Reading Maketh the Full Man: A Kaleidoscope Of My Jamaican Childhood

In 1960, I became an employee of one of Jamaica’s most critical public institutions, dedicated to changing the face and lives of Jamaica and Jamaicans through the power of books and reading; the Jamaica Library Service (JLS),established in 1948  in colonial Jamaica,

I joined as a Bookmobile Library Assistant  for the Schools Library Service (SLS). I was assigned to Region Three, which covered the parishes of Manchester, Clarendon and St. Elizabeth, with headquarters at the Manchester Parish Library in Mandeville. I reported for training at the Headquarters of the JLS at 2 Tom Redcam Avenue,  in the Schools Library Service Department, headed by Mrs. Cynthia Warmington, a charming woman with a welcoming smile, who  introduced me to Joan Dolphy, Bookmobile Librarian for Kingston, St. Andrew and St Thomas, and Gloria James, in charge of the schools that were still being serviced from headquarters by a  van delivery system. Mr. Harold Jenkins the van driver, was a repository of  the history of the Schools Library Service and frequently regaled us with harrowing and funny stories of the pre-bookmobile pioneering days when he  serviced the entire island.

Joan Haye, tall, attractive and another Alpha graduate, looked at me with disdain, as if I had inadvertently wandered into a place where I patently did not belong. She spoke with a strange combination of the British and American accents, both  familiar, having grown up in Mandeville, with colonial expatriates and Americans who had settled there at the start of the bauxite industry in the 1950s. Her reluctance to show me the ropes was obvious, unlike Gloria James, a quiet reserved woman with a calming disposition and voice. I soon found out that nothing and no one rattled her.

Joan, I soon discovered, considered herself a special favourite of the cadre of senior staff, an attention-seeker who at times resorted to bizarre behaviours like; wearing hats to work, deboning sardines for her lunch, claiming a needle had run into her finger and disappeared, so she could be accompanied by Mrs. Warmington to the Kingston Public Hospital for x-rays.  Overtime that  needle performed a Houdini. Underneath all this performance management, Joan was essentially a warm and kind individual and we became long-lasting friends.

SLS was established in  1952 by the JLS on behalf of the then Department of Education which provided the financing.  In the early days the princely sum of six thousand British pounds was provided for 200 schools. Each was required to contribute four  pounds to be eligible to participate  and would receive 50 books as a nucles0for a library. Understandably,  this arrangement was far from satisfactory, so the service was improved with an increase in the grant to thirteen pounds,  60 books, a  lending arrangement  from a  book pool at headquarters, by  a   delivery van to the schools every other  term. While the lending arrangement represented a significant improvement, there still remained a major drawback. Not all schools were serviced and even for those that were a part of the programme, the specific needs of each school were neither known nor  met because there was very little contact between headquarters and the schools. In 1957 a schools bookmobile service was established. The island was divided into five regions and bookmobiles with librarians visited the schools. The communication this engendered between teachers, students and Librarian raised the quality and effectiveness of the service.

So here I was in 1960, back in Mandeville my home town, keen, eager and enthusiastic to take a travelling library to primary school children in central Jamaica. Jacqueline Rowe, the Librarian, a classy lady and past graduate of Convent Of Mercy Alpha High School for Girls in Kingston, a  Roman Catholic Institution  founded in 1894 and dedicated to the educational and spiritual development of the young women of Jamaica School. Jackie fancied herself a ‘sophisticate.’  She wore make-up; walked with a swaying motion that accentuated her ample hips and insisted on having us  pronounce her name – as she did – with a  ‘French’ accent. She was decidedly an outlier for Alpha.  Fagan, the skilled bookmobile driver, impeccably-dressed in his khaki uniform, with three shiny gold teeth which he loved to flash in a beaming smile,  his lunch carrier  and I sallied forth to assist in expanding the minds of  Jamaica’s children, by exposing them to the wonderful world of books. It was hard work; travelling five days per week, sometimes on indescribably bad roads, to places I had never heard about or even seen on a map, to be greeted by children who met you from the school gate and ran beside the bookmobile like security outriders, heralding the arrival of persons of importance. We visited two schools per day, leaving base by 8:30am to get to the first school by 10:00 a.m. after which we had to restock the shelves, eat a hasty lunch and get to the second school at 2:00 p.m.

Regardless of the time we got back to base – and sometimes it was very late – the unit had to be restocked for the next day. On Saturdays the unit had to be serviced – we could not afford any breakdowns – the shelves restocked for Monday morning bright and early. Jackie and I alternated weekly.

Working in some areas of St. Elizabeth and Clarendon meant boarding out on a weekly basis in  order to cut down on the time spent driving to the schools, as we still had to maintain our two-per-day schedule. I remember one January in Spaldings northern Manchester, when it was so cold, my landlady dressed  the teapot with a tea cosy – a woolen teapot coat to keep the brewed tea hot. I slept under double blankets and still my teeth chattered.  Black River, regardless of the time of year was the exact opposite. At sea level, and with swamplands to the east of the town, Black River was hot, flat and mosquito-infested.

Half a century later,  memories of the experiences at two schools are still sharp. The first was the Arthur’s Seat Primary  School. We had to drive through a river bed then up an indescribably narrow and winding road, little more than a donkey track  with  craggy outcrops of rock on one side and a ravine on the other to reach the school. And if the journey to the school was not hazardous and mind-boggling enough, the Principal hurried us through the  return and lending processes, because she did not want rain to catch us there as we would be marooned, perhaps for days until the water had receded.  On the return journey Fagan drove while I prayed without ceasing until we were once again on terra firma.

When I visited Edinburgh, Scotland in 1966 and saw their Arthur’s Seat,  it came to me that Jamaica’s Arthur’s Seat was a duplicate of Scotland’s. No doubt a Scotsman had settled in Clarendon, most likely during or after slavery and, to alleviate his homesickness   had seen the similarity between the two places and simply transferred the name to Jamaica.

The road to the Seaford Primary School in Westmoreland was also narrow, mountainous and difficult to manoeuvre , so it did not prepare me for what I was about to experience.    As is customary, whenever we drove into a school yard, the children ran out to greet us. I had come to the conclusion that whenever the bookmobile was expected for the first time at a school, the  teachers  decided to have recess  to assuage the curiosity of the children at seeing this strange looking vehicle. I was therefore not surprised to see the usual crowd of children, racing each other to be in the lead of the escort patrol. What shocked me speechless however was that all the children – virtually without exception – were white, blond, blue-eyed and freckled.   I was in German Town! I had heard of it but had not made the connection between the  names.  I had noticed – in passing –  that the houses were of a somewhat better stock than I had expected in such a deep rural area, but had not given it much thought.  No one had prepared me for this!

My second shock was when the children spoke. Pure, unadulterated Jamaican patois flowed from the mouths of these tanned, but still white, barefooted  children. When I looked over at Fagan,  his face also registered shock. Composing ourselves as best we could we went through our routine – greet the principal, meet the librarian, examine the library, ask about the use of the books being returned and any new requests, introduce them to the bookmobile and its layout, have the librarian invite a few library monitors to assist her in book selection,  record books returned, books loaned, give a brief talk to the school on the importance of books and reading, why and how you should care the books you read so others can benefit, say your goodbyes and depart, again escorted by the exit patrol, usually only boys.  The routine did not flow as smoothly this time. I had to get some information from the Principal – who happened to be black, as were all the teachers – which I augmented as soon as I got back to the Parish Library.

Seaford Town has a most interesting history. With the abolition of slavery in 1834, and the general exodus  of the slaves from the plantations, there arose a severe labour shortage. A concerted effort was made by some landowners to recruit overseas labour, with the help of the Local Assembly, which  assisted with shipping and some of the settling-in costs. The main sources  were Ireland, which was suffering from the potato famine of the 1840s;  and simultaneously in Germany, where Christians were being persecuted.  In 1834, through a Bountied European Immigration Programme, the German-Jewish landowner of a property in Portland, brought in 64 Germans from the town of Bremen.  This first group was settled close to Buff Bay in St. Mary. There is still a Bremen Valley there.  This initial foray failed miserably. Many left the plantation. Some moved to Clarendon and others joined the police force.

This initiative was followed by a second with some 506 importees, again from Bremen. Some were kept in Portland and the remainder divided among planters in St. Ann, St. James, Manchester, St. Elizabeth and Clarendon.  At the end of the year, the Assembly appointed a recruiter, with responsibility for organizing the importation of English and German labourers and the eventual establishment of European Townships in the interior of the island.

In 1835, the third wave of approximately 530 Germans arrived, again from Bremen. Half of this number was sent to Seaford Town,  named after  Lord Seaford, owner of Montpelier Estate and Shettlewood Pen in St. James, who donated 500 acres for the settlers for promised cottages, land and allowances.  Seaford Town was to have been the first of three such settlements under the terms and conditions of the Indentureship Act of 1836.

The other two were slated for St. Ann and  Portland. The Seaford Town Germans landed in Rio Bueno in Trelawny, on the north coast, moving on to Reading, immediately outside of Montego Bay, and then walked to Seaford Town some 25 miles away in the hills of Westmoreland. However, despite assurances given by the planters that cottages would be provided for the arrivants, only a few were built. They were also to be given small weekly allowances until they had planted and reaped crops for domestic consumption.  Eventually, they would be given free title to the lots on which the cottages were built.

Instead, they had to build most of the cottages. They were expected to work 72 hours per week, as the planters could not entice the ex-slaves to work harder under the  apprenticeship programme. In fact, the German settlers  actually envied the ex-slaves who had their own provision grounds from which they sold at their  markets and consequently were more independent than them.  Unable to cope with the hard work and tropical illnesses, several died and some migrated to the USA.

Her phenomenal contribution to national development in both pre- and post- independent Jamaica is without question and she deserved every honour – national and international – that she received.  Yet, throughout the years away from the Jamaica Library Service, she never lost contact with the service and ‘her girls.’ I can only humbly sum up the totality of Dr. Joyce Lilieth Robinson, OJ, MBE, FLA, LLB (Hon.) as an awesome woman with an indomitable spirit. She left us in 2013 after a lifetime of service to her country.

Like any family, there were good times and bad times, memorable stories repeated and sometimes embellished with time. When we heard that Joan was getting married, shock waves went through us, but even this was surpassed when Joan delivered a beautiful baby boy before her first anniversary, Unimaginable tragedy struck when her husband was murdered. We mourned for her and with her. Cynthia Warmington was an extremely hard worker, mother of two sons, and  a husband, a man of few words, a traditionalist who felt  that an eight hour work-day was good enough if one had a husband and children to come home to.  JLS’ headquarters was designed on an open plan, where one could stand in the foyer and have a commanding view of all the departments. SLS was at the back of the  room.  In the evenings, at approximately 5:00pm. Mr. Warmington would stand in the foyer, eyes fixated on his wife, until she looked up. The story is told that she was working particularly late one night to meet one of the many deadlines. She assured hm she would be taken home. Apparently she went over the agreed time, only to  see her husband, standing in the foyer, in his favourite position, dressed in his pajamas. The power of non-verbal communication.

There is a saying that once a Librarian, always a Librarian. I am here to attest that this is absolutely true.  Librarianship taught me discipline, patience, order and yes, creativity and  innovation. The skills I learnt there  have served me  well throughout my professional and personal lives. I owe an indelible debt of gratitude to this organization and those stalwarts, those pioneers who guided me in the formative years of my professional life, as well as the many friendships forged.

Reading maketh a full  man;

conference a ready man; and writing an exact man; and therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a good memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit;

and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know that he doth not.

(Sir. Thomas Bacon, English Philosopher and Statesman, 1561-1626)