Entries in In The Trees (6)



I've never been one of these authors who chases people to write reviews on Amazon, so every time I come across a review for one of my books it's a genuine surprise and delight.  Here's one for 'In the Trees'.  It was posted a few months ago, but I've only just found it and can't resist sharing it, especially as it's about the book I went into Abraham Darby Academy to talk about yesterday:


'I'm tempted to recommend that adults or teens buy this book then save themselves and the planet the airmiles involved in travelling to Belize. I loved the story of Kid and I liked his companions too but most of all this book gave me the feeling that I'd been to Belize, trekked through the forests, got lost and a little scared in the towns, glimpsed the traditional life of the villages without ever having to move from my own bed. But actually it did more than that, it made me genuinely interested in a country I'd previously known nothing about and it also made me deeply envious of those who still have their gap years ahead. So maybe I will have to buy that plane ticket one day... a humane and fascinating book with some beautiful authentic description.'



I have a story for you.  It involves my daughter Grace, who has a nasty habit - by which I mean she smokes.  Fag-breaking on a pavement outside the fashion house she used to work for in Poland Street, Soho, Grace forged a friendship with a Belizean whose office was in the same building. His surprise at her knowledge of his country was compounded by her mother having been there and written a book – one which he said he’d read, and had loved because it got under the skin of Belize - he said he could even smell it as he read.

One thing followed another, by which I mean that fashion followed literature, followed by Team Belize, who were coming to the Olympics for their fiftieth year [an amazing achievement for such a tiny nation] and at that point without a kit. Did Grace, working in fashion, and quite plainly a friend of Belize, know anyone who might help?

Grace’s partner, Luis Lopez-Smith, is Chief Designer for the sportswear brand, Head. You can put the rest together for yourselves.  Working independently, Luis has designed a kit which, now that the Olympics has started, is definitely making waves. Belize might have a tiny team, but when they go out with the other athletes for practice sessions, everybody wants to know where they come from and where they got that kit! Even the BBC have been asking, and Belize’s champion hurdler is being filmed in action this week for a Panorma documentary. 

Last Thursday saw the three of us - Grace, Luis, and myself - guests of the Belizean High Commission in London, attending a champagne tea party at Claridges where we were thanked for our contribution [mine slight to the point of being negligible, but it was still good to get a mention] to Belize’s Olympic effort.  Also on the guest list was Geoff Banks [see right, sorry for fuzzy quality - he's the man in the dark suit with the cast on his leg], who had designed Team Belize’s outfit for the Opening  Ceremony.  The difference between the two designers was that Geoff Banks was able to afford to take a whole team of designers out to Belize to get the feel for the country and measure up its athletes, whereas Luis strayed no further than Camberwell, working weekends and long evenings into the night on the kit, with no team to help him other than Grace.

But the results are stunning. In a week’s time, when the whole kit has been filmed and photographed, I’ll show you what I mean.  In the meantime, go on my Facebook Timeline and scroll down, if you want to see a picture of Belize’s Olympic kit. 

Tea at Claridges was everything you’d expect [sorry this pic is on its side - try as I might I can't get it to stand upright!]. Outside London baked, its roads clogged with Olympic BMWs escorting dignitaries from around the world from hotels to Olympic sites and back again.  Flags were everywhere. Patsy and Edina did their thing on Oxford Street but, though we were only round the corner, we missed it. 

We didn’t miss the atmosphere though.  I grew up in London, was born there and return from time to time, but I’ve never felt the place so alive, buzzing and heaving with excitement.  It was as much as I could do, early next day, to tear myself away. Arriving at Euston Station I felt as if I was leaving behind everything that mattered and the one-and-only place where anyone should be.

 But as the train rolled through the lovely English countryside, much to my surprise I found myself overwhelmed with relief.  It was quiet on the train and the landscape seemed calm and fragrant.  Something frenetic and all-consuming lay behind me and my train journey felt like an escape.  This was life again on the human scale.  Back in the shires, I could hear myself think.

The afternoon and early evening were spent at a wedding beside a beautiful lake. Afterwards, rolling through the soft green hills of Herefordshire and Shropshire, I tweeted ‘Amazing sunset over Shropshire hills. This is no stadium. It’s no Olympic Opening Ceremony but the real English countryside at its most beautiful.’  And it was.

I thought the Opening Ceremony was great. To have attended it would have been amazing, but even watching on my phone’s tiny screen - with intermittent reception - I could grasp the scale of what it was trying to achieve. That it included children’s literature surprised and delighted me. And that it started with the shires delighted me too.  


LUCKY DUBE/PAUL NABOR/BELIZE CITY/CHIQUIBUL: If you want to be uplifted, listen to the sounds of Belize

I have a tape of jungle sounds.  Sometimes I put it into my computer when I’m working.  It starts in silence, then dawn creeps across it like light across a sky. The trills of nameless birds, the croaks and cheeps of cicadas and tree frogs.  I hear them all as if I’m back there.  The sounds of the Belizean rainforest are as evocative as any other memory I have of the country.  I could play its score from first day to last, and never tire of it.

But for me, the sounds of Belize City are where it all began, newly arrived in the country, trying to find my feet. I remember it all so well - the roar of four-by-fours on potholed streets, the thump of punta rock from speakers stacked in open shop doorways, the cries of hustlers after dollar from the tourists.  ‘Yu lookin fu a gude. Yu wanna heah a song? You wan I show yu weah to go?’

At the time there was an election under way.  People on the streets were politicking. I saw their slogans on their banners, heard them calling out for change.  And in the heat of evening, lying on my hotel bed, I heard a rally underway across the street.  Voices carried across the air.  Cheers from the rally.  Music from the sea front. Night-birds whistling, full-throttled. I could hear them too. 

This was my first experience of Belize, and my second was Caye Caulker.  The roar of the distant reef, which was always there – how could I ever forget that, or the bird-walk with Dorothy, who taught me to follow sounds through the littoral forest, and then see the birds making them; the bananaquit, the scarlet tanager, the hooded warbler, the mockingbird. 

Later my landlady, Luciana, told me of a night of birds which she was once awoken by - birds of all kinds including parrots and ibexes.  The north wind brought them over, blown together in a mighty cloud.  The event was unique.  No one on Caulker had ever witnessed anything like it.  You could see their white beaks in the darkness like flashes of light.  You could hear their wings beating through the rain, and hear them calling to each other. 

She told the story so well I could imagine I was there.  Even now at my desk as I write this, I can hear those birds calling and the beating of their wings. 

After Caye Caulker, I went up to San Ignacio.  There, in Crystal’s Supermarket, I heard a rare, rich bird of another sort - Paul Nabor. I stood there with headphones on. I’d never heard paranda before, and never a voice like this.  There are moment, aren’t there, which change everything. And that was such a moment for me.

In my novel about Belize, ‘In the Trees’, I describe Paul Nabor’s voice rising like smoke out of darkness, and the experience of hearing him being like having the deepest, darkest, finest drink uncorked and poured down you: 

‘The singing was as sweet as honey, yet there was gravel in it too.  His voice was full of birds and beasts and tall white stately ceiba trees.  Flowers were in his voice, and clouds of butterflies, and Kid could hear rivers flowing through the music booth, and hear people too.  He could hear their voices caught up in the song, the people of Belize, and he didn’t feel lonely any more...’

These are the thought of Kid Cato – the young hero of my book, visiting Belize for the first time to try and find his dad -  when he first hears Paul Nabor.

The other musician who impacted my journey around Belize was Lucky Dube.  The first time I heard him I was on a bus traveling south from San Igancio with a group of gap year volunteers.  The driver’s girlfriend was sitting up front with her little girl, bobbing about to the reggae music that kept being putting on.  Reggae, sunshine, the disappearing foothills of the Maya Mountains over which I’d trekked – they’re now all meshed together in my mind.

It was reggae all the way down south to the Kekchi-Mayan villages of Toledo District.  But only when Lucky Dube came on did I find myself leaning across the aisle to the man seated opposite, and asking, ‘Who’s that?’ Then later I heard Lucky Dube again on another bus.  Somewhere on the dirt roads around Punta Gorda I heard 'I Feel Irie' for the first time, ringing out in contrast to anything else that got put on. ‘Do you feel like we do?’ Lucky Dube's electrifying voice sang out. 'We all have trouble now an' again, know what I'm sayin...'  'People have troubles since the Pope was an altar boy...',  'No man can hide from his fears...',  'Since they are part of him, they always know where to find  him...', 'Come on, walk tall...' and, again - and again - 'Do you feel like we do...?'

And I did.  And still do. Whenever Lucky Dube's voice rings out, I feel alive.  I know now that he's dead - tragically dead - but his voice will always have that effect.

Down in Toledo District, I stayed in the Kekchi-Mayan village of Medina Bank. My memories of that village are so rich. The rattle of the corn-mill started up before first light.  Then children started chasing squawking chickens, riding turkeys, swinging from guava trees and asking 'what's your name' over and over again. I remember the school bell ringing for the flag to be raised and the Belizean anthem being sung by a choir of ragged little voices.  Then I remember women chattering in the river in the heat of the day, the sound of water flowing past them as they pounded their clothes on a series of flat stones. Then school was over and the children were in the river too, laughing, dive-bombing and splashing about.  Then evening fell, smoke rising through thatches from all those village hearths, stars and fireflies coming out, birds falling silent and the cicadas starting up. Then finally, I remember my hosts' voices as by candlelight they talked to me about land rights, the founding of their village, and the Mayan way of life.

I spent six weeks traveling round Belize.  However, if I had to pick one sound above all others that stood out, it wouldn't come from Medina Bank, Belize City, Lucky Dube or Paul Nabor.  It would come from Chiquibul.  With my son, Idris, and a guide from the gap year organization, Trekforce, I trekked across that vast and beautiful wilderness to interview young British volunteers working on a conservation project in a remote location.  First night out in the jungle, I lay in my hammock wondering what to expect next.  All around me, the sounds of the jungle were as loud as anything I’d heard on Albert Street or  the swing-bridge over Haulover Creek.  So many creatures out there in the night, whistling, whooping, whirring, croaking - and then, to top it all, an incredible roaring sound that I took at first to be jaguars. But oh no.  In the distance, drawing closer, howler monkeys were on the move.   

Here was another of those moments which change things.  Once you’ve heard howler monkeys calling to each beneath a full moon in the jungle miles from anywhere, believe me life is never quite the same.  Slowly the sound grew until finally it was overhead.   Without as much as a rustle of a branch, those howler monkeys had moved into our camp, and now they were calling to each other to, 'come, see, what do we have here?'  Despite the moonlight, I couldn’t see them back.  But I could hear them, by God. And what a privilege.

Never mind bottling Paul Nabor and drinking him down.  I want to bottle howler monkeys too.  But then I want to bottle it all - the whole six week experience, which I'll never forget.  Or, at the very least, I want the soundtrack – Belize on tape so that I can have it on my computer and, every time I switch on, it'll take me back. 

To find out about more Lucky Dube click HERE.  

To hear his 'I feel Irie' click HERE.  

To find out more about Paul Nabor click HERE  

To hear his greatest song, Naguya Nei, click HERE.  

[If you do, it'll bring your day to life; I've just played both tracks and they're so rich they almost have me in tears.]

And if you want to read the novel I wrote after my trip, you can either open a free extract HERE, or click to buy the 'In the Trees' kindle version, or the Apple Store version or the paper version [direct from its publishers, Faber & Faber].  Belizeans tell me the book's so real that it even has the smells and sounds of Belize. I couldn't ask for a greater compliment.