It's not easy getting served in Amnesia on a Friday evening.
It's not easy getting served in Amnesia on a Friday evening. Not just because of the hip-hop cacophony from the sound system and the massive speakers, nor the wall of dark cocoa flesh in your way - it's the presence of so many small, plump Ochi girls with colossal bosoms inadequately harnessed inside pink woolly tops, who are gleefully dancing by the bar and crashing their crocheted tits together while laughing fit to burst. You try asking for two Red Stripes, a rum punch and 20 Marlboro Lights in these circumstances.
For a white guy in a sports jacket, the main drag of Ocho Rios isn't a welcoming spot. The Amnesia nightclub, the town's authentic hotspot, is located up six flights of stairs in a dismal shopping precinct. The stairs are lined with fat youths in costume jewellery who scrutinise your burnt-cream features, your eccentric red shoes, your candy-ass Britishness, looking for any pretext to give you grief. Passing one guy, I emitted a tiny, barely-audible cough, the result of a small ganja-zephyr nearby. As I turned at the stairwell, he called, "Hey! Cover your mout' next time!". "Are you someone's nanny?" I asked, cheekily. " What you say to me?" he asked. "Excuse my manners," I replied in alarm.
In the dancehall, there's no band, but two charismatic chaps on stage are shouting over the music, drinking beer and leading the chorus by waving their arms, like castaways trying to attract a distant liner. A circle forms in the middle of the grooving crowd, as if for some pyrotechnical display of - what? Breakdancing? But no, the coolest new floor move is a balletic, slow-motion step routine, utterly graceful, like a gazelle negotiating a minefield. My attempts to study and emulate it are thwarted by the hustlers who come up and try routines with you: "Hey man, you remember me - we met at the hotel? I said I'd look after you. Gimme a cigarette. Buy me a drink..."
Out in the street, the dealers in tracksuit bottoms and bulging vests whisper to you about ganja and blow, as though shyly confiding their problems with girls or spots. Jamaica's a lot less threatening than I remember it a decade ago, when I was chased on a bike for five miles by a vanload of noisily intimidating rastas. These days, you don't cower all week inside your "compound" (as the all-inclusive hotels are alarmingly called), you rent a car and take off along the coast to Firefly and Goldeneye and the art gallery at Harmony Hall; you stroll uncaringly around Ocho Rios's groovy shops looking for "batty-riders" or extremely tight shorts for your gluteally endowed womenfolk; eat at Evita's carib-pasta joint and (if you've got the nerve) stay up till 3am at the Shades club, to catch the five ladies on stage daring the audience to come up and have sex with them.
I'm here to talk books and culture with local journalists and businessmen, with a view to getting a literary festival under way next year. It'll be a serious investigation of Anglo-Caribbean writing, from the journals of Lady Maria Nugent (the governor's fabulously condescending wife in 1801) to Andrea Levy, who won the Orange Prize this year, and whose parents came to England on the SS Windrush. I don't know how many native Jamaicans will make the pilgrimage to Ocho Rios to listen to bookish discussions about the evolution of their culture from the slave plantations to independence and beyond. But there's a certain atavistic glee among the guys on the stairs in being able to tell the white bwoy to go get himself a 'kin handkerchief.
Around the world with 80 years
We're a motley bunch in this exploratory press trip - four journalists, a filmmaker, a headhunter, an academic - and none is more motley than the academic. He is Professor Sir Raymond Carr, the world-renowned expert on the Spanish Civil War, warden of St Anthony's College, Oxford, and the author of history of foxhunting, which sport he was forced to give up when he was 76. (He had so many falls in his Oxford college days, a surgeon finally told him, "I am compelled by law to operate on you. If I were not, I should let your arm wither.") Now 85, he's tall, snow-haired, open-neck-shirted and querulous - an ascetic-looking hybrid of FR Leavis and J R Hartley.
His conversation is ceaselessly entertaining: full of vignettes about his days playing the clarinet and saxophone and trying to become a journalist. For a historian, he was in the thick of the 1930s literary establishment. He talks warmly about his friendships with Ian Fleming, Anthony Powell and Isaiah Berlin, his intense dislike of Evelyn Waugh and Cyril Connolly, and his distaste for being called a spy, just because he once worked in government intelligence circles and knew Burgess, Maclean, Goronwy Rees and Kim Philby (I mean honestly...)
An octogenarian whose discourse can swing in a moment from Marxist theory to Oswald Mosley's lunch habits, he retains (along with all his marbles) a fiercely argumentative streak and a determination to get to grips with modern culture. I lost count of the times he banged the dinner table - an unusual occurrence in the hushed Fine Dining room at the Royal Plantation Inn - to show his disapproval at any mention of religion, or yelled in triumph when, for instance, I claimed that Virginia Woolf had a dog called Flush (it was Elizabeth Barrett's dog, about which Virginia wrote a book). But I'll treasure the moment at our last dinner when his hearing-aid packed up during the cabaret. As the Aussie chanteuse reached the chorus of a famous Carole King song, Carr leaned over. "What's this young woman singing?" he asked loudly.
"She's singing, 'You make me feel', Raymond," I shouted back.
"You make me feel..." I persisted.
"YOU MAKE ME FEEL," I yelled, 'LIKE A NATURAL WOMAN".
The girls around the table collapsed, having witnessed the most ludicrous love duet since Freddie Mercury met Montserrat Caballe.Reuse content