‘Hi Ian!’ the email began. ‘We are a group of mostly females who meet regularly in London to review really good reads. We are currently reading The Dead Yard, and were wondering if you would like to join us as our honorary guest while we fire you (gently) with questions about your book.’ The email concluded: ‘You will be well fed and thoroughly entertained! Kind regards, Phoebe.’
Very nice, but I sensed a danger. My book on Jamaica, The Dead Yard, has earned me a lot of enemies. For good or ill, it exposes a dark side of island life at odds with the ‘paradise’ of travel brochures. Bookshops in Jamaica had declined to stock the book when it came out in 2011, owing to its alleged ‘sensitive content’. While I had not anticipated any legal problems (in fact, there were none), Jamaica has a long-entrenched culture of litigation. The island’s Libel and Slander Act of 1851 (amended by the Defamation Act of 1961) had been used in an attempt to prosecute me.
Since then, I have received a total of three death threats, as well as a slew of Amazon reviews so hysterical in tone (one by the British novelist Guy Kennaway) that Amazon was forced to take them down. And now this ‘mostly female’ book club. Was it a honey trap? In trepidation I accepted Phoebe’s invitation, and made my way by tube to Balham, as instructed. At the station I climbed the stairs to the exit, and waited. An elderly white woman on the pavement opposite was looking inquiringly up and down the street. ‘Are you Phoebe?’ I asked her. ‘No,’ she said, ‘but I wish I was.’ Meaning? Minutes passed before my phone rang. ‘Hi Ian! I’m in the blue Audi to your left.’
Phoebe turned out to be a beautiful black woman in a leopard-print dress. She had been born in south London, she explained, of Jamaican parents. Her sister Alisha was to host the book club evening. As the Audi picked up speed I felt a stab of apprehension. If this was a trap, it was an alluringly honeyed one. We got out of the car and made our way to Alisha’s house, situated in a smart-looking estate on the Balham outskirts. Inside, a fragrance of air-freshener hung in the corridor and beyond that an aroma of salt fish and ackee told me that West Indian treats had been prepared. In a spacious room upstairs the book club was seated in a semicircle, like a tribunal. The women were immaculately turned out in red and black cocktail dresses, elegant high-heeled shoes and ‘tall’ (straightened) hair. They were all black, strikingly good-looking and, it proved, good-humoured.
The meeting was to be relayed via Skype to the Jamaican capital of Kingston, where a third sister, Yasmin, lived with her husband Rodney, a Jamaican-born banker. (It was Rodney who had recommended my book to the club.) On the laptop’s screen Rodney appeared friendly and relaxed. ‘Greetings from Kingston, Ian,’ he said; his wife, a blurred presence at his side, waved to me and I waved back.
A waiter in a tight black uniform hovered at my elbow with a jugful of Pimms. (‘No Red Stripe beer, I’m afraid,’ Phoebe said. ‘We’re ladies!’) The waiter was white: Caucasian hands doing menial work — the tables had turned.
A woman in her early forties began: ‘Ian, you seem to portray Jamaica as a land of lost hope. The takeaway from The Dead Yard is rather negative. The title itself is negative. How would you feel if I’d written a book on Britain called The Mausoleum?’
‘All I can say is, I never set out to tell the truth about Jamaica, only the truth as I perceived it. That’s what a writer does, isn’t it?’
‘All right. Cool.’ (I sensed I had got off lightly.)
Dainties of jerk chicken and avocado were passed round while the discussion turned to the subject of what it means to be British in Britain today.
‘I was born in Britain,’ said Angelique, ‘but I consider myself to be a Jamaican to the bone.’ The Jamaican people, she went on, with their gift for humour and generosity, their creativity, ‘are my people’.
‘Oh come off it, Angelique! You’re as British as the rest of us!’ said Alisha, the host.
‘Define British,’ I said, bolder now.
‘British? Well… Just don’t call us immigrants,’ the woman to my right said, adding: ‘The trouble is, when the British speak about immigrants they do not usually mean white people. They mean black people.’
Older Jamaicans resident in Britain are often annoyed that Poles and other recent Caucasian immigrants are allowed to travel and work freely here. ‘They can’t sing a word of the British national anthem, can they? They’re immigrants, that’s why.’ Perhaps the Poles remind them too painfully of what they used to be. Bad-mouthing the next wave of immigrants is how earlier waves seek to prove their assimilation.
Yasmin said to me from Kingston: ‘Ian, your book is beautifully written, but it’s a bit sarcastic at times, and Jamaicans don’t do sarcasm.’
‘Actually,’ another member cut in, ‘I thought The Dead Yard was written by a black man. God, he’s brave, I thought. Then I Googled him — oh, right, he’s white.’
‘What difference does it make if he’s black or white?’ asked Alisha.
‘It makes a world of difference!’ said Angelique.
That much was true. During slavery, planter snobberies in Jamaica were inevitably shaped by colour. In order to bolster their social status, the plantocracy evolved an elaborate ranking of skin beginning with their white eminence at the top and descending to the ‘saltwater Negro’ at the bottom. Consequences of this colour code have survived today in Jamaica.
At the evening’s end, I announced: ‘You’ve been asking me all the questions. Now let me ask you one. Why did you invite me?’
‘We were curious!’ the book club said.
So that was it. I went out into the Balham night with a spring in my step. Honey trap? I don’t think so.