I was snatched out of boarding school with no more than five minutes warning. I'm sure my parents must have told me this would happen, but I honestly don't remember. We lived in Düsseldorf, Germany at the time, and I went to boarding school in England--Thorpe House Preparatory School for Boys in the little Buckinghamshire town of Gerrards Cross. I went home for the Christmas holidays and my birthday, and returned to school in mid-January. I had issues with Thorpe House and my parents, not least of which was the feeling of abandonment by my mother when she first took me there and left me, a six year old softie, to sink or swim in a cruel environment. I hated school--or at least that school--so I think I did not really believe my parents were about to liberate me from its confines. I may have told someone I was leaving--I had a few friends there--but if I did I don't remember.
I think it was a Friday morning--the last Friday in the month--and I was sitting in class struggling to absorb a lesson on the geography of the Midlands, when the school matron entered the class and went over to the teacher Mr Wood. She whispered something and he looked at me.
"Overton. Put your books away and go with Matron."
"Now, Overton. Your taxi's waiting."
I went, casting an apologetic look backward at the puzzled faces of my school friends. I never saw them again, but I can remember some of their names--Mugford, Young, Newton, the Jude brothers. I still have an informal class photo that has us all in it and I sometimes wonder what became of them. I was a dreamy child and I had possibly not told them I was leaving for good.
On that day, the taxi took me to the railway station in Gerrards Cross where my luggage and I were loaded aboard a train and sent off to London. You might think that travelling alone as an eleven year old was a risky venture, but times were different back then. It did not trouble me as I had been commuting between England and Germany by air alone since I was eight. I just followed instructions, held out my ticket, and waited for an adult to tell me where to go. My mother met me at Marylebone Station and we boarded another train for the trip to Southampton.
"Where are we going, Mum?" I asked.
"Max, we told you all this. We're going to Jamaica. Your father retired from the army and has a job as manager of an insurance company."
"Oh." I thought about this for a while, then, "Where's G. Peek?"
G. Peek was our female tortoiseshell cat. Her full name was Gregoria Peek, named for one of my mother's favourite actors, Gregory Peck, except that she was female and her usual cry was a quiet 'Peek' rather than a miaow. She was a champion hunter, though she never killed anything, taking great pains to deliver her prey alive and kicking at our feet. I remember her turning up with the usual assortment of rodents and small birds, but also with a young pheasant, a mole, and a baby hare.
"We found a good home for her."
I was sad for a while, but soon cheered up as I stared at the countryside rolling past whenever the smoke and steam from the train cleared enough to let us see it. My father was waiting for us in Southampton and had booked us passage on a cruise ship, sailing the next day. My grandmother Rose had come across from her home in Devon to see us off, and we went out to dinner that evening, to a local restaurant.
I can only remember one thing about the meal, and it must reflect the turmoil of my young mind though I was unaware of any conflict at the time. I found I was unable to swallow any food without sipping from a glass of water, and unable to drink anything in more than small sips. Later, I found myself unable to swallow pills and had to chew them instead. I have largely overcome my need for water during a meal but I still eat and drink very slowly; and fifty years on I still have to chew medication. I have learned to cope with the foul tastes of sugar-coated pills and have even come to enjoy the bitterness of some.
We set sail on the S.S. Antilles, a French Line cruise ship, amid great excitement, but the initial part of the voyage was dreadful for me. As we headed south into the Bay of Biscay I remember sampling a delicious water chestnut and ice cream dessert at dinner one night, being quite taken with the sweetness and the crunch. Just after that we hit rough weather and what was locked firmly together in my adolescent mind was the taste and texture of water chestnut and prolonged vomiting. It was years before I could mentally dissociate the two.
We weathered the storm and put into the port of Vigo in northern Spain. I spent the day there and wandered the markets with my parents where I bought a letter opener in the form of a rapier with a delightful basket hilt. It had 'Toledo steel' stamped on its blade. I had it for years before it finally fell apart. The next day we headed south-west across the Atlantic and fair weather encompassed us for the rest of the voyage.
I've always thought life on a cruise ship is boring for a youngster. I was too old for the organised fun of the 'littlies' and too young to join my parents in the lounges and bars. My mother could be persuaded to play table tennis sometimes, but usually I spent my days wandering through the decks or leaning on the rail imagining all sorts of things or just losing myself in a mindless contemplation of limitless skies and moving water. As we sailed further south and the weather grew warmer, I saw flying fish skittering across the surface away from the predatory ship and dolphins plunging in our bow wave. Very cliched, I know, but those cliches had to come from somewhere, and those visions were new to me. I saw fragments of weed floating in the water and learned that we were near the famed Sargasso Sea. I had visions of us encountering vast mats of weed and perhaps even getting mired in it like the Ancient Mariner. Alas, we never saw more than a few clumps so I missed out on that source of excitement.
As the ship was a French one, first landfall in the New World was the French island of Martinique in the Lesser Antilles. We steamed around the southern end of the island and put into the port of Fort-de-France, where we stayed for a few days. It was exciting to be on dry land after our long crossing of the Atlantic. The first day we spent in the capital city and I remember the glorious feeling as I realised I was on a tropical island with all these strange sights and sounds and smells. The people looked so different and I stared at the colourful clothes of the people in the markets, and listened in fascination to the mixture of French and Creole spoken by the people crowding the streets. The vegetation was completely different from anything I'd seen, and my first glimpses of tropical butterflies and strange birds made my heart race. I saw lizards on the trees and a snake coiled up in a basket and wanted to touch it, but my parents ushered me away. On the second day we took a day trip north along the west coast to the town of St Pierre.
St Pierre was once a large city, but on May 8, 1902, the volcano that looms over the town, Mont Pelee, erupted violently and destroyed the city and all its inhabitants but one, two or three, depending on which account you hear. The destruction was caused by a pyroclastic flow--a superheated cloud of ash and gas that flows down the slopes at speeds of hundreds of kilometres an hour. I have always preferred the French term for this phenomenon--nuee ardente--which means 'glowing cloud', a very apt description of the red-hot pumice and ash as it billows down the mountainside at night.
It was not as if the people of St Pierre had no warning. For weeks, the mountain had been shaking and emitting ash amid huge explosions, but few people fled. The mayor of the city refused to budge, telling everyone the mountain was safe, and died along with his fellow citizens when it finally erupted.
We visited the museum in St Pierre, where old photographs lined the walls showing the city before and after the eruption. A full account was there, and eye-witness statements and I learned that the sole survivor (by that account) was a condemned prisoner locked away in an underground cell. When he was dug from his cell, the authorities freed him, believing Divine Providence must have had a hand in his survival. Later, I found out there were other survivors, but not many, and I thought the sole survivor tale was far more romantic.
The mountain itself was shrouded in cloud the day we were there, but it still looked ominous and I wondered why anyone would build a city that close to an active volcano. The bay was beautiful and the slopes of the hills covered in dense vegetation, with productive farms and orchards, but surely the place was too dangerous for anyone to live comfortably.
From Martinique we sailed north to another French island--Guadaloupe. Here I formed the impression that French colonists must like volcanoes as there was another one looming over the western city of Basse Terre, this one called La Grande Soufrière. This is an active volcano, like Mont Pelee, and had erupted only three years before we visited. It had been a small eruption, with pyroclastic flows, but nobody had been killed. In the ways of small boys, I remember being a little disappointed.
Interestingly, there is another volcano called La Soufrière on the island of St Vincent, and yet another called Soufrière Hills on the island of Montserrat. I thought the people who named them must have been lacking in imagination until I was told 'soufrière' means 'sulphur', which is found issuing forth from every volcano. I suppose Soufrière becomes a reasonable name for a volcano then.
We only stayed a few days in Guadeloupe, and for some reason I can remember very little apart from the volcano and street markets. Stalls filled with fresh fruit and vegetables, live chickens cackling and goats bleating, and around it all the babble of unknown tongues. It was there that I first sampled a green coconut. I had had the dried coconut bought from shops or won at fairs in England, but I watched a lithe young man hack away the outer layers of a green coconut fresh from the palms, lop off the top, fashioning a scoop from a piece of the husk. He handed me the coconut with an expectant look on his face and I took a sip of the 'water'. A sweet and strange taste filled my mouth; I sipped again and grinned, draining the rest of it. The man showed me how to scoop the clear gelatinous flesh from within the young nut. This sensation was even stranger, but I had to admit that green coconuts were a cool and delicious treat.
Before long we were steaming north and west, threading out way through the green and blue hues of the seas and islands of the Antilles, finally coming into the great protected San Juan Harbour on the island of Puerto Rico. The battlements of Fort San Felipe del Morro loomed above us to the east. My father, as befitted a retired colonel, told us the military history of the place as we eased past it. I even listened to some of it, though many things distracted me.
"We're in San Juan for a couple of days," he said. "We can go and have a good look round."
There was a long broad road leading to the fort, the Calle del Morro, bisecting a huge grassy area, but the fort itself was flatter and more spread out than I anticipated, and I think I was expecting something more European--a high-walled, turreted castle looming out of the countryside. Perhaps it was because the massive fortifications were on a headland and so took advantage of natural height instead of building upward in the European fashion. Instead of worn and lichen-encrusted rock walls, there was lots of clean stonework in a good state of repair and we walked through echoing tunnels, wandered the battlements, looking out over the edge to the ocean or standing in one of the little domed garitas that were rather like stone guard boxes. We also visited the city of San Juan, but my father complained that it was too much like an American city for his taste. Still, we took in the sights and bought some small souvenirs before going back to the ship.
The next morning we set sail once more and cruised along the north coast of Puerto Rico and then Hispaniola, rounding the 'upper jaw' of Haiti and round into the Golfe de la Gonâve. We docked in Port-au-Prince, the capital.
Haiti was then under the control of President Dr Francois 'Papa Doc' Duvalier and his feared private police, the Tonton Macoutes. The name Tonton Macoutes is the Creole for 'Uncle Gunnysack'. In local mythology, this bogeyman kidnaps naughty children in the night and stuffs them into his sack. By all accounts, his real-life successors, the private police, continued his work, making the political opposition of Papa Doc disappear in the night.
We did not stay long in this very poor city, but we visited a few markets and looked at some of the old buildings. The nation was Spanish first, then French, until the African slaves revolted and overthrew their oppressors, forming the first black nation in the early nineteenth century. Ruling themselves has not been much improvement over being ruled by others and Haiti has become the poorest nation in the Caribbean. All the wealth flows toward the corrupt government, leaving little for the people. My father was sure that some men in suits with dark glasses standing on a street corner were members of the Tonton Macoutes and only refrained from making loud provocative comments about them because my mother pleaded with him not to. We walked on a way and we heard shouts and saw people running. The streets emptied and a few minutes later a black car sped by, occupied by Tonton Macoutes and possibly some poor unfortunate stuffed into their proverbial gunnysack. For me, Haiti was colourful and exotic, but a little scary too. Besides, I had been filled with tales of Jamaica and I was impatient to get there, especially as we were now so close.
The last leg of our journey took us round the 'lower jaw' of Haiti and under the eastern part of Jamaica to Kingston Harbour. I stood on the rail to catch a first glimpse of my new home and my father pointed out the long sand spit called the Palisadoes, with the airport and the town of Port Royal on the end. He told me that it used to be a pirate den and the first capital of Jamaica until the great earthquake of 1692 destroyed it and sank buildings and streets beneath the sea. I had never experienced an earthquake, so I listened in awe and resolved to get my parents to take me there as soon as possible. I wanted to look down into the clear water and see the streets and buildings.
We docked and this time, instead of immediately heading out into the town to see the sights, we had to hang around to make sure all our luggage was unloaded. Finally, the last of our trunks and packing cases came off and my father organised for them to be stored until we had a house to move into. In the meantime, we were to go to a Guest House my father's insurance company had arranged for us. I can't remember the name of it but it was on the Old Hope Road toward the eastern hills. I was glued to the window of the taxi on the way there, soaking in the sights and staring in fascination at such novel sites as a pig foraging near huts made of sheet iron and cardboard, vultures squabbling over the carcass of some animal on the road, hordes of Jamaicans in colourful clothing, huge American cars, and the yawning red-earth gullies that bordered some of the roads. I couldn't wait to get out and explore.
We arrived at the guest house and were shown to our bungalow, set amidst bougainvillea and hibiscus bushes, coconut palms, Canna lilies and a whole lot of trees and shrubs I didn't know. My father got on the telephone to call his new boss, and my mother immediately started unpacking suitcases, so I went outside to start my exploring.
Those first moments to myself, on an island in the tropics, surrounded by new fauna and flora, overwhelmed me. I wandered around the lawns and gardens looking at the flowers, watching yellow, orange and white butterflies flitting by, listening to bird calls and trying to match them with movements in the trees, staring open-mouthed at the vultures wheeling overhead. I stood awestruck as a gorgeous hummingbird hovered by a flower, its bill inserted delicately into the floral tube while its wings blurred around it. Then in a flash of red and green and black it was off and I watched it go with a delighted grin on my face.
The owners of the guest house had a son of about my age, called Tom, and after some initial posturing, we became reasonably good friends. He took me to see his grandmother, a lovely old lady who fed us tea and biscuits and showed us her collection of stamps. My father had collected stamps and when I got interested, he passed his album over to me. The old lady's collection was of unmounted stamps loose in a shoebox, and she spread them out on her dining room table for us to look through. Tom had not been interested before but when he saw my enthusiasm, he started taking notice of these little scraps of paper.
The Jamaican stamps were fascinating and colourful and the old lady told me to pick some out as the start of my Jamaican collection. When I got home, I took out my album and stamp hinges and carefully added them to some new pages. My collection grew over the years until governments recognised that revenues could be generated by releasing stamps on every possible occasion. For a while, I continued my philatelic hobby, but I could not afford to buy every new issue and eventually I gave up.
I was not allowed to wander off by myself in those early days in Jamaica, but luckily the guest house grounds had enough to keep me occupied. As well as the gardens, there were the servants' quarters round the back shaded by tall breadfruit trees and some old ruined buildings half-hidden among the long grass and weeds. I have never been afraid of snakes, having kept adders at school in England, but my initial forays into the long grass precipitated my mother's ire until she was assured there were no harmful snakes on the island.
There were scorpions, however, and though I was disappointed about the snakes, I thought these little creatures would be a fascinating substitute. My first encounter with these scuttling arachnids happened within days of our arrival. I was on my belly in the long grass one evening, poking a stick into holes in the ground in the hope of disturbing something, when I felt a tickle on my bare leg. I reached down absently to scratch and felt something scuttle onto my hand. I looked--and leapt up, falling over backward in my haste to get away. The scorpion--for that is what had been climbing on me--fell off and disappeared under a rock.
Tom later showed me how to find them and we would wander through the ruins, turning over the stones and poking at the little scorpions with a stick. They were pale, armed with pincers and an up-curved tail with a sting. I thought they were exciting but I was never tempted to pick them up, or get as close to them as I had that first time. Perhaps this was just as well as although none of them were dangerous, Tom told me their stings were painful.
Tom was not particularly interested in the wildlife, so after a few days he would be just as likely to leave me to my own devices as play with me. I was left to watch the geckos on the walls and ceilings by myself, to hunt for skinks in the leaf litter or marvel at the orange-throated Anolis lizards on the tree trunks. Occasionally I would catch one and hold it firmly as I studied it. The skinks would squirm in my hand, the geckos often dropping their tails in an effort to escape, but the Anolis lizards would open their mouths and hiss at me, exposing the bright pink flesh of their gullets. I watched stick insects and praying mantis and a number of other 'bugs' I did not recognise, but most of all I watched the butterflies. It was swiftly becoming apparent that Jamaica was a land of colourful butterflies and my early interest in these matters was about to bloom in this delightful tropical climate.
I had watched butterflies before, in Germany and England, and vividly remembered red admirals, peacocks, and painted ladies, but had not really collected them, at least not in any organised way, just haphazardly, as young boys do. Now, I could see myself becoming a collector of Lepidoptera (the order of animals that butterflies and moths belong to). It was to be a life-long interest.