‘Guns, Ganja and Games’ anyone?

Dear Annie Paul,

Anne Walmsley, Nick Gillard and Bill Schwarz all recommended that I contact you.

Faber & Faber have commissioned me to write a book (non-fiction) on Jamaica, which will be a hybrid of history and travel. I am interested in Small Axe, and wonder if we could meet? Do you perhaps have a contact telephone number?

I shall be arriving in Kingston this Monday 4 July for an initial period of two months to research my book.

My last book was a biography of the Italian writer Primo Levi (Picador USA, Vintage UK), but I have written extensively on Haiti, so I’m not entirely new to the West Indies. Indeed I visited Jamaica last October for the first time.

When you have a moment, please do get in touch.

With all good wishes,

Ian Thomson

I received this email from Ian Thomson in 2005. The hybrid book of history and travel he was arriving to research has just been published with the provocative title The Dead Yard: Tales of Modern Jamaica. Four years is a good turnaround for a book like this. Anyone who thinks that they can write a book today, publish it tomorrow and retire on the profits the day after that doesn’t understand the world of publishing. The journey from manuscript to print alone can last almost two years.

If that doesn’t deter the starry-eyed would be writers who publish their effusions in the Sunday papers then perhaps this will. One of the things that struck me about Thomson when I finally met him was his obsession with thrift and economy. He never took a taxi if he could get a bus or walk, and he rarely paid for meals or drinks with his informants. If he had made much money from his earlier books there was no sign of it. And if Faber had allocated him an expense account it was an extremely parsimonious one.

In a country such as Jamaica where walk-foot whites are a rarity Thomson stood out like a sore thumb. I saw quite a bit of him on that first visit he made to Kingston. He had a quirky sense of humour and an analytical eye and of course like all writers he came formatted with his own subjective prejudices and preconceptions. Apparently back in England he had close friends who were first-generation immigrants from Jamaica to the UK and his view of things Jamaican was necessarily coloured by what he had been told by them.

Photo: Peter Dean Rickards

So I’ve been waiting a long time for Ian’s book and my appetite has been further whetted by his punchy, devastating article in the UK Independent last week: “Sun, sand and savagery: Whatever happened to Jamaica, paradise island?” Illustrated with a provocative photograph by Peter Dean Rickards titled ‘Guns, Ganja and Games’ the article has predictably roused the ire of Jamaicans here and abroad (stirring up controversy to promote book sales is a well-known publishing gimmick) although some of what he says is indubitably true and warrants comment:

“Jamaica is now a quasi-American outpost in the Caribbean, yet its legal system is clogged with British Empire-era red tape. The island’s anti-sodomy laws, which carry a jail sentence of up to 10 years, derive from the English Act of 1861, and show to what a dismal extent Jamaica has absorbed values from its imperial masters. Similarly, the death penalty is still on the Jamaican statute books, though most capital punishments are overturned in London by the Privy Council, Jamaica’s Court of Final Appeal. Thus an ancient British institution comprised of mostly white Law Lords has become the unlikely defender of human rights in Jamaica. A majority of Jamaicans – not just conservative, pro-monarchy ones – see hanging as the only effective deterrent against criminality: murderers must face death. Yet the British Law Lords, through the grace of Queen Elizabeth II, use their power to prevent executions. Such paradoxes are part of the Jamaican confusion: Victorian standards that have long disappeared in Britain linger on in Jamaica – to Jamaica’s detriment.”

More on The Dead Yard after I’ve read it. I’ve asked someone arriving from the UK next week to procure me a copy as it may not be available locally for some time to come. Rumours have been swirling about the book being banned locally, censorship and other worse outcomes. As a friend from Trinidad wrote: BTW have you heard that Faber can’t get any bookseller in JA to stock The Dead Yard?

So being the upstanding member of the Book Industry Association of Jamaica that i am i went straight to the source for more information on these rumours. Suzzanne Lee of Novelty Trading Co. the primary importers and distributors of books and magazines in the island was quick to dispel the speculation:

Dear Annie,

To my knowledge, there is NO local ban on Ian Thompson’s “Dead Yard” or any other book in Jamaica for that matter. The Novelty Trading Company does not believe in censorship and has always stood for freedom of the press.

Novelty Trading was asked to invest in a few thousand copies of this book. Due to the significant financial exposure that would be required and given the vast number of persons mentioned and quoted, we requested permission from the publishers to check sources. The first two sources checked said the book had factual inaccuracies. We then forwarded the book to our Company Lawyer who read it and advised that “portions may be legally actionable”. Due to the above, Novelty declined the publisher’s offer to distribute this title. We made the decision that there are no profits worth more than the reputation of our company. This was purely a business decision.

I am not aware of how exactly Jamaica’s libel laws differ from those in the US and UK, but we have recently encountered another case of a memoir which we attempted to purchase and which the publisher refused to sell to Jamaica due to our libel laws.

I hope this email clarifies any rumours you have heard about “Dead Yard” and Novelty Trading.

All best,


More as i said when i’ve read the book. Meanwhile all roads lead to Treasure Beach next week where the next instalment of Calabash Literary Festival will unfold with the usual stellar cast of writers including Robert Pinsky, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Xu Xi, Pico Iyer, Melvin Van Peebles, Terese Svoboda and Patrick French. Calabash ho everyone!

Author: ap

writer, editor and avid tweeter

26 thoughts on “‘Guns, Ganja and Games’ anyone?”

  1. Annie, I haven’t read the book either and I’ve made a promise to myself to get it.

    So far, the responses to “Sun, sand and savagery: Whatever happened to Jamaica, paradise island?” have been to react with scorn to Thomson’s depictions of Jamaica.

    The bottom line is that we do have a high murder rate–one of the highest in the world and when you are killing that many people per day and is not a war, is time to wake up.

  2. Annie, thanks for the background on the book, and for getting a response from Novelty Trading on the record.

    The British Booksellers Association has guidelines for booksellers on how to deal with titles that may contain libelous material:


    It seems absurd, and for that matter unfair, that people outside Jamaica can read what Thomson has to say about the country, but Jamaicans can’t. I’m interested to see what your other readers think about the matter.

  3. The Yard Cyaan’t Dead for we are survivors. Painful truth is that Massa Day ent gone yet and we continue to downpress the people with wickedness in high places that contribute to the violence. Free up the people, free up the herb, abolish death penalty and the people will follow suit and show more love to one another.

  4. Annie, thanks very much for the information on THE DEAD YARD by Ian Thomson. Looking forward to procuring a copy myself. Hopefully,it will not be banned and will be accessible to all Jamaicans who have an interst in reading it, via libraries etc.Nuff respect!!

  5. Thank you all for commenting! Geoff, i agree, we should be more outraged about the spiralling violence and corruption here than the exposure of it by a writer, whether foreign or local.

    Nicholas, i shall pass on the link to the relevant people. anonymous yes dem fi free up di weed and EAR great to hear from you after such a long break…

  6. So a stingy ‘white guy’ ave something bad to say about JAH MEK YAH…that’s really surprising!

    HE doesn’t agree with the dominant value system…incredible…who would have though!?

    The stingy white man only a look fi sell books and mek a money by jumping pan the current beating stick of the world. Why don’t any off these writes ever write about Islamic states and Sharia law? These States have the death penalty, female circumcision, amputation for certain crimes, suppression of female rights, etc.

    Ian, guh write bout Saudi Arabia or some other more extreme Islamic state…a bet yuh can duh it. Bet! Yuh woulda broke fi the rest a yuh natural life, which I presume would be very short thereafter.

    Additionally, the book nah guh ban a Jamaica because any ban will invariably lead to increased sales…Jamaicans (who like to read books) have access to the internet and will procure copies if only to say “I have one too”. My guess is that the pretentious-sudo-intellectual-only-read-nonacademic-conversation-piece-material crowd will pour praises on the book…don’t mind the factual inaccuracies!

    Anyway, Annie beg yuh a photocopy when you get the book. Serious! (just smile nuh badda bex)

    Peace and love, Stero

  7. Stero: There are plenty of books about Islam and Sharia law by white people (and by non-white people named Naipaul to boot).

    I’ve read the piece in the Indy, and another piece that Veerle Poupeye linked to on her FB page. While the Indy piece was pretty standard, and not too surprising — Jamaica has a high crime rate and is a violent society, there’s no doubt of that.

    The second piece contained quite a few inaccuracies (in its depiction of Walter Rodney, for example) that were matters of being a bit off-target rather than completely false. It was the history of Jamaica seen through a thick window, recognisable but not quite right. A blurred story rather than outright falsehood, if you understand what I mean.

    I found his reaction to the misogyny of the Bobo Shanti curious. It’s not as if Europeans weren’t just as misogynistic <>within living memory<>. And using my old acquaintance Myrtha Desulmé as his stick to beat them struck me as more than a bit unfair.

  8. I have no doubt that there may be a deliberate use of controversy to sell the books but whether it is called a ban or not, it remains that it will, unless another solution is found, not be available in Jamaica. His two recent articles on Jamaica — the one Annie linked and another one at http://standpointmag.com/node/1128/full — *are* problematic, although both also contain very astute observations. I suspect that the book is of a very similar nature. I’ll defer judgment until I have read the book but here are two of my preliminary concerns. One is that his articles fail to provide any truly new perspectives. Most of what he argues has been argued many, many times before, by Jamaicans and non-Jamaicans. The difference is that he is a very compelling writer. I have read with some alarm the customer reviews on Amazon UK, most of which seem to have come from persons who are not familiar with the island, and you’d think that this is the new bible on Jamaica. This makes it all the more important for Jamaicans to read this book and to participate in the critical debate on the subject. I therefore fully agree with Nicholas, that people in Jamaica should have access to this book and make their own decisions about the validity of its contents.

  9. Stero, FSJL, Veerle and Hubert,

    First–I’M GETTING A COPY OF THE BOOK TOMORROW! from Justine whose parents are in it…

    ok i haven’t read the second article Frag is referring to, so thanks for the link V. Yes, he is a compelling writer, like naipaul i suppose, but it will be a pity if his book is taken to be the unexpurgated truth.

    Hubert i think he came here four times in all, or it could be three, spent about 6 mths altogether. yeah so its like a travelogue.

  10. Veerle,

    i forgot to mention that there’s nothing to stop bookshops here from ordering and selling the book. Novelty declined to but that doesn’t mean others can’t or won’t…

  11. I’m afraid that I can’t be very angry at what he wrote. I don’t agree with how he framed a lot of stuff in the articles, and some of what’s in the book is bound to be derivative, but no amount of ridiculous superlatives and fyah bun can hide the objective reality that is there. This country is fucked up in some serious ways, and all the squawking and defensiveness not going to do a dyam ting about fixing it. We are too accepting of the reams of injustice and political slackness and corruption that pervade this country. We are too complacent and complicit with the sheggery that passes for institutional redtape and which threatens to reduce our everyday life to one long blasted line inna sunhot only to have the gate closed in our faces as soon as we get there. We love to jump up but don’t want to work to build anything; and those who are busting dem ass to build don’t get our support because we cyaaa bodda; too busy looking for the next party or complaining about C&W. Well, WE have to do differently; if we don’t, no matter how pissed off we may want to be at this particular representation of our reality, we cannot hide from the fact that we are growing one hell of a criminal cesspool here. The truth is hard to swallow, he could have sweetened it a lot more, but is not his fault we in this situation. It’s ours. We need to take responsibility an done.

    And by the way, Jamaica has never a paradise for most of us, so some of us really need to stop acting like this was ever true to begin with. Nuh bex with Ian because im a destroy fi im own fantasy. That paradise foolishness is a story that smaddy mek up back in the day and some of us now well latch on to because we think it is our job to pimp out Jamaica to dem white people. Well, me nuh deh pon dat. It woudda sweet me if not a single one a dem tourist come back yah, so we can turn our attention to taking care of ourselves instead of kissin’ dem baxide. If this will get us to that point, good. The only problem is, di Tourist Board would still get mos’ a govament money fi come up wid a nex’ gimmick fi get the tourist dem fi come back an mash up we ya’ad.

    While its laudable to make sure that the book is available to Jamaicans, I have no confidence that the discourse will be any different than it is now in its nascent stages. In the end, this is just another piece of writing that passes as culture-knowledge and which people will read while they listen to Bob Marley’s “3 little birds.” A few academics will read it and try to deconstruct the hell out of it, which will give it a longer life, still. Indeed, as I am writing this, I feel like the kind of writing that characterizes this person’s research will have a remarkably stultifying effect on our collective ability to address some of the social issues he notes in the article; that ability to mobilize in any effective way is already under serious house arrest right now. So then, we’re back to business as usual. Wait, THIS is business as usual. I’m not usually this cynical, but really not so sure I’m seeing anything new here. But, I am open to being surprised.

  12. Aside from the typically stupid choice of language in the article, the sad thing is lots of it is true (minus of course his time-warped 70s-esque ideas about class and race that he seems to apply to everything). It’s no worse than the typical stuff….and in a way, I’m relieved its not another Laurie Gunst book…it might end up being praised at UWI if it were!

    Nick Gillard actually reads?

  13. wow, Afflicted, this one brought you out…lol yard afflicted not dead.

    LB agree with much of what you say, you’re right of course. excess amount of sheggery a gwaan and no one squawkin ova dat…

  14. i read the initial article that you’d posted on twitter… i found it interesting, if a little sensational…

    i’d be interested in knowing what “memoir” the bookseller wasn’t able to procure?

  15. i was wondering about stacey-ann too… you think it’s perhaps <>The Other Side Of Paradise<> that the bookseller’s wary about???

  16. God man can you say Culture Vulture, gotta admit I love the term “factual inaccuracies” instead of say IDK “Liad”. It makes me so sick when ppl misrepresent so blatantly to fuel their agenda.
    Sad but to be fair we do provide some of the ammunition for our own firing squad. Sad thing is most ppl don’t have the attention span to actually do something about this douchebag or make his already sad life more uncomfortable in order for him to learn his lesson. I anticipate a follow up caw dun know he got bookies to pay and under age prostitutes to please, y else you think him so cheap Annie ^_^

  17. @ Eve Mann = the best revenge is to prove that this is *NOT* a dead yard an wi nuh ready fi sing sankey yet. But I suspect that’s not what you meant.

  18. oh God, I wouldn’t have called him that Eve, i actually liked Ian a lot…still have to read the book. i’m sure the book has infelicities as well as inacuracies but i agree with LB, a book like this couldn’t be written about Switzerland no matter how much the author misrepresented it…

  19. I’m a “local white” Jamaican expatriate living in the US, just finished reading “Dead Yard”, sent to me by a cousin in the UK.
    I wondered about some aspects of this book. I thought that he was a little too frank in discussing some of the incidents and sources, perhaps a betrayal of trust (this is particularly so where ganja use is involved). I don’t think the book would have suffered if some people were only identified in broad generalities, without names, and in some cases I think he repaid hospitality a bit poorly with some biting comments – either he could have omitted the coments (or toned them down), or not identified the persons involved. Clearly he did not intend to return to Jamaica, or publish more on the subject, because he will probably find it hard to get cooperation on future visits.

    Overall thioough, I thought the author was pretty fair, and he certainly got to see a wide variety of Jamaicans. About the only point I’d take issue with is that I think he overestimated the residual influence of Britain – I think his sample, although diverse, was a bit skewed since many of them had links to Britain – an understandable “bias” in sample selection, since many were friends of friends or he was referred to them by contacts back in Britain.

    Thompson was pretty fair about the crime/violence – he didn’t exaggerate it, nor did he play it down. I do note that he didn’t make any mention of any negative personal experiences on his 3 visits, and he certainly seems to have gotten out and mingled with the locals in a way few white visitors (or natives !) ever do – travelling on foot, by bus and by taxi. He must have been regarded as a bit of an eccentric, and I suppose that from past experience criminal types have found out that itinerant white travellers (mostly American “hippies” on a drug vacation) aren’t worth the effort to rob.

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