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.

Guns but No Roses

September 6, 2021 — 7 Comments

The Lone Star State, Texas to those maybe not cognizant of the various monikers given American states, reached a nadir on Wednesday, 1st August 2021 with not just the suppression of voting rights but the introduction of two new laws:

From Financial Times – Friday edition

~ House Bill 1927 – constitutional carry which means anyone over the age of 21, without license or training or even a background check may openly carry a handgun. The Wild West has returned. There is a proviso – that any person convicted of a felony, assault, terrorist threat or domestic violence is not covered by this new law. The question begging to be asked is, if there is no background check how does a vendor know if a potential buyer is a felon?

~ Senate Bill 8 – an abortion ban from six weeks, which means a woman, who may not even know she is pregnant, may not terminate a pregnancy even in cases of rape or incest. The law stipulates a fetal heartbeat is heard at six weeks, however doctors say, and lawyers agree, embryos do not have a heart at such an early developmental stage. A return to backstreet butchers. Theoretically a man convicted of domestic violence could threaten a woman with a gun bought without a background check, rape and impregnate her, and that woman would have no medical redress. 

Even more concerning is the gutless manner in which this law has been written, encouraging everyday like-minded citizens with an incentive of $10,000 to sue any person who ‘aids or abets’ an abortion. This includes a concerned relative who might have provided funds, a cab driver taking a girl or woman to a clinic and so the list goes on. A person may sue even if there is no connection to the girl or woman having an abortion, or the provider. The Supreme Court, weighted heavy on the Republican side has, in an unsigned ruling allowed the law to go into effect. President Biden is not impressed.

As far as shootings are concerned, there has been a 14% increase in Texas this year – that’s not including suicides. That increase translates into approximately 3,200 shootings. How in God’s name are the police, who are against this constitutional carry law, meant to know who is the good guy and who is the madman? An astounding 59% of Texans, including law enforcement officers, oppose this Bill, however 56% of Republicans support it. The public, it seems, is becoming inured to shootings, considered mass when there are four or more victims – think Odessa and El Paso where 30 people were murdered and dozens wounded.

It is a tragic fact that whilst the international light is shone on the horrors of rape in places like India, which whilst developing is still considered a Third World Country, there are still people in the so-called developed world who feel the need to force themselves on a girl or woman, and sometimes a man. Too many rapes go unreported, often due to the ineptitude and lack of empathy shown by the authorities, and fear of repercussions.

But here’s the thing. India has, under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, allowed abortion in some instances since 1973 (the same year as Roe v Wade) – and in 2003 that Act was amended to give women access to safe and legal abortion services. If India, a culturally misogynistic society, can pass such legislation why are there swathes of America, now lead by Texas, who hold such antediluvian and ruthless views on women’s health – both physical and mental?

I have lived in the disunited states since 1997 and, whilst I shook my head at some of the 19th century views held by some in the 21st century, and railed at the lack of gun legislation and the fear-mongering that came with every attempt to curb loopholes in existing gun laws, I respected the Second Amendment even if it had been ratified in 1791 by a group of privileged white men.

However, with the emergence of Trumpism and the splintering of any level of civility, a break down in society still fomented by the former president, those with radical right-wing views have emerged as a vociferous and often violent cabal of men eager to push women back into the dark ages. But what, to my mind, is even more disturbing are the number of women keen to be put back into the kitchens, both metaphorically and literally in the case of seeking an abortion.

Abortion is not, and I doubt has ever been, a decision taken lightly by many women and to suggest it is a form of birth control is disingenuous and offensive. Particularly when taken in conjunction with the lack of sensible and timely sex education in a state that promulgates the teaching of abstinence. 

Here’s a shocking fact gleaned from the World Health Organization. As maternal mortality declines around the world – even in India – it has been increasing in the United States since 2000. America has the distinction of ranking alongside the Dominican Republic as being one of two countries with that tragic statistic.

It makes me wonder if the quartet of middle-aged, white men who lead the Lone Star State – Abbott, Patrick, Paxton and Cruz – spurred on by deeply conservative voices, have between them an ounce of compassion let alone a modicum of intelligence, native or otherwise. I can’t help but wonder if these politicians, and this might shock some readers, are so focused on their own self-aggrandizement and political future that they have lost sight of what is right: the right to bear arms being sensibly regulated; the right for women to be responsible for their bodies, their health and well-being. With this new law and the closure of women’s clinics will come even less access to women’s basic health – pap smears, mammograms, birth control.

Guns rule and the yellow rose of Texas has lost its bloom!

Passing, and Not

August 28, 2021 — 12 Comments

Reading at the moment takes place in spurts – paragraphs interrupted by the demands of my granddaughters. Interruptions to which I am happy to cater, such is the treat of seeing them after two and half years. 

I am in Port of Spain, Trinidad, a country reopened in mid July to returning nationals, and those non-citizens who are fully vaccinated, yet still under a State of Emergency (SOE) which has recently been extended until the end of November. Masks are mandated everywhere, even in the privacy of your own car, for everyone over the age of eight. And yet, and yet, the Delta variant has spread its tentacles. At the moment confined but we’ve been lulled into false security in other parts of the world. 

Bella da Costa Greene

Aside from the vagaries of COVID, my willingness to put down my book was severely tested whilst reading The Personal Librarian, brilliantly written by a new partnership of two authors, Maria Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray. A book that tells the story of Belle da Costa Greene, a young Black woman passing as white in the early 20th century. The woman who became personal librarian to J P Morgan, who travelled to Europe on manuscript buying trips and who controlled his library for over forty years. Belle rubbed shoulders with the rich and very rich whilst living a dual life. I can only imagine the sheer exhaustion invoked by having a public persona so different to that of her private one. It puts the much-touted travails of Megan, Duchess of Sussex, rather in perspective.

The lure of The Personal Librarian nudged me to pick the book up each time moments of grand-parenting respite loomed. My knowledge, I would not presume to say understanding or the emotional toll, of Black passing as white has increased a hundredfold.

Josephine Baker

The book reminded me of a recent headline on BBC.co.uk – “Josephine Baker to be first black woman to enter France’s Panthéon.” The mausoleum in Paris, where she will be inducted in  November, is where those deemed French icons are honoured. Her neighbours will be luminaries like Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Marie Curie and Louis Braille. A Black American woman who fled her segregated home country to be recognised for bravery as a spy and resistance worker during World War II in her adopted country, France. That’s quite a story for the baby born to a washerwoman in St Louis, Missouri, who helped support her siblings by cleaning houses from the age of eight before running away at thirteen to work as a waitress. As the French embraced American jazz, they embraced Josephine Baker – as ironically did fellow Americans, Ernest Hemingway and EE Cummings. As fame came to the girl born Freda Josephine McDonald, so did an insistence that every contract signed contain both a nondiscrimination clause and assurances her audiences be integrated.

Perhaps it is this heightened awareness of the inequities, along with slavery, that darken American history that prompted me to read more fully another snippet spotted in the news – “Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act”. Who, I wondered are the Harlem Hellfighters? And why are they being recognised?

Again France plays a role.

Harlem Hellfighters

Against the backdrop of Jim Crow’s America during the First World War many white servicemen would not bear arms with Black men and so the 2000 men who made up the 369th Infantry Regiment, 70% of whom came from Harlem, were assigned to the French Army. They  wore the US army uniform but their weapons were French. As a fighting unit they spent longer than any other US military regiment in the field of combat during the War – 191 days, and were the first Allied unit to reach the Rhine. At the Second Battle of Marne and Meuse-Argonne, the last major German offensive on the Western Front, the 369th Regiment suffered huge casualties, with 144 killed. 

With the end of the War, and only a month after armistice, and in recognition of the Harlem Hellfighters pivotal role in Europe, 171 members of the regiment were awarded the French Croix de Guerre medal, with a citation for the same award being presented to the entire unit. Two members, Privates Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts were singled out for courage beyond the call of duty and were awarded the Croix de Guerre with “a special citation for extraordinary valour.”

It took the United States many years to recognize the tenacity and bravery of these two men in particular, finally posthumously awarding them the Purple Heart. In 2002 Johnson was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross which in 2015 was upgraded by President Obama to the Medal of Honor.

In August 2021 President Biden signed into law H.R. 3642, the “Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act,” giving the Congressional Gold Medal to the 369th Infantry Regiment, a long overdue recognition of an incredible fighting force known variously as: Black Rattlers, due to the rattlesnake insignia; Men in Bronze, the name given them by their French comrades; Bloodthirsty Black Men which was how German soldiers saw them which morphed in the Hellfighters. 

The Harlem Hellfighter motto, “Don’t Tread on Me, God Damn, Let’s Go,” is perhaps also a fitting adage for Belle da Costa Greene and Josephine Baker. And in another touch of irony, it was the Harlem Hellfighters who introduced jazz to France.

As I read to my bi-racial grandchildren each evening, savouring the time I have with them, I hope the love of the written word will lead them, when they are older, to follow tidbits of news from which they can learn of the true heroics of people often overlooked, or looked down upon, by their own countries. To stir their curiosity to better understand that courage comes in all colours.

England’s Shame

July 12, 2021 — 10 Comments

For shame England…. no, no, no, not the England football team who played their hearts out yesterday at Wembley in the Euro2021 final against Italy, and certainly not for the three gutsy young men who tried for penalties. No the shame lies firmly in the racist yobos who, undoubtedly, could not hit a barn door let alone bear the pressure of attempting to score a penalty against a giant of man, in front of a nation holding its collective breath.

Those screaming abuse both in person and on social media are quite likely of a similar ilk to those who forced their drunken way into Wembley stadium without tickets. By all accounts they stole seats from those who had paid, and hurled abuse at anyone who stood in their way. They couldn’t have cared less that their ignorant and shameful behaviour was witnessed not just by those who waited with bated breath for England to win after fifty-five years; they couldn’t have cared less that children saw and heard their foul language; they couldn’t have cared less that the world now looks on them and, by association, England as a bigoted and racist country.

Jadon Malik Sancho is twenty-one. Born in Camberwell, London to parents from Trinidad and Tobago – a Crown colony until 1962 – Sancho is considered one of the world’s best young players, a player of technical skill and creativity.

Bukayo Ayoyinka Saka is nineteen. Born in Ealing, London to parents from Nigeria – a Crown colony until 1960 – Saka plays for Arsenal and became the first player born in the 21st century to play in a Premier League match.

Marcus Rashford MBE is twenty-three. Born in Manchester and whose grandmother came from St Kitts – a Crown colony until 1983. Not only is Rashford a superb footballer but he has used his platform to campaign for those who are homeless, against child hunger and to encourage literacy. His activism and philanthropy was recognised by Her Majesty who made him a Member of the British Empire.

I wonder how many of those screaming racial slurs at these young men have done anything for anyone. Perhaps a reminder for these louts that, along with their grandfathers and great grandfathers who most likely were called to arms during the second world war, so too were men from Nigeria, Trinidad and Tobago, and St Kitts and Nevis.

45,000 Nigerian soldiers served in the 81st and 82nd West African Division of the British Armed Forces, mainly in Africa and Asia, and whose country was used a staging post for campaigns in North Africa. 

Men from the Caribbean had been recruited, or volunteered, for the British West India Regiments of the British Army from 1795 until 1962 when newly independent federations and countries formed their own defense forces. 

Following the outbreak of World War I many from the Caribbean Crown colonies answered the call for volunteers. Initially the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) served in support roles, however, as it became clear more men were needed in fighting battalions, the volunteers served in Europe, North Africa and Palestine. After the successful campaign to clear enemy posts close to the British line in Palestine and which involved advancing across three miles of open land under heavy fire, the commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion BWIR, Major General Sir Edward Chaytor, wrote, ‘Outside my own division there are no troops I would sooner have with me than the BWIs who have won the highest opinions of all who have been with them during our operations here’.” 

The BWIR was disbanded in 1927 but during World War II nearly 10,000 British West Indians volunteered in the British Army, and in April 1944 the Caribbean Regiment was formed from 1,200 volunteers who served mainly in the Middle East and Italy. 

These three young British men, Saka, Rashford and Sancho should hold their heads high for their heritage is as proud and strong as they are. They must not let the benighted ravings of those only able to dribble beer and abuse to sully their extraordinary efforts both off and on the field of football.

And if Saka, Rashford and Sancho are in any doubt, they should remember those immortal words penned by Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers for the musical Carousel, now more famously associated with another football club, Liverpool, and which today is relevant for the whole England team.

Walk on through the wind

Walk on through the rain

Or your dreams be tossed and blown

Walk on! Walk on! With hope in your heart

And you’ll never walk alone

You’ll never walk alone

Perfume and Politics

March 27, 2021 — 2 Comments

A quartet of women, all the wrong side of sixty, stand around a beaten-up SUV in a glow of their own making as well as light spilling from the glittering interior behind them. Their shadows cavort. They are gleeful, like teenagers discussing the cute new boy in math class, or eight-year olds released from school. The air is perfumed by an array of scents emanating from their bare arms. From musky to sweet, floral to citric, their noses crinkle in delight or dislike. The same scent smells different on each of them. Chemistry, an active ingredient that comes both from the ornate bottles spritzed onto their wrists and their friendship. 

Laughter surrounds them as they display their purchases, boxes of perfume that could last them their lifetime, on the sea-and-sun-ragged vehicle. A mascara rolls down the slope of the hood, caught before it reaches the tarmac of the parking lot. 

Lyrics from the songstress perched on a barstool, playing her guitar, mingles with the trade winds that cool them, even in the quadrangle of a low-slung strip mall. A melange of orange blossom, jasmine and cedar waft a myriad of aromas. The bonnet is also a table for loot from swag bags. Mont Blanc and Coach, Boss and Cellcosmet jostle for space as exclamations swirl amidst the mirth. Swaps are negotiated, generosity fills the night.

The quartet’s conversation quietens and turns to the master class in marketing just witnessed. Their instructor, Raymond Kattoura, Director of Purchasing for Duty Free Retail whose base is in Miami, is also the host for the opening of Rouge – St Croix’s latest high-end perfumery and luxury goods emporium, situated at Orange Grove Shopping Center. A seemingly lack-lustre choice lacking in the charm and beauty that makes up so much of St Croix. 

“The store is located,” he told them, “not in Christiansted along the Boardwalk or on King or Company Streets, because the company’s target market is people who live on island rather than tourists passing through.” The staff at Rouge, their black clothing a foil to the shimmering array of bottles, added to the ambience with not only their quiet guidance but a willingness to join in the laughter as wrists and arms were held out for another scent.

“The senses must be stimulated and comfort is a major factor. The body and brain feeling in harmony. Freedom to choose in a relaxed environment. Pleasant staff. Good lighting. And ease of parking contributes to the equation.” His goal achieved, Mr Kattoura’s last statement has added significance as the friends loiter around the car.

“Even if I’m dressed like a tramp,” says one of the women putting her new perfume back in the bag, “I want to smell good!”

Fueled by Prosecco and fed by Teddy, an event planner with flair, their evening ends and fond farewells are made.

“A luxury brand is about more than just products, it is about lifestyle and experiences too.” Raymond Kattoura’s words reverberate as one of the women, me, prepares for bed. Fun and friendship, even behind masks, help the four of us, all vaccinated, enjoy an evening out – the first in a long year. 

As my eyes close, I am glad I made a pact with myself during the turbulent year just past, when the airwaves and ether were filled with reports unconducive to sleep. I no longer listen to, watch or read any news before bedtime, and so words from a song from my long-gone youth drift in and I smile, Oh what a night!

Daylight filters through the loose-weave curtains and I come to a consciousness of dawn and Bonnie, the cat, yowling. As I wait for the kettle to boil she curls around my ankles but rejects the offer of a cuddle. I take my mug of tea to the gallery and rejoice in the glorious place I call home. An island that embraces any newcomer willing to be polite and open to idiosyncrasies unique to every individual place.

I am relaxed, happy.

I press my phone for CNN. It was my first mistake of the day.

I read of the travesty of voter suppression just signed into law in Georgia – the state not the country. I see images of Governor Brian Kemp surrounded by white, predominantly middle-aged, balding men looking over their masks and in front of a painting by Olessia Maximenko of Callaway Plantation. Now an open-air museum that tells of its inglorious former existence as a slave plantation where runaways were hunted by dogs, and in a state wherein the tyrannical Jim Crow laws, demanding segregation of public buildings and blocking the right to vote for Blacks, were embraced with complete disregard for human dignity – or, in easy language, White Supremacy.

Gone, in the swoop of the Governor’s signature, are the results of the Civil Rights era.

Gone, also, in handcuffs was State Representative Park Cannon who happens to be a Black woman, a Democrat knocking on the door of the staged signing asking to witness the travesty. She was arrested by white, uniformed men in Georgia, the state not the country, Troopers.

Heather Cox Richardson in her Letter from an American this morning wrote of South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond who, in March, 1858 rejected “as ridiculously absurd” the idea that “all men are born equal.” He continued by warning that the ballot box was stronger than ‘an army with banners’ and that appears to be the belief of those currently in the Georgia administration.

The Military Reconstruction Act in 1867 began, Cox Richardson reminds us, to establish impartial suffrage which Maine politician, James G Blaine, wrote in 1893, “changed the political history of the United States.”

Yesterday in Georgia, the state not the country, Governor Kemp and his minions, began an attempt to change the face of the United States in 2021 back to the bad old days. 

All Americans, whatever colour, whatever political persuasion, should be incensed. 

The glee, the frivolity and joy, in the company of Black and white gone in a puff of perfume, and the stroke of a pen.

Oh what a night!