A TALE OF TWO COMMUNITIES

Mustique is a playground for the very rich; one of the games they play is philanthropy. But. will the gift of a library change the rules of this divided society? Decca Aitkenhead reports

Decca Aitkenhead
Sunday 02 February 1997 00:02
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Philanthropy is not a very modern virtue. Like its Victorian cousins, paternalism and colonialism, it enjoys little currency at the end of a century during which most people have arrived at the opinion that all men were created equal. The caring slave owner and the kindly feudal duke are treated with much the same contempt as latter-day apologists for apartheid; even in South Africa, you must hunt quite hard today to hear echoes of their claim to noblesse oblige.

Travel to a tiny corner of the Caribbean, though, and you can find a place where the 20th century never happened. Lying at the northern tip of the Grenadines is Mustique, a manicured perfection of creamy beaches, private coves and palms. A Scottish lord, Colin Tennant, landed here almost 40 years ago, liked the look of the place, and bought it. Some of the wealthiest people in the world have since built their private plots of paradise here, and Princess Margaret, Mick Jagger and David Bowie have all frolicked in the sun-kissed surf. Jagger said he wanted a house here as soon as he heard that butlers in white gloves served tea on the beach.

When Tennant bought the island, there were a handful of families leading a subsistence life on the land. He bought most of them off with $1,000, and sent them on their way; thereafter, he ruled that pregnant women would be shipped off to give birth elsewhere, thus preventing any messy complications about residency rights. Mustique was Tennant's private fiefdom.

Millionaires' playgrounds, however, require a lot of work. Mustique's private villas need staff, and men must comb the beaches, water the gardens, build the houses, and - to keep Mr Jagger happy - pour tea in white gloves. So, as wealthy whites bought land for their dream holiday homes, servants' quarters were included, and blacks from neighbouring islands were installed to keep house. A collection of shacks on the western shore, tucked well out of sight, sprang up to house itinerant labourers and fishermen.

In 1976, the ageing and increasingly eccentric Tennant sold the island to another resident, Hans Neumann, who in turn sold it in 1988 to the Mustique Company. This is owned by the 70 or so homeowners - mostly absentee landlords, who rent out their villas for much of the year to those who can afford up to $15,000 a week. The company is very keen to stress the good fortune of the 500 or so West Indians employed to work on Mustique.

"We have," the managing director, Brian Alexander, explains, "a real moral obligation to them. Everybody here feels that way, and that is as it should be."

Mustique, though privately owned, falls under the jurisdiction of St Vincent and the Grenadines; in return for autonomy in its civic affairs, the company agrees to provide various community services. So blacks are now allowed, for example, to have babies. They have a church, a nursery school, a basketball court, and the company has replaced the shacks with purpose-built bunk houses. They have a pretty gingerbread-style primary school, donated by the Mustique Education Trust, which is funded by homeowners and chaired by Mick Jagger.

And now, they are going to have a library. Felix Dennis, first famous as a defendant in the Sixties Oz trial, now a multi-millionaire, publisher of magazines like Maxim, and good-time boy of note, bought David Bowie's house last year. They say you come to Mustique to build your fantasy, and British builders have made a lively addition to Mustique society all winter, customising the house to suit Dennis's 007 tastes. But not half a mile away, more men have been at work, building what might be described as his conscience. Felix Dennis is building the Mustique Community Library.

Community is a complicated word to use in Mustique, when there are so plainly two of them. The advantages of belonging to the wealthy one are clear; Mustique is a timeless world of tennis parties and cocktail hours, where the bed is never unmade and the door must never be locked. And Bud Fisher, a well-maintained Canadian, and one of the few homeowners to live there all year round, will tell you that this is also paradise for West Indians who work here. "People on islands near here like St Vincent would give their right arm to work here. Look at St Vincent - people are working for $1 an hour, the banana industry is failing, there's no tourism. What is there for them? Any maid silly enough to be surly or disrespectful, and lose her job, is just plain mad."

It would be fairly easy to spend a week on Mustique, and depart with this happy version intact. The workers don't look unhappy, you think - but then they wouldn't, if surliness will get them the sack. The difficulty is finding out what they do actually feel, for enquiries elicit only blank looks, and the stock answer that they like it very much, thank you. For a less guarded response, you must ask about on St Vincent, from where most of Mustique's black workers are imported.

"Give my right arm? To work on Mustique?" A receptionist in one of the capital's hotels gives a cool stare. "I wouldn't even set foot on the place. Sure, girls, they go over there, but I know plenty who couldn't take it, and came back. And some of them, they get accused of stealing or something, and get sent home. And the authorities here will never stick up for them because they want the money from the tourism too bad."

The schoolmistress on Mustique, Miss Jeffrey, occupies an odd position in the island's society, being both professional and black. She is in charge of 24 infants - juniors and teenagers must move to a larger island to complete their education. She tells of a recent incident, when one of the schoolgirls stole some "trinkets" from the house where her mother worked. Suspicion quickly fell on the girl, and when it became clear that she had shared the trinkets out among her friends, the homeowner summoned the island's policeman to go from house to house, late at night, demanding that the children be roused and the trinkets returned. The homeowner was, understandably, upset. The girl's mother, on the other hand, was hysterical, beside herself, for fear that she would lose her job and be deported.

She tells, also, of a five-year-old who came to school recently saying he had not done his homework, because he had had to be locked away in the kitchen. The guests renting the house where his mother is a cook "did not like children". On St Vincent, extended family would take care of the children while their mothers worked; here, there is no such family, and no yards or streets to play in after school. Parents have no education themselves, and no time for their children's either.

"All the children want to do all day is talk to us," says Miss Jeffrey, "because their mothers are busy serving the guests until the middle of the night. This is the only school I've ever worked at where, when it comes to three o'clock, the children don't want to go home."

THIS, THEN, is the community to which Felix Dennis is donating a library. Bud Fisher's wife, Patsy, has been commissioned with the project, and she has tackled it with the same cheerful energy which has her dashing about running up costumes for the school children's play, and hammering away on the piano under the palm trees, as they run through rehearsals.

"The big problem," she admits, "is what to put in it." The library must serve more than the 24 children, but adult literacy levels among the workers are derisory, and previous attempts at reading classes have collapsed. So how, Patsy wonders, is she to make the new library enticing enough to tempt in new readers, without being intimidating? Literacy courses will be made available on its Apple Mac computers, and the librarian must be up to overseeing these. She is determined that the post be filled by a local, but finding one with the necessary skills is not easy. Patsy is also anxious for many of the books to be by and about blacks, but these are hard enough to come by in inner city, multi-racial London and preliminary enquiries reveal that the island's workers are more interested in getting their hands on some cook books and tradesman's manuals.

Felix Dennis is a remarkably fortunate man to have stumbled upon Patsy. Her commitment to both Mustique's communities is as intense as it is sincere. What sustains this tireless woman, who could just as easily be lying by her pool, is an unerring belief that just as the locals are lucky to work here, she is jolly lucky to live here, and anything she can do to make their less privileged lives better is no more than her duty. She is one of the most generous, compassionate, civic-minded and appealing people you could ever hope to meet. But hers is an old-fashioned kind of goodness. In an age of equality and empowerment, these good works and good intentions, that distance Mustique homeowners from the undeniable apartheid of the place, lose some of their shine.

Certainly the history of Mustique's philanthropic gestures suggests the recipients' needs have not always been at the forefront of the giver's mind. The schoolgirls have all been given T-shirts for their games kit made by the fashion company Jigsaw; meanwhile, the school lacks a science or first-aid kit. The homeowners have built a play area of swings and roundabouts for local children - essential on an inner-city council estate where the children have nowhere safe to play, but not so vital on a tropical island. Miss Jeffrey's assistant, Mr Martin, is more concerned about how he will finance a course in learning how to operate the school's new computer.

The school itself was built and is part-funded by the Mustique Educational Trust which raises money from homeowners and visitors - generous certainly, though even here insidious double standards apply. Every year, on New Year's Day, homeowners and guests pay $100 each for a beach banquet, to raise funds for the trust. "The children prepared songs for the feast," snorts Miss Jeffrey, "and when the day came, we all got into a truck, went down to the beach, sang for them - and then they put us back on the truck and we came back! The children weren't allowed to socialise with them at all! And Mick Jagger shook my hand. Well, I don't care about a handshake from Mr Jagger. I was hungry, I hadn't had lunch!"

And now there's the Mustique Community Library built by a man whose belief in freedom of expression landed him in the dock at the Old Bailey 30 years ago. Will this give the island's indigenous people their best hope of freedom to choose their own destiny? At its most modest, it will give the children somewhere to go after school. But it may do much more than that.

This gift couldprove as subversive in this society as Kids' Oz was deemed in ours. Beneath a basketball hoop near the fishermen's village is painted a slogan. "UNITY," it reads, "IS STRENGHT". Presumably Dennis hopes, if the library fulfils its promise, that the island's workers will correct the spelling. Were they to become literate and united enough to no longer have to skivvy with a respectful smile for a living, though, Mustique might cease to be the fantasy he thought he had bought. !

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