More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 24

Over the next few weeks, 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.

Down the road, this is all beyond Ivan Hickson, the pool man. He’s just registered to evacuate to Britain and take the British government’s package for evacuees. “Ah need a rest from all this, man. Ah’s taking da two thousand pounds.”

Soufriere had emitted steam, ash, red hot rocks and a mixture of superheated chemicals and liquefied rock. This was not a lava volcano. This deadly mixture was known as a ‘pyroclastic flow’. At first, it was difficult to get your brain and elocution around ‘pyroclastic’ but T-shirts bearing the message were everywhere ($10 US) and even the smallest of local children talked with authority about its awesome danger when it swept down the mountain at speeds of up to 120mph at over 1000 degrees centigrade.

When the mountain became angry, these flows swept down its steep slopes filling the valleys, or ghauts, as they are known locally, and sweep away everything in their path. A fifty foot-high water tower – full of water – was swept downhill hundreds of yards by such a flow. Whole villages and urban areas, including the capital, Plymouth, had to be abandoned in the face of the onslaught and are now eerie, deserted ghost towns like some long abandoned film set.

Despite the extreme dangers, people go back to the unsafe, Forbidden Zone – or Restricted Areas, as the government terms them. Despite steel gates secured with padlocks on all the roads and sweeps by police helicopters, large numbers of people make the trek back to their homes risking arrest or, worse, the angry and unpredictable attentions of the Soufriere Volcano. Whilst I was there, they found three fresh bodies in Plymouth.

Many of the reasons for returning might seem mundane. Some people simply want to see their homes again, to be reassured that they still exist. Most do, although they may be mummified in layers of grey ash several feet deep. Farmers go back to animals and crops they have been forced to abandon and salvage what they can to bring to market.

But others return for a more basic reason. They go back to make love in the shells of their abandoned homes. The aptly-named Donaldson Romeo, an eloquent and outspoken 35 year-old, who has been championing the rights of native Montserratians, explained. “We’re talking about people who have been evacuated to live in communal shelters – some have been there for as long as 15 months. They live in mixed dormitories, as many as fifty sharing a single toilet. They have no privacy, no possibility of close physical contact. So, at the weekends, they creep back to the home they once knew and make love there.”

Despite such indignities, the incontrovertible fact was that most remaining 4500 or so native Montserratians wanted to stay on their little island – even though the habitable portion had been reduced to just 12 of the original 39 square miles. The airport was gone, the capital with its shops, port and modern hospital was gone. The insurance companies and Barclays Bank had pulled out and the local Building Society had put up a bald notice at its gate: “Sorry we are closed”, leaving depositors high and dry.

Most of the expatriates, the seekers of a quiet retirement in the sun and the fabulously wealthy who had flocked to the island in better times, had packed their bags and gone. The Kleebs were the exception rather than the rule. Robert Kleeb didn’t have much choice, and he explained why. “I invested $800,000 in this place. That’s my capital locked up. There’s only one way I leave here. In a body bag . . .”

He smiles reassuringly at his wife, Beverley. She seems to understand. She should do. She’s the part-time prison psychiatrist. Except the prison’s just closed: most of the convicts have been moved to other islands in the Caribbean and they say they’re putting the rest in the army. The Montserrat Defence Force could be looking at a significant increase in its 80-man establishment.