The human spirit will always trump the material safeguards of wealth or privilege – that’s the message from accountant turned writer E.A .Samuels, whose enthralling memoirs The Triangle Route – The Extraordinary Journey Of An Ordinary Man (Woodfield) charts his unlikely rise from Caribbean street urchin to senior financial executive of two Fortune 500 companies. The rags to riches theme is, of course, the common fare to be found in the autobiography section in any bookstore.
Yet what this reviewer found refreshing is the writer’s decision to not make heavy weather of the poverty he experienced, but rather, to look at it as a mere backdrop to an aggressively positive outlook on life.
In this extract, E.A. Samuels recalls a train journey across Jamaica he experienced as a child. “On one occasion, I needed to use the bathroom and was shocked to see the rails rushing by when I looked down into the toilet bowl. There was no collection tank on the train toilets so all the waste matter fell onto the tracks, eventually dried up by the hot tropical sun. Land crabs, I was told, roamed the tracks and helped in the disposal process. This was truly amazing.”
When Samuels was born Jamaica was still a British colony, but one which Europe’s greatest empire could ill afford, struggling as it was with social change, an economic downswing wrought by the second world war, and having to fall in line with a new world order headed by The Soviet Union and the United States. Not surprisingly, the author in common with compatriots in the English speaking Caribbean came to view the United States as a new Jerusalem- and themselves as the Independent minded children of a waning colonial power.
But it was in Britain that Samuels spent some of his formative years, eating fish and chips from inky newspapers and feeling nonplussed by the privations of a post war Britain where the white and black underclass endured hardships not yet visited on impoverished Jamaica. Yet tellingly, and refreshingly different to a slew of Caribbean writers in English, Samuels the writer is not particularly interested or preoccupied with England, either as a cultural cringe or for its key role in black enslavement. His experience there as a child is dealt with briefly, placed summarily at the start of the book and hardly echoes any major influence on his adult life.
It’s the Jamaican and American experience – Samuels refers to himself as Jamerican- which animate this engaging account of one man’s march from the margins.
The tough tenement yards in which Samuels was raised, one ironically called Hamptons, are presented here as the cruel schools for the rapid begetting of wisdom. In these places the heavy threat of casual violence -often accompanied with extravagant verbal abuse- dovetailed neatly with the most unexpected generosity and compassion.
“Survival in a tenement environment involves walking a fine line between insisting on getting what is rightfully yours and relinquishing some of these rights through little acts of kindness to fellow tenants…it requires the application of interpersonal skills and use of conflict resolution techniques that the participants acquire in this crucible of poverty.”
Memorable characters from the tenements with names like “Ma-mud”, “Pa- clay” and “Little Wicked” – “so named because of her small stature and aggressive demeanour”- are scene stealers in this sometimes shocking but always compelling account.
“[Little Wicked and Miss Rachael] were continually quarrelling over who should sweep the yard. But when Miss Rachael became ill and had to be admitted to hospital, Little Wicked was the one who cooked for Miss Rachael’s small children and combed her daughter’s hair for school.”
The writer’s experience in New York, where he worked variously as a put upon doorman and a rail track labourer, while studying for his MBA, reveal that unshakeable faith in humanity and day to day experience as life’s best teacher.
“The construction work was hard and backbreaking but it had its positive effects. I had been overweight when I started working, but in no time had become chiselled and muscular, the result of lifting heavy wooden ties and swinging the spiking hammer from morning to evening. I was literally being paid to exercise.”
Sometimes the narrative dips into the sentimental, but the writer could be forgiven for this – it is after all a rags to riches tale– although some would recoil from his contention that “human nature is basically good” – in spite of the extremes he experienced in the tenements and as an immigrant sleeping al fresco on New York’s streets.
Samuels’ recollections -which frustratingly spans only ages four to twenty seven- remain an astonishing page turner, a humorous and accessible self portrait of an ordinary man – a Mr Nobody that you would love to meet by the end of the book.
The Triangle Route: The extraordinary journey of an ordinary man. An autobiography – E.A. SAMUELS is published by Woodfield.
Review by R Leonard Bartholome.