Don’t call me ……

“What’s up, mi nigga?” said a co-worker as I sauntered into work one afternoon. Checking myself mid stride I did a double take; surely I had misheard her. “Whaat?” I asked, studying her features for signs of malice. She grinned broadly. “Whaat?” laughed the store’s black assistant manager,  mimicking my accent, more surprised at my reaction than to the word that had provoked it.

Muhammad Ali’s comment about refusing to serve his country in Vietnam because no Vietnamese had ever called him nigger ran through my mind. Was it that time already: we could just fling the word around with abandon?  “Cup of tea, nigga?”

Shocked, the first time I had heard the word used casually among Afro Americans when I was down south, by now I was pretty much inured to it. It was in the break room of the international banking company where I worked that a temporary worker peppered her phone conversation with ‘mi nigga this’ and ‘mi nigga that,’ occasionally referring to other people she knew as ‘dis’ or ‘dat nigga.’ Not believing what I was hearing, I looked discreetly around the room, expecting to see my outrage mirrored on the faces of the other, exclusively, black faces present. No one else so much as raised an eyebrow.  I attempted to shrug it off; just another in the long line of culture shocks I had endured since my arrival but my view of the girl, an attractive twenty something, was as tainted as if I had seen her pick her nose, examine the contents and sweep them up with her tongue.

Thus I became aware of the trend amongst African Americans to use the word extensively in a bid to reclaim it from the white race, hoping its everyday use would dilute its negative power. The strategy seemed flawed to me but who was I to complain: no one here had called me nigger yet. Not to my face anyway.

I think it was my accent that precluded such an occurrence. One balmy evening, lounging on the porch of an apartment complex in an area of Wesley Chapel, GA, deep in the ‘hood’ I opened my mouth to break one of the ever growing silences between myself and the girl whose apartment it was. Her southern drawl lazily informed me that: “I think of y’all as a normal guy until y’all start to talk.”

I had left a country where nigger and other like minded words: wog, coon, darkie – words I had grown up hearing – had long fallen out of favour with all but the most rabid racists. Weeks before leaving, partaking of an alcoholic beverage or three in a suburban London pub one Saturday night, a black American – a rare sight in that neighbourhood and in London in general, had referred to an absent acquaintance of his as ‘dat nigga.’

The word rang out like a gunshot: no one ran for cover but jaws dropped; heads turned; eyes widened. Locking eyes with the other black faces in the mainly white room (this is London I’m talking about) we held each others gaze as around us embarrassment and indignation reddened the countenances of the other patrons. Conversation resumed after a few seconds, in hushed voices at first, before returning to its previous level. After all, it had been an American who had committed the faux pas, merely serving to confirm that black Americans were no less loud and obnoxious than their white counterparts. (Sorry, but that’s the prevailing view of Americans in my homeland.)

The culprit remained unabashed: “What, you don’t use that word here?” he asked. I hadn’t heard it for years outside of rap music and the movies. No, it’ s an American thing, we Brits were too polite to say.

Rap group whose name actually meant Men With Attitude.

Rap group whose name actually meant Men With Attitude.

Back in the present, my colleague, also an immigrant and a more recent entrant to these shores than I, attending high school in Jamaica, Queens, was a Muslim Pakistani girl, whom the racist in me, expected to know better. Granted, that she had meant no offence and I had taken none but I was irritated. I didn’t like the word, didn’t know anyone who used it casually, didn’t use it myself and especially didn’t like it being directed at me, least of all by someone outside my own race.

When I broached her on the subject, she said I shouldn’t be offended: the word wasn’t a slur; it merely meant ‘man.’ Genuinely believing she had no idea of the history or culture of the word I tried to explain.  She wouldn’t have it: she had black friends with whom she used it all the time. I tried a different tack: its like someone with whom you’re not familiar calling you by a pet name reserved only for family members and close friends. She gave me the same look the girl had given me on the porch in Wesley Chapel.

Confirmation of the flaw in the strategy of the words regular use eventually dulling it’s sting came for me when the girl annoyed by something or the other that I had done muttered aloud that I was nothing but a nigger.

And therein lies the rub: we can call each other nigger and mi nigga as much as we want and believe that by so doing its power is diminished but when someone from outside your race uses it derogatorily it’s clear that nothing has changed.

Reggae group the Gaylads in their prime, before each began looking on the others with suspicion and derision.

Reggae group The Gaylads in their prime, before each began looking on the others with suspicion and derision.

Times, though, change and people change with them. When I was growing up the word ‘gay’ meant carefree and happy go lucky, quoted countless times in the reggae songs of my youth.  There was even a famous rocksteady group of the era called the ‘Gaylads,’  and it had nothing to do with sexuality. Since appropriated by the homosexual community the word’s origins have largely been forgotten and it now refers exclusively to sexual orientation. Those who think of the word ‘nigga’ as merely a slang term for  ‘man’ probably have no idea of the original meaning of the word ‘gay’ and it’s possible that ‘nigga’ will go through a similar metamorphosis.

Until that day though, count me out. Call me: man, mister, mate, bloke, geezer ( which means man in Britain but I have come to learn means old man in the US) just don’t call me that word. I strongly object – though I may be too polite to say so.

If it’s November it must be Thanksgiving

Christmas, New Year, Thanksgiving, the anniversary of some old geezers' birth or death: any excuse for a parade.

Christmas, New Year, Thanksgiving, the anniversary of some old geezers’ birth or death: any excuse for a parade.

The weather gets colder; the winter draws nearer and for another year I put away thoughts of going back to England. Five years in Georgia’s sub tropical climate convinced me that if (if?) and when I return home, going back in winter would not be a good idea. Shovelling snow in New York between November and March for the last three years has not dissuaded me of that notion.

The holiday season is almost upon us, highlighting for me, one of the major differences between the home I left behind and the one I have adopted. The regimen of American life dictates that even before one holiday ends preparations are already under way for the next. Each single 24 hour holiday punctuating the months are like markers reminding us exactly what we should be doing at this particular time of year: memorial day, set up the barbecue to herald the beginning of summer; July Fourth, hang out the bunting to celebrate the nation’s birthday; labor day, put away the summer things and prepare for autumn. For those not paying attention, each holidays’ accompanying sales promotion reinforces the concept of America being one big showroom dedicated to selling you goods bigger and better, shinier and more expensive than the ones you already own and which more often than not still have a good amount of life left in them.

England on the other hand resembles the run down corner shop that used to be so popular but which nobody much visits anymore because most of their goods are available so much cheaper elsewhere. Barely profitable, it stays in business because it carries items not readily found anywhere else and when threatened with closure has customers who rally to its cause to complain and protest aware that the stores passing means that something old and good and true that cannot be easily replaced will go out of their lives. Values from a time when there was more to life than just making money: old fashioned things like loyalty and service and respect and good manners and just generally treating people the way you yourself would want to be treated.

There is no holiday season in Britain: each holiday is an entity unto itself, not merely a 24 hour period when work is suspended to give us time to go to the mall before you have to get back on the treadmill, but a time to draw breath and overindulge or not.  Depending on which day the 25th of December falls some workers in Britain may have as much as ten days off between Christmas Eve and going back to work after the New Year, time enough to over indulge on food, alcohol, family and friends until one actually looks forward to going back to work. Even when the calendar is not so accommodating the Boxing Day holiday on the 26th of December allows you more time to recover from the exertions of the  previous day. The Easter holiday is a long weekend incorporating both Good Friday and Easter Monday within its parameters. There are single day bank holidays that pop up during the year though not at the regular intervals that they occur in the US (apart from Christmas and New Year all occur in spring and summer) and as I remember it not accompanied by parades or special sales events except of course for the after Christmas sales when those with the wherewithal can spend part of their ten days off camped outside Selfridges in deck chairs with a blanket and thermos flask of coffee in their laps hoping to be first to make a grab for that forty inch TV going cheap.

Thanksgiving, not celebrated in Britain, to me perfectly encapsulates America. I always wondered why it was held on a Thursday; surely holding it on Friday made more sense, until I heard that government workers were given Friday off as well. So the taxpayer funds their extra day off while most of us have to slip in another days work before the weekend arrives.

Much as I am drawn to the never shuttered superstore that is America, Britain’s rundown corner shop still exerts a hearty pull over me and not just at this time of the year either. Happy holidays.

Scotland…the Brave?

Lionrampant_svgI saw in the New York Daily News on Sunday that this is the week Scotland holds a referendum to decide whether to secede from Great Britain. What the heck? When did this happen? I leave the country for five minutes and the whole place starts going to pot; after four hundred years union one part of the country wants to leave and go it alone. Who let this happen?

To be honest, I left the country a wee bit longer (see what I did there) than five minutes ago, though sometimes it hardly feels like it. Things  that happened to me while still in England I remember as if yesterday; while events that occurred when I lived in Georgia when I first came here now seem like a lifetime ago.

But to the matter in hand: what’s this about breaking up the union? Can they do this? Is it legal? Who said so? Why would they want to do this? What’s wrong with Scotland? Still smarting over Culloden and Braveheart? Get over it: look at the bigger picture.

I had been vaguely aware of a Scottish Nationalist movement for years but never gave much thought to it. I’m not Scottish; I’ve never been there; I’m not particularly political and being away had long since lost touch with the political landscape back home. So, to then open a newspaper and see that a referendum was taking place this week that could render Great Britain as we know it, as we have known it for centuries, obsolete was a rude awakening.

Growing up in London, my brother and I had a favourite cousin, Michael, whose age fell neatly between ours: three years younger than me and three years older than my brother. All London born and bred, when the three of us got together it was like the Three Musketeers, always getting into one scrape or another. Michael was a mouthy little devil, able to charm the birds out of the trees which after they had crapped all over the head of my brother would be left to me as the elder to clean up. One day Michaels dad, our dad’s brother, announced he was selling up and moving his family back to Jamaica.  I was shocked: the whole world as I knew it was about to change forever and there was nothing I could do about it. Within a year it did: Michael and his parents moved to Jamaica and the Three Musketeers were no more.

Reading about the referendum in the newspaper was like hearing my uncle say he was leaving all over again. A yes vote means the world I grew up in will be no more; Great Britain as the world has known it for hundreds of years will be no more.

Whoever is responsible for this: how could you let it happen? I understand that everybody wants to be independent, to stand on their own feet and that nations as well as people have the right to self determination. I am too young to remember when Jamaica and the other islands of the British West Indies received independence in the sixties but in later years I became aware of the pride it had fostered within the West Indian community in which I grew up. Though those early years of independence were filled with rabid inflation and political violence.

Now Scotland wants to go down that same route and who am I to say they shouldn’t. My only connection with Scotland has been the eye I had for Ruth McIlroy, a Scottish girl in the same class as me in primary school and listening to Rod Stewart in the days when he was still Rod the Mod rocking out with the Faces. Stewart, who grew up in Highgate, down the road from where our family lived, was born in Scotland.

Go find an atlas and search through it for Great Britain. Having difficulty locating it? It consists of a small island in the north Atlantic, just off the west coast of Europe; another small island resides to the west of that. It was the proximity of Europe, just twenty one miles away at its closest point, that prompted Britain to form  a navy to defend itself. In due course this navy, sailing the seas, ruled the waves and amassed for a grateful nation the largest empire the world has ever known, encompassing at least one third of the land surface of the planet. It is true that it amassed and held onto this empire by force but those were different times.  Today, many people whose lands were colonized by the British, of which my parents are an example, are proud of their British connection.

Most of those nations over which Britannia ruled have long since received independence but most of these nations are thousands of miles away and not physically part of the British Isles. Even Northern Ireland is separated from the British mainland by the Irish Sea. Scotland, whether it votes yea or nay is not going anywhere. The European Union was formed because Europe as a collective unit wields more power than any one of its individual member states, no matter the size of the various egos of England, Germany or France.

As I write, Great Britain consists of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. That could all change very soon. I am a Brit, born in London of West Indian parents who consider themselves as much British as Jamaican and though we all live in America now we are still no less a part of the country where I was born and raised. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder and the truth is I am more of a Brit living four thousand miles away than I ever was in north London. Whatever the Scots decide, good luck to them, they have the right to choose their own destiny. For myself I know I left England, a place I never thought I would leave, and came to America, twenty years after the rest of my family because though its good to go it alone its even better to be part of a family.

The prodigal page.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, he thought of the protagonists of his novels as his brothers: Amory Blaine of “This side of paradise,” the youngest; Anthony Patch of “The beautiful and damned,” the worry; Tender is the night’s Dick Diver, the eldest and Gatsby, the one who left home to seek his fortune and, has over time become,  the most famous, more well known even than his creator.

Duly respecting that stringing words together on a page is not as serious a matter as conceiving, giving birth to and raising actual flesh and blood, I see what I write as my children. The characters, the pages, the paragraphs, all my little creations that unlike children will never disappoint me, never let me down and never break my heart. And the more I consider that analogy the more untrue I realize it to be.

No heartbreakers here, but disappointment aplenty when something doesn’t turn out as expected. The great passage I had planned that does not come to fruition due to my own inadequacies. Maybe it only falls short in certain places: a chapter, a page , a paragraph that was not as good as it could have been. Sometimes the failure is only in comparison to the previous passage where everything came good.

Which of us cannot look back on a part of our life where everything came together, everything clicked? For some, schooldays were the halcyon period: you were the head boy or star jock, your peers hanging on your every word,  and you unaware that nothing in life would ever be as good again; or maybe you were anonymous back then, happy with the freedom of youth and no responsibilities to dog you down; maybe it was when you were first getting to know the person who would become your life partner or when you were starting out in business with the whole world at your feet but the relationship didn’t turn out happily ever after or the business failed; maybe the business succeeded but success wasn’t what you thought it would be.

Sometimes we compose a piece where we soar and fly effortlessly  above anything we have done before  and when we read it back to correct or edit  to remove anything extraneous there is nothing to correct, nothing to edit and no structure to improve but we edit and change it anyway because we can’t believe that anything so good could come so easily.

We live on the fly, rarely given the opportunity to go back and examine what we did and redo it to the state of perfection that hindsight has allowed us to visualize. In life memory provides the edits and when years hence we slow enough to be able to look back we say: “yeah, that was when I was on top of my game; that was when I was in the zone,” conveniently forgetting when we dropped the ball and the deal was nearly dashed because of it or the fight we had that so nearly broke us up before we had even really started.

I have passages of which I am so proud I read them over and over again and that I want to grab up off the page and say: “yeah, i wrote that, I made that and whatever I do next will never match up: that’s my boy and he will never let me down, never disappoint me, never cause me grief,  not like his brother that came after.”

What a disappointment you turned out to be: I had such high hopes for you after what had gone before but you were just a struggle. I tried so hard with you but you never came good. Time and time again I returned to see if between us we couldn’t make some sort of improvement but you continued to resist, as if on purpose, like a wilful child, determined to be difficult.

The times I’ve wanted to disown you completely and move straight on from your brilliant brother to the next good thing. But I couldn’t do it: you were too integral, too important; the black sheep of the family but part of the family nonetheless so I allow you to remain, (well aware that if you were as bad as I make out I would cut you away without a second thought,) hoping that when I have the time to come back to you, we can fix you up so that I can be as proud of you as I am of your brother.

The errant passage or chapter is the prodigal son and the good piece the son who stayed home  and on whom much work was never needed. He came together so well but the prodigal, no amount of work could ever make him right. The prodigal frustrated me but I never loved him any less; he was a part of me and though I struggled with him, got angry over him, cursed over him, he was no less a part than that which seemed to flow so effortlessly from my head and my heart.

That’s why I didn’t discard him, that’s why I didn’t edit him from my life; I know one day he will come good and make me proud. So I will continue to nurture him and spend time with him and sit back and study where he is going wrong and you never know: one day when all my children are famous he may be the most famous one of all. Maybe even more famous than his old dad.

Grit and bear it!

Grits or as original rude boys' son calls them Nemesis

Grits or as original rude boys’ son calls them, Nemesis

It was my first weekend in Georgia; my first Sunday morning. For some, the Lords time; churches here more prevalent than off licences (liquor stores) in London, another place where they take their worship seriously. Only there they do it on Saturday afternoons; the kick off is at three o clock and the religion is football.

I wasn’t among the church going massive so contented myself with watching an old Evander Holyfield fight on the Spanish channel; commentary optional. My brothers’ girlfriend came into the room, a large cooking spoon in one hand, the other held underneath to catch any overspill.

She glanced at the TV. “I didn’t know you spoke Spanish.”

“Only after five Coronas.” I said, correcting myself when she began looking around for the empties: “that’s a joke.” It had become a matter of course to append that to everything I said since I had arrived because telling someone that you were joking always makes what you’ve said seem so much funnier.

“Why are you watching the Spanish channel, then?” She asked.

Onscreen two gentlemen wearing padded gloves knocked merry hell out of each other while an excited commentator hollered above the crowd in a language I didn’t understand. If she had to ask why I was watching she probably wouldn’t understand anyway. I let it drop and she returned to the matter in hand.

“Do you like grits?” She asked.

Grits: wasn’t this the essence of the south in a bowl? Weren’t diners in the south full of people eating grits? And ham hocks? And collard greens?

“I don’t know.” I said. “I never had them.”

“They’re not for everybody.” She lowered the spoon toward me; the smile on her face hinting that she knew something I didn’t.

Looking in the bowl of the spoon my curiosity started to wane. Grits had the consistency of porridge (oatmeal), not exactly an exotic delicacy and the name itself wasn’t all that appealing. But I didn’t want to be rude: I took the spoon, keeping a hand underneath to catch any drips.

I dipped the tip of my tongue into the grits and tasted butter, a lot of butter. And grit, a lot of grit. I still didn’t want to be rude but there seemed to be a general air of inevitability about it. I stuck my tongue back into the spoon. No, there was no getting around it. But at least now I knew what the trailing hand was for: it was for spitting the grits into once you had tasted them.

“I don’t like them.” I said.

She took the spoon from me and turning away said: “I told you they’re not for everybody.”

As she walked back to the kitchen I scraped my tongue against the back of my teeth.

Grits in more tempting company

Grits dressed to impress

That was my first brush with grits: corn ground up until it achieves the consistency of …well, grit. If they had put just a little more thought into the name we could have been eating ‘dirts.’

My brothers’ girlfriend was a southern girl, born and bred in the town of Commerce; a good cook as I was to find out in the coming months. Her reasoned reaction to my snubbing of the southern favourite lulled me into a false sense of security: everybody wasn’t going to take my criticism of grits or all other things southern with such good grace.

A few weeks later, standing in line in the supermarket; the couple in front of me had a five pound bag of grits amongst their purchases. Still fresh from England at the time, my accent near impenetrable to those who weren’t used it, I remarked how aptly named the product was. It was a throwaway remark and I didn’t pay much attention to the direction in which it had been thrown. When I did I knew I had said the wrong thing. The male half of the couple in front was eyeballing me something chronic. I nodded a greeting; the stare didn’t abate, merely travelled the length of my body.

I had been in the south long enough to know that banter couldn’t be tossed around here as casually as it could in England, where within  reason, you could insult a man, his wife even his kids and walk away unscathed. Attack his team, now that’s another story: that’s when the box cutters come out. But this was different: I had made a joke about grits.

When he spoke , I didn’t understand what he said: his accent as impenetrable to me as mine to him. (Looking back, I realize he might not have understood what I said in the first place but just taken exception to my accent or manner) When his wife or girlfriend placed a restraining hand on his leg of lamb sized forearm though, that didn’t need translation.

“Only joking.” I said, backtracking once again.

He didn’t move from where he stood and his face didn’t flinch; he said something else. I didn’t catch that either. But it was curt and probably to the point, whatever point that was.  My smile was rigid now, frozen into place, trying to defuse the situation. I trained it on his companion, expecting her to smile back; maybe roll her eyes in exasperation at her man’s tough guy stance.

Dream on: she gave me a look that had me searching the floor for my genitalia. It was then I realized that her hand wasn’t restraining him: it was that leg of lamb sized arm between us that stopped her from laying me out in the aisle.

I remained where I was until they had packed their bags and made their way to the door, repeatedly looking over their shoulder to give me the dead eye. The cashier puffed out her cheeks and raised her eyebrows as I approached. Whether in acknowledgment of the close call I had just had: I don’t know. I didn’t pursue the matter. They do things differently here.

Diplomacy was a learning process and I kept my views on grits and other southern delicacies to myself from then on, offering only a noncommittal: “not really,” when asked if I like them. And deferring to the reply which was always:  “you just haven’t had them cooked right.”

Now I just revert to one of three options when tempted to make light of something close to the southern heart: make the joke, make no apology and be thought rude; make the joke, make the apology or explanation and be thought rude and sorry; keep my mouth shut and keep the peace.

I have tried grits since in a bid to reevaluate my stance but never seem to get further than dipping my tongue into the spoon.

“He’s from England,” they snigger, as I shake my head and skew my face, “what does he know about good food?”

So there you have it: it’s not the grits: it’s me.

Here I am: world citizen.

original rude boys' son preparing to lecture on the ramifications of immigration

original rude boys’ son preparing to lecture on the ramifications of immigration

 

“England has changed,” said my cousin, speaking on the phone from London. “Its not the same anymore: its full of immigrants.”

I took her words with a grain of salt. She was always prone to hyperbole. I couldn’t see how London (Londoners I knew rarely left the ‘Smoke’) had changed all that much in the years since I had left.

“England’s not the same: it’s full of immigrants.” Said a friend whose mother had once been my landlady. He was a father now, with two kids,  happily married to a bride his parents had found for him in the Punjab.

“England’s changed, mate: it’s not the same.” Said my drinking buddy from the old block, finally come to terms with his discharge from the army years previously, but still ruing the day he had put in his papers.

The fall of the Soviet Union at the end of the eighties led to an influx of citizens from those countries formerly under Soviet rule. Free now to travel abroad their favoured destinations were Britain and the USA. I had noticed, prior to leaving home, rising numbers of middle or eastern Europeans but having recently changed from office based employment to the catering industry, which supports a high percentage of immigrant labour, I hadn’t pay much heed.

The comments of my former compadres shocked me though: to a man they were all either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Their parents or grandparents part of the mass exodus from the Caribbean that began after the Second World War or part of the wave of immigration from Asia during the sixties and seventies.

While in America changes back home had become apparent to me through the British based movies that contained more and more references to the newcomers: “Eastern Promise” about Russian gangsters in London; “Breaking and Entering” starring Jude Law as a London architect who befriends a refugee from Sarajevo.

The changes resonated with me for two reasons: though the son of immigrants I was born in London and now for the first time in my life I was one and aware, on a different level admittedly, just what my parents had felt during their time in London; I also realized that my friends were experiencing what the indigenous population had experienced so many years ago when the first West Indians had arrived. My forebears, lured by leaflets distributed in the British West Indies recruiting workers to help rebuild the motherland following the devastation wreaked by the war, were for many English the first black people they had ever encountered.

My peers and I grew up alongside people of all colours and hues  and the English who had grown up in an exclusively white environment died off; education and integration made racism and nationalism, both casual and overt, less common.  To hear it now falling from the lips of those who I believed should know better surprised me; years hence will the children of todays immigrants denounce the next wave from wherever they hail?

I should also know better: working in catering, supervising people, some of whom were professionals in their own land, reduced to working as waiters and dishwashers (as opposed to students merely working to fund their travels) made me aware of my luck in being born where I was. It also induced an unwarranted feeling of superiority within me over those who had had to leave their homeland just to achieve a reasonable standard of living.

This same display of superiority was shown toward me by those with whom I worked on arrival in Georgia: the Bachelors degree I possessed from a London University no match for the American high school diploma I didn’t. I had arrived with the air of a wealthy town relative visiting his country bumpkin cousins only to find that they viewed me as the poor relation. But my inherent feeling of  mental dominance over the natives was reinforced when asked at various times whether I came from Australia or Africa or even France or when a girl hearing I came from London inquired whether I knew Angela, a friend of hers, who now lived there.

Travel, they say, broadens the mind. High up on a second floor wall in London’s Notting Hill, only visible from the side of the street where the eastbound traffic heads to Marble Arch, a piece of colourful graffiti states that: “the mind is a vessel whose boundaries once stretched can never return to their original dimensions.”

I had left home a black British Londoner and proud of it. After a while living here, still black and still British I was a Londoner no longer. A little while after that, I realized that the word, ‘British’ was just a tag referring to the place in which I had grown up. Even later still, living amongst African Americans in Georgia and New York, people with whom I had nothing in common except for the colour of our skin, I became aware that that itself is an irrelevancy with which people choose to identify themselves but really is of no more consequence than your height or the size of your shoe. All I am now is a man living in a place and I am content with that.

England has changed, my friends still tell me, when I phone home. I know it has: we changed it. My parents and my friends’  parents and they and I and all the people who have arrived on those shores, since time immemorial, changed it.  Countries are nothing more than a collection of people living within a certain landscape and people change; they grow and mature, develop and evolve and as they do, so they change the landscape around them. Experience changes us; being human we have to take the good with the bad and the rough with the smooth.

“You’ve changed.” My friends tell me when I no longer speak to them of the things I spoke of on my arrival, things that then made my jaw drop.

Yes. I have. America changed me. How sad it would be if it hadn’t? How sad it would be if I had come all this way and spent all these years here and learnt nothing, experienced nothing, found nothing of any value to take with me on my journey? Whose loss would that be?

But I hope I can say that America’s changed too, even just the little bit of it that I inhabited. Because how sad would it be if I had come all this way and shared nothing of myself, given nothing of myself and left nothing of myself behind?

The Man who did What?

The original rude boys' son at the station contemplating his missing sack of money

The original rude boys’ son at the station contemplating his missing sack of money.

I had been planning to write for years(haven’t we all?). I wrote a little when I was younger, never had anything published, got near to it once but that’s another story. I wanted to write a novel or a memoir; something, anything to tell the story I wanted to tell.

I had lived in London most of my life, never lived anywhere else since childhood, never wanted to live anywhere else, why would I? I loved London. My family had emigrated to the States years previously. Now I lived alone. A single man.

Unemployed, I had finally started work on my book and after a couple of months was getting nowhere with both the book and the job seeking; my families pleas to join them in America began to gain some traction. A change is as good as a rest they say; at the very least it would allow me to spend some time with them and look at the book from a different perspective. I figured it would take a year, two at most to finish it. After that I could return home. I packed up and left for America in the winter of 2002.

I never had a clear route to how I was going to get my book published. It was not something that I ever considered. Maybe because I didn’t really believe I would ever finish it. By the time I had, eleven years later the self-publishing revolution had taken hold. There was now a viable alternative to the traditional time honoured method of allowing your manuscript to languish for months in a pile at an agents or publishers hoping that someone would at least deign to glance through it. My route was clear.

My book didn’t turn out to be a novel after all but a memoir of growing up in London during the swinging sixties as the son of Jamaican immigrants. Titled: The Original Rude Boys’ Son? and published on Amazon Kindle in August 2013, it didn’t sell at all past the few my family bought.

I was shocked. How could something into which I had put so much time and effort, so much blood, sweat and tears fail to become a best seller?

I had genuinely, perhaps naively, more likely stupidly, believed that once I had the book in circulation it would zoom to the top of the best seller charts and make me a millionaire. Just like the million other people who were self -publishing. But the  world can only support so many self -published millionaire authors.

Not to be denied: I got back on the horse. The first book had been a memoir; this one was to be a novel. The novel I had originally intended to write but chickened out of because I found the memoir form to be easier. I had high hopes for this: memoirs are specialist which would only appeal to certain people; everybody wants to read novels. The novel: ‘Semi- Righteous’ came out on Amazon Kindle in April 2014.

I sat back and put my feet up; opened a sack on the floor beside my chair. I was going to put the money in that when it came rolling in. I sat in that chair for a week or two, intermittently checking my kindle sales on the computer, getting up, going to the front door and looking out trying to catch sight of the postman.

On arrival in America I had settled in Georgia for a few years then moved up New York to spend some time with my folks before moving back to London. Fortuitously, New York being closer to London meant that I wouldn’t have as far to lug the sack with the money once it was full.

But something was wrong: this book wasn’t selling either. Even less than the first. Family members weren’t buying this one: it was fiction and they weren’t in it. I checked on Amazon; books were selling by their thousands; by their millions. The author of a book called ‘Fifty shades of grey’ was moving copy by the truckload. I went down to the local library. I noticed a lot of people at work on computers, playing games, trawling through Facebook, checking their email but people were also lounging around on chairs or sitting at tables reading books. I couldn’t understand it: why weren’t my books selling?

Considering myself to be a fair and objective minded fellow I decided it was time to face the truth that I did not want to face: maybe my books were just crap. I ran this around my brain for a while. It was a possibility that I couldn’t avoid.

As a youth I had immersed myself in the books of Scott Fitzgerald. in ‘Tender is the Night’ an associate of the protagonist, Dick Diver, is working on a book, some sort of esoteric volume about the habits of the African armadillo or some such. After working on the manuscript for years just as he is readying it for publication some one else publishes a book about the very same thing. This was before the days of the internet and self-publishing revolution and the world most definitely couldn’t sustain two publications about the habits of the African armadillo. He was devastated.

My book about the child of Jamaican immigrants might have more appeal than the aforementioned tome but to me it was still pretty esoteric and I always had the fear in my mind that if my book failed it would be because someone else had brought out a similar story just before publication of mine. Indeed that is the fear  I have before everything I publish. But it had never really crossed my mind that my book would be rubbish. I don’t believe my books to be rubbish but they’re my babies: what parent can truly look at their children with a totally unbiased opinion?

Every now and then I tweak what I have written. That’s one of the advantages of having a book on Kindle or maybe it’s a disadvantage: its never really finished, you are forever tweaking. Books published on Kindle are like songs, fluid, forever in a state of flux, no two copies exactly the same. The copy downloaded on Tuesday not necessarily the same as the copy downloaded on Monday. Not that I ever had copies of my work downloaded on two consecutive days.

Still I had faith in my work. All I needed to do was get it in front of an audience and I would be alright. I devised a plan to write a short story and give it away free on Kindle. That was going to be the test. People love free stuff. If I got a lot of downloads of the freebie and nobody bought the other stuff then I could safely conclude that my writing was crap and go and find another line. So I wrote the final part of the “Original Rude Boys’ Son” trilogy, a short story called: ‘The man who did nothing,’ Aptly titled?

When  I came to give it away on Kindle, you know what? I couldn’t give it away. That’s right: it was so bad I couldn’t give it away. No, that’s a joke. You can’t give books away on Kindle: how is Amazon going to get paid? They’re in business to make money. So I priced the book at 99 cents, the lowest price point. It is a short story after all; less than thirty pages. So that’s where I am: still in New York trying to sell my writing; still believing I have a story to tell; still believing I have the skill to tell it.

I pretty much did what I came to America to do, finally: finish my book. So now I’m getting ready to go home and see my home town. I miss it so much.

Oh, yeah, that’s where you come in.

Wake the town and tell the people: reggae, rap and Curtis Mayfield

 

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 Reggae was the music of choice for most British born children of Jamaican immigrants when I was a kid. Pop ruled the airwaves but reggae’s forerunners: Ska, Bluebeat and Rocksteady were making a big noise long before Bob Marley took the music outernational in the seventies and the years after his death.  Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff, Dave and Ansel Collins had British top thirty hits when Bob Marley was still only known as one third of the Wailers and they themselves were only one of any number of great Jamaican vocal groups.

Marley’s legacy in popularizing the reggae one drop meant that it became adopted by musicians all over the world: Africa, Asia, Australia, Belgium, Belize, Bermuda, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, ad infinitum you get the picture.

On arrival on these shores I found that America, relatively immune to overseas influences apart from the British beat invasion of the 1960s, had embraced the cult of Marley to a more fundamental degree than simply ‘natting’ up your hair into dreadlocks. The number of American born musicians fronting reggae bands surprised me; a surprise deepened by the fact that most of these musicians are white.

 Groundation

Groundation

I’m not talking about rock musicians with a reggae song or two in their repertoire or who took to the music when it was still cutting edge a la Steve Miller, or even pop acts like No Doubt whose music derives from a Ska based template. I’m talking specifically about groups such as Groundation and John Browns Body who play nothing but roots reggae filtered through their own unique background, much as the reggae groups coming out of England in the seventies, Aswad, Misty in Roots and Steel Pulse played reggae tempered by their British upbringing.

That these American groups are more than just novelty acts and command genuine respect within the ‘authentic’ Jamaican reggae industry is illustrated by the number of old school artists such as Don Carlos, Ijahman Levi, Pablo Moses and the Congos who line up to guest on their recordings.

A guy to whom I gave a lift into work every day in Tucker, Georgia was a self confessed Bob Marley fanatic; dreadlocks halfway down his back and a red, gold and green leather pendant around his neck. Whatever reggae I played on the CD during the journey: old school or new, vocals or dub, harmony group or DJ, he invariably asked the same question: is that Bob Marley?

The history of reggae music is almost as long as that of rock and its various strands spread out just as far and wide: in the USA alone styles span from the Jawaiian reggae hybrid of The Green to the Yiddish reggae of Matisyahu and countless other melds and derivatives. I wouldn’t expect a Beatles fan to know all of their music by heart but I’d look on him as suspect if he could never distinguish them from Pink Floyd or Nirvana or Coldplay.

Though African Americans hold sway over some of the biggest  developments in reggae back in the day and at the present time, they also as a group seem to be the most resistant to it. The vocal harmony rocksteady groups of the sixties: the Heptones, the Paragons and the Techniques epitomized the link between Jamaican and American music modeled as they were on the soul groups of the period: the Impressions, the Four Tops and the Miracles.

Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions pre name change to The Wailers

Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions pre name change to The Wailers

The great Curtis Mayfield with his smooth tenor and falsetto voice and his songs imploring the need for dignity and respect in the fight for humanity and civil rights is probably the single most influential American artist in the birth of rocksteady and reggae music: legions of  his songs recorded by the Slim Smith through the Wailers to Devon Russell. An album cover taken before the Wailers had embraced Ras Tafari and grown dreadlocks shows the original triumvirate of Bob, Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh posing in the dress and manner of the early Impressions.

The Wailers pre conversion to Ras Tafari but post identity and nationality change.

The Wailers pre conversion to Ras Tafari but post identity and nationality change.

The rise of the DJ in reggae, originally called the toaster, pioneered by U Roy, where a vocalist would improvise and scat lyrics over the top of another artists song was instrumental in the birth of rap in American music. Now, in a bid to crossover into the lucrative American market many Jamaican artists incorporate elements of rap into reggae’s dancehall genre.

A seminal rap artist such as Snoop Dogg changing his name to Snoop Lion, going to the Rock and recording a full blown reggae album with Jamaican musicians shows that the circle is still turning. Whether this is genuine movement or a trend whereby an artist seeks to extend his fan base or prolong his career remains to be seen. A similar thing seems to be occurring in the more mainstream pop market where artists such as Lionel Richie and Bon Jovi have recorded country albums.

The twenty first century advances into adulthood; the power of music to transcend national, racial and cultural barriers still cannot be dismissed or discounted even as it slides into a comfortable back seat behind the shiny new developments, devices and distractions of the digital age.

London, New York, Carrollton.

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London, New York, Carrollton: the sign featured above a teenage fashion store in a strip mall in the town, nay, city where the University of West Georgia is located. When I was newly touched down on Planet Georgia this three horse, two man and a dog town (pop: 40,000) aligning itself with two of the world’s great cities would have seemed incredulous but I was a seasoned campaigner now; back for my second shot at southern living and anomalies that once had me stockpiling international phone cards to parlay the weirdness back home now only prompted a mild shaking of the head.

I was London born and bred, a city with a cathedral, a spire and everything; considered by some the capital of Europe as New York is considered the capital of the world; the only other locale in which I had spent any significant period. My family had immigrated to America when I was in my teens but I had stayed behind, reluctant to leave my hometown. Now I was ready to try my hand across the pond. If I believed that time spent in these two great metropolis had prepared me for Planet Georgia I was about to have my head realigned. New York has more in common with London, an ocean and four thousand miles away than the southern state sharing  the same time zone but moving in a different orbit. The preponderance of Americans, to me, the only connection between them.

Initially I lived with my brother in Covington. He dropped me off at the library in Atlanta each day on his way to work where I trawled through employment websites looking for a job.  Opposite the library a plaque in Margaret Mitchell Square described it as the South’s rival to Times Square. Stepping back a yard or two to take in the bigger picture I found myself on the surrounding pavement. I retraced my steps to check my perspective from the other side of the setting and four paces later felt it safe to conclude that Margaret Mitchell Square has as much in common with New York’s historic venue as a pocket handkerchief with a parachute.

I soon became accustomed to the southern notion of grandeur, the idea, for instance, that any no mark with an exit off the interstate and a main drag fifty yards long could call itself a city no longer jarred. I remained half a decade, moved up to New York for a couple of years then returned south for a couple more before finally leaving again. Gilding the lily to say I fell in love with Georgia; after three years away I still miss it and who is to say I will not return again. At the moment of writing I have spent more time in the state than anywhere apart from the city of my birth.

It was the lack of a decent public transport system and in some cities any public transport at all that finally did for me.  Even when I had a vehicle this was always my biggest gripe. How any place with pretensions to modernity or sophistication could not only be without public transport but actively dissuade its installation was beyond me. What were they afraid of?

I soon got a greater awareness of what as I fought my way past the panhandlers lining the entrance to the subway on my return to the big apple; repeatedly checking my pockets whenever an arm or a backpack brushed against me on the train or stepped off the kerb into the paths of speeding commuter vans to avoid the youths crowding the pavement around local bus stops.

Awareness though did not bring total accord: I guess you pays your money and you takes your choice. The transport systems of the bigger cities provide a freedom to indulge in casual strolling and enjoyment of the parks and shopping thoroughfares and places of culture and entertainment without having to maintain responsibility for two thousand pounds of  precious hardware as well as allowing you to complete the more mundane task of  just getting to and from work.

Georgia did have its compensations: Margaret Mitchell might not be comparable to Times Square but the squares of Covington and Carrollton have their own idiosyncratic qualities. Those familiar with ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’ have seen Covington Square, its civil war memorial statues standing proud amidst the undergrowth, called into use whenever a film or TV production needs a town centre with a flavour of the old South. The more modern Carrollton Square, teeming with students during term time weekends, ringed with restaurants, a few bars and a number of bookstores wouldn’t be out of place in London suburbs such as Hampstead or Chiswick.

My fondest memories of Georgia, however, were created in Decatur on the outskirts of Atlanta, where old world charm met new world convenience. In possession of a vehicle when we moved there, my Indiana born, Georgia raised, girlfriend and I lived two hundred yards from the Marta station and bus terminal. A favourable state of affairs that allowed us to remain working when the car finally died. Downtown Decatur’s myriad shops, bars and restaurants were only half a mile away. We could leave the house and walking in either direction alight on the James Joyce Irish pub or The Corner Pub, an establishment resembling a London pub with wooden floorboards and a pool table tucked away in a corner outside the bathroom, the closed in walls making pool cue mastery difficult or the Java Monkey, a cosy wine bar cum coffee shop featuring live music in its tiny garden.

These were halcyon days for a Londoner: I had left home just as the laws restricting drinking hours had been repealed and living where the purchase of alcohol on Sundays was restricted to bars and restaurants to which one usually had to drive, was comparable to a return to the dark ages and a particular and peculiar form of torture.  But that’s another story and you really don’t want to get me started on that.