Montserrat is perhaps one of the most beautiful places I have had the pleasure of visiting. The ‘Emerald Isle’, nestled into the Leeward Islands, deep in the heart of the West Indies, was discovered by Columbus in 1493. It was late 1988 and from Antigua we took a perilously small twin prop plane that would land us virtually on the beach at W.H Bramble Airport, a glorified rough track that has now, along with most of the south of the Island, been destroyed by the previously dormant volcano in 1995 (to add to that tragedy, in 1989, just months after we left, Hurricane Hugo also made a visit and destroyed 90% of the Islands infrastructure) Clearing customs was a ramshackle affair, much like a car boot sale, all carried out in the open with fragile looking trestle tables, our luggage and passports were given a cursory glance and we were soon set free to roam the island. Pre the afore mentioned natural disasters, this small nugget of paradise was home to ‘Air Montserrat’ a purpose built ‘state of the art’ studio, who’s proud owner was Sir George Martin. We were to stay in his ‘plantation’ house, a wooden, single story structure surrounded by a classic picket fenced veranda. As a child I was always encouraged to notice and appreciate nature. This is something that has never left me and so, typically I suppose, while the rest of the band settled in, I chose to wander round the extensive gardens. In front of the house was a large expanse of grass that had an unusually large number of golf ball sized holes in it. If this was somewhere to practice ‘putting’ then whoever had made the holes had got carried away, as they were dotted around everywhere. Instinctively reaching for one of the long blades of strong grass that grew at the perimeter of the garden, I inserted it deep into the hole to see what might live there. As soon as the grass reached the bottom, something latched on violently, attaching itself and making the blade heavy. Carefully I slowly retracted the grass wondering what might be holding on, a mouse perhaps or large native beetle? The legs came first, followed by a huge fury body. I am no arachnophobe, but I wasn’t prepared to be up close and personal with a real live tarantula. As I fled to the house it struck me that we would be living amongst these creatures for some time. To their credit though, they kept themselves, to themselves.
Morning came and with it a sumptuous breakfast, prepared by two ‘Tom and Jerry’ style apron-wearing ‘mamas’, both showing evidence of a committed eating programme. Freshly made pancakes were lovingly laid out before us and it was here that I would learn to ‘hedgehog’ a mango; each half, cubed with a knife and then turned inside out, still a delight to this day. Fruit of all kinds, grew in all places, begging to be picked.
The studio itself was beautifully positioned, set high up with far reaching views of the Island. Outside, was a large swimming pool, warm and inviting, and for refreshment, cold fresh coconuts (with straws inserted), were offered with a smile by the aptly named studio assistant, Sugar Daddy. All this and more lay on hand to cool and sooth away the stresses of recording. Food, and my hunger for it, has seemed to define and punctuate most of my life. This trip and the gastronomic delights it offered would provide no exception. Our chef, born and bred on the Island, and economically named X, was a giant of a man, who would prepare for us some of the best food I have eaten. Locally caught fresh Lobster (with curry sauce!) and fish of all shapes and sizes and of course chicken, lip tingling with hot sauce were all standards in his repertoire. We discovered in time that only chicken legs made it onto the island, perhaps breasts and thighs were deemed too expensive, so, when we saw ‘Mountain Chicken’ on the menu we fully expected to encounter other parts of, a perhaps, more local bird. But again, only legs arrived. This time though they looked slightly strange, bigger and darker in colour. They tasted great and it was only when X appeared for his after dinner applause that we noticed a suspicious smirk on his face. ‘Mountain Chicken’ was in fact, a frog, a huge local variety of the species, and the size of a melon. On occasion they would hop up to the pool and sit silently in the sun.
Meal times were the high point for me. The time spent in the studio could be exhilarating alright, but with a ‘deliver or you won’t feature’ policy in place, stress levels would rise (for me at least) At dinner though, the work was over for the day, and now there was eating to be done and some interesting banter with it. One evening when we had finished our food and the chef had made his customary appearance (to be told how talented he was) the conversation turned to the local female ‘talent’ and what bar or night club might be worth visiting, understandable given we were all male and with healthy levels of testosterone between us. Suggestions were made and long tales of fine Montserratian ‘babes’ already conquested were banded around, when suddenly, out of the blue, X hung a dubious left in the conversation. In a strong local patois, he uttered these unforgettable words.
‘Yeah but, ya aft ta *uck a duck’
As silence enveloped our table, someone plucked up the courage to press for further detail, which resulted in the realisation that it was indeed true, our man in the kitchen, had stayed from the beaten path and had a weakness for a duck. Later that evening, prompted by this earlier revelation, our producer divulged to us that, a now famous blues legend (who’s name I will keep to myself to ensure my future health and happiness) had grown up on a farmyard and also took ‘pleasure from the feather’, in his case it was chickens. There must be an easier way, I mused, even though poultry may well provide for an uncomplicated mistress, but could this be a clue as to why only chicken legs made it onto the island, and why our chef had turned his eye to the larger ‘billed’ ladies?
Moving swiftly on and to more savoury recreational matters. At the weekends we were invited by an English expat to spend the day on his catamaran, something we ended up doing on a regular basis. The beaches on the island had a rather dark brownish sand due to the volcanic rock, but he knew a beach that was pristine with untouched white sand that could only be reached via the sea. After an exhilarating sail round the island with sightings of flying fish and dolphins we would dock up and enjoy the snorkelling (As a near none swimmer I found that with a mask on, I could submerge my face in the water, and miraculously, my body would float, although sadly I also discovered that if I laughed, I would sink) Before leaving the studio for the catamaran, our singer had commissioned X to make a cake, the kind of cake that would leave a long lasting impression on everyone who sampled it. As the snorkelling came to an end and the skipper prepared to sail us home, we noticed that our technician was nowhere to be seen. It turned out that fully stocked up on cake he had headed off into the sunset. Delirious and happily hallucinating, we would have to wait two hours for his return, by this time sobered somewhat by the third degree burns to his back. By way of compensation though, the mermaids and sea monsters he had witnessed would provide endless stories for his grand children. Tired out by the fresh sea air we would very often sit and watch a DVD from the studios varied collection. This particular evening we had chosen ‘Spinal Tap’. As we sat down (not for the first time) to enjoy this very funny film, the studio manager, an English lady who had worked at ‘Air Montserrat’ since it opened in 1979 remarked on how popular this ‘rockumentary’ was with the very type of band it mocked. Under her watch at the studio she must have witnessed some of the biggest names in the business, from Stevie Wonder to Michael Jackson, Lou Reed to the Rolling Stones, they had all been here, but it was Black Sabbath that sprung from her memory, as Rob Reiner began his introduction to this spoof.
The boys from Sabbath, she recalled, had sat in silence for the duration of the film and as the credits rolled, with misty eyes, they began to discuss what they had seen.
“that was sad”
“yeah” (long silence)
“yeah, that was sad ... but they had some great songs”
Having been to the top of the Soufriere Hills volcano and peered down into its molten yolk, I couldn’t have been more unaware of what would soon happen. Shocking were the images of the islands capitol, Plymouth, reduced to an oversized ashtray, this small slice of paradise is now forever tainted. I often think of the homegrown (now late) Montserratian ‘soca’ star, ‘Arrow’, who was responsible for the worldwide hit ‘Hot Hot Hot’. He was reputed to have an arrow shaped swimming pool and known for his no nonsense, direct approach to life. On one night out we would meet him and indulge in some mutual backslapping. The conversation, however, ended with his trademark honesty as he uttered the words,
“yeah I like ya music”
(long pause and whilst walking away)
“to a point”