I was looking through a selection of quotes recently on what books mean to their readers, and as you can imagine, there are countless opinions on the value of a good read. Usually, it means the pleasure that the reader takes from the book; but there are occasions when the story, or its contents, trigger a memory, perhaps of an event long past.
As the following quotes say:
The worth of a book is to be measured by what you can carry away from it. James Pryce
One glance at a book and you hear of another person, perhaps someone dead for 1,000 years. To read is to voyage through time. Carl Sagan
For me, one such book is The Life and Times of Harry Oakes by Geoffrey Bocca (shown in the photograph). It’s an old copy, published in 1959, that I bought in a Toronto bookshop over 40 years ago. It holds a very special memory, one based on a journey I made across Canada and the USA, before ending up in the Bahamas capital, Nassau.
The book is about the murder in 1943 of Sir Harry Oakes, the American-born multi-millionaire who moved to the Bahamas and became a British citizen. He had made his fortune through the discovery of one of the richest gold mines in Canada: The Lake Shore Mine. Probably one of the richest in the Americas.
During my stay in Nassau, I spent some of my time exploring New Providence. It’s a small island with a stunning coastline and hotels dotted along its beautiful beaches. I used to go for an early morning run on the beach near the Emerald Beach and Nassau Beach Hotels, and it was on one of these runs I struck up a friendship with one of the hotel managers. His name was Mr Chapman, and I learned a little of the history of the island from him, including the story of the brutal Oakes murder in the millionaire’s Westbourne residence.
The famous murder trial in which Oakes’ son-in-law, Count Alfred de Marigny, was accused of the crime, commanded worldwide interest at the time, but he was found not guilty. Much has been written about it, especially as the case was never solved.
Long after I left the Bahamas and returned to Ireland, I would sometimes reread the book and reflect on my time there. But it was on a very special day, that the story came flooding back.
The occasion was my wedding in Montego Bay, another famous island beach in Jamaica, nearly ten years later. On a day when my wife and I were exploring which restaurant we might dine in that evening, we came across The Diplomat, which gave the impression of being a very exclusive venue. As we stood admiring the building and its surroundings, we were approached by a man I thought I recognised.
It was Mr Chapman, the hotel manager from Nassau! We hadn’t spoken or been in contact since that time, but we knew each other straightaway. He explained that the restaurant was a private venture by a millionaire businessman who actually lived there, and he had been engaged to manage it. He confirmed it was, indeed, exclusive, and usually booked out weeks in advance, but when he heard we were on our honeymoon, he very quickly arranged for us to come that evening.
I remember it all very well. As Vi and I walked into the Diplomat’s palatial reception area, we were greeted by soft music played on a glistening, white, grand piano, which set the stage for the rest of the night. Mr Chapman had arranged a balcony table, with a stunning view of Jamaica’s Blue Mountain Range. Which, later that evening, was the scene of an unforgettable lightning show across the mountains. Although, I don’t think he managed to arrange that.
It was a wonderful evening, later spent in his private office, where we recalled the Oakes murder and many other stories he used to tell; and my own travels after leaving Nassau.
I think of those days with great affection, but it’s the book and its brown-tinted pages that maintain the link with those halcyon days on the islands.