While Rome Burns by Sarah Manley

A repost of Sarah Manley’s note on why the inaugural staging of Diner en Blanc in Kingston was problematic.

moet

 The following was posted on Facebook by Sarah Manley on 19 March 2015 at 09:32. Despite repeated efforts to get her to start a blog where she can make her excellent writing available to the general public she continues to post them as Facebook Notes. This one is so relevant to an earlier post on Active Voice, “Caviar fantasies and champagne dreams”: The imagined community of #DinerEnBlanc in Kingston, that i had to repost it here…

One thing i’ve noticed in some of the bumph attached to this event is a reference to it as “the start of a social movement”. Would love to hear more about this, was there some kind of social motive or rationale behind the hedonistic display of Diner en Blanc? Or did they mean ‘social’ as in page 2 of the Observer? Anyone know anything?

With this piece Sarah Manley has certainly declared herself a powerful voice for social reformation, perhaps following in the footsteps of her father, former Prime Minister Michael Manley. Take a read…

They say the victors record history. It is they who tell the story from their perspective, as they are often the only survivors to tell the tale. But, a narrative told only one way misses details that in hindsight are important. Small or large tidbits left out present an incomplete picture. Perspective matters.

When I posted the picture juxtaposition of the Diner En Blanc affaire beside the huge plumes of smoke from the Riverton City Dump fire blanketing the city of Kingston I did so with a clear conscience and a profound sense of irony. The elegant aerial of Jamaica’s elite decked out in fine style streaming in to our National Emancipation Park, a picture I might add widely circulated in social media, and in traditional media, presented an irresistible visual representation of the haves doing what haves do. Their choice of white clothing formed an almost cloud like film eerily similar to the white smoke billowing over the capital. While Rome Burns, a long venerated metaphor for those with excess living to excess in the midst of poverty and desperation begged to be the caption. Immediately came the backlash from attendees, many of whom I count among my friends, acquaintances, former school mates and family. I am myself a part of the elite of Jamaica. In fact I hold the dubious distinction by accident of birth, and by far more deliberate upbringing of being counted among  perhaps the most reviled of the elites, the political elite.

A curious response emerged to my post from the attendees of the dinner. They seemed unaware that there was any irony attached at all and were genuinely surprised that I would put the two images together. They said they were unrelated. That the fire did not literally happen while they dined. They said in short that I was comparing apples and oranges. I was actually shocked. I expected some response, perhaps a sheepish, “well mi dear we may as well for Rome is burning anyway”. But to not see the irony at all was something that frankly astounded me. I can go on ad nauseum with examples of how Rome is figuratively burning daily, hourly, minutely in our beloved homeland. Where do I begin? I’ll begin with the dump itself which within a few short days and a few short miles away from the charming stylish dinner, began to suspiciously smoke, and as the head of the fire department said, was engulfed in flames over an unprecedented area, an area so large he has to attribute the fire to arson. This is not a new phenomena as these dump fires happen annually, and in fact it has been suggested are an accepted part of an economic structure so deformed that starting the fire is a common strategy of business development for the truck owners who are paid to haul the huge mounds of dirt needed to put it out. It is in fact business as usual. I go further. Noted environmentalists have said that strategies to improve garbage disposal in Jamaica have been repeatedly ignored by successive governments because they are either unaffordable or stand in the way of garbage for energy plans that appear to be permanently on the shelf. This is Rome burning literally and figuratively.

I can go on. The Ministry of Health, itself so cash strapped that it is frequently in the news for being short of even the most basic supplies, not to mention broken equipment it cannot repair, hospital beds it cannot supply etc, stated that it was awaiting results of air quality tests sent overseas to labs that we don’t have to determine the level of contamination in the smoke. Curiously, they later said that there will be no lasting effects from exposure. Fascinating. Are these Canadian lab results in? And what did they say? Enquiring minds want to know. These are but two of several examples of Rome in flames that are directly related to this particular fiasco.

But the merry revelers need not concern themselves with Rome as it appears they are exempt from it’s rules, it’s outcomes and it’s consequences. By example we look at the choice of the location secured for their bashment. The Emancipation Park. This park was opened in 2002 to serve as a monument to the end of the ignoble history on which our nation was built. In deference to it’s name and the freedom for which it stands its rules include that it is a public park. One of only a few carefully maintained public spaces in our city designed for all to enjoy. It costs 80 million sweat drenched dollars annually to keep it in it’s pristine state, money financed controversially from another venerable Jamaican institution the National Housing Trust. We forgive this misuse of NHT funds because this Park is for all of us. Or is it? The Diner En Blanc crowd, by virtue of its extensive political and economic connections in society appear to have circumnavigated the express rules of the park and managed to not only have a section, their special section,  closed for their soiree, but to bring champagne no less, in a towering pyramid of sumptuous white, to the park which expressly prohibits the use of alcohol. Champagne, the glorious symbol of excess… the wine drunk by kings. Yet there is no irony. Yea right.

So we must ask ourselves this question. Why are these self important, over privileged, over exposed, immaculately dressed folk unable to see themselves as the fiddlers and to see Rome itself in flames around them? Why do they think they are entitled to have their story recounted by them only, from their perspective alone? Have they bought in to their own press? Over the past 20 or so years, a culture has emerged in Jamaica. In it, a society of  “important” people have been created by virtue of attending social events and having those events publicized, first in the traditional press, which continues, and now in social media. It has become a thriving business where products are marketed and those in attendance are photographed and presented to the public as icons of style,fashion, and overall class and good taste. In fact, these page two moments are peddled by calculating culture vultures who hold the other side of the coin, the often vicious gossip column entries as the sword over the heads of any party thrower who dares to exclude them from participating. It’s a pretty nasty trick that has exploited the over inflated egos of the wanna bes for financial gain. It has been allowed to flourish unchallenged for over 2 decades as no one wants to be on the receiving end of the pepper potty mouth. Is it this ridiculous press that has convinced the few that their aspirations, their desires to see themselves in newsprint are actually a form of relevance? Notably absent from the Blanc proceedings were many brokers of power in our charming little village. Well known politicians were not present, well known bankers, well known businessmen were not photographed frolicking among the champagne glasses and white table settings shamelessly touted in the weeks leading up by businesses owned by other members of the elite. Do they see the irony of flaming Rome surrounding the emancipated blancs? A good question.

I have long espoused a theory I find to be one of a few core root issues we suffer from in Jamaica. I call it form over function. We Jamaicans are spectacularly good at appearances. We are good at creating the appearance of success. We seem however to have confused looking the part with being the part. It is so ingrained in our culture that to many of us we genuinely think that if we show up, in the right attire, at the right address, it doesn’t matter if we actually produce nothing, do nothing, alter nothing, because to us, the mere fact of our presence is enough. Blanc is a fine example of this. Surely our haute couture elegance taking over Emancipation Park is evidence of our general success as movers and shakers in society. Surely the fact that we could demonstrate such a sumptuous show of style is evidence of our virtue. To suggest otherwise is, well it’s just being a hater. But, form is not function. The appearance of success is not success.That you could turn up in your finery with your picnic baskets of (What was in those picnic baskets? Good cheese? Pate? Or tin mackerel?) of whatever, is evidence of nothing. Rome is a flame, despite your presence on the Boards of Associations, despite your Jimmy Choos. The desperate in ghettos ten deep to a room are plotting ever plotting to scale your wall, to pick your pocket, to carve themselves out a slice of your pie cooling just beyond their reach on your watchtower.

We have its not my fault itis. Witness our Prime Minister’s statement to the people of Jamaica regarding the Head ofthe NSWMA. She races to her defense with a most peculiar logic. She says, that since the head of the agency did not start the fire, she cannot be held accountable. Really? So what is her job then if not to take on the responsibility, and with that the concurrent accountability for happenings on the dump she collects a monthly paycheck to oversee? It’s nobody’s fault. Blame is not a thing we take easily here on the remnants of the plantation. Perhaps the sting of the cat o nine is so rooted in our ancestral memory avoiding blame is something we must do at all costs, for the whipping is hot, and the scars never fade.

Diner en Blanc is an international phenomenon. Originally it had about it an air of wanton subversion. In the past it was staged in public spaces without the permission of the authorities and the secrecy of the location was not only to surprise and delight the participants, but also to avoid authoritarian reaction. It has evolved into something else. An exclusive gathering of the crème de la crème showing the rest of us what style really looks like. When you hold such an event in a poor third world country, what you end up presenting is perhaps not what you intended, but it’s a spectacle that in our case ironically, preceded Rome literally igniting. It is the final layer of irony in an event ablaze with it that some picnickers are unable to see this perspective and it reeks of a denial so deep it is frightening.

Author: Annie Paul

writer, editor and avid tweeter anniepaulose@gmail.com

8 thoughts on “While Rome Burns by Sarah Manley”

  1. Wow! Heavy. Love the language and the social dissection. Does Jamaica have a sanitary landfill? I can visually see these people dressed in their immaculate white against the backdrop of the landfill that is burning and their total oblivion to the effects on the people around and the environment of all the toxic elements in the smoke

    1. haha quite an image…no we don’t even have one landfill David…just Riverton Dump…which periodically combusts–not as spontaneously as some ppl think….

      1. My friends and I have been debating every single issue in this article for the past few weeks. Lol I definitely have to share it with them. I love your perspective, might not necessarily agree with the tone of some of what is said ha ha. Love the language used. Well written

  2. This piece is so well written. Apart from the fact that I agree completely with the perspective, I shall surely find the material useful in helping my 13 year old to understand Literary devices, descriptive writing etc etc. Thank you so very much!!!

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