Growing up in Kingston by Aaron Matalon
The late, celebrated Jamaican writer, Vic Reid, wrote an article for a publication marking the Sesqui Centennial (150th) Anniversary of the Granting of a Charter to the City of Kingston published by the KSAC in November 1952.
With the consummate artistry for which he be became famous, Vic painted a picture of Kingston, honestly but lovingly in language that is lyrical and evocative and which I certainly could not improve.
So I would like to begin this talk by quoting liberally from Vic’s piece, painting as it were a backdrop against which I will tell you some of what it was like growing up in Kingston.
“A slow carving out from swamps and jungle produced this city for refuge from earthquake-stricken Port Royal 250 years ago”.
“To cope with the need of the early pirate settlers for quick access to open water, Port Royal had been chosen for their own town. But the earthquake shook up for their attention the fine town site which lay beyond the three miles of water to the mainland.
“They crossed the water and gambled for their lots and put up fences and ` established a town with an observation to precision that rude old Port Royal had never known. Out of this nucleus of a dozen streets and lanes, running east- west, north-south, grew the wider area which we now know as the Corporate Area. Out of it has evolved a character.
“To say it is not handsome is true. Its streets are too narrow, its population too much; its buildings too unpainted, its sidewalks too uneven; too many motorcars, strumpets, beggars and bars. It has too few parks, too dim street lamps, too few statues, too poor public transport, but she’s a lovable jade.
“Its heartbeat is in lower Church Street where some tough old shade trees still line the sidewalks outside the Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation’s offices – the Board which runs the city.
“Its muscles form on Duke Street, the financial centre on King and Harbour Streets, the commercial centres.
“It is brawling. It breathes pure dockland along the waterfront. On Little Port Royal Street and on South Street, it is a rocketing surging place of whip-cracking draymen and bull-necked long shore-men boosting its imports up from the wharves to the Orange Street and Princess Street warehouses.
“The only tenderness I know in it is in the yellow buttercups growing between the cracks of the pavement and between the spokes of the rusty souvenir guns from the First World War. But it is warm and vital.
“And leave the elegance of the gay Myrtle Bank Hotel pier, the handsome offices at the Hanover Street pier, Webster’s line block at Breezy Castle, the white swimming pools at Bournemouth, and walk with me through the 19th century charm of Lissant Road and Marescaux Road; visit the quiet churchyards with ivey on the walls and old trees drooping to older tombs; hear the click of ball on bat on the wide green playing fields; rise to the enduring faith of those at labour in the homes for waifs and strays, view the booming promise which is stacked in the sturdy, often handsome, pikes of new factories and offices, in the lovely villas growing so fast that what today is bush, tomorrow is a city’s symphony of ringing hammers and grinding saws – do these and you meet the city’s song.
“Nobody who loves it can help loving it, even if its only tenderness lies in buttercups shooting up about the rusty old guns. It is warm and vital.”
I remember Kingston in Vic’s words as warm and vital, a vastly different place to today’s Kingston – but then you must remember that those of us born before 1930 were a vastly different people.
The difference with those of us born before 1930 is that we were born before television, penicillin, polio shots, frozen foods, plastic contact lenses, the pill and fax.
We came before radar, credit cards, ball-point pens, pantyhose, dishwashers, clothes dryers, disposable diapers, air conditioning, and before man walked on the moon.
We got married first and then lived together. In our time, Designer Jeans were scheming girls named “Jean”, and having a meaningful relationship meant that you got along with your cousins. We never heard of FM radio, tape decks, electric typewriters, word processing, yogurt or guys wearing earrings and long hair.
Time-sharing meant togetherness, not computers, or condominiums, and a chip was a piece of wood. Hardware and software weren’t even words. In 1940 “made in Japan” meant junk and the term “making out” referred to how you did on your examinations. Frozen orange juice and instant coffee were not yet heard of.
There were stores where you bought things at 5 cents and 10 cents, or in Jamaica at threepence and sixpence. An ice cream cone was threepence, and for twopence, an adult could ride a tram car from the bottom of King Street to either Rockfort or Cross Roads, and for a further twopence, you could go from Cross Roads to either Constant Spring or Hope Gardens, and children rode for half fare. For a threepence, you could buy a soft drink or enough stamps to mail one letter and two postcards to anywhere in Jamaica, which when mailed at the Central Post Office at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, was delivered by 3 o’clock the following afternoon or the next day, to almost anywhere in Jamaica. You could buy a new Ford car for two hundred pounds, but who could afford one, and that was a pity too, because gasoline was one shilling a gallon.
In those days, cigarette smoking was fashionable, grass was mowed, coke was a cold drink and pot was something you cooked in. Rock music was your Grandma’s lullaby, and Aids were helpers in a hospital. We made do with what we had then, and we were the last generation that was so dumb to think that you needed a husband to have a baby.
Call us naive, call us unsophisticated – whatever- but we grew up and worked and prospered in these streets, in this town, in this environment without so many of the facilities and amenities that are taken for granted today – and we learnt to love this city because it was warm and vital and because this is where we played and laughed and cried and hoped and dreamt and fashioned our lives.
Although my Father’s early business life included sojourns in Chapleton and Falmouth and even a short stint in Manchester, England, I have no remembrance of this period of our family’s life.
My first memory is of Marine Gardens in Kingston where we lived. This I remember as a lovely residential area situated on Harbour Street, between Hanover Street and the Myrtle Bank Hotel and bounded on the south by the sea. It was completely enclosed with one entrance on Harbour Street, and one other on Hanover Street. As I reflect, there must have been twenty homes there, and we knew most of the people in that garden community. I was probably only about four or five years old.
Every Saturday morning, we would accompany my Father to Synagogue. We went by buggy and horse driven by a special coachman called Rufus who had been the coachman for Barrister Stern, an eminent Jamaican jurist who was Jewish. Rufus used to repeat Hebrew prayers for my Father on the way, much to our delight.
I also remember an Indian gentleman who had a jewelry store on the left side of the Harbour Street entrance called Mr. Samuel. He used to make jewelry and other items from turtle shells and we would help him to polish them.
He taught us to swim at Marine Gardens, and we spent may happy hours with him. We occupied the house on the sea, on the Hanover Street side, and on the other side of the street was Mr. Lindo’s lumber wharf.
We used to sneak over there to play and run up and down the lumber. It was a very dangerous exercise, but like most children we were not aware of this and enjoyed our games in that yard immensely. This wharf was later to become Grace Kennedy and Co., Hanover Street Wharf.
We later moved from Marine Gardens to Victoria Avenue, at that time a very nice residential area between Palace Amusement Company and Elliston Road. South Camp Road abuts one end and Elleston Road the other. I remember this as a beautiful community, although not quiet and intimate as Marine Gardens.
We rented a house immediately opposite to Brenda Smythe and her sister who both taught music and were noted educators.
Our house was beside Mr. Martinez who had the most fashionable and well-kept barber shops called “El Cuban Elegante”.
I also remember the first school I went to. It was Miss Morin on Church Street, below the parade. I was very small then.
After we moved to Victoria Avenue, I went first to Blake Prep School run by Mrs. Adele Murray on Blake Road, and then when the Blake Road premises became too small, she moved the school to 13 South Camp Road, a much larger building, and we continued to attend school there.
Those were very happy days. She had an excellent teaching staff, was quite a disciplinarian and used her strap regularly because we were a turbulent lot at around the ages of eight and nine. She was very fond of our family and I remember a time when my mother became ill and had to go to hospital. My bothers, Moses, Mayer and myself were boarded with Mrs. Murray for about two and a half months during that illness. We remember her with considerable affection, love and gratitude and the foundation of our education was due to her loving care and attention. She was a very staunch Catholic, but had a considerable admiration for the numbers of Jewish students that attended her school, for there was a Jewish background in her family; her maiden name was Morais, which as you probably know is a Jewish name, and in fact my grandmother’s sister was married to Rabbi Nathaniel Morais of Kingston.
It appears as if I might have been reasonably bright at school for at around the age of eight and a half, a new secondary school had been recently established, and it was recommended that I should be sent there. This was a school called Kingston College which was started by the Anglican Church here and the first headmaster was Reverend Percival Gibson. The school started in a very large building on East Street between North Street and Lockett Avenue, just above the present site of the Gleaner Company. It was a small school then and I wasn’t there for very long, just about two terms, for there was no form for me, and Reverend Gibson recommended that I wasn’t ready for secondary school so I went back to Mrs. Murray.
When I was at K.C. I remember very well some of the boys. The late distinguished public servant, Allan Morais was one. So was engineer and patron of the arts, A.D. Scott and Percy Pixley, who was a brother of Frank Pixley. Chester Burgess, who still stimulates us intellectually with his articles in the Gleaner, was also a senior boy at that time as was the late Bunny Evans. The Barrister, the late Bob Verity who did such distinguished work at the Institute of Jamaica for many years and Sonny (Gresford) Jones.
The second master was Mr. Clough, and Mr. Douglas Forrest was then the junior master at that time. Though I was a misfit without a class at Kingston College, I remember being a bit of a mascot and enjoying my sojourn there. There was no playing field at Kingston College when it was on East Street, and they had the right to play at Cloverly Park to which they ultimately moved and set up the high school on the North Street site, which they still occupy as one of their campuses.
When it was time for us to leave Mrs. Murray’s, we were sent to Munro College – but I only spent about four terms there. Munro was a whole new experience – a boarding school up in the mountains with compulsory games and a strict, disciplined regime. I will not spend much time on my experiences there as this is outside the scope of this talk – except to say that I can still remember having to bathe in the morning in baths which had been set the night before in the cold mountain air that water was freezing. Even as I talk, I have a very vivid recall of the shock to my system as the cold water touched my skin. I dare say, no child today would endure this kind of experience and there would be stories in the media suggesting that the children at Munro were being subjected to inhumane conditions.
In those days, we believed that experiences like those build character – and I confess I believe this.
After my short stint at Munro College, my brothers and I were sent to Jamaica College. This was the time when Pros Cowper was Headmaster, but our stay was cut short because of the difficulties which beset my father in business.
Extracted from a lecture by Dr. The Hon. Aaron Matalon O.J. at the 12th Annual Bustamante Lecture on February 26, 1998 at the Jamaica Conference Centre