“I’m collecting nick names.” This from Shirley, a retired opera singer who, as well as running a guest house, is writing a book based on islanders’ experiences with the paranormal. I shiver, despite the suffocating heat inside Montserrat’s Cultural Centre, where the world’s smallest book festival is being held, at the thought of all those spine-chilling experiences.
I realize she is still talking.
“Most of men’s nick names are due to the size of their penis. You know ‘whopper’ don’t you?”
Indeed I do, but would never presume to seek proof. “And ‘chicken’, and ‘bird’ and ‘bull?” She laughs “Men!”
I’m here, at the invitation of the Alliouagana (land of the prickly bush) Festival of the Word to take part in their ‘Telling Our Stories’ programme. I’m asked to bring books, posters and reviews and be prepared to conduct a writer’s workshop, which I’ve given the jolly little title ‘Tell it how it is’.
The first ‘event’ is the ‘Meet and Greet Reception’, kindly hosted and paid for by the current Governor. Most of the invited guests are wearing sensible clothes. Some women sport brightly coloured turbans and matching long dresses. Others float in cotton tents, while the men are in crisp white shirts and loose pants. I, on the other hand, am squeezed into a hip-hugging red cocktail dress, lined with a sweat inducing man-made fabric. Within seconds, I need wringing out. My fringe is plastered to my forehead, and I know there are terrible damp patches appearing on my frock. But, as every performer knows, the show must go and and soon it will be my turn to present the required ‘teaser’, fore warning of which I had only obtained by a chance encounter with a fellow author.
Fortunately, the ordeal is forestalled by the arrival of Montserrat’s Masquerade Dancers, a group, which, if you didn’t know better, might well make you think you’re witnessing a Voodoo ceremony. A fusion of African and European cultural influences, particularly the Irish, who have a long history on the island, the dancers dress in brightly coloured flowing cloaks, adorned with an assortment of streaming ribbons and mirrors, topped off by hats as tall as Bishop’s miters. Their faces are covered by vaguely threatening masks and their dance is a strange mixture of an Irish jig, a square dance and rhythmic foot stamping, to the accompaniment of drums, maracas and flute.
A central figure holds an evil-looking whip, which he cracks as a command to change step or rhythm. Many of the dancers appear to ignore his instructions, turning their backs, symbolically lifting their cloaks to show their bottoms in mocking defiance.
It’s a heady, captivating experience, which is thought to date back to the 17th century, invented by plantation slaves, the anonymity provided by their costumes giving them an opportunity to not only safely mock their owners, but to express themselves in dance rituals and drumming. It’s said that the whip master represents the plantation overseer, and the ribbons … freedom,.
Dancing over, it’s time for our first story teller. My heart sinks as A-dZiko Simba, sets the ‘teaser standard’ bar impossibly high. A wraith-like figure, with a cascade of graying dread locks, she slips onto the stage. As if struck by lightning, she is suddenly transformed. Her arms rotate, her voice rises and falls and we are mesmerized. And her story? You probably know it, the one about the young boy and the donkey.
The audience rocks with laughter and applauds in appreciation. She is followed by another story teller, Nigerian born Atinuke, whose vocal power and dramatic gestures would give Lion King a run for its money. She prowls the stage taking us deep into the African forest where the search is on for a 151 tailed animal.
I’m beginning to panic. My reading of ‘Air Studios’, a chapter from ‘Plenty Mango – Postcards from the Caribbean’, about the late Sir George Martin, who not only built the famous Air Studios, but raised the funds, post the volcano, to build the Cultural Centre in which the Festival is taking place, couldn’t possibly match such imaginative high wire acts. Even the fact that I once had the temerity to ask Mick Jagger to dance comes a poor second to a multi-tailed creature.
I hear my own voice, which I suspect is sounding not unlike a country vicar’s wife declaring the summer garden fete’ open.’ But I press, on and am relieved when my Mick Jagger impropriety gets a laugh. When I get to the point of the story where George Martin is hosting his fund raising ‘Music for Montserrat’ concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall, I sense the audience settle in quiet memories of appreciation. After all, it was he who first put Montserrat well and truly on the map.
Of course, no entertainment in the Caribbean would be complete without some calypso music, on this occasion headed by Herman ‘Cupid’ (no nick name translation needed) Francis, followed by Kelvin ‘Tabu’ (Shirley please advise) Duberry and, finally, Pat ‘Belonger’ Ryan, a very elderly, tiny woman, dressed in full national costume, carrying an equally diminutive ukulele. She refuses the microphone, perches somewhat unsteadily on a bar stool, peers at her lyrics held by a woman wearing a silver stole and pink sequined hand bag, and tremulously begins to sing. Even those with granite hearts would be moved.
And so to the ‘book signing’ session. Try and imagine how a fattened cow might feel when it’s paraded in the auction ring and you’ll recognize my emotional state. I hover, with rictus grin, behind my station, hoping that someone will be prepared to part with some of their dollars. And they are. Not just one, but the entire miniature pile. I have to resist too flowery messages of gratitude as I hear myself uttering that cliché, longed for by all writers ‘and to whom would you like me to dedicate the book?’. We’re hardly in The Sunday Times best-seller league, but it’s a giddy moment.
I’m not even going to think about tomorrow. After all, no workshop can be as terrifying as presenting an unrehearsed ‘teaser’.