A people of polite persuasion
THE WEATHER PROPHET by Lucretia Stewart Chatto & Windus, £14.99, pp. 248 The most important ingredient for a good travel book is a likeable writer. So many travel books are laboriously churned out by stodgy men who venture to the most interesting places, only to notice the quality of the cock lobster which can be found in a bistro run by expats in the middle of the Malaysian jungle.
What a refreshing change our dashing heroine, Lucretia Stewart, makes, as she careers through the Caribbean in flimsy boats, staying in sleezy hotels, braving high waves and bed bugs. Beginning her journey in Trinidad, where she is deafened by relentless Calypso music, she works her way up to Montserrat, via Martinique, then splashes her way back down to Trinidad.
The narrative simply fizzes. Miss Stewart describes, with a shudder, the white tourists who travel to the islands in search of sun, sea, sand and the fourth 's' word, whilst regarding the local people with a mixture of fear and scorn. In Antigua, she stays at an unspeakable hotel run by English people, and becomes aware of the apartheid system which unofficially oper- ates in the West Indies. Aside from under- paid cleaners, black people were not welcome in the hotel, 'and if a black face dared show itself, heads would turn and it would be greeted by a steady, collective stare'. She also mentions the colour code which exists amongst black people, the lighter skinned you are, the more admired; curly hair is attacked by hot irons and chemicals, and rich insults are hurled by black people at their darker skinned
I was happy to read that, like me, Miss Stewart found the snobby, Frenchified Martiniquais a trifle daunting, and she gasps at the ill effects tourism is having on the once so beautiful islands. Originally brought to the islands as slaves, the local people are now obliged to kow-tow to white tourists, who are often too disgusted by the 'natives' to venture ashore from the luxury of their cruise ships.
But although Miss Stewart displays sym- pathy for the plight of the islanders, her main interest in the Caribbean lies in the afore unmentioned 's' word. Plentiful love affairs sprinkle the text. Where affaires de coeur are concerned, our dashing authoress knows of no colour bar — or age bar, come to that. When she stumbles across a 65- year-old Grenadan who informs her that, — 'an old gun can shoot just as well, the bullets go just as straight', Miss Stewart hardly waits to get to the next page before confirming the truth of this statement.
Her lover-per-chapter policy is justified by a repeated insistance that black men are driven wild with desire by the sight of a white woman.. However, Miss Stewart is oblivious to the other side of the Caribbean coin. A twitch of amusement invariably passed my lips whenever I read that 'the black men wanted me because I was white', for I recalled the words of Wining Boy, a beach-gigolo I met in Jamaica. Catching sight of him in a rum shop, sweet-talking yet another German tourist, I raised an eyebrow sardonically. 'But whatta we fe do, sister?' he whispered with a helpless wink, `white gyal demma come here fe jooky- jooky with we, so we, being of polite per- suasion, oblige they!' Lone white female travellers have a reputation in the West Indies for being — how can I put it? — no better than they should be. Blissfully unaware of this unfortunate fact, Miss Stewart glories in her desirability, and even quotes a particularly potty passage by Eldridge Cleaver to underline her point. Cleaver's opinion is that the ugliest white woman is beautifuller than the beautifullest black woman (or words to that garbled effect.) Appointing Eldridge as a Black Spokesman did seem a bit unfair. You may as well attempt to explain the Frenchman's psyche by quoting the Marquis de Sade.
I would have liked Miss Stewart to have travelled further afield. The Caribbean consists of so many varied islands, and one is curious to know how the Puerto Rican men would have stood up to the Haitians, or, for that matter, the Cubans. But encum- bered by an unexpected pregnancy, Miss Stewart only had time to savour the delights of the Lesser Antilles. Perhaps she has saved the most interesting islands for a sequel. We eagerly await — 'The return of the Weather Prophet.'
Zenga Longmore's Tap Taps to Trinidad: Story of a Caribbean Journey is published by Arrow at £4.95.