Posted: 3rd April 2018
A few weeks ago I received an invitation out of the blue to a dinner at Bentley’s from the Spice Island resort and hotel in Grenada in the Windward Islands. After a brief moment of head-scratching it all came back to me, but I was naturally curious. So I told the PR agency I would be delighted to renew my acquaintance with the hotel, which I had seen for the first and last time in June or July 1997.
The dinner was held on the 20th of March. I was warmly received by our host, the proprietor of the hotel, Sir Royston Hopkin, and shook a few hands and kissed a few cheeks I had not seen these last few years. We watched a video and I saw that the hotel I stayed in on Grand Anse Beach had been torn down and put back up again at least twice. On one occasion Hurricane Ivan was to blame. Ivan destroyed virtually every solid structure on the island when it passed through in 2004. The Spice Island I had experienced bore little physical resemblance to the one that was there today. It was a very nice evening for all that and I went home filled with the warmth of good food and wine, enhanced with a flickering glow of reminiscence and nostalgia.
My one trip to Grenada was quite traumatic in its way. Things were changing rapidly in my life then and I was about to become a father for the first time. Perhaps for this reason I decided I would abstain from all those treats they used to offer you when you sat in the front seats on the long flight from London to Grenada and that I would pop a pill so that I might sleep out that great gap of time. I was true to my word: I ate and drank nothing – not even a glass of water.
When we arrived there was the usual West Indian welcome: steel drums and rum. I certainly had too much of the former and probably a bit too much of the latter. Anyhow, I had dinner, went to bed and woke up to a slightly wet morning a few hours later. The height of summer is not always the best time to visit the Caribbean.
The hotel was on the beach, but my room came with a small pool behind a high wall. I suppose that meant I didn’t need to wear my cosy there. I dipped in the pool then plunged around in the sea before going to a press conference with the Minister for Tourism. My hand had felt funny in the water but when I started taking some notes I saw to my horror that my handwriting was peculiar and that I was evidently no longer able to hold my pen properly. Apart from that I felt fine. I mentioned the upset to our Sherpa. She was very unsympathetic and pointed to the ramshackle local hospital with an unconcealed sadistic pleasure. I decided I would be better off seeing a doctor when I got home.
In those days Grenada was chiefly famous for the coup d’état of 1983. The island had been flirting with Stalinism since 1979. In 1983, the deputy Prime Minister, Bernard Coard had his superior, the Prime Minister, Maurice Bishop executed. The Americans were alarmed by reports the islanders were building a proper airport on the island and that a good many Cubans had been recruited as consultants. The American flap was compounded by the presence of an American medical school on Grenada and American students to protect.
The idea of a second Bay of Pigs in America’s back yard drove Ronald Reagan to a frenzy. He formed a coalition with various other Caribbean countries to add a smidgen of legitimacy and squared the operation with the British PM. Mrs Thatcher owed him a favour for the logistical help America had given Britain in the recent Falklands War, but there were long faces when it was discovered that neither Queen nor Commonwealth had been consulted and the Queen’s anointed Governor, Sir Paul Scoon, was roughly handled by the invading forces who, finding an ordinary islander at Government House, refused to believe he was the Governor-General. The invasion had all the elements of tragic-comedy you would expect and included the bombing of the lunatic asylum and the killing of a large number of its inmates but the Grenadine Stalinist experiment was brought to an abrupt end and Bernard Coard and his fellow ministers were sent down with draconian sentences. These were only finally commuted by the Privy Council a decade ago.
I explored the island from top to bottom as well as neighbouring Carriacou. I can’t remember now how many there were of us. There was a lady who was working on her tan, a spirited vegetarian hack from the Glasgow Herald (‘if it has eyes I won’t eat it’) and a man from the Press Association. I recall some sort of party in a village on the west side of the island with my new Glaswegian friend. That time we had taken a taxi but sometimes we had a driver, a young man who appeared to have sired most of the illegitimate children on Grenada and who had pithy comments to make on virtually all the females between the ages of fourteen and forty.
I was chiefly anxious to find authentic food and drink, rather than the bland offerings of the hotels. The island is famous for spices: nutmeg, mace, cinnamon and cloves and we were taken into the interior to see them harvested along with the excellent local cocoa. There was lambie or conch, landcrab, dolphin (mahi-mahi) and meat-filled rotis, the recipe for which had been brought to the island by Indian shopkeepers. Most of the places that cooked local food were closed in the evening, but at Morne Fendue we had callaloo soup and pepperpot: a pork, oxtail and cassareep stew that had been on the boil since 1984. The date was significant: the pot was temporarily switched off during the invasion. I never managed to procure a portion of ‘oil down:’ salt pork cooked in a reduction of coconut milk, breadfruit and callaloo, but I located a decent curry goat in the capital, St George’s.
There were two rum distilleries: Clarke’s Court, which was housed in the building reminiscent of Piranesi’s Carceri crossed with some of the wilder inventions of Heath Robinson, which made a ferocious white and a dark rum called G.R.O.G. (apparently standing for ‘Georgius Rex Old Grenada). The other, River Antoine was positively antediluvian by comparison. It made just one white rum that was marked ‘slightly overproof’ – it turned out to be 75% abv. At dinner in March this year, I brought up the subject of ‘Under the Counter’ which was a rare Grenadian speciality: an aphrodisiac made of rum (naturally), nutmeg, cinnamon, peanuts, cubes of raw beef and a venomous millipede or centipede. The active ingredient, however, is the bark of the ‘bois bandé’ tree – Grenada was previously French, and ‘bander’ is the French verb for to have an erection.
I tracked down a demijohn of it to a bar in St George’s, but it tasted so nasty that I had to wash my mouth out with a bottle of Carib, or better still, a Piton from nearby St Lucia. The woman promised me that I would not be able to lie on my stomach for a week. That was not the case but in her excitement she pulled another treat out from under the counter in the form of a deep-frozen ‘tatou’ or armadillo. This is the favourite ‘wild food’ of the island, along with mona monkeys. I had actually had the opportunity to try ‘tatou’ at Seabreeze, a ‘restaurant’ (more of a roofless hut) out in the wilds. At the London dinner, the Caribbean authority James Henderson assured me that Seabreeze had closed down some time back, after the death of the proprietor Rosanna Moore.
One night, fearing another festive plate of grilled fish I took a taxi to a remote spot. I had asked the driver to wait for me, as I was worried about getting home. Although he was parked at some distance from the place, he began to retch noisily at the mere thought of ‘wild food’, which was not exactly conducive to good appetite. Still, I put on a brave face and Rosanna brought me a bottle of Carib and a plate of salad: rice and pigeon peas, carrots, beets, callaloo greens and coleslaw; a piece of fish fried in flour with black pepper and cloves and a third dish which offered four or five pieces of meat with reptile skin and some others with a hard coating like overlapping leather soles. The one was iguana and other armadillo. The iguana was like an oilier version of chicken with fish vertebrae while armadillo was much gamier with a musky smell and a gelatinous texture. You had to scoop the flesh off the inside of the animal’s armour-plating to eat it. It was like dining on edible cricket balls.
When I got back to London I had to face the music. The future father was despatched to the Institute of Neurology in Queen Square for a brain scan and my heart was examined in the old Middlesex Hospital in Fitzrovia. They suspected a ‘TIA’ or transient ischemic attack: a sort of minor stroke. The doctors found nothing, but my GP reported the tests to the mortgage brokers and my monthly life-insurance premiums were doubled. Eventually they returned to normal because a TIA is generally perceived as a forerunner to a proper stroke, and so far (fingers crossed), no such thing has come to pass. A few years back a cardiologist friend revealed to me what he believed had happened on the flight to Grenada: I had suffered minor brain damage as a result of dehydration, but the damage had repaired itself within days. I don’t get the chance to travel long distances any more, but if I ever do so again, I shall make sure I drink, plenty.