Tuesday, 3 December 2013

A damaged garden fence and 200 years of St Lucia history ...

I would hope that I am alive to situations where 'history' can almost materialise and make its presence felt: but these rather elevated feelings usually result from visits to historic ruins and buildings, watching great state occasions and so forth, and so I'll risk making a crass generalisation and say that no conversation with any builder I have ever known has produced quite the aforementioned emotional effect. Until now that is, when, following a brief and ostensibly insignificant incident, I started thinking about how some patterns of history can be thrown into sharp focus in very unexpected ways.

So, a prosaic scene: following the recent gales we had our builder around to see about replacing a damaged garden fence; nothing unusual about that, and nothing remarkable either about him breaking off during our conversation to take a call on his mobile - except that the call was conducted in the strangest sounding French I've ever heard. It was really quite startling, but it shouldn't have been: after all, he was born in St Lucia and I do know something of the Anglo-French elements of that island's history, having researched its early nineteenth-century newspaper press for my PhD. But what amazed me is the fact that some 200 years after the British took possession of the island, the variant of the French language spoken there clearly endures and, to judge from my witnessing one half of a very animated conversation, may even be in rude health.

This linguistic survival is a cheering thought in an age when advancing cultural homogeneity seems to be unstoppable; its unexpected appearance in my living room also loosened a lot of half-forgotten memories about my own laborious researches which - among other things - attempted to capture the acute tensions of the abolition period in the island by charting the impact of the St Lucia Gazette under a rather colourful character called George Washington Busteed (father of Richard Busteed, incidentally - a minor figure in American history), who briefly bulked large in the island's history. But how odd that one short telephone conversation can, in its own way, be as illuminating of historical development as any number of painstakingly researched PhDs and scholarly monographs. History! you really can see  - and sometimes hear - it everywhere.

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