How Bob Marley and Jamaica inspired my Queenager project
The Queenager: Eleanor's Letter (January 21st 2024)
On a quick visit there last week I went back to the place where it all started
Hope all is good with all of you! I am feeling particularly well as I snuck off to Jamaica for a quick blast of sunshine, staying with a Queenager mate… I’ve posted some of my snaps here to cheer you up!
For me one of the great joys of midlife is the freedom: My daughters are both at university, I no longer have an employer or a boss… and after 25 years of having limited numbers of holiday days – which had to be agreed months in advance and synched with colleagues– I still relish the joy of being able to say: Yes! I’m going to take a week off, without having to ask anyone.
There are big downsides to the freelance/entrepreneur life (as an old friend of mine, a surfer, who followed the waves around the world, once said to me: Freedom has no sponsor) so it is important to embrace the upsides. For me the liberty to decide at the last minute to jump on a plane is one of them! And yes, I do know how lucky I am to be able to afford the flight and I also felt guilty about the carbon footprint (I have many mates who no longer fly because of the climate crisis). But I went because I spent the whole of last year chained to my computer writing my Queenager book – I didn’t get a summer holiday – and I was knackered. So I hope you can forgive me!
So why Jamaica? Because I love it! I grew up in London, a city alive with Caribbean music and food; I’ve been a reggae-head since I was a teen. As soon as I land in Montego Bay, the smell of the air, the cheeping of the Cicadas, the flowering trees, the cheeriness of the people, Bob Marley blasting out of every speaker, the good vibes, the turquoise colour of the sea makes me feel happy. There is a general sense that Jamaica isn’t safe – all I can say is in all my visits I have never had a single scary moment. I love the place, the people, the culture – One Love as they say over there (or One Loave, my favourite bakery in Treasure Beach, the sleepy fishing and farming village in St Elizabeth parish on the south coast where I stay). Jamaica is the size of Wales – I can’t think of any other place in the whole world which punches so above its weight when it comes to culture.
The biopic of Jamaican prophet Bob Marley comes out next month; his legacy is global. I discovered a Bob fan club in China, a bunch of Chinese ‘Rastas’ listening to Exodus, clad in red, gold and green, also in Indonesia. His message that we should ‘emancipate ourselves from mental slavery’ and live in harmony with each other never dates and has never felt more relevant. It is particularly poignant that that One Love message should have been born in Jamaica an island and a people which was ravaged by slavery; propagated by the British crown and on which England grew stinkingly rich. The British have been in Jamaica since the 1600s and our legacy is one of deep shame. The grand plantations with their manor houses and fences are the remnants of our occupation. Black River, the biggest town in St Elizabeth’s, was the site of the largest slave market in the whole of the Caribbean, it was so rich it got electric light at the same time as London. But while the sites of the holocaust or the Rwandan massacre or the genocide in Cambodia have huge memorial museums where we are encouraged to remember and think on the crimes of the past, at Black River there is only one small plaque. This dark history of slavery and conquest is not brought to the fore in Jamaica. The colonial rulers had no interest in marking it and since Independence its citizens have had other concerns….while some of the island is booming – everytime I go there there are new roads, many built by the Chinese and new houses, many of its people are still left behind.
So what does all of this have to do with Queenagers? Well, I came up with the “Queenager” term while I was in Jamaica. Older women are respected on the island: “auntie” is a term of high reverence and respect, matriarchs rule. At one point last week we were playing Pickleball next to about 20 kids who were kicking a football towards a goal right next to us. One word from an older Jamaican woman and they started playing towards a goal at the other end of the pitch. I am not sure that in England a Queenager would be so respected. But older women in this culture are seen as ‘queens’ – a celebratory term referencing the queens of black history, Nefertiti, Cleopatra the African dynasties from which so many Jamaicans are descended -but this term also to me feels reverent towards their age, wisdom, experience, the caring they have performed, their role in the family and society which commands respect.
This time I was lucky enough to stay with my friend Sally – 83 and a Queenager icon – on the north coast near Runaway Bay in a house called Itopia in the middle of a tropical forest. Electric power was only installed in the last few years, Sally lives with candles and open windows and no air conditioning. To stay there is to get a sense of living in an earlier time – with all the connotations, good and bad, that that brings.
There is another reason why my week out there feels so pertinent to the Noon project. While we were there, we heard that a friend had died, suddenly of a heart attack. He was the same age as me. It made me realise what a gift it is to grow old, how lucky we are to still be here, how we need to throw off the ridiculous notions we have internalised of youth being the thing. Next time you look at one of your wrinkles and feel bad, just remember instead how lucky you are to be alive. The longevity we take for granted is in fact the biggest gift of modern science and medicine. Rather than wanting to cling to youth, we need to embrace and feel thankful for where we are and how much more there is to come. Make the most of our time here. That is what this whole Queenager project is about. Rethinking this point in our lives and its possibilities in a more positive way, throwing off the programming which makes us in our society feel ‘less than’ as we age.
I was listening to the great sage of midlife Chip Conley talking about his new book. “Midlife,” he said, “isn’t a crisis, it’s a chrysalis”. I loved that. The idea that we got into the dark, into a tunnel for a bit and regenerate and come out a new version of ourselves. Jamaica has definitely been the place where that has happened to me. It was in Treasure Beach that I first dared to articulate the idea that became Noon and this newsletter. I was on a sailing trip, chatting to a woman who had got a divorce and run off with her childhood sweetheart to live on a scruffy old boat. She told me she had never been happier, that at 55 her life on the outside finally fitted the way she felt on the inside. I loved that sense of becoming the women we always wanted to be at this point. Her story gave me the impetus to move into my own new chapter. She inspired me – it made me realise that we can inspire and support each other.
Thanks so much for reading this. If you like what we are doing at Noon and on this newsletter, I would be so grateful if you could fill in this brief survey and tell us what we could do better.
By Eleanor Mills