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 <—-Kingston 1938 – A Dangerous Place            A Change of Plan for Olga—->

 

Family Tree

My mother, Olga Browney, arrived in London from Kingston, Jamaica on 1st April 1939 intending to stay only a few months. The plan was that Olga would stay with her Aunt Martha in Paddington. Although in the months before there had been talk of a war between England and Germany, Olga’s mother, Becky, believed that war had been averted, thanks to the Munich Agreement. This was a Pact made between Adolph Hitler and the then British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain whereby Hitler had promised Chamberlain that he would not make any more territorial demands into Europe and so Chamberlain believed that war between the two countries had been averted.

 

Olga’s Diary (continued)

Dear Diary

            “How did you get here?” Aunt Martha asked me incredulously.

She was still in bed even though it was the middle of the afternoon.  If it had been Birdie standing at the bottom of her bed instead of me, the reply would have said something smart like “I just flew in on Aggie Burns broomstick”, but I just said lamely,

“I thought you were expecting me”. 

“Jesus Christ, what day is it”?

“April 1st” I said, shocked by her blaspheming. 

And then she started laughing “Trust you to arrive on April Fool’s Day, Olga”.

I didn’t answer not understanding what she meant, but, I knew she wasn’t paying me a compliment. I was hungry, cold, tired and this was not the welcome I had been expecting.

For a start Aunt Martha should have met me when the S.S. Jamaica Progress docked this morning in London.  The Progress is a cargo boat carrying fruit, mainly bananas, and the Royal Mail, but also has room for a few passengers.  On this trip there were 12 of us including me and, of course, my chaperone, Mrs Brodie, a friend of the family, who was going to England for a holiday and whom Sydney had asked to keep an eye on me during the trip. 

Did he think I might fall overboard?  

Anyway, it never occurred to me that Aunt Martha wouldn’t be there and I was very grateful that Mrs Brodie waited with me a for a while, but eventually she said she had to leave.  With a confidence I certainly wasn’t feeling I assured her I would be fine on my own.   Just in case Aunt Martha didn’t arrive Mrs. Brodie showed me where there was a taxi rank and, checking I had enough money to pay for it, kissed me goodbye and went on her way.   Sitting in the waiting room I felt very homesick.

After waiting for her for nearly three hours I decided to take a taxi to Aunt Martha’s home, 23 Chilworth Street, Paddington.   I knew she lived on the third floor of a block of flats because last time she was in Kingston she told us at dinner one evening how Londoners were not very friendly.  Aunt Martha likes a drink and one day she was in a pub when a lady sitting a few feet away from her became ill.  Aunt Martha offered to take her back to her home and discovered that the woman lived in the flat beneath her in Chilworth Street

As I struggled up the three flights of concrete steps to Aunt Martha’s flat with two heavy suitcases I thought, Londoners are not only unfriendly, they’re unreliable too.

 

Letter to Mammie, Mission House, Kingston 

from

Olga, 23 Chilworth Street, London

 

Dearest  Mammie

I couldn’t sleep last night.  When I closed my eyes I saw us all on Kingston docks crying.  It was hard saying goodbye, wasn’t it, and Mammie you looked so worried.  Fancy Pops coming down as well.  It was nice you were both there.  I don’t remember ever seeing you together before. And wasn’t Sydney thoughtful and kind making sure I had everything I needed. He told me to be sure to ask Aunt Martha if I need anything and he said he’d be coming to London in two or three months, so I would see him them.

Including me and Mrs Brodie, there were only twelve passengers on the boat, two widow ladies, myself and another single young lady and two married couples, three single men, two were students and the third single man was an engineer.  We all got on very well together and made up our own entertainment in the evening with little concerts which we all took part in.  I was persuaded to sing a few times and got a very nice round of applause each time.  The engineer performed some magic tricks, which sometimes went wrong, but we pretended we hadn’t noticed or else we played card games like gin rummy or canasta while the older people played bridge.  

 As a matter of fact Mammie, I was invited to sit at the Captain’s table four times during the journey; it’s a great honour, you know and I felt very important.  The crossing seemed to go quickly and it was very good until we got close to England and then it rained a lot and the sea was a bit rough.

Aunt Martha has a nice little two bedroom flat and, guess what, I have my own bedroom but you probably know that. 

On my first morning here, Aunt Martha brought me breakfast in bed and later on took me to Lyons Corner House which is huge and there are restaurants on four levels.    On the ground floor level is the food hall where you can buy different things like ham and cheese, pastries and specially made chocolates, wines, tea and, guess what, coffee and fruit from, guess where? ……Jamaica! 

And on the floors above are more restaurants with an orchestra playing in each one.  Aunt Martha and I went to the tearoom and she ordered afternoon tea which arrived on delicate china plates with some scones, dainty sandwiches and little cakes.  I only had a little bit to eat because I thought it was good manners not to eat all the food in front of us.  But I was wrong, I should have eaten more, because AM finished the whole lot.

All the waitresses wore black and white uniforms, Ruby, and AM says their called Nippies, when I asked her why ,she said “because they nip in and out of the tables quickly”.  Isn’t that funny?  I thought they looked so smart in their uniforms and said to AM that I might change my mind about going to Madame Verschaka’s School of Dance and become a Nippie for a few months. 

“I don’t think so dear,” AM said. 

“To come all this way from Jamaica and end up as a waitress doesn’t seem such a good idea to me”

  Well, at least it’s work, I thought to myself but didn’t say anything.  With so many out of work back home I bet lots of people would love a job like that.  When the bill came, Aunt Martha said,

“Oh, that’s a bit expensive, but never mind Olga, you’re worth it”.  Wasn’t that nice? 

The weather has been horrible, cold and wet.  One day smog covered the whole of London all day and you could barely see in front of your hand and bus conductors were walking in front of their buses to guide them.  I missed Jamaica a lot that day.  Aunt Martha says its smoke that comes from factory chimneys and buses.  There are signs that Londoners are preparing for war.  There are air raid shelters being built and sticky tape is stuck across windows to prevent people being cut by flying glass and splinters when the bombs come.  Aunt Martha says it’s difficult to know what to think because one minute the war’s on and the next it’s off. 

My favourite place, Mammie, is Regent’s Park Zoo.  There are all sorts of animals there, lions, tigers, elephants, monkeys, snakes, beautiful big birds and sweet little birds.   Even before I get to the zoo I can hear the lions roaring and the monkeys whooping.  I feed the monkeys but you’re not allowed to feed the wilder animals, so I watch the zoo keepers feed the elephants, lions and bears. 

And I’ve discovered a beautiful Catholic church called St James’ in Spanish Place, not far from Aunt Martha but, do you know what, I don’t think she goes to church quite so much in London as she does in Jamaica. 

I say my prayers every night Mammie and go to mass on Sundays at St James’ .  It doesn’t feel the same as the Holy Trinity Cathedral, but I still like it a lot.  

I miss you all.  Please write soon.

                                Your loving daughter and sister            Signed Olga

 

 <—-Kingston 1938 – A Dangerous Place to Live        A Change of Plan for Olga – London 1939—->

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<—-Kingston 1938 – A Dangerous Place to Live                  London 1939 —->

I couldn’t help but be amused when I discovered this Christmas card that my Uncle Sydney used to send to his customers in Jamaica.  It depicts snow – in Jamaica!!

  

Jamaican Christmas Card with Snow! 

 

Olga’s Diary (Continued)

Family Tree

 

Dear Diary

Christmas Eve:   Ruby, Dolly, Pearl and me went to midnight mass at the Holy Trinity Cathedral.  Mammie never forces us to go to church and we can choose whether we want to.  I always want to go, I like the feeling of peace when I’m in Church.  The Cathedral  bells always start ringing half an hour before midnight and as they died away the Holy Trinity Choir sang “Adeste Fideles”. 

Father Butler preached the sermon and talked about the true meaning and spirit of Christmas and that it was a season of love and we should love one another and live happily and peacefully together.  Father Butler knows my family well and I’m sure he wrote that sermon just for the Browney family.  It certainly felt like it.  

Christmas is a special time in Jamaica and we celebrate it in a big way.  I love it, there is always so much happening and it’s one of the few times, apart from family crisis, a wedding or a funeral, when my family is together.

 

Christmas Day:   Today is such a beautiful day, warm with a little breeze and Mammie is sitting in her favourite rocking chair on the back veranda, pretending she’s dozing, but I know she is watching to make sure Cassie and me lay the dining table properly for Christmas lunch. 

We nearly always eat in the garden and Cassie and I are laying the huge mahogany table that’s been moved from the dining room onto the lawn and has been in the family as long as I can remember.  Mammie had it specially made years ago and told the craftsman it had to be big enough to hold at least twenty people because she was going to have lots of children. 

Cassie and I have done a good job with the table, even if I say so myself.  At each end there is a large bowl of fruit overflowing with mangoes, oranges, figs, papaw, bananas, star apples, dates, pineapple, naseberry and tamarind.   Down the centre we’ve put sprays of green maiden hair fern with white Christmas blossoms and lots of deep crimson roses.  Each place setting has been laid up with a crystal wine glass and Mammie’s best silver cutlery, a Xmas cracker and a crisp white folded linen serviette in the shape of a water lily and placed in the middle of each setting.  As an extra touch I’ve put a few tiny silver dishes of sweets, raisins and nuts on the table. 

We have a real feast on Christmas Day, lots of different things to choose from.   Rice and peas, cod fish and ackee, which grows in pods on a large tree, as well as the usual Christmas lunch of roast turkey, roasted plantain, sweet potatoes, calalue, cassada and yams.   For pudding we’ll be having boiled Jamaica plum pudding with wine sauce as well and mince pies.  Oh, I do love my food.  Mammie says my eyes are bigger than my belly.  I have a big scar on my upper arm where Dolly threw hot porridge at me one morning at breakfast.

I remember when I was little the family were sitting down to breakfast one morning, and we normally had porridge, and there was a sideboard where the porridge was laid out in dishes.   I usually examined them all to see which was the biggest one.  Dolly was standing beside me and I picked up the biggest one and she picked up hers and she threw it at me and said

“Here you take this too” and the porridge hit me on my right upper arm. 

I’ve still got the burn mark all these years later.   Mammie was furious with Dolly and she got smacked and Mammie took me to the bathroom and put bicarbonate of soda on it.  It stung like anything.  I cried a little bit because it hurt and then Mammie took me back down to breakfast.

After that we got ready for school and Mammie gave us a coconut cake.   She made them every day for us.  I can see Dolly, Ruby and myself, three little tots, going off to school, crying and hugging each other all the way.  We made friends quickly and never kept malice.   We were always together and did everything together, went to school together, played together, when we were very little we even slept in the same bed together.  

Mammie is lovely, you know, we only have to say we have a headache and she’ll cuddle you.

Next to the chairs which have been stacked ready to be placed around the Christmas table is a big wicker basket which will soon be full of Christmas presents. 

We have a custom at Christmas where we put everyone’s name in a hat and then you pick a name from the hat and have to buy a present for that person, costing no more than 1/-.  It takes a lot of imagination sometimes to find the right present for the right person. 

 

John Canoe:   In the distance I can hear the music from the John Canoe celebrations which we’ll all go and join up with after lunch.  John Canoe parades date back to slavery when Christmas was the only extended holiday the slaves had and it was a very special holiday for them. 

Some people say John Canoe was a great African chief and loved so much by his people that in his honour a festival is held every year.  Men wear “John Canoe faces”, which are masks worn by the performers.  

One performer will wear a sort of house on his head, some wear a cow’s head, one or two of them wear the head of a horse, some of the men dress in women’s clothes and all are dancing in the streets accompanied by drums, tambourines, banjos, flutes or homemade musical instruments and there is lots of noise and dancing in the streets. 

The Devil carries a pitchfork and wears a cowbell attached to his backside.  On his head is a cardboard cylinder which rests on a flat square piece of cardboard and his entire costume is black.  He pokes people with his pitchfork and frightens, not only children, but grown ups as well, me included sometimes.

Another performer plays Belly Woman, a pregnant lady who makes her belly move in time to the music.  She is very funny and another character,

Pitchy-Patchy, has the most colourful costume of all, with layered strips of brightly coloured cloth.  He is very energetic doing handstands and cartwheels all the time. In the evening most of us will go to Winchester Park which will be just one mass of people, young and old, rich and poor, all determined to have a good time.

At the entrance to the park last year was a thirty foot Christmas tree brilliantly lit and flooded with coloured lights from a gigantic searchlight and there were different booths, some designed to look like English cottages, and others had comic cartoons painted on them.  In each booth there are usually games of chance and lots of ways of winning prizes.

There is always a special exhibition in the flower booth where the floral creations of school children are on display and when the Browney children were small, it was our custom to display our floral designs there.  It’s one of my favourite booths and Maurice has told me that his floral design is on display this year.  Dear Maurice, I can’t wait to see it.

 But the booth I’ll head for first is the one with the fortune teller.  I’m off to England soon, so I must find out what’s in store for me.

 

Telegram from Rebecca Browney, Kingston, Jamaica to

Martha Ross, Paddington, England

 Olga sailing on S.S Jamaica Progress arriving London 1st April 1939.  Please meet her.  Becky.

 

 Dear Diary

 On my way:    On a crystal clear morning, the S.S Jamaica Progress steams slowly out of Kingston Harbour into the blue waters of the Caribbean, past small fishing boats, with the fringe of the coconut palms that front the Blue Mountains, gradually disappearing from view.

 She passes Port Royal and what remains of the buccaneer city that an earthquake sank beneath the ocean hundreds of years ago.  Overhead, in a cloudless blue sky, three long-tailed humming birds, so vivid in colour, sweep across the sky in unison and the sight of them takes my breath away. 

An omen, perhaps, a sign of good luck, Olga?

<—-Kingston 1938 – A Dangerous Place to Live               London 1939 —->

 

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<—- Sydney Shoots a Burglar                 Christmas in Jamaica with John Canoe —->

 

1938 was a very diffcult and dangerous time for the Browney family living in Kingston.  In May of that year workers all over Jamaica went on strike and the unemployed joined them marching and demonstrations.  The banana trade had declined drastically and unemployment was high, there was only occasional work, bad nutrition, poor housing, very little health service and a high cost of living.

The strikes started with the men working on the Kingston docks striking for better wages and the unemployed joined the strike demanding work.  It was a brutal time with strikers and demonstrators being imprisoned or beaten to death. 

In that year, Mammie (my grandmother Becky) made a decision regarding her daughter Olga (my mother) that was to have far reaching consequences for Olga that no one could have foreseen and changed her life irrevocably.

 

 

Family Tree

Click to Enlarge Image

Mammie’s (Becky) Diary

Today started with some astonishing news in the newspaper.  Several passengers on the train from Kingston to Montego Bay were seriously injured and taken to hospital when the train they were travelling on derailed at high speed.  A trackman, who witnessed the accident, said the train was going very fast, so much so that he said to the rail man next to him “that the train is moving as fast as an aeroplane.” 

Passengers reported that they had to hold on to something when the train went round bends because it was going so fast and the carriages were wobbling badly. 

What made this news so startling to me was that Olga should have been travelling on that train.  She had wanted to spend the weekend with Cissie and Dyke but because of the riots in Kingston she didn’t want to leave me and her sisters alone, even though Boysie had promised to look in on us from time to time, assuming, of course, he could get through the mobs uninjured himself.   So she didn’t make the journey.  Olga has a guardian angel, I’m sure of it. 

Strikes and Demonstrations:   The rest of the news is still very bad.  Industry is in decline and conditions are terrible.  Unemployment is high, there is irregular work, wages are low, and there is poor housing, poor nutrition and a high cost of living.  This, of course, only applies to the blacks.  We middle and the white upper classes still manage to live quite well. 

There is rioting on the streets of Kingston and I have forbidden the girls to go outside unless they are accompanied by Boysie. 

No cargo has been unloaded from the ships in the harbour for days.  The dock workers in Kingston and the sugar workers in Westmoreland and Clarendon have all gone on strike for better wages and working conditions.     Everywhere on the island, workers are asking for jobs, higher wages and better living conditions. From early in the morning, yesterday, thousands of men and women marched in procession through the streets of Kingston visiting public offices and stopping at the various wharves and forcing work to stop at Myer’s Sugar Wharf, where some labourers had broken the strike. 

The owners of the businesses have threatened that if a solution is not found soon, they will close their businesses down altogether and move off the island    By all accounts it was an ugly scene.  The security forces are everywhere eyeball to eyeball with Alexander Bustamante, who is organising the labourers now.  Mobs are forcing shops to put up their shutters and molesting people in cars, sometimes robbing them of their money.  Mobs are pulling people off the trams and buses and forcing the drivers to take the vehicles off the road.  Last night this leaflet was slipped under our front door. 

 Vengence 

Later on I stood on the veranda upstairs and watched an enormous crowd gather at the end of King Street and then march up the street headed by a large negro with a big drum which he was beating vigorously.   Right in the middle of King Street the crowd was met by a line of police all armed with batons.  Behind them were a line of police with rifles.  The mob was stopped and cleared right off the street with hardly a blow made. 

That same night dozens of cars full of “special constables” armed with any and every kind of weapon patrolled the streets of Kingston and St Andrews.  Stones and bricks were hurled at them from all sides, but they chased people off the streets and beat up those who resisted.  These are frightening times in Jamaica.   

Later that evening:   Sydney came to see me, the first time I’ve seen him since our quarrel, because he is concerned for our welfare and safety.  We talked, rather uncomfortably at first, and Sydney explained at some length what I had failed to realise.  That his business is also feeling the economic downturn,  just like most others in Kingston.   He has agreed to resume helping me financially providing I agree to move to a smaller house.   

We talked about Olga wanting to go to England and I have told Sydney I think she should have the opportunity.   He agreed that with all the unrest on the island and the bicycle  business being quieter these days, it would be good for Olga to go now, particularly, as the threat of Britain going to war has receded since Neville Chamberlain secured Adolf Hitler’s promise that he will not invade Europe further (Munich Agreement).   Sydney has agreed to pay Olga’s fare, providing she only stays six months.  We both agreed this unrest cannot continue for much longer and he is keen that Olga should continue doing his business accounts. 

As Sydney was leaving he bent down and picked up an envelope with my name on and had been slipped under the front door.  In the envelope was a note from Henry and a newspaper cutting.

 Report 3

Henry wrote that the top half of the newspaper was missing, so there was no way of knowing how old the article was.  I decided not to send it to Vivie as she is well and happy in America so why stir up bad memories.  But it demonstrates the power of suggestion. Vivie thought she was Obeahed and suffered genuinely as a result, but here is proof that the act was thwarted, so is Obeah all in the mind?   I have always thought so. 

I know my sojourns into Obeah are of great concern to Father Butler but there is a method to my madness which I have not confided in him because I know he would disapprove.   I believe that psychologically Obeah is very powerful and I learnt from Lucy and John to use Obeah to get the results I want.  I knew that once Aggie Burns heard I’d been to Annie Harvey, she would change her tune and encourage Sydney to be reconciled with us.

 

<—- Sydney Shoots a Burglar                Christmas in Jamaica with John Canoe —>

 

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<– More Spells and Obeah                 Kingston 1938 A Dangerous Place to Live—>

 

Family Tree

 Click to englarge image

Once my Mum (Olga) started to talk about her family to me and what her life was like growing up in Jamaica, she told me about the two biggest scandals in the family (and there were quite a few!).  Both were connected with Sydney, the oldest sibling.  One scandal was to do with him running off with the family cook whom everyone thought was a witch and mad as a hatter and the other scandal was about him shooting a burglar for which he was charged with manslaughter but acquitted on the grounds of self defense.   

 

Olga’s Diary (Continued) 

 

Dear Diary

Sydney and the Burglar:       It’s the middle of the afternoon and, apart from a young woman and an old man, I’m alone in the Cathedral, the only place I know that is peaceful, quiet, and cool. Half my life’s been spent in this church, going to mass, confession, benediction, the stations of the cross.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, Jesus is important to me and I come to church because I want to be close to Him, or, when I want to think, like now. I wonder just how long Sydney and Aggie’s relationship has been going on.

 

I bet you it started with the robbery that time Sydney was working late in the shop. There was a knock on the door one evening and when Sydney opened it there was a tall, black man, with a handkerchief around the lower half of his face. He pushed Sydney back and forced his way inside and put a gun to Sydney’s face threatening to shoot him if he said a word. Then another man came into the house and started to ransack the place looking for money which Sydney usually kept on the premises, but he couldn’t find any money and said so to the man holding the gun.

 

This turned the man with the gun’s attention away from Sydney momentarily, so Sydney tried to grab the gun and there was a struggle when suddenly the gun went off and the robber was shot dead. The second man immediately ran from the shop and Sydney called the police who recognised the dead man as Alphonse Williams and said the other man was probably his brother Didnot.  Didnot was soon picked up by the police and, because he wasn’t wearing a mask, Sydney easily identified him as the second man.

 

Sydney was charged with the manslaughter of Alphonse but at the end of the trial was found not guilty because the jury said it was self-defence and the law says a man is entitled to protect himself.  And that was that, thought Sydney, although to prevent any further thieving Sydney resorted to Obeah.

 

I bet that’s where Aggie Burns came in. He pinned bits of red rag and some bird feathers to the front door of the shop. If any would-be thief saw these items.  Sydney said it would be enough to deter them from going into the shop. But then strange things started happening. A fire broke out one Sunday afternoon, behind the main shop, in the workshop where bicycles are repaired. Mrs Clarkson, who lives next door, saw a small blaze in the workshop and raised the alarm. The fire brigade arrived very quickly, put out the blaze so not too much damage was done.  

And then something else happened that really scared Sydney.

 

He told us he was walking home one night when he felt warm air on the back of his neck which he described like someone’s hot breath. This happened more than once and Aggie Burns said she had found out that Didnot Williams had set a duppy on Sydney and that an Obeah man must have caught his shadow and now the shadow will do whatever the Obeah man demands. Aggie said the best way to stop the duppy from following Sydney was to carry a piece of chalk and, whenever he felt the hot breath on the back of his neck, Sydney was to make an x on the ground with the chalk, representing the figure ten.  Aggie Burns said duppies can only count up to nine and will spend the rest of the night trying to count to x.

 

Aggie said duppies are clever, but I wasn’t too sure about that if they can’t count any higher than nine. But she said they are because they can do similar things to living people, like talking, laughing, whistling and singing, even cooking. That made me wonder if Aggie Burns was a duppy too. Anyway, believe it or not, putting a cross on the ground worked for a while and Sydney stopped feeling warm air on his neck and he was more confident walking home.

 

But then one lovely clear moonlit night Sydney and Ruby were walking home together and they saw a big owl sitting in the cotton tree outside Mission House. When Aggie heard she got everybody worked up again and said that was a very bad sign because the duppy was still on Sydney. She said he had now to find a powerful Obeah man to remove the curse or he would be in serious trouble.

 

Of course, Aggie Burns knew one and Sydney agreed to go with her but made me go with him as well. I said I’d only go if Dolly could come as well. And reluctantly he and Dolly agreed.  

So off I go again to another balm yard and went into a very dark, smelly room. I remember it only had one window and the light couldn’t get through it was so dirty and grimy. Oh, Lord, was I terrified.

 

The Obeah man’s name was Ali Acquabar, an old man, with a short sharp looking face. He sat at a table in the middle of the room and beside his chair was a walking stick with the head of a serpent on the top. He told us to sit in the chairs facing him. I noticed a nail with three different size rosaries made out of bloodstained beans hanging from it and there was a mirror on a wall. On the table was a pack of cards and a dark blue piece of cloth with some sulphur, what looked like human hair, small bones and feathers.

 

By now I just wanted to get out of there but, once again, my courage failed me and I stayed. There were two other chairs and on one of these he put a glass and filled it with water and put a 1/- piece in the glass and on the other he put a candle which he had taken from a small bag nearby and asked Sydney to light it. Ali then opened a pack of cards, which he separated into four piles.

 

He selected one and said to Sydney “this is death”; then selected another and said “this is Jesus Christ”;

 

Then he selected a third and said “this is the Ghost” and with the fourth card he looked Sydney straight in the eye and said “Your life is in danger”. Then he took a bottle of rum off a shelf and threw some of it around the room.

 

“I am feeding my ghosts” he chanted and then looked in the magic mirror and turned to Sydney. “It is a pity you are not able to see, if you could, you would behold two duppies who are working on the case against you”. My brother is a tough man, you now, and I didn’t think he could scare easily. But, sitting on that chair, he looked very frightened to me. Ali looked in the glass of water on the other chair and said

 

“It is the brother that is after your life. I charge you £5 to take off the ghosts”. Sydney gave Ali his money and Ali told him they would all have to go to Mission House and “to run the duppies out”. Well, we trooped out and walked home.

 

When we got there Ali told us he would go into the house first and Dolly, Aggie and I should follow in a few minutes but Sydney was to wait outside until he was called. When we went in Ali had already lit three different colour candles in our hallway and then he took out three bottles – one containing some seeds, one with some kind of powder in it and the third with some dirty looking liquid in it. He threw some of the liquid and some of the powder into a cup which Aggie had handed him and he struck a match, lit the mixture in the cup and gave it to Aggie to take outside and bury it at the gateway to the house. Ali then asked Sydney for a further £5 as the job was now completed. The potion was buried at the gateway and this would ensure that no more duppies bothered anyone who lived in this house.

 

After that Sydney was more relaxed because one Obeah man had been knocked out by another and the more I think about it the more sure I am that was when things started to happen between our cook Aggie and Sydney.

<—- More Spells and Obeah                            Kingston 1938 A Dangerous Place to Live—>            

 

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<—Aunt Lucy & Anancy Stories                              More Spells and Obeah —->

 

Olga’s Diary (Continued)

Letter to Vivie, Miami, USA
from
      Olga, Kingston, Jamaica.
      

 

Dearest Vivie 

There’s been a terrible scandal in the family.  You just won’t believe what happened last Saturday morning when we came down to breakfast.

“That’s strange; I can’t smell any burnt toast”.  Dolly said.  You remember how Aggie Burns insisted we eat burnt toast, because for some reason she thinks it’s good for us.  Mammie said Aggie hadn’t turned up for work and she asked Pearl to go to Aggie’s house and see if she was alright.

Pearl said “No, Mammie, I get frightened when I go near that house, it’s full of voodoo stuff”.  Pearl’s right.  If we have a boiled egg for our breakfast, Aggie Burns makes us smash the empty egg shell because she said if we don’t, then witches can use them as boats and control the winds.  What’s wrong with that, I wonder?  

“Aggie lives alone and maybe she’s ill or hurt, after all it’s very unusual for her not to turn up for work”.  Mammie was clearly very worried about her. 

But, as we all know, she doesn’t really live alone.  She lives with talking peacocks, voodoo dolls,  three scrawny chickens, a pet mongoose and that whopping big black cat of hers, called Lucifer, which follows her just about everywhere she goes. 

Do you remember when Aggie first started working for us it used to follow her here and, because Mammie wouldn’t allow it in the house, it used to curl up under the cotton tree out the front and wait for her to leave at the end of the day.  I tried to stroke it a couple of times but it would hiss at me.  

I certainly didn’t want to go to Aggie Burns house and neither did Ruby, so Mammie said she’d go, but in the meantime Cassie was to get  breakfast ready while Ruby went upstairs to wake Sydney, because he hadn’t appeared either.  Well, within minutes Ruby came running down the stairs and into the kitchen very excited and announced that Sydney’s bed hasn’t been slept in all night.


Now that’s quite unusual for Sydney I know, but I told Mammie that Sydney had probably been working late and fallen asleep on the couch in the office at the back of the bicycle shop. 

“I expect he’ll come home shortly to wash and change his clothes.  After breakfast I’ll go with you, Mammie, to Aggie Burns’ house” I said.

So, just as we’re finishing breakfast in walks Sydney and we all heave a sigh of relief.

He sits down and says “I have something to tell you” and without even pausing for breath he says “I’m getting married”. 

Mammie throws her arms around his neck and gives him a big hug; there’s lots of excitement and laughter. And then he says

 “I’m going to live with Aggie Burns”. 

Well, I don’t mind telling you, Vivie, there was silence, a big silence.  He’s not serious I thought.  Never mind she’s black, she’s a witch for heaven’s sake. 

How can the head of the Browney family live with a witch?    What will people think?  What will Father Butler think?  It’s quite common for Jamaicans to just live together without being married, although respectable people are expected marry. But Sydney is still married to Janetha and the Catholic Church doesn’t allow divorce so that’s why they’re going to live together.

Our faces must have shown the disbelief and disappointment we all felt. 

Ruby got up and quietly left the room.  Dolly and I followed leaving Mammie and Sydney to talk, but the talk didn’t last long or go well because Sydney came roaring out of the dining room saying he would never set foot in the house again and slammed the front door as he left. He was in a big rage Vivie.  Mammie started crying and in between her sobs she asked me to contact Cissie and Dyke in Montego Bay.  So, I left and sent Cissie a message.

 

Telegram to Cissie, and Dyke, Montego Bay fromOlga,  Kingston             

Urgent. Come quickly.  Sydney gone off  with  the cook . 

 

Dolly ran to Boysie to tell him what had happened.  He came round straightaway and gave Mammie a big hug and told her not to worry, he would talk to Sydney and everything would be alright. 

Later on, who do you think walked in, Vivie, none other than Aggie Burns herself, all dressed up and wearing, I must admit, a very nice straw hat with flowers all round the brim. 

“I’ve come for some of Sydney’s possessions”.

“Why would you want Mr Sydney’s things, Aggie” Mammie asked her.

“Because we are in love and he’s living with me now”.   Honestly, she was so cocky I wanted to hit her.  

“I’ve brought a suitcase with me so I’ll just pop upstairs and get a few things”. 

“Pop upstairs” sounded funny coming from Aggie Burns, it’s so English and she’s so witchy. 

And then she said to Mammie

“He won’t be giving you any more money.  He will need all his money for the family I will give him”. 

As she turned to go upstairs, Mammie jumped up, rushed over to Aggie Burns, put her hands on her shoulders and pushed her away from the stairs.  Dolly, Ruby and I joined in and the four of us pushed her right out the front door and told her never to set foot in our house again.   

The next day Cissie came up from Montego Bay and took charge of the kitchen.  She did lots of cooking, baking bread, bulla cakes and biscuits.  Oh, she was wonderful and she gave Mammie some money to stop her worrying. 

Boysie and I continued to go to the shop but Sydney didn’t appear for about a week and when he did he and Boysie went into the back office to have a little chat. Boysie was concerned that even though we were giving Mammie nearly all our wages now, we were still short of money.

 “It’s not like you can’t afford it”, Boysie told Sydney.  But Sydney wouldn’t budge.  He said he was going to start his own family now and was not prepared to support us any more.  Boysie was horrified, and what started off as a calm conversation developed into a huge quarrel with Boysie finally saying he was ending their partnership and wouldn’t be coming to the shop again. 

Now Sydney was coming to the shop every day but Boysie wasn’t.   I wasn’t happy working there and wanted to leave, but, couldn’t.   I’m trapped here, Vivie.  I hate him.    All my love,     Olga.

 

<—Aunt Lucy & Anancy Stories                               More Spells and Obeah —->                               

 

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<–Kingston Riots                                                 Sydney & the Cook —>

 

Olga’s Diary (Continued)

Dear Diary

“Mon Repose”:   Every Saturday Mammie and I come to Aunt Lucy’s.  Aunt Lucy took over running the plantation when Uncle John died because Bobbie and Adam, their sons were already living in America and didn’t want to come back to Jamaica.  They want Aunt Lucy to sell up and join them, but she won’t.  She says her heart belongs to Jamaica and anyway she wants to be buried at “Mon Repose” with Uncle John.  

 

My Aunt Lucy smokes ganja in a white long handled pipe.   She smokes ganja in it.  She’s been smoking it for years and calls it her “wisdom weed” because it was supposed to have first been found on the grave of King Solomon. The law considers it a dangerous drug because they say if you smoke it you can go mad, so it’s illegal and you can be sentenced to prison and hard labour if the police catch you with it, but that doesn’t stop people from smoking it.  

There was a break in at Kingston Police Station recently and someone broke the padlock of a wooden box that had eight bags of ganja in it which had been found by the police when they raided a house a few days earlier.  

“Did you arrange the break in” Boysie asked Aunt Lucy.  She roared with laughter.  

“If I’d known the ganja was there I might have done and saved myself the trouble of growing it at the back of the plantation”.  

The report said that all day an intensive search of vehicles was carried out.  But out of the blue nearly all members of the local force were suddenly transferred to other police stations while the Superintendent carried out an investigation.  Dolly and Pearl are with us today because Aunt Lucy pays us for picking pimentos and we’ve brought Maurice along, Chickie’s son, because small boys are very useful for a job like this.

Pimentos are a very strong spice and a pimento tree is very distinctive because the trunk of the tree is covered with a greenish grey bark which is smooth and shiny. The leaves are a dark and very glossy green and if I crush some in my hands they give out a lovely strong smell.  It’s easy to grow pimentos because the birds do all the planting of  the seeds.  They eat the ripe berries and then drop the seeds onto the ground and that’s how nearly all Aunt Lucy’s pimento trees have been planted.  The field workers say that if you plant by hand the trees will not grow, but I think the workers are being very smart saying that it’s hard work planting seeds;  they’d rather the birds plant them.  The pimento berry is small like a black currant and grows in clusters on the tree and when there’re ripe for picking they are of a glossy black colour, sweet and very spicy and peppery to taste.   

The berries have to be collected by young lads going up the tree with long sticks and a crook at the end.  They catch the long outer branches and bend them back till they can reach the smaller ones with the pimento berries on and then they’ll break off the small branches so that the grown ups, that’s us, waiting below with baskets can gather up the small branches, pick the berries and put them into our baskets.  You have to be very careful not to damage the berries though.  

At the end of the day the baskets are all brought to the barbecues, so the berries can be dried and prepared for market, and each person’s basket is weighed.  Aunt Lucy enters the weight of each basket into the barbecue book and then pays us depending how much pimento is in our basket. The barbecue is a large paved area divided into ‘beds’ so that recently picked pimentos are not mixed with previously picked ones.  When enough have been thrown on to a ‘bed’ they are spread out and exposed to the sun, and a man with a wooden rake keeps turning them so they dry evenly.  You know when the berries are thoroughly dry because if you take some in your hand and rattle them near your ear, you should hear a sharp, dry, rattling sound.

We’d all been working for a couple of hours when Dolly noticed Maurice wasn’t moving.  He’d climbed much higher than the other boys who were helping out.

 “He’s frightened, he can’t go on” Dolly said. 

I called out to him to come down. 

“I can’t move” 

“Yes. you can Maurice.  Aunt Lucy’s made some lemonade.  Come down and have a drink”.

“Olga, go and get him down” Mammie said. 

So up the tree I go to help him down.  Poor Maurice, by the time I got to him he was so frightened he couldn’t stop crying.  Gently I coaxed him down the tree and the nearer we got to the ground the more his confidence returned until he’s on the ground and I’m sitting having a little rest on a thick branch when, my heart leaps because in the distance I can see Boysie’s best friend, Roy McKenzie, walking down the hill towards “Mon Repose”. 

As I go to jump on to the ground my knickers get caught on the branch, tear and leave me dangling four foot off the ground, unable to free myself, my backside exposed to all the young boys still up the tree, the old man raking the barbecue, my sisters and worse still, I can see Roy McKenzie getting closer and heading straight for “Mon Repose”. 

Dolly and Ruby were laughing themselves silly.

“Help me quickly, Roy McKenzie’s coming down the hill”.

In a flash Dolly was beside me on the branch and while Mammie lifted me up a few inches, Dolly hooked my knickers and, with only seconds to spare before Roy McKenzie arrives, I made it into the house all of them still laughing at me.

Later:     Roy decided to stay and visit and after a while, with my knickers repaired, I felt composed enough to join him and the rest of the family sitting on the steps of the veranda watching the peenie wallies, little fireflies.  They’re about the size of a beetle and give off a brilliant light from two orbs just above their eyes and when you see millions of them fluttering among the trees on a dark night it is a spectacular sight. 

My Aunt Lucy is a great Anancy story teller. 

Anancy tales are famous in Jamaica and were brought here by the slaves.  Anancy is a kind of folk hero because he is a survivor.  He is a spider man, clever, intelligent, quick-witted and cunning who likes to trick people for his own benefit.  As a special treat, and to make up for my embarrassed hurt feelings earlier today, Aunt Lucy’s promised to tell us a story, so Maurice and I collected lots of peenie wallies and put them into jars, with holes in the top so air gets in, and then we put the jars in a long row in front of the stone barbecue, so they look like footlights. 

Everyone sits cross-legged on the ground in front of the footlights breathing in the spicy fragrance of the pimentos in the evening breeze and Aunt Lucy sits behind the footlights and in front of the barbecue, comfortably settled in her chair, sucking on her white long handled pipe, which no doubt is full of ganja, and we all waited silently for her to start her story. 

To tell an Anancy story correctly you have to use the Jamaican dialect and have lots of grand and dramatic gestures which Aunt Lucy does perfectly.

“A man plant a big field of gub-gub peas (bush peas).  He got a watchman put there. This watchman can’t read.  The peas grow lovely an’ bear lovely; everybody pass by, in love with the peas. Anancy himself pass an’ want to have some. He beg the watchman, but the watchman refuse to give him. He went an’ pick up an old envelope, present it to the watchman an’ say the master say to give the watchman. The watchman say,

“The master know that I cannot read an’ he sen’ this thing come an’ give me?”

Anancy say, “I will read it for you.” He said, “Hear what it say! The master say, ‘You mus’ tie Mr. Anancy at the fattest part of the gub-gub peas an’ when the belly full, let him go.’  The watchman did so; when Anancy belly full, Anancy call to the watchman, an’ the watchman let him go.

After Anancy gone, the master of the peas come an’ ask the watchman what was the matter with the peas. The watchman tol’ him. Master say he see no man, no man came to him an’ he send no letter, an’ if a man come to him like that, he mus’ tie him in the peas but no let him away till he come.

The nex’ day, Anancy come back with the same letter an’ say, “Master say, give you this.” Anancy read the same letter, an’ watchman tie Anancy in the peas. An’ when Anancy belly full, him call to the watchman to let him go, but watchman refuse. Anancy call out a second time, “Come, let me go!” The watchman say, “No, you don’ go!” Anancy say, ‘If you don’ let me go, I spit on the groun’ an’ you rotten!” Watchman get frighten an’ untie him cos he think Anancy Obeah man.

Few minutes after that the master came; an’ tol’ him if he come back the nex’ time, no matter what he say, hol’ him. The nex’ day, Anancy came back with the same letter an’ read the same story to the man. The man tie him in the peas, an’, after him belly full, he call to the man to let him go; but the man refuse, all that he say he refuse until the master arrive.

The master take Anancy an’ carry him to his yard an’ tie him up to a tree, take a big iron an’ put it in the fire to hot. Now while the iron was heating, Anancy was crying. Lion was passing then, see Anancy tie up underneath the tree; ask him what cause him to be tied there. Anancy said to Lion from since him born he never hol’ knife an’ fork, an’ de people wan’ him now to hol’ knife an’ fork.

Lion said to Anancy, “You too wort’less man! Me can hol’ it. I will loose you and then you tie me there.” So Lion loose Anancy an’ Anancy tied Lion to the tree. So Anancy went away, now, far into the bush an’ climb upon a tree to see what taking place. When the master came out, instead of seeing Anancy he see Lion. He took out the hot iron out of the fire an’ shove it in in Lion ear. An Lion make a plunge an’ pop the rope an’ away gallop in the bush an’ stan’ up underneath the same tree where Anancy was. Anancy got frighten an’ begin to tremble an’ shake the tree, Lion then hol’ up his head an’ see Anancy. He called for Anancy to come down. Anancy shout to the people, “See de man who you lookin’ fe! See de man underneat’ de tree!” An’ Lion gallop away an’ live in the bush until now, an’ Anancy get free.”
 

<—-Kingston Riots                                                 Sydney & the Cook —>

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<–A Loose Cannon & Catholic Church                           Kingston Riots —>

browney-tree-c

 

I regret I never met my Aunt Vivie but, unfortunately, she died just a couple of years before I made contact with Mum’s (Olga) family in Jamaica.  I think I would have liked her even though there was one aspect of her character I would have struggled with. It does sound as if Vivie was a bit of a loose canon – a one off.   She was tough and certainly not afraid to speak her mind, particularly to her older brother, Sydney, if she thought he was being too free with his belt when he chastised their younger siblings.   In the 1930s Jamaican society was a mirror image of Great Britain replicating its prejudices and social morals.   Women like my Aunt Vivie, who flew in the face of convention, were few and far between in an era that expected women to be seen and not heard. 

 

Vivie was married, yet quite openly having an affair with another man, Freddie Howell; she helped run an illegal gambling house with Freddie and, according to Mum, had the threat of being excommunicated from the Catholic Church hanging over her head because of her relationship with him.  If what people thought bothered her she didn’t show it.

 

What I wouldn’t have liked about my Aunt Vivie though was her racial prejudiced in spite of being coloured herself.  This is something I struggle to understand.  The colour of one’s skin was important to Vivie and, she had made it very clear to her mother, Becky, that she was angry with her for marrying a black man.  She recognised that the white Jamaicans had social prestige, status and political power.  And that they saw as inferior those whose colour ranged from almost white to pure black even though they may have been educated people with good jobs such as lawyers, doctors, business men or women, teachers, clergy, and skilled tradesmen.

 

Colour mattered and that mindset was demonstrated to me personally decades later.  When I was in Jamaica in 1996, one of my cousins offered me a job running a franchise operation in Montego Bay that she was considering investing in.  I asked her why she wanted me and didn’t do the job herself.  Her reply was “because your skin is the right colour”.   I was gobsmacked!

 

Olga’s Diary (Continued from ‘A Loose Canon and the Catholic Church’)


Carlton heard about what happened that Sunday in Church and there was a terrible row between Vivie and Carlton. She told Carlton she was leaving him.    He begged her not to go and when she said it was all over between them and she didn’t love him any more, he started to cry and pleaded with her to give him another chance.  Vivie told him that she was taking their children and going to live with Freddie.  She said he suddenly stopped crying then and there was silence, except for the sound of a clock ticking somewhere in the house.

 Carlton didn’t say anything for ages but just kept looking at her.  Then he shrugged his shoulders a little, as if to say, “ok, you win” and, without a word, left the house.  Vivie said she thought he was going to find Freddie to punch him on the nose but she wasn’t worried about Freddie because he could take care of himself.

Carlton and Vivie had a whirlwind romance.  Within weeks of meeting they went off to Montego Bay and got married without telling any of the family, except for Cissie and Dyke who were their witnesses at the wedding.  Sydney said if Vivie hadn’t been so desperate to marry a white man she’d have saved both families a lot of heart ache and realised that charm, good looks and receiving a small allowance from his parents was not enough to support a family. 

Sometime during the afternoon on the day following the big row, Carlton’s body was found by some people out walking in a valley in the Blue Mountains.  It appears his car went over a precipice just past the army post at Newcastle and his body flung from the car.  He’d been dead for hours and to this day no one ever really knew if it was suicide or an accident. 

I was grateful that I was asked to look after the children in the family so Chickie, Boysie and Cissie could go to the funeral.   Carlton’s coffin was left open for mourners to pay their last respects and I didn’t want my last sight of Carlton to be lying dead in a coffin.  I wanted to remember him how I always saw him – full of life and laughing.

If I had been married to Carlton I wouldn’t have minded Carlton being a poor white man because he had other qualities.   Tall, fair-haired, very good looking, funny, nice to talk to, always joking.  Women were very attracted to him and I think it’s easy to see why Vivie fell in love with him.  They met when he was playing tennis at the Myrtle Bank Hotel and Vivie said the first thing she noticed about him was that his legs were better than hers.  He was always invited to the best clubs, parties and social events in Kingston and he may not have had much money of his own but people liked him, because he was nice, and he was friends with all sorts of people.  What made him different from other white Jamaicans was that he wasn’t prejudice towards coloured or black people in the slightest. 

The day of Carlton’s funeral was unusually hot for that time of the year and there was a cloudless sky and not a breath of wind in the air.  A black choir sang hymns at his funeral and Dolly told me later that this  was Carlton’s “second family”. 

As a baby Carlton had a black nurse whose name was Ambrosine Williams and he spent much of his childhood with her and her thirteen children rather than his own white family.  When his coffin was being lowered into the ground Ambrosine Williams bent down and picked up a handful of earth and threw it at Vivie.  She told Vivie that she was going to set a duppy on her for causing Carlton’s death and that she would be cursed until the day she died. 

That night the wind began to pick up and get stronger and continued until well into the evening.  Then, according to a report in the paper “the lightening started building up in strength until it lit up the whole sky, dancing in fantastic forms in the night sky, whilst the thunder that followed the lightening seemed to shake the earth as if to say the end of the world is near and then finally in the early hours of the next morning the rain came down.”

 

<–A Loose Cannon & Catholic Church                                      Kingston Riots —>

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