A very happy New Year to you all.
I am back once again with some news, thoughts and new post especially for you to help clear away the mid-January blues and spread a little sunshine into all our lives.
Firstly the news, work is well under-way for my next title! Following on from your kind words and reviews for Plenty Mango I am working away on Plenty More Mango which I hope you will all find just as amusing, engrossing and thought provoking as Plenty Mango. Watch this space to hear more about it. There are lots of ideas bubbling away so stay tuned.
Moving on down the running order we have some views. Lots of lovely comments coming through from you all which I am putting onto the front page here and there’s growing interest in Plenty Mango from a number of publications who will be talking to me and helping tell the world what a wonderful place Montserrat is (through the medium of my stories). Once again, stay tuned on this as I will definitely be telling you all about my upcoming appearances in print.
And now for the new piece. Going back to Montserrat at the end of 2017 was a joy, especially with the launch of Plenty Mango and my Book Festival appearances. As that trip came to an end and I prepared to leave the Emerald Isle and return to the Winter nights here in the UK I was overjoyed at the reaction to Plenty Mango. So many queries about when the next one would be coming out.
It is many years since John and I ventured into Plymouth, Montserrat’s former capital, mainly because access has been prohibited. But it is now late 2017 and visitors, if they follow strict security procedures, are allowed to enter and see, first hand, the havoc that nature can cause.
It’s a typical sparkling winter’s morning, bright sunlight, a flotilla of butterflies over the pool and our star fruit tree bending under the weight of its blushing yellow bounty. We’ve discovered that Winston Tellesford, Montserrat’s former Head of Police, is now taking a limited number of passengers in his people carrier right into Plymouth. So, of course, we book to join one of his forays. We bump along a rough track that was once the longest fairway on what people used to describe as ‘the Caribbean’s prettiest golf course’, heading towards what was once the Belham River Bridge, roughly 25 feet above the river, but now many feet below it. With a final lurch, we return to made-up road and head South. There are six passengers and none of us speak as we begin to smell the sulphur and get closer to the jagged ridges of the crater. Eventually we come to a make-shift check point, manned by a gentleman who raises a lethargic hand in greeting. Winston hands over a piece of paper on which we’ve written our names and walks over to a parked police car. Eventually the driver wakes up and positions the vehicle to follow ours. It is only then that I appreciate that we really are entering the danger zone… why else would we have a Police escort? I look up again at the volcano, which is steaming quietly and appears deceptively unthreatening.
Much has been written about the unpredictability of volcanoes, and it must have been a hard decision for the then Governor HE Frank Savage to make the call the evacuate Plymouth on the 21st August, 1995. You can hear the seriousness in his voice if you visit the MVO (Montserrat Volcano Observatory) and watch an excellent film about the history of what has become the world’s most closely monitored volcano. Broadcasting on ZJB Radio he said “After being informed by the scientists that they could no longer guarantee a six hour notice of volcanic activity, which we had previously been told was a reasonable expectation, a decision has been taken to evacuate the following areas beginning at 5.00 am tomorrow morning: Richmond Hill, Cork Hill, Foxes Bay, St. George’s Hill, Weekes and Isles Bay. We’re asking you to relocate to the north of the Belham River. Please try to find room with friends, or go to St. Johns or Geralds Bottom where provisions have been made, or are being made, to accommodate you.” Ten months later the capital was evacuated again, this time for good.
Winston is talking on his two-way radio, letting the MVO know that he has six passengers on board. A large truck hurtles past, kicking up clouds of dust. It is laden with what Montserratians call ‘black gold’, tonnes of crushed rock that has spewed from the volcano and is now shipped to other islands to be sold as a valuable building material. Suddenly, through dense undergrowth, we spot a twisted, falling building. My heart pounds as I recognize the faded shop sign – ‘Economy Bakery’ where I would buy my bread.
Winston turns his vehicle to the left and parks on a piece of rough ground. What we’re facing could be a scene from Bladerunner. No grass, no trees, no recognizable streets, just a mangle of half buried buildings. Winston points out the tiny remains of the police station. “Dat was my office”, he says wistfully. Johnny Mecca’s Fashions, Angelo’s, the Court House. All gone, devoured by the volcano. No point asking Winston where the Evergreen Tree used to be; a meeting place for people to gossip, play dominoes, sell their arts and crafts or, simply, lime. And then, in the middle of this carnage, I spot a tiled wall, untouched, and glass jalousie windows, still intact, and a wall fan turning in the breeze.
An iguana ignores us as he pads by.
Back into to the people carrier and further into the buried capital. This time we can see the full extent of the devastation wreaked by a series of pyroclastic flows. I spot the former three gabled Government House and the roof of the medical school that brought much needed income to the island. We all take photographs with the volcano as a backdrop. I understand now why people get hooked on volcano chasing. After all, albeit deadly, they are the very essence of life on earth. David Lea and his wife Clover, sixties hippies to the core, had moved from Key West in Florida to Montserrat in 1980. What began as a volcano charting hobby became a life’s work for David and his book ‘Through my Lens’ and his intrepid videos are testament to his courage and tenacity.
Of course, myths about the volcano abound. My favourite concerns a gnarled little old man, who everyone knew as ‘Neverme’ who used to sweep the veranda in front of the Post Office and earn a few cents carrying people’s bags to their cars. Just like the cats, dogs, goats and chickens who could care less about evacuation orders, so it was with ‘Neverme’. He’d rather take his risks with the volcano than endure the disruption and stress of the shelters.
The story goes that for several nights in early November, 1998 he began hearing strange noises coming from Barclays Bank. Quite naturally, he assumed there must be ‘jumbies’ (ghosts) about, so sensibly tried to alert the authorities. But no-one took any notice of ‘Neverme’. That is until news of an audacious raid on Barclay’s Bank broke. Apparently a group had blasted their way through to the bank’s safe and helped themselves to about $US300,000. Most of the culprits were caught, some leading with the imaginative defense that, because the dollar bills hadn’t been officially issued, the gang, in effect, were only guilty of a very minor charge of stealing paper. That, needless to say, didn’t go down well with the judge.
As for ‘Neverme’, once Plymouth was evacuated, I never saw him again.
We clamber back into the people carrier, our heads full of volcanic adjectives; awesome, majestic, overwhelming ,being just a few. I feel chastened and a little sad. I know we’ve all moved on and Brades is becoming the new capital in the North, but Plymouth was once home to 5,000 people. Ironically that city was built on a previous pyroclastic flow so, who knows, in a few hundred years, people might be doing the same thing all over again.
I’m just that glad someone has rescued the court house clock and taken it to the safety of Montserrat’s National Trust.