The Dead Yard: Tales of Modern Jamaica
By Ian Thomson
Faber £14.99, 400 pages
FT Bookshop price: £11.99
When Ian Thomson was researching The Dead Yard, his study of the real Jamaica behind the sterilised tourist board image, his hosts were fearful of how an outsider might view the island’s racial, religious and postcolonial hang-ups. His candour in revealing the island’s more dysfunctional side may mean he won’t be invited back in a hurry. But by highlighting these problems and advocating reform Thomson has in a sense done Jamaica’s countrymen a service.
The book’s ominous title refers to a style of wake still common in remote areas of Jamaica, where mourners gather in the yard of the deceased for up to nine days, during which time the dead man or woman’s “duppy”, or spirit, is appeased through drink, dance and spiritual offerings. “Yard”, in Jamaican parlance, refers not only to the area surrounding someone’s house, but also to Jamaica itself.
Thomson dates the “painful” birth of modern Jamaica to a series of strikes in oilfields and sugar estates from the late 1930s led by trade unionist Alexander Bustamante, who spent three years in prison on sedition charges. Through his championship of the poor and his advocacy for representative government, Bustamante led Jamaica to independence from Britain in 1962. But, Thomson asks, to what end?
The author of a previous volume on Haiti and an acclaimed biography of Primo Levi, Thomson bemoans how certain opportunities were missed after the island gained independence. “A system of ‘clientism’ has evolved in the years in since independence,” writes Thomson, in which politicians exchange jobs, protection, money, drugs and guns for the loyalty of voters. “The failure of local politicians to use independence virtuously has become entangled with a culture of violence which is aggravated in turn by the rate of broken homes and absent fathers in a society already burdened by the legacy of the plantation and the lash.”
This picture of corruption is a long way from the “One Love” branding of Jamaican optimism found in the music of Bob Marley and promulgated by the Jamaican Tourist Board. A hackneyed version of that song is now part of a long-running ad campaign for the island. This is ironic, because, as Thomson points out, three original members of Marley’s band, the Wailers, were murdered there. (Jamaica is known for its robust murder rate – around five killings a day.)
In a particularly memorable passage, Thomson visits the Bobo Ashanti, an insular, fundamentalist sect of Rastafarians about which Thomson has grave misgivings. At Bobo Camp he discovers that, once a month, women “must go into menstrual recluse, when they are kept out of sight in a sickbay built for that purpose”. Here, he says, with typical understatement, “my resolution to be open-minded was stretched”.
Thomson turns his critical eye to every aspect of Jamaican life and culture, from Errol Flynn and Ian Fleming to its “police and thieves”, as islander Junior Murvin’s song went. The Dead Yard is required reading for the rare traveller to Jamaica who wishes to learn what’s going on beyond the grounds of an all-inclusive resort hotel.