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Diary: John Wall

07 February 2020


Away from it all

MY HOLIDAY companion was sitting happily on our verandah, reading the latest book in Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth saga, when she heard the shots ring out — five of them; although, later, our neighbour said that there were between nine and 11. I was obliviously doing what I normally do in Barbados at 8.20 in the morning — beach-combing for sea glass — when I heard the sirens of the police cars blaring. I thought idly that it was early for such activities, and blithely carried on paddling in the waves as they rippled in the morning sunshine.

When I headed back, half an hour later, the apartment block we were staying in was cordoned off, the road sealed with yellow “crime-scene” tape, and with strategically placed policemen on guard. One of them told me that there had been a shooting, and that I couldn’t get back in directly. I had to walk the long way round — through the grounds of the church primary school next door (safeguarding would never allow that in England) — to get back to home and my relieved companion.

We looked at the news online. A 38-year-old, Marlon Holder (his surname presumably taken from the plantation “Holders”, from which his forebears were liberated), had been dropping off his six-year-old son at the school, with a woman in the car seat next to him. A man had appeared and shot him at point-blank range through the car door and window, then vanished. The white, bullet-riddled car was left marooned in the middle of the road, forensic officers buzzing around it, immediately by our gate, just 20 metres from our apartment. An “execution”, the Barbadian Attorney-General later called it, in his statement.

My companion heard a woman screaming hysterically, and saw her being comforted by a man in uniform.

No man is an island

IN CHURCH three days later, the sermon included an oblique reference to the shooting as being part of the darkness in which, and against which, we as the Church need to shine as a light; the prayers, too, contained a reference to those caught up in violence. I talked to the Rector afterwards about the incident. She called it “stupid”: doing such a thing in broad daylight, next to a school. “We can’t just let this happen and do nothing,” she said. A colleague of hers had been in to the school in the afternoon to comfort the children, as she had done with her own church primary school.

A statement from Marlon’s father, Emerald Holder, offered pause for thought. “I must confess that — as President of the YMCA, where gun violence is one of our challenges — to find that I am faced with the same challenge that we as an organisation is trying to curtail . . . this is not an easy feeling.”

It was strange, reflecting on all this on subsequent days, lifting up Marlon, his family, and the community in my thoughts as I sat in the sunshine, listening to the sea while saying Morning Prayer. Barbados has always felt laid-back and incredibly safe. For tourists like us, I think it still is. Across the Caribbean, according to a local potter we met, violence is increasing — as in so many parts of the world. As the parish priest said, “We can’t just let this happen and do nothing.” But, apart from praying, one wonders what?

Fisherman’s friends

THE first thing on my agenda after my return is the funeral of Jim the Fish. This is not a reference to a “Guys and Dolls” type of local gangster (though in my Brighton days it could well have been). For getting on for 60 years, in the village of Isfield where I am Rector, James Smith — known invariably as Jim the Fish — had cared for the River Ouse; for many of those years, he acted as Water Bailiff for the angling club. No one knew the river as well as he: its moods (capricious), its fish (sea trout), its stories (to the dismay of local residents, he once had to look for a lost alligator).

Many people in Isfield could be described as “local characters” (I fear the Rector is turning into one), but, in his tweeds and matching trilby, Jim was one of the most recognisable; from the appropriately named Laughing Fish pub to the Bonfire Society, he was genuinely and greatly respected and loved. Everybody knew Jim the Fish, and his passing is a real community event — literally. He had no immediate family, and so the village is pulling together to sort it all, from the service and tributes to the bun-fight in the village hall afterwards

Going out on a high

IT REMINDS me of another Isfield funeral I took, a few months ago, for a farmhand, who had worked the same farm from his teens to his nineties. The coffin arrived on a trailer pulled by the farmer (whose mother I had buried a few months earlier). The spectacular floral tribute was actually made of vegetables; in the church, instead of trestles to support the coffin, there were bales of hay. It was almost like burying Joe Grundy.

The church was packed, as it had been for his wife, who had died some six months before him. We exited her funeral to the strains of “The hills are alive with the sound of music.” A frustrated singer and performer, she had loved this song, and used to sing it at full throttle. So, in tribute to her, as we went out and through the churchyard to the graveside, I carried on singing loudly — right to the high note at the end. Which was novel, to say the least.


MARLON in Barbados and Jim in Isfield: you couldn’t get more different people; but in their own — very different — ways their passing has sent shock waves rippling through their communities and around the people who loved them. What do we do in the face of death? What we always do: in the words of the celebrated Second World War poster, we “Keep Calm and Carry On”.

Maybe next year we’ll try St Lucia.

The Revd John Wall is Rector of the Uckfield Plurality in East Sussex.

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