The Richard Booth Prize for Non-Fiction 2017 winner – Ange Grunsell.
Ange has kindly let us publish her prize winning piece below.
Many congratulations to Ange and to all who entered. The competition continues to draw a plethora of compelling and impressive new voices.
Not a Stone, a Water Bottle, by Ange Grunsell ©2017
My gourd is the size of a skull cap. It fits over my head perfectly. The hard, thin shell is a clean light brown. It shines softly in the light, marked all over with tiny pin pricks like pores in a skin. If you run your hand over it you can see and feel a raised line along its centre, so like a vein, this could be a bald head with all its irregularities. When you tap it, it echoes softly: the gourd contains its story.
The thickness of the tough waterproof wall between inside and outside is perhaps less than two millimetres. The inside, where once the pulp and the seeds were, is like suede. It is a very long time since this fruit hung from a calabash tree: a hundred years at least and I can testify to that. One hundred years of use have strengthened its skin, preserved its shape. Thousands of miles of Atlantic Ocean separate it from its first life in the Caribbean. The gourd’s story is a long one. Its growth, its life in St Vincent, in Trinidad and in London with my glorious aunt Winnie, and now with me, provides a surprising history of interconnections.
The gourd grown not primarily for food, but for use as water container, was one of the first cultivated plants in the world. The mystery of the calabash is that it has grown in the Americas for over 8000 years and genetic plant scientists are still unsure as to whether it was brought to the Americas by Paleoindians from Asia at the end of the ice age, or more likely, whether the seeds drifted across the Atlantic from Southern Africa to take root in the Americas, all that time ago. The history and human usage of gourds, that grow on all the planet’s continents, bar Antarctica, embodies the interconnectedness of our world: both its ecology and its people. It has served as musical instrument, decorative utensil and above all that life saving and community necessity: a water bottle. It is a celebration of human and plant migration, of diversity and of peaceful and artistic uses of the resources of the earth.
My widowed aunt Winnie was quite the most glamourous and interesting of my relatives when I was a child. She had been married to, ‘an oil man,’ whatever that was and lived with him in Wimbledon. She had the longest, slimmest sheerest stockinged legs rising from elegantly arched feet. I sat on the floor and admired them, looking up at her statuesque shoulders, her curly hair. She spoke in a musical way, unusual to me. She liked to tell how when she arrived in England for the first time, she had taught my eighteen year – old mother to Charleston and another cousin reported her teaching her the Black Bottom outside Selfridges,(not the front entrance you understand).
For Winnie, daughter of my Worcestershire grandmother’s brother, had grown up in Trinidad. Dad was the bad-boy uncle sent away to where he could not damage family reputation, to become a newspaper journalist in Trinidad. A common tale of colonial times, perhaps. But the story of Winnie’s mother’s family was a far from familiar one. This story I heard only for the first time when I was aged almost forty and we were travelling together to a family funeral.
Winnie had an Irish great grandfather on her mother’s side. How many ‘greats’ it was I don’t know. He was press – ganged off the west coast of Ireland into Napoleon’s navy around the very beginning of the nineteenth century. Napoleon’s fleet had been assisting the Irish in their rebellion against the English in 1798. Subsequently some of the same ships formed part of an invasion force of Haiti, to increase French control and attempt to re-enforce slavery, reversing their earlier policy of support for the resistance leader Toussaint L’Ouverture. A noticeboard on the quay at Killybegs confirms this history. According to Aunt Winnie, great, great etc. grandfather was taken down to Haiti by the fleet, where, somehow, he managed to stay and to marry her great grandmother, an emancipated ex-slave of African descent. Later generations included other ethnicities, other Caribbean islands and adventures of which she told me little, culminating in her own parentage that had introduced the English Midlands strain of my mother’s immediate family. But what does all this have to do with gourds or with my gourd, in particular, I hear you ask…even if the standard coin in Haiti is still called a gourde.
In 1991 I visited the Caribbean, myself, for the first time. I stayed in St Vincent, as part of a work tour with Oxfam, to interview Windward Island banana farmers whose livelihoods were under threat under changing international trade rules. On my return, I paid one of my regular visits to Aunt Winnie, now in her eighties, who had remained a good friend as I grew up and who still lived close to my mother during my adult life. She wanted to hear all about the visit, even though it had not touched Trinidad. I happened to mention that we had been stopped in our minibus by the sight of an agricultural workers’ land occupation protest.
“So, where was this in St Vincent?” she asked.
I replied that it was a place called the Hadley Estate, close to the East Coast.
“But that is exactly where I stayed on a holiday when I was eight years old.”
The echoes of that unlikely coincidence bounced off the walls of her small front room
Winnie remembered visiting the Windward Island of St Vincent, at the age of eight, and staying in the South East of the island. It was there, at the Hadley Estate, she had been given the gourd in around 1911, taken it back home to Trinidad and then brought it to England when she moved to London, as a connection for her with her childhood and as her lifelong daily tool. This was the day she offered the precious gourd to me.
When my aunt Winnie gave it to me she had used for over 80 years. She had used it every day to pour water over herself in the bath from when she was eight years old, up to this time, when, due to infirmity, she was now having to wash in a sit- down shower and had no more need of her trusty scoop.
In 2017 it has passed its century. But it remains as watertight as ever.
It sits on my shelf as a reminder that migrations, diversities and above all peaceful and life sustaining activity can prevail, link and unite. Our inheritance is not a stone it is a water bottle. (*)
This refers to Bertolt Brecht’s play ‘The exception and the rule’
The judge…Is this the stone? Do you recognise it?
Merchant Yes this is the stone.
Guide Now see what’s in the stone. (He pours water from it).
Judge It’s a water bottle not a stone. He was offering you water.
Merchant But how was I to suppose it was a water bottle? The man had no reason to offer me water. I wasn’t his friend.
Guide But he gave him water
Judge But why did he give him water? Why?
Guide He must have thought the merchant was thirsty.