When you think of Barbados, you think of celebrities. Tony Blair’s annual holidays in Sir Cliff Richard’s villa; high-profile Hello! weddings on the beach or the golf course, like that of Tiger Woods or Jemma Kidd and the future Duke of Wellington; the absorbing sight of an enormous Luciano Pavarotti being gently decanted into the sea at Sandy Lane — whenever he stays at that most luxurious of hotels, he has an oven specially installed in his room so that he can cook pasta for all the family — all these combine to produce an image of a holiday island which is the exclusive preserve of the terminally rich.
This image is largely true. There are a lot of vast fortunes on Barbados. The Irish racing mafia which bought Sandy Lane some years ago have constructed enormous mansions with pilasters on the beach next to the hotel. The J.C. Bamford family, makers of ditch-diggers and of ditch-digger chic, own the lovely Heron Bay, a Palladian mansion worthy of the Veneto. The impossibly rich Rausings have converted their earnings from milk cartons into a vast lair on a promontory near Speightstown which, complete with ten-foot-high walkways and a forest of palm trees, recalls Mr Tracey’s island house in Thunderbirds: one expects the trees to part and a rocket to take off at any moment.
As a result, it is not difficult to bump into world-famous people in the ordinary course of a day at the beach in Barbados. I have myself sunbathed with Greg Rusedski on the raft in Sandy Lane bay (although he was unaware of his luck) while on my last trip there I struck up a holiday friendship with a honeymooning couple who had had Monica Lewinsky as one of their bridesmaids. They showed me the wedding snaps to prove it, and there she was, wearing a bright red dress and holding a posy, trying hard to look demure.
On the other hand, Barbados’s attraction for the very rich is a recent phenomenon. The island has always had fashionable people, to be sure, but it is only in the last decade that it has entered the superstar stratosphere. Prior to that, and in particular when I was spending most of my summer holidays there as a child in the 1970s, Barbados’s charm always seemed to lie precisely in the fact that it is slightly down-at-heel and even grungy, the very opposite of pretentious. This is still how I see the place. Whereas the fashionable travel magazines will now discuss at length which of the various swanky Zagat-rated restaurants you should patronise in the evening, my idea of a fun dinner out is to sit chewing a chicken roti on the beach outside our local Chefette, the nearest of a small chain of takeaway outlets which combine the aesthetic of American suburbia with the cuisine of your local tandoori.
And whereas the more adventurous guides will encourage you, for instance, to drive some way north to dine at the expensive Fish Pot, I prefer to make my way to one of the island’s numerous fish-fries which are tacked on to the fish markets. The biggest is in the southern port town of Oistins (the other south-coast fishing villages having been named Worthing, Hastings and Dover by the English colonists), but my own favourite is in a small seaside village called Half Moon Fort, where the thud of the boom box shakes the thick hot night air, and where locals and tourists alike eat food cooked outside on wood-fired coal-pots and served on paper plates. The service is unbelievably slow, even by Barbadian standards, and as you sit enveloped in the velvet night, munching your way through dolphin or tuna marinaded in ‘seasoning’, the romantic whoosh of the sea below is drowned out by the furious clack of dominoes and the whoops of joy from leathery old men playing on the fishwives’ slabs next door. Alternatively, we go to the fish market itself — the one near the stunningly graceful Carlton Bay — and buy flying fish from the toothless crones who sit silently filleting them all day long.
Then there are the visits to church. Barbadians are a religious lot and a regular joy is to see women in huge hats and white crinklene heaving their hips into the local Pentecostalist hut, from whence emerge, all night long, the jangle of tambourines and the clap of hands. I often wish I were a Pentecostalist when in Barbados, for the local Catholic Mass is a dull affair by comparison. Our local parish priest, a sixty-something, bronzed, upper-middle-class English Jesuit with strange eyes who seems to have stepped straight out of a Graham Greene novel, is a confirmed liberal and his Mass is not much like the Roman Renaissance display they put on at the Brompton Oratory. It is redeemed, for me, only by the fact that the church looks out over the sea: as one kneels in veneration of the Blessed Sacrament, one can watch, through the open windows behind the altar, jet skiers and motorboats speeding about on the blue water outside.
Indeed, it is the Barbadians themselves who are the main source of the island’s charm. Apart from the beaches, which are both breathtaking and deserted (most tourists sit around the pool, in spite of the fact that the snorkelling is among the best in the world), Barbados is topographically unremarkable. Large parts of it have been uglified by the country’s remorselessly rising prosperity, as the cane fields fall prey to urban sprawl and hypermarkets. But the Barbadians’ charm does not lie, as you might expect, in a constantly upbeat mood, as if life were a constant carnival, even though it is true that they seldom miss an opportunity to jig their hips around: in the words of the Harry Belafonte song, ‘When she wind up she bottom, she go like a rocket.’ Instead, 350 years of British domination have left their mark and the Bajans now have a curious combination of English downbeat fatalism and dourly laconic wit which, superimposed on a distinctly Afro-Caribbean lethargy, can sometimes make them appear cussed or even intimidating to the untrained eye.
For the most part, it is the teasing one notices. Two enormous young women I saw ambling along in the sun last summer, the bulk of their busts equalled only by the roundness of their ‘backs’, were deliciously wreathed in smiles as two likely lads driving past leant out of their truck to shout, ‘We like what we see, girls!’ The same goes for the ferocious ladies at the fruit stall near the Chefette. Many are the hapless tourists who have run the gauntlet in front of them, nervously trying to avoid stopping to buy a mango or an avocado pear. ‘Look me head, darlin!’ they loudly demand. ‘Wa you wan buy from me today?’ When there is no one to shout at, they silently chew on bits of fruit, languidly spitting out the pips and fanning themselves in the midday heat; but their banter is interspersed with wicked throaty chuckles which sound like a shriek and which make their whole bodies shake, and the initially unnerved Englishman, his pink skin tingling from sunburn, comes to realise that their hard sell is, like life itself, mainly a joke.
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