I cried when we took off in Rome. I cried when everyone started clapping when the plane touched down in Lagos. I cried again when we got to Accra and everyone clapped. I ran out of the plane, hoping I wouldn’t further embarrass myself with more tears. I started laughing instead, when the wall of heat hit my face. The smells and the people and the steupsing and the laughter. ‘You are home,’ the man behind me said. ‘You are home.’
I still smile every time I come out of the Brixton Tube station and turn left, and it’s like being in Africa and Asia and the Caribbean all at once. The incense man outside the supermarket is really from Barbados, though he pronounces “incense” like a Jamaican. A car passes, blasting the latest funky house summer scorcher, the unholiest of combinations of high life’s easy groove, dancehall’s driving bass, and soca’s call to wine.
Piece I wrote for Caribbean Beat Magazineon my ongoing love affair with Babylondon.
Yeah so this about twenty years late, but better late than never, no? Well I figure if I really want to commit to this hippy life I should at least know how to ride a bike. This is a lot easier than it sounds, but to my surprise I didn’t suck as badly at it as I thought I would and I did manage to pedal a few times. But it occurred to me as I wobbled along, picturing all the while that I was riding to Spitalfields Market (maybe this is why I was distracted and couldn’t steer straight) that life is a lot like learning to ride a bike. For the following reasons, in no particular order.
1. it hurts sometimes.
2. you need to find balance!
3. you will fall!
4. it really helps to have a boomsie (thank you, starch mango tree)
5. did I mention balance?
6. be patient with yourself, you will get it evenutally (I had a few Don Music moments)
7. random men will think it’s okay to give you their (unsolicited) advice.
8. when you can’t make it up the hill, it’s always good to have a friend to push you, and steer you away from the potholes.
9. there are potholes and you seem to be attracted to them.
10. laughing helps.
11. everybody looks this stupid at least once in their lives.
12. brakes! don’t forget the brakes.
Anyway, my hands hurt from hours of over-zealous brake application so that’s about as much wisdom as I can impart for now. all of which is to say that I’m glad that I got over my lameness and actually took the chance to try something new!
It is an awful sound. Guttural and raw. A teenaged boy sobbing. It is the worst sound and it twists my insides and I am fighting back tears. Not for the boy these boys are weeping for. I did not know Zac Olumegbon. Or more correctly, I do not remember him. He was the little brother of my little sister’s best friend. She had the most serious face, I remember. I always wondered why children here always looked so serious. Like they had the world of worries. Perhaps they do, living in this corner of Babylondon.
And if I have run away from Trinidad hoping to escape the endless statistics of little black boys killing each other for honour, to regain their misplaced manhood, I have run to the wrong place.
Brixton, despite the gentrification and the nice gastro pubs and the belligerent foxes, is one of those London places where crime happens. I don’t see the Eastern European whores in the park anymore and outside the Library they’ve made it all shiny and new. But there are still old homeless people and young drugged up people and sad drunk people of all ages. They do not go away despite the shiny new surfaces.
The sight of crying children is unbearable. I guess because I take such a pragmatic view of death. It happens. It is natural. Zac’s life as one of the speaker’s says, has been stolen. Like a chain from someone’s neck. Like the childhood of all these young people who have to say goodbye to a boy who has not yet lived.
They stabbed him. Children stabbed him. Children like him. What can they possibly know of life to warrant killing a 15 year old. What could they possibly be so sure of that they can take another life?
I look at the faces of my sisters’ friends. They are young and old at the same time. Too much living too soon. I cherish my own sheltered childhood. That I got to doubt myself and make believe and wish and dream and never once wonder if someone was going to deny me the chance to make mistakes.
My fought back tears are not for Zac. They are rather for his friends and family. Hundreds of them. Gathered in grief on this bleakest of summer days. There are long silences punctuated only by half stifled sobs and sniffles.
The police stay a respectable distance. No profiling now. No microwaving of leftover sus laws.
A young man read/raps Psalm 37 in the rhythm and truth of his Sath Landin twang. The cheeky boys from the bus hold each other and cry silently, and then wipe the tears away as if they are angry with their leaking eyes.
My fought back tears are for them. For their anger and grief. For his mother and his sister and my sisters and all the young women here who will have to find a way to keep loving these men who are at war with themselves.
What war the Pastor asks. What war can they fight when they own nothing? What post code, what block belongs to them? What property do they own when they live in state provided housing, are second generation immigrants? Where do they belong? Not even to themselves.
These children cry and my mother instinct moans helplessly. There is no consoling for this kind of grief. You can’t stick a dummy in the mouth of a generation that is becoming accustomed to burying their own.
I leave before it is finished. Leave his mother reading the mountain of tributes. Leave behind Zac Olumegbon, who was the little brother of my little sisters friend. They hope he has not died in vain. All these people who have come to weep for him. They hope no more will have to shed tears like this again. Still, sirens wail in the distance, louder than Zac’s mother, louder than the thud of a boy fainting from grief, louder than the shaky voices of his school friends crying out to Christ for mercy. On this bleak summer day.
Been doing a lot of backing up and adding and deleting tonight. Listening to favourite songs and some songs I haven’t listened to in ages. Brings back really wonderful memories of my life and times, trodding through creation, meeting some wonderful people and maintaining ties with some lovely old friends. Some songs I can’t listen to anymore because they are so full of memories…some of them bring back a time when life was less complicated. But I am thankful for them all. I guess I’m documenting them in the unfortunate event that I forget how much these pieces of music and the times and the places and the people mean to me.
Billie Jean – Michael Jackson Early 1980’s George Lamming was staying at our house, working on something or another. My sister had just got a copy of the Thriller album and we set about playing it over and over. Uncle George declares to our great shock and horror ‘Who is this Jackson person?’ So of course we had to put on a whole concert for him, including Didi doing the moonwalk across the living room. At the end of the song, Uncle George declares ‘This is a funny sort of house’.
Inglan is a Bitch – Linton Kwesi Johnson – 1987 London The mother took me to an LKJ concert in London somewhere. I don’t remember the details because I slept through most of it, but at some point in the night I remember waking up to see this little black guy prancing around the stage singing in the roughest, loveliest voice I’ve ever heard ‘Hinglan is a beeetch’. Been in love with him ever since.
Everybody Wants to Rule the World – Tears for Fears – 1986 Watford. I was standing at the bus stop outside Woolworths with my sisters on the way to school. I was standing there minding my own business when this woman comes up and punches me in the face. Dry so!! Buss my lip and everyting. Not pleasant. This is the song that was playing on the radio when the Babylon came to question me about the woman after school.
Natty Dread – Bob Marley and the Wailers May 2000 Kingston. Went down to Trench Town to do some volunteer work at a community centre. They didn’t cater for the vegetarians so we wandered across the street looking for a vendor. Happened to wander straight into the yard where Bob used to live with his mother and Bunny Wailer. We sat in the shade of giant ganja trees and reasoned with rasta elders who gave us fruits and coconut water to eat. Bliss!
He Loves Me – Jill Scott – Winter 2003 England – Road Trip to Stone Henge with my very good sister friends Tonni, Tamara, BinghiNya and Gab. Nya was driving us to Bath and then she started to sing this song. I am so very thankful to have these womyn in my life!!
Here and Now- Andre Tanker – Winter 2003, China. I didn’t find out that Andre died a whole three days after… That day Tonni and I took a trip to the sea off Qinhuangdao. It was cold and the water grey. But it was good to be by the sea and I was glad to have a moment to whisper my goodbyes into the waves.
Fools Die – Peter Tosh- New Years Day 2004 London. Passed out at Skateboard Pete’s New Years Party, woke up at 6 am and this is the song Svenn was playing. A melancholy way to start a bizarre year that I was very glad to see the end of!
Shanti Om – Lord Shorty – Jouvay 2004 Trinidad We were just coming out of the Savannah. I think Shel Shok was the DJ. The sun was just coming up and they drop this song! Ooooh gouud…I was never so happy to be home as in that moment. By Ash Wednesday I was cured of that, though.
Natural Roots – Jah Shaka – Summer 2004 Me and Empress Jo in Finsbury Park at an all day Dub festival. The house in Turnpike Lane with the Hairy Fairies and food and reasonings and energy balls and falling asleep standing up in all night Jah Shaka dances in the Rocket in Holloway. The N29! D&G ginger beers and the best 24 hour snack shop in Trafalgar Square. Primrose Hill and vegan Thai buffet paradise for stoners. Sundays in Spitalfields market. Cheesy reggae Saturday nights in Camden! And that lovely Ethiopian bredrin, Yohannes was his name?
Water No Get Enemy – Fela Anikulapo Kuti – Autumn 2004 London – Svenn used to play this song at least twice a day. I don’t know why it became such an anthem for us, given that we were living in the middle of Chelsea with Ralph Lauren as our corner store, ha! Walking down to King’s Road we would spontaneously start singing the song together. Our merriment was frequently cut short by a burst of running to catch the Number 19.
One Day – Mungal featuring 3 Canal – New Years Day 2005 London – Me, Kassie and Nya talking about all our hopes and dreams and fears on the brink of a new day.
Zion – Maximus Dan – Summer 2005 – I was living in Zürich and getting rather fat. So every morning I would go for a run in a vineyard near the lake. It was mostly uphill and I would never really think I could make it. But just as I got to the top of the hill this song would come on and I would practically fly down the hill towards home, smiling maniacally with my hair flapping about in the breeze. Needless to say the neighbours stared at me like I just landed from another planet….
Anisiedad – Daisy Voisin Christmas 2005 Trinidad. I hadn’t been home since my grandmother died in 2003. The mother was in the kitchen making black cake and then this song came on and it made me think of my Ida and the fact that she was the original black cakist. That I would never again have the pleasure of her boofs, her smiles, her sarcasm, her pakchoi and rice! I hadn’t had a chance to cry for her in almost two years of travelling, working, loving, moving again, running away and trying to figure out where home was. But then Daisy came on and I got a full appreciation of all that I was missing and all that I had missed.
Live Good – Burning Spear- Carnival 2006 Chatham …the first time I went down to Chatham and met the women of the community and was so impressed by the concern and commitment that I was motivated to get involved in their struggle against Alcoa. When the meeting was finished we ate with them and then Samantha, the 8 year old daughter of our hosts, took my hand and walked with me around her yard. She pointed out all the different trees: mango, pomerac, zaboca, fig. And then she looked me in the eye and said ‘if Alcoa comes I not going to have this anymore’. Part of the reason I never went back to Switzerland…
Ee wa Obakoso – Ella Andall – Summer 2007 Iceland – We were driving up to Husavik right at the northernmost point of Iceland. At about 1 am it was still light and my anarchist friends decided that that was a good time to go check out a crater. It was so windy and cold I ran all the way. Got to the top out of breath with the wind howling in my ears and the crater’s gravel crunching under my hiking boots. I don’t know if I was crying because I was so cold or because I was so overwhelmed to be where I was for the reason that I was there. I had never felt so far from home and yet so close to myself. The wind blew my tears away and then everything got very still.
Naturally – Slow Train – Rainy Season 2008, Trinidad. Me and Kassie, joined by Jacob on a road trip to Toco. We practically wore a hole into that cd replaying that song speeding through the north coast.
Even After All- Finley Quaye- Many Many Nights 2008 The Republic. After party cleaning up. Svenn bepping on the day bed. Sheli listening to every note. Keshav singing and washing dishes. Makeda cooking, again. Me playing ten last songs. Daddy O recounting Amel’s birth. Lemongrass and ginger tea, chocolate tea and pongkin choka. Enamel cups and loud laughter.
Okay I’m going to stop there before this gets too cheesy….
So last month when I got the Babylon-don jones really badly, I decided to sublet my loft at the commie commune I’ve been living in in St. Anns for the summer. But of course my life works out the way it wants to so I got offered some work that’s going to keep me in the region till the end of August so I’ve moved back in with the mother for a bit. But she’s been in Cuba so I’ve been house sitting. I think this is the first time in a long time that I’ve had such a long spell of solitary living and I have to say it’s been blissful. It comes at a good time too, when I’m doing all this writing and thinking and feeling and other ings that require space and time.
The funny thing about my life is that it always seems to work out exactly the way it’s supposed to. The bizarre and unplanned twists I know now I’m not supposed to resist. Everything is as it should be…in my own life. I cannot, however, come to accept that this is how Trinidad must be and will stay. And I guess getting my own head and heart in order makes my role in the solution finding more clear.
Take another little piece of my heart now, baby
Oh, oh, break it
Break another little bit of my heart now, darling, yeah
Oh, oh, have a
Have another little piece of my heart now, baby
You know you got it, child, if it makes you feel good.
Piece of My Heart, Janis Joplin
Two hours into your day, you are tired. Even though you’ve taken your vitamins. You’ve done your sun salutations, breathing in positive, breathing out negative. You’ve eaten sunshine in the form of a perfect Julie, just ripe enough to fill your veins with sugary goodness. You’ve drunk your rice milk to make sure and take the osteoporosis in front.
You step into the world. You do all the right things. You say good morning to random people, because you believe that basic courtesies make life a little more pleasant for all involved.
The dirt clings to your shoes like children reaching out to be loved.
Mavado on the corner shouting, pleading to anyone who will listen ‘I’m special/so special/so special’. Men mad from coke or rum or Trinidad are ranting and reeking on every corner.
The road bubbles liquid under your thin soles and you hope for decency’s sake to keep yourself from melting into the welcoming asphalt.
Jump in a taxi. There’s a man on the radio. His voice is shrill and desperate. You do not want to hear his hysterical ranting this morning. You do not want to listen to him spitting his hate at his microphone. He is screaming about jammettes and a march and being bought out by Papa Patos. You ask the taxi driver to turn it down. The driver ignores you. The fifteen-minute journey is unbearable. The ranting continues, the passengers and drivers take the abuse in silence.
Exiting the taxi, put God out of your thoughts and make a parting comment to the driver about poisoning his brain. His response is swift and loud and abusive, echoing the same shrill almost emasculated tones of the radio voice.
You wonder if there is some special suit you can get. One that makes you impervious not just to the heat that makes you think you can hear your scalp sizzle.
One that helps you block out all the crappy things you hate about this place. This place that makes you tired two hours into your day.
By the time you get home again your feet are dragging. You are weak, you are not programmed to deal with this. This place is sick and you are not a doctor. You have no remedies to offer, no healing balms to give.
You want to lock yourself away and the back end of forever is too soon for you to want to venture outside again.
You understand now that perhaps people don’t drive around with their windows up not connecting with the outside because they are pretentious and materialistic but because they can’t deal with what’s going on in the real world.
There are days when the urge to stay at home is irresistible.
You willingly suspend interaction with the world. You create fabulous meals from the strangest of leftovers to avoid going out. You reach out only online on social networks. To hug people and create wistful brilliant status updates to amuse your friends.
Sometimes you wish that you only existed inside your computer. In your virtual world you can block out the things you don’t want to see or hear. You create your own propaganda.
You could create a Trinidad that existed only in your imagination. Where it is beautiful all the time. Where eight year olds don’t beat up six year olds. Where smelters don’t get built. Where you don’t get cursed out if you suggest something to your taxi driver.
You know if this was a relationship with a man, you wouldn’t still be here. You would never stick around and take this abuse. Stay for what? Because this is where you were born? This is what you know? This is the only place that understands you?
Your Trinidad tabanca has you peeping through your windows wondering if you have the energy to venture out.
Wondering what terrors await you outside and in. What terrible fiction will become your reality today and what heaviest of straws will break your weakened camel’s back.