Ian Thomson: Jamaica was modern before Britain

To mark Black History Month the author of Dead Yard: Tales of Modern Jamaica talks to Miguel Cullen about the ways Jamaica is punching above its weight

Jamaica is a country that exceeds its limitations. For example India’s GDP is 180 times that of the West Indian country and Jamaica could fit inside it 300 times. Yet Jamaica won twice as many medals at the London Olympics, 12 to India’s six.

Musically it shines beyond its scope too: between the mid-1950s and 2000 Jamaica had produced one new music recording per 1,000 people each year – making it per capita the world’s most prolific generator of recorded music.

Jamaican culture has long been fashionable and on Google Trends, a means of measuring how highly words feature in the search engine. In the list of most-searched countries "Jamaica" comes a tight second to "Russia," a country so big it makes Jamaica look like a minnow.

In view of Jamaica’s small financial and physical scale, it’s logical to think of it as a statistical freak of nature, an anomaly, to have such a broad world standing. How could such a tiny island, which is only this year celebrating 50 years of independence from the UK, compete with superpowers like India and Russia?

It was with this question in mind that, on the eve of Black History Month in the UK, I visited the London home of Ian Thomson, the author of the hugely successful (and controversial) Dead Yard: Tales of Modern Jamaica.

Thomson studied the island intensely over the course of several years, visiting it, poring over its literature, and contacting the Jamaican diaspora in Britain to get the migrators’ viewpoint.

The book won the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, and the Dolman Travel Book of the Year. It combines serpentine, fragile descriptions of Jamaica’s natural beauty with an unafraid look at the horrors of Jamaican violence, in a way that is intransigent and unique.

 “Jamaica was modern before Britain was,” Thomson tells me, sitting in his study overlooking the greenery of Alexandra Park. “What fascinated me about these Caribbean countries was that for me they’re the first modern societies – they were the first countries to have intermingling, mixed race people, across the colour bar.”

“When Jamaicans came to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, they were often very surprised by the conservative reactions to some of them being mixed race – mixed racing had been going on for centuries in the Caribbean. So in a sense you could say that although Jamaica is in some ways parochial, in other ways it’s incredibly forward-thinking.”

Thomson’s book paints a bleak picture of Jamaica as a post-colonial nation, struggling with huge levels of criminal violence, drug crime, and a petty system of racial hierarchy, based on the self-serving calibrations of British plantation masters.

“Slavery runs through Jamaican life today like the black line in a lobster,” he writes, explaining in our interview: “I think it’s axiomatic that when you have had a slave colony, you are going to have violence today. Because these places are founded on violence – 300 years later the violence can’t have worked its way out – it’s got to be there still.”

“There’s a sense that every (‘on the make’) small-Napoleon drug dealer in western Kingston wants to have a fancy house that’s like a slave mansion – it derives from slavery, I’m sure of it. These days, a lot of people rightly get very fed up with this idea of slavery – ‘It’s over, it’s finished, stop going on about it.’ But I think in a country like Jamaica you can’t ignore it.”

Going back to Jamaica’s Olympic prowess for a moment, we discuss sprinter Michael Johnson who proposed in a Channel 4 documentary a theory: that the various processes that took slaves from West Africa to the slave plantations in Jamaica naturally selected them and their descendants for athletic success.

This theory seems dangerously linear to me, and Thomson agrees. “Surely training has something to with it? I dare say that I trained for hours and hours I’d be a really hot ping pong champion” he says, somewhat immodestly.

Thomson tells me about the first use of the word ‘black’ to reference race – in the ideological sense.

“During the Haitian Revolution, in 1802, Jean-Jacques Dessalines (later the first ruler of independent Haiti) said to the white Polish troops that came over in Napoleon’s army – and defected onto the black side – that they could remain on the island, as long as they referred to themselves as ‘Black’.”

Thomson holds particular love for the way Jamaicans express themselves: the richness of the native vocabulary, its rangy elasticity and speculative verbiage. Thomson compares it to the Irish gift of the gab. Irish, Polish, Jamaican – the combination of races on British soil, laced with the tendrils of Caribbean influence, are certainly giving a new colour to what we mean by black in October 2012.

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...