More thrills than skills – A half-life in journalism, part 18

Over the next few weeks, is to publish, each weekday, edited extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More thrills than skills: A half-life in journalism’, is being scheduled for publication next year.

THE remaining expats on the Caribbean island of Montserrat were referring to the Kleebs as The Cliffhangers.

This reflected a mixture of irreverence and awe. Robert Kleeb and his wife, Beverley, had retired to their sunshine tropical paradise from Detroit just three years previously and built their luxury home on the headland above Isles Bay.

Things had not gone quite according to plan.

First of all, the cliff fell away beneath their house, right in front of them.

Unnerving. Then, in July 1995, the apparently extinct Mount Soufriere volcano started to blow its stack behind them. Two years later, the couple seemed remarkably unfazed by either event: they – alone – have stayed on to live literally in the shadow of the volcano in the so-called Forbidden Zone, in defiance of government, police, governor and all the apparatus of officialdom.

With water, electricity and telephone cut off they were isolated and under siege from both natural forces and fellow humans.

But Robert Kleeb was not a man to give up. I drove to his home across the abandoned golf course. Access was guarded by two large dogs: a Doberman and a Great Dane. “They keep the police away,” observed Kleeb, laconically, as he unbolted his ash-stained front door.

He had his strategy worked out. “I’ve got 3,000 flushes of the john in there. I’ve worked out we can last a year here,” he said, waving at the waters of his swimming pool.

Instead of being turquoise blue, they were grey with pollution from the ash that was everywhere: every surface – from the pool deck to the statue of Winston Churchill in the hall – was layered in the volcanic ash which fell all day, every day.

Much of the time it was fine and invisible. But when the volcano was in full flow it floated down like autumn leaves, or came down like grey sludge with the rain.