My Royalist mother must have been smiling down at me from her seat on the right-hand side of God, as the taxi arrived to pick me up to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Today would have been her seventy-third birthday, so I hope she’s still smiling down at me as I write this little missive.
The idiot Eastern European driver parks his car at a bus stop two hundred metres from my flat. So, I am forced to stride up to him suited and booted with dreadlocks flowing in the cold evening wind. He looks almost straight through me just as I reach the stationary Mercedes, and starts the engine to pull out into the street. I quickly knock on his window and manage to open the passenger door as he steps on the brakes.
“Are you the car for Buckingham Palace?”
“Hurry up and get in, man,” he shouts back at me, “I’m parked in a bus lane. It’s a fifty pound fine!”
“I didn’t tell anyone to ask you to park here. I told your controller exactly where my flat is.”
“I was looking at Beaufort Mansions,” he offers up as feeble excuse.
“That’s your problem, mate, that’s not where I live.”
“My problem?” he says with a snarl. “If I had known there was a problem parking, I would not have accepted this job.”
Well, naff-off then, I wanted to tell him, but I didn’t want to be late to meet Her Maj. So, I got in the car and uncharacteristically bit my tongue. “Just drive on, will you!” I said, in my most obnoxious tone.
He turned to look at me then, and slapped me in the face with a breath so foul that I immediately had to open the window. “Damn!” I said, but even the chill in the air couldn’t kill the stench.
“What?” he said.
“Nothing,” I replied. “I’ll need a cash-point on the way.”
Had he been a little friendlier, I might even have offered him one of the mints in my pocket. However, by the time we reached our destination to be guided through the main gates of Buckingham Palace by the security police, he had completely changed his attitude.
“Are you a little nervous about meeting the Queen?”
“I am a bit,” I reply, grudgingly.
“Don’t worry, my friend, you won’t be alone.”
‘My friend’ now, is it? I thought he must be gearing up to charge me that bit extra, now he thinks I have friends in high places. He was, and he did, £20 from Chelsea to Buckingham Palace just down the road, and I couldn’t even be bothered to argue with him.
“Will your driver be returning to fetch you afterwards?” said a policeman opening my door.
“No,” said I. “He can go.” And I smiled to myself at the absurdity of it.
We are welcomed into the palace and ushered up stairs and through halls into the Picture Gallery, a long top lit room about 50 metres deep, which serves as a corridor linking a series of smaller state rooms. I’m certainly among good company here.
There are people I’ve known and worked with in the past, plus some others I’ve only read about or seen on television. Newsreader Sir Trevor McDonald; Booker Prize-winning author Ben Okri (making what seemed like a staged entry armed with an ornate Zulu walking cane); fashion designer Ozwald Boateng along with his following; the effervescent Linda Bellos, and many more recognisable faces whose names escape me.
While others are furiously networking, what strikes me most about this central area is not the imminent guest list but its gallery hung with classic works of art. There are paintings by Rembrandt, van Dyck, Rubens, Vermeer, and other multi-million pound masterpieces by painters I’ve never even heard of before. Leading from here are the Throne Room and the Green Drawing Room in which I can just about glimpse paintings of various royal ancestors because we are not allowed too much wandering around just yet. It is in these very formal rooms – used only for ceremonial and official purposes – in which we will be entertained on Champagne and canopies for the rest of the evening.
We don’t know why but for some reason the room falls strangely quiet as guests starts to form a queue leading into one of the stately side rooms. I’m chatting to a former Miss Universe contestant, the ex-Miss Zimbabwe, when we too decide to get in line. In front of us is a blonde from the Foreign Office who suddenly starts to hyperventilate the minute we draw closer to what seems to be the focal point of everyone’s attention.
“Oh my God…Oh my God! It’s her. She’s there. You go first,“ she says.
From where I’m standing, I can see the Queen alongside the Duke of Edinburgh through a crack in the door ahead. “Calm down, woman,” I try to tell the Foreign Office blonde. “It’s only Her Maj. Ladies before gentlemen,” but my own heart was racing now, ten to the dozen.
“What do you say to the Queen?” she says.
“I couldn’t tell you, but I’ve heard you wait for the Queen to talk to you.”
“I thought they’d made a mistake when I got the gold-embossed invitation. I wanted to scan it and put it on my Facebook profile, but my friends would only accuse me of attention seeking.”
“I had the same thought,” I said, “but I’ve gone one better. I’m going to have mine framed in the bathroom opposite my throne. So when I’m sitting on the throne, I can remember back to when I met the Queen, who sits on the throne of England.”
The woman from the Foreign Office laughed out loud, but in the course of events, the Queen passed her by with a quick handshake, and then it was my turn.
From what seemed like a great distance away, which in fact was less than two metres, a man in a silly looking uniform announced, “Mister Paul Bo-a-che, ma’am.”
I had half expected him to pronounce my name incorrectly, and so as I walked towards the Queen and she extended her hand, I took it, and shook it, and said off the top of my head, “Your majesty, ma’am, I’m delighted to meet you.” As I did so, I bowed, and my dreadlocks swept forward. The Queen pulled back her head almost unconsciously and eyed me with a sideward glance. Then in that peculiar high-pitched Spitting Image tone inside my head, she said, “Oh – and what do you do here?”
That’s when I started to stutter. I’d understood each word the Queen had spoken, but I was having difficulty computing the question. “I was born here. I live here. I don’t work here, your majesty,” I wanted to say. “So what do you mean?” But in the end I simply answered, “I…I…I…I’m a writer, ma’am,” just like it said on my gold-embossed name-tag. “Oh, really,” the Queen replied, in the same deadpan tone in my head, and that then was my cue to move along. I was now standing before the Duke of Edinburgh.
“Good evening, Your Royal Highness,” I said.
“So what kind of things do you write?”
“I am originally a playwright but these days I’ll write just about anything I’m paid to do.”
“Do you have anything on at the moment?”
“Not at the moment, but I am currently writing my first novel.”
“Very good,” he says, and turns towards the ex-Miss Zimbabwe. “So do you write with him?”
“Oh – No!” she says. “I’m a model.”
“Right you are,” says the prince with a devilish smile.
The rest I didn’t hear because I was being directed back into The Gallery Room where we were now able to get up close and personal with all the paintings on display. It all happened so quickly anyway that I felt slightly giddy. Everything around me looked surreal, as if I had just fallen down the rabbit hole like Alice in Wonderland. Not a drop of alcohol had I touched so far, but now I needed a drink, if only to get things into perspective.
“What would you like, sir? A glass of Champagne or some freshly squeezed Sandringham orange juice?”
“You have your own orchards?”
“Yes, sir. Only the best for the Queen.”
“I’ll try a mix of both, may I?”
“Certainly. Thank you, sir.”
How the blued-blooded idle rich live, huh? You’d think that they would all be stuffy and boring, but I had just had a great conversation with one of the Ladies in Waiting who talked very eloquently about living in Washington DC and the poverty and racism she witnessed there. Then this very charming Edward Griffiths talked to me for a good long while about how they selected the guests for this evening’s event. They had come across me because of my sexual health promotion work around HIV/AIDS, Drum magazine, and my stint on BBC1 covering the newspaper reviews on a Saturday morning. Apparently, the Royal Household have a team of researchers who go out looking for distinguished people from all walks of life (arts, sports, music, science, and so on) to attend these types of functions. He himself had been a high-flyer in the hotel industry before being hand-picked to head the hospitalities team. I was impressed.
So there I am, minding my own business and checking out the paintings, when up walks Prince Michael of Kent; arguably, the most regal of the royals.
“It’s good to see a Rastafarian here this evening,” he says.
“I wouldn’t exactly call myself a Rastafarian.”
“I’m just a humble writer with a hairstyle that I like. I may have certain sympathies, and like Samson, my hair may symbolise my deeper roots and culture, but that’s as far as it goes, I’m afraid. In my eyes, even you could grow some dreadlocks.”
“Not with my hairline.”
“I never thought I’d still have hair at my age. But I’ve just been admiring these amazing paintings on your walls. It must be a great pleasure to wake up each morning and come down to see these in natural daylight.”
“You must be only about one of five people in this room who have taken any notice of the art.”
“I can’t think why.”
“Are you an artist?”
“Not in the sense that I paint or sketch, but I’m a great admirer of beauty in all of its forms.”
“My wife is a great admirer of art.”
“Is she here tonight?”
“No, I’m afraid not.”
“Oh, I’ve always thought her a very handsome woman.” Then just as I thought I’d said too much, I changed my tracks. “It’s funny, I’m currently writing a book based partly on my mother’s diaries, and it’s amazing just how much people of her generation knew about your family. I’m amazed because I know so little about the royal household.”
“How far have you got with your book?”
“Not as far as I’d like, but it’s coming along.”
“Well, I’m sure it’s going to be just great.”
“Can I put that as a quote from you on the back sleeve?”
“It’s nice talking to you,” he smiles. “Have a good evening.”
“And you, Prince Michael.”
He saunters off into the middle of the room where the Queen is surrounded by all and sundry, just as I decide that it’s about time for me to be heading home.
Vibrant, evocative, expressive; a European Christian religion fuelled by the rhythms and traditions of West Africa, yet totally indigenous to Trinidad; the Shouter Baptist faith has emerged from a history of persecution to occupy a unique place in Caribbean culture.
Once ‘Shouter’ was a dirty word in Trinidad, a term imposed on its followers by a mainstream society that saw their practices – dancing, shaking, falling to the ground, loudly invoking the spirit of the Lord – as unseemly and anti-Christian. Today its status in Trinidadian life is reflected by the observance of an annual holiday on March 30th to celebrate the repeal of the Shouters Prohibitive Ordinance, the law that forced thousands of Shouter Baptists to practice their faith in secrecy for years, for fear of brutal reprisals by the police.
Much has changed. There is some dispute over the origins of the Shouter religion – various theories place its roots in Africa, North America, St. Vincent and Grenada – but what is beyond dispute is that it has evolved and grown over time to become entirely unique and indigenous to Trinidad, a rich conflation of the many, often competing, cultures of the island and unaffiliated to any foreign religious organisation.
While, at a local level, the organisation and hierarchy of the Shouter Baptist faith can be incredibly complex (with countless ranks and positions, such as Leader, Mother, Shepherd, Watchman, Captain and Healer), there has traditionally been no formal organisational structure. Churches – or ‘camps’ – were founded according to the guidance and instruction of the Holy Spirit. The faith blossomed as hundreds of independent churches were established all over the island, each practicing their own local variation of the faith. Today, a degree of organisation has developed, with the three main archdioceses being incorporated in 1985. However, many churches still remain autonomous, either under the umbrella of one of the archdioceses or functioning in complete independence. It is a religion that remains spontaneous, unpredictable and driven by the unseen hand of the Lord.
The once-shameful ‘Shouter’ label can be traced back to the influence of this unseen hand. Shouter services are at once highly ritualised and incredibly spontaneous. They traditionally begin with the ringing of a bell and the lighting of candles, followed by the recitation of a liturgy, the singing of hymns and ritual handshaking and the touching of all those gathered. The ‘Leader’ delivers a sermon and there is more singing and praying and, all the while, the worshippers clap hands, stamp feet and cry out in praise of the Lord. They clap, stamp and build up into a religious ecstasy until they ‘catch the Spirit’ – the Holy Spirit visits the worshipper, who begins to sway, shout, speak in tongues and eventually fall to the ground in a trance-like state.
Another fascinating practice of the Shouter faith is that of ‘mourning’, a period of ‘Godly sorrow’ lasting for seven days or more, in which the ‘mourner’ prays, meditates and is forbidden from speaking, eating, bathing or any other comfort, lying for the duration on the bare floor of a mud hut. In a ritual derived from the religion’s African influence, the mourner is ‘called’ by the Leader to go though the mourning period, which is meant to symbolise death and resurrection, a spiritual journey from which the mourner emerges cleansed of their ‘impure’ being and possessed of spiritual gifts. Or, as Archbishop Barbara Gray-Burke, of the Ark of The Covenant Spiritual Baptist Church in Laventille puts it: “In psycho-biological terms, the rite of ‘mourning’ actually involves a period of intense physical sensory deprivation as the initiate is deprived of light and movement and receives minimal sustenance.”
It was such practices as ‘mourning’, as well as the loud and expressive elements of Shouter services – which drew disapproval from mainstream society for ‘disturbing the peace’ – that led to the colonial government of the time banning the Shouter Baptist faith from 1917 to 1951. While conservative elements of society deemed Shouter rituals and practices barbaric and ungodly, it is now felt that underlying this was a sense of embarrassment and distaste for the vivid evocation of their African roots – now considered ‘uncivilised’ – that these practices involved. The shame and self-hatred bred by their colonizers led the Trinidadian people to suppress a unique and vibrant tradition in an attempt to flee from their past.
The Shouter Baptists suffered 34 years of suffering and persecution, forbidden from worshipping and beaten and arrested if suspected of doing so. Yet they survived, slowly organising themselves from a disperse company of individual churches into a body – The West Indian Evangelical Spiritual Baptist Faith, under the leadership of the Grenadian-born Elton George Griffith – that was able to successfully lobby for the repeal of the Shouters Prohibitive Ordinance in 1951.
Now they practice freely across Trinidad and have spread their unique brand of African-flavoured Protestantism across the Caribbean and beyond-to the United States, to Canada and to England. Singing, dancing, hollering: the Shouters are here now too. Catch the Spirit.
Kwame Nkrumah once said, “Far better to be free to govern or misgovern yourself than to be governed by anybody else.” This statement directed against the British colonial forces oppressing Ghana at the time has inadvertently come to represent a way of life for one Stephanie Benson, modern heiress to the ancient Queen of Ashanti throne.
Sultry, sexy singer, mother of five, independent woman, and loving wife are just some of the hats worn by Stephanie Benson. Dressed casually in jeans today, this beautiful woman would cut a dashing poise in any setting. But don’t let the chiselled features, hour-glass shape and sexy pout belie the strength of character and steely determination that drives this woman towards her single-minded path for happiness.
The stories of a fairytale princess never normally go from rags to riches, not that Stephanie is short of a bob or two these days. But never did the Brothers Grimm or The Arabian Nights tell tales of beautiful princesses who gave it all up for love and a bungalow in Kent. Then again, these stories were written long before Princess Akua Ohenewaa Asieanem of Kokobin (a.k.a. Stephanie) was born. So, this daughter to millionaire pharmacist Samuel Benson and Queen Nana Achiaa Boahemaah II decided to marry an English bloke and live in the unsanctified world of unsanitised people.
It all started when Stephanie’s father died. She was sent to live with her strict uncle in England. At the age of 15, she thought that she had escaped the restrictive lifestyle of royal protocol but found out that although she was living in North London affluence, her movements were still constantly supervised and under the watchful eyes of her uncle and his employees.
When she had finished her schooling, she took up employment as her uncle’s secretary. Whilst there, she was sent on a computer training course where she met her future husband, Jonathan. It was more or less love at first sight for him, says Stephanie, and she recalls that it took slightly longer for her to warm to the idea.
“I was 19 when I went on my first date with Jonathan. And I ended up falling head over heels in love with him. I had also realised that my uncle would never accept it, so we had to meet in secret.” When Jonathan proposed Stephanie eagerly accepted. The night she rang her mother to tell her the news, her uncle insisted that she return to Ghana immediately.
Once there, a huge party was arranged and the place filled with eligible suitors. Despite thinly veiled attempts by the family to force her to stay, Stephanie quickly returned to England where she is now twenty years into her marriage. Five children later, a chocolate shop and factory in Tunbridge Wells, a record deal she walked out on, and a flourishing career as a singer, she still claims to be very much in love.
But who in their right mind would follow the little man’s dream in reverse – from riches to rags – and still loudly proclaim to be happy?
Why would anyone want to give up a life of luxury; personal servants, a 25-bedroom mansion, education in the best schools of the world and, an annual trust fund as big as most people’s lifetime earnings?
“My life growing up was really never easy,” she sighs. “My mother was never around very much. Our life was governed by strict protocols, customs, rules and old-fashioned traditions. I couldn’t just run up to her for a hug when other people were around, or even call her mom,” she says rather wistfully.
This enforced distance between mother and child is in stark contrast to the relationship she cultivates with her own five growing brood, aged 9 to 20 years old. Her busy day-to-day world is very much like any other mother, yet despite a hectic schedule, daily school runs, live performances, time in the studio, and helping to run the family business, she still somehow manages to share quality time with her children.
“I like to be a trendy mum. My children know they can talk to me any time. I am their mum, and their friend,” she says matter-of-factly. So what lessons on race, identity and culture does a black woman who grew up in the royal lap of luxury pass on to her mixed-race children, particularly when deciding on schools and where to live? None, apparently, and it works just fine. “My two eldest daughters went to a private school from the age of three and, as it were, they were the only black children there. They never suffered any harm from it,” she shrugs.
“The only time we had a problem was once when another child told my son, ‘We don’t sit next to brown people.’ My son didn’t understand what he meant and was quite upset by it,” she says now, visibly disturbed by the memory. “That was probably my mistake. I never really discuss racism with them. I never had a chip on my shoulder in that way.” This statement, which to many may seem both ignorant and cold, underlines the reality of Stephanie Benson’s world view.
She has never really seen herself as a ‘black’ woman as such. She has never really shared the same cares or concerns as the masses. What Stephanie Benson knows above all else is that she is in-line to the throne of the royal Queen of Ashanti. She carries within her the lineage of great warriors and daring heroines, and that knowledge of history coupled with determination is what propels her through life and gives her an edge on self-worth.
In fact, Mrs Benson comes across as fiery, rebellious and very, very confident. None of it is a front. She is a consummate professional and utterly charming with it, too. This strong, rebellious, single-minded ancestry is what she claims to pass on to her children, and hopefully, they in turn to theirs.