Stephen Smith

Diary: On the Applegarth

Stephen Smith, 13 April 2000

Applegarth. Seaforth Radio, 13 January. Following received from British steamer Perthshire (Glasgow for Beira) at 8.13 p.m. GMT: Just sank tug (Applegarth) south of Woodside in River Mersey.

Diary: in Medellín

Stephen Smith, 21 May 1998

Of the two cathedrals in the city of Medellín, the one in Parque de Bolivar has far and away the lesser association with murder. It’s the largest brick building in South America and its confessionals are open-plan. You can see the priests, frowning, ears cocked, twiddling the cords of their vestments. The brick walls gave shelter to many mourners in the days when Medellín was ruled by Pablo Escobar, Colombia’s nabob of narcotics. But if you want a cathedral with a past, make for the mountains. The second great building in the Medellín see was founded on a prime slice of real estate overlooking Parque de Bolivar. Actually, ‘La Catedral’, as it’s known, isn’t a cathedral at all. Or if it is, then only in the same way that the expression ‘at Her Majesty’s Pleasure’ refers to a royal palace. The title was conferred by the people of Medellín on the soaring jail in which Escobar served his debt to society, until six years ago, when he got fed up and escaped. Presumably, this had nothing to do with the layout of the place, about which the principal inmate himself had been consulted. The one generally available guidebook to Colombia – published by Lonely Planet – describes La Catedral as ‘a huge hotel complex with sports facilities including football ground and swimming pool, all surrounded by barbed-wire fences and several guard towers. There is a marvellous view over the Aburra valley.’’‘

Diary: a 17-year-old murder victim

Stephen Smith, 5 February 1998

The evening paper was leading with the police calling in a ‘Cracker-style’ forensic psychologist to help them solve the case. There was a poster with the same headline for the newsstands, which was a banker of a shot for us. But the vendor we approached wouldn’t bark his wares for the camera. He was probably on the dole, according to a passing policeman. That was all this affair needed, I thought. As if the story of a slashed corpse in a seaside resort wasn’t already like something out of Brighton Rock, here was a nervous newsman to set alongside Hale of the Messenger, with his ‘inky fingers and his bitten nails’.‘

Diary: In Havana

Stephen Smith, 16 October 1997

Cubans like to say that their impoverished country is a land of miracles. How many people can pack onto a bus? Only God knows. The same irony was there on the road to the Church of St Lazarus at Rincón. The pilgrims had set out on their trek to the church for the saint’s feast-day as perfectly able-bodied men and women, but were inviting disability by grinding themselves against the blacktop for mile after mile. ‘Some of them mix up St Lazarus with a god called Babalú-Ayé,’ said Sister Rita Llanza tolerantly. It was a mix-up typical of Santería, Cuban voodoo, a profane marriage of the Catholicism imported by the Spanish and the faith of West African slaves. Adherents of Santería believed that Babalú-Ayé would look down on their prostration and find it pleasing. Sister Rita wasn’t in the least put out by the Scriptural inaccuracies of the pilgrims, accepting their candles across the altar rail in exchange for a cheaply printed parish newsletter. Wasn’t it a cardinal rule of Santería that initiates must first have been baptised? The Church in Cuba, for so many years oppressed, welcomed sinners wherever it could find them. ‘And you: I suppose you are Episcopalian?’ Sister Rita asked me. A fat bald man was standing at the door of the church, holding his hand out and intoning in a funny high voice: ‘Could you give me something because I cannot see?’ I’m sure the sister wouldn’t have minded, that she would perhaps have looked on me as a challenge, but I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I was a Santería man myself, a Santero, or rather that I was part of the way down the road to initiation, a chicken having been sacrificed over my head in a comical ceremony in a bloodstained chapel.

Last Stand

Stephen Smith, 8 May 1997

Reporting on the Liverpool dock-workers’ dispute in its early days, I was billeted in Wigan. It was December 1995, and an international football match was being played at Anfield. There were no rooms to be had on Merseyside that night. Had I been by myself, I would have turned up on the doorstep of my aunt’s house in Wallasey, which is a mile or two from the docks, but she couldn’t put up an entire television crew. So we made increasingly wide orbits of Liverpool by car before fetching up at a family establishment in darkest Lancashire. I was curious to see how far accommodation for the footloose investigator had come on since George Orwell laid his hat at the noisome tripe shop and lodging-house where we encounter him at the beginning of The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell was sharing with three others and had to sleep with his legs doubled up to avoid kicking his neighbour. I had a room to myself – the hotel’s somewhat unlikely conference room, such was the shortage of digs – and my only worry was the possibility of collapsing the campbed I had been given. Orwell was disturbed at five in the morning when his roommate, Mr Reilly, got up to go to his job as a colliery mechanic. My sleep was interrupted by a lamp which burnt brightly all night long: it was intended to light the way to a fire-escape for conference-goers, and no means could be found of switching it off.’

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