March 27, 2015

A Dream Come True… by Dr Cecil Cyrus – a review

(Continued from last week)

There is what for some reason I call a brutal honesty about the book, as he reveals aspects of himself that really brought no credit to him. He admits to going to church on occasions simply to catch a glimpse of a young lady whom he fancied. One of his problems he indicated had to do with his shyness, which created problems for him, as he feared rejection. He remembers as an 11-year-old having to go to court as a witness in a vehicle accident.{{more}} To the laughter of the magistrate and all others in court, he addressed the bailiff as ‘Your worship.’ At his first venture at reciting a poem at a Salvation Army concert, he was totally terrified, could not utter a word and fled from the stage.

He recalls 437 nicknames of persons in both Layou and Kingstown and gives the reasons behind some of those nicknames. Some people were known only by their nicknames; so, Biscuit McIntosh is simply Biscuit and when people went to him they simply asked for Mr Biscuit. A Layou character was nicknamed Bat Romeo, because he returned from his mountain lands only at the dark of night. A watchman at the Girls’ High School was known as Red Fowl Cock, because he was supposed to have been a ‘mako man’. A Scottish Anglican priest was given the distinguished name ‘Breadfruit Soup’.

His reflections on Layou of his day would bring back memories to the more mature, if I can use that socially sensitive description for the older folks. It would be of valuable interest to the young living in a society that has been transformed by the global communications revolution, to know what the society of their parents and grandparents was like. Who remembers ‘blanco’ (a shoe whitener), fungee, heavy bread, crusscake, bodyline, blue soap and lard oil, bull-de-mash and the other home remedies that were meant to clean you out after the holidays, castor oil and Epsom salts? Then there was the ‘nointing’, an early version of the work of a chiropractor, self appointed, nonetheless. On his infrequent visits to Kingstown, he walked from Layou to Grand Gate with his ‘washikongs’ in his hand, washed his feet, then and proudly moved into Kingstown, clad in his washikongs. Today, he said, he still retains a love for ‘bun-bun’ (burnt rice), although it is hard to come by.

One of his passions was cricket, which he played relentlessly, during the vacation, practically for the whole day, at the Layou field, once he had done his domestic chores. He gives interesting stories about visits to different villages to play what later used to be called ‘goat matches.’ He continued his love for cricket at the Grammar School and even had a stint in Ireland. He recalls a one-legged bowler. He stood at the wicket, while one of the other players ran up to bowl. On reaching the wicket, he handed the ball to the one-legged player who then bowled it.

The author came from a humble family, went to school without shoes; his mother at times picked cotton for plantation owner A M Fraser. His responsibilities involved taking water from the standpipe and sweeping the yard with a coconut broom. The support of his family in Layou was extraordinary and shaped the kind of person that he became. He has dedicated the book to his mother in Layou and his father, who invited him to come to live in Kingstown and took care of him through the rest of his primary and secondary school education. His book is dedicated to his mother and father, because they both brought different dimensions to his life; his mother, he said, for nurturing him to healthy childhood with her loving care and attention. His father, for the sacrifices he made to educate him at all levels.

His account of the practices, beliefs and customs make for fascinating reading. His Tantie Grace was a specialist in the application of coconut oil to his hair, face and limbs. He reminds us of Jumbie and Nansi stories; of Rounce, Jack o’Lanterns, and Jabless; of playing coop, corkings and spinning tops. He was told by his Tantie Helen to enter the house by going backwards so that the spirits would not follow him in. Do we remember the art of shopkeepers wrapping sugar, butter and flour?

Serenading was an essential part of the Christmas season and with that was what used at one time to be called ‘speechfying’. He remembers some of the speeches “I want to remind you of the biblical history; I hope I am not discommoding you from your peaceful rest, Or hesitating you, or kicking the shallow plate any further. I will now turn to my band to sound me the antercorum part of music…”

Some of the old sayings and choruses are recaptured: ‘The devil and his wife fighting for a piece of ham bone’; Messa Fraza lend me your fan; Moskito one, Moskito 2, moskito jump in de old man shoe. Local words and expressions: “food go ride you: you too bad ways.” You is a pappyshow. If you can’t hear you going feel. You see star pitch. Yo like Miss Howard’s cat. He recalls Old Year’s Night mischief. Mr Jeffers’ donkey’s tail was tied to the Anglican Church bell in the wee hours of the morning. He says, “Well the ensuing din must have wakened everyone in Layou as the usually gentle animal struggled to free its tied hind leg.” The police had to come to the rescue.

One of the things that captured my attention was the story that made the rounds and continued to do so in my time. It was that FA Casson’s house at Casson Hill had 99 windows. The only reason it could not have 100 was because Buckingham Palace had 100. Like him, I believed it. About six years ago I happened to have visited that house and looked specifically for the windows. I was so disappointed and more so because of the realization that I had been fed a lie for so long. Then there is the story of Mr X who, as the saying went, talked in his head. He could not say United Traders, but simply said Traders. His daughter was friendly with a man called Shot. He accosted her: “We have no gun; what you doing with Shot?” (To be continued)

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.