Hedley Jones' vivid slice of Jamaican life

Mark Wignall

Thursday, November 29, 2012

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Musgrave Gold medallist Hedley Jones is 96 years old and still writes for the Western Mirror, the second city's leading newspaper published three days per week.

He is a remarkably multi-faceted man, listing his interests or specialty areas as electronics, astronomy and music. He built some of the first hi-fi audio amplifiers for Jamaica's first sound systems. For a few years now we have been corresponding via email and during these times he has shared with me some of his writings, plus he has chronicled Jamaica's music history, from the days of big bands to sound systems to the present cacophony known as dancehall music.

In this slice of history, Jones asks if we are serious about nation building. With all the talk about IMF deal or no deal, Andrew Holness vs Portia Simpson Miller, $60 million worth of SUVs for ministers, it is useful to remember that life was radically different in 1935 when Jones, then 18, made the trip to Kingston.

"Shortly after I got to Kingston seeking work at the age of 18 - Easter 1935 - I was privileged to attend Edelweiss Park where I heard Marcus Garvey deliver his valedictory speech. It was a sad occasion that brought tears to the eyes of some of the women attending. Garvey, great orator that he was, did not mince words in a diplomatic condemnation of the then Jamaican colonial dictators and their local surrogate intelligentsia who were detailed to do the dirty work of vilification of our first National Hero. Indeed, Garvey had to be quite conservative in his choice of words, considering he was sentenced twice locally to prison - first, three months at hard labour in the St Catherine District Prison for contempt of court and subsequently six months for what was deemed seditious writing in a local weekly paper he published.

"From the tone of Garvey's expressions on that occasion, I got the distinct impression that he saw only futility in pressing for changes in Jamaica, and believed he could be more successful if he went to Britain, secured a seat in the House of Commons and tried to lobby from that perch.

"The city was then gaslit, fed from the Kingston Gas works situated behind the Kingston railway station where imported anthracite from England was processed, supplying coke for the Jamaica Government Railway train system and the steam engine driving the Gold Street electric power generator. There were then the old lamp-lighters - men who trod the city in the late afternoons pulling gas lamp switches that automatically turned on some lamps and torching others that had to be manually lit.

"There then existed no Coronation Market; the site was then a cemetery; but downtown Kingston was served by the Jubilee Market - popularly called Chigger Foot Market - situated at the corner of Orange and Heywood streets, as well as two grass yards used by country women peddling charcoal, firewood and agricultural products brought in by scores of mule-drawn drays deriving chiefly from south-west parishes, and locations served by the then very efficient Jamaica Government Railway that our present leaders ignore as an inconvenient anachronism - and of course the Victoria Craft Market situated at the Victoria Pier.

"The most popular grass yard was Mullet's at the corner of West Street and Spanish Town Road. Mullet's served the purposes of a market shopping centre and one of Kingston's most well-known Coney Island gaming facilities. Mullet's also featured a famous strong arm man - Elephant - from Dungle, a spacious treed and bushy mound facing the Kingston Railway Station where Rasta African drumming was a regular daily feature, then called Bhurru or Niah Binghy.

"Kingston had other notable personal attractions. A small isolated area, situated at the intersection of Darling and Regent streets with the Spanish Town Road, was popularly called Dog Park. Its chief occupants were stray dogs, goats (very efficient street cleaners), and one of Jamaica's most renowned street personnel - the famous "Bag an' Pan" famed for the loads of empty crocus bags and cans he toted around. There was also the famous 'Lady in White', a habitué of Victoria Park (now St William Grant Park) who claimed she (in biblical terminology) had never known man. And not to be forgotten are Doctor Spluum the popular soap-box orator of North Parade who preached: 'The Lord is my shepengitary bim' and the unforgettable 'Bun dung Craas Road', who in mockery of those who jeered him sought to fire back at them with: 'Burnt out Cross Roads, you stupid ass.'

"The much-adored modern and expensive thousands of dollars jeans of today was sold in Kingston as 'retch-me-dung' for a paltry three shillings (30 cents at 1969 currency value) and the T-shirt - a sleeved or sleeveless merino called "heng pan nail" - was a mere 7 1/2 cents. The prized over-rated sneakers of today was a Japanese "booga" that gave off (and still does) a deadly effluvia from sweating feet - and of course the much revered school-boy rubber boot - the FOX - manufactured right here in Jamaica.

"Oddly enough there was Andrew H B Aguilar, a hardware merchant located on Harbour Street. His glass show window contained exhibits of Winchester rifles, double and single barrel shot guns, air rifles and revolvers, yet he never suffered a break-in.

"Some of those things we saw as horrible, we vowed to put behind us at Independence in 1962, but in 2012 we deface and trample our flag; suffering from tone-deafness, we wrongly intone parts of our National Anthem; we worship party colours and divide the people into warring political camps positing mendicancy as advancement; we abhor good manners and the social graces; we are ill-equipped, lacking good work ethics; we rape, maim and kill at will.

"Our intelligentsia are the new gods of the realm, presiding over an education system turning out illiterates from high schools; we scam in place of work; we set up businesses that trade in money instead of goods and services and take pride in dishonesty, ramshackle, mayhem and blatant hypocrisy.

"For heaven's sake!! Where are our statesmen and women nation builders?

"Readers may notice that I've recorded some anecdotes of our past history - that from whence we came - and could consider them mere trivialities. But far from being fatalistic I ask our leaders: What's your purpose? Where are we going and what is the purpose of this trip?"

Thank you, Sir Hedley. You remind us that there was a gentler time, even if large swaths of our population were left out of the dream of 1962.

Vision 2030? I see no signs of the first steps towards attaining that vision.


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