More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 22

Over the next few weeks, allmediascotland.com is to publish, each weekday, 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.

Ivan was the pool man in Old Towne, a graceful residential area. It was a place of elegant villas in well-tended gardens full of dazzling flamboyant trees, neatly manicured lawns and generous swimming pools. There should have been a lot of work here for Ivan. The pools were grey with volcano ash and the bottoms silted up with pumice gravel thrown out by the towering Soufriere Volcano which growled away, clearly visible.

But Old Towne was deserted. It was a ghost town of lavish but abandoned homes. In August 1997, the scientists retracted their earlier view that Salem and its neighbouring residential areas were safe from the volcano. The government of Montserrat promptly ordered all the residents out – wealthy local businessmen and expatriates alike.

But on a steep tarmacadamed road, next to a villa called Connemara, with a shamrock sign on the gate testifying to the Irish antecedents of its erstwhile owner, there was still a rambling bungalow in use. It was the home of the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, or MVO.

Here were gathered scientists from all over the world in a bid to second guess the natural, uncontrollable powers of a force which in reality they did not understand at all. The then tead scientist in charge was Professor Stephen Sparks, an intense, bright and enthusiastic 48 year-old. One of Mr Kleeb’s “academic whores”.

You got the impression he was every bit as much in his element as the grumbling volcano which could be seen from the terrace of the villa spewing ash in great sculpted clouds. “Well, you see, all volcanoes are individuals,” he explains, in the manner a cat lover might speak of a treasured moggy.

Journalists nodded, purporting to understand his evident fascination.

Yeah, well, when’s this baby gonna blow, the man from The Boston Globe wanted to know.