Monday, October 26, 2009

A few things you probably never knew about Bananas

Bananas plants are not trees. Technically they are actually very large herbs. They grow from a rhizome, on a stem of tightly packed leaves a bit like a cigar. They can grow as tall as five metres or more.

They fruit once, producing a proboscis that droops down, on which grows a ‘bunch’ of bananas.

A bunch of bananas is not the cluster of eight or ten bananas that you buy in a supermarket. These are often called ‘hands’ (well, they do look like so many fingers, I suppose). A bunch is usually about ten hands and can weight 35 kilos.

Bananas themselves grow ‘upside down’. As the proboscis hangs down, so the square black point of the banana, the unattached end, points upwards.

But surely the loveliest fact is the banana’s botanical name. It is called musa sapientum, or ‘the muse of wise men’. You can just imagine an early guru (bananas originate in the East) sitting in the shade of a banana plant, enjoying the fruit and having spontaneous wise thoughts.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Accents Galore - An Amusing Look At Caribbean Language

It’s one of those quiet pleasures of travelling the Caribbean. To hear, in the speech of West Indians, sounds that you are sure originate elsewhere. Well, they might, anyway. Accents are notoriously difficult to pin down. As soon as you think you have caught one within the lovely lilt of West Indian, it evaporates into other sounds. The harder you try the more they seem to get away from you.

It’s only English accents I am referring to, as they are the ones I know. I believe that old Breton can be heard in the French spoken by the natives of St Barths and no doubt regional traces can be heard in the creoles of the Spanish and Dutch islands too. And there must be affects from all the African languages that newly arrived slaves would have spoken.

They say that Shakespearean English is probably more similar to the English spoken in Harlem than to that of current day England. And on a good day I’m certain you can hear Irish in the speech of Montserratians. In fact it’s not that illogical there, in the Caribbean’s ‘Emerald Isle’. Montserrat was known as a place friendly to English-speaking Catholics in the mid 1600s and the telephone book is full of names such as Ryan, Farrel and Daly. But then the same thing happens in Anguilla. Supposedly as a result of a shipwreck. You can be standing on a beach, rum punch in hand - it helps in this endeavour, I suspect - talking to a man and you’ll find he addresses you in, well… Oirish. It’s almost Caribbean craic.

If it is mostly befuddling – Dominica and St Lucia have obvious French tinges - Trinidad has a slightly comic edge. People swear you can hear Welsh laced into Trini speech. But consider this. It’s a fact that people have trouble with a Welsh accent, and all too often they slip into an Indian/Pakistani accent by mistake. With so many Trinis from the Indian subcontinent, who knows which is which.

It has been said for years that Bajan speech is derived from West Country English. And there is a certain logic to this too. In the mid seventeenth century, when Barbados was being populated by the English, Bristol was the most important port in the West of England (Liverpool had not yet come into its own). And Judge Jeffreys had a part to play too, after the Pitchfork Rebellion in 1685 and his Bloody Assizes, in which many West Countrymen were deported. It seems a long time ago, but, sit on a bus in Bridgetown, and close your eyes might almost be in Bath or Okehampton.

It hit home most for a friend of mine when she was visiting Harrison’s Cave, where she heard the guide say – ‘This here is a stalagtoite. And this, is a stalagmoite….’ She could, she decided, have been in Cheddar Gorge.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Review of Jamaica Farewell by Morris Cargill (1978, Barricade Books, 1995)

Jamaica Farewell is an exceptionally touching memoir of a man in the process of leaving an island to which he belongs. It was the 1970s, politically a difficult time around the Caribbean, and many of the wealthy islanders were leaving because they saw no future there. For Cargill the situation was even more poignant because he was writing commentaries in the newspaper about the situation and it was getting him in trouble. Eventually he felt he had to go. This is his tribute to an island that he so obviously loves.

His writing is clear and direct, so it is generally easy to read. At the same time it is strongly opinionated – as the man himself obviously was. His columns in the Jamaica Gleaner were testament to that. But given that the pleasure of reading has a good deal to do with enjoyment too, it is important that it is shot through with generous good humour. It starts with – and then is peppered with throughout - the funny stories of happenstance and eccentricity that seem to occur more in Jamaica than anywhere else. Cargill is also a sharp observer, whether it be the curious lilt of Jamaican language or the learning behaviour of bananaquits (he sees them learning to hover like hummingbirds to get at nectar).

Viewed from the perspective of the early 21st Century, Jamaica Farewell can seem paternalistic, even patronising, but it doesn’t take long for the true spirit of the man to come through. Actually Cargill was a rebel and a radical in his day. He scandalised white Jamaican society by adopting a black child and he introduced radical new worker conditions on his plantation. And he was hard-hitting when he wanted to be, relentlessly pursuing causes in which he believed. He was known in the 1970s as one of the scourges of the Manley government for his columns in the Gleaner. At times you can feel the columnist warming to his theme in Jamaica Farewell, whether it be drugs or the remorseless purgatives in Victorian English medicine. Occasionally they jar slightly in the writing – perhaps because he knows he is being contentious – but mostly they are seamless and of course they often lighten the book with obvious good humour.

The key emotions of the memoir however are eternal. It is clear to feel the man’s love for a country which he can see going to hell in a handcart (then a very popular streetside vending platform in Jamaica) – shortages, election fraud and for him personally threats of prosecution for being anti-government in his writings. He has done what he can and so he decides to leave – for an uncertain future in New York.

Most of us are visitors to the Caribbean. While we are stunned by the beauty of the islands – and Jamaica is among the most beautiful - and we are usually impressed by the people, we only see the surface. Jamaica Farewell is very well written and an immensely touching book that will illustrate the attachment of West Indians to their islands.

Often it turns out to be an unavoidable bond. Two years after leaving, Morris Cargill returned, living out the rest of his life there.
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