From the life of Lynford Cornelius Thompson
By Erica Masserano
When Lynford moves from Westmoreland, he is 20. Westmoreland was green, green, green, but his family lived in a house built out of wooden boards; concrete was for richer people, and stone for the slavehouses like the one his grandfather fixed up and lived in. Kingston is a big city, and he can live with his sister Catelyn, who became a widower when her boyfriend died in America just as he was working towards sending for her and their two kids. So Lynford has a room of his own now, and a job. There are people to meet in the streets, films to see beyond the white-trimmed façade of the Ward Theatre. It’s a lot of fun to be young in Jamaica.
He likes to take the ferry to Port Royal, the blue sheen of the water against blue sky. When the Spanish had control of Jamaica, Port Royal, not Kingston, was biggest; a true pirate port, where ships came and went with stolen goods. He imagines the ships with full sails on the horizon, the hustle and bustle of crates loaded and unloaded on the piers, the sailors full of rum, some of them coming all the way from Madagascar. Orders in several languages must have echoed through the air, mixing with shanties and insults. But now Jamaica is peaceful, the beach quiet, and with very little crime at all. Lynford can go for a trip to the old pirate harbours whenever he likes, and stroll around on the old grounds of Fort Charles. The house he has come to see is called the Giddy House, because it’s leaning at an angle in the sand; the carved stone on the front says 1888, but the house has been leaning from the earthquake of 1902. Many people died; Lynford was born in 1941, and many people Lynford knows can still remember it.
He loves all of Jamaica. He likes the waterfall cave near Montego Bay, the clean water falling into the sea from above, massaging his shoulders when he stands under it, the fish swimming through it. He likes looking at the view from Lover’s Leap as well. The story tells of two lovers who were slaves persecuted by their slavemaster, and how they jumped to death rather than be divided. It’s a sad story, but the lovers were Jamaican like Lynford, whose great-grandfather was a slave of the English, so he is proud of their pride. Lynford has grown up with the stories of the Christmas Rebellion: the slaves fighting back with Samuel Sharpe at their head, burning down the sugar cane plantations, the slavers eventually defeating them and hanging him in Montego Bay, but not forever.
What does Lynford do when he gets there? Does he stand and look at the house, does he sit? Has he brought friends to spend the day with before heading to the dance, or is he alone? Does he buy a patty and some cocoa bread to have a picnic on the beach? Only Lynford knows, each sunny afternoon a shiny doubloon in his pocket. These days are precious, and they won’t last. Jamaica gets its independence in 1962. In Kingston, people flood to the streets, shouting as loud as they can to greet the motorcade through; there are flags on every rooftop, and the stadium where the function takes place are filled despite the earlier downpour. Everyone is there for the hoisting of the flag and the fireworks, their faces lit up with the taste of something new. Although the party is smaller in Westmoreland, where Lynford happens to be at the time, the people are just as joyful, and the flag just as black, green and gold. But although the British got rich off the West Indies, there are no jobs in Jamaica now, and a lot of work in London, and so Lynford will leave for London very soon. Everyone is urging him to go, so he goes. He’s decided that he would like to travel anyway. His parents and older sister stay in Jamaica. He’ll just visit when he can.
When Lynford gets off the plane, there is no one to meet him. He takes a taxi to his cousin’s home, 90 Asylum Road, and pays £5. If he were to do the same thing today, it would cost him ten times as much. It’s cold, and the heating is paraffin: his cousin shows him how to put coins in the heater to warm the place up. But to pay the heat and the other costs, Lynford needs a job. He starts with a job at a hotel. Going into a strange land, he thinks, you’ve got to make friends.
And so word of mouth tells him he should go down to the Connaught Hotel near Hyde Park, a fancy place to be sure, and inquire for a job; soon he finds himself in charge of the stewards. He must make sure that the stewards receive the food deliveries for the hotel kitchen, and that they are properly stored in the fridge. Legs of lamb, fresh peas, sirloins of beef, sack after sack of potatoes parade out of the lorries that stop at the back of the hotel and into its pots and pans. On Mondays, he inventories what’s left from the weekend so orders can be written up. He doesn’t have to wear a uniform for this job, which is just as well, because he doesn’t like them very much. The pay is about £7 a week, which is ok. You can get things cheap. He shops for fish and yellow yam in Peckham, where he now lives, and cooks for himself. The English food at the hotel is terrible; they just boil everything.
At the hotel he meets Broomfield, a tall, quiet bloke out of Saint James who is to be his best friend for many years. They will go to many parties together, spend the night dancing, have a tiny spliff together and then, when they get hungry, eat the delicious curry that the landlord prepares and sells to the revellers. Sometimes they will go to the Q near Edgware Road, a basement club where you can get in for a pound, listen to live music and see the best dancers do the twist, the dog, the boogaloo, the rocksteady. Other times, they will go all the way to the Roaring Twenties club in Carnaby Street. Entrance is one pound. This is a a Black joint, purveyor of the finest reggae and ska straight from Prince Buster’s record shop on Orange Street in Kingston. Later on, he will also go to the Fridge in Brixton with his friends to dance, and when Jimmy Cliff, his favourite, plays there, they will go see him. People are easy, happy to get a respite from the working week; a girl mistakes Lynford for her boyfriend and grabs him by the arm, yelling “Come on, let’s go” in his ear and giving him a hell of a shock; when she realises her mistake, they both collapse into laughter.
What do Lynford and Broomfield say under the dimmed lights at the party? Do they discuss the one they like, do they pick up the courage to make a move after a few drinks? Or do they just enjoy a moment of silent companionship and trust before throwing themselves into another dance? They are young and London is still new, opening its doors for them with a flourish at nighttimes and weekends. Except for the occasional Teddy Boy showing up to brawl, or the occasional racist march, the atmosphere is peaceful; police may show their face, but they never bear guns. It won’t always be this way, people will get greedier and more violent, clubs will be closed down and reborn with different names. People will go dancing less and less. But things are good for now.
Broomfield gets married to a Jamaican girl and leaves the hotel to go work for Ford in Dagenham; the money is better, and he hopes to stay there until he retires. Lynford gets married as well, at St. Giles’ Church in Camberwell Green. A friend of Lynford’s tells him that a factory in Peckham Grange Road is looking for workers, so Lynford goes there to apply for a job. He tries various factories, the Ford plant included, and he also leaves London for a year to take a holiday travelling to Jamaica, but then the lack of a job makes itself felt again; time for another stint in London, the longest one so far. In the end, when it comes to work what he likes best and is best at, is being a leather worker. He makes a horse saddle for the Queen at Barrow, Hepburn and Gale leather factory in Bermondsey: management is pleased with the result and they give the workers an extra break. He handstitches Olympic equipment, horses and swings. He handstitches belts to last a lifetime, and they sell at about £12. He takes a long rope of soft leather and cuts it, then punches the belt buckle pins through the black and brown cowskin, and the holes as well with special pliers. He handstitches shoes as well, stretches patches of leather on the shoe lasts, sews them up into the finished shoe; it’s a fun job to have. He must admit, though, that when he goes back to Jamaica and sees the sea, the sea you can just go in and swim, sometimes he wants to move back and have an easy life there.
It’s the late 1960s now, and Lynford lives in Peckham. Good old Rye Lane! He likes the hustle and bustle of it, the vegetable market stalls, the butchers and furniture shop. There was quite a bit of bomb damage in this area, but these days it’s mostly all red brick housing, dotted with the inns that used to host traders when this was the last village you’d meet on your way to London. The squat shape of the Kings’ Arms pub on the Queen’s Road, where Lynford and company sometimes go to grab a beer after work, with the front bearing in big letters the word we all need to hear sometimes: COURAGE. The fancy Jones and Higgins building, with its clock tower and three styles of windows, is a labyrinth of retail with a supermarket, furniture, clothes for men and women… Anything you want, you can get there, and a pair of good men’s shoes are £4.99. You buy a cardigan there, it lasts forever: nothing like today’s Primark clothes, which are ready to throw out in a year.
What does Lynford do in his spare time? Does he think that a life of hard work is better than a life of no work at all? Does he have hopes and dreams that he wasn’t able to realise? The years are passing and he is getting more established now, has a house and a job and a family, so things aren’t bad at all. Sometimes he takes the bus to run errands, to go to Brixton to shop for sweet potatoes and pumpkins: he is not able to get them in Rye Lane yet at this point, or the Blue Mountain Coffee which he loves. But sometimes he buys a one-day ticket for the bus, picks one, and sits on it until the end of the line, just to see where it will take him. It’s like a little vacation; he looks outside the windows and takes a plunge into the shades of London as if it was the blue sea of Jamaica.