Ostensibly the evening was about Emily Vanessa Spencer Knight, a Wadadlian who’s made her life in Bim these many years but was driven by nostalgia to write about home. But really the night was about Antigua, herself, as she was then. Essentially, the recent launch and book reading of Knight’s Growing Up in All Saints Village, Antigua at the new Best of Books branch at Royal Palm Shopping Centre on Friar’s Hill Road became more of a back and forth of “remember when.” In this sense, it was not unlike an installment of OBSERVER Radio Friday night staple, Ole Time Somet’ing – which incidentally had created some of the advance word that drew interested parties to the intimate affair.
For Knight, her own childhood memories had imprinted so deeply that even so many years and miles removed from Antigua, they lingered. Of the characters she recalled in the book, she remarked that, during the writing process, “It’s as though they (were) right in front of me.” She would write them as they came, riding the bus, at bedtime, wherever and whenever, she would jot it down. Eventually, it became a book that has shaken loose other people’s recollections of an Antigua yearned for, as imperfect as it was.
After all, nostalgia is one thing, but every time has good and bad, and indefinable.
And how do you categorise baths of freshly picked and boiled leaves meant to rid the body of disease and, as Knight recalled, “taken by some who had no real ailment, to stave off evil spirits” – the detritus emptied at a crossroads, the disease thrown out with the bath water?
Was this mere superstition? Was the Jack-o-Lantern, and those who claimed to have glimpsed the eerie figure hallucinating? And does it matter that in modern day Antigua the lights and explosions – the burning tyre in Knight’s time – of Guy Fawkes Night – or Packing Night as some remember it – has been usurped by the more American masquerade of Halloween?
And how do you categorise a “not going to stop lashing you until you do it properly” brand of discipline that extended at times across even the teachers’ back – as one man recalled? And what of his question, whether or not discipline, then and now, instilled mere obedience or a more enduring sense of responsibility?
One thing’s for sure, and this is certainly in the good column, there was a deeper sense of community, or so Knight and others in her audience remembered it. “We lived happily and everybody knew everybody and everybody lived close,” she said. And there was a different pace to things, Christmas preparation, for instance, beginning around Easter time with the selection of the chicken that would sacrifice itself later that year. Then, “by November, you approach your butcher for whatever you want,” Knight mused. And there were other preparations: fresh made sheets and curtains, stuffing of the bed and cushions with fresh dried grass, trimming and painting, sandpapering and vanishing, the beheading and draining of the ill-fated chicken, the soaking of the ham.
Sounds and smells, she recalled, that let one know as they walked along that Christmas was coming. “When that ham is being cooked, the whole village is lit up,” Knight said, and “everything (that found its way to the table) was picked and cooked.” People didn’t have much, which explained why gift giving might have been sparse then, but if at no other time of year, people came calling – no invitations necessary. “Sometimes, (it was) the only time of the year we’ll be seeing each other,” Knight said of those who lived some distance from each other.
There’s a saying that you can’t go home again, but Knight’s book – the latest in a string of memoirs and social histories by various Antiguans – certainly invite a look back as the pace and shape of things. The night’s discussions also hinted at a desire to grab on to some of what has been lost from that time that would add value to the times in which we live. “This is some of the purpose for this,” Knight said of the book. “Our ‘fore parents have worked hard and our youths today are having life that is so easy … not that we should go back to the barbaric times but have some more appreciation.”