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The Littlest Bookstore

March 2, 2022 — 6 Comments

I am not a shopper. Unless you count stationery shops and bookstores. But in my lexicon they don’t count as shops – they’re necessities.

One of the tragedies of our digital life is the disappearance of those wonderful bookshops tucked into a high street – you know the one, down the road from the butcher and wedged between the greengrocer and ironmonger. I, like most, have been known to use that convenient monolith that sends consumer products anywhere, anytime. However, each time I do a twinge of guilt shivers down my back for the bookseller who knows not only books but his or her customer. It is an art, a calling, and so much more pleasant than a nameless, faceless transaction or click.

That wonderful sense of new worlds and new words lining the shelves is missing. Hours spent browsing, then the excitement of finding the perfect book, or books.

Like most readers I have a pile next to the bed of ‘to be reads’ – it might take me a few months to get to them but get to them I do. Sometimes one just has to be in the right frame of mind for a book. During COVID I have strayed from books that would make me yearn to travel again – so stories from places never visited have been kept at bay. It made me sad.

Now the world, well most of it, is learning to live with the scourge of COVID and countries are starting to lift barriers, my curiosity is resurfacing. I want to read about Bhutan, about Poland, about Mali, as well as learn more about places I have been fortunate enough to visit.

I was in Trinidad last week – a place I once lived – but this time staying with my daughter, Kate, and her family. One Sunday we drove to places old and new to me.

From the capital, Port of Spain we headed east to where Trinidad’s coast stops the Atlantic Ocean in a thunder of waves, and the beach is lined with miles and miles of coconut trees. More than a thousand one of my granddaughters assured me. Mayaro, back in 1984, was my first foray away from San Fernando where we lived, and the first time Kate wriggled her toes in sand. Back then there was an occasional hut selling watermelon or pineapples. Now along the Manzanilla / Mayaro road there are many more, and nestled between them is the littlest bookshop in the country, perhaps in the Caribbean.

Started by Mr Ishmael Samad, The Book Junkie is one of those wonderful whimsical surprises that we come across every now and then. Philosophy and fiction jostle for space on rickety shelves. Literature and beach reads reach precariously for the corrugated roof. Leaning against each other on a low shelf are Enid Blyton and Carolyn Keene, the pseudonym used by the collective authors of the Nancy Drew detective stories, and which tempt younger readers, including my granddaughters.

On the outside shelf under Graham Greene and Clive Cussler, in somewhat faded glory, was Bruce Chatwin’s Photographs and Notebooks, published after his death in 1989. A wonderful reminder of the joy of travel, of curiosity for new customs and cultures and, for a Nowherian like me – a phrase coined by the St Lucian poet, Derek Walcott – a reminder of Chatwin’s telling essay, Anatomy of Restlessness. A feeling to which most global nomads fall prey.

That restlessness is what stopped me reading about far-flung places these last couple of years. Why research into my next historical novel has floundered. The knowledge I could not travel to unknown places to experience different smells, sounds, sights and tastes. To feel the fabrics, not just made in a country but of the society itself.

Back at The Book Junkie, the young woman presiding over the shelves, maybe one of Mr Samad’s granddaughters, suggested titles and showed us where, in the welter of books, we could find Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Paulo Coelho and then smilingly waved us on our way.

On the drive home, a granddaughter leaning against me sound asleep, I began to think about books with the word bookshop in the title. Books like The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George and
The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer drifted into my thoughts, then The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles. All stories about allowing words to teach, to arouse curiosity, to entertain.

The power of the written word, and reading, has over time been feared by dictators and anarchists alike – think of Hitler’s Kristallnacht in 1938, and more recently in 2013 the Islamist rebels of Ansar Dine who torched the library in Timbuktu.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this week brought to mind Geraldine Brooks’ sweeping novel, People of the Book based on real events which tells of the famed Sarajevo Haggadah – one of the earliest Jewish books to be illuminated with images – being saved from Serb shelling during the Bosnian war. Brooks follows the book’s journey back to its creation and tells a story of how people regardless of faith have risked their lives to save a book.

Lives come and go. But the written word must never be lost.

That’s why The Book Junkie on the wild side of Trinidad’s coast is so important.

but phuck you!

My respect for the office of president is intact. There have been presidents since I was honoured to become an American citizen who might not have been my choice, who might not have believed as strongly as I on certain issues but they have garnered my respect if not my approbation. My respect for the man who currently holds the presidency has never been lower.

I am a hybrid. The product of an English father and an Australian mother. My parents met in Malaya and my childhood did nothing to stop their wanderlust. Thank goodness. Dad had stayed in Pakistan after Partition in 1947, one of a handful of British army officers charged with helping form a new army for a new country. Mum was a pragmatic woman, a nurse who experienced the horrors of World War II in both Singapore and Papua New Guinea. I was their only child. 

Discipline for minor infractions was meted out by my mother – after extreme provocation a slap across the thigh with a floppy slipper would be forthcoming. I remember it being red silk with delicate embroidery, beautiful and gave a decent sting.

Rarely can I remember my father being involved in non-compliance issues. And he never slapped me. But nearly sixty years after the event I vividly recall being sat down at the dining table and given one of the sternest lectures of my life. We lived in Nigeria which means I would have been no older than six.

The reason? I had cheeked Ali. I don’t remember how, or why but I have never forgotten the lesson I learnt that evening before my bedtime story.

Ali was our cook. Originally from Sudan and proud, whenever guests or a camera came into view, to change into white trousers and tunic over which he tied a broad red cummerbund. He would also don a red fez with a black tassel and, lastly, he would pin his medals across his chest attesting to his service in the East Africa Campaign whilst in the Sudan Defence Force. 

Any man who visited out home and who he deemed worthy was saluted. He knew to keep my father’s glass topped up. If Ali didn’t like a guest he would, to my mother’s chagrin, ignore an empty glass and parched throat. He was though a gentle man who adored my mother despite her propensity to gather orphan animals, and for whom he would cut up papaya and pineapple each morning. Something I’m sure wasn’t in his original job description. And Ali loved me, and I him.

It was a long time ago so I can’t remember the exact words my father used after my transgression and he would not have raised his voice but I do still remember the shame. His words would have been measured and along the lines of, “Ali is a dignified man who works to make our lives easier. Particularly yours. Who are you, a child, to dare speak to him in such a manner?”

I do remember being dismissed. I ran to Ali’s domain where I sat on the kitchen step with his arm around me and, crying, gave him my apology. It was probably the first truly sincere apology I had given. 

It is people like Ali, and Sam, our houseboy and others in other countries who worked for my parents, and later others who worked for me and my own family who have made our lives infinitely happier. Without a doubt easier and, once I reached the age of employing people myself, have given me insights into different cultures and countries that I might not have had without their kind guidance. A true privilege.

So why the title of this little story? Because the president of the United States has proven with his craven behaviours toward those who work to make his life easier, and certainly safer, that there is no moral line he will not cross.

I’m not talking about the political animals who serve in his administration – those in front of the cameras, those used to speaking the words people want to hear, those scrabbling to pacify the man’s every perceived slight, to temper his tantrums. I couldn’t care less about them. 

I am thinking of men and women who have worked in the White House, some I’m sure for many years and through many administrations. The men and women who change the sheets, who cook the meals, who dust the furniture and hoover the carpets. The men and women in the background who make sure the wheels of arguably the best-known home in America turn without a single crunch of a pebble. And while I’m at it, the men and women charged with literally taking a bullet for the president. What right does he have to disregard their health?

To flaunt his power by belittling those who are cognisant of the dangers of a virus that is devouring the country with rampant disregard to who it infects. To flout the mandates of mask wearing and spew his vitriol over those nearby. His braggadocio knows no bounds.

By all accounts his arrogance and hubris, his complete disregard for others are behaviours learnt from his father.

My father has been dead for ten years but his words and his actions as I grew up have never left me. Don’t ever forget it is the people, often behind the scenes, who make our lives easier, safer, more pleasant who deserve our utmost and unbridled respect.

So mr president, I repeat, phuck you!

Not long ago, but which in what COVID times seems a far-off galaxy, I lived in a small despotic West African country. It is a country run under harsh measures, with even harsher punishments for those who dare to question the ultimate authority – the president. He, it should be noted, came to rule through murderous machinations that removed his uncle from power.

And power is one way in which he exerted control. Switch the electricity off as the blanket of night falls and it is harder for the ‘common’ people to meet, to plot, to demand greater freedoms. It is a ploy used by many over the years – the plantations worked by the enslaved also used the tactic to lessen the chance of rebellion.

But even if the power was on many did not have the luxury of being able to afford it.

We had moved into an as-yet unfinished apartment. We had doors and windows, a floor and a roof, plumbing and power…. sometimes. I had been promised a generator but that was months away. Days after moving in, I watched the sun drift behind the hills beside us to leave the jungle a jumble of dark greens and greys as the frogs began their nightly chorale.

A movement caught my eye and I saw a flicker from a flashlight and what looked like a very tall man dressed in very little. In the half light of a brief equatorial dusk, it took me a moment to realise his height was unnaturally elongated by the fact he had clambered onto the roof of a dilapidated car that graced the entrance to our mud-baked and overgrown road. He looked to be hanging.

“Stephen!” I called down to our guard, a delightful Ghanaian who had about as much chance of saving us from anything as my dead grandfather, “Stephen, there’s a man on a car by the electricity pole.”

“Oh, madam, he is stealing your power.”

It took a moment to digest this information. And another moment to shrug. This was WAWA at work. West Africa Wins Again. The chap had no chance of getting electricity to his shack, so why not nick it from the house down the road? Good luck to him, I thought as our power winked off, on, then off again. It could have been deliberate, it could have been a malfunction.

Not long ago, but before these COVID times, we were fortunate enough to find another ‘in-need-of-work’ place on St Croix, the largest of the US Virgin Islands. We fell to renovating with a vengeance with the immeasurable assistance of Barry Allaire and his duo of merry men, Mingo and Easy. They made a somewhat daunting task very much easier. 

The plumbing wasn’t too bad but, oh my, the electrics were not good. I spent a lot of time on island by myself and as darkness drifted across the bay silhouetting yacht masts in a melange of pinks and mauves, I would turn on a light only when absolutely necessary, and never more than one at a time. Oftentimes a fizz would accompany the action. We rewired – thank you, Leroy – and my confidence grew.

However my new found belief in power was short lived. I came to understand another acronym, although not nearly as catchy as WAWA. WAPA is our Water and Power Authority. After nearly eight years of intermittent power or brown-outs – those rolling, blinking outages that cause permanent damage to electronics and white appliances despite having surge protection – the phrase “We’ve been WAPAed” has entered the family lexicon.

I fully understand the fragility of power services during hurricanes that are hurled our way at, sadly, more and more regular intervals. What I do not understand is why a power company in America is allowed to function badly, with seeming impunity, through continuing performance failures, compromises to payment and billing systems including the, almost, unbelievable loss of $2.7 million when invoices were paid to a purportedly legitimate vendor. A scam referred to by WAPA as a ‘Business Email Compromise’. I wonder if that scam will be found by the FBI to have been initiated in West Africa. In which case WAPA and WAWA are not so far apart.   

Why are heads not rolling at the continued farrago of an “autonomous agency of the Virgin Island Government” that does not deliver power? To the idle bystander it could be construed that local accountability has gone the way of federal accountability.  

Not too long ago and in these COVID times, in frustration, I posted a comment on social media. It read, “I have lived in 12 countries, a number of them considered 3rd world developing countries. Never, ever, have I had such a poor power service as I get here in the US Virgin Islands”. Comments flooded in. From those known and unknown. Comments like, “Have you lived in Nigeria?” Yes, I have. “Knowing that you’ve lived here in Thailand that is really saying something.” Yup! Closer to home people said, “And at such a high cost” and “The worst”. There were many more such helpful insights.

What they all failed to mention is that I do not now live in a developing country. This is the United States of America. 

Please, WAPA, power to the people!

The Masked Lady

June 12, 2020 — 4 Comments

US Virgin Islanders have been fortunate in the management of COVID-19. Our Governor has listened to health experts, instigated common sense practices and after a period of lock down has been opening the islands up in a measured manner. There is a strict mask policy, with shops stating in large letters, No Mask, No Service, No Exceptions. Big burly men comply. Children over the age of five comply. There appears little reason to not comply. Our islands have had some deaths but nowhere near the numbers seen on the mainland, which has allowed our hospitals to withstand the stressors of treating those seriously infected. We wear our masks!

I, along with everyone else, am learning a whole new way of reading people. Are the eyes crinkling in laughter or distaste? Is a slipped mask a sign of belligerence, or just a slipped mask?

I don’t go in for public shaming but I did feel moved, after dancing around a young man wandering the aisles of my local supermarket, to suggest that wearing his mask across his chin was as much use as a condom on his big toe. His girlfriend, suitably masked, burst into laughter and dug him in the ribs. 

“I told you,” I heard her chortle, as her beau got caught up in his gold chains in his haste  to protect himself. And others.

I was encouraged to encounter them again, this time at the cashier, and see his nose and mouth was suitably covered. The girl grinned and waved.

My weekly outing revolves around the supermarket. Actually three of them. The only way I am able to gather all the items on my list. On Monday, as I tied my mask in timely fashion before approaching the ramp to the store I was surprised to be haled by a tall, masked woman I did not recognize. 

“Wait!” she called. “I want to ask you something?”

Her tone was peremptory. I am, by nature, suspicious of unknown, over-friendly people, dreading a monologue on the glories of Jehovah. But what the hell? In these days of isolation and fear a brief encounter might help ease someone’s day. Mine included.

“Sure,” I replied, waiting by Otto, our truck, as she ferreted around in her handbag.

“Which do you think?” She waved two strips of paint swatches in front of me. “I can’t tell the difference. They’re both grey. And that,” she jabbed at a duck-egg blue square, “is meant to go with both.”

“Um,” I replied. 

“My decorator said I must decide.”

“Well,” I said, pointing, “that grey has yellow undertones which is why it’s a bit murky. And that one has blue tones which makes it sharper.”

“How do you know that?”

“I was an interior designer.”

“Hah! And I find you in the parking lot.” Her laughed trickled around her mask.

“So it would seem,” I said, hoping my eyes reflected my amusement. “What room are they for?”

“Kitchen and lounge. Together.” 

“Have you lots of windows? Lots of light?”

“No.”

“Then I’d go with the blue grey.”

Her brow wrinkled above her mask – a clue I took to mean she wasn’t relieved at my profound judgement.

“Um…” I said again, dithering in the blistering heat as to whether I really wanted to continue the conversation. “Do you like the colours?”

“I’m not sure.”

“That usually means you don’t. If I were you, I’d get some more samples. Good luck.”

We parted ways, she to her car, me to my trolley. My mask hid my smile.

Scanning the shelf for ginger cookies, my sole reason for being at the store, I was surprised to feel a tap on my shoulder.

“Oh, hello,” I said to the woman, again noting the intricate braids and marveling at the patience required to attain them.

“Are you still a decorator?” She asked.

“No,” I replied, hoping my tone was firm. “I haven’t practiced in twenty years.”

“I don’t know what to choose? Or which paint. Sherwin Williams. Behr. Benjamin Moore. Who?”

“Why don’t you get your decorator to put together another storyboard with different colours, a different theme,” I said. 

“Storyboard?”

“Oh,” I said, and explained. “Look, the colour should reflect you, not your decorator or what she deems is in vogue. Do you have favourite plates, dishes, or a sofa or cushion you can take a colour from? Something that ties the walls to your things.”

“Huh,” she said, looking again at the two strips of paint samples.

“Then buy a small tin of a couple of colours you like, brush a bit onto each wall. Each wall will show the colour differently depending on the time of day and night. But ma’am,” I said, “It must be something you like, not something someone else thinks you should like.”

“I’ll tell my friends I found a decorator in the parking lot?” She laughed, and patted my arm. “Thank you. “

“My pleasure,” I assured her. 

The masked lady went down the ramp and I wandered along the aisle in search of ginger cookies. My heart laughing and my smile broad behind my mask.

No mask, no service, no exceptions taken to new dimensions. 

Way back in the day, a day in 1966, a chap called Geoff Stephens recorded the album Winchester Cathedral with a group of session musicians, The New Vaudeville Band. On that album was a song Stephens penned with Les Reed, which was covered a year later by Herman’s Hermits and ten years after that by The Carpenters.

It is the first couple of lines that swirl in and out of my mind as around the globe we close our borders, our doors and retreat to the inner sanctum of our families, where possible, and certainly to our thoughts. “There’s a kind of hush, All over the world tonight”.

As I listen to the quiet, my mind wanders and wonders at the fact that in a relatively short period of time, a time when we noisy, intrusive humans have been forced to take a back seat due to COVID-19, the animal world is reasserting itself.

A Malabar civet, critically endangered and not seen since 1990, has been spotted (forgive the pun) sauntering the streets of Kozhikode in the State of Kerala. (I was terribly impressed he was using the pedestrian walkway.) Dolphins cavorting and swans gliding in Italian waterways may not be wholly uncommon but residents have reported seeing more of them in the clearer canals. Manatees are meandering around in the chi-chi waters lapping the docks of the rich and infamous in Miami now that boat engines have been stilled. A puma has broken curfew in the centre of Santiago, Chile. Wild boar, arguably the least attractive of animals, have been seen in Barcelona, perhaps grunting for the right to self-determination, and ducks have waddled near the Comédie Française. And why shouldn’t they? Have not Parisians always flaunted their feathers? 

And for a little levity. Kashmiri goats have descended from Great Orme, the limestone headland on the north coast of Wales that lours over Llandudno, and have been feasting on leafy delicacies dotting the township’s squares. If you are wondering why there is a herd of goats from the sub-continent roaming a Welsh hillside, it is due to those tandem human traits of envy and avarice. Learning of a herd of goats imported from Kashmir to France in the 1800s, our hero Squire Christopher Tower of Brentwood, Essex wanted a piece of a possibly lucrative wool industry. The two goats he bought soon required a nursery, and so the herd was born. Their wool was turned into the finest cashmere shawl which won the favour of King George IV, who then also wanted goats. Jump forward a few decades and we come to the illustrious Major General Sir Savage Mostyn. He too coveted goats and, so the story goes, was given a couple by Queen Victoria from the royal herd at Windsor. He freed them in the grounds of his ancestral home, Gloddaeth Hall, near Llandudno. Whilst some obviously strayed, ever since a Kashmiri goat has been given the rank of lance-corporal and has served as the Mascot for the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Welsh Infantry, the Major General’s regiment. How’s that for a shaggy goat story?

But perhaps the most amazing story of animals reclaiming their lands came after the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. Humans left, and suffered horribly. The animals stayed, and suffered horribly, according to an article recently published in ThoughtCo, by Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D. called “What We Know About the Chernobyl Animal Mutations” 

What scientists have found through collecting samples of dung and soil and watching animals through camera traps is that, with time, plants and animals have rebounded and reclaimed much of the region. They are of course still radioactive and often have smaller brains, but are breeding though producing fewer young, some of which are deformed. It is the mammals who appear to have adapted best – wolves, badgers, moose, elk, lynx and Przewalski’s horses to name a few. Birds and invertebrates have not faired so well.

The article makes for fascinating reading, but one of Dr Helmenstine’s most chilling sentences was, “Ironically, the damaging effects of radiation inside the zone may be less than the threat posed by humans outside of it.”

Her comments beg the question, when our present restrictions are lifted, will we humans return to our destructive ways? Drive the animals back to the brink of endangered species or worse, extinction. Thankfully, unlike Chernobyl, it appears we will not be contaminated by this current crisis for years. Hopefully will we not recontaminate each other in a rush to demand our spaces back and our reclamation will be gradual. But human mammals are already massing – some never even stopped. China is opening up and we are seeing photos of people gathering in the rush to normalcy, albeit wearing masks.

So perhaps we should listen very carefully, not get too close now, and we might see it isn’t a dream. 

It will be interesting to see if we have learnt anything from this time of hush.