THE SECOND PHASE OF LIFE IN JAMAICA
Two things stand out in my memory of that time – the horse racing at Knutsford and an argument with a ditch.
Knutsford Park was the centre of horse racing in Jamaica and meetings took place regularly during the cooler months. The racecourse was only a few hundred yards from the rear of the guesthouse and on race days people used the pathway along the side of the house to gain access. This access gave only onto the side of the track. There was a further hike of about ½ a mile to the pavilion. In those days furlongs were still used to measure race lengths and in that old fashioned unit the distance to the pavilion would have been 8 furlongs. The access was alongside the racetrack to reach the grandstand and the parade ring.
I never got beyond the place where the pathway reached the track, but it was a good place to watch the horses race past, and to see them started for the longer races. There were few restrictions for small boys like me and the only place where one had to pay to get in was the grandstand and parades.
The start gate just consisted of long canvas straps stretched on a frame that was attached by springs to upright poles on each side of the track. The starter stood on a platform on one side as the jockeys tried to get their excited horses into some sort of line before the barrier. As soon as the starter was satisfied he pulled a lever that released the gate that then sprang upwards and out of the way of the horses.
Everything seemed very large and grand to me especially from my viewpoint by the side of the track. I guess in comparison to the racecourses in the US and UK Knutsford Park would have been very basic, very small beer indeed. But race days always generated great excitement and attracted crowds of enthusiasts and were generally on Saturdays.
One of the Earle boys was seemingly well versed in what went on at the racetrack and it was in his company that I explored the possibilities on race days. In reality I don’t think he knew much about the proceedings, but he did know the names of one or two of the popular horses. One was a fine looking specimen with a shiny dark coat of hair and a diminutive black jockey in the blue and white colours of its stable perched on its sleek well-muscled back.
That horse won twice on successive weekends, but then on its next race day it inexplicably ran last. This was much to the delight of the bookies because by then the horse had become a favourite to win. It later transpired that the stewards became suspicious of this sudden lack of form and its peculiar gait when galloping. It seemed to be trying to wriggle out of its saddle and get rid of the jockey for most of the race. The stewards ordered an investigation. It turned out that someone had placed the leaves of a toxic plant between the horse and its saddle. The effect of course was to upset the poor animal as it concentrated more in getting rid of the irritant and its jockey rather than on the race in hand. In any event the bookies at least must have made money out of that.
It usually took me about ½ an hour to ride to bike to school from our new home. It was all up hill work to get to school. The route I followed went through pleasant suburban tree lined roads to join Hope Road just above Kings House where the Governor resided. Then it was up Hope road through Matilda’s Corner and another half a mile to arrive at the lower gate of the JC grounds. Sometimes I took a short cut through a field just below Matilda’s Corner to join Old Hope Road. This alternative route did not save much as it was still about the same distance and still up hill, but it did provide a variation and it took me off the roads and through a bit of country side.
The return journey was of course easy because it was all down hill. Needless to say this was an invitation to speed and I managed the trip home in quick time on most days. However on one particularly hot day, racing down one of the suburban roads with no hands on the handle bars I misjudged a T junction corner and ended up in the ditch on the opposite side. I was lucky not to break something, but my bike was a sorry mess. The front wheel was badly buckled, no longer a perfect circle…rather more like a piece of pizza with a slice taken out of it. The bike frame was also bent. In a greatly crest fallen state I wheeled my broken machine the rest of the distance home and to the distress of my mother reported what had happened.
I was given my second bicycle in Jamaica after this unfortunate accident. It was a Rudge and a more modern machine. It had a lighter frame, rat catcher pedals, a smart bright colour, chrome handlebars and wheel rims and luggage rack and a dynamo to power the front and rear lights. This dynamo was supported on a bracket on the front wheel fork strut. Its small knurled driving wheel was pressed against the tyre by a spring in the bracket. The little dynamo wheel was turned at high speed as I rode along to generate about 6 volts of DC power. When I did not need the lights I could set the generator at a different angle in the bracket so keeping its wheel off the tyre. Riding with the lights on was always a lot harder and demonstrated the engineering principle that you never get "ought for nought".
The bike was also equipped with a Sturmey-Archer three-speed gearbox. This was incorporated in the hub of the rear wheel and was operated by a small lever and cable from the handlebar. It was quite effective and in its day a modern device, but compared with the 24 gear - four control lever systems of the present day it was a simple thing. Nevertheless it made life riding the bike up the long hill to school much easier than on the old Raleigh machine.
I took great pride in my new bike and spent many hours keeping it clean and fiddling with the mechanisms. It suffered quite a few tyre punctures and I often had to repair these using the old fashioned method of taking the inner tube out, partially inflating it and running it through a basin full of water to find the leak. Once the stream of bubbles had been traced to the hole in the tube, the next step was to dry the place, scour the rubber with rough sand paper, spread some rubber glue on the area around the hole and then fix a rubber patch with its sticky face towards the tube, over the hole. The result was often successful, but occasionally either because of my faulty technique or poor materials, the patch would lift and I’d have to repeat the process. I could not afford new inner tubes very often and had to make the ones I had last as long as possible. The result was that both ended up looking like patch work quilts with a variety of rubber patches of different colours.
The outer tyre casings also occasionally gave trouble. I suppose the quality of the tyres available in those days was not particularly good. The tyres seemed to wear out fairly quickly and would develop weaknesses in the walls that resulted in a bulge when the tyre was pumped up too hard. Of course when that happened there was nothing for it but to buy a new tyre. I tried once to fill a tyre with hay rather than buy a new one but that was a disaster as it resulted in damage to the wheel rim and bent spokes. I also thought that one ought to be able to replace the pneumatic tyres with a coiled spring wound round the rim, but that crazy idea was never put to the test. – probably just as well as such a contraption would have quickly picked up small stones and come adrift.
Mum decided to move again to another guesthouse early in 1947. The new place was the "Mimosa" Guest House on Half Way Tree Road about a mile from Cross Roads. A local Jamaican family by the name of Pierce owned and ran the guesthouse. The family included at least two brothers of my age who became good companions for a while. The food produced was good, tasty and wholesome and a great improvement on school meals at JC. All meals were taken in communal dining room used by all the guests. I suppose there were at least two other families staying there and there were a number of other single guests living in the place.
Occasionally at weekends or on a public holiday the Pierces would make ice cream for their guests. They did not have a refrigerator; such machines were quite hard to come by in those days and few locals owned one. So they relied on an icebox and the purchase of large blocks of ice made in a local factory and delivered by truck or dray each week. The blocks of ice were about a yard long and a foot square and being heavy and slippery were difficult to manoeuvre off the cart and into the house. The delivery man used a pair of large tongs with pointed ends and a heavy hook, also with a pointed end to heave the blocks about. He had developed large muscles through this daily heavy labour and a marvellously athletic dexterity. He would leave the blocks onto the steps of the kitchen under an old sack. Inevitably the blocks of ice had to be broken into smaller pieces to fit into the ice compartment of the kitchen ice box. An ice pick was used for this and involved much hacking and persistence and resulted in the wastage of quite a bit of the ice. The ice pick consisted of a wooden handle with a sharply pointed thin spike of hardened steel sticking out of it and was quite a dangerous implement in the wrong or careless hands. The ice had to be replaced about twice a week and it was always an interesting event, especially as the cook was of an uncertain temperament and occasionally would abuse the ice man roundly for the mess he made and anyone else she felt was intruding in her domain.
Ice cream making also involved the use of broken pieces of ice. The machine used by the Pierces to make the treat consisted of a wooden bucket with a metal drum placed in it. The drum was attached to a gear mechanism on the top of the bucket that was turned by a wooden handle. Broken ice was packed tightly between the bucket and the metal drum and mixed with crude rock salt to prevent it from melting too soon. The liquid ice cream was then poured into the metal drum. It took a good hour to freeze the ice cream mixture. It involved someone constantly using the handle to rotate the metal drum within its jacket of ice and salt. Some of the children were inveigled to do the job in relays when old man Pierce was in a good mood. The encouragement to do this tedious work was the promise of a good helping of ice cream when it was ready. The result was really worth having being far better than the rather watery thinly flavoured factory produced ice creams available at the time.
Halfway Tree Road was remarkably busy being a fairly wide thoroughfare with a tramline running down the middle. The trams were old-fashioned 4 wheeled affairs that were open to the elements and looked rather like toast racks. The main protection from the weather was a roof supported at each end by the frames of the driver’s platform and cabin and wooden uprights set at intervals between. The original colour of the vehicles had been a bright orange, but rust and dirt gathered over a long life had overlaid much of this gay colour. The upright struts supporting the roof had so deteriorated that the roof itself swayed almost independently of the main frame of the tram as it trundled over the tracks. This contrary action between roof and frame resulted in a disturbing creaking, groaning and cracking sound that generated a backdrop to the rumble of the wheels on the tracks.
Even more startling was the noise and commotion created by the driver in bringing the whole contraption to a halt. He applied the brakes by turning the brake wheel set up on one side of the speed control pedestal in his forward facing cabin. He also used one foot to press a large cast iron pedal to produce loud warning clangs from the tram’s bell. To achieve all this required frantic activity on the driver’s part, especially in heavy traffic. The result of his efforts brought the steel faced brake shoes onto the rims of the wheels and that produced yet another noise to add to the cacophony - a peculiar grinding, squealing noise that to the unfamiliar was quite alarming.
The seats for passengers were made of wooden slats and were placed in rows across the full width of the tram. The backs of the seats were on hinges and so could be reversed when the tram reached the end of the line. The hinges were a particularly old and worn part of the tram and many had failed after long years of service and abuse. That made things uncomfortable for the unfortunate enough to find seats with no back supports.
There was no corridor down the middle of the seats to give access; the trams were open on both sides. Passengers simply scrambled up the two steps that ran the length of the tram and slid onto the chosen seat. This made the conductor’s job very difficult as he had to work his way along the steps to collect the fares and passengers sitting near the opposite side or standing on the steps outside were often able to get away without paying.
The conductor’s job was sometimes made more difficult, even impossible when the trams were overloaded with passengers. This happened often and passengers unable to find a seat would simply stand on the steps and hang onto whatever part of the tram framework they could find. On market days or days when there was a particularly interesting game of cricket or football being played, the trams carrying people to these events would literally be festooned with bodies. Many of the passengers standing on the steps had room enough only to support themselves on one foot and with one hand. It was a miracle that accidents were not more frequent as the tram drivers never slackened their speed between stops no matter how many people were on board and the trams were often moving in a heavy stream of traffic made up drays, cars, trucks, bicycles and pedestrians in the more crowded parts of Kingston.
The trams were identical at each end so that they did not have to be turned around when they reached the end of their particular line. The driver simply removed the control handle from the speed control pedestal in his cab walked round the tram and reattached the handle to a similar pedestal in the rear cab so making it now the front end of the tram. The driver then hauled on the end of the line attached to the single rod pantograph and pulled it round to place its small power pick up wheel onto the single strand overhead electric power cable to make the tram ready for its return journey.
The tram system must have been made and installed between the two world wars and was badly run down. Yet it was kept running somehow and remained a mainstay of the city’s transport system for most of the years we lived in Kingston.
After the move to the Mimosa Guest House I used the trams to get to school more often than I used the bike. But it meant changing trams at Half Way Tree and the journey was tedious. It was also sometimes fraught, especially when, for whatever reason, the trams were crowded and running behind schedule.
In extremis some drivers would only slow down at the stops. Boarding and alighting passengers then had to get on and off as best they could. This took a bit of coordinated running and leaping especially in places where the tramlines were in the middle of the road with traffic on both sides of the tram. Not everyone succeeded in this without at best a loss of dignity and at worst a nasty tumble. Fortunately not all the drivers were like that and most of the time the trams were driven with reasonable care.
The drivers that were inconsiderate soon learned to be more careful as their passengers would abuse them vigorously given sufficient provocation. The large well-covered dusky ladies who travelled to the markets with their produce were especially effective in teaching errant drivers a lesson. These formidable women used to scramble on board laden with their sacks of yams or sweet potatoes or whatever else they hoped to sell and generally occupied the rear seats of the tram. They would speak their minds without hesitation and with fervour when the driver did something they did not like. "Chu man! Whatcha tink yo doin? We no like yo man……!" were some of the milder things they said.
Sometimes there were nasty accidents on Halfway Tree Road. The one I recollect most vividly involved a dray that was being hauled by a horse. A gang of workmen had been working for days digging a large hole in the road by the tramlines just outside the Mimosa Guesthouse. Our room was on the side facing the road and above it, so I had a good view of what they were doing as well as subsequent events. As the road works proceeded the part available to traffic became narrower and narrower causing ever-increasing congestion and chaos at peak traffic times.
Then the worst happened and there was a collision between the dray and another vehicle. A tram had hit the back of the dray, its horse being too old and slow to pull it out of the way. The drayman was knocked off his perch and the poor horse went down between the shafts obviously badly hurt. I heard the loud burst of noise and the agonized cries of the horse. From my bedroom window I could see that a crowd of curious and unhelpful onlookers had quickly gathered.
No one seemed able to do much in the confusion and it wasn’t until about half an hour had passed before a policeman appeared. There was then some heated discussion between the policeman and the drayman. This ended when the policeman drew his revolver and shot the horse. This was a real act of mercy and brought some relief to the situation. But confusion still reigned as the arguments between the now very upset drayman and the tram driver became very heated, neither of them taking any notice of the policeman’s efforts to calm them down. At one point they both rounded on him to vent of their anger. Finally a more senior policeman came along with more police to disperse the crowd. But it took several more hours before a truck was brought to haul the dead horse and the broken dray away.
This nasty accident was not a happy experience for any of the people directly involved. The road workers had up to that point encouraged themselves in their work by singing very rhythmical chants making a cheerful background to the noise of the traffic. But they became quite silent and morose during the remainder of their job. It took them several more days to finish it, but they were never as cheerful as before and seemed to want to get away from that sad place as quickly as they could.
The main house of the Mimosa Guesthouse was set in about half an acre of land. There was a lawn in front and the side facing the road. At the back of the main building there was a dusty bare yard and some outhouses. The property was softened by a number of trees; coconut, lignum vitae and mimosa are some I remember. I suppose there were about 5 families staying at there, at least I can recall about 5 other playmates there, enough anyway to play marbles or a simple form of cricket in the back yard.
We lived at Mimosa for about a year, long enough for several changes in the population of guests. About half way through our time at Mimosa a Dutch family arrived. In 1942 they had been captured by the Japanese in Indonesia and had spent several very harsh years as prisoners in Java. I do not know how or why they finally ended up in Jamaica, but they certainly came as refugees. For me they were of great interest as by that time I had begun to be more aware of what had happened during World War II and their presence added reality to what I was reading. But I do not recall my ever having any success in getting the children to talk about their experiences. No doubt the times were too painful for them to want to remember.
Another new guest who did not stay very long was an Englishman who had written a successful novel about the war and had come to Jamaica to write another. Unfortunately he had become fond of the bottle and did not make much progress with his new book as he was often drunk. I do not know whether he ever finished it or what became of him as he left Mimosa almost as quietly as he had come.
During that year Mum for some reason known only to her, thought that it would do me good during the summer vacation to go to a camp for youngsters run by an American Evangelical group. The camp was set up under tents in some town outside Kingston and involved my being there for a week. I was taken to the camp with 2 or 3 other boys of my age in a large taxi.
My stay at the camp resulted in a complete sense of confusion about my developing faith. Up to that time I had been brought up in a relatively simple and gentle version of Christianity where God could be directly addressed and appealed to. I had been to Sunday school in Mexico and so had acquired knowledge of the Ten Commandments and nodding acquaintance with the Catechism. I could recite them well enough but my understanding was, to say the least, simplistic. My mother had taught me amongst other things to say my prayers regularly before going to bed. This involved kneeling and saying the Lord ’s Prayer and another asking God to "bless Mummy and Daddy, Annie Ough and all my friends and relatives" I could also pray for things that I wanted to achieve. This routine quickly lapsed during my days as a border at JC, subjected as it was to the ridicule of my fellows. But if I thought about faith at all it was still in the context of forgiveness and gentleness. There had been nothing strident or bullying in my contacts with things religious and "being good and thinking of others and being forgiven for my many transgressions" was a key part of it all in my child’s mind.
The Evangelists Camp quickly disabused me of much of my early instruction in Christianity. We were required to attend prayer meetings at least three times for every day in camp. These meetings were always after a meal and took place in the largest tent on the site. The central theme seemed to be of a vengeful God who ruled over trivial things and promised dire punishments as retribution against transgressions.
Additional meetings were also called for both the Saturday and Sunday, days when there were added restrictions for the inmates of the camp. The leaders of these meetings were rotated between the team of the evangelists running the camp. The leader was always a man (there were no women amongst the preachers). This man would always deliver himself of a fiery diatribe against sin and sinners. Everyone of these preachers painted a lurid picture of hell and damnation and the fate of any erring boy who did not obey the Lord’s Commandments, plus much else besides….like the camp rules. Quite how these people managed to equate camp regulations with the edicts of the All Powerful I do not know, but I was certainly terrified into keep within the constraints set down for living in the camp.
I came away after the prescribed week of this preaching, preachy, sanctimonious and unrelenting regime. I was now quite confused about religion and its meaning in my life. The fact hat I had been accepted into the "arms of Christ" in the eyes of these people meant nothing, and certainly was not based on any new understanding or revelation. Indeed as a result of the efforts of the evangelicals I developed a distinct aversion to religious teaching. I was simply glad to get away. The aversion lasted a long time and included my avoiding the efforts and mass conversions by evangelists like Billy Graham in London many years afterwards.
It was not until later when I started to study Religious Knowledge as a school certificate subject that I was helped to make any sense out of the life and teachings of Christ as described in the four Gospels of the New Testament. I also attended confirmation classes at JC and eventually became confirmed. I count myself fortunate in having that grounding. This was especially so through my early years of adulthood when belief in a forgiving God and a giving religion sustained me through some difficult times.
But again, I am getting ahead of my story and those early days in Jamaica and the Mimosa Guesthouse. It was whilst at Mimosa that I joined he Boy Scouts troop at the school. I had already received a grounding in Scouting from my time as a "Tenderfoot" in Mexico. So I became a very junior member of the Wolf Patrol in the JC Scout Group. Like every other young Scout I was encouraged to earn myself some badges. One of the first was in map reading and part of the test required me to map the grounds of the guesthouse. I spent several frustrating hours trying to survey the grounds with an old magnetic compass to determine direction; I estimated distance by pacing the boundaries and walking along the outside walls of the buildings. The result of my efforts was a grubby piece of paper with pencilled lines purporting to show a map of the guesthouse and its grounds. I must have had a very understanding examiner as much to my surprise I was awarded the badge. Perhaps I was awarded the badge more for much effort than anything else. My skills as a cartographer were not very evident then nor since.
Visits to the pictures became a routine feature of life. The main cinema was the new theatre at Cross Roads about a mile away from the guesthouse. This had been built not long after we arrived in Jamaica. It was set up with the latest in cinema equipment. It was the only air-conditioned theatre at the time and quickly became a popular new attraction for the population of Kingston. I recall seeing many good films there that were typical of that early post war period. These included " The Red Shoes", "Gone with The Wind", ….
There were at least two other cinemas that we went to, but less frequently because they were further away and in less salubrious parts of Kingston. One of these was an open-air theatre. It had no roof and so was not a place to be during a tropical downpour. But on hot nights it could be pleasant sitting on the hard benches under the stars watching a movie. But you had to be careful where you sat. Too close to the hut housing the equipment or the screen and you suffered from swarms of insects attracted to the bright projector light.
Mum went back to Mexico for a brief holiday with Dad in 1948 and she was away for about a month. It must have been during the summer school holidays and Charmian and I were left in the care of the Pierces and Mrs Earle. I do not have a clear recollection of that time. We had been left in good hands and both of us were well looked after. I suppose an increasing sense of independence and self reliance also helped. But it was a relief to see Mum again. She did not return to Mexico again for another 8 years and I guess she and Dad must have had a parting of the ways. She never spoke about it.
A lifeline during those difficult times was the monthly letter from Dad. He wrote a separate letter to each of us. This regular contact was kept up for all the years we were in Jamaica. Type written, his letters were almost invariably exactly a page long and contained news of ‘home", advice and encouragement. They almost always arrived at the end of the month and naturally an answer was expected. And so both Charmian and I got into the habit of writing regularly. Absence they say makes the heart grow fonder….. Dad remained my hero and his letters reinforced not only the bond with him, but also the feeling of wanting to be "home" again and to experience all that I still missed so much of Mexico. It was an extraordinary effort on his part…he must have been very lonely at times and writing those letters helped to assuage that awful feeling. His postal address is etched into my memory:
© Copyright M.& M.M.O.Dealy 2007-
This page last modified on Thursday, July 10, 2014