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Miss Lou's fantastic memory box

Lance
Neita

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

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Louise “Miss Lou” Bennett-Coverley is timeless. Hence, the anniversary of her birth being celebrated over three months. “What a joyful news, Miss Matty,” Louise would likely say if approached about such a party. And so it should be, a timeless celebration for our first lady of culture and everything else.

Congratulations to the people who thought large and generous to come up with this one. Every effort is being made to ensure the now generation and generations to come revere and remember Miss Lou.

“From time to time in the history of a nation, there emerges someone on the national scene who seems to embody the very psyche of its people; capable of distilling, interpreting and expressing its collective wisdom, its hopes and its aspirations, its strengths as well as its weaknesses. In Jamaica, Louise Bennett is such a person,” Corina Meeks wrote 1987.

I can tell you of an interesting chain of events that brought me close up to the immortal Louise Bennett. First of all, she was a part of my generation's growing up years. That's the luck of my age group. We not only heard her on radio or in concert but we saw her big and broad when she visited our elementary school in the country or when we were taken on a dream trip to watch the Pantomime in Kingston.

Oh yes, Miss Lou in the initial stages of her career made visits around Jamaica to almost every elementary school courtesy of the Jamaica Social Welfare Commission and the Department of Education. She had broken the sound barrier earlier on when Gleaner editor Michael DeCordova, facing stern opposition in the 1950s, decided to publish her dialect poetry.

This did not go down well at all with the 'hoi poloi' of the time who thought that this native creole language belonged on the streets or in the plantation fields.

So Louise was first looked at as just a nice diversion, and they pretended to read and to understand her Sunday Gleaner columns, referring to the idioms as broken English.

But Miss Lou was not to be deterred. She remained persistent in using Jamaican dialect in her poetry as she wanted her poems to be a mirror reflection of the life and philosophy of Jamaicans.

She raised the dialect of the Jamaican folk not only to an art level but as an expression of the joyous spontaneity that often times shines through the Jamaican spirit in all circumstances of life as described by the poet whether it be at the standpipe, on the streets, inna de yard, or at the wrong end of a 'tracing' match.

The amazing story of how she started to put pen to paper is best told by her. She says she was entering a bus and heading for a seat at the back occupied by two large ladies.

“They saw me coming and didn't think the space could manage a third (I wasn't small neither). It was when I heard one say 'pread out yu'self Dorcas, one big woman a come', that the humour, the originality, and the power of instant communication and description in the Jamaican patois language came home to me. I went home and started writing, and I just couldn't stop.”

By now we know of her British Council scholarship to England where she became the first black student at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. She had a distinguished career in the cultural field before returning to Jamaica, arm in arm with her husband Eric Coverley.

They shared an amusing story of their march to the altar. Eric had spotted her extraordinary talent when she performed on his amateur shows as a young teenager. He continued to include her in his stage shows and dramatic productions as she grew older, and according to him, any time he was invited to a party the host would say, “Bring Louise”.

On her part, Louise would say that whenever she was invited out, they would say “Bring Coverley”. Then one evening after escorting her home, Eric said “Louise, we can't go on meeting like this. You will have to marry me.”

“Coverley,” she replied, “is that your idea of a proposal?”

On returning to Jamaica Louise continued to write, broadcast and act, and joined Jamaica Welfare as a drama teacher. This job took her around the island to schools, towns and villages. Enter me, when she visited my father's school at Four Paths and they developed a close family relationship.

My father was proud and excited to have the great Louise Bennett on his head teacher's platform and after the introductions he would hand over classes to her. We loved those moments listened, learnt, and enjoyed the rich dialect poetry, then joined in singing the Jamaican folk songs she brought with her.

Coming after a diet of English songs like Sweet Afton and Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes, you can imagine how we launched into our Jamaican songs in our own vernacular, belting out Linstead Market, River Ben Come Down, Hill And Gully Rider, and more.

Miss Lou gifted us with her songs, poetry, laughter, and enriched our school and library with collections of her works.

I can still recall her walking over to the teacher's cottage after school and taking an afternoon nap in my parents' bed. “Oh Miss Abie, I am so tired.” She and my mother became firm friends. They both shared the Jamaica Social Welfare calling, and my mother wrote plays for village productions. Louise would chat with her on the verandah and even if her time was running out she listened to my mother's readings and would give her approval with the characteristic Miss Lou laugh.

Later they would share suggestions over lemonade, sandwiches or bread pudding. Miss Abie made the best bread pudding in South Clarendon, according to another regular visitor Percy Broderick Snr. Looking back, I suspect that Broderick and Miss Lou may have timed their visits for Mondays as that would be when the weekend baking was still cooling off with enough left over in the pudding pan for sharing.

Miss Lou eventually gave up the social welfare job and kind of disappeared back into Kingston, but remained a big part of our lives with the famous Lou and Ranny Show on the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation evening entertainment programme. I think it was every Tuesday evening. There was no television then, and the closest cinema was seven miles away in big city May Pen, so radio was a big family draw. The soap operas of the day, Dr Paul, Betty and Bob, Portia Faces Life, and Second Spring, kept us glued to the radio. So did, at my tender age, the Lannaman's Children's Hour, and the B irthday Club, forerunners as we grew older, to Teenage Dance Party and Charlie Babcock's Platter Parade.

In later years, as a young man working in Kingston, I ran into Miss Lou again, this time on a date shared with colleagues who knew her personally and kindly invited me to join them for lunch with the great lady. It was her birthday and I felt nervous about crashing the party. But Miss Lou made me feel comfortable and engaged me, a shy young man, in the conversation. To my surprise she remembered the name Neita and asked me about the family back home. This must have been some 20 years after she last visited.

Recalling my mother's literary ambitions, she asked me if I did any writing and I volunteered that I was interested in writing a pantomime. To my amazement the lady took time out to listen to my storyline, encouraged me to finish it, and to send the finished work to her for review. “You mus' write it and send it, it sound good.”

Well, that never materialised because I knew it wasn't good enough for her standard, but I will never forget the patience she displayed in a young man's vain and bumbling efforts to impress. And that's the story of how Jamaica lost its best Pantomime yet.

Finally, fast-forward 50 years from my elementary school days to open the memory box with Miss Lou in Canada. It was 2004, and we were organising a homecoming public function in St Ann.

Someone came up with the bright idea to call Miss Lou and broadcast the telephone conversation to the audience. Unfortunately, this live and direct didn't work as the voices couldn't carry over the microphone.

Nevertheless, I took the opportunity to add my own “Hello Miss Lou” among the other excited callers who were lining up to have a conversation with the legend. I identified myself as Lance and immediately Miss Lou, 50 years later and thousands of miles away, picked up and asked, “Are you a Neita from Four Paths? Your mother used to write some good plays, yu know.”

Talk about head swell and glad bag bus'. What a memory! What a gracious lady! What an inspiration! I am going to write that Pantomime one day and send it to her. In the meantime, Happy birth year, Miss Lou.

 

— Lance Neita is a writer and public relations consultant. Comments to the Observer or to lanceneita@hotmail.com


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