Tuesday, 14 November 2006
No.14: St. Lucia
Alex Horne - 14th November 2006
I'm not normally a brave person, but once in a while sheer adrenaline takes over and I do something that surprises even myself. That's what happened soon after Owen had bagged himself a Cypriot in a launderette in Wapping, when I boldly addressed three men in a grocer's shop, one of whom was clutching a can of Stella Artois and had just uttered the sentence: "Hey, I'm from the Caribbean!"
Now, we've all got some preconceptions. I guess I realised then that one of mine was that I tend to presume I won't have a nice sixty minute chat with a strange man from the Caribbean holding a beer at three in the afternoon in Wapping. And I guess one of his was that he presumed people who approach you with a folder in a shop in the East End at 3pm are always trying to sell you something. Once we'd both put those notions to one side, Paul and I got on just fine.
We were already pleased to have stumbled upon someone from Cyprus in an area where the Bangladeshi community seem to outnumber the British (we found Rana, of course, on day one). So, when we found out that these three grocer-dwelling gentlemen were from St Lucia, Barbados and Guyana respectively we couldn't believe our luck.
Unfortunately, it soon became clear that our Guyanese fellow was in no mood for global questions. Dubbed 'The Professor' by the others, he explained that he was a citizen of the world, not just one country, and didn't want to be constrained by our queries. Considering Guyana is confusingly referred to as part of the West Indies despite its physical location within South America, and is currently embroiled in some sort of border dispute with Suriname, we thought it best not to try to persuade him otherwise. Instead we let him get on with his business of pacing up and down the street, photographing the cars, the shops and, mostly, us. I'm sure, like us, he had his reasons.
The third member of the group was Eric, a tall man who reminded me of the first American President in 24 (who is currently helping out the pathetic stand-in leader in the third series that I'm struggling to watch on DVD). Frustratingly, however, he explained in extremely eloquent English that he wasn't articulate enough to help us with our project. Instead he would pass on our phone numbers to his more loquacious brother, who lives near Kensal Green and would love to share his Barbadian memories with the world. Eric then went on to talk at length about his own life in Barbados, his deep passion for all forms of cricket, and his well-crafted political stance on immigration – none of which he was happy for us to use. A frustratingly modest man.
Two down, our hopes were pinned on Paul. But even his approval was looking doubtful as he hesitated suspiciously, trying to work out if he was being taken on a ride, being used for some nefarious scheme that would probably involve identity theft. In the course of what turned out to be complex negotiations, however, he did release some crucial details of his own journey to London from St Lucia.
He arrived in England, a twelve year old with sandals still on his feet, at some point in the 1960s (he was adamant that we wouldn't learn his actual age). He had left far behind a tropical, volcanic island in the eastern Caribbean sea, and found himself in a freezing flat with no running water, attending a school where his lack of P.E. kit meant he was forced to run, shivering, half-naked round the streets of the East End.
This was not the London he had eagerly anticipated. In his previous Caribbean classroom Paul had learnt all about Big Ben, Tower Bridge and the glorious architecture of the capital. For after finally 'winning' the island on the back of no less than fourteen battles with the French, the British were keen to stamp their authority upon their new progeny. Like some pushy parent after a messy divorce, the colonisers taught St Lucian children about their fine achievements, and soon encouraged them to make the honourable journey to the motherland and rejoice in staffing the health system and manning our trains and buses.
It was not until 1979 that St Lucia became an independent state. Even now, as a Commonwealth Realm, it still recognizes Queen Elizabeth II as the Head of State, represented on the island by a Governor-General. Is that not a bit embarrassing? Sure, swash-buckling sea battles in the 1600s are all very exciting but why should a 160,000 strong island population have to ask their God to save a Queen who lives on another island ten hours away by plane?
Well, it's not really my place to say. And neither Eric nor Paul seemed to have a problem with that particular situation. What they have a problem with is what's going on in their own country today – i.e. the UK in 2006. After living here for almost fifty years they say they feel less safe now than ever before. Not, Eric stresses, because of any racial tensions – although that is still a problem that occasionally surfaces – but because a new generation is running wild.
This is a bit of a complicated one and you've got to remember that throughout our conversation The Professor was snapping away with his camera, Paul was still trying to work out if he was being conned and we were still in the doorway to a greengrocers in Wapping. In fact, it was largely thanks to the encouragement of the three amused and stereotypically East End ladies who ran the shop that Paul did eventually agree to join our scheme. It took a while, but at the end of our encounter he posed for our own camera, gave us his mobile number and promised to stay in touch.
First, however, we had the problem of London's unruly youth to discuss and like I say, it's complicated. When Paul first arrived, things were literally and metaphorically black and white. There was the black community, recently landed from the West Indies, and the white Londoners who eventually got used to their new neighbours.
These days, however, things are just too cosmopolitan. Yes, says Paul, there were people from India here before – as well as from Bangladesh and other parts of Asia - but now the Eastern Europeans have come and the balance has been upset. For according to Paul, these new immigrants don't care about Britain, have no historical links with the Queen and so won't worry about treating the resident population with respect.
According to this rationale then, the fact that the British took control of the island in 1814, after having fought with the French since they effectively bought it from the native Carib people in 1660, means that St Lucians now have more loyalty to their colonisers than the immigrants who have no stronger tie than the European Union (and often not even that). It's hard for me to get my head round that sort of allegiance. I can understand that a lot of good was done in the Caribbean and that previously unobtainable opportunities were granted to the people there, but nationalities from all over Europe now have those same prospects without the spectres of colonisation and servitude lingering in their past. Why should they be less grateful than any 'members of the Realm'?
"We are more British than them", says Paul and that's pretty much the end of the argument. It's also partly why, despite his current misgivings, he will never go back to live in St. Lucia. He may have had his bin set on fire by kids last week, and the tube might well be overcrowded but this is his home and this is where his friends are. He no longer knows St Lucia or its people. Things have changed on both islands and it's this one that he feels more affiliation with. Of course he's patriotic but he's also a proud Londoner.
I happened to be wearing a claret and grey stripey jumper that day (it was a bit chilly and I'm not very trendy) and Paul immediately assumed I was a West Ham fan like him. When he found out I was a Liverpool supporter he took it as read (sorry, accidental pun) that I must have grown up there – he didn't even contemplate the fact that I might have started supporting them just because they were good in the eighties – for Paul is entrenched in his community and a hammer through and through.
By the time the talks had reached a conclusion, I think we all felt a sense of achievement. Paul and Eric had been anxious that we were doing this for the right reasons, that we were learning about London as we went, and that their side of the story would be told. I was glad to have summoned up the courage to approach them, fascinated by what they said, and incredibly chuffed to have met someone from at least one of the Caribbean islands – just twenty three to go.
We parted company amicably and with a certain amount of ceremony as Paul offered me the beer he'd been holding throughout the diplomatic meeting. When I'd first noticed the men and the drink an hour before I'd been wary. It's not uncommon to see guys who may or may not be from the West Indies enjoying a sociable drink in the middle of the afternoon but I'd normally tend to keep a low profile when walking past - just to make sure I don't get involved. Now I happily cracked open the hitherto untampered with can and Owen and I greedily gulped down the contents as we strolled back to the DLR.