PsychoGeography #23: Volcanic passions in the Caribbean

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In Montserrat the hills mounted up to the volcano in a series of green gushes: plantations of bananas and sugar cane were interrupted by the painterly strokes of field terraces. This was a veritable Trevi Fountain of a Caribbean island, with, at its summit, a burbling fumarole which emitted a sulphurous stench, as the Devil tossed and turned beneath the earth's crust, farting off his evil business lunch.

I say was, because of course since I was there 28 years ago, the volcano has blown its top and submerged two-thirds of the island in its fiery dung. Gone is the miniature capital with its dinky colonial buildings, gone are most of the dusty hamlets I remember caroming through with my mother in our hire car; and while we're at it, gone as well is my mother. I concede I can't make too much of this annihilation of a month of my adolescence by an earthy eructation, but there is something peculiarly distancing about the past no longer being another country, but instead a barren land.

I think back to the black volcanic sand beaches of the island that toasted the soles of my feet and can hear the jingle of the local radio station well in my inner ear: "Got a feeling deep inside/It's a feeling I can't hide/ Feel the spirit, feel it!/Feel the spirit of the Carr-i-be-an/Radio Antilles, the big RA!" It was my mother's brother, Uncle Bob, who brought us to Montserrat. A onetime bigwig advertising man on Madison Avenue, Bob was responsible for - among many other things - the creation of the Pilsbury Dough Boy. A bakery burnout, followed by a triple heart bypass, drove him into early retirement. He and my aunt lived in a beautiful bungalow in one of the white retirement cantonments that studded the eastern shore of the island.

Uncle Bob may have furred up his ticker with fatty deposits, but he wasn't subdued by guerrilla surgery. Without wishing to impugn his memory, I think it fair to say that Bob remained spectacularly choleric. Aged 14, I was set by my uncle to clean the leaves from the gutters of the bungalow. After doing the back of the house, I moved to the front and saw him circling the poolside below, long handled net in hand, as he fanatically removed particles of detritus from the pristine water. The inevitable mischievousness ensued: I dropped a single leaf from the roof into the pool and Bob swooped on it. I dropped a second and he swooped on this as well; a third followed and then a fourth. Finally his hooded eyes tracked the path the leaf had followed back up to where I crouched, skinny on the eaves. With an almighty bellow of rage he smashed the pool scoop against the French windows, raced through the house, leapt into his Mini Moke, and hurtled off into the hills.

But apart from these eruptions my uncle was a benign presence. The heart surgery hadn't stopped him smoking either, and he turned a blind eye as I swiped packets of State Express 555 from the yellow and gold cartons that were scattered about the house like flammable ingots. On Radio Antilles the advert went something like this: "Daddy, why do you smoke State Express 555?"

"I smoke them, son, because they're the taste of success."

"Daddy, when I grow up I'm going to smoke State Express 555."

"You do that, son."

With my State Express 555s well secreted I would be dropped off at the beach for a day's snorkelling. Flipper-flapping out over the ruched sea bed, imprisoned in my own portable, aquamarine diorama, I would dive down 20 and even 30 feet for sand dollars. Then I'd swim out still further and round the point until I reached the reef. Multicoloured fish would explode from its gnarled contours, while in the periphery of my vision I could see blunt-nosed barracuda, tracking the incursion of what to them must've been a curious white amphibian. I don't imagine I'd be as sanguine now, but at 14 I swam far out into the sea, revelling in the sight of manta rays the size of billiard tables, with their lethally poisonous cues-for-tails.

One day, with members of the Montserrat Walking Club, we walked up to the fumarole and stood staring into its stinky aorta. At the time it meant little to me, this fistula in the chest of Ceres, but now I wonder if Uncle Bob's longevity - he died this year aged 86 - owed something to his sojourn on Montserrat? He ended his days in North Carolina, but perhaps his regular rendezvous with the volcano in the 1970s and 1980s allowed him to draw on its immense reserves of hot temper and so keep himself both alive and kicking.