Journalism

A DATE WITH THE POPE

Inside Los Indios Bravos Cafe, Mabini, Manila

I have decided to reblog this as Philippine Esquire Magazine has published sections from it. Some people might want to read the full story as I wrote it at the time. Also, the fact that the current Pontiff, Pope Francis, is currently in the Philippines makes it newsworthy. I hope you enjoy it. 

My second visit to Bilibid Prison was under very different circumstances. In fact the day following my second visit one of the Manila papers referred to it under a typical tabloid headline: “Balloons and Bibingka for Benjamin’s Birthday.”

My friendship with the Bolivian surreal artist, Benjamin Mendoza, began in 1969. By that time I considered myself an old Manila hand, regarded by many locals as an honorary Filipina and by the Indios Bravos crowd a resident fixture of the cafe. Benjamin Mendoza was the new guy in town. As with most newcomers, particularly artists, it did not take long for him to gravitate towards the welcoming crowd in Indios Bravos. I met him on his first visit to the coffee shop. He was sitting alone and I instantly recognized him as a South American. He had the dark, elongated face, the fine aquiline nose and the thin lips, all familiar facial characteristics of the Quechua peoples of the Andes. I introduced myself and joined him at his table.

I was curious to find out why he had come to Manila, what had brought him there? “The art!” he told me, “I read books and magazines. I read about the vibrant art scene in Manila. I wanted to see it for myself. After all, Latin America and the Philippines have a common background – Spanish conquistadores and Roman Catholic priests. I wanted to see if our art was similar too.” He pulled out some small paintings from his battered briefcase and passed them across the table to me. They were miniature oil paintings, mainly of animals and religious subjects, in dark, brooding tones, the only light emanating from them were painted shards of broken glass around the edges. “What do they say to you?” he asked as I tried to look like I was studying them seriously.

I was tempted to say I had no idea but I was certain a psychiatrist would have found them challenging. But not wanting to appear inpolite, I smiled. “They’re good. I like them. What did you want me to see in them?”

“Vignettes of life. Hope, despair. Good, bad. Love, hate. Anger, serenity. Life is made up of contrasts. You can’t have one without the other.” He looked at me sideways as he stabbed a toothpick into the fried spring roll on his plate. “Haven’t you ever ended up hating someone you really loved? Had moments of immense happiness that resulted in tears? Had instances of unparalleled pleasure that turned into pain? That’s what I’m trying to say in my paintings.”

His voice was hushed, barely audible. Not because of the background music, “Hey Jude” by the Beatles playing loudly from the café’s sound system but simply because that was the way he spoke. Benjamin was gentle, thoughtful, if slightly morose.

Over the following months we forged a friendship of sorts. But whereas Benjamin was a solitary person, I was the opposite. He joined the Manila artists’ group, participating in their weekly gatherings but at the same time remaining on the periphery, belonging but apart. Many found him aloof, slightly weird but harmless. Betsy and I enjoyed his company and he soon became yet another regular in the cast of characters unique to the Indios Bravos cafe.

One evening Benjamin and I were sitting at his table discussing religion, one of his favourite topics.

“You’re so lucky, Caroline,” he mused, “you weren’t brought up in fear. You weren’t forced to accept something you didn’t believe in. You weren’t punished for rejecting God. You weren’t threatened for questioning the Church’s motives. You didn’t feel you were sinning when you took precautions….birth control, I mean.”

“I’d hate to imagine where I’d be without the Pill!” I joked, “It would have cramped my style considerably. I’d probably have given birth to a complete basketball team by now!” I was making light of the discussion because I noticed the rising intensity in his voice.

“Exactly. But in my country and in all poor Catholic countries women die – here too, probably – because they are expected to go on and on having children. Just to keep the Church happy.”

I felt his anger. I reached across the table to touch his hand, attempting to mollify him.

“I’d be angry too, you know.”

I was grateful at that moment that the only Catholics in my family, my mother and my sister, had never tried to convert me.

Benjamin stared into his glass without saying a word. I could sense he was fighting back the overwhelming urge to share his anger with everyone in Los Indios Bravos that night. But, whatever lies were to be written about him some months later, Benjamin was quiet, mild-mannered and reserved, a person who would never consider upsetting the mood of the evening.

But on the morning of the 27 November 1970 that impression of him was about to change dramatically or, at least, called into question.  I was back in London watching the world news on television.

Curiously enough there were several firsts that day. In London the first Gay Rights demonstration, a candlelight vigil against police harassment, was taking place in Highbury Fields.

“A milestone in gay history,” said Peter Tatchell, one of the 150 participants. “Today instead of fear we feel pride and defiance!”

In Plesetsk, Siberia the communications satellite Molniya 8 was launched successfully into orbit. This was followed by the news of a plane crash in Anchorage, Alaska. A Capitol Airways DC 8, flight number 472, crashed on take-off, killing 48 and injuring 226.

pope paul arriving ManilaAnd in Manila 180 Bishops had convened for the first ever Pan-Aseatic Bishop’s Conference.  They were shown at the Manila International Airport waiting for the arrival of Giovanni Battista Montini, Pope Paul VI. And, despite the Philippines 400 years of Spanish Catholic colonization, Montini was the first Pontiff ever to set foot on Philippine soil.

Leading up to his visit there had been much speculation in the local and international Press as to whose guest the Holy Father would be – the Catholic Church or Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. For the only predominantly Catholic country in Asia, this visit was considered to be a momentous occasion and the kudos to be gained, both politically and commercially, from having the Pope stay in Malacanang Palace was immeasurable. Marcos hoped it would be viewed among the population as an endorsement of his increasingly dictatorial rule. In the months leading up to the Papal visit the value of the peso had plunged, food was in short supply and jobs were scarce. Civil disorder, student demonstrations and organized rallies had become commonplace. These confrontations had been met by violent, sometimes bloody, resistance by Marcos, his constabulary and his armed forces. Marcos was more unpopular now than he had ever been and he blamed many in the priesthood for fomenting political unrest among the students. Here was an opportunity to demonstrate to his predominantly Catholic nation and to the world that he had the full approval and support of the Vatican. Both Ferdinand and Imelda were determined to exploit the event to the full. But neither had counted on the formidable personality of Cardinal Santos, whose increasingly vocal opposition to the Marcos regime now turned into open warfare. His stand against the Marcoses on this point was very public, vociferous and humiliating. He stuck his ground, declaring this was purely a pastoral visit by His Holiness to address his flock and to attend the Bishops’ Conference. He went further, the Holy Father would not be staying at the Palace nor would he be driven from the airport into the city in the Presidential limousine. Fuming, the First Lady, too, refused to give way, insisting she had extended a personal invitation to the Pope during her visit to the Vatican the previous year.

The heated battle of the two adversaries was still deadlocked on the day of the Pope’s arrival. Whether His Holiness knew of it or not, separate itineraries had been prepared for him by both his Cardinal and the First Lady. But it was all deference, bell-pealing, flag waving and smiles as the frail seventy-year old Pontiff stepped off his Alitalia plane at Manila International Airport.

Waving to the crowd, the Pope stooped for a moment to accept a bouquet of white flowers from Irene, the Marcos’s youngest daughter. He shook hands with the President and First Lady and began to cross the red carpet towards the dais. The crowds roared their welcome and pitched forward upsetting the barriers, hoping to get closer to their Pontiff. Under strict instructions from Cardinal Sin the Catholic hierarchy moved in immediately to flank and protect the diminutive figure of Paul VI.

One by one the Cardinals and Bishops bowed down to kiss the Pope’s ring. The Marcoses, who planned to demonstrate their closeness to His Holiness in front the world’s TV cameras and the masses of Filipinos who had assembled at the airport to witness this historic occasion, had to be content to walk behind the Pope. I watched the news report live as Paul VI slowly made his way along the red carpet towards the dais, stopping to shake hands with all the dignitaries lining his route.

Among the many faces I recognized, the politicians, the journalists and the clergy, there was one face that made me sit up and take notice. No, I thought, it can’t be, I must be mistaken. I peered closer hoping for a better look. And there he was. With his hand outstretched towards the approaching Pontiff and dressed in a long, black priestly sutane, the person I saw was my erstwhile friend, the Bolivian artist, Benjamin Mendoza. benjamin mendozaIt couldn’t be. Why on earth would he be there? How did he get past security? Was I just imagining things? Or was it one of his surrealist jokes?

I tried to convince myself that Mendoza must have been on my mind because I had just received a postcard from him a few days earlier saying he was planning to return to Bolivia. So perhaps this man, whoever he was, was simply an Andean priest, part of the Vatican’s entourage. I continued to scan the screen but the image I was searching for was obscured.

Suddenly there was pandemonium, a glint of steel, screams, shouts, gasps and lunging, writhing bodies scrambling to the ground. I had no idea at that moment what had happened. An hysterical voice on the news report informed us an attempt had been made on the Pontiff’s life by an unknown assailant armed with a knife. Silence. Then we were told that, mercifully, the Pope was safe. The assailant had been overcome by Papal security guards. This last piece of information was vital considering the story put out less than twenty-four hours later by President Marcos.

Several times that day I watched for further news to learn the identity of the assassin. Finally I was both rewarded and shocked to learn that the would-be killer was none other than a Bolivian painter by the name of Benjamin Mendoza y Amor. I was stunned. Even more extraordinary was Imelda’s revelation that she had witnessed her husband saving the Pope’s life by delivering a karate chop and a flying kick to the would-be assassin, knocking the 10-inch knife right out of his hand at the crucial moment.

There must be some mistake, I thought. I knew Benjamin disapproved of the Catholic Church but he would never have gone this far, I could have sworn it. It must have been a practical joke gone very wrong or, more likely, a scenario dreamed up by the Marcoses to upstage the Cardinal. The next day film footage was released showing Benjamin Mendoza attending a very obviously rehearsed press conference at the Philippine Constabulary Headquarters at Camp Crame. He was being grilled by members of NBI, the Philippine’s National Bureau of Investigation and the Philippine Armed Forces.

In an uncharacteristically animated voice Benjamin said, “I feel disappointed for failing to kill the Pope and would do it again if given another chance.”

The NBI Director leaned towards the artist and asked, “And who saved the Pope’s life?”benjamin mendoza 2

“I had thought it was President Marcos,” Benjamin dutifully replied, intently looking at his interrogator and sounding well-coached, “but I wasn’t too sure. But then when I saw the pictures you showed me, I am convinced it was really the President who prevented me killing the Pope.”

In fact the photos that were published showed the President far too distant from both the Pope and the artist to have either saved the one or delivered a crippling karate chop to the other.

Members of the Catholic Church who had surrounded the Pontiff at the time all agreed with the Bishop of Sarawak who, on his return to Indonesia some days later, stated categorically, “I was very close to His Holiness at that moment and I do not remember seeing President Marcos give the Bolivian painter a karate chop and a kick.” He went on to say, “It was one of the two papal security guards who played the vital role of saving the Pope for it was he who stuck out his hand to parry the attacker’s lunge and pushed His Holiness away – right into my arms. I held him tight, pulling him away until the security men grabbed the assailant and dragged him away.”

Despite the credible rebuttal the filmed interview with Benjamin Mendoza at Camp Crame was replayed all week on Philippine television. For the time being, it seemed, in the eyes of the majority of Filipinos, President Marcos was presenting himself as the hero of the hour. Since Benjamin Mendoza had played right into the President’s hands, he was treated leniently. He was sentenced to four years in Bilibid Prison and deportation upon his release.

Pope Paul in Manila

When I returned to Manila in 1972 I got in touch with him. Because of my previous visit to Bilibid I was allowed to speak directly to him without going through the authorities. Benjamin sounded content. He told me he was well looked after but that he was looking forward to returning to his family in Bolivia.

“It was a surrealist gesture, Caroline,” he told me, answering my unspoken question. “I had no intention of killing him.”

“And Marcos,” I asked, “where did he come into it?”

“Now that’s a question you know I can’t answer,” Benjamin chuckled. “You’ll get yourself into trouble if you ask me such things and I’ll get into trouble if I tell you.” Abruptly he changed the subject. “When will I see you? Will you visit me?”

“Of course,” I answered, “when?”

“Well, next Sunday’s my birthday. I’m thirty-seven. Why not come then?”

“It’s a date,” I said, “and I’ll get the Indios Bravos group to come along too.” I replaced the receiver and immediately started planning. Betsy and Henry jumped at the opportunity. The dancer Delia Javier agreed to come too. Ben and a few of the other artists, writers and poets were ready to join in the fun. Together we assembled gifts galore, hampers full of picnic food and a birthday cake with thirty-seven candles. In the early afternoon we started out from Indios Bravos towards Bilibid in a convoy of jeepneys festooned with coloured balloons and streamers announcing “Happy Birthday Benjamin”. People in the street watched in amazement as we passed by, horns blaring and tapes blasting out loud music.

Caroline with Benjamin Mendoza and fellow prisoner in Muntinglupa prison

My feelings were mixed when I approached the gates. There would be many new faces but few of the old familiar ones. It was only three years later but Pancho had been released and Jaime, Dominador, Adriano and Mariano had been executed.

Security at the prison that day was lax. Everyone, officers, prisoners and guards, were all determined to have a good time. It was odd seeing Benjamin in his ill-fitting orange prison overalls. It was strange to see him squatting on the ground outside his cell and not sitting at his habitual table at Los Indios Bravos.

We spread the picnic around him and called all the guards and prisoners within hearing distance to join us. We lit the candles and methodically Benjamin blew them out, screwing up his eyes and making a wish as he did so. Everyone immediately burst into song. I found it ironic that here they all were singing Happy Birthday to possibly the most hated the man in the Philippines, the man who had almost succeeded in assassinating their beloved Pope.

Benjamin must have noticed my astonished look. He leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Yes, and there are a lot of born-again Christians in here too. Funny, isn’t it?”

I laughed. “Do they give you a hard time?” I asked, concerned that religious fanatics might single him out for harsh treatment.

“No. They love me,” he smiled, “I’m a celebrity, remember. And more than God they love celebrities in the Philippines, you know that, Caroline!”

It was true, of course. I should have known. Imelda had known it too from the beginning of the Marcos presidency. And she had exploited the cult of celebrity to the hilt. “Escapism for the masses” she called it. “It gives them something to brighten up their dreary little lives!” She also discovered it was a useful tool to smokescreen a multitude of sins carried out by the Marcoses, their government, their relatives and their cronies.

It was a memorable day but it was sad as I realized it would probably be the last time I would see Benjamin Mendoza. Soon after our visit he completed his sentence and was driven straight to the airport to board a plane back to Bolivia. I received one more postcard from him and then silence. I never knew how he was received back home, as celebrity, as prodigal son or as religious enemy.

I often wondered about it. And as to my unspoken questions, “Did Ferdie or Imelda organize the whole episode to win the hearts and minds of the Filipino people in her war with Cardinal Santos?”

Possibly. And if so, “why would Benjamin have agreed to it? Money?” I didn’t think so. “Notoriety?” I doubted it. Or simply, as he said, “as a surrealist gesture against the Church’s policy in impoverished countries such as Bolivia and the Philippines?”

In my opinion, that was far more likely. But whatever the reasons only Benjamin Mendoza knew them and he was keeping them to himself. For me, I would put my money on the Marcoses. They certainly proved themselves capable of staging a murder at Manila International Airport. Eleven years later, on 21 August 1983, in the full glare of the world’s TV cameras, the Philippines’ prodigal son, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, was making his triumphant return from exile in the United States when, as he stepped out of the plane, he was shot down in a hail of bullets, his body left sprawled on the tarmac.

Categories: Art, Catholic History, Human Interest, Journalism, Phiippines, Religion, Surrealism. | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

LIFE & DEATH IN ZADAR

By Caroline Kennedy

1993

Zadar

Zadar before the bombing

Over the years friends have given up asking me what I am doing. Few of them are ever surprised any more. From journalist to radio producer, from traveller to film researcher, from actress to antique dealer, from jewellery designer to theatre director – at some time or another I have dabbled in almost everything. These days I am running a small charity involved in helping the refugees and displaced people of former Yugoslavia. Every two months a group of volunteers, including myself, drive deliveries of medical, surgical, food and sanitary supplies down to the hospitals, refugee camps, orphanages and homes for handicapped children in Croatia and Bosnia.

A year ago, when the war began, I was woefully unprepared for the horrors I would find there. Typically middle-class I was uneducated in dealing with any family problems more complicated than deciding what to watch on TV, what we would eat for dinner or where we would take our annual holiday. And I was certainly unfamiliar with life as a long-distance truck driver. But it didn’t take long for all these things to become very much part of my everyday life. Unlikely as it may seem, I soon became inured to stories and images of brutality, rape, loss of dignity, destruction of homes, and of death. I soon learnt to witness, silently and without tears, small children with limbs blown away, elderly people without anything or anyone left in the world and young women traumatised by violent rape. And soon I felt more at home driving a heavy truck loaded with medical supplies than the family saloon car loaded with school trunks.

Local newspaper article on delivery of incubator and emergency theare lights to hospital.

Local newspaper article on delivery of incubator and emergency theare lights to hospital.

This is part of my diary from one convoy, this summer of 1993, when my film-maker son, Elisar, accompanied me to record the devastating effect of the war on just one seaside town on the Dalmatian coast – Zadar.

Zadar after the bombing

Zadar after the bombing

“On 10 July we set off for our second visit to the Croatian town of Zadar, formerly a beautiful coastal port. On our previous visit in May we had brought medical supplies and an incubator to the local hospital. This time we carried two more incubators, battery/mains operated theatre lamps, anaesthetics, a vast supply of medicines, intravenous antibiotics, heart monitors, ECG machines and a great deal of surgical and sanitary equipment.

We arrived at the Zadar hospital at a time of great confusion. Ten minutes earlier a shell had hit the house directly opposite the hospital, across the street from the ward we would be staying in. People were screaming hysterically. Confused, panic-stricken and traumatised, they were rushing in all directions unable to predict where the next bomb would fall. For the last 18 months Zadar has been shelled like this on a daily basis. But, although when the immediate panic is over, the inhabitants of Zadar appear resigned and surprisingly philosophical about their particular fate, there is no denying the absolute fear that prevails while the bombs are actually falling.

Newspaper article on incubator I delivered to local hospital

Newspaper article on incubator I delivered to local hospital

The hospital, airport and bridges are the main targets but many bombs are destined to go astray. This daily shelling of Zadar is devised to cause the most devastation. The shelling is devised to instil the most panic and fear among an already-terrified population. And the shelling is devised so life can never be lived normally. In all these ways the shelling of Zadar and its residents has been successful. For two years all the schools and colleges have been closed down, cinemas and restaurants only operate intermittently and at their own risk. And swimming has now been banned because, just before we arrived, several rockets had fallen into the sea killing many people, mostly mothers and small children taking an afternoon swim. The shelling is devised to kill, injure and maim indiscriminately.

Zadar during the bombing

Zadar during the bombing

For the past two years the Zadar doctors and nurses have been working round the clock, operating on the wounded from the front line. Being a prime target, the hospital itself has already received several direct hits. For their own safety, therefore, all the patients are housed in the basement, either on rough mattresses on the floor or swinging from hammocks attached to the ceiling. In these most appalling, distressing and stressful conditions limbs are being amputated, babies are being delivered and life-saving surgery is being performed – without electricity, without water – and without privacy.

11th July. Today one of the surgeons, Dr.Martin Mikecin, arranged for us to be escorted by two military officers to the front line, 10 kilometres inland from Zadar. Driving in zig-zag formation along the pockmarked roads, we visited the ruins of Crno, Murvica and Dracevac, once prosperous rural villages – now mini Vukovars. Everything that once moved is dead. Everything that once stood has fallen. Houses have been burnt, fields scorched, livestock massacred, churches desecrated and graves ripped open, their bones scattered, epitaphs erased by vulgar grafitti. What is left is eerie, haunting – silent. Fresh laundered shirts, encrusted by soot, still hang on a washing line. A child’s kite dangles from the scorched branch of a tree. Carcasses of what were probably once cows lie rotting and fly-infested in the fields. A rusted tank, a trophy of war, provides a makeshift playground for two little boys with plastic guns. A frightened dog and her pups cower and whimper in the ruins of their family home. Grass and flowers, blackened and brittle underfoot, crackle as we walk.

graveside tears

We light a candle on what remains of the altar in the small, gutted church at Murvica, only a week before the scene of a joyous local wedding. The soldiers cross themselves, kneel down. They mouth a silent prayer. As I bend down to pick another charred candle from the ground, rockets streak over our heads in search of their targets. We watch mesmerised as one lands near the airport, another near the main bridge and a third somewhere in the residential area of Zadar.

By the time the young officers return us safely to the hospital, more wounded are being brought in for surgery. Bodies of young children, swathed in makeshift bandages, carried by parents, themselves bleeding and wounded. One child, playing on his own, had accidentally shot himself with his father’s gun. Another young boy, walking his dog in the field, had unwittingly stepped on an anti-personnel mine. A little girl, no more than three years old, lies bloodied and twisted in a cardboard box outside the hospital’s main gate along with a mounting pile of rubbish. Small, limp, lifeless bodies – now just no more than statistics.bombed church

Reluctantly we say goodbye to the soldiers. They are going back to the front line and, although unspoken, we all know – maybe tomorrow it could be their lives ended prematurely, their broken bodies lying on the hospital floor, their children’s corpses discarded in a cardboard box. I promise them I will take the candle home to my Croatian mother and, together, we will say a prayer for them – and for their ravaged country.

Categories: Bosnian War 1992-95, Human Interest, Humanitarian Overseas Work, Journalism | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

How It All Began

It was in the attic of an old English farmhouse, on a lovely autumn evening in September 1984, that this book had its beginnings. Two years earlier Caroline Kennedy, doing some research for a television film, had arrived at this same house to interview the owner, Pelham Pound. As they talked she found out he was an old friend of her late brother-in-law, Dominick Elwes.

Dominick Elwes and Tessa Kennedy (the author's sister)

Dominick Elwes and Tessa Kennedy (the author’s sister)

Later in the day the discussion turned to Elwes’s friendship with Dr Stephen Ward, the society osteopath, who had committed suicide at the height of the Profumo scandal in 1963. Elwes, her host said, had stood bail for Stephen Ward, had worked with him on a proposed television programme about his life and had produced a film entitled, The Christine Keeler Story. In a trunk in his attic, Pound explained, he had tape recordings and scripts that Elwes had given him years ago. Would she be interested in taking a look some time? Caroline Kennedy was intrigued. Like nearly everyone else she remembered the Profumo scandal but only faintly remembered Ward.

So, on her return visit that autumn evening, after riffling through the contents of the trunk, she returned home with a box full of old letters, voluminous pages of handwritten and typed filmscript and reels of tape. She immediately transferred the tapes on to cassettes and, through the scratchy quality of the 1960s’ recordings, emerged Ward’s compelling voice:

Stephen Ward and Pelham Pound

Stephen Ward and Pelham Pound

“This whole business developed so gradually that the increasing horror of my situation did not become apparent to me for some time. Everyone is lying to grind his own axe. Every witness who does not give the answer the police want is tampered with. Every person who goes abroad has fled. Every person who speaks for me does so from fear. Every motive I had is twisted. All I have left between me and my destruction is a handful of firm friends, the integrity of the judge and the 12 men on the jury. God alone knows what will happen. I know that one day the truth will eventually come out. And the truth is very simple: I loved people – of all types    – and I don’t think that there are very many people the worse for having known me. This is the whole story.”

Caroline Kennedy listened to Ward with absolute fascination. ‘Only a week earlier I’d heard Lord Denning on TV saying that Ward was “the most evil man” he had ever met. Ward hardly sounded like an evil man to me. He was rational, intelligent, persuasive. I knew as little about Ward as the next person but I began to wonder. Had we got him wrong? I decided to try to find out.’ In many ways it was an ideal time to take another look at Ward and the Profumo affair. Enough time had passed for the passions and divisions it had aroused to quieten. Many of those involved were still alive and perhaps ready now to reveal matters that at the time had been concealed.

Lord Denning who called Stephen Ward "the most evil man I have ever met."

Lord Denning who called Stephen Ward “the most evil man I have ever met.”

Until I joined her in the spring of I985, Caroline Kennedy had worked alone, becoming more and more involved in Ward’s life, often travelling hundreds of miles in a day in the hope of finding one elusive fragment, or to check one significant anecdote. But the information she had gathered about Ward’s relationship with the British Security Service, M15, made her realise that she would need the help of someone more experienced in this field. My one doubt about the project – that it would be unfair to turn the spotlight on Profumo yet again – yielded to her argument that the story would concentrate on Ward, not Profumo.

Stephen Ward in the US. Stephen Ward at his wedding with model Patricia Baines. Below, model Eunice Bailey, Stephen Ward’s girlfriend.

We were determined to write the definitive book on the subject and our quest for the truth took us all over Britain, to Europe and to the United States. In the end, the raw research broke down into four major areas: Ward’s own tape-recorded words; interviews with some 80 of his friends and enemies; a folio of FBI documents obtained under the American Freedom of Information Act; and our own interpretation and analysis of all this new information.

Ward’s tape recordings were more extensive than we at first realised. In them he spoke frankly of his early life, his first sexual experiences, his student days in the United States, his wartime service in Britain and India, his early struggles in a London just coming out of its post-war gloom, his ambition, and his steady climb to success both as an osteopath and as an artist. We get his story of his recruitment into M15, his version of his relationship with Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies and his account of his close friendship with Lord Astor. Finally we hear Ward’s devastatingly accurate assessment of why he was framed.

Christine Keeler modelling.

Christine Keeler modelling.

The interviews proved the most difficult part of the research. At first those people who had known Ward were wary. We had to assure them that we had no preconceived view and were determined to produce a rounded picture of an obviously very complex character. Slowly doors opened. In the end we knew the versions of every major participant in the drama who is still alive (except Profumo). Many had never spoken before.

Ward’s friends and enemies, the latter including Lord Denning and Michael Eddowes, Ward’s legal team, FBI informers, the CIA officer in charge of the case in London, nearly every member of the Astor family, Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, various MPs involved in the affair, and, most important, those members of the police team handling the Ward case, agreed to tell their stories. Most spoke directly to us. One or two, for personal reasons, preferred to talk through intermediaries.

Two policemen in particular, conscience-stricken over what had happened, spoke for the first time on record of what the police were told to do, how they did it, and how they felt when Ward killed himself. M15 officers, now retired, revealed exactly how the service recruited Ward, what it wanted him to do, how he did it, and how it was decided to dump him when the service’s links with him threatened to become too embarrassing. One officer says that M15 should have revealed Ward’s role – ‘if we had he might be alive today’ – but it was decided to cover up.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr

Douglas Fairbanks Jr

An American who had close links at that time with the United States Embassy held back a vital piece of information from us until he had read the first draft of the manuscript. Then he gave evidence that the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, had been told of Profumo’s involvement with Christine Keeler two months before Profumo made his statement to the House of Commons denying any impropriety. This gave the political part of the affair an entirely new significance.

It will be impossible for anyone ever to duplicate this research because several of the major characters have since died, and others, for various reasons, have retreated into silence again. Sir David Tudor-Price, who as a junior barrister was the defence number two in the Ward trial, braved the Lord Chancellor’s ire by agreeing to an on-the-record interview in which he was highly critical of the way the legal establishment had handled the case. He died suddenly only a few months after his elevation to the High Court.

William "Bill" Astor and his bride model Bronwen Pugh

William “Bill” Astor and his bride model Bronwen Pugh

Although we knew that we risked an action against us for contempt of court, we were able to locate and interview one of the Ward jurors who told us, on the promise of anonymity, what had gone on in the jury room. He revealed why the jury had decided to convict Ward, even though the jurors were very impressed by him. We found and interviewed a senior civil servant who attended a meeting of Ward’s friends at which it was decided that no one would give evidence on Ward’s behalf. We persuaded Astor’s brother, David, to tell us why Astor himself had decided to abandon Ward.

Because a lot of people were now prepared to talk, we were able to identify some of those participants who had mysteriously escaped publicity at the trial. Mandy Rice-Davies’s lover, the ‘Indian doctor’, who was not even called as a witness, turns out to have been Dr Emil Savundra, later to be notorious because of the Fire Auto and Marine insurance case which cost Britain’s motorists hundreds of thousands of pounds. Christine’s lover, ‘Charles’, also avoided the spotlight because Christine swore on oath that she could not remember his surname. We discovered that he was the millionaire businessman Charles Clore.

Mandy Rice-Davies

Mandy Rice-Davies

The role of Dr Teddy Sugden, the well-known society abortionist of the period, took some unravelling but we eventually established his relationship with Christine Keeler and Stephen Ward. The part that the famous Murray’s Club, with its beautiful ‘showgirls’, played in the affair puzzled us until some of the club’s former employees and some of its distinguished former members explained it all.

After many hours in the FBI library in Washington, we finally obtained an FBI secret file. This consisted of about 800 heavily censored pages headed ‘Profumo-Keeler, Russian Intelligence’ and, later, ‘Operation Bowtie’. This material enabled us to learn the reason for the panic in the United States over the Profumo affair, to explain why the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, was so obsessed with it, and why the Kennedy family, particularly Attorney-General Robert Kennedy, was so worried.

President John F Kennedy with J.Edgar Hoover (head of the FBI) and Attorney General Robert Kennedy

President John F Kennedy with J.Edgar Hoover (head of the FBI) and Attorney General Robert Kennedy

New information about the way Ward’s trial was conducted and new interpretation of the part played by Lord Justice Parker and the Court of Criminal Appeal made it crystal clear that the British legal establishment did everything in its power to make certain that Ward would be convicted. This is a serious charge to make, so to give it weight we interviewed some of the leading jurists of the period who gave us, for the first time, their opinion of what was done to Ward. One, a High Court Judge, was unable to talk about the case, even so many years later, without bitterness and anger, while Lord Goodman had no hesitation in describing Ward as ‘the historic victim of an historic injustice’, likening him to ‘a British Dreyfus’.

When we got down to interpreting the research material, the motives of the major characters began to emerge with frightening clarity. We learnt why Labour MP George Wigg was out to get Profumo; why John Lewis, another Labour MP, was determined to ruin Ward; why the police set out to frame Lucky Gordon; why Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies told the stories they did; and why the legal establishment put its weight behind the move to send Ward away for a long time.

Capt. Yevgeny "Eugene" Ivanov, Asst. Naval Attache at the Russian Embassy in London.

Capt. Yevgeny “Eugene” Ivanov, Asst. Naval Attache at the Russian Embassy in London.

We were able to see what part Ward and the Russian GRU officer, Yevgeny “Eugene” Ivanov, played during the Cuban missile crisis when the super powers took the world to the brink of atomic war. What at the time was considered to be one of Ward’s fantasies turned out to have been true. This added a whole new dimension to Ward’s life and the espionage section of the book became a major one.

In the course of our interviews, we learnt how the principal characters have come to terms with that traumatic period of their lives, how they have coped – or have failed to cope – with what the scandal did to them. Some have achieved fame and fortune; others have gone under with scarcely a ripple. Some have difficulty even recalling what occurred; others relive it day by day. One continues to live in the same area and to follow the same profession. Another went into exile abroad, disgusted that in Britain Ward could have been treated in the way that he was.

When we pulled all these threads together we found that we had an entirely new account of the Profumo affair. It is a story of sexual compulsion, political malice, jealousy, envy and hate. It is a story of friendship, loyalty, honour, betrayal, and the forces of the State bent upon the destruction of one abandoned individual, the only one to leave the scene with dignity. In the end it is our hope that this book says something for Stephen Ward: it may not be too late for the truth.

Minister for War, John Profumo, following his resignation.

Minister for War, John Profumo, following his resignation.

 

 

“HOW THE ENGLISH ESTABLISHMENT FRAMED STEPHEN WARD”

 

 

This book was first published in 1987 by Jonathan Cape and Atheneum, under the title:

“An Affair of State – The Profumo Case and The Framing of Stephen Ward”.

 

Categories: 1960s, Human Interest, Journalism, Memoirs, Politics | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

Nestled into the lush foothills of the massive southern mountain range overlooking Costa Rica’s Central Valley the ramshackle fortress of El Buen Pastor has obviously fallen on hard times. Not so long ago it was deemed unfit for its current use and condemned for demolition. So further down the road a more modern extension is being built to take its place. But this too is faced with problems. There is a severe shortage of potable water on the new site and so, for the time being, it can only be used as a “protection” unit to house those girls whose lives are considered in danger. This is currently where Serena and Charlotte are being housed after another inmate threatened them with a knife.

Prayer Room at El Buen Pastor

Prayer Room at El Buen Pastor

These two English girls, one from a middle-class neighbourhood of Leeds and one from a depressed inner-city area of Wolverhampton, are lovers. But it is precisely because of their love for one another that they now find themselves serving a five and a half years prison sentence without the possibility of parole. Both are very young, 22 and 23. Serena, soft-spoken but the more talkative of the two, is the quintessential English rose, voluptuous figure, porcelain complexion, auburn hair and green eyes. Charlotte, the amateur poet, is part Jamaican, more introspective, with dark eyes and an ever-ready smile that radiates warmth.

 

So how, I wondered, did these two very different, very British girls end up serving time in a Costa Rican jail? “I was to blame,” Charlotte told me, “I’d had a previous drugs conviction in England. I was caught at Heathrow with 92 kilos of cannabis that I was paid to bring in from Jamaica. I served 18 months of a 3 ½ year sentence, then wore an electronic tag for three months and after that I was on probation.”

So why make the same mistake again, I asked. “Because Serena and I were in love. We had put a deposit down on a place together. We needed money to buy things for it, furniture and stuff. The same guys offered me $15,000 for one trip to bring in 10 kilos of cocaine from Barbados. It was tempting.” When Serena found out about this plan she was fuming. “I called Charlie and threatened to break off our affair. I cried and pleaded with her. I told her she was no longer the girl I’d fallen in love with and I didn’t want to be with her any more. She told me, ‘think about it, Serena, it’s easy money, we’d be able to afford nice things for our flat, perhaps even a car.’ But I begged her to think again. I asked her how she could be so foolish. She’d only been out of prison 8 months by then. I told her I just didn’t want her being involved in anything like that ever again.”

wolverhampton inner city So, not wanting to lose Serena, Charlotte relented. She told her “recruiter“, a childhood friend from the notorious Bushbury neighbourhood of Wolverhampton, that she would find someone else to take her place as drug mule. “I was told I would be paid $1500 for every girl I recruited.” So Charlotte began asking around. “Eventually I spoke to a girl I had met in prison and she agreed to do it for me. I was paid $500 to go to Stevenage to meet up with this girl, buy her a passport and then bring her back to Wolverhampton.”

All went well at the start. It was only when Charlotte’s recruit backed out at the last minute that trouble began. “Charlie kept receiving threatening text messages and voicemails,” Serena said, “I was really scared for her, for us.” leeds Hoping to escape the threats Charlotte took the train to Leeds where she moved in with Serena. The intimidated pair stayed home, avoided going out, fearful they might be seen. But this hermitic life, cut off from friends and family, couldn’t last indefinitely. “Eventually we went out and there they were, the two men Charlie owed the $500 to,” Serena continued, “they must have been waiting for us. They came up to her and said, ‘I’m warning you, Charlotte, my guys have killed people for less money than that.’” Not wanting Serena to be involved, Charlotte took the men aside, begged them to leave her alone. “I offered to pay them back $100 a week but they wouldn’t listen to me,” Charlotte said. “They told me Serena would have to go instead of my recruit. They said it was either that or we’d have to watch our backs forever. I said I would never let Serena go.”

Seeing no way out, Charlotte reluctantly agreed to go herself. Back home later that night Serena and Charlotte discussed their options for several hours. “Finally we said to each other, if it’s got to be done, it’s got to be done,” Serena said. “But I didn’t want Charlie to go alone so we decided we’d both go. And so the next day we got our passports and the men bought us our tickets. They told us we would be flying the following Friday, not to Barbados as we had previously been told, but through Paris, Caracas and then on to San Jose, Costa Rica.” Unlike most tourists who, on first sight, view Costa Rica as a paradise, the girls’ first impression was distinctly unfavourable. “We were met at the airport by two guys, Lee and “Dreds”, and taken to a very seedy area of San Jose, to the filthiest motel I’ve ever seen, full of cockroaches.” Serena said. Fed up by their numerous complaints the two men finally escorted them round the corner to the more salubrious Hotel Europa and offered to change their money for them. “The guys told us one pound is equal to 300 colones. We believed them,” Charlotte explained, “so we gave them 30 quid.”

Hotel Europa, San Jose

Hotel Europa, San Jose

The next day they were in for their first rude awakening. “We were out walking and we passed a bank,” Serena said, “and went inside. We found out that one pound was worth at least 800 colones. Now that they’d deliberately cheated us we knew we couldn’t trust them. I just wanted to forget the whole thing and go home. But there was no way we could, the guys had kept our suitcases and our passports.” The girls got restless waiting for their return trip to the UK and asked permission to spend some time by the sea. Lee and “Dreds” took them to the Caribbean port of Limon where they passed a few days on the beach. Unnerved by the many days of waiting, doing little but sunbathing during the day and watching subtitled films on television at night, both had premonitions of a disaster waiting to happen.

Puerto Limon, Costa Rica

Puerto Limon, Costa Rica

“We just knew we were going to get caught,” Serena said, “both of us felt that way. But Charlie kept trying to reassure me, ‘it’ll be OK, it’ll be OK, she said. But, if we do get caught, I’ll take the blame and you can go home.’ But by then I’d realized we had no choice. We were in it together. Besides, there was no point in running away. There was nowhere for us to go. We didn’t speak Spanish so it was hard to talk to anyone.” A week later they were put on a bus back to San Jose where they were reunited with their suitcases. “The brother of my “recruiter” friend from Wolverhampton was there at the hotel waiting for us.” Charlotte said, “I recognized him immediately from my last drugs trip to Jamaica. He told me he had drilled the bottoms of our suitcases and put the drugs inside. He assured us everything would be fine. Then Lee and “Dreds” told us to pack because we would be leaving the following day.”

Their return trip, they were told, would take them back to Caracas and then on to Paris where they would disembark before heading on to the UK. “That way,” Serena explained, “they said we could mingle with thousands of football supporters who would be making their way back to England from an international match in France.” In the morning a taxi picked the girls up from the Hotel Europa and took them to the airport. “I wasn’t particularly frightened,” Serena said, “but just very sad. I knew something would go wrong. We checked in our luggage without any problem but then it happened. The airport police approached us and started asking questions. Why had we come to Costa Rica, was it for a holiday, where had we been staying while we were here, was it our first visit and how long had we been here? That kind of thing.” “We answered their questions as best we could,” Charlotte explained, “but Serena was feeling really sick by this time. Anyway they let us go. And we thought that was that. We thought we’d got away with it. We walked into the Departure Lounge, hardly daring to breathe, not wanting to look behind us. We sat down and I said to Serena, ‘We’re going to be OK! We’re really going to be OK!’”

Taca Airlines in San Jose

Taca Airlines in San Jose

When their flight was called, the girls, much relieved but still somewhat in shock, joined the queue to board the Taca Airlines plane. But just as they were about to enter the plane they felt someone tapping them on the back. They turned around to face a large unsmiling man with greying hair and sweating temples. “You no fly!” he announced. “What do you mean? What’s going on?” the girls asked. “You no fly!” he repeated. “You come with me!” By that time three Customs officials had joined them and the four men escorted the girls back into the terminal. Inside the office of the airport police Serena and Charlotte were handcuffed. The girls watched as a “Hitler look-alike” picked up their suitcases, opened them, removed the contents and proceeded to rip away the linings.

Suitcase opened at Customs

Suitcase opened at Customs

“We were terrified,” Serena said, “but then we saw there was nothing there. I couldn’t believe it. We were so happy.” Their sense of relief didn‘t last long, however. The officer reached into his pocket, drew out a screwdriver and drove it hard into the base of each suitcase. They watched as he extracted it covered in a fine white powder. Like an alchemist he poured a small quantity of liquid on it and watched as the powder promptly changed colour confirming to the police and Customs inspectors that the drug contained in both suitcases was cocaine. He warned them, “You’re in BIG trouble. BIG trouble!” At which point the girls started to laugh uncontrollably. “We couldn’t help it, we just cracked up.” Charlotte said, “It was the way he said it. We were really nervous, I guess, and that sometimes gives you hysterics.” They remained handcuffed for six hours, even when they went to the bathroom. And then they and their suitcases were taken to the nearest police station in nearby Alajuela. It was there that the cocaine was finally removed, tested and weighed. They were informed the full amount weighed less than 2 kilos. It now dawned on the girls that Lee and “Dreds” had stolen the other 8 kilos to sell for themselves.

Police Station in Alajuela

Police Station in Alajuela

“We were sure then,” Serena said, “that they had set us up. They had squealed on us. They let us get caught for less than 2 kilos while they made money selling the rest. And, even if we had made it to the UK, they must have known we would never have been paid the $15,000 we were promised. We were so angry. Charlie whispered to me, ‘I’m so sorry, Serena, but I said it’s OK! And it was OK. I knew what I was doing when I agreed to do this job. We both did, so there was no need for her to apologize.”

A welcome visit that evening from the British Consul raised the girls’ spirits somewhat but her message brought them little cheer. “She was really kind and sympathetic to us,” Serena told me, “and it felt so good to speak English with someone again. But she warned us we would be going to prison in Costa Rica, possibly for a long, long time, between 8 and 20 years. We were utterly devastated.” Worse was to come. On their arrival the next day at “El Buen Pastor“, the girls were shown to their “ambito” (living quarters). “It seemed like the whole prison population was following us,” Serena recalled, “They were all screaming and shouting and I remember thinking, oh my God, they’ve brought us to the zoo!” So how, I asked them had they fared those first few days. “It was horrible,” Charlotte told me, “There were no beds for us so we had to sleep on the floor for five weeks, the first two weeks without even a mattress. There were no flushing loos, only a pot and a bucket of water. The pot is for used toilet paper and the bucket of water is for flushing the toilet manually.”

Prisoners sleeping on the floor

Prisoners sleeping on the floor

“And we have to pay 150 colones a week (18 pence) to use the toilet and another 150 colones every time we use the shower,” Serena interrupted, “and there’s no running water in the shower, only a bucket of cold water.” I asked them what contact they’d had with their parents. “At first I was too upset to call them,” Serena said, “I thought they’d be horrified and angry with me. But when I did finally speak to them they were so relieved to hear from me. They had been so worried. They did ask me a lot of questions, of course, but they said they would support me 100%. I was phoning them reverse charges to begin with until they ended up with a phone bill of nearly two thousand pounds!” And then there were the stray animals the girls had to get used to. Feral cats, dogs, rats and racoons, covered in mange, riddled with fleas and spreading diseases, roam the grounds day and night, searching for scraps of food. “The rats are so big,” Serena told me, “that the cats don’t even bother to chase them. And, at night, the two families of racoons run backwards and forwards across the corrugated iron roof.”

Feral Rat

Feral Rat

“And Serena got bitten by all kinds of insects the first week,” Charlotte explained, “and her leg swelled right up and she had lumps under her arms so she tried to see the doctor.” “But you need to be dying in here before the prison officers let you see the doctor,” Serena added, “and so I wasn’t seen for four weeks. When the doctor did eventually see me she was disgusted I hadn’t been allowed a visit before. She said I had an infection in my glands, my stomach was completely inflamed and I had an allergy to the insect bites. She put me on antibiotics and anti-inflammatory tablets for three weeks.”

The court case that swiftly followed their arrival in “El Buen Pastor” found them guilty and sentenced them each to 5 years and 4 months. “I wanted to tell the court it was all my fault, that Serena wasn’t guilty of anything,” Charlotte explained. “I wanted to take the blame myself. But my lawyer warned me if I did that the judge would probably increase Serena’s sentence to 8 years. So she had no choice but to plead guilty too.”

The girls are both convinced that, as foreigners in “El Buen Pastor“, they are being discriminated against. “There are local girls here,” Serena explained, “with more than ten bad behaviour reports to their name and they never get taken to the “toombas” (solitary confinement). But when Charlie had a fight, that none of the officers even witnessed, she was immediately taken to the toomba, even though it was her first report.”

Women in El Buen Pastor celebrating Mass

Women in El Buen Pastor celebrating Mass

In fact my initial meeting with Charlotte took place while she was in solitary, a separate derelict block surrounded by a high wire fence situated at the far end of the prison grounds. Despite the appalling conditions there and the fact that, for a first offence, she had been sentenced to 18 days, she still managed to smile. I asked her how she came to be there. “I caught a girl stealing Serena’s trainers,” she explained. “I guess I should have just walked away from it but I didn’t. We’d already had so many of our clothes stolen. You see you can’t leave anything out here, not even for a second, otherwise it’ll be taken immediately, even our toilet paper. Anyway the girl pulled a knife on me. And then someone informed the officers and we got caught.”

Without Charlotte to lean on, Serena felt utterly desolate. “I just stayed in my room all day and read. I cried a lot. The days passed so slowly, I just couldn’t wait for Charlie to get out of solitary. I felt so lost.” When, 18 days later, Charlotte returned to the ambito she was in for another unpleasant shock. She found there was no bed for her to sleep on. She was forced to sleep on the floor for three weeks until another bed became vacant. “It was horrible,” Charlotte said, “I was placed next to this woman who kept getting up to pee in a pot in the middle of the night. And it kept splashing into my face. It was disgusting.” The woman in question turned out to be several months pregnant, Serena told me. “She was sent to the doctor who gave her a jab and after that jab she ended up losing her baby.” I asked her if the jab was intended to abort the fetus. “I’ve no idea,” Serena replied, “all I know is that after that jab the woman lost her baby. She told us she delivered it outside in the prison grounds and then buried it in the long grass.”

Vultures feeding

Vultures feeding

The tiny corpse was never found but it’s likely it was immediately consumed by the swarms of black vultures that sit patiently in the branches of the overhanging trees waiting for any morsel of carrion. Every day “El Buen Pastor” witnesses its share of fights, most are petty feuds, the settling of old scores, outbreaks of anger and frustration, but others are far more serious. There are some very tough women inside who manage to smuggle in knives and other weapons. They are constantly battling for favors from the guards or a position of power over the weaker inmates. Sometimes the prison officers break up the fights before they turn nasty, other times they are too intimidated to intervene and many times they are forced to call in the police.

Recently Baroness Dr. Vivien Stern, senior research fellow at the International Centre for Prison Studies at King’s College London, spoke about Costa Rica’s prisons as “an excellent example of the effect that the valuing of respect and humanity as a two-way dynamic between officer and prisoner can have on a prison system. This results,” she went on to say, “in a very different atmosphere marked by actions such as calling a prisoner by their first name and prisoners approaching staff to raise points with them knowing they will be listened to.”

Baroness Vivian Stern

Baroness Vivian Stern

Although most of what I had heard so far about the treatment of the prisoners by the officers was negative, I asked Serena if there were any instances of kindness that she had received from them. “Well, yes,” she said, “one or two have been very nice to me, the ones that speak a bit of English. They have posted letters for me, arranged for me to see the Director and the doctor, that sort of thing. But mainly here prisoners run the prison, the guards are easily intimidated, that is well known by everyone.” And this view does appear to be generally accepted as fact both within the prison population and among the wider community. With an inmate to staff ratio of 511 to 180, it is hardly surprising that the guards prefer to turn their backs and remain silent rather than participate in a potentially explosive scene. “A lot of the tougher prisoners pay the guards to turn a blind eye,” Charlotte adds, “they can then bring in almost anything they like, including drugs, knives and alcohol. And then they either use them themselves or sell them off to the other girls.” “Drugs are common here,” Serena agrees, “you can get them easily both from the prisoners and the guards.”

From cannabis to crack cocaine, everything, it seems, is available in “El Buen Pastor” for the right price. This availability of drugs and alcohol inside the prison directly contravenes Executive Degree No. 25.883, published in the official gazette La Gaceta, 31 March 1997, governing the confiscation of drugs and the control of medicaments within the Costa Rican prison system. This Regulation “strictly prohibits the entry of medicaments and the handling of substances which may have a negative impact on the health of persons in custody, including drugs, narcotics, psychotropic or psychopharmaceutical substances, inhalable substances, precursors and derivatives of alcohol.”

Serena told me, “We’ve seen girls being cut up by knives, often under the influence of drugs but we just try to stay out of it.”  One girl got her face all cut up just for making a noise while someone else was trying to sleep. According to Serena, “It wasn’t even at night, it was 2 o’clock in the afternoon. And one time there was a “rampage” in the kitchen. For some reason we were given fried chicken instead of the usual stale bread, rice, beans and chunks of inedible pork. We were all so excited and everyone wanted to get served first to make sure they got the choicest bits so there was a stampede. But when we got back to our rooms to eat it, the fried chicken tasted of bleach, the cooking pans obviously hadn’t been rinsed out.”

Women prisoners

Women prisoners

This provoked another “rampage”. The inmates stormed the kitchen, shouting, hollering and threatening for some decent food. This time the police were called to end the fight and to protect the besieged kitchen staff. But, since there was no other food prepared that night, everyone went to bed hungry. As a result the inmates went on strike the next night. “They refused to go back to their “ambitos” at bed time and stayed out in the pouring rain,” Serena explained. “Charlie and I went straight to bed because we didn’t want to be involved. But the others remained outside until the bosses and police were called in. They promised better food and better living conditions and the girls were eventually convinced to go back inside. But, of course, so far nothing’s changed.”

It has taken a while but Serena and Charlotte have now resigned themselves to their sentence. They try to avoid boredom at all costs. They spend their days drawing, reading, writing poetry and dreaming of the day they will be allowed to go home. “I was already a qualified dental assistant with a good job before I left England,” Serena said. “When I go home I want to qualify as a dental hygienist.”

And Charlotte, what were her plans, I asked. “I would like to study law so I can help other prisoners abroad but, with my two convictions, I don’t know if they’d let me.” In my way of thinking, I said, that would make her particularly well qualified to help others who find themselves in the same situation as her. “But the very first thing I want to do,” she continued, “apart, of course, from seeing my family, is to apologize to Serena’s parents. I feel really guilty and I want to tell them I’m truly sorry.” Meanwhile, I reminded them, Lee and “Dreds” are still out there somewhere, free. “When we got to “El Buen Pastor”” Charlotte told me, “we found out that several other inmates are serving time because of those two guys.”

I asked them how they felt about that. Serena, the quintessential English rose with the soft voice, raised it several decibels, “I’d kill them,” she said. “If I ever saw them again I’d kill them!”

@First Published in The Independent on Sunday

Categories: Costa Rica, Human Interest, Humanitarian Overseas Work, Journalism, Memoirs, Travel | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

The Nuclear Power Plant Fiasco

I am adding this post-script to my article on “The Marcoses and the Missing Filipino Millions” because a couple of the comments I have received question whether the Philippines has a nuclear power plant or not.

I was there when Imelda’s cousin-in-law Herminio Disini was awarded a huge commission from Westinghouse to build a nuclear power plant on a piece of land in Bataan. The main problem was that the land selected for the power plant was sitting beneath a volcano and above two fault lines.

Bataan Nuclear Power Plant

Bataan Nuclear Power Plant

.So, right from the start the project was doomed to failure.

However, Westinghouse and the Marcoses chose to overlook this problem and building began. It was finally finished in 1985 and has remained a white elephant since then, costing the Philippines government and, thus, its people over 2 billion dollars. Money that has been completely wasted.

For more details about this, please click on the link to Fortune Magazine below.

http://archive.fortune.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/1986/09/01/67989/index.htm

 

Categories: Imelda Marcos, Journalism, Memoirs, Nuclear Energy, Philippines, Politics | Tags: , , , , , | 5 Comments

Times They Are A-Changing

Come mothers and fathers throughout the land

And dont criticize what you dont understand

Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command

Your old road is rapidly agin

Please get out of the new one if you cant lend a hand

For the times they are a-changin

dylan

This was the voice of the new decade, the Sixties. This was the voice of Bob Dylan. He was our voice. And this was to be our decade. Through his ballads Dylan expressed our hopes, our angst and our dreams. But he also acted as our collective conscience by reminding us that, despite our newly found freedoms, there were ominous clouds looming on the horizon. Dylan marched on civil rights rallies for us, joined student protests for us and sang poignantly of the dangers awaiting us. His words were meant as a warning to our politicians – warnings against escalating the cold war between the U.S. and Russia, warnings against the perilous race for dominance in space and warnings about the grim realities of another costly war being fought, halfway around the world, in the name of those same freedoms we now enjoyed. But he also told us, his generation, that it was OK to smoke marijuana, to make love not war and to disagree with decisions made by authority figures on our behalf.

By 1963 the times they were, indeed, a-changin’ and the generation gap was never so apparent, never so bitter and never so wide. “Our parents don’t understand us,” had been the complaint of countless generations of young people before us but it was never as true as it was in the Sixties. To our parents who grew up in the austerity of the Depression and two world wars, Dylan’s lyrics presented an alien and frightening battle cry, challenging as they did everything that seemed, reasonable, orderly and disciplined in their way of life. Suddenly millions of teenagers all over the world, who perceived they were “misunderstood” by their parents, were able to recite a new mantra.

Every day, it seemed, a new hymn, a new anthem or a new prayer was born. Constraints on literature, art, theatre, television, film, fashion and sex were being loosened from their moralistic shackles of previous decades. There was no turning back now. This was the defining moment. Respect for authority and for politicians who, in our eyes, had got it all wrong for so long, evaporated almost overnight. The permissive society was being born and we were there assisting at its birth. Even conventional religion suffered as we turned east for our answers, our knowledge and our spiritual fulfilment. Not even the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy in 1963 could dampen our enthusiasm, smother our shared energy or stifle our sense of exhilaration at being part of this new era of prosperity, innovation and hope. Jobs were plentiful in the new vibrant economy. A new spirit of entrepreneurship prevailed. New businesses, new industries and new factories opened up all over the country generating exciting opportunities for all.

And the capitals of innovation were both in Britain, “Swinging London” and Liverpool. After all, between them, they had produced the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Mersey sound, Mary Quant, Carnaby Street,

carnaby streetthe King’s Road, Biba, the Mods and Rockers, Vidal Sassoon, Terence Conran, pirate radio, the mini skirt, the mini car, Ossie Clark, David Bailey, David Hockney, Joe Orton, Private Eye, stage and TV satire, colour television and the world’s first supermodel, Jean Shrimpton. In subsequent decades British governments have tried in vain to make us proud to be British but we were never prouder than we were in the Sixties. We were the blessed generation. The youth in almost every country looked to us for inspiration, emulated our sound, copied our look and mimicked our way of life.

In 1963, with my own particular mantra, Dion’s “The Wanderer”, ringing in my ears the world beckoned and I was ready.

“Will you raise your right hand and swear after me, I will not assassinate the President of the United States!” The American Vice-Consul in London peered at me over his half-moon glasses.

“I beg your pardon?” I gulped.

“Would you please raise your right hand and swear after me, I will not assassinate the President of the United States!”

I giggled, “You’re joking?”

The Vice-Consul loomed large in front of me. He pulled himself up to his full height, six foot two or three I would guess, and spluttered, “Miss Kennedy, this is no laughing matter. I want you to raise your right hand and…..”

“Yes, yes, I understand,” I protested, “but honestly, am I likely to admit to you if I was planning to do that?” I regretted this outburst immediately. It was blurted out in jest but I could see it was taken as insolence.

From the opposite side of his desk, the Consul frowned. He was beginning to lose patience with me. He reached over to grab my right hand. And, after a brief but obvious mental exercise as to which of my two hands that might be, raised it above my shoulder and repeated the phrase.

“I swear I shall not assassinate the President of the United States!”

Anxious to fulfil this one last requirement to obtain my all-important green card, I had little choice but to do his bidding. I mumbled the words taking great pains, as I did so, to stifle my giggles. In the end he was easy to satisfy. He had, I guessed, discharged his duty, as he saw fit. From now on, he must have reassured himself, if ever Caroline Kennedy was caught red-handed attempting to kill Lyndon Johnson or, indeed, any successive United States President, he, the Vice-Consul, could always protest, “But she swore to me she wasn’t going to do it!” He beamed with the kind of pride that comes only with victory, lowered my right hand and pumped it vigorously.

“Good luck in the United States, Miss Kennedy!” he smiled graciously.

I turned and walked towards the door. As I reached for the handle, the Vice Consul coughed. I looked back.

“I just wanted to say,” he added, “they’ll just love your accent over there!”

 As I closed the door on his office I breathed a sigh of relief. I had leaped my final hurdle. I had been accepted into the United States with one shake of the Vice-Consul’s hand. Prior to my meeting with him I had already passed an exhaustive and unnecessarily invasive medical test during which I had been cross-examined about my past and current sexual activities, my medical history and my family’s psychological conditions. I had been thoroughly prodded, needled and tested all over my body, it seemed. My blood, urine and pregnancy results had been minutely scrutinized and filed away for future reference. Certainly if my original plan had been to go to the United States to deliver a baby, it would have failed miserably. In fact a girl who was applying for her green card at the same time as me failed hers. Her name was Jenny and she had whispered to me, as we waited sheepishly in line for our medical, that she wanted her baby born an American citizen because its father, Bob, was from Scottsdale, Arizona.

“We only met recently,” she whispered conspiratorially, making sure no one else was listening. “He was on a business trip. We clicked immediately.”

“Is he still around?” I whispered back.

“No. He left after two weeks. He didn’t know about this.” Jenny’s eyes lowered, indicating her still small belly.

“Haven’t you told him?” I asked.

Jenny shook her head sadly. “I was planning to give him a surprise.” A solitary tear dropped onto her lime green dress, creating a dark spot.

girl in lime

I suspected it would have been more of a shock than a surprise to Bob and his family if Jenny had, as she had planned, turned up unannounced on his doorstep in Scottsdale, Arizona.

But, as it turned out, it was more of a shock to Jenny that the medical examiner had skilfully detected that she was two weeks pregnant and he immediately put an end to her dreams. She had become that most loathed of creatures in U.S. immigration eyes, the undesirable alien.

“I doubt whether they’ll ever let me in now.” she wept, “They’re so strict.”

Yes, the Medical Department at the Consulate had been systematic alright. The tests were brutal, thorough and highly undignified. I had been asked some absurd questions too by the Immigration Department. Would I be making a living on the streets? Would I be selling my body for sex? Did I plan to carry out any criminal activities? Had I, indeed, carried out any criminal activities in the past? Had I got a police record? Had I joined any communist or un-American organizations? Had I ever possessed or carried a firearm? If yes, had I ever used it and under what circumstances? Did I have any bad credit? Had I ever been declared bankrupt? Had I ever suffered from substance or alcohol abuse? If yes, what substances and what medical treatment had I received? Was there any history of mental problems in my family? If so, what kind? And, finally, had I lied in my answers to any of the above questions? From that moment on I loathed bureaucracy and, particularly, the immigration services of every country I ever visited.

As I left the Consulate I glanced sympathetically at the long line of hopeful applicants, each one aspiring to obtain a green card or to become a citizen of the United States. I wondered did they know what indignities they would be required to go through, what questions they would be expected to answer? And, if they did, would they still be prepared to pursue this American dream?

But I was smug. I had passed mine. I was ecstatic. I clutched my green card. I felt I was on my way to the Big Apple.

Had I known then what I know now – that green cards are virtually impossible to obtain, I would have held on to it, paid the price of returning to American soil once a year and kept it up to date. As it is, four years later I foolishly allowed it to lapse.

So, after having discovered how carefully immigration applicants are vetted, imagine how astounded I was to find myself, a few months later, actually shaking hands with President and Lady Bird Johnson with, apparently, not a single Secret Service Agent in sight.

lyndon johnson

The handshake took place the following summer of 1964. It was at a Democratic fund-raising barbeque in the magnificent grounds of one of those rambling Long Island heritage homes and was hosted by the actor Paul Newman and the President’s daughter, Linda. My first thought on encountering the President was that, had I brought one, I could have easily disguised a gun wrapped up in my Texas-sized T-bone steak. Perhaps the Vice Consul had been right in making me swear not to assassinate the President. For here, right now, I realized, nobody would have even noticed. In one swift move I could have taken out Lyndon Baines Johnson before anyone had a chance to recognize what was happening. But, instead, all I could do was make small talk, “Lovely evening, beautiful garden, delicious food,” that kind of thing. Here I was, a fledgling journalist with an opportunity to discuss serious politics with the President of the United States, and I stood, like a frightened rabbit, too coy to ask him about anything. I wanted to pin him down about the war on poverty, about the possibility of manned space flight or, most importantly, on the recent “Gulf of Tonkin” decision for retaliatory air strikes against the North Vietnamese following their attack on the U.S.S. Maddox. But, no, I had missed my moment of triumph. I had been tongue-tied. I had wimped out.

Too embarrassed to linger, I fell in with the crowd congratulating Paul Newman on the mouth-watering sauces he had prepared to accompany the steaks. I found myself rubbing shoulders with Senator Ferdinand Edralin Marcos, the Philippines presidential candidate. marcos and imelda

As a woman I should probably have had some feminine intuition here for, in a few years time, I was to become an outspoken adversary of both him and his wife Imelda. I would write exhaustively on the ill-gotten gains of their conjugal dictatorship and I would clash, more than once with their eldest daughter Imee, on Manila television. But there was no way of knowing then what a central part of my early life they and their country would become. So, again, I shook hands, smiled politely, made some innocuous comment on the evening and, in the words of the Dionne Warwick song, I simply “walked on by”.

Categories: 1960s, Journalism, Memoirs, Politics, Travel, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Tiptoeing Through the Tulips

Someone asked me recently whether I remembered the 1960s singer, Tiny Tim. “Remember him?” I laughed. “I discovered him!” This is the story!

Although, unlike most of my friends, I genuinely disliked nightclubs, the Scene on 8th Avenue and West 46th Street, came to be one of my favourite watering holes in New York. Steve Paul, the enterprising 23- year-old owner, was determined to make his basement club the most important music venue in the city. Although Steve lived like a pauper, sleeping rough on friends’ couches most nights, money appeared to be no object with him and he was constantly flying off to Houston, Los Angeles or London to find new bands, offer to be their manager and invite them to play at the his club.

scene nightclub

The Scene nightclub

 

One night I was sitting with Steve, and my friends, Sarah Dalton and her brother, the pop journalist David Dalton, when I decided to ask him how, without a job and at his young age, he could afford to be jetting off to all these places. We all imagined he must have wealthy, supportive parents. We certainly weren’t prepared for the reply he gave.

steve paul

Steve Paul

 

“Orange Julius,” he replied simply.

 

We all leaned forward at this point.

 

“What do you mean, Orange Julius?” I asked.

“Orange Julius. You know, the new drink? I discovered it. I made up the recipe!”

zappa

Frank Zappa

He sounded serious but his reply seemed so preposterous we weren’t quite sure whether he was joking or not. In less than two years Orange Julius had literally flooded the United States becoming the nation’s favourite fruit drink. Franchises for Orange Julius counters were being sold in every State from New York to California. And posters advertising Orange Julius were popping up on hoardings alongside Interstate highways all over the country. If, indeed, Steve had dreamed up the recipe and patented it, he must have been an extremely shrewd businessman, not to mention an exceedingly wealthy young man. If, however, he was the product of a rich family he never admitted it, not even to us. And, to this day, I don’t know if he was telling the truth, trying to impress us, disowning a privileged background or, simply, pulling our legs. Strange as it may seem, it still intrigues me.

Johnny Winter

Johnny Winter

But of one thing there was absolutely no doubt. Steve was a force to be reckoned within the New York music world. Many groups he approached begged him to be their manager. It was evident, even in those early days that Steve was one of those rare and fortunate individuals who, for no apparent reason, seemed to have a Midas touch when it came to identifying musical talent. Many musicians, hoping to be discovered, wanted that touch to rub off on them. Even widely known artists and bands, such as the Velvet Underground, the Progressive Blues Experiment, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Rick Derringer, Duane Allman, Frank Zappa and the exceptional “white” blues guitarist Johnny Winter, all accepted Steve’s invitation to play at the Scene. Because of this, over the coming years, the Scene grew in reputation, popularity and strength.

By the late 60’s, long after I’d skipped town, it had more than fulfilled Steve’s wishes and was, without doubt, the foremost music venue in Manhattan. Sadly, the very success of the club led to its premature demise at the height of its fame. Rumour has it that the mob wanted a piece of the action, Teddy, the much loved maitre d’, had his legs broken and, rather than give in to their bullying tactics, Steve reluctantly decided to close it down. Then, after years of sleeping on friends’ couches, Steve Paul, the entrepreneur with the magic touch, retreated to his new home – Rita Hayworth’s rambling estate in Connecticut. He told Sarah recently, “In those days you didn’t need money. You didn’t need anything. I slept on peoples’ couches. Today, it’s into the bunkers and,” smiling ironically he swept his arms around the vast living room boasting walk-in fireplaces on either end, “I find I need all this!”

One of Steve’s earliest, and most unlikely, discoveries at the Scene was Herbert Kaury, alias Vernon Castle, alias Emmett Swink, alias Danny Dover, alias Rollie Dell and, now, alias Larry Love “The Singing Canary”. But even Steve, with his innate sense of success, did not immediately recognize Larry Love’s unique appeal. Sarah had already heard Love in some smaller clubs in Greenwich Village and had begged David and me to “go check him out”.

tiny tim

Herbert Kaury, alias Tiny Tim

 

So, once again, Sarah, David and I descended on the Scene, this time with Larry Love in tow. During a break in the evening’s entertainment, Sarah asked him if he would get up and sing a solo for us. In fact, encouraged by Sarah before he arrived, Larry had brought his ukelele with him in the vain hope he might be invited to play at that night. He looked pleadingly at Steve who shrugged his shoulders.

 

“Go on, Steve,” Sarah begged, “please let him!” David and I joined in, eager to experience this weird singing phenomenon that Sarah had been babbling on about for so long. Steve, I believe, had a soft spot for the two decorative English girls who frequented his club, one blonde, one auburn and it didn’t take much pleading from us both to convince him.

“OK, I guess. Why not? What the hell?” Steve ushered Larry towards the microphone. “What’s your name again?” he asked.

“Tiny Tim!” Larry answered, without hesitating.

“Excuse me?” Steve looked surprised, “I thought you said….”

“Tiny Tim!” Larry repeated quietly but firmly.

Looking nonplussed, Steve brushed the microphone. “All you folks here tonight, please welcome Tiny Tim!” he announced.

The tall, gangly figure of Herbert Kaury’s latest incarnation rose from his seat, tossed his long curly tresses away from his face and picked up his ukelele.

“Excuse me, Miss Sarah. Excuse me, Miss Caroline,” he whispered politely

as he left the table and walked to the front. Then, in a falsetto voice that would later become his trademark all over the world, he sang, “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.”

When he finished he looked towards Sarah and me.

“That was for my very special friends, Miss Sarah and Miss Caroline, thank you both,” he announced to the astonished crowd, who stood rooted to the spot, not quite sure what to make of the performance they’d just witnessed.

And thus, Larry Love the Singing Canary’s latest alias, Tiny Tim, was born. I was speechless, little guessing that “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” would echo across the world in just three years time, earning the singer a platinum disc.

The effect of this extraordinary entertainer on the audience that night was indescribable. Probably for the first time in its, so far, brief but explosive history, the Scene was completely hushed, whether out of sheer disbelief, outrage or respect I shall never know. But, by the time the song was over, Steve Paul certainly knew. From the audience’s reaction Steve immediately sensed Tiny Tim was going to be a big, big star. And from that night on, Steve became his manager and Tiny Tim became a regular at the Club. And as the Scene’s reputation grew, so did Tiny Tim’s. People from all over New York would come to listen to him, in amazement, in amusement or in rapture. Why they came in such numbers didn’t matter to either Steve or Tiny Tim. All that mattered was that they came. From swank uptown restaurants and clubs, such as Le Club owned and run by Igor “Ghighi” Cassini, or from the smart El Morocco frequented by New York’s “400”, or from the fashionable Four Seasons to downtown Greenwich Village bars, nightspots and cafes, people from all backgrounds and from all social levels made the nightly pilgrimage to the windowless cellar on West 46th to listen to the weird and wonderful phenomenon that was Tiny Tim.

The Scene

The Scene

Most were turned away disappointed. The basement venue was so small it was unable to accommodate the large numbers of eager fans lining up on the sidewalk outside. As Sarah and I reminisced recently over those early days, she said, “You, David and I were the lucky ones. We were privileged. Steve would always let us in – but most people were turned away at the door.”

One evening following a somewhat dreary uptown dinner party I even managed to drag my reluctant boyfriend, the gossip columnist Joe Dever, down there with our friends New York Senator Jacob Javits and his wife, the irrepressible Marion, and out-of-towners Governor Henry Bellmon of Oklahoma, British actor Bill Travers and Irish writer Conor Cruise O’Brien. Despite all their initial protests all, that is all except Marion, an enchanting combination of serious politician’s wife and free spirit who was always ready for action of any kind, were later forced to admit that Tiny Tim was an experience not to be missed.

tiny_tim_wedding

Tiny Tim gets married on the Johnny Carson Show

“Come on, Jack,” I whispered to the Senator during the performance, “enjoy it! After all I sat through your son’s reading of the Torah at his Bar Mitzvah last week and managed to have some fun!” The Senator gave me one of his illuminating beams, his face cracking open from ear to ear. “I am enjoying it, my dear sweet girl,” he whispered back, “didn’t you hear me humming along?”

Tiny Tim was an asset to the Club in other ways too. He enjoyed meeting people and talking about his life, his religious beliefs and his long and rocky career as an entertainer. He had endless stories about the successes and failures of each of his previous incarnations. He had stories about his Polish family’s struggle for survival. And he had hilarious stories about his own hygiene and beauty programmes, which involved, among other things, manicuring his nails, splattering cologne over his face, brushing his teeth and taking a shower, not just once but several times a day. If Tiny Tim looked like a beatnik straight out of a Jack Kerouac novel, he certainly never smelt like one. Most nights he reeked of Elizabeth Arden’s Blue Grass but, occasionally, he’d try something a little more adventurous such as Jean Patou, which always reminded me of my Jugoslav grandmother.

The sheer novelty of a performer like Tiny Tim had struck a chord with New Yorkers. Here was a clean living individual (he didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke, he didn’t take drugs and I doubt if he even had sex) with old-fashioned values, jealously guarded principles and quaint codes of behaviour. He was quiet-spoken, polite, unassuming and gentle. To jaded New Yorkers, used to the brash, spoilt and, often, uncouth conduct of their pop stars, Tiny Tim was, like the old-fashioned songs he sang, a breath of fresh air from a bygone era.

Finally the Press got to hear about this phenomenon. And, by 1968, just three years later when I was travelling alone across the vast icy plains of Siberia, Tiny Tim was whisked off to get married before an audience of millions on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. This was immediately followed by offers of recording contracts and concert spots around the world. At the age of 45, or thereabouts, Tiny Tim, as Steve Paul accurately predicted, had finally made the big time.

 

 

Categories: 1960s, Arts, Journalism, Memoirs | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

It Happened In Paradise – A Cautionary Tale

“Costa Rica is a paradise, a virtual Garden of Eden” or so the tourist brochures lead us to believe. Turn the pages of any guide book and, doubtless, you will read glowing reports about this “peaceful” country, with its stable government, its lack of an army, its protected national parks, its teeming wildlife, its breathtaking landscapes, its farsighted conservation policies, its unique University for Peace, its perfect climate, its pristine beaches and its strict zoning laws to prevent overdevelopment.

The list is varied and endless. Scratch beneath the surface, however, and this carefully contrived image at once begins to disintegrate. For the truth is Costa Rica is a country ruled by laws that are rarely enforced. The current government of Laura Chinchilla lacks popularity and several prominent Ministers have resigned over the past few few years amid growing corruption scandals. There is open dissension among the Board of Directors at the University for Peace. The endangered jaguar, although internationally protected, is being poached to extinction in one of its last “safe” habitats, the Corcovado National Park. Large numbers of foreign paedophiles visit Costa Rica to seek out young, vulnerable children for sex. An even larger number of cheap immigrant labour, mainly from neighbouring Nicaragua, has created an atmosphere of fear and resentment both among the Costa Rican workforce and within the population at large. And evidence of laundered drug money is clearly visible in the profusion of condominiums, gated communities and tourist resorts that are mushrooming up all over the country. This list too is varied and endless.

But, despite it all, Costa Rica remains a mecca for young and old alike seeking an unspoiled environment or safe haven under a tropical sun. Exchange students, backpackers, conservation volunteers, bird and wildlife enthusiasts, surfers, adventurers, sex tourists, retirees, senior citizens and international criminals evading justice, all are lured here by the promise of a mythical paradise. Most leave the country after a couple of weeks holiday still convinced by the propaganda. Those that stay a while are inevitably confronted with the truth. Some, disillusioned, pack up and return home. Others, like me, develop a love-hate relationship with this land of numerous frustrations, intriguing contradictions and irresistible temptations.

Here, far from this image of paradise, I have come to see Serena and Charlotte, names more familiar to the society pages of Country Life than to a women’s prison in the tropics. For the penitentiary, “El Buen Pastor” (the Good Shepherd) is where Serena and Charlotte have ended up.

Nestled into the lush foothills of the massive southern mountain range overlooking Costa Rica’s Central Valley this ramshackle fortress, formerly an isolated convent, has obviously fallen on hard times. Not so long ago it was deemed unfit for its current use and condemned for demolition. So further down the road a more modern extension is being built to take its place. But this too is faced with problems. There is a severe shortage of potable water on the new site and so, for the time being, it can only be used as a “protection” unit to house those girls whose lives are considered in danger. This is currently where Serena and Charlotte are being housed after another inmate threatened them with a knife.

These two English girls, one from a middle-class neighbourhood of Leeds and one from a depressed inner-city area of Wolverhampton, are lovers. But it is precisely because of their love for one another that they now find themselves serving a five and a half years prison sentence without the possibility of parole. Both are very young, 22 and 23. Serena, soft-spoken but the more talkative of the two, is the quintessential English rose, voluptuous figure, porcelain complexion, auburn hair and green eyes. Charlotte, the amateur poet, is part Jamaican, more introspective, with dark eyes and an ever-ready smile that radiates warmth.

So how, I wondered, did these two very British girls end up serving time in a Costa Rican jail?

“I was to blame,” Charlotte told me, “I’d had a previous drugs conviction in England. I was caught at Heathrow with 92 kilos of cannabis that I was paid to bring in from Jamaica. I served 18 months of a 3 ½ year sentence, then wore an electronic tag for three months and after that I was on probation.”

So why make the same mistake again, I asked.

“Because Serena and I were in love. We had put a deposit down on a place together. We needed money to buy things for it, furniture and stuff. They offered me $15,000 for one trip to bring in 10 kilos of cocaine from Barbados. It was tempting.”

When Serena found out about this plan she was fuming.

“I called Charlie and threatened to break off our affair. I cried and pleaded with her. I told her she was no longer the girl I’d fallen in love with and I didn’t want to be with her any more. She replied, ‘think about it, it’s easy money, we’d be able to afford nice things for our flat, perhaps even a car.’ But I begged her to think again. I asked her how she could be so stupid, she’d only been out of prison 8 months by then. I told her I just didn’t want her being involved in anything like that ever again.”

So, not wanting to lose Serena, Charlotte relented. She told her “recruiter“, a childhood friend from the notorious Bushbury neighbourhood of Wolverhampton, that she would find someone else to take her place as drug mule.

“I was told I would be paid $1500 for every girl I recruited.” Charlotte began asking around. “Eventually I spoke to a girl I had met in prison and she agreed to do it for me. I was paid $500 to go to Stevenage to meet up with this girl, buy her a passport and then bring her back to Wolverhampton.”

All went well at the start. It was only when Charlotte’s recruit backed out at the last minute that trouble began.

“Charlie kept receiving threatening text messages and voicemails,” Serena said, “I was really scared for her, for us.”

Hoping to escape the threats Charlotte took the train to Leeds where she moved in with Serena. The intimidated pair stayed home, avoided going out, fearful they might be seen. But this hermitic life, cut off from friends and family, couldn’t last indefinitely.

“Eventually we went out and there they were, the two men Charlie owed the $500 to,” Serena continued, “they must have been waiting for us. They came up to her and said, ‘I’m warning you, my guys have killed people for less money than that.’”

Not wanting Serena to be involved, Charlotte took the men aside, begged them to leave her alone.

“I offered to pay them back $100 a week but they wouldn’t listen to me,” Charlotte said. “They told me Serena would have to go instead of my recruit. They said it was either that or we’d have to watch our backs forever. I said I would never let Serena go.”

Seeing no way out, Charlotte reluctantly agreed to go herself.

Back home later that night Serena and Charlotte discussed their options for several hours.

“Finally we said to each other, if it’s got to be done, it’s got to be done,” Serena said. “But I didn’t want Charlie to go alone so we decided we’d both go. And so the next day we got our passports and the men bought us our tickets. They told us we would be flying the following Friday, not to Barbados as we had previously been told, but through Paris, Caracas and then on to San Jose, Costa Rica.”

Unlike most tourists who, on first sight, view Costa Rica as a paradise, the girls’ first impression was distinctly unfavourable.

“We were met at the airport by two guys, Lee and “Dreds”, and taken to a very seedy area of San Jose, to the filthiest motel I’ve ever seen, full of cockroaches.” Serena said.

Fed up by their numerous complaints the two men finally escorted them round the corner to the more salubrious Hotel Europa and offered to change their money for them. “The guys told us one pound is equal to 300 colones. We believed them,” Charlotte explained, “so we gave them 30 quid.”

The next day they were in for their first rude awakening. “We were out walking and we passed a bank,” Serena said, “and went inside. We found out that one pound was worth at least 800 colones. Now that they’d deliberately cheated us we knew we couldn’t trust them. I just wanted to forget the whole thing and go home. But there was no way we could, the guys had kept our suitcases and our passports.”

The girls got restless waiting for their return trip to the UK and asked permission to spend some time by the sea. Lee and “Dreds” took them to the Caribbean port of Limon where they passed a few days on the beach. Unnerved by the many days of waiting, doing little but sunbathing during the day and watching subtitled films on television at night, both had premonitions of a disaster waiting to happen.

“We just knew we were going to get caught,” Serena said, “both of us felt that way. But Charlie kept trying to reassure me, ‘it’ll be OK, it’ll be OK, she said. But, if we do get caught, I’ll take the blame and you can go home.’ But by then I’d realized we had no choice. We were in it together. Besides, there was no point in running away. There was nowhere for us to go. We didn’t speak Spanish so it was hard to talk to anyone.”

A week later they were put on a bus back to San Jose where they were reunited with their suitcases.

“The brother of my “recruiter” friend from Wolverhampton was there at the hotel waiting for us.” Charlotte said, “I recognized him immediately from my last drugs trip to Jamaica. He told me he had drilled the bottoms of our suitcases and put the drugs inside. He assured us everything would be fine. Then Lee and “Dreds” told us to pack because we would be leaving the following day.”

Their return trip, they were told, would take them back to Caracas and then on to Paris where they would disembark before heading on to the UK. “That way,” Serena explained, “they said we could mingle with thousands of football supporters who would be making their way back to England from an international match in France.”

In the morning a taxi picked the girls up from the Hotel Europa and took them to the airport.

“I wasn’t particularly frightened,” Serena said, “but just very sad. I knew something would go wrong. We checked in our luggage without any problem but then it happened. The airport police approached us and started asking questions. Why had we come to Costa Rica, was it for a holiday, where had we been staying while we were here, was it our first visit and how long had we been here? That kind of thing.”

“We answered their questions as best we could,” Charlotte explained, “but Serena was feeling really sick by this time. Anyway they let us go. And we thought that was that. We thought we’d got away with it. We walked into the Departure Lounge, hardly daring to breathe, not wanting to look behind us. We sat down and I said to Serena, ‘We’re going to be OK! We’re really going to be OK!’”

When their flight was called, the girls, much relieved but still somewhat in shock, joined the queue to board the Taca Airlines plane. But just as they were about to enter the plane they felt someone tapping them on the back. They turned around to face a large unsmiling man with greying hair and sweating temples.

“You no fly!” he announced.

“What do you mean? What’s going on?” the girls asked.

“You no fly!” he repeated. “You come with me!”

By that time three Customs officials had joined them and the four men escorted the girls back into the terminal. Inside the office of the airport police Serena and Charlotte were handcuffed. The girls watched as a “Hitler look-alike” picked up their suitcases, opened them, removed the contents and proceeded to rip away the linings.

“We were terrified,” Serena said, “but then we saw there was nothing there. I couldn’t believe it. We were so happy.”

Their sense of relief didn‘t last long, however. The officer reached into his pocket, drew out a screwdriver and drove it hard into the base of each suitcase. They watched as he extracted it covered in a fine white powder. Like an alchemist he poured a small quantity of liquid on it and watched as the powder promptly changed colour confirming to the police and Customs inspectors that the drug contained in both suitcases was cocaine. He warned them, “You’re in BIG trouble. BIG trouble!” At which point the girls started to laugh uncontrollably.

“We couldn’t help it, we just cracked up.” Charlotte said, “It was the way he said it. We were really nervous, I guess, and that sometimes gives you hysterics.”

They remained handcuffed for six hours, even when they went to the bathroom. And then they and their suitcases were taken to the nearest police station in nearby Alajuela. It was there that the cocaine was finally removed, tested and weighed. They were informed the full amount weighed less than 2 kilos. It now dawned on the girls that Lee and “Dreds” had stolen the other 8 kilos to sell for themselves.

“We were sure then,” Serena said, “that they had set us up. They had squealed on us. They let us get caught for less than 2 kilos while they made money selling the rest. And, even if we had made it to the UK, they must have known we would never have been paid the $15,000 we were promised. We were so angry. Charlie whispered to me, ‘I’m so sorry, Serena, but I said it’s OK! And it was OK. I knew what I was doing when I agreed to do this job. We both did, so there was no need for her to apologize.”

A welcome visit that evening from the British Consul raised the girls’ spirits somewhat but her message brought them little cheer.

“She was really kind and sympathetic to us,” Serena told me, “and it felt so good to speak English with someone again. But she warned us we would be going to prison in Costa Rica, possibly for a long, long time, between 8 and 20 years. We were utterly devastated.”

Worse was to come. On their arrival the next day at “El Buen Pastor“, the girls were shown to their “ambito” (living quarters).

“It seemed like the whole prison population was following us,” Serena recalled, “They were all screaming and shouting and I remember thinking, oh my God, they’ve brought us to the zoo!”

So how, I asked them had they fared those first few days.

“It was horrible,” Charlotte told me, “There were no beds for us so we had to sleep on the floor for five weeks, the first two weeks without even a mattress. There were no flushing loos, only a pot and a bucket of water. The pot is for used toilet paper and the bucket of water is for flushing the toilet manually.”

“And we have to pay 150 colones a week (18 pence) to use the toilet and another 150 colones every time we use the shower,” Serena interrupted, “and there’s no running water in the shower, only a bucket of cold water.”

I asked them what contact they’d had with their parents.

“At first I was too upset to call them,” Serena said, “I thought they’d be horrified and angry with me. But when I did finally speak to them they were so relieved to hear from me. They had been so worried. They did ask me a lot of questions, of course, but they said they would support me 100%. I was phoning them reverse charges to begin with until they ended up with a phone bill of nearly two thousand pounds!”

And then there were the stray animals the girls had to get used to. Feral cats, dogs, rats and racoons, covered in mange, riddled with fleas and spreading diseases, roam the grounds day and night, searching for scraps of food.

“The rats are so big,” Serena told me, “that the cats don’t even bother to chase them. And, at night, the two families of racoons run backwards and forwards across the corrugated iron roof.”

“And Serena got bitten by all kinds of insects the first week,” Charlotte explained, “and her leg swelled right up and she had lumps under her arms so she tried to see the doctor.”

“But you need to be dying in here before the prison officers let you see the doctor,” Serena added, “and so I wasn’t seen for four weeks. When the doctor did eventually see me she was disgusted I hadn’t been allowed a visit before. She said I had an infection in my glands, my stomach was completely inflamed and I had an allergy to the insect bites. She put me on antibiotics and anti-inflammatory tablets for three weeks.”

The court case that swiftly followed their arrival in “El Buen Pastor” found them guilty and sentenced them each to 5 years and 4 months.

“I wanted to tell the court it was all my fault, that Serena wasn’t guilty of anything,” Charlotte explained. “I wanted to take the blame myself. But my lawyer warned me if I did that the judge would probably increase Serena’s sentence to 8 years. So she had no choice but to plead guilty too.”

The girls are both convinced that, as foreigners in “El Buen Pastor“, they are being discriminated against. “There are local girls here,” Serena explained, “with more than ten bad behaviour reports to their name and they never get taken to the “toombas” (solitary confinement). But when Charlie had a fight, that none of the officers even witnessed, she was immediately taken to the toomba, even though it was her first report.”

In fact my initial meeting with Charlotte took place while she was in solitary, a separate derelict block surrounded by a high wire fence situated at the far end of the prison grounds. Despite the appalling conditions there and the fact that, for a first offence, she had been sentenced to 18 days, she still managed to smile. I asked her how she came to be there.

“I caught a girl stealing Serena’s trainers,” she explained. “I guess I should have just walked away from it but I didn’t. We’d already had so many of our clothes stolen. You see you can’t leave anything out here, not even for a second, otherwise it’ll be taken immediately, even our toilet paper. Anyway the girl pulled a knife on me. And then someone informed the officers and we got caught.”

Without Charlotte to lean on, Serena felt utterly desolate. “I just stayed in my room all day and read. I cried a lot. The days passed so slowly, I just couldn’t wait for Charlie to get out of solitary. I felt so lost.”

When, 18 days later, Charlotte returned to the ambito she was in for another unpleasant shock. She found there was no bed for her to sleep on. She was forced to sleep on the floor for three weeks until another bed became vacant.

“It was horrible,” Charlotte said, “I was placed next to this woman who kept getting up to pee in a pot in the middle of the night. And it kept splashing into my face. It was disgusting.”

The woman in question turned out to be several months pregnant, Serena told me. “She was sent to the doctor who gave her a jab and after that jab she ended up losing her baby.”

I asked her if the jab was intended to abort the fetus. “I’ve no idea,” Serena replied, “all I know is that after that jab the woman lost her baby. She told us she delivered it outside in the prison grounds and then buried it in the long grass.”

The tiny corpse was never found but it’s likely it was immediately consumed by the swarms of black vultures that sit patiently in the branches of the overhanging trees waiting for any morsel of carrion.

Every day “El Buen Pastor” witnesses its share of fights, most are petty feuds, the settling of old scores, outbreaks of anger and frustration, but others are far more serious. There are some very tough women inside who manage to smuggle in knives and other weapons. They are constantly battling for favors from the guards or a position of power over the weaker inmates. Sometimes the prison officers break up the fights before they turn nasty, other times they are too intimidated to intervene and many times they are forced to call in the police.

Recently Baroness Dr. Vivien Stern, senior research fellow at the International Centre for Prison Studies at King’s College London, spoke about Costa Rica’s prisons as “an excellent example of the effect that the valuing of respect and humanity as a two-way dynamic between officer and prisoner can have on a prison system. This results,” she went on to say, “in a very different atmosphere marked by actions such as calling a prisoner by their first name and prisoners approaching staff to raise points with them knowing they will be listened to.”

Although most of what I had heard so far about the treatment of the prisoners by the officers was negative, I asked Serena if there were any instances of kindness that she had received from them. “Well, yes,” she said, “one or two have been very nice to me, the ones that speak a bit of English. They have posted letters for me, arranged for me to see the Director and the doctor, that sort of thing. But mainly here prisoners run the prison, the guards are easily intimidated, that is well known by everyone.”

And this view does appear to be generally accepted as fact both within the prison population and among the wider community. With an inmate to staff ratio of 511 to 180, it is hardly surprising that the guards prefer to turn their backs and remain silent rather than participate in a potentially explosive scene.

“A lot of the tougher prisoners pay the guards to turn a blind eye,” Charlotte adds, “they can then bring in almost anything they like, including drugs, knives and alcohol. And then they either use them themselves or sell them off to the other girls.”

“Drugs are common here,” Serena agrees, “you can get them easily both from the prisoners and the guards.” From cannabis to crack cocaine, everything, it seems, is available in “El Buen Pastor” for the right price.

This availability of drugs and alcohol inside the prison directly contravenes Executive Degree No. 25.883, published in the official gazette La Gaceta, 31 March 1997, governing the confiscation of drugs and the control of medicaments within the Costa Rican prison system. This Regulation “strictly prohibits the entry of medicaments and the handling of substances which may have a negative impact on the health of persons in custody, including drugs, narcotics, psychotropic or psychopharmaceutical substances, inhalable substances, precursors and derivatives of alcohol.”

“We’ve seen girls being cut up by knives, often under the influence of drugs,” Serena said, “but we just try to stay out of it. One girl got her face all cut up just for making a noise while someone else was trying to sleep. It wasn’t even at night, it was 2 o’clock in the afternoon. And one time there was a “rampage” in the kitchen. For some reason we were given fried chicken instead of the usual stale bread, rice, beans and chunks of inedible pork. We were all so excited and everyone wanted to get served first to make sure they got the choicest bits so there was a stampede. But when we got back to our rooms to eat it, the fried chicken tasted of bleach, the cooking pans obviously hadn’t been rinsed out.”

This provoked another “rampage”. The inmates stormed the kitchen, shouting, hollering and threatening for some decent food. This time the police were called to end the fight and to protect the besieged kitchen staff. But, since there was no other food prepared that night, everyone went to bed hungry. As a result the inmates went on strike the next night.

“They refused to go back to their “ambitos” at bed time and stayed out in the pouring rain,” Serena explained. “Charlie and I went straight to bed because we didn’t want to be involved. But the others remained outside until the bosses and police were called in. They promised better food and better living conditions and the girls were eventually convinced to go back inside. But, of course, so far nothing’s changed.”

It has taken a while but Serena and Charlotte have now resigned themselves to their sentence. They try to avoid boredom at all costs. They spend their days drawing, reading, writing poetry and dreaming of the day they will be allowed to go home.

“I was already a qualified dental assistant with a good job before I left England,” Serena said. “When I go home I want to qualify as a dental hygienist.”

And Charlotte, what were her plans, I asked.

“I would like to study law so I can help other prisoners abroad but, with my two convictions, I don’t know if they’d let me.”

In my way of thinking, I said, that would make her particularly well qualified to help others who find themselves in the same situation as her.

“But the very first thing I want to do,” she continued, “apart, of course, from seeing my family, is to apologize to Serena’s parents. I feel really guilty and I want to tell them I’m truly sorry.”

Meanwhile, I reminded them, Lee and “Dreds” are still out there somewhere, free.

“When we got to “El Buen Pastor”” Charlotte told me, “we found out that several other inmates are serving time because of those two guys.”

I asked them how they felt about that.

Serena, the quintessential English rose with the soft voice, raised it several decibels, “I’d kill them,” she said. “If I ever saw them again I’d kill them!”

@Published in The Independent on Sunday

Categories: Costa Rica, Journalism, Travel | Leave a comment

THE FUGITIVE KIND

 

Harry Rose was a character. It wouldn’t take long for anyone meeting him for the first time to come to this conclusion. I certainly knew this to be true the minute I met him. I also instinctively knew that we were destined to get along together. From the moment his lips parted revealing a single gold tooth, I warmed to him. It looked so incongruous, dwarfing as it did all his other teeth and dominating the centre of his top jaw. But it was obvious too that Harry was extremely proud of it.

Harry was also short, around 5 feet 4 inches in his platform cowboy boots. But he acted as though he was tall. And there was no denying his ever-ready smile, his generous spirit and his ever present eagerness to please. Harry had acquired the attributes in life to be everyone’s best friend. His less endearing qualities, if he had any, included an awe-inspiring facility for recalling some of the most intimate details of his sexual habits and boasting about them to whoever cared to listen. His other less endearing trait was to constantly flex his custom-built biceps, lavishly illustrated by an assortment of cheaply tattooed love hearts and waving his glossily manicured fingers around despite the fact that his broad mechanic’s hands were usually encrusted with a congealed mixture of grease, nicotine, Swarfega and engine oil.

I soon found out that it didn’t take much to make Harry happy. As long as people around him were happy then he, too, was cheerful. He had also acquired, though I’m sure more by accident than design, the enviable gift of being able to say  just the right things to the right people at the right time – the things people most wanted to hear.

And so Harry arrived at my flat one autumn afternoon looking about as immaculate as he ever could be, kitted out in a pair of form-hugging blue jeans, a crisp white T shirt, platform cowboy boots which, in spite of their venerable age, had been buffed to a high polish and his favourite sky blue leather bomber jacket.

“Uh, uh, it’s me, ‘Arry Rose…” he stuttered through my intercom, “I’ve, er, come to pick up the stuff for Bosnia, right?”

“Oh, thanks Harry, I’ll be right out, “ I said, “Hang on a second.”

And through the glass doors I could make out the slightly comical, slightly distorted image of Harry standing on my doorstep, nonchalantly leaning up against the door jamb, a post both shy and cocky, squinting against the late afternoon sun, a fresly-lit cigarette dangling from his manicured fingers. As I approached I could see him casually flicking the ash over the railings into the basement below. His studied posture and his expression of intense concentration reminded me of a diminuitive caricature of Marlon Brando in one of his early screen roles. That immortal moment when the actor appears on the verandah of Anna Magnani’s Mississippi shop, a drifter guitarist in search of a job, casually wearing a tight-fitting snakeskin jacket, in Tennessee William’s excellent and unforgettable melodrama, “The Fugitive Kind.”

I opened the door and there on the threshold was the real Harry. It didn’t take me an instant to realize that this was West Kensington, not sourthern Mississippi. I was no earthy Anna Magnani simmering with volcanic passion. And there was no way on earth Harry, in either looks or stature, could ever be mistaken for the brooding, young Marlon Brando, oozing sexuality and smoldering anger. Nor could Harry’s much loved, much worn sky blue leather bomber jacket be compared in any way to the drifter’s figure-hugging snakeskin jacket.

I was about to let Harry in on my cinematic daydream but then he drew himself up to his full height on his platform heels, gripped my hand, grinned from ear to ear, his single gold tooth proudly sparkling in the evening sun and the moment and the image evaporated. Later I thought perhaps I should have told him. It would almost certainly have been the first and the last time in Harry Rose’s life he had been compared to the incomparable Marlon Brando!  Although, knowing Harry as I do now, he would have thought it quite natural that a woman would mistake him for one of the twentieth century’s most enduring sex symbols.

Behind Harry stood an ageing Doge, brightly hand-painted in blue and white. This, then, was Harry’s trusted vehicle which would bring him and my supplies to Bosnia. I fervently hoped it would drive more smoothly than its shabby exterior suggested.

“OK, let’s go to work then,” I said, shaking his hand. “I hope you’re prepared…There’s an awful lot of stuff.”

“Don’t you worry about me!” Harry flexed his bulging biceps. “These have never let me down yet!”

It took us over two hours to haul the supplies out of my flat and into the rear of the ageing Dodge as Harry regaled me with intimate details of his sexual escapades. Halfway through the operation it occurred to me to enlist the help of several bemused onlookers, my neighbours and the resident porter, who were standing around curiously watching our activities and giggling at Harry’s verbal barrage of erotic anecdotes. I asked them to form an assembly line between my flat and the Dodge and, hastily barking out orders like a sergeant major, I managed to sped up the process considerably.

When, finally, everything was neatly stacked into the back of the truck, when the helpers had drifted away still chuckling from the memories of Harry’s sexual fantasies and when the Doge was securely padlocked, I invited Harry in for some refreshment before he set off on the road.

It’s in Harry’s nature to be garrulous, more so, I discovered, after a glass or two of his favourite Merlot. He couldn’t help marveling at the sheer amount of supplies I had not only managed to collect for charity but had been able to squeeze inside my somewhat cramped flat.

He kept repeating, “It’s a bloody miracle, I can’t believe it, Caroline, ‘onest. I just can’t believe it ‘ow much you hot in’ere!” He shook his head in disbelief, “And you collected it all in four weeks! Must be some of bloody miracle!”

He paused briefly, swallowing the last dregs of his Merlot, “Now did I tell you about Maria, this Slovakian girl I met last week?”

I shook my head. “You mentioned Anna and the tennis racquet, I think it was. And Lizzie and Angela in the shower. And Tracey and her twin sister in the garage..But Maria, no, I don’t think so.”

Harry grinned, flashing his gold tooth. “Ah, the beauteous Maria,” he sighed. “Shall I tell you what ‘er and me did in the basement of ‘er building right beside the central ‘eating boiler?”

“No Harry, I think not!” I laughed, “I am sure I can guess!”

Harry looked distinctly disappointed. “Well, another time then, huh?”

“Another time,” I agreed.

“Well, in that case I’d better be off now!” He rose from the sofa, smoothed down his thigh-hugging jeans, pulled on his sky blue leather bomber jacket and reached out to shake my hand again.

“Good to meet you, Caroline.” He flashed his gold tooth and teetered towards the door on his platform cowboy boots. “Rest assured all these goods will go to the poor little kiddies in Bosnia!”

Impulsively I leant towards him and kissed his cheek. “I know they will, Harry,” I said. “I know they will.”

It’s hard to believe what an appalling judge of character I was. For, alas, Harry Rose did, after all, turn out to be like the drifter guitarist Marlon Brand – one of the fugitive kind.

For that was the last I ever saw of Harry Rose, his sparkling gold tooth, his platform                  cowboy boots, his sky blue leather bomber jacket, his lavishly illustrated biceps, his manicured fingernails, his ageing handpainted blue and white Dodge and , most sadly of all, the charity supplies for the refugee children of Bosnia.

Categories: Humanitarian Overseas Work, Journalism, Memoirs, Travel, War & Conflict | Tags: , | Leave a comment

YES, I WAS THERE! Summer of ‘65 by Caroline Kennedy

Just as Beatlemania had taken hold in the United States in February 1964 so, too, had British youth been working themselves up into a frenzy of anticipation at the prospect of Bob Dylan’s first British concert at the Royal Albert Hall on the 9 May 1965.

Donovan

Donovan

Earlier in the day my friend Sarah and I had met up with the singer, Donovan,  in Hyde Park, opposite the Royal Albert Hall. We had sat and chatted with him about his upcoming tour of the States. Sarah had asked him to dress up in an Edwardian suit with a view to photographing him against the backdrop of the Albert Memorial. In the end she decided to photograph me alongside him, my hair piled on top of my head, dressed in a long black floral print dress, holding a parasol. Unknown to either Sarah or me at the time, the photograph was then blown up by Donovan’s press agents in the United States and used as the poster for his U.S tour later in the year, which was being kicked off by an appearance, alongside Dylan, at the Newport Folk Festival in July.

bob dylan 65Later that night the Royal Albert Hall was packed. Thousands of young fans, unable to obtain tickets, hung around outside desperately hoping to catch a glimpse of their idol or, better still, approach him for his autograph. Sadly for them, they would all end up bitterly disappointed. Although the predicted summer rain never fell to dampen their spirits, the atmosphere among the crowds, so hopeful earlier on in the evening became more and more despondent as the rumour spread swiftly through the lines that Dylan had been spirited into the Hall under their very noses. They had some brief consolation when, unexpectedly, they caught a glimpse of the Beatles and Donovan showing up for the concert but they, too, were prevented from talking to their fans as over-zealous security guards whisked them swiftly inside the Hall.

Sarah and I were privileged. We had been given complimentary tickets, both for the concert and for backstage where we had arranged to interview Dylan for the US pop magazine, “Hullabaloo”.

Dylan was late so Peter, Paul and Mary, the warm-up group, who often travelled with him, remained on stage far longer than planned waiting for him to appear.

They went through their whole repertoire of songs, including “Puff the Magic Dragon”, “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore”. Everyone sang along with them but all were eagerly anticipating the young poet / singer/ songwriter who, more than anyone else, epitomized the hopes, dreams and angst of their generation.

Peter, Paul and Mary

Peter, Paul and Mary

As the evening progressed, the audience, though respectful of the group, was fast becoming disenchanted. They had paid money to see Dylan, now they were doubtful he was even going to put in an appearance. Disenchantment soon turned to anger as people started hissing, booing and whistling. Amidst this racket, totally unnoticed, the diminuitive figure of Bob Dylan made his hesitant way onto the stage.  He approached Peter, Paul and Mary and they whispered among themselves. Discreetly the trio moved to the sidelines, leaving Dylan entirely alone on stage. The hissing and booing continued, loudly at first and then, gradually, subsiding as it suddenly dawned on the fans that the lone figure standing out on stage in front of them, drowned in the light of the powerfully high megawatt bulbs, might just be that of Bob Dylan himself.

Dylan’s hands were over his ears, protecting them from the noise that, from his central location within the Hall, must have seemed almost overwhelming. He gave the impression of being very nervous. In a halting, breaking voice that sounded like he was about to burst into tears, he pleaded with the crowd. “Please don’t. Please don’t do that to me!”

The audience was shamed into an abrupt silence. Slowly they began to clap. Someone stood up and, within seconds, the whole auditorium was on its feet, clapping and cheering. This, after all, late or not, was the person they had come to listen to. This was their hero. This was Bob Dylan.

Dylan raised his hand to his eyes, shielding them from the strong lights. He looked very small and very vulnerable. He cleared his throat as his backing band, the Hawks, struck up the familiar opening notes to “Mr. Tambourine Man”. The crowd was now almost hysterical. Dylan opened his mouth and the crowd fell reverently silent. But nothing could be heard. The words, it seemed, had failed him. There was a horrified intake of breath by the audience as it became increasingly obvious that something inconceivable had happened – Dylan had forgotten the words to one of his most famous songs. It was a moment of pure drama. The audience remained silent in shocked disbelief. But then, disappointed and impatient, they started booing, at first gently and then more loudly. Dylan visibly shaken, winced with fear. Perhaps he had never before experienced how fickle an audience can be.

One by one the members of the Hawks stopped playing. Dylan conferred with them for a moment, then made a second attempt. This time it was not clear to anyone whether he was actually singing the words or merely mumbling along to the music. The audience began to get edgy again, some starting a slow handclap.

Dylan, Donovan and Mary Travers

Dylan, Donovan and Mary Travers

“Please, don’t do that,” he repeated softly, almost sobbing “please don’t do that to me.”

Dylan gave the impression of being very frightened indeed, whether it was just a bad case of stage nerves, or whether there was a more serious reason behind it was unclear. But it was hard not to feel sorry for him.  He looked so alone, defenceless and exposed on that huge stage.

He finally got through the evening somehow and, despite the fact, that we and a few other hopeful journalists were supposed to interview him, he was discreetly spirited away as furtively as he had arrived, in the company of the Beatles and Donovan.

When Sarah and I went backstage we too were disappointed. Opening Dylan’s dressing room door we were faced with an empty room. But Peter, Paul and Mary, who we had met several times in New York already, agreed to be interviewed instead.

They explained that they had long been friends of Dylan and had appeared at many political rallies with him, particularly the March on Washington in the summer of ‘63. Dylan had written many songs specifically for them, including their huge hit, “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright.”

When asked what had gone wrong that night they explained it away as nerves.

“He was so excited about this concert,” Mary Travers said, “but I think it was just too much for him. He’s a very private person, you know.”

“He’s primarily a songwriter,” Peter Yarrow chipped in, “he’s not really a performer. He’s very shy in public.”

My daughter, Mayumi Cabrera, modelling

My daughter, Mayumi Cabrera, modelling

Curiously enough history was to repeat itself just two months later, as Bob Dylan was booed offstage at the Newport Folk Festival. And, many years later, my daughter Mayumi found herself on a modeling assignment with Donovan’s son, Donovan Leitch. She was able to tell him, “My mother and your father modeled together in 1965, in Hyde Park, in front of the Albert Memorial just before the Dylan concert”. And Donovan Leitch smiled at her and said, “I know that poster well. I always wondered who the girl was!”

Categories: 1960s, Arts, Journalism, Memoirs | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

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