It is difficult not to see this Jamaican community within this stereotypical cloak based on historical events. Winston Bennett, in his moving memoir “Out of Trench Town”, puts a human face on this misunderstood western Kingston neighborhood.
The book opens with a bang, a tumultuous event that took place in the early 1900s, marking the Caribbean island both physically and emotionally. Many who grew up in Jamaica during the 1940s through 1960s remember the lazy Sunday afternoons after Sunday school. Bennett paints a nostalgic picture of that era. Dotting the pages with old idioms like “keshi shubie”, “wash belly” and “john crow” also add color to his story, already peppered with varying character and familial hues.
Even as a child, Bennett sensed the tension between his father and grandfather, the opposing characters, which would shape his life, just as the opposing philosophies of Jamaica’s two major political parties would shape Trench Town.
Bennett introduces the Jamaica Labour Party and the People’s National Party early. He uses the political restiveness that began in 1944 as a metaphor for a continuing World War II, which had just ended. He successfully weaves this and other literary devices, such as allusion, allegory and symbolism, throughout the book to keep the reader engaged and tell the story of the Trench Town that protected and molded him.
As Bennett explains, Trench Town was a lower middle class community in the 1940s. The turning point that created the now infamous area came about in the 1960s with the help of “dirty politics” he writes. But he balances the story. Despite its eventual violent ghetto cloak, Trench Town is also known for producing some of Jamaica’s best musical talent, including Peter Tosh, Joe Higgs, Cynthia Schloss and Bob Marley.
Trench Town was a community of tenement yards void of trees, flowers and grass, with shared cooking and personal facilities. Residents became close because the proximity of bodies and living space demanded it. According to Bennett, it was a happy life in the so-called ghetto.
But, the family dynamics changed with the death of his mother when he was a child. Bennett recalls his father’s dependence on alcohol. The author’s “walk”, sometimes stumbling, through adolescence and adulthood, is told with color and openness and readers identify with the curiosity, defiance, hard lessons and relationships that shaped Bennett’s life.
His uncertainty and ambivalence through the 1960s and 1970s come through clearly. Readers will celebrate with him when he gets a taste of the corporate world and rises through the ranks, although that came with a price. His larger-than-life world would come crashing down as he’s reeled into alcoholism and despair.
Bennett’s memories of his father, family bonds and Trench Town upbringing helped him climb out of the dark hole. He now lives in the United States, where he built his own family and tells his story of ambition, persistence and defiance.