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Montserrat Notebook

7 January 2012

4:00 PM

7 January 2012

4:00 PM

Montserrat, a smoulderingly beautiful volcanic island in the British West Indies, is a 15-minute flight from Antigua. Apart from me, the only passenger on the propeller plane is a birdwatcher from England, who hopes to catch a glimpse of the ‘critically endangered’ Montserrat oriole. After the volcano eruptions of 1995 to 1997, the island’s old capital of Plymouth was entombed in 40 feet of ash, and people air-freighted in their thousands to Gatwick. There is now a swelling Montserratian community in Stoke Newington, north London.

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As a British dependency (one is not allowed to say ‘colony’), Montserrat receives £10 million a year in British government aid and a further £8 million in grants. Britain’s development secretary at the time of the volcano crisis, Clare Short, infamously complained: ‘It will be golden elephants next!’ Short remains something of a hate figure in Montserrat and has not yet dared to visit. The lava-stricken south of the island presents a Pompeii-like spectacle of devastation, and remains out of bounds to visitors owing to mudslides. Even 15 years on, evacuees still live in sheds and abandoned cars.

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At the airport, wonderfully, a green shamrock is stamped in my passport: Montserrat was settled in the 17th century by dissident Irish Catholics. My taxi driver introduces himself as Brendan Sweeney. I half expect to see leprechauns instead of mountain goats on the roads. I have been invited to take part in Montserrat’s annual ‘Alliouagana’ literary festival, so called after an aboriginal Indian name for the island. Montserrat no longer has a bookshop, so I have had to take along a suitcaseful of my books for sale. I am relieved to be rid of the weight.

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Later that night I’m driven to Government House for cocktails to celebrate the opening of the festival. His Excellency the Governor is wearing a floral-pattern Hawaiian shirt. Even in Montserrat, where lives are still organised and given meaning by the Union Jack, the dinner jacket is a thing of the past. Yet Montserratians had sung ‘God Save Our Gracious Queen’ when Prince Charles visited with Camilla in 2008. For as long as the island remains constitutionally bound to Britain, it can have no anthem of its own. Is that a problem? Most Montserratians I spoke to were happy to shelter under Britannia’s (increasingly threadbare) mantle.  

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Next day I report to the island’s so-called cultural centre, built from the proceeds of a post-volcano benefit concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 1997 under the auspices of Sir George Martin. The Beatles producer ‘discovered’ Montserrat in the late Seventies and built a studio up in the hills for the use of, among other rock types, Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Eric Clapton, Sir Mick Jagger, Sir Elton John and Sting. (The studio has long since been claimed by tropical vegetation.) The cultural centre is strung with shamrock-green bunting and flags showing the Irish harp symbol. Bottled Guinness is served throughout the festival along with Jamaican Red Stripe. An impromptu speech is given in honour of the late Montserratian writer E.A. Markham, whose birthplace of Harris is now trapped under volcanic mud and rockfall.

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Grimly, 19 people died during the 1997 eruptions. Ash plumes reached 30,000 feet in the air and travelled as far as Columbia. The loss is brought home to us by a school poetry competition on the theme ‘Volcano in Me Back Yard’. The Montserrat Volcano Observatory (now one of the most advanced seismic centres in the world) has agreed to award the prizes. The knowledge of volcano vocabulary shown by the schoolchildren — ‘tectonic’, ‘seismicity’, ‘pumice’ — is startling. One tiny prizewinner wears a T-shirt with the words pyroclastic flow. ‘It makes a change from Disney merchandise,’ says the Governor.  

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To our astonishment, we learn that the ‘Restriction Zone’ has been opened up for the first time since 1997. We pile into a minibus and head off for the Belham River Valley, where boiling mud slides from the Soufrière Hills Volcano have buried a golf course and scorched the colour out of the landscape. At a checkpoint there an elderly policeman takes a note of our names (though not, I am glad to say, our next of kin), and says: ‘Hear me now on this, my friends. No take no chance. If it rain, get out fast,’ adding: ‘We no want people to go gallivant up there too long. Orright?’ Flash floods could sweep our minibus out to sea, apparently.  

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On we drive through a wasteland of grey powdery dust and blackened coconut palms. In some places the ash is so deep that a third-floor veranda has become a ground-floor entry point. No one lives here any more. Montserrat’s 12,000 population has reduced to a mere 4,000 as people continue to migrate. The Montserrat Springs Hotel, once glitzy, has rusted in parts and collapsed. Its few remaining rooms appear to have been left undisturbed: shirts hang ghostly in a wardrobe, a club sandwich (I think) stands calcified on a dust-caked table. This is a ‘jumby’ hotel haunted by unappeased spirits, say the locals.

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We are unable to get out of the ‘Restriction Zone’ as the checkpoint has been padlocked during our brief absence. A hand-written note informs us: ‘the police will be back in ten minutes. have gone for lunch. please wait’. So much for a possible emergency exit. While we wait for the police I take in the beauty of the mountains to the fertile north, with their outbursts of orange-white blossom and waxy-leaved frangipani. As Montserrat’s great calypsonian Alphonsus ‘Arrow’ Cassell sang: ‘Montserrat Still Nice’.

Ian Thomson’s The Dead Yard: A Story of Jamaica won the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize.

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