Archives For Denmark

It’s been a turbulent few weeks on either side of the Atlantic. Britain has left the European Union. The United States has been embroiled in an unseemly farrago wherein any semblance of gravitas and civility has been shredded from those, we the people, have put into office. I have been feeling overwhelmed. In despair that the country in which I currently live is lead by a bear-of-very-little brain. Except Winnie-the-Pooh knew his limitations.

“When you are Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.”

I doubt A A Milne’s wise words have been read by the man in the White House. And I was close to sticking my head in the honey pot, or perhaps deep in the Caribbean sand.

And so, last night, I took myself on a magical mystery tour.

The Botanical Garden of the Virgin Islands at St George Village on St Croix is home to over a thousand varieties of plants on 16 acres of what was a Danish colonial sugarcane plantation. The ruins, an important part of the island’s heritage, are surrounded by plants and trees that reinforce their value as a source of food, medicine, fiber and dyes. Crucian culture was also on display with Lucien Downes’ latest works on the walls. Magic in the plant and art kingdom.

The magic didn’t end there.

The squalls, prevalent at this time of year, stayed away. The evening was balmy with just enough breeze to keep mosquitoes at bay. Palms were encircled by shimmering lights and there was a pleasant hubbub from those present.

A man in black settled himself on a chair, cleared his throat, picked up the mic and, at first, spoke with a hesitancy wholly unfounded. Søren Madsen, who is Danish, has a facility with English that puts many native speakers to shame. He was self-deprecating, and delighted to be in the USA for the first time. Comments called from the audience intimated he was in the best part of America. I am inclined to agree.

He began to play. His instrument? The Spanish guitar. He drew us in, some might say with emotional blackmail, when he played Clapton’s Tears in Heaven. Hauntingly beautiful and, which Mr Madsen explained, is in minor keys. “We Scandinavians are melancholic,” he said.

Madsen laughingly told us he plays “Mozart to Metallica”, and he surely does. Stevie Wonder came next, then a Beatles medley. The magical mystery tour was in full swing. Chirruping crickets and cicadas provided the chorus and Madsen’s fingers flew along the frets, his hand lifting from the neck of the guitar with a smooth grace. He never once flinched when bats swooped in joyous abandon under the marquee. 

I too have an eclectic musical taste but had never been a fan of heavy metal until Metallica came along in the 90’s. I am not the only person to be a convert because Madsen told the story of how when he played his arrangement of Unforgiven in a Danish hospice, a 94 year-old gentleman told him, “Now I like heavy metal.” The comment was however followed by another elderly patient saying, “The best part is the last chord!”

The first all the way through to the last chord of Madsen’s rendition of Nothing Else Matters was pure lyrical magic. I closed my eyes and the shenanigans swamping the world, and which had been absorbing me, drifted away on his notes.

Trained in classical guitar at the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus, where he was awarded a unanimous vote of excellence, Madsen continued his musical education in Basel, Vienna and Prague. Not only a soloist, he has played with the Danish Guitar Duo, Duo Paganini and The Blackbirds – a Danish nod to the Beatles, and he shares his talent with students. Playing a composition of his own, Malaguena, in honour of his Spanish guitar, proved his virtuosity as a composer as well as an arranger.

We heard La Cumparsita, a tango by Rodriguez, swiftly followed by Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. Coldplay, ABBA, the BeeGees, more Beatles. Even Elvis came into play. An old Danish folksong medley was made timeless, and it seemed as if countless guitars were under the tent competing in singing strings. And who can miss the opening chords of Hotel California? I never wanted to check out.

Søren Madsen played the final piece. The magic dissipated into the evening air dripping with the scent of night blooms. But as The Botanical Garden of the Virgin Islands emptied, Nothing Else Matters remained. I wondered if James Hetfield, who wrote the song in 1990 whilst on the phone to his then girlfriend, and Lars Ulrich, Metallica’s drummer, ever imagined their melody, also in a melancholic minor chord, would find its way to a seductive Caribbean island. 

“Life is ours, we live it our way…. ….. Forever trusting who we are No, nothing else matters.”

The Conch Calls

July 3, 2018 — 1 Comment

Shadows cavort across the yellow walls of Fort Christiansvaern on St Croix as people mill about waiting for the conch to call them to order. Dawn is a faint glimmer across the hills to the east but all is not quiet. Music, blaring from speakers on a pick-up truck, call for liberation, freedom – Bob Marley is always a popular choice, and blue lights flash like beacons from waiting police vehicles. Then silence. 

Senator Positive Nelson, who has organized this Freedom March for 18 years, is a tall rangy figure in white shorts and a loose African shirt. His dreadlocks swing as his head tips back and he raises the conch to his lips, and blows. The drum beats with a building intensity. It is hard not to be moved.

After a twelve-year gradual freeing of the slaves was announced in 1847, and the order that all babies born from July 28th of that year were to be born free, anger percolated amongst the enslaved. Why not immediate emancipation?

170 years ago on the night of Sunday, July 2nd, in what was then the Danish West Indies and is now the US Virgin Islands, Moses Gottlieb, known to many as General Buddhoe, sounded the conch and led many of those enslaved on a march to Frederiksted demanding their freedom. Gottlieb, a literate and skilled sugar boiler thought possibly to have come to St Croix from Barbados, worked at Estate La Grange but was often borrowed for work on other sugar plantations. It was this freedom of movement, combined with an innate leadership skill, that allowed Gottlieb to secretly organize the march. By morning the crowd had swelled to about 5,000. Later that afternoon, Governor Peter von Scholten, fearing violence and burning, momentously proclaimed, “All unfree in the Danish West Indies are from today Free”. 

Back in the days before cell phones, it took a while for the news of freedom to travel and so an offshoot of the protesters, known as ‘the fleet’ and led by a young man called King, continued to riot, burn and plunder. It was thanks to Gottlieb, who accompanied the Danish fire chief, Major Jacob Gyllich, around the island that the mayhem did not continue and no white lives were lost. 

Order was restored but rumours swirled that the Governor, who had a black mistress, was sympathetic to the cause and knew there was a possibility of an uprising. It was a rumour never confirmed. The sugar plantocracy were enraged with the proclamation, which immediately decimated their workforce, and von Scholten was ordered back to Denmark, where he died a broken man. 

Despite being protected initially from the planter’s wrath by Major Gyllich, Gottlieb was arrested, questioned and shipped off the island aboard the SS Ørnen. He set sail from St Croix as a gentlemen but once out of port was stripped of his clothes and put to work until, in January 1849, he landed on Trinidad. Told he would be executed if he ever returned to the Danish West Indies, Moses Gottlieb aka General Buddhoe is believed to have ended his days in the United States.

Today – July 3rd – is Emancipation Day! 

Celebrated each year with the Freedom March. As I watched the marchers, including my husband, answer the call of the conch, rattle the chains on Fort Christiansvaern and walk along Company Street at the start of their 15 mile march to Frederiksted, dawn trickled over Gallows Bay, pink and orange striations among grey clouds promising much needed rain.

Freedom came to the enslaved of the Danish West Indies 170 years ago and it is easy to think that freedom is global. But it isn’t. Slavery still exists in all its ugly connotations. So whilst we celebrate the bravery of leaders like Gottlieb and the many who marched with him, as well as those who supported their claims for freedom, like von Scholten and Gyllich, and 30 years later the Four Queens who roused the crowd during Fireburn demanding better labour laws, we should remember those still under the mantel of oppression.

Would that the conch call for freedom be heard globally!

This article was published in St Croix This Week – February / March 2018

Despite Hurricanes IrMaria trying to destroy these Virgin Islands, trying to dampen spirits, and black-out homes, perseverance and resilience are winning and life is returning to normal.
Much has been made of the destruction of the mahogany trees on St Croix – both by hurricane and chain saw. With the heightened awareness of their value as shade, beauty and utility, perhaps we should look to a viable long-term use of the timber now lying discarded.
It was a theme taken up by Sergio Fox, an environmental and sustainable resource engineer, when speaking at a recent symposium in Christiansted. Why not use it in the proposed conservation of the Old Army Barracks?
Hosted by Gerville Larsen, a Crucian architect well known for his vision for a Christiansted Town Plan, and Ulla Lunn, a Danish preservation architect representing BYFO, the Association of Historical Houses in Denmark, I learnt of the progress made on The Legacy Project, which plans to stabilize, conserve and bring new life to the current eyesore on Hospital Street. It is a dramatic vision that will benefit all who live on these islands, and beyond.
A school where Virgin Islanders could earn an associate’s degree in architecture before transferring to accredited institutions in Puerto Rico, the mainland, or Denmark. In keeping with its ideal of serving all segments of society, this venue would also teach building crafts – carpentry, metal work, brick building and so on using the old techniques that have proven, through many years and numerous hurricanes, to withstand harsh conditions. At the same time recognizing and incorporating modern methods and materials.
The provisional name, The Center for Architecture and Built Heritage, will also (provisionally) have an auditorium, an archive room, a cafeteria and gardens – all open to the public. A true venue for the preservation of Crucian culture.
Visions don’t come cheap but with the $150,000 seed money from BYFO, matched by the VI Government, this joint venture can now start raising the $20M required to see both this project, and one on St Thomas, realised. Full funding must come from foundations, organizations and government in the US and Denmark.
Some might remember the exhibition at The Blue Mutt in January 2017 showing designs drawn by students from Aarhus University after their visit to St Croix – and all of which inspired those interested in the conservation and restoration of Christiansted.
A couple of weeks ago at the symposium, first held at Balter (thank you, for the delicious appetizers), and subsequently at the Florence Williams Public Library, we were treated to a presentation of three designs drawn up by two young architects – Crucian, Felicia Farrante and Norwegian, Hildegunn Gronningssaeter. Their enthusiasm was contagious as they talked us through ideas ranging from safe traditional, to an elegant compromise of old converging into new, to a thrilling modern design that, to my layman’s eyes, made the most of the remains of the army barracks whilst giving Christiansted a brave new look. For a brave new enterprise. All the concepts, as Ulla Lunn commented, “cherish the ruins”.
Describing the history of this decaying relic, from the time it was the Danish army barracks to a military hospital in 1835, to 1961 when it became a high school and finally a police substation before being abandoned to asbestos and bush, Farrante said, “You can touch the life in every single brick in these buildings”. Gronningssaeter continued, “We cannot preserve all values at once. We have to have a focus. Something that makes you reflect on time and history.”
But why, when so many things need funding, particularly after the devastation left by the 2017 hurricane season, should we put time, energy and money into, again in Hildegunn Gronningssaeter’s words, “a beautiful decaying structure returning to nature” ?
Because to not conserve and preserve the culture is to disown the heritage – the good and the bad. By moving forward with a project like this, which must be community driven and in collaboration with BYFO in Denmark, we are valuing the past, present and future – a true Legacy Project.
More prosaically, a well preserved St Croix would help tap into an international market geared to heritage travel, and therefore tourism dollars.
As the symposium came to an end, I was reminded of Gerville Larsen’s opening words, “People are the heart of the town.” By taking a decrepit ruin and turning it into a grand design built by Crucians for Crucians and any who would like to visit St Croix we acknowledge, as Senator Myron Jackson said, “Arts and culture are the framework of a community.”
Let’s put the mahogany trees to good use. Store them, let them cure properly, then by the time funds have been raised for this exciting venture, those stately old trees will have come full circle – creating shade, beauty and utility.

Cherish the Ruins

December 31, 2017 — 2 Comments

The flurry of Christmas is over, and it’s that time of year. Time to reflect, but not linger, on the past.

It is a theme that has been much on my mind lately as I have been writing an article on an exciting joint USVI / Danish proposal, known as The Legacy Project, for St Croix This Week – which, as a Caribbean quirk, is produced bi-monthly. It is on the conservation of the past, the restoration of the present and the transformation for the future.

I am referring to the old Danish army barracks which, after their final iteration in the 1960s as a high school then police substation, were abandoned to asbestos and bush. It is a project dear to my heart and not only because it is IMBY (In My Back Yard) but, and this is a direct quote from the piece which I thought quite good even if I do say so myself, “Because to not conserve and preserve the culture is to disown the heritage – the good and the bad.”

The history of these aged barracks is etched into the walls built from ballast bricks and coral stone. The bricks were used to stabilise empty ships arriving from Denmark ready to load up with sugar and rum for eager consumers in Europe. The coral stone was cut by slaves, hauled ashore and used not only to be aesthetically pleasing but to help cool the buildings.

But this isn’t a blog about buildings – you’ll have to read SCTW for that.

No, I’m talking about me. In May 2018 I will reach the 60 milestone or, as miles were counted in Nigeria, the 60th pole – the telegraph poles strung along the dusty roads crisscrossing the country when I was a child.

It’s a bit of a shock. In my mind I am 35 but my mirror says, “Add 25 years, ducky”. 49 stitches down my back is a good start for counting the scars. My husband did suggest I get a zip tattooed over that one. And my face is running out of room for stitches, no matter how adept the plastic surgeons. But as I reflect on the past I comfort myself that the physical flaws are part of my heritage – the good and the bad. I’m sure I have mental flaws but can’t think of any at the moment!

I have been inordinately fortunate in my life. I come from a happy, if slightly unusual and nomadic background. I met a man in Papua New Guinea 40 years ago and still adore him, and our children and grandchildren bring great joy. Of course there have been tears, disappointments, frightening times and moments of ‘what the fuck’ but those are events that have etched themselves into my psyche and made me stronger, if not more patient. There’s a flaw!

I have wiffle-waffled around in various jobs in various countries – all of which have been great fun but none could have been called a career. Perhaps it is the fault of my Zodiacal sign. Geminis are notoriously fickle. That question, so often asked of me around the world, ‘what do you do?’ has invariably caused a seconds conundrum.

However the last ten years have seen me knuckle down. Expat Life Slice by Slice (Summertime Publishing 2012) was a memoir and, much as I enjoyed writing it, did not to my mind give me the right to call myself a writer. The words did not come from rigid discipline, interviews and research as non-fiction does – they came from my memory nudged by diaries and photographs. Or as in fiction, from allowing the imagination to float freely backed up by discipline and research.

But with the publication of Fireburn (OC Publishing 2017) – an historical novel set in the Danish West Indies of the 1870s, I have a label. No longer will those little tags at conferences, cocktails or coffee mornings merely give my name – I have, at the ripe old nearly age of 60, a bona fide career. Writer.

Oh yes, another mental flaw – procrastination!

As we head into the New Year, I’m going to stop dithering and write the sequel, Transfer of the Crown. And I’m not going to linger on birthdays and scars. Instead I’m going to return to those decaying army barracks and think of the words spoken by Danish architect, Ulla Lunn, as she passionately called for their restoration – “cherish the ruins”.

May 2018 bring you health and happiness – and wonderful stories to share.

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.