Marianne won the 2015 Saltire International Travel Bursary for Creative Writing a partnership with British Council Scotland.
19 March 2016
Today I am in Kingston, Jamaica to research a book I am writing in Scotland but whose genesis is the Kingston of 1948, thanks to a travel bursary from the lovely people at the Saltire Society and courtesy of British Council Scotland. And it's because I grew up in the 1970's.
I am long enough in the tooth to remember, with acuity, a time when people said racist things and that was ok. Institutionally it was ok. You see, they weren't being racist, they were just saying the things that people said, apparently. If you don't believe me, you should try to catch an episode of It ain't half hot mum. Once a week, for what seemed like my entire childhood, a state-sponsored comedy show would run a programme so full of "isms" that it would make a BBC Director General cry over an Independent Enquiry or worse, a Government White Paper.
But what the state deemed Funny, and my parents allowed us to watch and laugh at in the name of prime time comedy, we were most definitely not allowed to repeat outside of an improvised impersonation of a character from said show. Cue conversation with mother.
Imagine if you will, a Ladyburd book, like the Ladybird series but Scottish.
In the picture it's a hot, sunny day. Because it is a well-known fact that every day you can recall from the 1970s was a hot and sunny one. I had just passed on, excuse me the plain, but not unattractive girl in the picture, repeats to mother (the one standing at a sink peeling spuds) some comment or other she overheard in the playground. It wasn't a very nice comment. Imagine a minor white supremacist phrase. I mean it wasn't that bad, but in my head, sorry the plain, but not unattractive girl's head, it would grow in time to feel that bad.
What the reader cannot see, but the plain, but not unattractive girl in the picture can see, is mother's spine elongate by several inches. The tension in the kitchen can be stirred with that handy wooden spoon to the right of the knife that peels the spuds. The girl should be running for cover, because she knows that ramrod spine only too well. Any minute now she can expect a rattle of rebukes to rain upon her like rounds of gunfire. For she knows not what she said, but she knows it can't have been good. Instead she hears words, spoken in a cold, firm voice, that she will still be able to remember when she is much older (say, not yet 50):
"Don't EVER let me hear you say anything like that again."
Turn the page, and the conversation between plain, but not unattractive girl and mother runs something like this:
But the church says...
Well they're wrong.
But they say that it helps the little black babies.
It doesn't. It patronises them and that's not the same thing.
But granny from South Africa has a black maid called Kitty, and she must be poor if she is a maid.
Don't go there, plain, but not unattractive daughter. She will only be here for one week. Just one week. Just try.
But she showed me a picture...
For the sake of legal accuracy - the plain, but not unattractive child would not want her mother to sue me - I should point out that the second page is an accumulation of several conversation snippets over a complete childhood. But you get the gist.
So I grew up in a confused world, knowing that it was alright for state-sponsored TV to do and say one thing, but in our house it was wrong. Yet in other houses it would be fine to say those things that I must not. For in my home I grew up to know that we were all born equal. Except women, who were born equal in law and were paid equally by law yet not in actual fact, and they still had to look after the children, make the meals and do the laundry. But that is a different blog for another day.
So I am here in Jamaica, about to go visit the Jamaican Institute and I blame it on the 70s. I may as well. Everybody else does. It was, after all, the decade of the dawning of a new era, where all the things we had held to be dear and true were beginning to fall apart.
20 March 2016
It would appear that you were not wrong when you spoke about the value that travel and change of place have on the mind.
When I embarked on my trip my mind was set on working through the watertight plan I had created for myself, in order to discover what I needed to know. I had trawled the four corners of the Google world and had set off from Edinburgh airport armed with a list of places to see, information to seek, indeed all the missing parts I hoped to find which would add the depth and tones of Kingston life to my novel. Albeit a Kingston that existed sixty years ago. And if I was to be very lucky I might even visit Edinburgh Castle. I have been very excited to read the history of Edinburgh Castle in Jamaica.
My first hiccup happened as I made my way through Flight Connections at Gatwick: "a problem with your boarding pass, would you mind going over to the desk" sort of hiccup. Well yes, inside my head, I do mind, but as I was brought up to be polite, I politely nod and smile and go stand in a short queue that takes an extraordinary length of time to clear. The polite staff member for British Airways checks my details on her computer screen and announces that there is a problem with my seating choice and she would have to move me. My hackles had barely had time to rise before she added "to a Club World seat."
I floated through the remainder of Flight Connections, in to the Duty Free area and clutching my freshly printed boarding pass, I made my way to the lounge area. Oh yes, the perks of a seat upgrade just kept getting better. I enjoyed the free pastries and drinks on offer, rubbed shoulders with a footballer called Mark Noble (sorry Mark, never heard of you) and sat with my notebook open poised for writerly action. It's what we writers do in the face of new experiences don't you know. We get out our notebooks and we start taking notes.
Except I didn't do that. Instead, my mind wandered off around the faux library setting of the lounge and out of nowhere that I could detect, a sense of how the structure of my novel should work washed over me. The structure of this novel has plagued me almost from the outset. Possibly because it started life as a short story that has just kept sprouting an off-shoot here or a diversion there, I have never been clear about where or when the novel starts.
And sitting in that holding pen between here and there, where I had yet to travel beyond the boundary of our shores, that change of place had done the trick. Just like Seneca said, back in the dawning of the first millennium, all it took was a change of place - or in my case, a change of seat - to impart new vigour to my work.
23 March 2016
Driving in Jamaica
Well if you paid heed to the Foreign Office website guidance, and you had any sort of a cautious personality, you just wouldn't bother. If you have to, "Drive defensively," it cautioned. The government wouldn't lie to me, would they? I have driven abroad before several times, often on the other side of the road, and I've lived to tell the tale. But on balance, car hire was going to be way more inexpensive, not to mention convenient, to get out and about to see the places I wanted to visit, so hire a car I did. And a SatNav.
My first thoughts on driving in Jamaica was how rude the other drivers were. I was generally minding my own business on the road, but seemed to attract an usual number of car honks. Then I stopped being paranoid and noticed that the car honking seemed to be a fact of life in Jamaica. Finally, I googled it and am now quite happy to participate in what seems like an addition to a public conversation system. If you are interested in finding out more, you'll find this link quite informative ://thenewblackmagazine.com/view.aspx?index=154. And once I got used to not using the windscreen wipers for an indicator, driving in Jamaica was no more scary than driving round London at rush hour, or the Arc de Triomphe at any time of the day (or night). That was until I saw this on the SatNav:
Only approximately 6km to drive. Heavens above, I ran just over that distance less than a week ago! How bad could it be? Well I guess that depends on how you define bad. Sporadic road signs urge you to honk before the corners, and the corners are every 50 meters or so (or so it felt) and by the time I got to Newcastle, I had to have one white-knuckled hand prised off the steering wheel and the other hand surgically removed from the car horn.
Knowing that I would have to repeat the journey shortly afterwards was not exactly the sort of experience I came here to seek, especially when I consulted the weather and it looked like this:
I'm not usually an emoji person. Being a wordsmith, I like to think I can find the right words to say in any situation. However, on this occasion let me just say:
24 March 2016
Raking through the Past
I love old documents and books. The smell of fusty paper and the sight of a well-cracked spine (of a book obviously) takes me back to my childhood, often-times spent at my grandmother's flat in what was known as the coffin blocks of Corbiehall in Bo'ness. My grandmother had a unique kind of library. It was an old tin bath, that she kept in the bottom of a solid wooden wardrobe, the sort that several small children can play hide-and-seek in. I did try to locate Narnia once or twice, but apparently it couldn't be accessed from Bo'ness
In the tin bath she kept all of her old books, most of them prizes won from the Sunday School, or perhaps the odd school prize. I always knew that she was proud of her well-earned trove and it was there that I was introduced to many classics, Kidnapped and Catriona, Treasure Island, Pride & Prejudice and Wuthering Heights, all bound in leather. Alongside the bath of books were old dresses of my mother's from the 1940s, which I realise now were probably hand-me-downs from her older cousins. My favourite was the red dress with white Peter Pan collar, almost exactly like the one from the movie Annie
Now the worst thing a child could say to my grandmother was "I'm bored" and I quickly learned in life that it was always in my best interests to find a way to amuse myself. A tactic I would repeat when working in the Financial Services industry.
"Are you raking again?" Was how my grandmother responded to my rummage in the literary past of her wardrobe. She would rarely be upset by this activity, whereas my constant stream of questions would be met with a "Hud yer wheesht lassie, you've got a tongue that would clip-bloody-cloot." And this is how I grew up to believe in the power of the well-placed expletive, as well as the power of personal research and personal reading, especially when dressed in a delicate red frock with a white Peter Pan collar.
If only I had realised how special such relics of a bygone era were. They were museum quality pieces. But like many things, the tin bath and old clothes were consigned to the local tip when my grandparents moved, first to a house that wasn't nearly so exciting to a child and then to sheltered accommodation when they became frail. I was lucky enough to have been given many of the books by my gran and they continue to grace the shelves of my home.
So you can imagine my delight to be able to spend a couple of days raking through the archives of the National Library of Jamaica. In fairness, that would be Bernadette who raked around the archives, at my request, to come up with old books and documents from the 1920's (I was humouring myself with those ones, as that wasn't the era that I was researching) as well as books from the 1940s and 50s. I would have to say a huge thank you to Bernadette. She was so helpful, asked me what I was trying to find out, and then showed me how to digitally root around their archives. She then found several of the most relevant items and dug them out for me. She directed me to their Special Collections and I browsed piles of old photographs and postcards, as well as the maps section. I was very excited to locate an original planning department street map of Kingston in 1949. It was the size of table that was approximately 2 metres wide by 1.5 metres deep.
My finds at the National Library of Jamaica were everything that a lover of old documents could hope for. Original, crinkly, sepia, annotated. Lovely. The only thing that would have made it perfect, would have been if I were wearing a delicate red frock, with a Peter Pan collar. Or maybe some things are better left in the past.
The Saltire International Travel Brusaries are a partnership with
British Council Scotland.