Losing it

Jeremy Taylor remembers the Caribbean Beat editor who went to Venezuela and lost his pants

Illustration by James Hackett

One thing about running a magazine: you have to be careful not to lose things. Your content, your judgement, your pants — hang on to them carefully.

We had an editor, for example, who lost his pants in Venezuela.

It’s not easy doing business in Venezuela. Thanks to colonial history, the English and Hispanic Caribbean are different worlds. So one year we sent an editor on a flag-waving trip to Caracas, to meet the minister and the director of tourism, enjoy a refamiliarisation tour with the Tourist Board, and generally to oil the wheels of international conviviality. It was our hope that some advertising bookings might result.

Dressed fashionably in jeans and sneakers, our editor enjoyed the early-morning BWIA flight to the Venezuelan capital, which closely followed the “Spanish Main”, the northern coast of South America. He laid his carefully wrapped editorial suit on the overhead rack. At the airport, he was whisked through the formalities by the Tourist Board and driven straight to his hotel to change before meeting the minister. At this point he realised that his suit was still on the overhead rack, and the plane was already on its way back to Port of Spain.

Knowing how smartly and formally Hispanic officials like to dress, he knew there was no way he could confront the Venezuelan minister for tourism dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a bright purple t-shirt which said MAKE WAY FOR A TRINI on the front.

He consulted the Tourist Board guide. Was there time to go and buy some clothes? (No, no, the minister was waiting.) Erm, would the minister mind if he came as he was? (Yes, the minister would be shocked — he was expecting to see a senior bilingual editor in a suit, not a happy backpacker.)

So our editor threw himself upon the mercy of the guide. What could be done? The guide was horrified. “You come all this way without pantalones?” She made an urgent call on her  mobile phone. Then she said sweetly, “I am so sorry, the minister has been regrettably postponed, he is transmitting to Margarita instantly, he will return next week, are you able to stay so long, probably not?” She was not seen again.

We did retrieve that situation, and mutual dignity was restored. But the editorial suit was never recovered. We still scan business travellers at the airport carefully, but there has never been a sighting of The Suit.

A couple of times, we even lost the magazine. Because of its unusual shape (slightly narrower and taller than US magazines), Caribbean Beat is printed in the UK, with all the materials shipped in a large box. The fate of this box is always worrying. Sometimes the British customs service, convinced that all packages from the Caribbean contain things which they should not contain, impound the box and examine its contents at their leisure, searching for traces of criminal intent among the innocent photos and CDs. Printers’ deadlines, we soon discovered, do not distract the dedicated officers of Her Majesty’s Customs from their duty.

But at least they always release the box eventually. When the box disappears altogether, the real crisis starts. Once it turned up mysteriously in Boston many weeks later, after we had desperately reconstructed the entire magazine. Once it was discovered in the deep recesses of a Heathrow airport cargo shed under a mountain of unclaimed freight. Another time it was found on the tarmac of the ramp where aircraft are parked. Nobody ever found out how it got there.

BWIA, to its eternal credit, has always given us a free hand to develop Caribbean Beat as a magazine about Caribbean life and culture. But there was a tense moment when we published a photo essay on Jamaican dancehall. If you have ever seen good down-to-earth dancehall in Kingston, you will understand. Even within the confines of a still photo, a serious dancehall dancer is expected to be — well, creatively provocative; and our models were only too eager to oblige. Our photographer went weak at the knees. Perhaps we let our enthusiasm for cultural authenticity run away with us, and for one moment lost our sense of decorum.

When the feature was published, a message came from the higher reaches of BWIA. Would we be so kind, it enquired, as to remember that Caribbean Beat is a family magazine?

Oh, the shame and embarrassment. Though I seem to remember that that issue became a collector’s item.