Start Here (December 2022)

I’ve got too much to say this afternoon – too much to fit in an assembly and I’m not sure where to start. The assembly, you see, is not about what it seems to be – so where to start? The poet tells us that “it’s a problem with the whole way of life. It can’t change overnight, but we gotta start somewhere, might as well gon head start here” And so I shall be starting in Basseterre, largest city on Saint Kitts Island in the Caribbean. Saint Kitts has a total population of 53,000 – about two thirds the size of Brixton – and Basseterre is responsible for 14,000 of these. Saint Kitts was originally settled by pre-agricultural people who migrated south from Florida. They were displaced in about 100BC by a group of farmers called the Saladoid who migrated from the mouth of the Orinoco river in what is now Venezuela. Around 900 years later they were replaced by the Igneri, also from South America, who were themselves dispersed by the Kalinago in around 1300AD. The Spanish arrived in 1493, and from the 1620s the English and French alternated control of the island, bringing with them sugar cane and slavery. As St Kitts and Nevis, it became the smallest sovereign state in the Western Hemisphere in September 1983. Slavery was outlawed in 1834 and the sugar industry closed in 2005.

Basseterre was the birthplace of Joan Armatrading, singer-songwriter and possessor of one of the most amazing voices I know of. She’s best known for her song Love and Affection, but even better to my mind is a track from the same 1976 album, Down to Zero. Her lyrics are described as some of the most deeply personal of our times – although she claims that they are observational rather than autobiographical. She writes a lot about love, but, rather charmingly for a genre that has a tendency towards heteronormativity she often uses “you” rather than a gendered pronoun and leaves that side of things open to the listener to interpret. Also charming, to my mind, is that her lyrics, love and affection excepted, seem to be saying one thing, or nothing at all, before they settle down on something else. Down to zero, for example, begins with the line “Oh the feeling, when you’re reeling, you step lightly thinking you’re number one…” before segueing smoothly into heartache and heartbreak. To segue is a verb or noun from music and film meaning an uninterrupted transition from one scene to another.

Also segueing smoothly is this assembly as we skip a light fandango up the island chain of the Caribbean to where Dominica lurks at the junction of the Windward and Leeward islands. Dominica has a similar history to St Kitts including the importance of 1st August 1834, the date on which the Slavery Abolition Act came into effect and set in motion the events of The Wide Sargasso Sea, a book partly set in Dominica and written by Jean Rhys, who was born there. The central characters of the book are a family that used to be wealthy but who are no longer – they are white plantation owners, whose wealth came from the slavery that is now illegal. The daughter of the family, Antoinette, is forced to marry an Englishman who bullies and emotionally abuses her, insisting on calling her Bertha. The final chapters of the story switch the action to Thornfield Hall in Yorkshire: the Englishman inherits an estate from his father and brings Antoinette/Bertha home and locks her, friendless and now thousands of miles from what’s left of her family, in an attic. At this point it becomes apparent that the book is about something other than it first appeared – Thornfield Hall is the setting of an older novel, Jane Eyre, in which the male love interest, Mr Rochester has a mad first wife, called Bertha and locked in the attic. Jean Rhys has rewritten one of the great romantic heroes as a nasty, manipulative domestic abuser and has reset one of the great books of pastoral England in the slave plantations of the West Indies.

It’s easy for those of us who live in the big city to think of pastoral life, the countryside, as safe, peaceful, boring maybe – but the tale of the two-headed calf should remind us that the bizarre and macabre can happen in the quietest of locations. The two-headed calf is an exhibit in the Melton Carnegie museum in Leicestershire – it is the preserved body of conjoined twins who lived for only a few hours and became a wonder – exhibited to the public in order to raise money for the cost of the country’s efforts in both world wars. I don’t know how that makes you feel – intrigued, creeped out, fascinated, uneasy? Perhaps a poem, written by American Poet, Laura Gilpin, will provide another viewpoint:

Tomorrow when the farm boys find this
Freak of nature, they will wrap his body
In newspaper and carry him to the museum.

But tonight he is alive and in the north
field with his mother. It is a perfect
summer evening: the moon rising over
the orchard, the wind in the grass. And
as he stares into the sky, there are
twice as many stars as usual.

Tonight he is alive and in the north field with his mother, and this too is about something different from what it first appears. Our time is precious – tonight we are alive, the moon rises, the wind is in the grass and the sky is full of stars – we may have more time than the two-headed calf, but we mustn’t keep looking forward to tomorrow and miss the moment of now.

And my final segue brings me back to my first poem – I read you the line “it’s a problem with the whole way of life. It can’t change overnight, but we gotta start somewhere” and whilst you won’t be surprised that it’s actually about something else, I’d like to suggest a change to your way of life – I’d like to suggest that as Jean Rhys rewrote the back history of Jane Eyre, you should rewrite your expectations of the holidays – or vacations as we should call them. You have two weeks coming up and how you spend them matters: once they are gone there’s no going back and having another go, so fill them with things that are worthwhile – spend time staring into the sky trying to count the stars if you can find them in our light-polluted metropolis; spend time with your families, knowing that they will not last forever; learn about the islands of the Caribbean, or about conjoined twins, or the slave trade; listen to music, read novels and poetry, stay up late talking with friends and rejoice in a lie in the next morning. My advice is to do all of these – but that mostly vacations are made for three things: Reading – seriously, most of you don’t read anywhere near enough: it makes you clever, finds you jobs; Review – sorting out all the things you learned during term and responding to the things you’ve not learned yet; and Resting – there is space for this too, you’ve worked hard and earned it, but listen: don’t get the proportions wrong. Read, Rest, Review in equal measure.

Start somewhere says Lil Baby in his 2020 song “The Bigger Picture” – if you don’t know it, you could start there before you move on to Joan Armatrading, and Charlotte Bronte, and Jean Rhys, and Laura Gilpin – there are so many things to enjoy before January comes – too much to fit into a single vacation so you’ll need to find a place to start. Make sure you do.