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Bequia, February 2016

Updated: May 10, 2021

We got off to a bad start. Arriving at Victoria and looking forward to being whisked to some breakfast, we find that the Gatwick Express isn’t running. Some not very apologetic railway men say that the alternative train will take 90 minutes – What? An hour and a half to Gatwick? Sensing that there’s something sinister at work, we find a taxi, driven by a cheerful young guy, very keen to earn a stonking great fare.

Things can only get better. Which they do – and they don’t. The driver tells us enthusiastically that he’ll drive at the speed of light. All goes well till we are within 5 miles of the airport. We swerve off the road – a puncture! Our friend says that we can “limp” along. As we do. We arrive at the airport with smoke rising from the back wheel, the tyre having been completely demolished and the smell of burning rubber wafting up into Departures. Our man was still cheerful. Well rewarded, he said he was off for a cup of tea before dealing with the wreckage. He managed to do the trip in 45 minutes. We even got some breakfast.


Arriving in Barbados, we meet Donald, who we befriend and who gets us to the great Dover Beach Hotel in his vast white van.

Donald’s driving is distinctive. In Barbados they drive on the left, as we do. They have a few dual carriageways, on which the normal rules about overtaking on the right apply. Donald drives firmly in the overtaking lane, at a leisurely speed, allowing other cars to speed by on the left. I ask Donald about this, in an enquiring rather than critical tone. Yes, the rules are just like ours – but he prefers to drive in the right-hand lane. So there! No one seems to mind.

We confront the dilemma of where to have dinner (life is full of these momentous decisions). The first night is spoken for. Our Canadian friends Bill and Janet Rowley have invited us to the luxury of the Coral Reef Club, a few miles up the west coast of the island where the posh hotels are. But the next day they will join us down on the south shore, decidedly less posh but where there are good restaurants, particularly – in years gone by – Pisces. For some years it’s been closed for refurbishment. Last year building was proceeding. Surely it must be open now.

It turns out that it’s now Primo Bar and – slightly sinisterly – "Bistrot". I’ve nothing against bistrots, but Pisces was not a bistrot. Its best feature, aside from the excellent fish dishes, was the terrace poised delicately over the bay, and the warm welcome of the staff. I investigate the new Primo. It’s sort of the same as before, but somehow lacks the old magic. Apparently the owners of Pisces are still involved but with new investors, and they’ve changed things to make it “more modern”.

In the face of all this, and not being very modern people, we decide to go back to Champers, where we ate very well last year – and do so again.

The sea on the south coast by the Dover Beach was rough, with the waves breaking vigorously over the rocks. There was a fisherman doing his best in the face of the tumult and I asked him if it was a particularly high tide. No, he said, there’s no difference between high and low tides these days – “global warming, you know”. Oh yea? If global warming gets blamed for tides being the same, it would certainly be blamed even more if they weren’t.

Arriving in Bequia

When we arrive in Bequia, by contrast, all is sunny and calm. In fact they haven’t had enough rain, unlike last year, so the tanks are low. Global warming again, I guess.

Bequia is, for some, a changed place for the sad reason that two of the people who have been an essential part of the island for some 40-50 years died last year.

The first was our dear friend Lou Keene. She came to Bequia from England many decades ago, and married a local musician, at much the same time as James Mitchell, who then became a local politician, and married the Canadian, Pat. He went on to become prime minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, of which Bequia is part. He – much supported by Lou and Pat – developed and ran the Frangipani Hotel. Subsequently Pat, then divorced from James (now Sir James), ran the neighbouring Gingerbread Hotel.

The other death was that of Pat. The death of both really does, in Bequia terms, represent the end of an era, to use entirely correctly that much over-used phrase.

Lou was the one we knew best. We originally stayed at the Frangi in the days when she was still largely in charge. Latterly she had been doing less and less, but remained an immensely important figure, particularly for the staff. They miss her terribly.

Those strong enough to have read my last year’s journal will remember that the Frangi is now a troubled place. They need Lou badly.

The “Quartet” and others

On our arrival we meet up with the Quartet, knowing that this year we only overlap for one evening. The Quartet (Mary’s name for them) is composed of two lawyers and their spouses: Bruce Mauleverer and Sara; and Nick (now Sir Nicholas) Forward and Sally. Bruce and Nick were barristers in the same chambers, Bruce becoming a QC and head of chambers, and Nick going continental and becoming one of the UK judges in Luxembourg – hence the Sir, now that he’s retired. This year, as we knew, all their plans have been advanced to allow Bruce and Sara to welcome their latest grandchild in mid-February.

We go to dinner with the Quartet, plus a few more lawyers, namely Anthony Hacking and Tulla, as well as their friends (and now ours) Barry and Annie Singleton. We are surrounded by distinguished QCs. Anthony and Barry were both in the same chambers. I list all these names to give some idea of how Bequia works – for us at least! Even at the risk of implying that the only people who go to Bequia are QCs.

The Frangi and its troubles

The Frangipani Hotel (the Frangi to its friends) still seems to be in a state of decline, verging on crisis. It has probably not been helped by Pat’s death. Pat’s daughter Sabrina is theoretically in charge, her sister Gretel having been put in charge of the Gingerbread next door. Sabrina is seldom to be seen. All the younger staff seem to have gone; only the old stagers still soldiering on. I keep being greeted – in town or wherever – by young girls who say “Oh hello, remember me?” They turn out to be ex-Frangi waitresses who I’m afraid I’ve forgotten and who’ve moved on to other things. No wonder. The word still is that the staff haven’t been paid for months. How do they survive? Bernadette, the girl who runs the bar and who we’ve known for as long as we’ve been coming – 14 years – said last year that the only reason she stays on is to see all of us when we come in February. This year she says she may not be around next year, but she might have said the same thing last year.

What can anyone do? The Hackings still stay at the hotel and see Sir James for dinner (they know him as Anthony introduced his daughter Louise to the Bar in England some years ago). They understandably didn’t feel able to harangue him on the subject. And what good would it do? He seems to be past caring. And talking to Sabrina isn’t much use. She says that we don’t understand how difficult things are, etc, etc.

Wild life

On many days we go to the beach at Lower Bay. There, as last year, Alan the ex-policeman sits among his chums, surveying the scene and keeping us up to date with the local marine wild life. The large manta rays that cruise up and down continue to cause excitement. Alan says that there are three and has taken magnificent video film of one on his underwater camera. But he also reports that local lads have recently harpooned one and carved it up on the beach. Ugh!

We also talk to Fay who rents out loungers on Princess Margaret Beach. She keeps track of the snakes up in the trees. With some difficulty we see two snakes intertwined and sitting (if snakes can be said to sit) on one of the branches above Fay’s little stall. Fay says that they are making love – or perhaps have made love. Who can tell? Some of those on the beach are not keen and keep their distance. But Fay dismisses their concerns. The snakes are Grenadine Tree Snakes and are completely harmless, unless you happen to be a mouse.

The Reading Group

(Reading from left to right, back row: Tulla Hacking, Annie Singleton, me, John Hay, Barry Singleton. Front row: Carol Hay, Anthony Hacking, Mary.)

We need a few words of explanation about the bizarre ritual that takes place on the terrace of the Frangipani Hotel at 6.00 every evening. A small group assembles, each of us armed with a rum punch, and I read to them for about half an hour. The original group consisted of the Hays, John and Carol, he having suggested it in the first place, plus Gerhard from Hamburg. Gerhard sadly no longer feels up to the transatlantic travel involved, but the Hays from New Haven, Connecticut are still key attendees. Now we are joined by the Hackings and Singletons, as well as the ex-prime minister James Mitchell (not featured above for some reason), known to his friends as “Son”; and sometimes others.

What do we read? Originally it was Homer and Virgil – that is, things that we wouldn’t otherwise be reading on the beach. Now it’s short stories, particularly classic short stories. I try to get audience input into the choice of author and/or story, but on the whole the group seems content to let me choose.

I started this year with Maupassant and his splendid story, Boule de Suif – strictly translated as "bowl of suet", but as it’s a nickname (even a rude one) of a fat girl, the translation doesn’t quite work. It’s all about hypocrisy and class. The diverse occupants of a coach, fleeing from the advancing Prussians at the time of the Franco-Prussian War, have to deal with the fact that Boule de Suif, who happens to be a prostitute, is refusing to sleep with the Prussian officer before he will allow them to proceed.

We have also broken new ground by trying some PG Wodehouse. On the whole, the view has been that PG, particularly the Jeeves and Wooster stories, is too English for ready appreciation by our international group. Mary, not an enormous fan of PG herself, has been a strong proponent of this view. And I’ve always shared the doubts, although as a fan I yield to no one.

Mary decided to have a rest one evening – as she said, never having missed one. I took the opportunity of testing the PG Wodehouse water. The Brits, perhaps predictably, were keen. I tried them, not on one of the short stories, but on the famous bit towards the end of Right-Ho, Jeeves when Jeeves and Bertie conspire to get the shy and retiring Gussie Fink-Nottle sufficiently plastered to enable him to give a speech to the boys of the Market Snodsbury Grammar School and give out the prizes. I have to say that the experiment worked well. Much roaring with laughter, not only among the Brits but also Son Mitchell. The Hays were perhaps a little less vociferous, if that’s the word, but then they often are. On the first evening we ran out of time after Gussie had got very drunk but before the actual prize giving, so there were calls to continue the next day. Which we did, concluding with Gussie accusing one of the mothers of having an illicit relationship with the head master. “Golly, Jeeves!”, as Bertie put it.

After the excitements of Gussie F-N, we reverted to more Maupassant, with the occasional Somerset Maugham, as well as Sherlock Holmes. We also delved into the Old Testament for the Book of Ruth, a lovely story. For our last reading, we did the Tale of Susanna and the Elders from the Apocrypha. Although it didn’t make it into the Old Testament proper, it was of course a favourite subject of people like Rubens. They liked the idea of a naked young woman having a bath in her private garden with two lecherous Elders peering at her round the corner. I mentioned to the group, particularly the barristers, that it must be one of the earliest descriptions of cross-examination in world literature (about 130 BC) with the prophet Daniel making a surprise appearance and showing skillfully that the Elders were lying through their teeth.

Son Mitchell was there for the final session and surprised us by very kindly producing a bottle of Prosecco to celebrate.

Action Bequia and mosquitoes

This year people talk about the Zika virus, spread by mosquitoes and dangerous if you happen to be pregnant. Not much panic on Bequia, perhaps because few of us reckon we’re pregnant. Last year it was Chikungunga, also spread by mosquitoes, perhaps the same mosquitoes, and potentially more troublesome. Many people on Bequia got the nasty disease.

Needless to say, one of the items on the agenda of Action Bequia is to eradicate mosquitoes. The new method is to breed sterile mosquitoes and let them loose. They infect the indigenous population which then die off – or something like that. (It’s not entirely clear to me how a sterile mosquito can do much infecting, so I may have got the detail wrong.) The method is apparently effective, although controversial – genetic engineering, tampering with nature, whatever. What you can’t do is hedge your bets by going down this route as well as spraying insecticide (known as “fogging”). You just kill off the sterile mossies before they do their business.

Action Bequia still marches forward under Richard Roxburgh. Richard started the charity a few years ago to do the kind of things on the island that the government should be doing but either can’t or won’t. He has involved as many locals as he can and calls himself the “Catalyst”. But it’s hard not to think of him as the Boss.

The latest project is recycling. So far I gather they can’t persuade the government to support the setting up of the facilities. Martin Price thinks it’s inevitably un-economic as the recycled stuff has to be shipped off to wherever at prohibitive cost. Maybe they should stick to keeping the roads free of rubbish, which they seem to have been reasonably successful at doing. Also, there’s the drainage problem by the harbour. At the moment there’s a very interesting aroma in the centre of town, getting worse.

Action Bequia had its annual fundraising dinner, this year at the Plantation House (see below). Richard managed to raise many thousands of dollars – US ones – at an auction of paintings by local artists. He makes these auctions bearable by being very brusque and getting through it all pretty rapidly.

Plantation House

Things are moving at last at the Plantation House. It’s a lovely colonial style group of buildings in a splendid location on the water’s edge, but in recent years has been in sad decline – owned it has been said by various Italians, some or all of whom have been in prison. Now it has been bought by a New Zealander who is definitely not in prison. It is partly opened, enough to be a venue for the Action Bequia dinner. So far it’s just a pizza place, but presumably next year it will be open as a hotel – reasonably up market, I would guess.

All human life

Bequia attracts a variety of characters. I was having my ritual “flat white” at the new Chameleon Café. Lee, the South African who runs it, introduced me to the man she was talking to. He looked like a sad down-and-out, the impression not helped by his single rather brown tooth appearing on his lower jaw. He turned out to be Irish; had lived in England for 20 years; and had a PhD in mathematics from Cambridge. He was also well-read and had an inquisitive interest in what I was reading to the Reading Group. He now looks after a house in Bequia for a man who in turn manages some vast estate on St Barts owned by Roman Abramovitch.

And another thing . . .

Some random comments on signs, names and language to finish with.

The water taxi men (mostly men, but there’s one woman, Didi) are inventive in naming their boats – “Stink-Ah” “Phat Shag” “Bay Watch”.

We watched an unsuccessful effort to lift a semi-derelict boat out of the water on Princess Margaret beach. The boat was from the now closed Devil’s Table restaurant and on one side had the cryptic slogan “The restaurant with the bar that ⭐⭐cks”: the missing letters providing many possibilities. The other side of the boat is in better condition and gives the answer “rocks”. How boring!

And finally. The smart Bequia Beach Hotel has a notice in three languages , showing a subtle sensitivity. The English are told robustly “Keep your bathing suit on”. The French is more legalistic, curiously: Bathing is “autorisée avec maillot uniquement”. The German is the most direct: Don’t bathe naked.

Tony Herbert

28 February 2016

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