More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 26

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.

I was staying in the one-time Beatle’s residence, but I’m now moved on by pre-booked visitor pressure to millionaire, Mrs Frink’s place.

Mrs Frink was not in residence so I moved in with her six cats, two dogs and maid and gardener, while she was presumably following what’s going down on CNN. However, every cloud has a silver lining and her maid is turning a few bucks by renting out Mrs Frink’s elegantly appointed chintzy bedroom, complete with four-poster.

Tourism used to provide almost 20 per cent of the GDP and, before the volcano, was the major foreign exchange earner. A few itinerant journos don’t quite make up the looming deficit.

In 1994, tourism receipts were US$25.1m.; down to $21.6 in 1995; slumping to $8m in 1996 and, so far this year, languishing at $3m. Mini-industries – like sailing, fishing and tour guiding – have virtually disappeared to be replaced by micro industries like printing T-shirts with that great marketing message of all time, PYROCLASTIC FLOW.

Doom and gloom apart, Ernestine claimed that a major US resort developer was mustard keen to get into the safer northern part of the island with a major development.

Further south, they could have got in rather cheaper. The Sky News team – typically British stiff upper lip – rented a magnificent villa with ash-filled swimming pool in The Very Dangerous Forbidden Zone (with a superb view of the volcano as a background for what newsmen term ‘stand ups’).

Within ten minutes the letting agent was offering to sell them the million dollar pad for just $100,000 . . . Just for fun, they got her down to $50,000. There were some great – albeit speculative – investments around.

As I wrote all this, nobody knew what would happen in the future. Everybody was suffering from some sort of stress. Not so much post traumatic stress syndrome as a continuing stress; the stress of not knowing how long the nightmare would go on. The scientists originally said the volcano would probably be active for two years. Then they said it could go on for another four years . . . In fact, the passage of the months and years would see Mount Soufriere go back to sleep again, for the moment.

Every native Montserratian seemed to have the sort of problems which would terminally fracture any British family: businesses gone, homes and possessions destroyed, people were uninsured and usually still paying mortgages on property they most likely would never see again, paying rent on top of the old mortgage or, worse, living in a communal shelter. For the older and the frail, the deadly silica already was clogging their lungs as silicosis set in.

You couldn’t help thinking most societies would have collapsed long ago under these type of pressure. But here the mutual support mechanism ran strong and deep. If you were driving along the road and somebody else was walking, you would stop and give them a lift. That simple. If a friend was driving in the opposite direction, you stopped and talked. The traffic behind stopped and waited patiently. The horn was hardly ever used. The ties of family, friendship or simple acquaintance seemed to endure notwithstanding recent unsettling events: the volcano, fall of government, Rastafarian riots, political demonstrations and an unsuccessful attempt at mass evacuation by a clearly bemused British government.

Down the road from the shelter at St Peter’s, children learned Caribbean steel band music in the shade of the wooden church. An announcement from ZJB Radio Montserrat, ‘The Voice of the Emerald Isle in the Caribbean – a Special place for Special People’, usefully advised that “the set of keys lost on the road to St John’s can be collected from Mr Sweeney’s shop.”

Veronica, a middle-aged woman living in a bus shelter with all her worldly possessions packed in cardboard boxes, is sustained by the unquestioning optimism which stems from deep religious faith. “Every day I thank the Lord for my salvation.”