Perry Henzell — Fire in the belly

I’ve just heard that Perry Henzell died this morning. I spoke to his wife, Sally, only a few days ago when we were staying at her hotel, Jake’s, in St Elizabeth. I asked her where Perry was and she pointed over her shoulder, “He’s up there in the house right on top of the hill.” He died there today.

I was due to begin work on his novel, Cane, tomorrow.

My collaboration with Perry was an odd thing from the start. I read Cane last year and was staggered by the horrendous editing that left paragraph after paragraph without punctuation, that mixed fonts and layout styles at will, and had the most incredible typos and linguistic howlers. I was literally about to write a blog piece about it, entitled, “The worst novel ever published”, when I thought I’d try sending an e-mail to Perry. After all, how could I attack the man who had made one of the most influential movies of my teenage years?

Ninety minutes later I had a reply in which he admitted numerous problems with getting the novel in shape, and then promptly invited me to work on it.

I immediately accepted, but the project was limited to e-mail exchanges while he was busy preparing the premiere of the musical of The Harder They Come in London. We finally met up on the north coast of Jamaica, above Runaway Bay, at his house called Itopia. Both he and Sally had tried to give me directions but I ended up bumping along dirt tracks in the high hills, overlooking the multistorey wedding-cake mansions of local drug barons. After a good hour I passed through the stone columns of an old estate archway and was almost immediately brought to a halt by a felled tree across the road.

I left my car there, climbed over the tree, and waited for Sally to pick me up and drive the last half mile to their 17th century home. It is a remarkable place: made of thick stone and with high sloping ceilings, inside it is cool and shaded. Seeming centuries of pale coloured paint covers the walls in peeling patches and every flat surface is covered by a book, a picture or some other curio.

Perry appeared, grinning through his grey bushy beard, an obviously shrunken man, having battled bone cancer for several years and now supported by an upper body brace which seemed to cause him some discomfort. From time to time he would remove it, as if to free himself of the reminder of his frailty.

“Anything to drink,” he asked, “or smoke?” A Red Stripe was duly called for, repeatedly and loudly. Then we chatted, and I imagined taking a photo of him as he leaned back in his chair, the warm light streaming through the high window, his hands accompanying his words, enthusiastic and brimming with ideas. A stream of ideas. A revitalized publishing house to foster local talent without having to beg and compromise with foreign corporations who understood little and cared even less for Caribbean culture. A dynamic film studio “for good people, only really good people”.

It was clear that he needed another thirty years to accomplish his dreams; after all, he, more than most film-makers and writers, knew what a hard slog it could be to get your work known, without a big backer or a stroke of luck. Perry had had neither. If The Harder They Come was the success it was, it was down to his indefatigable, globe-trotting efforts to get it distributed. And so his great ambitions at 70 years old might have sounded like the voice of a man who had failed to live up to expectations, but in fact they were the product of a drive and energy that was not bound by age or physical weakness — his ambitions were as inspiring and infectious as those of a young man.

We sat there for an hour or two and I learned a little of his colourful life. I praised his first novel, Power Game, and he grabbed it from my hands to sign. “It’s the best work I’ve done,” he said, but he was disgusted by the cover of my German-printed edition. “What the hell is that supposed to be?” he asked, jabbing at the oblong blob on the dust jacket. “Rudie!” he called to his wife, “What the hell is that?!” We all peered at the shape. “Is it Jamaica?” I suggested, but Sally saw a spliff. “A spliff for christ’s sake!” Perry wailed. Could they not come up with anything else for a book set in Jamaica? He stormed off to the other end of the room to look for a sticker to put across the offending blob, but failed to find one.

He showed me his study in one of the outhouses. It was dark and dusty and would not have looked very different a hundred years earlier: there was no phone, no computer, not even a typewriter; only rows of very foxed books and yellowing papers covered in Perry’s longhand.

We ate lunch under the bower in the garden and the conversation quickly turned to politics and religion. Perry blasted the establishment (“those fuckers!”) and shook his head at the contradiction of intelligent people believing in god. His own belief was of the permanence of physical particles, that they were formed and re-formed ad infinitum. It was a rational, humble and calming view of the universe and his place in it, and, sitting at the wooden table in the shade of a tree, it made perfect sense.

We talked books too, of course, and when I mentioned reading Thomas Thistlewood’s diary of a slaveowner, Perry stopped on the steps to the house and shook his head at the sadism described in the book. “My family were slaveowners, in Barbados,” he tried to explain, “And I can’t imagine any of them behaving like that!”

By the time he drove me back to my car, his handymen had cut away the tree with their machetes.

After that we continued to e-mail from time to time, as he shuttled around the world, proving that his ambitions were neither hot air nor an old man’s regrets. This summer, the follow-up to The Harder They Come, a film called No Place Like Home, whose only print was long thought to have been lost in a fire in New York, finally had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Perry once explained that The Harder They Come was the first part of a trilogy describing the clash of cultures in Jamaica. The story of Jimmy Cliff coming to Kingston to seek fame represented the country coming to town. In No Place Like Home, the town, represented by an American visitor, goes to the country. The final part, Power Game, was the confrontation between the authority of the city and the values of the country.

I met Perry last month here in Kingston. He looked no physically frailer, but seemed less engaged in the present. He talked of going to Paris at 14, without his parents knowing where he was. He strode around the streets, with an answer ready for anyone who asked why he was there: “Because I’m a writer!” he planned to say. Fire in the belly. That was a phrase we used a lot when we talked. And then we were interrupted by loud shouts from the building site of the new American Embassy behind the house. The shouts were violent and prolonged. “It must be the cricket,” I suggested, having passed the compound security guard with his ear close to the radio commentary of the test match against India. At the sound of the cries, Perry’s eyes sparkled and he grasped the air excitedly. “The vitality! That vitality you will hear nowhere else! And in a few more years it will be gone,” he added, nodding sadly.

2 thoughts on “Perry Henzell — Fire in the belly”

  1. This blog should be renamed ‘the bus stop’ – nothing for ages then two or three come along at once! Thank you for this post, and the last. Evocative, fascinating, poignant.

  2. This is a lovely memory of Perry Henzel. You were lucky to have met him.

    I bought Cane about 2 christmas seasons ago, and I still havent finished reading it yet. I couldnt figure out why I was turned off until now, I do hope you will stil edit it, becasue it seemed like a story with potential.

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