“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone.” (Joni Mitchell, from the album BLUE)
Parked down the road from Cudjoe Head toward the Pharmacy just after Festival I was caught in one of those familiar and daft car-horn recognition exchanges. I responded to a beep from a car that had just passed even though I had no idea who it was. My beep triggered a series of replies from people who may have been signalling to me but more likely wondering who had beeped them, blindly returning a greeting.
As I turned my head to spot the initiator, a car pulled up alongside and the smiling face of Cepeke shouted through the passenger window. “Hey Pete, where’s the beat?” This was a regular introduction to our conversations, hardly poetry but a solid rhyme. “Have you called Jimmy Buffet yet?” another regular jibe designed to remind me of my insecure boast that I knew the Buffets. Cepeke was winding me up about discouraging his ambition to get JB to come to Montserrat but we continued our short chat with no signs of impatience from the cars behind me congratulating him on his efforts over the Festival and remarking that he looked very tired. Without commenting on my observation he suggested we should get together for a chat and a play soon – I agreed and we shared “See you soons” and “take cares” before he continued down toward the banks in Brades.
That was a few days after the end of Festival and the next day I heard that he had been taken very ill, a stroke, someone suggested “he was paralysed and in hospital and about to be flown to Antigua for intensive diagnostic tests. The same afternoon, another friend told me his version of the rumours, it was some syndrome that might have been set-off by the
ZIKA bug or some such. Whatever it was, he was in a very bad way and his daughter was summoning the family from their homes across the world to be at his bedside.
I suspect that the virulent rumour mill on Montserrat only ever gets part of the story and even though we may all think we know better now, it would be inappropriate to intrude or speculate on this calamitous tragedy and the indescribable shock his family is enduring as well as what we hope is a premature feeling of loss for all those of who know a little of this extraordinarily kind and talented man. I know all who pray are praying hard for a complete and speedy recovery but the signs seem to point toward a long and difficult haul during which our friend will need our persistent and consistent support.
Cepeke’s fellow musicians and friends are doing what they can. A concert to raise emergency funds will show their love and give a little help with covering his own domestic bills and his families travel and accommodation costs. And there will be discussion about what the authorities do, can they pay or, at least, contribute toward current medical expenses? Can they provide for a regime of recuperative care once he is passed the worst.
There might be schemes that provide support for public sector workers. There might be special closeted funds that can respond to one-off humanitarian emergencies but, in truth, the prospects for all Montserratians who come to need top-flight medical care, long term recuperation or post-treatment convalescence are bleaker than ever.
Cepeke’s predicament is not unique but coming as it does almost within days of a set of shamefully negative and demeaning consultant’s recommendations that condemn the future of Montserrat’s medical provision, we are all reeling from a dark realisation that living here is becoming too risky. How can Montserrat’s loyal and open British people be expected to accept on the one hand, a policy that seeks to encourage returnees to bolster a promised land of economic independence whilst on the other being denied the life-blood of basic social care and attention.
And yes, here we go again, whining on about how badly we are served by the mother country and how little faith we have in our local representatives â€“ all moans that seem to fall on irritated and increasingly deaf ears. Surely, there is some humanity somewhere in those whose cautious responsibility (and duty) it is to deliver a path to future growth but who seem to do it so begrudgingly as to create an impression completely void of genuine caring.
Suddenly, a wake-up call. An event that illuminates a direct threat to our own future safety.
Not to our comfort, luxuriating as we do in what we describe for the sake of our tiny tourist audience as paradise, but a threat that presents a very real dichotomy. Do we, or those of us with choice to return home for our retirement years, risk the possible consequences of a road or domestic accident, an unexpected stroke or heart-attack without any expectation of life-saving treatment within the “golden hour”? Or should those with a recurrence of a chronic ailment or even of a jittery fall that fractures something inside live in the knowledge that there is no sufficient medical provision nor an airport that can affect a medivac after 6.00pm? Do we, if we time our medical need carefully, suck up the acceptance of minimal medical provision on island to be flown to another country’s hospital to run-up the unrepayable and unrecoupable bills that accrue? Or should we just reconcile ourselves to a slow and sunny palliative death in paradise?
That is not over dramatic. There is an arrangement for six lucky patients a year who can fly sitting up to be transferred to the UK for motherland treatment – but not post-treatment care. These “get out of jail cards” are restricted to six per year so spare a thought for unlucky number seven who so narrowly misses this cruelly limited allocation. “Sorry, you’ll have to wait until next year for your chance to avail yourself of the NHS cancer treatment that could possibly put you into remission â€“ just the luck of the draw and your own fault for not being diagnosed earlier in the year. Still, you can look forward to your final years of ever increasing pain-killers in the sun-drenched old people’s home without air-conditioning and actually, we can’t even be sure about the pain-killers.
And it’s not only the retiree generation who have cause for concern. Can we really expect the vibrant and eager overseas-trained and educated generation of youthful budding Montserratian entrepreneurs to bring their young families to a place with such uncertain medical protection, never mind the vagaries of economic resurgence. And will the cluster of ex-patriot sun-seekers with an eye for potential investment be so enthralled with our idyll as to ignore the ever-present gamble of medical uncertainty?
For me, there is great irony in the fact that our friend Cecile “Cepeke” Lake, MBE has provided that wake-up call. Even more ironical is the role that he has played in the much vaunted key to our touristic offer. For the past 20 years, Cepeke has been the pivot around which the annual Christmas Festival (our carnival) has revolved. The very survival of the Festival culture has relied to an enormous extent upon his energy and exhaustion. He received an MBE for it. I’m not sure it was sensible or kind to allow that extraordinary load to rest on one man’ shoulders for so long and whilst there is no blame for how it came to be, perhaps we all share some responsibility for the institutional mind-set that failed to recognise his pressures and relieve his burden. In a way Montserrat has endured a kind of collective post-traumatic stress disorder since the eruption of the volcano threatened her very existence. The preoccupation with maintaining Festival the way it always was is one symptom of a fear of change that Cepeke was working within.
The sheer volume of song and lyric writing, co-writing and arranging, rehearsal of his great band, Black Rhythms as well as rehearsing the brass players who always appear for the final of the calypso competition, along with the administrative organising that he coped with in the background is unbelievable. Around 60 home-grown new songs each festival season and he composed about 30 of them himself, co-writing many others and arranging them all. Of course, the other musicians in the band had to learn them all and play their part as well, but he directed the process. He also directed and routined the musicians for the other shows that required a band each year the regional female calypso shows, most of the Soca Monarch performances rely upon his talent and commitment. Despite opportunities for other bands to take up the cudgels, none felt confident enough to challenge his acknowledged expertise.
Another irony. The Montserratian Chief Medical Officer was on the radio recently explaining his job in the context of the contentious medical resources review. The furor over the medical review has been partly generated by the suspicion that there might be back-story more concerned with price than value especially since the suggested direction of travel seems to favour fewer facilities and fewer staff providing a more cost-effective service, a ludicrous notion that no-one believes is serious. With the deft caution of a former politician, the CMO explained “My job is to find younger people to replace me”. Maybe that should have been Cepeke’s modus operandi.
Anyway, I have decided not to mention quality and the range of Cepeke’s work nor the list of memorable and often poignantly observant songs that have captured the essence of so many historical moments. That sort of eulogistic analysis usually comes when someone is getting their flowers (as they say) which is far from the case now and hopefully will remain a long distant reality. However, I was asked to suggest a favourite or two to provide a backing for a radio promo we are creating for the ABC (A Benefit of Cepeke) Show on 27th January (Montserrat Cultural Centre, 7.00pm). The inevitable resonates in so many of our national scandals and will get plenty air time in coming weeks. But for me, the simplicity of “Refugee in me own Country” from the inspiring Muscovada days with Randi Greenaway and Elizabeth Piper-Wade is a prime example of the â€˜hardly poetry but a solid rhyme cornerstone of Cepeke’s no-nonsense lyrical style which brings a tear of memory to most eyes evoking such remote and challenging times. Maybe the intoxicating chorus in Round and Round they Go will be my second gem.
Let’s hope someone or something can take the stress and worry of cost from Cepeke, his family and all those others feeling similar pressure at a time when they are at their most vulnerable. In my view, maybe we do need a breakwater, and a proper port and even a bigger airport but nowhere near as much as we need a workable medical facility that can bring back the fundamental assurance of safety, health and well-being . . . or maybe I should start looking for Jimmy Buffet’s address.
© Peter Filleul 2018. All Rights Reserved