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Sunday, September 15, 2013

Excerpt from The Original Rude Boys' Son? by L.A. White

L.A. White was born in London, England of Jamaican parents during the time of the mass exodus from the West Indies to England that started in the 1940s and continued to the 1960s. White's father ran a sound system, which was a sort of mobile disco, and when he was growing up, his father was one of the premier sound men in the Jamaican community in London. The memoir, The Original Rude Boys' Son?, is some remembrances of White's family at the time.

The Original Rude Boys' Son? is available for download for Amazon Kindle. An excerpt from the book appears below.

*

Winston Churchill died two days before my eighth birthday. We watched his funeral on the telly, my brother and I, sitting on the floor of our aunt's parlour while the bars of the electric fire burned at our side. The crowd massed in the winter streets as the gun carriage drawing his casket rolled by. The HMS Havengore took it down river to Festival Pier. On the docks each crane bowed its head in salute.

I had heard in school of a boy who pulled a sword from a stone, became a king, united a warring and disparate people and ushered in a time of abundance and prosperity. Mortally wounded, and attended by beautiful handmaidens he was taken by barge, to Avalon from whence he would one day return to unite his people once again.

Was this the fellow they were talking about? Churchill had been old when he died but our first form teacher Mrs Gottschalk said that he had been a heroic figure in his youth.

Uncle Augustus sat at the dining table behind me studying The Sporting Life. Saturday was his betting day. The racing, suspended because of the funeral, would soon commence.

"Was that the man that united the Kingdom," I asked him.

He stared at the screen over the top of his glasses. He looked at me. He leaned back in his seat, snatched the glasses off his face one handed and tossed them down on the table. "When them call wi to fight, wi come running," he said, "black man, coolie man, all a them empire fight for them."

"But yu never do any fighting, Augustus, yu never leave England," said Aunt Minnie.

"Miss Richie," Augustus tried to rise out of his seat, table and belly conspired against him, he pushed the chair back and tried again. "Miss Richie, I don't stop fight since I come a this country."

He was on his feet now, prodding a finger at the telly, then turning to prod the same finger at her. I had known them all my life and never heard him refer to his wife by anything other than her maiden name. Aunt Minnie fell for Augustus when she saw him in his army uniform, my mum said; fell like a sack of potatoes. He was a large brown skinned man who paraded around the house in the army issue khaki shorts and shirt that he had never thrown away. Standing at ease in the centre of the room he continued watching the screen.

"I was so surprised when wi come," said Aunt Minnie, "everything seem so dark, so grey, like the sun never shine. Them say the streets of London paved with gold: wi never find none though."

Aunt Minnie came first, she was the eldest: my mum's sister. Hughlet, their brother, came next. He didn't like it: he returned home to open a shop in Kingston. Then Ezra. Then my mum. My dad followed her and he brought over Biltram, his brother. Another Richie, Laurence went to America, he opened a bar in Chicago. Jeddy, the youngest never left Jamaica. He liked to drink. So he stayed in Jamaica and drank.

On screen the train bore through the countryside to Blenheim and burial, passing through stations lined with people paying their respects to the fallen hero, their breath rising above them, visible in the cold air.

I pushed George off as he leant over to get at the electric fire. We didn't have electric fires at our house. We had paraffin. Everybody hated it. It stank out the house and it stank up your clothes, it never really got very warm and you had to have an adult light it for you. Flicking a switch at Aunt Minnie's house and having the room magically heat up: that was the height of luxury. Leaving the fire burning all day, that was another level of luxury completely: only pools winners could do that, pools winners and Uncle Ezra.

Uncle Ezra had the Richie head for business. My grandfather, his father, made a lot of money in Panama in the years after the canal opened. When he returned to Jamaica he invested it in property. Ezra said he never saw his father do a day's work in his life. Ezra worked for British rail. He invested in property, too. He lived in Edgware with his wife Joan and their five kids. There might have been other black families living there then but you'd have to walk for miles to find one. George and I and our mum and dad lived in Hornsey. We had tenants in our house. Uncle Ezra had houses with tenants in them. Their family even had private and exclusive access to the public park behind their house: a hole in the fence allowed them to creep in whenever they wanted. We never went up to uncle Ezra's much; I don't remember my dad ever going there. It was a bus, a tube and another bus ride away and we never had a car. Uncle Ezra did of course, a blue/green Ford Zodiac. Whenever we went there the whole family spent the evening playing board games around the table. The two youngest were close to the ages of George and I and there were three older kids. I envied them. The six years difference between George and I mean that our games were never competitive.

The funeral was over and normal Saturday service resumed. The bookies would be open now. Augustus gathered up his betting slips and put on his trilby. When he returned he usually took a nap on the settee to wake up in time to check his pools during the results service. Then we'd eat dinner and watch whatever was on the telly that night.

*

George and I went down to Aunt Minnie's most weekends. She lived in the shadow of Arsenal's Highbury football stadium. It was our home from home. Our real home was a three storey terraced house in north London. We were just an average West Indian family of Jamaican immigrant parents and two English born sons. The one thing that separated us from the herd was the very reason we went to Aunt Minnie's every weekend. Part of that reason stood in our passage way.

"What are those?" asked the postman one day. He had squashed himself up against the porch wall, parcel in hand and was looking past me into the passage.

"They're speakers," I said and let him in. He stepped past me into the hall, stopped at the first speaker box, the smaller of the two. The box was made of chipboard, stood three and a half feet tall, three feet wide, the dark brown front sloped back towards the top, a fifteen inch soundhole was cut in the centre with wire mesh fitted over it. Metal handles screwed into the side. He stepped sideways, in front of a box the size of a small wardrobe and over which I still couldn't see. It had a natural wood finish at the sides and a cream coloured front on which were painted in vertically, in five inch high, 3D lettering, either side of the sound hole:

C O U N T D E N N Y

"Who's Count Denny?" asked the postman.

"My dad."

"What's he do with these?"

"He plays dances and parties and stuff."

The postman looked down at the package in his hand: a 7 inch square cardboard packet swathed in masking tape and Jamaican stamps.

"These are records?" He said. He delivered a similar package every couple of weeks.

"Yeah."

"Where does he play?"

"Halls, clubs, house parties."

"Just to--to coloured people?"

"Anybody," I said. "But mainly, yeah."

"Now I know," he said.

The bedroom door clicked and my mum came out. The postman retreated to the front step and I went to the kitchen to finish my breakfast before going to school.

There were three big Sound Systems in north London then, a time when the dance or Shebeen or Houseparty was the main social arena for the West Indian diaspora and every other social occasion, birthday, wedding, funeral usually had a Sound System to provide the music. They were Federation, Sir Grand and Count Denny. Count Denny was the King; his domain was north London and he alone ruled. He was my dad: I was his eldest son and heir.

Thanks, L.A. White!

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