Truth, Myth, Faction and the Forging of Identity

A random collection of coincidences over the past fortnight have taken me to the dining room of “the White House” at Sandy Ground, where I stand next to Sir Emile, white curls bent over an old hurricane chart, wide glasses magnifying his eyes as well as his sight, left hand routinely, firmly, tilting the small wooden ruler, which must, by now, have measured the path of hundreds of storms. “This is where it’s now, over a thousand miles away. If it follows the usual path… we’re in trouble. But, when is the next full moon? Historically, the really bad storms have always hit us during full moon.”

Fondness, curiosity and a recurrent interest in obscure facts have led me to the doorstep of Sir Emile’s home, to ask questions that take us back almost fifty years, that take us back even beyond that, the defining moment in Anguillian history: the revolution. Like all things prehistoric, the recollection of this particular matter is vague, blurred, undocumented. “Yeah, he was a nice man. A lot less [a moment’s hesitation, and then:] imposing than you would have thought. [Another pause, before] Just nice.” Nice, and eminently forgettable, I get the feeling Sir Emile wishes to say.

One fond of talking and the other inquisitive to the bone, our conversation drags longer than warranted by the question I have come to ask. Anguilla in the 1900’s; Anguilla in the 1960’s; the attack on St Kitts; Bobby Fisher and the Constitution of ’69. Finally there is the tropical depression which wasn’t Dean yet, and a shared grunt of exasperation from Emile and Josephine, at the dust, the noise, the state of their house, now that the roof is being repaired. The hundred-year-old house which between ’54 and ’63 lodged friends, family and visitors for months on end; the house which, in the summer of 1960, served as retreat to John Updike (less imposing than you would have thought); the house that no longer boasts the “musty red Victorian sofa with hard springs” where in 1960 Updike wrote the short stories “Pigeon Feathers”, “Home”, “Archangel” and “The Sea’s Green Sameness”; the house to which Updike refers as “the Captain’s House” in the six pages of his memoirs, Self-Consciousness, devoted to Anguilla.

Sir Emile’s enlarged eyes widen as his thin upper lip releases its trademark, cheeky smile. “‘The Captain’s House’? Only he called it that. People used to call it ‘the White House’ back then, because it was all painted white: shutters, doors, everything white.” I let out a smile, which is, really, meant for myself, as I recognise the literary value of a harmless lie shuffled (perhaps even unwittingly) by Updike among countless facts in what is, after all, his attempt to chisel his own identity into a shape agreeable/acceptable/truthful to himself.

I smile to myself as I recognise the parallels between Updike’s individual attempt to build his identity through a (corrupted) literary text and the conflict faced by Anguillian society in its attempt to find a common element to get through the challenges and changes that have come with the prosperity enjoyed over the last decade. Role-models, mirror-images and examples (often the wrong ones) are being used to create a defining attitude and a moral code to govern our actions in this brand new world. Sadly an aspect of this re-creation of Anguillian identity has nursed the glorification of the bandit and instilled a ghetto culture among people (young people) who know little about hardship and less still about discrimination.

But this is only one aspect of the characteristics that define the emerging generation; it is only one aspect among myriad alternative models – the disciplined athlete, the determined entrepreneur; it is only one aspect, which stands out because of the magnitude of its negative impact; and yet it is an aspect that is fed by a mythmaking strategy which can easily be turned on its head and used to create a different reality: Anguilla, the place that at some point was to Updike what to Hemingway were the Keys, or Cuba; Anguilla, treasure island, final welcoming port to Captain Kidd, and consequently hiding place to his endless booty; Anguilla, the home of the revolution, the land of visionaries, the jewel – pearl, diamond, emerald –­ of the Caribbean.

If facts must be embellished and perspective must be adopted, let us shape these in a way that allows Anguilla to play an integral role in the furtherance of the region and the vindication, not the vilification, of its culture.




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