‘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!

%d bloggers like this: