Looking Ahead By Looking Into The Deep Past: Jamaica 1973

The Royal Literary Fund have commissioned me to write a 3000 word article guided by 3 topics. 1] Why do I write? 2] Belonging and a sense of place. 3] Past, present and future. Here it is. Having a few weeks to myself have been wonderful. I spent them peacefully. Decided to ditched the self help, pick up my old guru, Pram Rawat, simplify my life, the project, the process. I haven't, you haven't, heard from my heart for a while, its been waylaid with the demands of the Whitworth Residency. Been good to get back in contact with myself.

Why Do I Write?

Why do I write? I didn’t attempt it till I was 30. I didn’t achieve it till I was 40. I didn’t reacquaint myself with my own voice, the knowledge of my own true lived experience till I was 60.

Why do I write? At first it was because I wanted to be somebody. I was fantastic at writing as a kid. I didn’t even have to try. The teachers would rip my poems out of my hand and stick them on sugar paper and stick them on the wall. I can remember two poems I wrote when I was really little in primary school. One was about a witch. Being a witch. Her personality grew from the accumulating details of her ingredients. Her stirring was the action that set the rhythm. The other was about a firework: the whoosh of it taking off, the spluttering before it fell back to earth, its layout on the page all created its individual personality.

I still admire this. The gush of Gabriel Garcia Marquez: ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ does what I instinctively did. It gives you the feeling of the place by layering abundant ingredients, as the colony would have been built over time. Intrinsically, the three main characters’ personalities grow from their interactions with these ingredients. I also love the way Cormac McCarthy ‘The Road’ accumulates its apocalyptic landscape, and the two main character’s personalities by making you live the actions of the man and his son scratching for shelter and food in a scarcity of ingredients.

I first realised I had a problem when I secured the role of Snow White in primary school. I was probably 7. 1966. I remember lying on the half horse-box, in my coffin with my hair out. I didn’t have a brush. I wouldn’t have been capable of brushing my hair back into my 2 plaits even if I had a brush. By the time my mum came to pick me up, my hair had grown from lying down into a huge afro. It was all over the place. My mum beat the living daylights out of me on the school steps. She had this thing that I had to do better because I was half black. That was what was prompting my amazing feats in school. I always won the prize as best pupil at the end of each term. And why she bought me new clothes for each school day-trip. I never went on the annual school trip to Staines. It was a huge fear of mine. An afro all week: a totally tangled mess for an entire week. I was a mess.

Why was I a mess? This is what I write about. I unearth and investigate key moments in my life. Key actions. Why do I remember them? How do they tie up? What are the accumulated ingredients that built the colony I live in, as in Love in the Time of Cholera? What have been my actions to scratch for food and shelter as in the Road?

Belonging and a Sense of Place 

The other day in John Lewis, I had taken the time to dress nicely yet cool.  I was wearing a truly stylish floor length Laura Ashley denim dress. I was looking forward to it: changing a towel my daughter had bought me for a Xmas present. I was gonna buy 2 towels. Expensive towels. Towels I really want. Jewel coloured towels. My daughter went off with her niece because I was taking ages imaging how these towels would look in my bathroom with all the jugs and plants I had collected over the years. Then a woman, not particularly a posh woman, but one most definitely not born in Moss Side looked at me. I knew why she was looking at me. She was pushing a woman in a wheelchair, probably her mother. ‘No you’re not,’ she said ‘are you?’ I didn’t answer. I knew she meant was I staff.  I knew she wanted me to help her. I wasn’t being silent because I was being difficult. I was trying to gauge if she was being unwittingly racist or if I had a chip on my shoulder. She said to the woman next to her, probably her sister ‘you just can’t please some people. Some people just don’t want to be happy.’ I carried on looking at them thinking: you can’t say that out loud. You don’t have the right to say that out loud. If I was a posh white woman that looked like you you wouldn’t dare say that out loud. But at the same time I had to think am I being unreasonable. I said, I didn’t shout, I said ‘why don’t you just shut up.’ I can’t remember what she said next. Something about me being unreasonable. She began to push her mother away. I said ‘you are racist.’ She said ‘there isn’t a racist bone in my body.’ I didn’t tell my daughter. Because I’m not sure: I am never sure. I then asked the staff if they had more of the golden towel. They said ‘no’ amicably with their depressed slightly sunken department store manner. I took the towels I had chosen to the counter. They took the money in their depressed slightly sunken department store manner. I thought what the fuck am I doing in here? But also where the fuck would I get good soft towels from a firm that I know would uphold their end of the bargain should something be wrong with them? I certainly wouldn’t be able to buy them in Moss Side. I’ve always hated crap towels. Ours were scratchy, striped, and thin when I was little in a bathroom that felt like no one lived there. I’ve always hated poverty. I’ve always loved beautiful things. The jugs and ceramics in my bathroom I’ve been collecting for years in my quest to own to learn how to curate the nice things I’ve seen in the big house of posh white women who have taken me under their wing over the years. That shopper’s actions reminded me I have the entitlement of a slave.  

Past, Present, and Future

In 1973 when I was 14 my dad sent me to Jamaica. It was £99. My Irish mum, Jamaican dad, brother and 3 sisters came with me to Manchester airport. I had a sign around my neck so the air stewardesses would know who I am. They sat me at the back of the plane to keep an eye on me. As we crossed ocean I began to cry. It got worse when the sky was engulfed in a fiery red sunset.

The plane landed. There were black people with thick unfathomable accents everywhere. I thought my dad’s was bad.

‘She look like him dough, Bas.’

‘She favour him well.’

‘See de nose, see de nose der.’

One woman stuck out above the rest. She took control of me. ‘Come here so.’

She didn’t pull my face this way and that to catch the light. She was dignified, like my dad. Her Sunday best outfit wasn’t covered with flowers or fruit. Her hands looked like mine, like his. She was his eldest sister.  Adlyn. I got in the back of a car with her. The cars set off up the mountain. The mountain was steep. The car had 3 wheels. There was a foot, if that, of dirt road beside the car. Beside that was a sheer drop. The car had 3 wheels. The driver kept looking back. ‘Me raaase how she favour him dough.’ My aunt didn’t talk. We arrived at her house. A shack. But hers wasn’t silvering. Her husband John was the local carpenter. Adlyn’s house was varnished from tip to toe. Both bedrooms. There was no kitchen. No bathroom. There was no taps. There was a pass through, onto the balcony, that served as the living room. There was his chair, and her chair, and a view to die for. I nearly died. Over the Blue Mountains, as far as the eye could see, were stars. I don’t mean piddling little far away stars, like the Mancunian stars I was staring at the night my dad died in 2003. But huge stars: like rips in bed sheets with a light pouring through. Terrifying stars. Unnatural stars. Fucking frightening stars. It all got worse. All the St Elizabethans who couldn’t fit in the caravan of cars that came to meet me were surrounding me now.

‘She favour him dough.’

‘Watch her nose.’

‘Look at her han’.

“Watch how she walk.’

‘Apart from gal she gal me would a t’ought him a 'tand der.’

It went on all night. The face pulling. The hand examining. ‘Walk make me see you walk.’ The kerosene smell of the lamps. The tiny strange lights all around me. The laughing. The white rum. The stars. The cooking on rocks stones. The terrifying stars. The bats on my bedroom ceiling as huge as cats. The terror. The crying. The begging to go home. Not out loud. I was well aware that Adlyn would show no comfort.

In the morning when I woke, the clothes I had on the night before were hanging washed by Adlyn on the boulders at the back of the garden. In front of me was a laden table. Steaming milo. Huge tomatoes. Corn bread. I can smell them as I write. It was abundant: like the view. Lush. As far as the eye could see: like an infinity pool, Adlyn’s kitchen garden that grew everything I was about to eat dropped away into the Blue Mountains. I ate alone, listening to Jimmy Cliff and Johnny Nash on the cassette recorder I had brought with me. I smiled then thinking of it.

Adlyn and my dad’s next sister Chickita, I was almost called Chickita, but my mum thought it was too black, took me to see my nana. She looked at me, then carried on with her own business, carrying her washing on her head down the hill to Black River. There was a rumour she was 96. Her tiny bent body. Her waist length grey plait. ‘She has hair down to here so,’ my dad always said. He wasn’t lying ‘Her poppa a Scottish man, McDonald, white, silver hair to here so.’ I could see it now: she was about the same colour as me. She looked at me, put her basket on her head and began the trek that I would never master without stumbling. Her bed piled high like the Princess and the Pea already, I left the lemon blanket my dad had instructed my mum to buy on Alec Rd and had personally packed into my suitcase, and the batteries for her radio. He sent no message of love, though he hadn’t seen her since 1957. Her one room shack was silvering. Not a drop of varnish.

Ma Country’s son, Trevor, the manager of his dad’s store, had one arm, beautiful caramel skin, and beautiful short sleeve shirts, especially his pale blue one that matched his pale blue eyes. On their porch were the sacks of rice, sugar, flour, the reins for mules, the shovels, inside was the finer things, think Little House on the Prairie. Out back were the drums and the white rum on Saturday night. Adlyn and Chickita would kick up their heels. Chickita would be back in knee bandages on Sunday for the Lord to take her. ‘Take me, take me, take me, Lord.’ I was upset He never took me. But I never dared drop to my knees in the aisle and demand it. My granddad was buried in the picket fence churchyard. ‘A dark man, big as that door.’

‘T’ump her Des. Lick her down. Make her fart.’ Me and all my cousins would tune in on weekday evenings on nana’s porch. Nana would keep the radio to herself on the other side of her silvered, warped shutters.

‘Cut it der so. Der so now.’ I lifted the machete. And whacked it down. One stroke and the head stayed on the flat rock. But the chicken’s body kept running. Them all laughing when I scream. Them all laughing when I can’t reach the oranges on the tree: when, Ida makes the cow’s eye jump before adding it to the potion for Chickita’s knees.

Adlyn and Chickita in dark Victorian dress on Montego Bay flat yellow beach. Adlyn cutting ganga from the doorstep bush to steep in the bay rum for the cattle ticks that are eating me alive. The fruit bats steps are rhythmic. He doesn’t care about me. The strange lights are fireflies. We catch them in jars to light the porch when Des is t’umping Lurleeen tonight. After we’ve eaten from the individual duchy pots that were placed on the rock-stone circles at noon in the circle of individual shacks. I’m middle class. Adlyn’s shack is varnished. Her husband Ma John is the carpenter. She is the seamstress. He is calm and patient. She is stern and school ma’amish. She wears flowered dresses and broke down men’s boots. Pretty Chickita has been loved by many, only her arthritic knees stop her now. You’ve heard the saying she could dress in a bin liner, that is Chickita. Her flowered dresses lie beautifully over her slight body. Whereas Adlyn’s cling to every line of her bulky frame. They look like my two sisters. Exactly like my 2 sisters. I know where I come from. Then one day I am passing along the dirt road to Pisgah when a tall stately woman in her Sunday best street clothes stops to hold out her hand. ‘I’m Mrs Samuels.’ She’s nothing like I imagined her. Five minutes before I thought my dad was, I thought my dad was, these people were, I thought I was these people. But this is a church lady: a really respectable church lady. The woman my dad left to be with my mum. His wife. The woman who he built a house for and their 6 pickney. My dad built a house? My dad couldn’t even build a fucking coffee table. It had 7 foot legs. ‘Wobbles when you look at it never mind leaned on it.’ One of my mum’s classics. She isn’t hating me, like my mum hates her. She isn’t. She isn’t doing anything. ‘Pleased to make your acquaintance.’ She doesn’t press me for any details. She doesn’t hate me like my mum hates her. She moves past. She carries on her way, away from Pisgah post office. I pick up my mail. My mum has written to me as promised. She wants to know how them lot are treating me.

I will say in my mum’s defence that every week she filled out and sent their £5 postal order because my dad couldn’t read or write. ‘You didn’t look back at us,’ she screams drunk in Manchester airport at 9am. Only she has come to meet me. Dad has gone to work, my brothers and sisters to school. ‘What did she look like then?’ I didn’t say it, though I wasn’t above it, I loved torturing her back then. I think I was trying to hold onto the peace I had achieved living 4 weeks in paradise. My eyes were red raw with crying cos I didn’t want to come back. I’d just checked them and my tan in the airport bathroom. The only thing I could have said was ‘she was a decent woman, mum, unlike you.’ ‘What,’ she screams at the man trying to pass us to get to his taxi. She’s looking at me suspiciously. She knows I have been friends with them. I have betrayed her. I have sold her out. ‘You’ve always been sly just like him.’

Oh, it got worse. She travels back and fourth to the corner off licence all day long. By the time he gets in she is no longer hiding the Guinness bottles. “You fucking black illiterate cunt.’ He takes his radio and extra batteries and locks himself in his bedroom. Around 8 0’clock Julie of the white MG with spoke wheels bars my mum from her off licence. ‘You’ve had enough, Peggy.’

‘I’ve had enough have I?’

Mum’s fighting with Julie.’ Mum’s fighting with Julie.’

They’re rolling around outside Julie's handmade shop. I wade in. Now I’m fighting with Julie, the woman who wielded a hammer to mend her own roof. I have to win the fight cos I’m a Moss Side girl. I have to win this fight. I’m winning the fight. Mum is ripping of Julie’s girlfriend’s top scratching her tits. They are never gonna give me my job back tomorrow. We’re up off the floor. Julie has to save Elaine.

‘You dirty lesbian bastard. You should be ashamed.’ It’s my mum who is ashamed. She left her 4 Irish kids to be with my dad. A genuine love story: I remember them smooching in the moonlight through the tall Georgian windows of our one room in Grafton Street Chorlton on Medlock. The world didn’t judge him the same when he left his six. ‘You have to do better because you are half black,’ she would drum into me.

Okay. Since 2000, I’ve been a professional playwright, resident in the National Theatre, then Contact Theatre. 2005 my first play was produced at the Royal Court and published by Methuen. You can’t do better than that.  Major theatres across the country have produced my plays. I am a multi award winning playwright. My last in 2010 did a critically acclaimed 4* national tour, and won an Edinburgh Fringe First. You can’t do better than that. 2016 I collect Reno memoirs. 2017 we actually excavate the Reno. 2018 we are finalist in 8 national awards. 2019 the Reno is resident for a whole year in the Whitworth Art Gallery. No community venture has ever done better than that. Last month I won Outstanding Contribution to Manchester Culture Award. And still someone wants to label me the help in John Lewis. Even though I am wearing a truly stylish floor length Laura Ashley denim dress.

I’m smiling. I don’t even know the answer. I don’t 100% know the next steps. It’s something to do with visibility. Maybe that really is the answer that the world gets to see that someone like me, who talks like me, can be as successful as me. That we don’t just wash dishes, or clean floors, or serve in shops, that we produce art. Yeah, so going back to what I promised before we split up for the holidays: the project plans. I’m gonna concentrate on producing art. I don’t know what that looks like yet. But using all this raw Reno material I have collected to make something truly spectacular for Manchester International Festival. I feel like thinking big. I feel like being dramatic. I feel like making a real splash. I feel like declaring I am here.

Although this may seem counterintuitive to the last paragraph this is the last time I will be posting my blog in someone else’s FB group. Admins don’t like it. I will be blogging every Sunday still, but if you want to read it you’ll have to remember to come straight here to our website. Looking forward to reading your comments. If you’re having problems commentng use Chrome. Thanks for listening. Happy New Year. And I hope you enjoyed your hols.

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