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A journey through my memory bank


Friday, February 01, 2019

February has begun. The second month of the year is recognised as both Black History Month and Reggae Month. It is also the birth month of several Jamaicans who have made their mark on this nation. The well-loved musicians Bob Marley (born February 6) and Dennis Brown (February 1) open the batting, while Jamaican National Hero Sir Alexander Bustamante was born on February 24. I don't mean to brag, but I too have a birthday celebration in the month as well.

Birthdays often cause you to pause and think about your life. Going through my 'memory bank', it seems like this is the time to tell you my “Busta” story. This goes back to my days at The Gleaner when I was a young reporter. Word had gone around that Gladys Longbridge, personal secretary and companion to politician, Alexander Bustamante, had a story she was eager to share. While accompanying Busta on a trip to England, Longbridge had discovered a store which had a beautiful garden growing on the roof, and she thought it would be a good feature for the newspaper of the day.

I do not know why I was chosen for the assignment, but Theodore Sealy, formidable editor of The Gleaner, decided I should go to Tucker Avenue and “get the facts”. Longbridge greeted me when I got to the residence and I was ushered in to meet “the Chief”, as he was known. Even though seated in a chair his imposing height was evident. His generous portion of salt and pepper hair made him appear even more formidable. Longbridge asked to be excused to return to the kitchen, where lunch was being prepared. She called him “Chief” as she responded to his questions of the status of breadfruits being roasted for lunch.

I had been given a strict deadline that I was to be back in time to write up the story of the garden on top of the store roof. I was extremely nervous to be in the company of Sir Alexander Bustamante, whom I had heard so much about. He seemed conscious of my “fear and trembling” and reassured me by pointing out the many pigeons which were roosting in the yard. We began to talk about this and that, or rather he talked and I mumbled responses.

Then the call came for lunch. By then I was being referred to as “Little Girl”, and I was answering “Yes, Sir.” He asked if I liked roast breadfruit and I answered, “Yes, yes, Sir.” Longbridge and a helper brought out plates laden with slices of hot, roast breadfruit, slathered with salt butter.

At the urging of Busta to “Eat up, Little Girl,” I nibbled away at the pegs of roast breadfruit. I was no closer to getting the story of the rooftop garden and my anxiety was growing. Would I get back to my desk in time to deliver this story?

Busta was talking about pigeons and the rain, which had been steadily falling, then he changed the subject. “Little girl, you ever had champagne?” This “little girl” barely knew cola champagne, much less the real bubbly stuff. Busta was pouring a liquid into a slender glass and instructed, “Drink up little girl, drink up the champagne.” The rain kept pouring, and I was sure I was getting drunk when Longbridge took over. “No more champagne, Chief, she has to go back to work.” The interview finally began. With the air of a caring aunt she told me all about the garden on the store top.

My head was giddy and the Chief was set to pour more champagne when my ride arrived and I headed back to write my report. The story of the rooftop garden came out in the Sunday paper. I was not so tipsy that I couldn't get the job done.

Some years later I received another Sealy assignment to go up to Bellencita — Bustamante's residence in Irish Town, high in the hills of St Andrew, to write a report on “a lion at rest” (Bustamante in retirement). From mid-morning till afternoon we talked. Jamaica was in the height of the political turmoil of the 1970s. Busta talked of Michael Manley, son of his cousin and political rival, Norman Washington Manley, and their respective political parties. The Chief had nothing against the Manleys. He spoke feelingly of his love for Michael and Norman. The only problem he had with them, he said, was “they were too educated, and real politics needed more than “book knowledge”; it had to be practical.

Bustamante was much older then, and was almost blind, but his sense of humour was unbounding. The last time I shared hospitality with the Chief my husband and I were delivering orchid plants to Lady B. We sat and talked with Chief. Then he asked what time it was. Lady B checked and responded, “11 o'clock, Sir.” Busta declared: “Time for champagne. Give my girlfriend some champagne and, as for her husband, give him some arsenic!”

After our farewells, my husband and I headed back down to the plains, leaving the Chief and Lady Bustamante at Bellencita waiting for time to pass. The Chief made his way 'down from the hill' on August 6, 1977. Lady Bustamante died years later on July 25, 2009. By then, roast breadfruit and champagne were deeply etched in the memory of a young journalist.


Barbara Gloudon is a journalist, playwright and commentator. Send comments to the Observer or