The English Pedant – What did you call me?

The most popular name for girl babies in Trinidad and Tobago is, apparently, Cherelle. That’s a sort of Frenchified version of the British name Cheryl, which was itself an anglicised version of the French Cherie. Confused? It gets worse.

I recently came across an American actress called Aunjanue Ellis, and it took a few seconds of brain contortions to work out that this was a misspelling (or the parents might call it an alternative spelling) of the French word Ingenue, meaning an innocent or naive girl.

Like those tattoos in Arabic that no one else knows the meaning of, there is an air of mystery about this lady’s name, even though I bet she’s sick to death of having to spell it for people.

The giving of wacky names is one of the irresponsible (as opposed to dangerous) abuses of parental power. Any parent knows that thinking of a good name for a baby is often very difficult: you can think of a thousand you don’t want, but not a single one that you really like.

Perhaps that is why, after a few beers, people think it would be acceptable, or even a good idea, to call the poor unborn mite something ridiculous.

Clearly in California, where Aunjanue was born (and it also seems to be the case in the Caribbean) you can name a baby what you like. In other parts of the world, though, the registrars would have put their foot down.

For instance, there’s a British TV miniseries called Doctor Foster (which is brilliant, by the way; only about six episodes but well worth a look), the star of which is Suranne Jones. She’s not Suranne on her birth certificate, though, because the registrar was of the opinion that it wasn’t a real name, so her parents were persuaded to make it officially Sarah Anne, and if they wanted to call her Suranne as soon as they left his office, that was okay with him.

Well, we all have our foibles, and this guy obviously took his job quite seriously. He’d have had a fit, though,  if he’d worked in the West Indies, where making names up is not unusual. Mum has three friends called Camille, Cordelia and Esther? We’ll use bits of each: we’ll call the kid Camcorder.

The friends are Dilys, Sandra and Margery? Why, Disandry, of course. A name isn’t going to kill you, even if the disease might. And anyway, it’s not common in this part of the world and no one knows how to spell it, so where’s the harm?

How different the world would be if royal families were not inherently conservative. Imagine if Prince William and Kate  had exercised their right to use names they heard in St Lucia on holiday, rather traditional ones like George and Charlotte. They’d have been locked up in the Tower of London at the first mention of Prince Jayden and Princess Jordan.

You might think Bob Marley would have gone down the silly-name route, particularly as he had so many to christen – at least 15 “acknowledged” offspring, plus, we are led to believe, a number of unacknowledged ones. But no, the Marley tribe includes  a Karen, a Stephanie and a Julian, while even eldest son Ziggy was actually christened David, but called himself after the David Bowie alter ego Ziggy Stardust, and everyone else went along with it.

My digital encounter with Aunjanue Ellis came at the same time as George Clooney and his wife Amal introduced their newborns, Ella and Alexander, to a quiet round of applause by traditionalists the world over.

What, no Moony  Junie Clooney? No Goliath Hairy Greek-looking  Smoothguy?

After all, even if the registrar objected, they’re a rich and famous couple – and she’s a lawyer – so they could have found a more understanding official.

But how are poor little Ella and Alex going to feel when they meet other celebrity kids such as Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter Apple, let alone North and Saint, children of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian?

You can hear the Clooney twins whining when they get home: “Moooom! How could you? I sound so boring!”

The world title holders of the parent-imposed name are the children of Live Aid organiser and professional agitator Bob Geldof and his late wife Paula Yates, who gave us Peaches, Pixie and Fifi Trixiebelle, and when Yates went off with singer Michael Hutchence, she quickly produced Heavenly Hirani Tiger Lily.

Interestingly, it didn’t take David Bowie’s son Zowie long to ditch that millstone, plus his Dad’s self-chosen surname, and become plain old Duncan Jones.

Perhaps when this generation of hilariously-labelled children are running the world they will introduce new naming regulations whereby aggrieved youngsters are entitled, at the age of 18, to rename their parents.

Were that to happen, there could well be a split between the complimentary and the insulting. There might also be a 10-year cooling-off period to allow for age-induced understanding and mellowing, because names given in the heat of the moment could be regretted later.  For every King, Hero and Legend Smith there would be a Grumpy, Tyrant and Knowall, while the mothers would be split between Angel, Bestfriend or Precious and Jailer, Prude and Thatissounfair.


Confessions of an expat – Venezuela through the back door

guiria 2

It was time to leave Tobago and money was tight as usual. The plan was to go to Venezuela, and that meant via Trinidad. The boat from Scarborough to Port-of-Spain costs next to nothing and if you don’t mind getting up at the crack of dawn, it’s quite a pleasant trip. So that’s what I did. It was always a slightly strange feeling, because I had been on the vessel before on the other side of the Atlantic, when it ran between the Channel Islands, England and France.

The first time I got on it in Tobago I just thought, “I know where the restaurant is, where the bar is and where the toilets are. Weird.”

I had checked out the options for Trinidad-Venezuela and they consisted of a very expensive flight or a ferry from Chaguaramas to some little town in the middle of nowhere. It was cheap, and even cheaper if you paid for a day trip and just didn’t come back. The girl on the phone assured me that wouldn’t be a problem, but it seemed unlikely to me. What about Immigration? Wouldn’t the Venezuelan authorities have spotted this loophole by now?

On the other hand, the country was in a mess and people were trying to get out, not in.

After a night in a cheap hotel I took a taxi to Chaguaramas and the driver helped me with my two suitcases, backpack and guitar.

The girl in the ticket office, who might well have been the one on the phone, reassured me that the day-trip idea would work.

“With two suitcases and a guitar?” I protested.

“They won’t notice,” she said.

The ferry came in and it was like a little party boat, with a dance floor and small, high, round, chrome-rimmed tables bolted to the floor, each with four stools similarly rooted. In Guernsey we call it a booze and cruise: it’s a floating party that just gets you out on the ocean wave, maybe to a smaller island for dinner, then back.

This one wasn’t full of revelers, though. Just a week before Christmas, it was heaving with Venezuelan women going home after earning a living doing who-knows-what in Trinidad.

All the seats were occupied, or that’s what the women indicated when I tried to sit amongst them. I didn’t believe them, but it’s hard to argue in a foreign language with a group of brassy, hard-as-nails sex workers who want to spend the voyage lying down. I hung around, perched uncomfortably on the solitary vacant stool.

As time went on they took pity on me and I was permitted to sit in the middle, surrounded by rough, savoury-smelling but not unattractive hard cases. It was like a women’s prison summer outing. Some were probably very nice and not so tough if you got them individually, but here they were a gang, and this was real life, not a 1950s American film featuring a tart with a heart.

Like most places, Guiria doesn’t feel like the center of the world, but it’s a gateway to part of it

After two hours of this, a wave of excitement swept through the gathering as we approached land and I joined a queue to disembark. Then a  small party of Immigration officials came aboard and set up a makeshift desk at one end. The queues reshaped to face them and we stood like that for 20 minutes while rumours spread that it was some kind of health certification.

Then the officials, who looked as though they had been handed a uniform each and told to go on the boat and do something – anything – stood up, moved to the other end and sat down again. We duly turned in their direction and gradually the line began to move and passports were glanced at and stamped.

My Cell Block H friends were nowhere to be seen, perhaps knowing better than the uniforms what did and didn’t need to be done.

All my worldly goods and my day-return ticket went unnoticed as I stumbled onto Venezuelan soil. All that remained was to find a taxi, since all of the waiting ones had been spirited away by the women.

It’s the sort of set-up the government must know about and tolerate. Sometimes, though, it pays not to ask questions.


Confessions of an Expat – What exactly are the West Indies?

This is most people’s idea of the West Indies


The idiot’s guide to the Caribbean

A recent brief trip to Barbados started me thinking about the whole Caribbean area and how it sees itself, as opposed to how the rest of the world sees it.

The UK thinks there is this group of islands called the West Indies.

It’s all Christopher Columbus’s fault. He was trying to get from Spain to south Asia, but ended up in the Caribbean. Easy mistake to make. Just fail to turn left when you come out of the Mediterranean and you are heading across the Atlantic ocean, bound for the wrong continent.

Columbus would have been better off going overland, as it happens, but he wasn’t to know that, so he did his best and, when he found land and didn’t know where the hell he was, he assumed he wasn’t far away from his desired destination. If he was looking for clues from the local population, he may have noticed something Asian about the eyes of the Native Americans.

“Anyway, we were looking for the Indies [i.e. something to do with India] and we’ve found a place with vaguely Asian-looking people so let’s call it the West Indies. Strayed a bit there, Mr Navigator. Pull your socks up – but we can’t be far away.”

Nowadays, some people refer to south Asia as the East Indies, which also helps to disguise Columbus’s enormous miscalculation. He hadn’t even found north or south America, as it happens. But none of these places had names, anyway, so he could call them what he liked.

Some 400 years later, the English, having muscled in on the ‘New World’ and given the locals everything from organized sport and commerce to fancy foreign diseases, started playing cricket against the West Indies, and that was the British perception up to the middle of the 20th century. Cricket is the only sport in which the Caribbean nations compete as a group and under the name West indies. Usain Bolt comes not from a generalized WI but the highly specific Jamaica.

(It should be understood that England is part of Great Britain (and if you add Northern Ireland, it’s the United Kingdom), and therefore British can mean English, although it can equally indicate Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish people.)

After the Second World War they ran out of bus drivers in London and, the British population having been depleted by casualties, someone had the brilliant idea of bringing some West Indians, mainly Jamaicans, over to help out. Global integration was on its way (although it has been a frustratingly slow and antagonistic process).

But xenophobia (in both directions, mind you) is by the by. Air travel suddenly made it possible for the British to visit the tropics on holiday.

Americans have a different story to tell, but all I really know about that is that they call the Caribbean nations ‘the islands’ in a rather proprietorial way.

For us Brits, we couldn’t get enough of the sun, sea and sand. Not that we don’t have our own, but unfortunately the thermostat is stuck on a low temperature for most of the year.

What we knew from cricket was that in the “West Indies” there was Barbados, there was Trinidad and there was Guyana. Yes, Guyana. Well known (to cricket fans only) players such as Basil Butcher, Lance Gibbs and Rohan Kanhai were all part of the West Indies team that toured England in the mid 60s, and then came Clive Lloyd. All Guyanese. All playing for the Windies. And therefore Guyana must be an island in the Caribbean, right?

Wrong, actually. It’s a country in South America. Pardon one’s ignorance. And anyway, Guyana, along with Suriname, doesn’t consider itself part of South America as much as part of the Caribbean.

Culture was on its way, too. Bob Marley gave the world a kind of music that would be loved everywhere.

Memorial for the man who put the jam in Jamaica

There was a hit pop song in the UK in the early 70s, complete with faux-Caribbean accent,  that went ‘Oh, I’m going to Barbidas, blah blah blah, oh, lots of pretty palm trees… in the sunny Caribbean sea.’ It was a catchy tune and the British music-buying public are susceptible to a bit of holiday daydreaming a la Y Viva Espana.

Now Barbados is known by some as Little England, and from my brief  visit I can confirm that there is certainly a lot of British influence – and the people I met were not sullenly resentful of white people, which sadly can be the case in other islands.

So the British perception was that the West Indies was Barbados, Trinidad, Guyana and Jamaica.

Then came the ultimate Caribbean cricketing hero, Viv Richards, and we heard of Antigua, because that’s where he is from. And people started getting married on the beach in St Lucia. And there was Grenada, the spice island. The Caribbean map was taking shape.

The Caribbean is the blue bit, so any of the green bits that touch it can – and do – call themselves part of the Caribbean.

But that’s where it stopped for most people. We knew about the Bahamas, but we didn’t necessarily know where they were. Tobago? Never heard of it. Curacao? Somewhere in China. Aruba and Bonaire? Figments of your imagination, old son (although the Dutch know where they are, because they made the most impact there in colonial times). Antilles, Windward islands, Leeward islands? You’re just trying to confuse me.

Guadeloupe? No, that’s a kind of melon. Cuba? Off the coast of Russia, mate. St Kitts and Nevis? That’s a home for stray animals in south London.


Confessions of an expat – don’t choke on the bones

roti 1
Handle with care: this roti looks soft and harmless but there coule be a chicken’s broken ankle in there

It was a bar by the beach at Pigeon Point, Tobago. We had only recently arrived in the island and were keen to try things out. Including the food. I had been looking up some of the oddities that were advertised, such as Buss up Shut. Apparently that was originally bust-up shirt, but given the Trini-speak treatment, and that is what it looks like – a shirt that’s been mistreated. And it’s a kind of roti.

Okay, what’s a roti?

To those not from Trinidad and Tobago, trying to understand their version of English, roti sounds like the past participle of the French word for roast. But no, it’s not a roast anything.  “It’s a… it’s kind of hard to explain,” said the very pleasant Indian-heritage woman who appeared to own the place. But the people over there were eating one, so we had a look and decided to give it a go.

The basis of the roti is a flatbread, like a chapatti or what in some countries is called a wrap – a soft piece of bread rolled up with some kind of filling.

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Highly skilled: they make the dough big and work it with sticks

I ordered a meat one and was taken aback to be warned that it would contain bones and I should be careful. The thing about getting used to another culture is that you have to tread carefully. In England I would have helpfully suggested that they take the bloody bones out – which I still don’t think would be an unreasonable request- but if that’s the way things are done, then who am I to argue?

In some countries butchery is an art, with carcasses taken apart by skill rather than brute force. But there are also places – Venezuela is one and this seems to be another – where all that’s required is a heavy meat cleaver and some muscle. Instead of disassembling by separating the bones at joints, they give the thing a hefty whack that no leg can withstand and abracadabra: two pieces of meat – plus shards of spiky, dangerous bone.

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Tasty, satisfying and messy – like a lot of things


One of life’s simple pleasures is watching people do something very well. It doesn’t really matter what they are good at, and butchery is as valid as sculpture or even accountancy. But wielding a sharp, weighty instrument instead is what gives butchery a bad name. It’s why when we say something was butchered we don’t mean a nice job was done, we mean it was the work of an unskilled, unsubtle person or a thug. There’s a horrible scene in The English Patient where a Gestapo officer takes someone’s thumbs off with a knife, but at least he does it skilfully.

But back to the roti. The fact that it is coming to be regarded as the national dish should not be taken as a criticism of TT food. There are plenty of local specialities that rarely make it onto the menus of posh restaurants, but the same could be said of many countries. In fact, the nations that do have a variety of famous dishes are the exception, rather than the rule. France remains the king of the food world, while Italy has taken the humble material that is pasta and come up with variations adorned with meaty sauces that can be found in every town from Alice Springs to Ankara.

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Eat in or take away

As for the rest of us, we’re comparative amateurs. What has the mighty USA got to call its own? The hamburger, that’s all. England? Roast beef, and maybe fish and chips. Spain? Paella.

It’s all poor man’s food dressed up. Paella might sound like a treat when you didn’t grow up with it, but all it was originally was a load of yellow rice with whatever was available at the time. In a restaurant you might find it loaded with seafood and meat, but 100 years ago Senora Gomez was lucky if she could find a handful of peas and a few scraps of leftover chicken to throw in, so she will have made damned sure the rice was tasty enough to appease her ravenous family.

India has done a good job of using a few herbs and spices that may have been used originally to disguise the taste of dodgy meat, while the Chinese have built a worldwide reputation on the distinctly unexotic monosodium glutamate. Obviously there are talented chefs who can whip up a chop suey or a curry that is on a culinary par with coq au vin or the most exquisite seafood salad, but there aren’t enough geniuses to go round.

There is nothing wrong with local food, wherever you are. It just might not be what you are accustomed to. You might, for instance, have a natural dislike of choking or breaking teeth.