An eruption, an eviction, an industry

"I'm all ashed out man," is the new catchphrase in Montserrat. But Mildred Farrell is not ashed out; she got smart and moved fast. Now she drinks to her good fortune. By Phil Davison
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Mildred Farrell is proud of the fact that her husband James Ronald Farrell, a Montserratian, is the only black master tailor kiltmaker and has cut kilts for Prince Charles, the Argyll and Southern Highlanders, the Gordons and the Black Watch. But that is not her main claim to fame. Mildred, a German and long-time resident of what used to bill itself "The Emerald Isle of the Caribbean," runs the Bird's Nest bar in Salem, a village growing like an American western boom town since the now-devastated capital, Plymouth, was evacuated. The bar, little more than a wooden shack it took her two weeks to build last year, is the place to go to escape the ash cloud and swap stories after the island's angry Soufriere volcano erupts. The original Bird's Nest was on Strand Street in Plymouth and is probably now destroyed.

After the volcano erupts, as it did twice a day last week, Mildred closs the shutters to keep out the thick black ash that envelops Salem, plays loud reggae music to keep spirits up and complains that the wholesale price of Guinness - a staple on this island of strong Irish ties - has gone up 25 percent over the past week because of shortages.

It was Cromwell's 17th-century banishment of Irish "rogues, vagrants and sturdy beggars" that led to the colonisation of Montserrat - originally discovered by Columbus - and the prevalence of Irish customs and surnames taken on by slaves from their masters. Montserratians celebrate St Patrick's Day and their national dish, called goat water, stems from Irish stew.

As customers slipped aside their surgical nosemasks to sip their drinks after an eruption this week, her English sprinkled liberally with mits, unds and vons, Mildred described the worst ash fall she had seen "It went pitch black in here. We wanted to call friends to tell them not to worry but we couldn't see the telephone. We put damp cloths on our faces and we survived."

In his store, Arrow - best known for his song "Hot, Hot, Hot", told me: "I was the first to kick out and move here. Everybody laughed at me and said I was spending too much money, that we'd all be back home in Plymouth in a month." Other Plymouth businessfolk have moved farther north, to St John's or St Peter's, but their new businesses are scattered and no one is yet sure whether a new capital can or will be rebuilt, or exactly where.

The volcano, dormant for several centuries until it erupted anew two years ago and finally wiped out Plymouth last week, has given rise to new phrases such as "I'm all ashed out, man." With tourism dead, it has also become the island's number one industry, with volcano picture postcards on sale, an official series of volcano stamps and even phonecards showing a colour picture of an eruption and reading "Pyroclastic Flow - Tar River Valley. Montserrat Volcano 1996." "Pyroclastic Flow" T-shirts sell like hot cakes.

Under the volcano, Montserratians wait for an eruption the way Key West tourists wait for sunset or stargazers wait for a solar eclipse. When the scientists sound a warning siren, reminiscent of those in London during the Blitz, most locals take up their positions to view a phenomenon as compelling as it is devastating.

Kevin West, a young local photographer who used to do weddings, funerals and car accidents, has made his name in the last few weeks by sneaking into the "forbidden zone", including Plymouth, on a mountain motorbike - avoiding police roadblocks - and selling pictures of the devastation to major news organisations. "Sometime, de Babylon Beast [the police] stop me but I just tell them to kiss my fuckin' black nigger ass," he told me this week.

From Salem,its original population of a couple of hundred now swollen to more than 1,000, evacuees gaze down or across the lush Belham river valley towards their abandoned homes in such villages as Cork Hill, Flemmings, Friths, Olveston or Old Towne. They are waiting to see whether or not the next "pyroclastic flow" - the avalanche of red hot ash, gas and rock spewing from the volcano - will surge over St George's Hill and engulf their homes.

"When an eruption come and cause big ash fall, everybody rush in here. The oxygen not enough. We nearly suffocate," said Larry Skerritt, manager of the Desert Storm bar, where you can watch the volcano erupt from between the shutters. On the local station, Radio ZJB Montserrat, the popular announcer Rose Willock comes on between records to tell the population: "I know this can make you nervous but don't take it out on your siblings, don't take it out on yur pets. But most of all, don't take it out on yourself. Take a few breaths and blow out slowly."

If anyone wants to forget about the angry 3,000-ft mountain that has changed their lives, it is not easy. Ms Willock churns out song after volcano-related song during her morning programme, such as Jimmy Cliff's "Mama, Look At The Mountain" or "Many Rivers To Cross". Montserratians are only too aware that the volcano's deadly red-hot flow 800C magma travelling at 100 miles an hour - has only one more river to cross to hit Salem, Olveston, Old Towne and the rest of what is called the Central Buffer Zone where a couple of thousand people still live.

In the Golden Arches, another makeshift Salem bar that becomes a shelter during eruptions, Peter Dyer, an Arsenal fan who lived for many years in Riversdale Road, Highbury, described how his bar, the Spread eagle in the township of St. Patrick's, outside Plymouth was buried by thick ash. "I take my fishing boat and go for a look. It full up with fuckin' ash, man. I lose my goats, my pineapples, my plants. That was before the big eruption last week. Now, I can't go back. That ocean at Plymouth red hot, man. It burn the fuckin' bottom of your boat."

Peter now sleeps on a camp bed in St Martins Catholic church in Salem, living on pounds 10 a week from the local government with food increasingly scarce. On a wall behind him in the Golden Arches was a painting of Government House in Plymouth, formerly used by the British governor, and where Diana, Princess of Wales stayed during a visit here, but now also destroyed.

Among the saving graces for Montserrat is the fact that fresh spring water still flows in abundance from the Central Hills, currently out of the volcano's reach. Farmers also still operate in the northern "safe zone", ensuring provision of fresh meat, poultry and dairy products. Supply boats can also land in the safe zone, at a new harbour built at Little Bay, also the exit point for the refugee ferry which runs to neighbouring Antigua. A nine-seat helicopter runs to and from Antigua twice a day.

The evacuees are increasingly critical of what they call mixed signals from both the British governor, Frank Savage, and the local government of this British dependent territory as to whether everyone should move north and try to rebuild their homes and lives in the so-called "safe zone", or whether it is really viable to remain on the island at all with the ash clouds and showers of volcanic pebbles now also reaching the north. Britain has accepted evacuees but the fact that they are forced to pay their own passage makes this option impossible for many, if not most.

Many say the government of Canada has done more for Montserrat recently than has Britain, the mother country, and criticise the British government for reportedly tuning down offers of assistance from countries such as Canada and Israel.

"I want to go to England. My brother and son are there. But I can't afford it," said refugee Linda Daley, who narrowly escaped with her life when a pyroclastic flow surged over a river creek and wiped out the township of Harris's last month. "I'm a Methodist. I'm sleeping in a church but I can't go to a church service because all I've got for my feet are sandals."

Another major concern here is the illiterate birth rate, no longer officially registered but said to be growing almost as fast as the volcano's mushroom cloud. It is a direct result of the number of female refugees living alone and the number of young male refugees with nothing to do. It has even given rise to a popular song called "Volcano Baby".

"All the young boys have moved north to St. Peter's to hang around the church [full of women evacuees]," said Joseph "Sam" White from the township of Flemmings. "For them, that's a lot of new blood."