Some of you may have noticed that I sometimes miss the Friday deadline for a new column on this site. Well, I fully admit this is because on occasions I just can’t think of anything. Or circumstances have conspired to fill my week with what seemed to more important distractions. It was ever thus. I recently unearthed this Bath Chronicle piece from 2000, when I was lucky enough to receive a large Arts Council grant towards the writing and production (and indeed performing the title role) of Rasputin the Musical. This was a big show, and along with the subsidy came a lot of responsibility, including of course some very strict deadlines.
But first I had to go on holiday…
For the last fortnight I have been on holiday on the tiny island of Bequia in the Grenadines. Two whole weeks in the Caribbean seemed somewhat indulgent, so I made my mind up that part of the time would be dedicated to work. To be precise, I was determined to do some research for the show I am co-writing for the Natural Theatre Company. It’s called Rasputin the Musical and amongst other things will feature obscure early 20th Century Russian music. Though naturally, it’s a comedy.
Apart from the usual beachwear, sun creams and mozzie sprays, my luggage contained several weighty tomes on Russian history, a collection of tapes of even heavier music, and an assortment of crisp new notepads.
Bequia (pronounced Beckway) is only seven miles square, is very beautiful and has virtually no conventional tourist development. It is famous for not a lot, and not a lot of people have even heard of it. Plenty of time to do a bit of creative writing then. Why, before the fortnight was up, I’d have cracked the basic plot and I would even have the main scenes blocked in. Easy-peasy as the Russians say.
When we stepped off the seven-seater plane that had whisked us across the azure sea from Barbados to the tiny Bequia airstrip, the temperature and humidity hit us like a damp curtain. Even the locals were complaining about the heat. By the time Noel, our adopted taxi driver, had delivered us to our pretty rented house in the hills, along a switchback road lined with frangipani and hibiscus, we were soaked in sweat.
Leaping straight into our gorgeous private pool overlooking a stunning panorama of verdant hills, glittering ocean and distant palmy beaches, I formulated a plan. Two or three days would be needed to acclimatise and then I’d get creative! I arranged my notepads neatly on the table with my pile of serious books, ready for the big moment when I would put pen to paper. Oh how the words would flow!
During the course of the next few days, we walked to the beach that nestled at the foot of our green valley, only to find that the struggle home up near-vertical country lanes completely exhausted us. Visiting the Turtle Farm (where an ebullient old chap named Brother hatches thousands of the tiny creatures, and after five patient years releases them into the big bad world) quite wore us out. And clambering through the forest to a deserted, stormy Atlantic cove proved to be a monumentally tiring escapade.
Likewise, going into the brightly painted little capital to do a spot of shopping and people watching left us hot and bothered and weak at the knees. A trip to the amusingly named Princess Margaret Beach (called thus because HRH once took a dip there en route to exclusive Mustique) with its perfect arc of powdery white sand and appropriately gin-clear waters, had us whacked.
I therefore modified my plan. One week would be enough to get used to the heat and to see all the sights twice. Surely after that, with a bit of extra swimming, I’d be dashing up the steep road from the sea and striding over the hills to town like nobody’s business! Fit as a fiddle and cool as a cucumber, I would while away the evenings on my breezy balcony, creating my masterwork to the sound of cicadas and tree-frogs.
Said balcony turned out to be a tad too breezy for creative concentration and the tree-frogs were a bit on the loud side for listening to Borodin. Most nights, a veritable typhoon blew across the sea and up the moonlit valley, scattering the poolside chairs and sending towels fluttering off into the lashing palms.
Inside, behind the mosquito screens and storm doors, it was far too hot and sticky to even contemplate holding a pen. There was nothing for it but to brave the gale, turn on the pool lights and leap into the cooling water, while fireflies battled with the blustery winds and the little inflatable fish that held our cocktails bobbed around us in the choppy water.
Every day, Noel appeared, ready to take us away to a delicious harbourside lunch of conch chowder (‘a known aphrodisiac’) or to yet another stunning beach. Noel’s taxi, like most on the island, was a converted pick-up truck with padded benches and open sides. Breezy fun until we drove past the reeking council tip. Still, even Paradise has its smelly corners!
Soon, more than a week had flown by and I hadn’t written a word. Rasputin was starting to take a back seat. We had settled into a laid-back Caribbean rhythm: up at sunrise, a dip in the pool, fresh tropical fruit for breakfast, another dip. Then Noel would arrive with astonishing punctuality to take us to the ocean, where an equally efficient system of water taxis would pootle us off to visit teeming coral reefs or to lie oiled and frying on Princess Margaret (nicer than it sounds).
One night my room was raided by a vicious feral cat that had been terrorising the area. It hurtled round my bed, the remains of an iridescent humming bird gripped in its jaws. When I told our kindly hosts, Jo and Alan, they brought me a rifle, and it was pretty clear it was my duty to rid the neighbourhood of this pest. The debate in the Bath Chronicle about seagulls came to mind.
I sat up most of the evening on the darkened balcony, rifle cocked and ready. Whether I would have had the nerve to actually fire the thing, let alone kill a cat with it, is debatable. I’d never held a gun in my life! But it was a darned sight more exciting than reading about endless Grand Duchesses in St Petersburg or that the mad monk only changed his underwear every six months!
Bequia is gorgeous. The people are dignified and friendly. The sea is superb. The Rastas in the market are totally charming in their sales hustling. The pace is sedate: ladies wear long dresses and wonderful hats to church and the dollar notes sport a portrait of a disconcertingly young Queen Elizabeth. There is something of the 1950’s about it. We didn’t need to lock our doors – we couldn’t anyway as our doors didn’t have locks.
There was nothing much to do, and doing nothing was a full time job that needed planning, concentration and stamina. ‘Rasputin’ didn’t float onto the page. In fact when I did finally open my spanking new notepad, I was on the plane home and I was writing this article. And I didn’t feel guilty at all.
Bath Chronicle 7/10/2000
‘Rasputin’ did eventually get written and went on to tour Britain and Europe, to excellent reviews.