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A Nation's Death by Fire

By Julius Gittens

Derek Walcott's poem, "A city's death by fire", is a poignant and memorable recollection of the Great Fire of 1948 in Central Castries that razed three-quarters of the town. It left 2,000 people homeless, many of them with nothing left but the clothes on their backs.

Accounts from newspapers of the time speak of the gutting of much of St Lucia's history dating back to Amerindian settlement - the destruction of government offices, including the Education Department to the public library, said to contain one of the best reference sections in the West Indies, to private collections of Carib artefacts and papers since settlement.

Walcott, a gangly 18-yea-old on the cusp of literary greatness after meeting the great Frank Collymore that very year, was a stunned witness who all day "walked abroad among the rubbled tales, shocked at each wall that stood on the street like a liar". His chronicle by candlelight of Castries's death by fire "after that hot gospeller has levelled all but the churched sky" and of "faiths that were snapped like wire" became an early signpost of modern West Indies literature.

Beyond a poem, the fire was to have a profound effect on St Lucian politics, too. The United Worker's Party would rise from the ashes of central Castries to dominate the political scene, and own the central Castries riding until 1997. Public housing came to central Castries, leaving a unique signature of an inhabited central business district. Not too many people leave their homes and get to the market by crossing the street. They do in Castries.

Now, a silent plague, a dormant infection within the organism that is central Castries, still creeps throughout all our cities and towns. From time to time, it rages and takes a life or two, then dies down amid the nine-day tumult of media and mouthing-off, only to rise again.

In inner Bridgetown, on Friday, September 3, the contagion killed five women - shoppers and staff - and a toddler in a store on Tudor Street, walled in by fire at the front and concrete at the back.

It is so easy to proclaim the contagion - a mix of crime and lawlessness and anomie - so hard to do anything concrete about it. Our societies are yet to recover from the economic liberalisation poison, administered as medicine by the International Monetary Fund. That and the onset of consumerism, materialism and plain old-fashioned greed, have blinded us. So now, we see people not as human beings but as markets, targets, numbers.

So the contagion spreads. More shops, more stores, more goods, more sales. Regulation is a dirty word - seen as the killjoy of economic growth and prosperity. Conservative politics plays the tune of government in the key of small 'g' and all our politicians now sing from the same hymn sheet. Result: a blind eye is turned to our needs - the public's interest - while all eyes are trained on our wants. Our interest in feeling safe and secure in our persons, in moving about our fair land without fear and in reasonable comfort, safety and, yes, enjoyment, interests few but the odd meddling journalist or troublesome 'activist', both preaching to none but the converted.

All this is lost in the modern Caribbean city, in the cacaphony of route taxi horns, bus conductors as transport hawkers, chancers and game-players, robbers and pickpockets, merchants selling cheap, inferior goods and human beings prostituting their souls if not their bodies. The hustle is all we are expected to know, and it leaves me to wonder if market day during the time of Slavery was any different from a Saturday morning in Frederick Street or Halfway Tree or Swan Street. For in those choked and choking thoroughfares, who can spare a dime's worth of thought for the welfare of thousands? We are not citizens, less still human beings; just buyers and sellers, eager to make a buck or save several.

Getting and spending, then, to borrow from Wordsworth, we lay waste our powers. The world is too much with us.

In a society so obsessed with commerce and so unconcerned with our humanity, notions of safety and security are relegated to protect that which we own. The detectors and the cameras and the security guards are to protect the merchants from their quarry. So when two masked men grab cash from a store on the weekend before school starts, and leave a couple firebombs as calling cards, we have two scapegoats, our two reasons for more 'security'.

The robbers become a talisman of all our troubles - the mad, bad and dangerous to know that roam our city streets like vermin and whom we need to exterminate. Then we go back to being, existing, surviving. Our cities remain squalid odes to Capitalism - big C - their lungs of parkland and trees and rest stops so long ago ripped out.

Fire escapes that would have led to backyards - for many of our city storefronts still have them - were also long ago sealed. We used to call them backdoors. And just as every Bajan home has one, every store in the Bajan capital had one.

I know this because I grew up on Tudor Street, right across the street from the scene of the outrage. Where appliances and cheap made-in-China plastic toys and polyester clothes now abound, there were provision merchants - Perkins, Olton, M.E.R. Bourne. As a small boy, I roamed in the other-world of the city, labyrinthine yards that, for example, connect the backdoor of Hunter's Bar on James Street to the Hunter's Bar in Milkmarket. I skipped amid the barrels of imported food and feed in these backyards. Suttle Street was not the quite so unsubtle place it now is. And on Marhill Street, several blocks away, I would get my haircut in what was left of the rambling old Trafalgar Hotel, and the huge yard that connected it with the pharmacy and the bank on the other block was a youngster's perfect universe.

But so as simple a thing as a backdoor eludes our modern minds, as we wall up and well up for cash.

This is not an exercise in nostalgia-seeking; it is a warning from history, from a city that has known fire since it dawned nearly 400 years ago. What we learn from the past should not merely be tokenism of artefacts. It should be about adapting from past experience for future use. Call it development.

Whether we call it the criminal justice system or disaster preparedness or safety regulation or transport management or consumer protection, it is all the same thing - learning from human beings' eternal pursuit of happiness about how to protect human beings not from other, wealthier, 'superior' human beings but even from themselves. It is about planning for development, not letting it happen to us, as happens in our Caribbean societies now. These are not Victorian times; it is the second decade of the 21st Century. Lives need not be lost so needlessly if we prepare against disaster, of any kind. Rather than invest money in 24-hour private security armies - a growth industry in Caribbean cities - let's plan to make our societies, and the cities that are their nucleus, more liveable for all.

Let's catch the bastards of September 3rd, by all means. Let us also reorder our priorities. Let's change the thinking that would lead a building owner to seal a back wall - for security purposes, no doubt. If there was a spontaneous combustion we wouldn't have two bogeymen to blame, only ourselves. Let's urge the business community, our schools and public institutions to develop and test serious plans for dealing with hazards, from fires to earthquakes to civil unrest.

In the meantime, we need to rewire our politicians' brains to pursue not mere economic growth and productivity targets, but goals for a just and well-ordered society. Let's build futures while we build malls. Let's import useful concepts as much as we import consumer goods. There are no fire marshals in any of our teeming metropolises, no one with real teeth to enforce regulations. Why must this continue?

But if we continue our materialistic and numbed existence, all that remains, then, is a nation's death by fire. The fire next time we cannot predict. But come it will, and leave us with nothing but the clothes on our back, and precious little else.

For we've sealed the backdoor.

ERRATUM: Since this posting, it has emerged that six women, three staff and three customers perished in the flames; no children.

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