Trini in Europe - Spring has sprung
Journalist and children's writer Natalie Williams writes about life in Europe
Regent’s Park is my favourite top-class green space, with its spectacular open-air theatre for a “wash your foot and come” experience (no Pimm’s necessary).
Kew Gardens, too, is special for the carpet of purple crocuses and bluebells that Nature rolls out.
The ever-popular Hampstead Heath is even more stunning in spring, its grassy mounds perfect for a spot of reading or snoozing and the ancient trunks of its old oak trees begging for a resting shoulder.
One certainly understands why the 19th-Century poet Robert Browning – who, incidentally, had ancestral Caribbean connections – wrote in Home Thoughts from Abroad: “Oh, to be in England now that April’s there….”
The Wise One and I are lucky enough to live close to one of London’s waterways: a short leisurely stroll along our nearby canal transports us to a lush English countryside walk, complete with houseboats and swans.
You have to love a city that hosts a pop-up Gin Palace festival (Covent Garden), chocolate and coffee festivals, a gig called the Real Street Food Festival alongside a boat race and a goat race, all in the same month.
But urban spring has come at a price this year. Under the long-awaited rays of sunshine, the warmth kept in check by stubborn winter winds, everything is blanketed by an uncanny calm. The ghost of a titan past haunts the streets; and it is indeed an unusual season.
In the wake of the horrific, senseless bombings at the Boston marathon in America, and while the London marathon was taking place, security has been extremely tight everywhere.
Picture 4,000 London bobbies in position all over the city, keeping a tense watchful eye – a necessary reminder of forebodings of evil that threaten to suck the joy out of being here.
The Maggie effect
And then there’s the Maggie effect - the double-whammy reason for this tight security net, and an unfolding piece of British history for which the entire world braced itself.
Following the demise of at 87 of Baroness Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, thousands lined the streets of the capital for what was probably the world’s most-watched official funeral in recent history.
It was the first time since the death of Winston Churchill that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II had attended the service of a former prime minister.
Even London’s iconic Big Ben was silenced for the solemn occasion.
It must be said that no one does pomp and ceremony like the British.
It tickled me to discover that there’s even a gleaming ornate official mourning sword that was dusted off and unwrapped from its red velvet cloak to play its role in the spectacular military procession that travelled through the streets of London for Baroness Thatcher’s final journey.
She was also England’s longest-serving Prime Minister, steering three consecutive terms in what can only be described as hard turbulent times in British history.
There are a few things that struck me about her passing.
In death, too, she divided Britain once more, sparking huge, vociferous debate about her political legacy and her radical, controversial leadership from 1979 to 1990.
Some parts of the capital partied with bottle and spoon into the night, and whole communities protested against her glorification, downloading as her epitaph that ditty from The Wizard of Oz, Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead.
Elsewhere saw deep, deep sorrow at the realisation that the Thatcher era was well and truly over. As when she led the nation, there were tears and there were jeers.
I was very struck by the scenario of her spending her last months of ill-health and dying at the exclusive Ritz.
In my mind that image did not at all fit this no-nonsense “leveller of the playing field” (she was the daughter of a Lincolnshire grocer).
Growing up with Mrs Thatcher
I first heard of her as a young teen, from my grandfather, who always had a delicious (I use the word advisedly) sense of humour. I grew up in a household that was always interested in domestic and international politics, and to my grandfather’s generation “international” meant the United Kingdom.
Papa never referred to Thatcher as the Iron Lady.
To him, she was simply Maggie - like the stock cubes used in any dish that needed extra flavour and seasoning: Maggi, the best-selling staple of every Caribbean cook.
My grandfather loved to engage in word games with me, the young girl who confided in him at a tender age her wish to be a journalist and writer one day.
When I was a youngster, when we talked politics on a breezy afternoon on our veranda in St James, the BBC World Service ever-present as background fodder, he used to say things to me like: “Maggie good for England.
“Everything about the Mother Country could do with some spice – let them take what Maggie dishing them out good and proper.
“Maggie go fix them unpalatable union leaders.”
I can still hear his booming laughter as he berated the television screen: “Dash some Maggie at them, man! Them miners ain’t go know what hit them - dash some Maggie into things and watch England change!”
To this day I cannot disassociate the two Maggies.
Caribbean women leaders
I admired the formidable Margaret Thatcher for reasons associated with women’s empowerment. Nothing more, nothing less. She didn’t just break the glass ceiling, she shattered it to bits.
And in some ways, she paved the way for all the women political leaders who followed.
Long before T&T’s current and first female Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Dame Eugenia Charles of Dominica created history, one year after Margaret Thatcher, by becoming the Caribbean’s first female prime minister.
Like Thatcher, Dame Eugenia too would be recorded for posterity standing staunchly beside US President Ronald Regan, in the throes of the Grenada invasion by the trigger-happy Americans of that time.
And one of the first memorable events of the Thatcher era, reprised recently in television commentary, was that bloody great row she had with Reagan for invading Grenada without her permission and without consulting the Brits.
Just a handful of Caribbean leaders added to the global chorus of praise for Thatcher after her death – perhaps because her relationship with the region was very distant at best.
Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, has said the Baroness was an inspiration who “throughout her life has been a valuable contributor to local and global efforts to improve the wellbeing of those whom she served”.
And the region’s only other female leader, Jamaica’s Prime Minister, Portia Simpson Miller, said: “Baroness Thatcher helped to change the course of modern times and her influence will continue to be felt for generation to come.”
Prime Minister Thatcher was controversially ousted from power by her Cabinet of “grey suits” at a significant time in my island’s history, and in my personal development history, too.
Interview with Maggie?
It was 1990, I was older (a lady does not tell her age) and enjoying early success as an intrepid investigative journalist in Trinidad when a group of Muslim fundamentalists, some as young as 14 and barely able to hold machine-guns, staged a bloody coup in the capital Port of Spain.
They temporarily toppled the government, shot the prime minister in the leg, hijacked parliament and commandeered state television, shooting up ordinary hard-working people one busy Friday afternoon.
At the time I was negotiating with my employers, the Trinidad Guardian daily newspapers, to release me for study leave to complete a Master’s degree in journalism in the UK.
I sealed the deal by promising my then editorial mentor that I would be the first Caribbean journalist to secure an interview with the Iron Lady once in London (ambition is always a trump card).
That historic 1990 coup in Trinidad - easily the first of the so-called revolutionary springs, or terrorist attacks, depending on how you saw the cause of these armed men - put the kibosh on my education plans.
The study leave had to wait seven years.
Close to Mrs T…almost
As for Maggie… I do have kind of a story there too.
A couple of decades later, a very generous friend whom I love dearly took us to the Oxfordshire countryside for an unforgettable weekend stay.
The setting was a magnificent estate, complete with moat, garden sculptures, wine cellars accessed by sub-level elevators, and the only place I have ever seen original art work by Nelson Mandela.
No one does manor houses like the English.
The Wise One and I, slightly awed (only slightly, man) by the magnificence of our surroundings and great style of our hosts, were strolling the stately gardens (well, a tiny section - one would have needed a golf cart drive to see it all properly) when the butler gently and with deference befitting a prince informed us that a certain garden path, lined with inviting pale blue hydrangeas and leading to a beautiful villa, was off-limits, as “the Baroness” was convalescing.
That evening at dinner, the ever “macocious” journalist in me investigated further, and learned that the VIP in the next-door villa was Baroness Thatcher, no less, in what was her “home from home” whenever she left London for rest.
Had fate twisted events for me to have actually bumped into Margaret Hilda Thatcher in person, while stopping to smell the roses that weekend in rural Oxfordshire, I might have recommended a quick Caribbean rum-and-lime-juice libation, guaranteed to cure all bodily aches and pains, while raising the spirits too.
I might also have told her: “Rest up well, Maggie. The world will be a blander place without you in it.”