Guyana Memories

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Updated May 1st. 2002 Read other works by Bernard Heydorn

"THE GOLDEN AGE OF GEORGETOWN CHARACTERS 1930-1960"

By Bernard Heydorn"

The Caribbean is known not only for its sunny climate, but also its street people: Colourful characters who paraded daily through town and country, providing spontaneous street theatre.

Whether driven to the streets by mental, emotional or social derailment, or "dropping out and turning on" by free choice, they remain indelible in memory, symbolic of the life and times. Like the politicians of the day, street characters had the ability to attract attention.

In Georgetown, Guyana, names like Bertie Vaughn, Law And Order, Cato, Pussy In The Moonlight, Pele, Mad John, Saul, Walker The British, Cow Manure, Oscar The Paper Man, Tunus, Daddy Ben, Mary Bruk Iron, Bicycle Jack, and others, were standouts during that golden age of theatre of the absurd (1930 - -1960), providing year round side shows, a character for every reason and season.

It is interesting to note that many of these characters found a place to rest at night, be it the Palms, Dharm Shala, a Mental Home, a back room, or underneath a shop bridge. However, back then, as now, their illnesses, be they mental or physical, their idiosyncrasies and eccentricities, were crying out for healing hands.

Mad John was a man who walked up and down Regent Street in Georgetown, beating up on himself, complaining, "a woman tek all meh money!" Mad John seemed to possess a split personality which I shall call "He" and "Himself" for clarity sake.

Now, "He" and "Himself" were always fighting each other but never producing a clear winner. One day "He" would be on top and "Himself" would retreat from the blows; and on another day, the tide would turn and "Himself" would be top dog.

The state of affairs continued for a while until one morning, "Himself" caught "He" half-asleep on Camp Street by the Blue Light Store, and like a dog chasing its own tail, gave chase and delivered a solid knockout punch! From that day on, people said that Mad John never slept properly, being constantly on guard against another sneak attack by the other side of himself.

Christmas in Georgetown was noted as much for 'Cow Manure' as for its ginger beer. 'Cow Manure' was an East Indian man who sold cow manure as a fertiliser, from a basket on his head, and who was perpetually drunk. He belted out his favourite Christmas Carol, "While shepherds wash their flocks and socks at night, all seated on the ground" to all and sundry, slurring the words and composing his own, as he walked the streets.

Another well known character was 'Saul'. A man for all seasons, he dressed for every occasion, depicting the daily news. His outfits and placards gave a running commentary to the events of the day, for if a condemned murderer was being hung at the jail on Camp Street, Saul was the first to show and tell. Saul was also the first to coin the saying, "Why get sober if you have to get drunk all over again?" During a cricket test match, Saul ran around the ground at Bourda, dressed as a cricketer with paper gloves and cardboard pads, bringing the game to a halt and getting more attention than the Governor!

Another Bourda character was 'Daddy Ben', who the M.C.C. press called 'Daddy Bell'. 'Daddy Ben' had a permanent bird ticket up a tall tree at Bourda, on the eastern side of the ground by the Georgetown Football Club during a Test Match. From that vantage point, whenever he got bored or he wanted a wicket to fall, he would ring a big bell loudly, and sure enough, wickets would start to tumble, to the amusement of the crowd and the amazement of the players.

'Oscar', the blind paper man, walked up and down the streets of Georgetown before dawn and cock crow, shouting the headlines and selling newspapers, "Argasy! Agasy!" Although he was blind, he know his coins well and anyone who tried to cheat him would be cussed out.

Horse racing at Durban Park would not be complete without the appearance of 'Pele', an East Indian man who walked around, dressed up in a suit, smoking two cigarettes at the same time! He gave a running commentary on the races and every other subject imaginable. He was also a passionate suitor, for if he liked a young lady, he would find out where she lived and go and sing loudly outside her bedroom window, from midnight to dawn!

'Pussy In The Moonlight', alias 'Pussy Foot', was a bearded Portuguese man who wore a jacket and plaid shorts. He sold sweepstake tickets in between drinks, and was reputed to live in Albouystown with many children, some of whom walked around with him. School children were sometimes cruel to Pussy Foot, taunting him with a verse, "Pussy in the moonlight, pussy in the dew, pussy never come home till half past four".

Another Portuguese character was 'Tunus', a strong, hard-drinking man whose favourite haunt was the Red Coconut Tree rum shop at Cummings and Second Street. Tunus apparently went to jail for stabbing a policeman, but he was better known for playing a mouth organ with one hand and doing the unmentionable with the other!.

An icon among Guyanese characters would be Bertie Vaughn, a black man. Bertie apparently came from a "good" family, and was himself once a school teacher, and it is said, a candidate for the Guiana Scholarship before "too much studiation sent him off his pins". From then on, his station in life was to sit on a parapet by the main Post Office, shaving his head and other parts of his anatomy clean, clean, with a broken "grass bottle" in a fashion that would make Gillette both envious and anxious about the competition.

In between picking a sore in his scalp and begging, he also drank iodine, miraculously without poisoning himself, having built up a tolerance over the years. If he begged for a six cents piece and you gave him a bit (an eight cents piece), he would return it saying, "ah want six cents". At one time he had a Raleigh bicycle, replacing the bell with a horn, saying "school children gun listen to the horn". Later for no apparent reason, he ran his Raleigh bicycle into the Demerara River.

'Walker The British' was a mixed-race (Mulatto) man, who sold sweepstake tickets around Water Street, armed with two bricks. Apparently, he came from an educated family, and then, like Bertie Vaughn, "went 'round duh bend". He was an ardent supporter of British superiority, shouting "British yuh fool! Highest hair and colour!" People taunted him, calling him "Walker the nigger" and so he retaliated with his two bricks, sometimes drawing blood from his tormentors. He slept at the Palms, letting himself out daily on his rounds.

Another Post office character was 'Telegraph George', who used to work at the Post Office as a telegraph messenger before he "went off". He could then be found, making signs with his fingers, looking at the heavens saying "ah gun talk to God".

One character I had some fear of as a schoolboy was 'Cato', a somewhat deranged black man who wore short pants and rags and often exposed himself to bystanders for money, saying, "Ah want a penny tuh buy a panty fuh me sister". 'Cato' also had a weakness for rubber, devouring pencil erasers and chewing on the rubber seals of bottles. Once on an indecency exposure charge in court, he saw Forbes Burnham and shouted "Uncle Forbes, get up an' talk fuh me maan. Yuh gun leh dis coolie magistrate do dis tuh meh?" Apparently, this was one of the rare occasions when Burnham was at a loss for words.

And who can ever forget 'Law And Order' who staged an execution in his push cart everyday, every hour on the hour. During the executions of his rag doll, he gave an address on the evils of crime and the benefits of the British Empire, of laws and order. He was always sole judge, jury and executioner. Curious crowds always gathered around 'Law And Order' at Bourda Market and the Public Buildings where he was a regular show stopper. 'Law And Order' and his push cart also marched proudly in the Armistice Day parade on November 11, each year, getting loud applause and holding his own with the veterans of many campaigns.

One of my favourite characters was 'Bicycle Jack' a museum on wheels. 'Bicycle Jack' rode a bicycle all day long in the Georgetown sun, with every object imaginable attached to the bike - clips, wires, bells, horns, lights, decorations, flags, the most prominent being the Union Jack, homemade toys, and spinning windmills, to name a few. The wheels were also gaily decorated, all in all, a sight to behold. His only problem was when rain fell, when he had to peddle fast to find shelter.

There were other characters too, like 'Bubble Up', the white woman with 'big foot', who cursed like hell; and 'Mary Bruck Iron', a prostitute, who had established a reputation for 'brucking iron' in Tiger Bay.

Be it 'Monkey', 'Sharkey', 'Live Wire', 'Dribbly Joe' or the legendary 'bag men' used by parents to develop fear in children, street characters were always around. Some times in retrospect, I wonder if the colonial powers allowed these characters to roam free in order to provide distraction for the local people, while they exploited the country.

Additional Submissions by Gus Corbin
There were a few other names also, "Spungdown." A short stocky and elderly black man worked with a Lykin Funeral Home. He bathed the dead and informed familles when their loved ones died, particularly from the Public Hospital. It was known that he carried a dead man on his cycle from Vreeden Hoop to Georgetown. He made it appeared as if the man was drunk, slapping the man several times and talking to him on the way to G/t.

The other was "Bastiannie." A short Indian man worked with Bastinannie Funeral Home in Albertown. He also bathe the dead and slept in coffins at the parlor. It was said the people would be scared to death, when they went to the Parlor to make funeral arrangements, he would be seen coming out of a coffin as if he was dead.

"Bertie Sammon." A short and stocky strong handy man from the Village. A bit retarded, but he had his own kind of sense. He ran errands for people in the neighborhood, and lived around John and Durban Street Lodge. He had an infectious laugh, which you can hear him blocks away, when the night is still, even as you stood in Hadfield Street. After the end of each race day at Durban Park, he would go into the Stands to search every draw to for money hopefully left by ticket sellers or anyone dropping a shilling. He had a big appetite. He would eat 12 tennis rolls, many large cups of mauby or swank and anything in sight. He loved going to Indian weddings in the Village, where he would eat several plates of food (rice and doll). and wash down with more food, when he is in the mood. He was the Gallon of the area.

The next person was Jamesie Moore. A one time Amateur Boxer. He become mentally disturbed, due to some woman. He ran around the D'urban Park, each day Shadow Boxing, always training for a fight that never came off. He liked drawing a horse on a piece of paper that he said must be printed into his own currency. He brought the paper to the Argosy News Paper Company in Belair Park each day to be printed. He ran errands, and also lived near John and Durban Streets in Lodge. He sang to the top of his voice, when he sat on St Sidwells school stepts. I believed he was a member of the Chior, years before he became ill. It is sad that some of our best brains ended up that way. Mental Health is big social problem which needs to be addressed. We took the problem as entertainment and an individual problem.


"DOWN MEMORY LANE WITH GUYANA RADIO"

"By Bernard Heydorn"

Caribbean radio has a long, illustrious history. In the days before television, videos and the like, radio was the people's main source of news and entertainment. Guyana had its first radio station, ZFY on the air as early as 1935, even before the CBC in Canada in 1936, and not long after the BBC in England, 1922.

ZFY was accompanied by stations VB3BG and VP3MR, followed by Radio Demerara in the 1940s and BGBS in the 1950s. Incidentally, ZFY, which was located by the Main Post Office in Georgetown, burned to the ground in the great fire of February 1945, the week when I was born.

Guyana was ahead of sister stations in the Caribbean, Radio Trinidad having started during World War II, Radio Jamaica in 1950, Windward Islands, 1955, and the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation (Barbados) in 1963. Previously, Barbados had, and I still believe, still has a Rediffusion service. All these stations played a significant part in the lives of the populace.

For example, in Trinidad, Auntie Kay's Children Programme on Radio Trinidad ran for almost 40 years. Comedian John Agitation and a number of East Indian Programs were also very popular there. In Jamaica, Radio Jamaica broke new ground by putting creole programs on the air. In Barbados, Rediffusion and Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation showcased the broadcaster and comedian, Alfred Pragnell. The Windward Islands on the 90 metre band, and their popular request program in the evenings, was one of my favourites.

But my best memories of radio are those of Guyana radio, when I was growing up. Who can forget Olga Lopes-Seales and the popular birthday request program on Radio Demerara, daily, at 4.30 p.m.? Or Olga and the A. Wander-sponsored Ovaltine Kiddies Talent program, with their theme song, "We are the Ovalteenies, Happy girls and boys" on Saturdays. Budding stars such as Guyana's answer to Elvis Presley, Andy Nicholls, singing Parting is Hard, found a spot on the Radio Demerara also featured a number of other talented broadcasters, household names, such as Ulric Gouveia, Rafiq Khan, B.L. Crombie, Lilian Fraser, Pat Cameron, Gerard De Freitas, Eleanor D'Aguiar, and Sarah Lou Carter, Merle Ibbott, to name a few. Olga Lopes-Seales went on to work at Rediffusion in Barbados and gave sterling service there until her retirement in the 1980s.

Popular radio programs in Guyana included the soap opera, Portia Faces Life, at 10 a.m. on weekdays, and Music from Mackenzie at midday. The melodic piano playing of Randolf Profitt on Friday nights, and Harry Mayers Militia Band on Monday nights, sponsored by Bookers Crown Rum. These were a treat.

Bill Rogers (Augustus Hinds), singing his shanto-like calypsos, took pot-shots on anybody on any night, while Guyanese comedians such as Sam Chase, Jack Melo and Zeda Martindale held court on radio and stage. One of my favourite programs was Indian Song Time, heard in the evenings, with the signature tune, the hauntingly beautiful Sahani Raat, sung by Mohammed Raffi from the movie Dulcari.

At 5.45 p.m. daily, with the shadows of evening drawing close, we hung out by the radio to hear from Hank Williams and the Drifting Cowboys, Hank Snow and the Rainbow Ranch Boys, and Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers, riding the range for 15 minutes, while we young cowpokes listened, all ears, strumming along on our rubber band, shoe-box guitars.

For the adults, night would not be complete without tuning in to the romantic radio drama Second Spring, with its signature tune Beautiful Dreamer at 6.45 p.m., followed by the long living Aunt Mary, a good neighbour, at 7 p.m., and climaxed by the BBC news from England at 7.15 p.m.

Incidentally, the BBC news was also heard daily at 7.15 a.m., 12.15 p.m., and 4.15 p.m. At such times, my father made sure that the house was deadly quiet, pressing his ear to the radio, for he seemed to get his daily instructions from the BBC!

After the 7.15 p.m. news, it was house lock up and bedtime. For the kids who wanted to stay up late and be scared, there was the radio drama, The W-e-e-e-e-i-r-d Circle.

Religious programming from all denominations filled the airwaves on Sunday, from morning till night, so that no one could forget that it was Sunday. Compare that to today when people don't care if Good Friday falls on a Sunday, as long as a buck can be made. When cricket was in season, all programming broke down to make way for the game. The radio was also used for Radio Broadcasts to Schools, which among other things, introduced government propaganda to the classroom.

I could not conclude this piece without mentioning the makes of some of the old radios and radiograms names such as Grundig, Mullard, Pye, Phillips, Normandie, GEC, Telefunken, and Blaupunt. The radios also amplified pick-up gramophones for regular brams, house, and birthday parties.

Incidentally, Guyana radio can now be picked up in Toronto with a weak signal, during the night, on the 3290 metre band shortwave, playing some hot calypso followed by the death announcements! I sometimes get up in the middle of the night to listen to Guyana radio, until my wife chases me to bed, complaining that the static and noisy reception disturbs the household and neighbourhood!

I am so enthralled by old time radios and records, I have started collecting them, so if you have any to throw out, throw them my way. Finally, we should never forget that for many around the world, democratic radio is the voice of the people, then, now, and in the foreseeable future.

  Guyana and The Caribbean

akhan@guyanafriends.com