:: Article

The Lion and Da Unicorn

By Andrew Stevens.


Ian Thomson, The Dead Yard, Faber and Faber, 2010

As I write this, Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke sits awaiting trial in the US, extradited at its request on account of his alleged drugs and arms smuggling activities as leader of the Shower Posse. The Tivoli Gardens-based gang owe their origins to the violent fault-line between Jamaica’s binary rival post-independence rulers, the centre-right Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) and the nominally left People’s National Party (PNP). Of course, the US interest in Jamaican domestic politics is concerned with its own territorial sovereignty, much to the ruling JLP’s consternation, after all Dudus’ largesse holds as much sway in the ‘Little Jamaica’ of Brooklyn, New York (where he will face trial) as it does in Kingston. Ian Thomson’s The Dead Yard doesn’t mention Dudus or his posse, it doesn’t have to. Dudus is but one name attached to the hydra-like gang structure which has persisted since independence, albeit one who plunged the capital into virtual civil war last month. The 24 hour news cycle supplies the rest.

Thomson traces the ‘paradise island’s trajectory from the pre-independence Harlem-based Negro World of the vain Marcus Garvey (since lionised as he was never able to achieve his putative ‘Negro Napoleon’ dictator role in the vein of the actual dictators he worshipped) through to the contemporary grim reality of the island’s Hedonism resorts for affluent and amoral tourists. As he helpfully points out at several junctures, the British Empire was as much a sexual enterprise as a commercial one. Thomson takes up his account with the dissolution of the fragile and unwieldy West Indies Federation on 5 August 1962 when the island achieved its independence from the British Empire, joining the soon to be nascent Commonwealth. The midnight moment of the Union Jack taken down for the last time in Kingston was celebrated solely by one migrant labour nurse in Wanstead, East London, he reckons. He documents the extent to which for all intents and purposes, despite the Fabian playwright George Bernard Shaw’s exhortation on a visit to the island in 1911 of “Jamaica for the Jamaicans”, its national culture has long been inextricably linked to the ways and means of its former mother country, the indelible Anglican twee adornments from its 14 formal ‘parish’ areas, through to the baronial estates acting as a nod to its plantation era, replete with iced tea on the (increasingly decrepit) terrace and the perpetuation of domestic servitude. Thomson’s criss-cross across the island maps out these fraught zones, each “JLP-loyal garrison constituency”.

As he notes, the island’s befuddled colonial administrators were at pains to bequeath the newly-independent state Britain’s two-party Westminster system, hard-wiring for decades to come the antagonisms which have characterised the island’s descent into disorder:

Tivoli Gardens, formerly the Back-o-Wall slum, had been built in 1966 by the Jamaican Labour Party government or JLP. The inhabitants had been loyal to the opposing political party, the People’s National Party or PNP, and the government wanted rid of them. On the morning of 12 July 1966, armed police dispersed the residents with tear gas, batons and rifle-shot, the bulldozers rolled in behind the police, flattening the shanty. The newly-installed JLP strong men were afterwards supplied with firearms (‘vote-getters’) in exchange for their continued political allegiance. With the construction of Tivoli Gardens, the lines were drawn for generations to come: JLP or PNP?

He meets successive Jamaicans of all races who believe the island was somehow “better off” under the “British system”, an unspoken nod to both colonialism and slavery, if necessary (anything being preferable to the legacy of disorder since 1962). This takes in, as you would expect, its continuing role as a member of the Commonwealth under the British Queen (who had been on the throne for a decade before its independence) and its likely attainment of republic status within the near future. As Thomson attests, the last such attempt towards republicanism happened during the 1970s at the height of LSE-educated PNP premier Michael Manley’s pro-Cuba (its larger neighbour) administration, intoxicated on cod Black Power slogans. The era which followed is taken up with constant JLP/PNP bickering between the island’s light-skinned elites, the post-Greneda adventurism of the US and its highly-leveraged credit arrangements with the disaster-hit island (acting like a council estate loan shark) and its former mother country declaring ‘enough!’ in 2003 with Tony Blair’s Home Office imposing hitherto unknown draconian immigration controls on a former colony as a result of Yardie violence on the capital’s streets and drug mule incursions past HM Customs. Dancehall homophobia gets a forensic overview as to its origins (a colonial 1861 Act or Church-based, you decide), though as Thomson notes 96% of the population remain in favour of the criminalisation of homosexuality, leading to constant hand-wringing among the competing ‘liberation’ agendas of the mother country’s culturally relativist anti-imperialist left. Thomson argues that both the feminised domain of quite often father-free Jamaican society and the tendency for Dancehall artists to protest a little too much about the perceived presence of homosexual imagery may lay behind it. He also notes that it is the overbearing quiescent liberalism of the pale, male and stale Judicial Committee of the Privy Council sitting in London’s Westminster which is left to act as final arbiter of its human rights.

And yet, The Dead Yard becomes almost as much a tale of London as Kingston (there is also a grey concrete gun-shot pockmarked Tivoli Gardens in Woolwich, South East London). Each chapter is arranged with a song title in mind, sometimes re-rendered i.e. ‘(Black Man) in Hammersmith Palais’. This takes in the role of the National Council for Civil Liberties, almost a government in exile in the UK for every welfarist socialist intellectual of the era, along with the Institute for Race Relations and the lesser known Metropolitan Coloured People’s Housing Association.

Thomson is as at ease in the kitchen of the former Royal Air Force pilot in Peckham or chewing the cud with émigré journalists in cafes as he is meeting Turnham Green-based lyrical poets. The account very much takes in Peckham Rye (as per the opening credits for Channel 4’s own West Indian barbershop comedy Desmonds) through to Tottenham (or “Tottenham, N17” as one proud matriarch puts it to him) as its constant zone, the presence of estate thug crews such as the Cold Hearted Crew and Beg For Mercy providing the tabloid fear. He meets Gladwin ‘Gladdy Wax’ Wright, proprietor of Stoke Newington reggae store and community meeting point, adjacent to the gun-toting Somerford Grove Estate. Gladdy Wax speaks of his own emigration from Jamaica, up the M6 to Birmingham and the ‘blues parties’ (ironically now a staple of northern working class culture) necessitated by the West Indian community’s exclusion from the menacing smoke-filled members-only social clubs of the day, each clutching their can of Harp on the house sofa (“Red Stripe came later”, Thomson says). Not long after “Trench Town swagger” came to England amid the Mod Reggae movement, with those Jamaican youth prepared to don “crombies and two-tone Trevira suits” allowed to join skinhead gangs. Ska was very much seen as the musical embodiment of the new Commonwealth, Jamaica’s Skatalites (whose breakthrough ‘Guns of Navarone’ was b-sided with ‘Marcus Garvey’) and Dragonaires powering the white teenage dancefloor. ‘My Boy Lollipop’ by Millie Small with its “pert under-age suggestiveness” was the pop edge of this. Meanwhile, one Jamaican rejoiced as he found the “Lion of Judah” among the black metal structures of Trafalgar Square (symbolically the celebration of the British defeat of Garvey’s venerated Napoleon). He also finds Jamaican immigrants who following the ‘disturbances’ of Notting Hill in the late 1950s, applauded the passage of the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act as a means to take a breather and allow the existing population to settle in (an early example of pulling the ladder up, as seen more recently by bemused BNP activists in Barking where black Britons have reportedly asked for their literature).

As Dudus reclines in his American jail cell and ponders what the DEA have in store for his leisure, he could do worse than to examine Ian Thomson’s forensic account of what put him there.

Andrew Stevens is a contributing editor of 3:AM and lives in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, June 26th, 2010.