Wed | Feb 26, 2020

Life and adventures of James Ferguson

Published:Sunday | August 14, 2016 | 12:00 AM
14-year-old James Ferguson in RAF uniform.
Valerie Facey in her library.
Cover of James Ferguson's book

Valerie Facey is the most amazing of individuals, an American by birth, with a life that well deserves a book of its own. Just to sit in her library (someone will have a field day going through her vast accumulation of esoteric books one day) and to chat with her about any of her projects or personal history is an absorbing experience. You see among her many accomplishments she established The Mill Press, publishing an array of important manuscripts including Belisario Sketches of Character.

Her last publication, Adventures of James Ferguson, by James L. Ferguson, (The Mill Press, Kingston 2016) concerns her husband, the late Maurice William Facey. Three months after his death, she read an extraordinary letter about Maurice in The Gleaner written by a stranger to her, a man whom Maurice had befriended during WWII.

She immediately gives us Ferguson's details: born in Nicaragua in 1930 of a Jamaican father and a Caymanian mother; came to Jamaica at age five; enlisted in 1944, age 14. Maurice was 18 himself but took the youngster under his wing in their arduous two-month voyage to the United Kingdom, via New York, all the time fearing German U-boats might sink their ship, the SS Cuba.

On September 1, James and Maurice were officially enlisted in the Royal Air Force. Imagine how they felt when seven months later, the SS Cuba was torpedoed and sank. After the voyage, Maurice ensured that James stayed with him in the same billet in Yorkshire during their final training for the RAF.


Deeply scarred by wartime experiences


Valerie is a brilliant writer, setting the stage in her foreword for Ferguson's narrative, which follows. In interviewing James, she entered a world her late husband had never shared: his wartime experiences. She notes: "What came across to me was the shocking fact that many of these young men and women of colour, who volunteered their lives, were not well received by the 'Mother Country'. Of these, my husband and Jim Ferguson were obviously deeply scarred by this disillusioning experience. It is with a sense of wanting to 'give back' that I have caused the publication of my new friend's memoir."

And what a memoir it is. We encounter betrayal, love, marriage, racial discrimination, imprisonment, a civil rights case, attempted sexual abuse, and this all within the first ten pages! So well told is his story that we read right on.

It takes time to realise that his wartime memories are really social history and come primarily in the latter part of the book. His life before and after his three years in England is fascinating Jamaican history of an intimate nature rarely found and not without practical insights, shedding light on why things in Jamaica are what they are. For instance, one job he got upon returning to the island was at the Public Works Department with the city engineers. "We would work for two hours; drink for two hours, work for two hours, drink for two hours, right through the day." This lasted for five years.

He went on to become a top salesman at Sprostons for ten years selling vehicles, noting: "Prejudice was still rampant in the sixties and all the managers were white ... Your skin colour made all the difference." Nonetheless, after his second marriage ended, he lived quite the life, often spending entire weekends at the Glass Bucket, travelling to Grand Cayman, Miami, and Toronto. His third marriage brought a halt to his wild ways, adding three more children to the previous four.

He admits that the deaths of two sons was so sad he could not write of those tragedies. Instead, he regales us with turning up at 5:30 a.m. at Bustamante's home on Tucker Avenue looking for a friend, only to be offered a drink by the great man while Robert Lightbourne played on the piano.

Says Ferguson: "They had been up all night and it seemed that they would be continuing through the day. Ah, people were so happy then."

As you can gather, despite Valerie's trenchant foreword, this is a memoir filled with anecdotes, naming names and places, dispensing mirth in part because the author is a total free spirit. Occasionally, he shares wisdom accrued during his adventures, noting of one employer: "He was a decision maker, and the best decision makers are those who are willing to suffer the consequences of their decisions but still retain the ability to be decisive."

His audacity as an entrepreneur in his own right brings outright laughter to one's lips, but you must read this volume yourself to learn of his catastrophic losses and the perils of foolhardy mistakes: "If you try to go too fast, you usually reach the bottom just as fast."

He stresses the necessity of picking yourself up again, and with the grace of God, moving on, even writing of his alcohol addiction and the solace of becoming a poet.

Adventures opens with a photograph of a portrait by Carl Abrahams, James' special friend, painted in 1966 of James' third wife, with whom he is now married for over 50 years.

Scattered throughout the chapters are old photos, those of World War II especially interesting, but the book's one flaw is placing his poetry in the middle of his narrative, rather than consigning it to the end with his Quotations of a Lifetime, some facile, some worthy. My favourite: "Once you have mastered the art of giving, you have not deprived yourself of anything."

His first published book of poetry, Thru Jimmy's Eyes, appeared in 2002 with illustrations by Clovis Brown. But it is his rollicking recollections of Jamaican business life, crime and leisure coupled with sensitive, serious journal reflections, almost short stories, which most grip the reader when towards the end, he recounts returning to England 59 years after leaving as he confronts his fears of growing old. A quirky book, anyone who knows Jamaica knows this is authentic history rarely shared.