It’s the Eurovision Song Contest this Saturday (which I hope you’re all going to watch) and so in good taste, I’m going to do a post about something that definitely is NOT related to Eurovision. Meet Ernestine “Tiny” Davis, not the murderer electrocuted on death row, but the very cool singer/ jazz trumpet player.
I first came across her in a documentary called Tiny & Ruby: Hell Divin’ Women from 1988. It was an extra on a DVD documentary called Before Stonewall about the American gay community before the Stonewall riots that took place on June 28 1969, at the Stonewall Inn, Greenwich Village.
Here is a shortened version of the docu:
Tiny Davis played the trumpet most famously in the band The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, during the 1940s. They were quite an individual group of women, mainly because they “abandoned” their children and husbands to tour and play – something which was highly frowned upon in those days. They were the first integrated all women’s band that existed in the USA and started out when members of the Piney Woods Country Life School for poor and African American children, the majority of which were orphans, got together to play swing and jazz. Here they are in full swing (my favourite is Jump Children):
Tiny joined the Sweethearts when Jessie Stone took over as composer in 1941, and sought out more professional musicians to play alongside the less experienced members. The band itself was not only multi-talented, but multi-racial, an important thing in segregated America. When they toured the country, they practically lived on the tour bus – practised, studied, slept there – mainly because they couldn’t stay in hotels due to the segregation policy. In the documentary, Tiny speaks about the fact that even though some of the women in the Sweethearts were in heterosexual relationships – married with children – they would still get together with the other female musicians when on tour. She herself was in a relationship with Ruby Lucas, a fellow Hell Divers band member – the band that Tiny formed after the Sweethearts. They were adopted as heroes of the gay rights movement, and during the 1950s they ran a bar in Chicago called Tiny and Ruby’s Gay Spot. They even have a song on their Hot Licks album called Diggin’ Dykes.
Tiny was highly talented, but being a woman, she was rarely taken seriously. Strangely, World War II helped a lot of female musicians, especially the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, into the spotlight simply because male musicians were away at war. Of course, this meant that when the war finished, the Sweethearts had fewer gigs, and is one of the main reasons they disbanded by 1949. Tiny was such a brilliant musician, she was considered the female Louis Armstrong. In fact, he even tried to hire her away from the Sweethearts, but she turned him down, and when asked why later, she said, “I loved them gals too much.” Following the Sweethearts, Tiny went on to other musical projects. She died in 1994 at the age of 87.
A final quote of hers from the book Queer America:
“I don’t like to hear that ‘plays like a girl’ or ‘plays like a sissy’. I had more chops than most men… So no, we never got the credit we deserved. But women have a hard time in anything. There’s nothing you can do. Just keep on keeping on.”
This week my mum told me about a Radio 4 programme she happened to listen to featuring a recent breaking story about some of Princess Margaret’s letters that have just been released for public viewing at the National Archives in Kew. If you haven’t heard what has happened, like I hadn’t, you only have to type it into Google, to find that actually it was all over the papers a few days ago.
Basically, the media was raving about the Princess’ “simple tastes” alluded to in these letters – she liked simple meals, not caviar and oysters, suggesting her apparent “normality” (though all of her letters are written on her behalf by some Sir Martin bloke – still seem normal?). The correspondence in question occurred before her visit to East Africa and Mauritius in 1956 (click the link for a breakdown of her visit to the island).
The reason I’m writing about this random popular story is because my mum told me that my granddad, Grand-pere, who was from Mauritius and worked closely with the Prime Minister Ramgoolam when he lived there.
When Princess Margaret went to visit, he planned her itinerary, and travelled with her around the island. Though we apparently have pictures of her, we have no pictures of them together. I’ve tried to search online, and managed to find a short archive film from Pathe…which is really interesting. But alas – no footage of him.
I’ll continue to look. I might track down something…
On Tuesday last week I got a call from my sister telling me that my grandfather had died. My grandfather, or Grand-père, had lived at my parents’ home, the hospice in Canterbury, the hospital in Margate, and a nursing home in Whitstable in the past month. He died in the nursing home, comforted by one of the staff members, not choking and coughing horrendously as he had been for the past month, unable to swallow anything. The coughing had been painful to watch. Instead, he fell asleep and slowly stopped breathing.
Only two days before, I’d gone to see him with my sister and mum. He wanted to know where his watch was. Mum said she would bring it to him the next day, but never managed to give it to him – she had it in her bag on the day he died.
As I was leaving, I said,
“Okay Grand-père, I’ll see you in two weeks,” even though I knew it was actually three weeks; I wanted it to be a shorter frame of time to give me a greater chance of seeing him again before he died, even though I knew it would be longer. I said bye, and gave him a kiss, and then I went outside and thought, I don’t think I’m going to see you again. I think I just said bye for the last time.
When I went to see him, he didn’t look like him at first. His mouth hung open. I could see his teeth. They were pretty brown, but still all his own – a grand feat at 91. They weren’t always brown: I remember about 20 years ago, saying to him, “Grand-père, your teeth are so white!”
Surprising he had his own teeth. Also surprising he had his own life for such a long time too considering he smoked most of his life and drank whisky for much of the remainder of it.
And when he was younger, he was stung by a stonefish (twice?) which should have killed him, he was poisoned by cyanide which should have killed him, and he had stomach cancer which also could have killed him in his seventies. Instead, he got the all clear two weeks after his wife, Grand-mère, died suddenly from a ruptured aorta, just a few days before their 50th wedding anniversary.
He always said that had he known she was going to die, he would never have had the cancer treatment. In fact, if you ever asked him how he was, his ongoing “joke” response was:
Grand-père was a French Mauritian who moved to England during the 1960s, and took his family with him – a wife, three sons, a daughter, a mother, a mother-in-law and a brother-in-law.
In Mauritius, he jumped a year ahead at school, became a civil servant, working alongside the prime minister Seewoosagur Ramgoolam travelling around the world, studying in London, negotiating with other countries. He negotiated with Japan over the waters they could fish in, and helped kick off the fish canning industry. He even received letters form the Bank of England right up into his old age.
He also played the harmonica, taught me latin (Amo amas, I met a lass, Amas amat, I laid her flat – that’s the clean version) and also had a great voice, sometimes singing for audiences, his own favourite singer being Tino Rossi.
When I was at uni, I did a journalism course and decided to interview him for an article. I didn’t get a great mark for it, but I thought I’d share it in this blog post to document some of the history of this man…
I’m sweating. Not just from running around, searching for the right adaptor lead for the old tape recorder I am about to use in my interview. But sweating also because it’s 9 o’clock in the morning, after a late night. Not too late, but late enough to have been bitten by a couple of dogs, if you get my drift.
My Mum hastens me along. I’m already meant to be interviewing my 86 year old grandfather, Roger Allier, or Grand-père as I know him, born on the 6th March 1921 in Mauritius. He’s an early riser, and an early drinker at that, which is probably why he’s better with hangovers than I am – he can’t remember them. Soon he won’t remember much of anything else either, which is why I have to catch him early on this morning – my only opportunity for an interview. You see, it’s not a case of a hair-of-the-dog or two for him; he plucks the beast bald, throwing it sugar free biscuits to keep it from whining. Grand-père’s a diabetic alcoholic, you see.
He doesn’t know he’s about to be interviewed. My Mum knows better than to tell him too much time beforehand about such things. He would have been having a nervous breakdown by now, wondering about what I was going to ask him. Does he ponder on such menial things because his whole life he has had to think about much bigger things? I find out once I’ve managed to replace the tape recorder lead and begin the interview.
I’m sitting opposite his empty chair whilst he makes a whisky in his annex at the back of my parents’ house. They built it for him when Grand-mère, my grandmother Henrietta Allier, died at the slightly unripe age of 72. It’s great. A humble bed-sit which has a small bathroom, complete with toilet, sink and shower, and a living room come kitchen come bedroom. What more could he want? The house he used to live in probably, where he thought he would spend his old age laughing with his wife, had she not died suddenly three days before their golden wedding anniversary. That’s not to say that he doesn’t enjoy life now.
“You want one?” Grand-père asks me as he shuffles back to his chair, motioning towards the large bottle of whisky. It’s ten o’clock in the morning. I kind of laugh, unsure if he’s joking, before declining the offer. I notice he has two other large bottles behind the open one. He says he got them all for Christmas. I got him some colourful socks. Grandfathers always appreciate socks.
I wonder what he would have appreciated when he was younger, during his life in Mauritius before he moved to England. I want to know why the small black and white photo on the wall above his chair, of him and my grandmother in their early twenties, expressionless, holds more colour than his life now.
“I started as a clerk, a junior clerk,” he tells me, about his job in Mauritius. “I was able to climb up all the ladders…In the end I finished as one of the top civil servants.”
The top of his shiny head faces me as he looks at the floor, while speaking softly in his French Mauritian accent, his slow hand conducting the speed of his words. I begin to understand how successful this old man was. He learnt shorthand, and was a judge’s clerk before working his way up into the government in Mauritius, mixing with the most important people in the world.
He starts to tell me why he left Mauritius which involves the Prime Minister. I interrupt. Did he know the Prime Minister of Mauritius? He seems surprised that I ask.
“Oh yes! The Prime Minister was Dr Ramgoolam.” Lunches with Dr Ramgoolam and other members of the government and their wives were common events, but a certain lunch caused the final push for Grand-père towards England. “The Prime Minister Ramgoolam talked to my own wife after a few drinks, and he was telling her apparently his plans to take me with him on a voyage to the United States of America where I had been before.” My grandmother went mad when they got home. “Rita said, “If you do that again, we are finished. I’m not going to look after the children again!” So the only thing I could do at that time was to leave.”
At this point I look at the photo of the young pair. It’s strange to think that they ever argued. An old couple who had stayed together for so many years – I would assume that their relationship was harmonious, painless…tiffless. I was too young when Grand-mère died to have seen another side. He had travelled to America with the prime minister previously for six months – a long time for anyone to deal with, especially as Grand-mère had four children to look after, a leg operation to contend with, and a Christmas without him.
The other reason my grandfather left was because he was certain that Mauritius was about to get its independence. “I was thinking mainly of the children, of their future.”
These children, now near retirement, are Roger, 61, Gilbert, 59, Yves, 56, and Floriane, my mother, 53. “As long as the English were the owners of the place, there was an English governor, responsible directly to the secretary of state here, but Mauritius was getting independence.”
The independence of Mauritius was a positive thing. But when one dominating group leaves, another takes over bringing much change, and in this case it was Indians. I ask if this was because there were a lot of them. Again Grand-père is surprised. “Yes! Two thirds of the population!” Mauritius also consisted of Chinese, Africans and the French descendents, like Grand-père, not to mention the English and Dutch. In fact, the island is so multi-racial, it is difficult to define someone with pure Mauritian blood.
“Mauritius was very close to the island of Réunion – you know that? And Réunion was a French colony…while we, Mauritius, we were different. We had lots of Indians.” It is Réunion which his father Alcé Allier came from, while his mother Athalie Loulié came from Mauritius, and her parents from France. “So in that way I was French, came from French people: Allier and Loulié,” he says. I’ve come to learn that many grandparents love to reel off stories about their past. Some reel off the same stories repetitively. Some can only remember parts of their stories. The latter is true for my grandfather.
I’ve heard so many stories about his life in previous years from him and others, and I want to hear them again. But when I ask questions such as, “Have you ever been back to Mauritius?” or “What was the most memorable moment for you in your job?”, the replies are, “I think I’ve been, I can’t remember,” and “When Rita was still here we talked about quite a few things like that because meeting people and…but I can’t remember any of it now.” I’m still able to get quite a lot of information, yet later he worries that he’s been of no use to me. I wonder if I should get him a bottle of whisky to show how much he’s helped. I think again; this copper coloured liquid isn’t exactly oiling his synapses.
But his weakening memory doesn’t stop him from telling me about a certain occasion I’ve heard mentioned before and wish to hear about fully. His meeting with Haile Selassie. As it turns out, there’s more to it then just a handshake as I’d originally thought. At first I think it’s another dead end as I ask, “Was there anyone in particular you quite liked?” “Not in particular, most of them were very friendly.” Maybe he doesn’t speak of Selassie because he doesn’t think the event is as important as I do (I’m interested in reggae and its history), or maybe because he just doesn’t remember meeting him or didn’t like him that much, or maybe I wasn’t direct enough. I soon fix that. “You met Haile Selassie didn’t you?” “That’s when I went to Ethiopia. He was alright to me.” Another question about Ethiopia to which he answers, “To me it seemed like a big country being wasted. I mean, there were so many things that could be done.” Then he’s off, talking about the international meeting there. “But an amusing thing and I always remember, that there were 10 or 12 of us going in there of different nationalities…so they had to take quite a lot of precautions.” These precautions were because of the fear that Selassie would be assassinated. So they all had to enter in the same vehicle, surrounded by guards, and then Selassie was meant to arrive slightly later. But Grand-père wanted a cigarette. “So I went downstairs quietly, and then I heard somebody laughing beside me and it was Haile Selassie. He had left his guards…We talked and then we went in together, and they were all laughing. Yeah he was supposed to be protected, because one of our lot could have shot him!” My grandfather laughs and looks at the ground. I laugh too, wondering what else I was to find out.
When he eventually moved to England, he had a convoy of people to take with him, all to live in a large flat in Battersea in 1962. And so life sprinted on, as does the interview. We talk about his leisurely life shooting game, and his part as an acting sergeant major in World War II, where he momentarily comes to life, hollering the orders he used to shout when loading and shooting six-inch guns, how he studied at Cambridge, at the London School of Economics, and the many countries he visited, from his forefather arriving on a ship called Le Tigre which sank leaving him stranded in Mauritius, to descendants sailing on a boat to England.
My final question:
“Did you ever meet the British Prime Minister?” and he can’t remember. Luckily, my mother can. She finds a photocopy of a newspaper cutting from the front page of the Washington Post on the day of Ethiopia’s independence. It shows him meeting Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home. My grandfather on the front page. I’ll be careful the next time I sign someone off as just an old person. You never know what great things they’ve achieved.
I heard a story recently from someone I know who told me that their father was adopted during the Second World War. In fact, he wasn’t even adopted, but sold illegally. I thought I’d write about that, but instead I’ve been a bit distracted, and can’t seem to think about writing.
I had a call on Tuesday from my sister. She said that my granddad fell over in the night, and now he couldn’t get up, had no power in his legs. He was barely speaking. Since Tuesday, he’s been speaking more, but mainly to ask questions. It turns out he’d had a minor stroke. He thought he was in America on Wednesday, though I think that was because the hurricane was plastered all over the news that probably did that, playing with his mind and that.
The strange, or not so strange, thing is, this man, my granddad Roger Allier, or Grand-pere as we all call him, used to help run a country. He was a French Mauritian civil servant who worked alongside Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam who led Mauritius towards independence in 1968. Grand-pere travelled around the world – studied in England, met multiple politicians, even ended up on the front cover of The Washington Post when he was in America. Back in school, he jumped a year ahead, and later fought in the Second World War, helping defend Mauritius against the Japanese who wanted to destroy the sugar cane plantations. Even ten years ago, he was winning crossword puzzles. And at 91, he still has all his own teeth.
Of course, Grand-mere, his wife Rita Allier, had to support him through all this, and he couldn’t have been the person he was without her, as is the case for most successful people; they all need some sort of support be it from a partner or a friend or a parent. Even Hitler had a mother.
So anyway, I’m just making a short piece today as I feel like I need to exorcise my confusion – how can someone, anyone, even the least “successful” person, end up so confused? The thing is mind disorders are scary things. Old age is too. The troubling part about it isn’t his lack of energy, but his confusion in everything – where he is, who everyone is etc.
I started writing this post two days ago, but thought it wouldn’t be right, writing about someone who doesn’t know you’re writing about them, and wouldn’t understand if you explained to them. But this is a personal blog about history. And sometimes we write to work things out. I could go on, but there’s one thing my mind always comes back to:
Old people aren’t the other. People see teenagers as the other – they see them as someone different, but we were still once them. People also see old people as the other – depressed, lonely, ill. But they were once us too, and we will be them one day. They aren’t children to be patronised, or morons to pity. Some of them led countries. Some of them murdered. Some of them fell in love. Some of them had amazing adventures. Feeling sad or guilty for them won’t help them, as I am realising. One day, it will be my parents. One day, it will be me, and for that reason, we can’t feel too upset. Everybody gets old.
Everybody gets old and becomes another person’s history.