What's Going On

Life occasionally throws you a gem. Often, it arrives fully formed and irresistible, waiting to be taken and revealed. I headed over to the Nag’s Head Market, nervous at the prospect of speaking with a few of the traders I met briefly a few weeks ago; they have probably forgotten who I am, surely busy with their own lives, the rush brought to the market by Jeremy Corbyn conspicuously absent for me to ride. There would be no broken ice for me to utilise this time.

As such, it seemed prudent to start with the most vocal resident of the market, Mr Clifford Farrell, the ring master to all the excitement surrounding Jeremy Corbyn’s visit I had chanced upon. Busy cooking fried chicken in his Paradise Passion cafe, I tentatively wandered over and introduced myself. We spoke of my blog, if he had seen it, his opinions of that day, his thoughts about Sidiq Kahn, and the Labour Party. He explained that he had supported Labour since his arrival from Montserrat in 1998.

Part of a group of Caribbean island in the Lesser Antilles, Montserrat is still part of the British Overseas Territories. Training as a firefighter at the Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service here in the UK, Clifford returned to Montserrat and was involved in the evacuation of his village following eruptions of the Soufrière Hills volcano, which became active in 1995 after many years of dormancy. For the next four years, multiple eruptions destroyed large parts of the island, including the capital city of Plymouth. 

Clifford showed me a series of photos from this past, photos tattered and inexplicably kept with him at his Paradise Passion cafe. I could see that these images were still highly significant to him. We went through each of the photos, recalling events of the time, pictures of his family, his younger training days, and photos that captured the horror of the erruption. The reality of what had happened inescapably captured in a photograph of two girls, seemingly petrified and rigid, and covered in ash. These photos were all pilled together, not neatly ordered and stored, but jumbled and instantly accessible, like significant life events often are years later. 

Clifford received an OBE for services as a fire and rescue officer during one of the many eruptions that rendered large parts of the island uninhabitable. Clifford’s village was also destroyed by the great sulphur outlet. The subsequent mass migration of the Montserrat people reduced the population to a third, some dispersing to neighbouring islands, most emigrating to the UK. For Clifford, it seemed the right decision to move to London.

It seems significant that on the day of the referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership to the European Union, with all the vitriol and scare mongering, tactics that have bordered on xenophobia and indeed crossed into racism, I chance upon such a story.

In 1998, the people of Montserrat were given full residency rights in the UK and in 2002, granted British citizenship to those that migrated over. This is the Britain I know. Member to the party that offers help and aid to those in need across the world.

As I sat down to scribble notes into my notepad, sweat beading on my forehead from the humidity that seemingly doesn't ever leave London, and exacerbated by the heat spilling out of the stove, my eyes drifted over the many photos adorned on Paradise Passion’s walls. Photos of Clifford with his family and friends, brought together by the love of food, photos of his children…I spot a photo of him from 2008 as an X-Factor contestant.

I have discovered a local celebrity, yet throughout our conversation he was the picture of humility and understatement. He explained he didn't subscribed to bragging and insisted he would be the same even if he won the lottery. It's just not his nature. I thanked Clifford’s partner for the hospitality, but couldn't help asking about that photo, and with a warm smile, she said he had many talents. 

As I left the market, I spotted Clifford having a fag break outside. I asked him in or out and with benevolent eyes looked at me as though I had asked the silliest question of our time together. In, of course. “Why would we want to go change things when we are already in Europe. These people are confusing us and we'll go around saying what's going on, we'll all turn into Marvin Gaye, singing What's Going On.”

Mehmet Hassan