson, the foreman. It tells of a turbulent time on the island, with worker discontent high at the lack of progress in conditions since emancipation 30 years earlier, and which culminates in ‘fireburn’, the event in which Frederiksted was burnt to the ground. The rebellion, also known as The Great Trashing, stoked by women who became known as ‘the queens’, was brutally quashed with ringleaders executed or jailed, and the women sent to prison in Copenhagen.

Our heroine, Anna, faces personal heartache but with the support of servants whose trust she has won, both in the great house and in the fields, she becomes the chatelaine of a prosperous estate. Willing to take chances and challenge the conventions of the day.
At the core of Fireburn, the novel, is the resilience and determination of those who call Anna’s Fancy and St Croix home to weather any and all storms, both natural and man-made. To rebuild. To adapt. To strengthen.

In effect exactly what so much of the Caribbean is doing right now, after the wrath of both Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The islands will recover from the aftermath of these violent storms, they will prosper again. Their natural beauty and the overt friendliness of the islands will draw tourists, and their much-needed money, to choose to recharge on the pristine beaches, swim and dive in the vivid seas which filter through aquamarine to indigo to emerald, to sip rum – the staple upon which many of the islands first found prosperity – and to marvel at the resilient buoyancy of those who call these islands home.

Just as fictional Anna did.

The Caribbean and her people are, despite what is tossed their way, Island Strong!

Fireburn cover 72

Purchase Fireburn here!

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VI Strong!

October 6, 2017 — Leave a comment

Once upon a time – long, long ago – I lived on a beautiful little volcanic island, covered in jungles of ceiba, mahogany, palms and giant stands of bamboo like rows of drill pipe that lie in neat piles in oil service company yards. Bioko, in the Gulf of Guinea. For those who may not be familiar with West Africa, Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, is on that island though President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo would dearly love it to be in his home town of Mongomo, well away from the threat of a coup d’etat, perhaps staged from the sea. Think of Frederick Forsyth’s The Dogs of War and you’ll get the picture.

Living there for nearly three years was arguably the most challenging experience of my life – not least because of the lack of culinary supplies though boatloads of San Miguel beer were regularly unloaded at the docks. A ‘keep the man on the street drunk and he won’t worry about basic human rights’ sort of ethos. And what I couldn’t do with an aubergine was nobody’s business.

Cement and sand were also in short supply. Both, as the most inexperienced builder will attest, are fundamental to construction of any kind. One might struggle with the concept of sand being unavailable on an island, but believe me when I say you do not want your home built with black sand. It might take a month for streaks of black and a purplish grey to leach through any number of layers of paint – rather like varicose veins creeping uninvited up aging legs.

Cement was in fact the tipping point for signing a contract on our home. The tawdry monetary details had been settled, but still, but still, the landlord – a crafty and not entirely reliable banker – held out. In the round about way of African negotiations it became known that a bag of cement would seal the deal. Not the size of one from say, Home Depot, or B&Q. No, no, the bag in question needed a forklift and a crane to maneuver it into place.

Why this fixation on building materials?

Well, on our walk along Buffalo Bayou this morning, Clyde and I noticed one such bag of cement. It was large enough to cause a certain amount of consternation, and a lot of barking for my companion. It is being used in the construction of a much-anticipated cycle and walking path around the University of Houston Downtown. It will allow a pleasant circulatory ride, or amble, and negate the need to back track to one’s starting point. Across the banks of the bayou, by Allen’s Landing, which as any Houstonian will tell you, is the birth place of Houston, are mountains (I exaggerate only a little) of soft yellow sediment sand. Deposited by the swirling wrath of Harvey as rain pelted into already soggy land and overflowed already swollen waterways, the sand left the banks of the bayou looking like naked dunes. It has now been scooped up by dinky little red backhoes and piled underneath the bridge, presumably to be used elsewhere.

Now I have a home on another island, this one in the Caribbean. St Croix is also in need of building materials. Not because of poor governance as in our West African home, but because she has been ravaged by nature. Hurricane Maria, a Category 5, ripped roofs, stripped trees, tumbled power lines and crumbled walls as she blew in all her rage across the edge of the island. Remember a fury of her magnitude can stretch 150 miles with hurricane force winds and another 150 miles of lesser winds. For an island of just under 83 square miles that is enough to wreak catastrophic damage – which Maria did.

And so sand and cement, or lack thereof, again take on an importance not necessarily commensurate with their normal value, in one of the places I call home. These seemingly simple commodities delivered promptly to our Virgin Islands, will help rebuild the infrastructure. So too will jungles of ceiba, mahogany and palm regrow to once again entrance and shelter the resilient inhabitants who, despite Irma and Maria’s ill-temper, have remained VI Strong!

Source: Finding The Right Story: A Guest Post by Apple Gidley, Author of Fireburn

It’s bad news week. Actually it’s been a bad news month, particularly in the two places I currently have the privilege of calling home – Houston, Texas and St Croix, US Virgin Islands.

Houston felt Harvey’s wrath as swathes of rain pounded streets turning city and suburbs into rushing waterways. Some areas are prone to flooding and the sagacity of building homes on old rice fields and flood plains will be debated for a long time, particularly as government buyouts are sought. I imagine one word will be repeated often – greed. Of both those selling the land initially and those developing it. So too the decision of when and by how much the dams and reservoirs were opened to release pressure on old infrastructure. But it’s easy to criticize after the fall, or in this case, the flood.

Then Irma barreled through another place I hold dear – Tortola – the main island of the British Virgin Islands, and a place I have been visiting since 1967. I was last there in April this year to visit my family, who thankfully are safe though not unscathed. The Dick-Reads have been an integral part of the BVI since the early 1960s; there before tourism took off and the financial institutions set up shop; before the Purple Palace took on the more sophisticated moniker of The Bougainvillea Clinic. #thatbitchIrma has devastated those Virgins, reducing homes and businesses to piles of matchstick rubble. Roofs ripped off, rooms rudely exposed. Lives destroyed.

Irma also had her way with St John and St Thomas, two of the US Virgin Islands. Irma skimmed St Croix, forty nautical miles south, and grateful inhabitants have rallied and sent supplies and succour to her sister islands.

And now she is under threat.

Hurricane Maria is intent on venting her Category 5 rage on St Croix and as I sit here, safe in Houston, my heart is squeezed. For our neighbours, for our friends, for the historic richness and beauty of the lesser known Virgin Island. And for our West Indian home which we have lovingly restored.

As I wonder what I can do to help in the aftermath of this hurricane’s projected fury I am reminded St Croix has withstood nature’s caprice many times. Alexander Hamilton wrote of the 1772 hurricane in a letter to his father saying, “I take up my pen just to give you an imperfect account of the most dreadful hurricane that memory or any records whatever can trace, which happened here on the 31st ultimo at night….. Good God! what horror and destruction—it’s impossible for me to describe—or you to form any idea of it. It seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place.”

The Danish West Indies were again slammed by a vicious hurricane in 1867, with the subsequent tidal wave driving the USS Monongahela ashore at Frederiksted. The hurricane, unnamed in those days, was instrumental in bringing about the end of the plantation system as well as discouraging the US from purchasing the islands from Denmark.

The modern benchmark for hurricanes on St Croix is Hugo, which wracked and wrapped the island in total destruction in 1989. Then came Marilyn in 1995 which killed 10, and Omar in 2008 which sank 40 boats spewing oil onto pristine beaches.

The island though is resilient, and the inhabitants resolute. Whatever terror Maria throws at St Croix, she will not win. She might dampen the spirits for a while, tamp down her exuberance and charm, but St Croix, with assistance, with rebound.

There is horror and destruction, degradation and disaster in many parts of the world but I will be doing my best to keep St Croix in the public eye. Particularly that of the US mainland, some of whose newsreaders seem unable to grasp the fact that the US Virgin Islands are the responsibility of the US. They paid 25 million dollars in gold coin for them in 1917. They should not let this centennial year be the year America’s Caribbean is forgotten.

So as others gather tarpaulins and water, medical supplies and baby formula, I will be trying to keep St Croix in the public conscience. I will still launch my debut novel, Fireburn, based in 1870s St Croix, on October 1st, 2017. It catalogues a fictitious hurricane, as well as the historical rebellion of ‘fireburn’ on October 1st, 1878.

St Croix has withstood much. It can and will withstand more. It must – it is dear to me.

 

Harvey Blew Through

September 5, 2017 — 2 Comments

Houston has always had a huge heart, and through the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey’s wrath it has been truly wonderful to see the outpouring of not just community spirit but community help. Neighbours helping neighbours. Strangers helping strangers.

Until September 2017, Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 was the benchmark for high water in Harris County. She churned ashore, then went back into the Gulf of Mexico before returning with even greater ferocity. Houston learnt many lessons as the devastation was recorded and plans put in place to prevent such an event affecting so many people again. But Mother Nature is capricious and all eventualities can rarely be planned for.

Judge Ed Emmett, a Republican, has been the Harris County judge since 2007, and through three Democratic Mayors has shown his common sense ability, his calm leadership and his willingness to put politics aside for the benefit of the people. So too Houston’s current mayor, Sylvester Turner.

What a concept. Elected officials working for the people who put them in their position.

But Harvey has been something else. The rain just kept pouring. The water just kept flowing. And flowing. The reservoirs built on the old rice fields of west of Houston filled, then spilled. The lakes north of Houston did the same. Controlled releases flooded neighborhoods in a deluge of swirling, brown water which respected no one’s property. Grand or humble. And questions are being asked about the notice given to residents of areas inundated. They will, I am sure, continue to be asked as people survey the damage and then count the cost of the storm, both emotional and financial.

Our city leaders opened the doors of the George R Brown Convention Center, the NRG Stadium and various places around Houston for those displaced by Horrible Harvey.

H-E-B, a Texas-wide, and Texas-proud, grocery store has donated not only a $1 million to hurricane relief efforts, but have supplied food, water and fuel to areas hardest hit with many employees volunteering. “It’s part of our company culture. It’s that spirit of giving,” explained Houston H-E-B’s public affairs director, Cindy Garza-Roberts.

J J Watt, defensive end for Houston football team, the Texans, has raised $18 million for Hurricane Harvey relief. He is more than a football icon, he is fast becoming a Texas legend and he wasn’t even born here!

Gallery Furniture, owned by another Houston luminary, Mattress Mack, aka Jim McIngvale, opened their stores as refuges for the Harvey victims – family’s clustered around a Hunstville dining set or a Navasota sofa, their possessions stuffed into black bin bags clutched on their laps; children wide-eyed from fright, or excitement, darting between the set pieces.

Donations of clothing, toiletries, food and water have been dropped off all over the city – sometimes carried for blocks by people who’s cars have been totaled by flood water. Volunteers have lined up. Hundreds of them. The generosity has been incredible; the selflessness of those who might also have been affected helping others who have lost everything has been heartwarming.

And then we have Lakewood Church – the monumental edifice in which Pastors Joel and Victoria Osteen spout their brand of evangelical christianity. I have written about them before – see previous blogs (September 18, 2011 – You too can have Friday every day of the week, and Nov 27, 2012 – What Constitutes Community).

It is no secret I do not hold the Osteens in high esteem. Charlatans abound in every community and country but if they offer solace to those in need then they are filling a need. But during Harvey Joel Osteen forgot he was a member of the very community he purports to serve, the community who has given him the riches he seems to feel he deserves, the community who has allowed him to live a life of extreme luxury.

Lakewood Church did not offer sanctuary. Only opening its doors as a distribution center for donations, and offering space for a few hundred evacuees days after the storm and only after a public and nationwide backlash. This is a building which has seating for 16,800 people.

In his Sunday six-minute ‘Hope for Houston’ message Osteen thrice reminded the crowd, significantly smaller than usual, “We’re not victims in Houston: We are victors.” His palliative style of preaching I suppose offers an element of hope to his congregation but it was, as always, without any great substance. He appeared more concerned about the outcry, telling his listeners “I know y’all love me. You need to get on social media.” Osteen on NBC’s ‘Today’ show excused his church for not opening the doors, “We were just being precautious.” That same social media disclaimed his assertions of the church being inaccessible due to flooding.

Not only does the man preach ‘cotton-candy gospel’, as stated by Reverend Michael Horton, Professor of Theology at Westminster Seminary in California, he’s a fabricator and obviously illiterate.

Precautious? That is enough, in my book, to be sent to damnation.

Harvey has blown through but the destruction and pain will last a long time. The National Guard, police, firefighters, neighbours and people from all over the country have helped rescue victims with boats and monster trucks; have hauled the detritus of ruined homes out onto the streets. Others have offered beds, cars, clothes, and sometimes just a hug.

Houston has shown she does not need the trite entreaties of a mountebank secure in his private citadel. We have strong and sturdy leaders, company’s with a community culture, and most importantly Houston is a city with heart.

Where is that hope?

August 20, 2017 — 2 Comments

Work brought us to America in 1997. The suggestion had been presented a number of times in the previous years, but we had demurred. Not because we did not want to relocate – I had by that time lived in ten countries and my husband in six.

A panoply of color and creeds surrounded me and I did not know what segregation was, though at a fundamental level I knew I was privileged. My classmates were Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, animists.

My husband had been traveling to the US for many years but it was not a country I had ever wanted to visit, let alone live. Stories of inherent racism permeated the international arena, in some ways more offensive even than South Africa’s apartheid, because America was meant to be the brave new world where all men are born equal.

But years pass, times change and hope is always present.

We came to America with excitement tinged naturally with trepidation. Houston was to be our city. We chose our neighborhood based on schools and proximity to work but had not taken into account the politics and color of the area and had, unwittingly, chosen a white Republican enclave.

It did not take long to realize I was not considered to be in the middle of the political spectrum – a line I had straddled comfortably for years. I had in a few short weeks become a staunch Democrat. But it’s a big and beautiful country and we came to love it, flaws and all. Our Green Cards arrived as we relocated to Equatorial Guinea in West Africa where we lived for nearly three years.

On our return to the US we decided to stay put for the requisite five years so we could gain citizenship. I was able to write “The President lives in the White House” in order to pass my English test. We had our date to swear allegiance to the flag.

We had filled in the forms, waited our time, paid our money to get to this point – there had never been any real concern that we would not be granted citizenship. Gazing around the packed tiers of the sports arena of a high school in north Houston I was humbled. People of all nationalities were waiting, and a great many of them had sweated and cried to be in that courtroom-for-a-day.

We were all becoming American. We were signing up, as Paul Krugman wrote in a recent New York Times op ed piece, to become part of a “multiracial, multicultural land of great metropolitan areas as well as small towns”.

But here’s the thing, before we got to that point on April 19th, 2010, we, all of us in that auditorium waiting to raise our right hands and pledge the Oath of Allegiance, had to swear we had never been, nor would become, affiliated to any organization that might harm the United States.

Us new Americans promised old Americans to abide by the laws, to live up to the ideals of equality and basic human rights, to respect the values of decent people irrespective of their color, where their ancestors or they came from, or their religious affiliations. And with the exception of handfuls, I believe most of us live by that credo.

But what about those born American? The flag might be raised in school yards and the Pledge of Allegiance sworn in rote each morning but what about the disengaged men and women who have forgotten, or reinterpreted, those words? What about those who spew hatred at anyone who does not believe white is might?

I find myself, as a relatively new and proud American, thrown back to the those days of reluctance. Those days of not wanting to live in a country where the color of skin, or what is worn on the head – whether it’s a hijab or a turban or a yarmulke – labels people in the eyes of the ignorant and angry as unAmerican.

And I find myself sad and despairing at the arrogance and nepotism emanating from that great White House. The days before rage and intolerance flew from vitriolic tweets, the days before innocent people on the street were mown down by bigotry and fanaticism.

Where is that hope? Where are those heady days of proud to be American, old or new?

Not On Your Nelly!

August 8, 2017 — Leave a comment

Arriving at the gates of Mala Mall game reserve on the edge of the Kruger National Park our entry was blocked by a matriarch and her herd. The elephants milled around, massive Africa-shaped ears flapping to keep themselves cool, some trunks were raised in a trumpet voluntary, and tusks gleamed as young calves were nudged to order. We watched and waited, awed, until they lumbered off, trampling the thorny acacia bushes in their path.

Nellies, as they are known in our family, have long fascinated me. There is a magnificence to their stolid wanderings across a savannah or through a forest, to their stoicism and familial loyalties. That is until riled, when their rage is tremendous.

Nellies

Photo by Apple Gidley

Sometimes, in order to preserve both the health of the herd and the environment on which they depend, humane culling must be done. In African lore, when an elephant is killed, the tail is cut off as a sign of respect for the animal, and if a little cash can be made on the side, well who cares? That is where, purportedly, the elephant hair is obtained for the entwined bracelets so enamoured by tourists. A cheaper memento option than ivory but no less of an incentive to poachers.

Whilst I may not like to hear about the culling, what really sickens me is the mindless and cruel slaughter of any wild animal for their tusks, whether to be made into jewelry or ornaments or used by men ever hopeful of enhanced sexual prowess.

And yet the recent public crushing of two tons of ivory in New York’s Central Park did little to alleviate my disgust of the trade in ivory, or belief it will have an effect. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, more than 270 tons have been destroyed around the world in an attempt to discourage poaching, to send a strong message that laws in place to ban the trade will be adhered to.

I wonder though is this a knee-jerk reaction to the sight of bloodied carcasses, tusks wickedly carved from these aged and knowing faces ?

Should we not instead be debunking the cultural beliefs that magic cures lie in those majestic tusks or rhino horns? Educate the young, both in Africa, Asia and the West, that senseless killing endangers not only the animals existence but also the environment.

As reported by the Associated Press, Tiffany & Co, who were involved with the Wildlife Conservation Society in the recent New York spectacle, say “no price justifies slaughtering elephants for their tusks.” But does crushing tons of ivory, often pieces many hundreds of years old and of great beauty and cultural significance, really discourage that criminal element?

I would argue it does not. By all means crush tusks that have been newly harvested – in that way those actually involved in the gruesome trade are immediately impacted financially, and the incentive lost. Of course laws must be enforced and poachers given severe punishments for their cruelty. Of course the law should go after the grey and greedy money men and women trading, and also the law should go after the end user with far higher fines and penalties including significant jail time, along with public shaming.

And trading in ivory antiquities should be highly taxed. But to destroy art fashioned many years ago, in an age before much of the world knew of the horrors and environmental impact the ivory trade caused, is to my mind an act of public appeasement.

We cannot rewrite history, despite our desire to purge the memory of the cruel and inhumane treatments meted out to both humans and animals. We must never erase the past because to do so lessens its importance on our future. Instead we must build on it. What was acceptable to many of our forefathers is not now. We are more informed now, and have a greater awareness of the fragility of the world around us, but to destroy art and artefacts takes away some of those lessons of bygone eras and ancient cultures..

There is a place for ivory and rhino horn pieces. The same way there is a place for statues and art deemed offensive because of modern sensitivities. Museums and private collections open to the public are the repository for the world’s cultural history and art, good and bad. We visit them to be educated, enriched and yes sometimes horrified, but only with awareness and learning of our past will perceptions and cultures change.

Last year I interviewed a delightful octogenarian, Raymond Feldman, who’s had a stall at the London Silver Vaults for 62 years. Each sale, whether to Sean Connery, or the then Crown Prince of Thailand, or a grandmother from Bermondsey looking for something small for her first grandchild, is recorded in a black ledger along with thank you letters, receipts and requests. Silver naturally is his passion. Sometimes old pieces, a tea set maybe or sword, had ivory incorporated in the design. Mr Feldman stopped visiting trade shows or sending items to the US when customs officials started ripping off ivory adornments, thereby destroying these works of art, some of them almost priceless.

“How does destroying art help anyone?” he asked, suggesting instead we should be learning from it.

Netsuke, for example. First made in 17th century Japan, netsuke were the toggle, in effect miniature sculptures, made from bone, or jade or ivory to which were attached small containers, sagemono, hung on a cord from the obi, or sash, which in turn kept the pocketless kimono respectably tied.

Crushing and burning inanimate stacks of ivory and rhino horn in Central Park offers a powerful image, but a more horrifying image, and much longer lasting, would be to show pictures of mutilated elephant and rhino to the public, including our teens. Those teens are the guardians of the future. Show them the source of those trinkets. Debunk the myths of greater health and bedroom stamina.

For our grandchildren to step bravely into the world they must know their past, and understand the beauty and, sometimes, the gore of art while decrying and disallowing the continuation of such cruel practices.

And they must have a chance to see nellies in the wild.