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a letter to Stefan Muthesius, autumn 1995


Dear Stefan,

A belated note to thank you for the wonderful time we had in Norwich thanks to you and your wife. Your house was lovely. I immediately lost myself amidst your beautiful prints and books. Bachelard was right: a house is fundamentally a space for day-dreaming. I hope my three super-vandals managed to convince you that they are better controlled by their parents than they are. It has to be said that most of the breakages, the chair and the cup, are trophies that have to be claimed by their parents. I hope also that the post that you were waiting for did eventually arrive and that things are slowly settling back into familiar habits.

As far as we are concerned the habits are new but very appealing. We have just moved house to a place higher up on Jack’s Hill, called Riva Ridge, overlooking Kingston and situated right on top of a notorious fault-line which is expected to give any day. The view is fabulous and amnesiac. In any case, compared to where we came from, we are not so caged in by neighbours, armed guards and sky-less, oppressively dense greenery. That is a relief. After a full day at school the children can roam around the compound on their bikes and roller blades. Thankfully they have now been put to bed, and Victoria and I are sitting around the dinner table enjoying the nightly mountain breeze, the undertaker, filtering through the kitchen window which cascades through the house and continues down the hillside. It is idyllic and absurdly far removed from the poverty, disease and violence just a mile away.

This morning a thirteen year old girl sleeping behind a sheet of corrugated iron making up her bedroom wall, was shot through the head. She was lying on cream-coloured sheets and her pillow-case was decorated with fleshy red roses. The bullet had strayed from a battle between the police and the gunmen somewhere outside. The police were blamed. The accidental nature of the death did not have the effect of generalizing the blame to cover the reason why the policemen were involved in a battle in the first place, but that is not unusual. In any case, it is not easy to separate the good from the bad here, regardless of the physiognomy of the drug-dealers and the smartly ironed red-striped trousers of the police.

Violence needs little to achieve its dramatic effect however. Violence is drama; poverty is merely the long-drawn result of drama and suffers from being picturesque. To overcome this pathos, beggars have developed a knack of sharpening their poverty into violence. After all, their poverty is their only source of income and violence here is the principal means by which sources of income are protected. I am still plagued by the image of a beggar “begging me som money” for drink. He said the money would be for the doctor as he rolled up his sleeve to uncover a horribly festering machette slash, gaping through his coal-black arm. His eyes, however, had reddened from habit and spoke of a longing for a forgetfulness which was to him far more urgent than his health.

Quite apart from again having to get used to the power and penetration of the daily images here in Jamaica, we are settling back in to things and preparing for the new academic year. With any luck the chairs will be fitted with rubber ends to stop their scraping over the concrete floor. My lecture room looks familiar now, shaded by an enormous and merciful guango tree. Very much looking forward to it all; the students are hungry.

Thank you again for the lovely time we had and greetings to your wife and son




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