Oxford Blues

Nazma Muller looks for Caribbean warmth in the English university town of Oxford

  • Illustration by Marlon Griffith

“Step up! Step up!” The voice was loud, male and aggressive.

Nah, it couldn’t be —

“He must be Jamaican,” I said to Richard. He looked puzzled.

“You know, on the bus, the conductor shouts, ‘Step up, baby love, step up!’”

He grinned. “Oh yes: ‘Half Way Tree! Half Way Tree! One more!’’’ The ubiquitous bus-conductor shout in Kingston.

We were in the line to enter the Park End Club in the city centre of Oxford, England, on a Thursday night. Richard, whom I still think of as “Headhorn”, is a former Hermit of Canada Hall on the St Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies, where we met five years ago. He had somehow found time while doing a D.Phil (plebeian universities call it a Ph.D) in engineering to set up a network that kept him informed about every club, party and lime between Oxford and Manchester. Not your regular Rhodes scholar.

At the entrance, a female bouncer in a three-piece suit had patted me down professionally, her expression stern. She suddenly bawled out from below in a clipped British accent, “Keep to the left please, ladies and gentlemen.” Even after two weeks in England, I still couldn’t grasp the full extent of the British compulsion for order.

The Caribbean students’ party at Oxford Brooks University earlier that night had shut down at 11 p.m. on the dot. By five minutes to the hour, the DJ was wrapping up — to my shock and outrage. What a bunch of bogus West Indians, shutting down when they were supposed to. But the students — and the DJ — knew the runnings. “Do you want more?” he called out on the mike after playing Dollar Wine. (The calypso is more than 10 years old but Jamaicans love it cyan done. They think it’s the greatest tune to ever come out of Trinidad and must play it in every soca segment.) “Yeeeaaaaaahhhhhhh!” The small crowd in the gymnasium/bar was just getting warmed up, especially the two girls who had been wining on the ground. From their dress, or lack thereof — never mind it was five degrees outside — and dancing, I would have sworn they were Jamaicans. Nope, Angolans. Who learnt the “bubble and wine” from whom, I couldn’t say; some things you just put down to instinct.

“Sorry, folks,” the DJ didn’t sound in the least bit regretful, “but this is the last song. Otherwise, they’re going to come and kick us out.”

And with that, we had to settle for Nigel and Marvin Lewis’s Moving to the Left. Then, clever boy, he closed with One Love, which had us all singing and skanking along, fists in the air, to get our coats, gloves, brollies and hats to face the cold by 11.10 p.m.

All this discipline and order, I thought grouchily, glaring at the cheerful students in the car park, what’s happening to Caribbean youth these days? But England does that to you. In Soho the Friday before, we’d been walking about after 11 p.m., searching desperately for a pub to have a drink. Ha. Not an “Open” sign in sight. Covent Garden was swarming with people, all heading for a club — the only option to continue drinking after the dreaded hour when the bartender rings his bell and yells, “Lawst awders!” We were near tears, our United Nations group of Dutch, Chinese, Americans and West Indian, when I heard, “ . . . when we used to sit in the government yard in Trench Town . . . ”

“Oh my God! Do you hear that?” I dragged Peter, an American political journalist working in Prague, around the corner. It wasn’t a pub playing Bob Marley but better: a group of leather-jacketed dreadlocked brothers singing on headphone mikes and playing some ritzy-looking guitars. In front of them was an open guitar case and a blanket covered with coins.

“Okay, cough it up, guys,” I prompted, holding out my hand, “one pound each.” The posse didn’t mind: they all knew Bob.

“It’s amazing,” Christopher, a Trini living in London, had said, “what’s happening here now. It’s like a renaissance with all the cultures mixing . . . you’re seeing it in the theatres, on the streets, in the clubs.”

I couldn’t believe it myself when I saw Juana La Cubana, a drag queen from Trinidad who had been ketching her royal to make a living there, onstage at Madame JoJo’s, one of the most famous gay clubs in England. But there she was on a Tuesday night, in a leopard print outfit and six-inch heels, doing a very steamy salsa number before a hollering, albeit bemused, audience. Talk about tripping over a Trini in Timbuktu . . .

Oxford was a different story: other than the few West Indian students who had earned an invitation to enter the hallowed halls of Enlightendom, there was no sign of the Caribbean in the ancient city of cobblestoned streets and 13th-century buildings with their gruesome gargoyles.

Except . . . the voice coming towards us at the Park End Club was Kingston bona fide. “Step up! Step up!” it boomed, and we obediently crowded each other on the steps, petrified.

A big bouncer, razor sharp in a suit, was walking down the line, shouting, “Keep to the left, please. And step up!”

As he passed by, I bravely leaned out and asked, “Are you Jamaican?”

He didn’t break a smile, or his stride: “Hevery time.”