Lost Stitches, by Daniel Archer Melville with Rachel Manley, is reviewed here by Jeffrey Carl Cobham.
The book’s full title, Lost Stitches: The Bostitch Legacy and My Crazy Jamaican Family is something of a giveaway. From the title, we suspect that the teller of the tale is unlikely to provide us with a mere dry-as-dust recounting of facts and dates. The question at the very start of the preface, “so where does one draw the line?” purports to refer only to the difficulty of culling from the vastly varied lives and experiences of a huge and geographically wide-spread family, but the full title already has us surmising that the “drawing of the line” refers also to the possibility, the likelihood even, of author Daniel Archer Melville colouring outside the lines of what the family might consider suitable for public consumption.
The Melville story begins in the mists of ancestral Scotland, but from the viewpoint of the author, becomes significant with the genius of his great-grandfather, Thomas Arnold Briggs, inventor, founder of Bostitch, whose achievements paved the path to a life of comparative luxury for his heirs. The author certainly refers matter-of-factly to his own privileged upbringing in Jamaica, conferred not only by the country’s colonial racial pecking order,
“When I was very young, people used to tell me I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth …Growing up I thought all Jamaican white people had money, played polo, lived in a world of comfort, attended by an underclass of domestics ———– What I didn’t realize back then was that many of them were not rich; they were at best middle class. But being white, or almost white, they enjoyed the privileges of upper-class colonial society, whereas, wealthy black Jamaicans would struggle to join the club.”
…but also, by the benefits inherited from his great-grandfather:
“Dad had inherited his money in the US and there it remained in the same bank his grandfather used to set up the trust … Like clockwork every quarter a cheque came in the mail from Rhode Island.”
“We had all been spoilt from an early age. We wanted for nothing; we had each been given a car when we learned to drive, and a house when we got married.”
The author, as the title indicates, tries to keep us interested in the fortunes and misfortunes of his “crazy” family, Jamaican and otherwise, and indeed we cannot but be fascinated by the brief sketch of the cousin who
“…went from Jamaica as a young man to colonial British Guiana (present day Guyana) and ‘married’ two Amerindian women……….created an ancestral line of European and Amerindian ranchers in the vast Rupununi region of Guyana bordering the Brazilian Amazon.”
or by Pamela Melville McGregor the “outside” cousin, product of Major’s infidelity, who is an immediately recognisable character to every Jamaican:
” …Pamela took over the conversation immediately. ‘ I dream mi bredda ded. Mi tell mama say mi head hurting me where in de dream him was hit in the head. ‘ You bredda dead,’ she say.’ And Pam roared with laughter: ‘Im hit him head and him bleed to death.’ “
We are also given a somewhat chilling glimpse into the essence of Janet Melville, the author’s own mother, who, after another son, Chris had a polo accident which impaired him mentally, in the words of a friend,
‘ wrote Chris off when she was told he would never be the same. Chris was, in her fantasy, going to be a shining success that she could bask in, but that was never going to be, so she just chucked him out of her sphere like a broken unwanted vase. She was always rough with him.’
A whole new book or books lie beneath these vignettes!!
However, despite these lightly limned characters, beckoning with all their promise for deeper exploration, and despite the factual information, sometimes interesting, sometimes not so, which the author and his team have remarkably pulled from the records and from the memories of family and friends, two characters leap from the pages and remain fixed in our consciousness. The first is the Major, Harold Archer Melville, grandfather of the author. The second is the author himself, Daniel Archer Melville.
Throughout the book, there is the sense of the author’s ambivalence about his grandfather, a seemingly “he who must not be named” sort of figure for those of the family who knew him; dominating and domineering; a bully,and at the same time, a weak anti-heroic blowhard. Plainly, author Daniel is fascinated by him but also repelled not only because The Major represents so much of what he despises, but also, given his own ” silver-spooned” upbringing, what he could so easily have
himself become. Daniel is plainly horrified at the realization that, “There but for the Grace of God….”. For the author, the Major is a scab that he cannot help picking. Before we are even introduced to Major Harold Archer Melville, author Daniel Archer Melville tells us,
” He really was a prick, an opinion I’m sure you’ll soon share.”
Nevertheless, we admit it; Major Melville holds our interest, and though we should be outraged by his behaviour, we, like the author, are fascinated. We recognize him as the charming rogue who appears in varying guises all over the world, and who is known in Jamaica as Brer Anansi, the no-good, greedy, cunning and inventive trickster, stories of whose exploits were brought to Jamaica from Africa by Ashanti slaves.Grudgingly, despite his disgust, his grandson Daniel admits.
” But no one’s perfect. And how many vivid characters are faultless? Major was charismatic. He devised a way to become ” the victim”, and he played that card well even before he really deserved the title.”
Deserved the title?
The book’s tensions are many. Unpredictable, dangerous, black, exciting Jamaica versus peaceful, “civilized”, safe, white Rhode Island/Canada –even New Zealand. Staid, society-
acceptable, Jamaica College, rich married Melvilles, versus the “outside” Trench Town High School children staring at the “great house” from the servants’ barracks. But it is the Major, a 25 year old Jamaican of Scottish and Jewish descent who brings these worlds together by marrying Berenice Briggs, heiress to half of one of the largest fortunes in Rhode Island, and transporting her from America to Jamaica,
” under a tropical sky with its stars fiercer and nearer than up north, its moon strangely more intimate here”
and it is also the Major who then proceeds to live lavishly off his wife’s money, and who starts an “outside” family, with children, including the author’s father John Archer Melville often being born to both mothers in the same years.
“The cheek of it!”
But what of the grandson, the author himself, who with privilege and wealth, at all stages had the option of shaking the dust of an unpredictable and often hostile Jamaica from his feet, to live a comfortable metropolitan life? As the story moves from the past to the present it is obvious that his father moved to rural Jamaica to reduce his own family’s exposure to the social fallout from the Major’s lifestyle, and it was in that rural setting that the author’s understanding of and love for the ordinary rural folk grew and were nurtured. By kindnesses
such as transporting local people to and from market the author’s father, John, set an example, deliberately seeking to instill in his children the “soul” which was so lacking in his father, and which was undoubtedly a major contributor to the author’s successful political campaign.
The book becomes largely autobiographical in its final chapters, with Daniel Melville seeking to convince us of his own streak of “craziness”, but only managing to engage us with what is obviously his unquestioned love of people, irrespective of class, colour or creed and his willingness to give unthought of opportunity to those who are not as fortunate as he is. Well, yes, perhaps the idea of entering Newton Marshall, a young black Jamaican country boy, who had never seen snow, in the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod, two one- thousand mile dog-sled races, each of which lasts about ten days, covers some of the planet’s most inhospitable terrain, sometimes in temperatures of minus 40 Celsius, and in which just finishing is considered a success– yes, perhaps there is some crazy there ! And oh, Newton did finish!
In author Daniel, the family strings, “inside” and “outside”, are partially pulled together, even if imperfectly. He is in contact with cousin Pamela Melville McGregor.
His Uncle Seymour was one of Major’s children born out of wedlock.
“It was Uncle Seymour, not my father who took me up to the Crescent to see the family home and my grandfather’s grave……….I was in my early thirties and seeing his grave for the first time. It was very emotional and brought home to me the monumental rift that seemed to have shaken our very concept of family. I cant say for sure if my dad attended his father’s funeral in 1951, but he never felt the need to show me his father’s final resting place. What a dysfunctional lot we are.”
The idea that genius and madness are often separated by no more than the flimsiest of membranes is not a new one. Danny Melville examines that thought again, with wry humour, but with the realization that his family has had its fair share of eccentrics and of tragedy which may be ascribed at least in part to that factor, and with some thankfulness that despite some detours, his own life has escaped the worst of those outcomes.
The book is a generally easy read considering that it is meant not only to tell an interesting story, but also to serve as a record resulting from painstaking research of the often convoluted Melville history. It is for this reason that the author may be forgiven when it sometimes submerges into a mass of names and dates which have us looking again at the family tree at the start of the book in an effort to remember which family
member fits where. Very occasionally the hand of his life-long friend, wordsmith author, teacher and co-writer, novelist Rachel Manley shows through………
“…fireflies like points of danger in feudal dark “