The Literary Scene
Bermuda has long been a haven for writers, and has figured in many works of literature, beginning with Shakespeare's The Tempest. Shakespeare never visited the island himself but was inspired to set his play here by accounts he had read or heard of the island.
The Irish poet Thomas Moore (1779-1852), who visited Bermuda for several months in 1804, was moved by its beauty to write:
Oh! could you view the scenery dear
That now beneath my window lies.
Moore left more memories -- literary and romantic -- than any other writer who came to Bermuda. He once stayed at Hill Crest Guest House in St. George's (now called Aunt Nea’s Inn) and soon became enamored of Nea Tucker, the adolescent bride of one of the most prominent men in town. "Sweet Nea! Let us roam no more," he once wrote of his beloved.
It's said that the lovesick poet would gaze for hours upon Nea's veranda, hoping that she'd appear. One day a jealous Mr. Tucker could tolerate this no more and banished the poet from his property. Moore was chased down a street that now bears the name Nea's Alley to commemorate his unrequited romance.
Today, one of the most popular restaurants in Bermuda is Tom Moore's Tavern. The building was once the home of Samuel Trott, who constructed it in the 17th century. Unlike Tucker, the descendants of Samuel Trott befriended Moore, who often visited the house. Moore immortalized the calabash tree on the Trott estate in his writing; he liked to sit under it and write his verse there.
Following in Moore's footsteps, many famous writers visited Bermuda in later years. None, however, have left their mark on the island like Tom Moore.
For Americans, it was Mark Twain who helped make Bermuda a popular tourist destination. He published his impressions in the Atlantic Monthly in 1877 through 1878, and in his first book, The Innocents Abroad. He became so enchanted by the island that, as he wrote many years later to a correspondent, he would happily choose it over heaven.
After Twain, Eugene O'Neill came to Bermuda in 1924, and returned several more times, at least through 1927. While here, he worked on The Great God Brown, Lazarus Laughed, and Strange Interlude. O'Neill was convinced that cold weather adversely affected his ability to write. He thought that Bermuda would "cure" him of alcoholism. At first, O'Neill and his family rented cottages on what is now Coral Beach Club property. Later, O'Neill bought the house "Spithead," in Warwick. In 1927, however, his marriage ended, and O'Neill left his family -- and Bermuda.
During the 1930s, several eminent writers made their way to Bermuda, in hopes of finding idyllic surroundings and perhaps a little inspiration: Sinclair Lewis, who spent all his time cycling around "this gorgeous island"; Hervey Allen, who wrote Anthony Adverse, his best-selling novel, at Felicity Hall in Somerset; and James Ramsey Ullman, who wrote The White Tower on the island. James Thurber also made several visits to Bermuda during this time.
In 1956, Noël Coward came with his longtime companion, Graham Payn, to escape "the monstrously unjust tax situation in England." He was not, he said, "really mad about the place," yet he purchased "Spithead" in Warwick (O'Neill's former home) and stayed some 2 years, working on London Mornings, his only ballet, and the musical Sail Away. "Spithead" is now privately owned.
Other well-known authors who visited Bermuda over the years include Rudyard Kipling, C. S. Forester, Hugh Walpole, Edna Ferber, Anita Loos, John O'Hara, E. B. White, and Philip Wylie.
Bermuda's own writers include William S. Zuill -- a former director of the Bermuda National Trust who wrote The Story of Bermuda and Her People, an excellent historical account -- and Nellie Musson, Frank Manning, Eva Hodgson, and Dale Butler, who have written about the lives of African Bermudians.
Royalty Comes to "Shangri-La" -- The Irish poet Thomas Moore and the American humorist Mark Twain publicized the glories of Bermuda, but -- for the British, at least -- the woman who put Bermuda on the tourist map was Princess Louise. The daughter of Queen Victoria, she spent several months in Bermuda in 1883. Her husband was the governor-general of Canada, so she traveled to Bermuda to escape the fierce northern cold. Although Bermuda hosted many royal visitors in the 20th century, including Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Louise was the first royal personage to set foot in the colony. When she returned to Canada, she told reporters that she'd found the Shangri-La of tourist destinations.
Most of the books listed below have been printed in Bermuda. Thus, while they're readily available on the island, they may be hard to find in the United States and elsewhere.
The Mysterious Bermuda Triangle -- Many writers have attempted to explain the Bermuda Triangle. None has sufficiently done so yet, but all of these books make good reads for those of us intrigued by this tantalizing mystery.
The best of the lot is The Bermuda Triangle Mystery Solved (Prometheus Books) by Larry Kusche. It's a good read even though it doesn't actually "solve" the mystery. A mass-market paperback, Atlantis: Bermuda Triangle (Berkley Publishing Group), by Greg Donegan, also digs into the puzzle; as does another paperback, The Mystery of the Bermuda Triangle (Heineman Library), by Chris Oxlade.
Art & Architecture -- For Bermuda style, both inside the house and outside, two books lead the pack: Bermuda Antique Furniture and Silver, published by Bermuda National Trust; and Architecture Bermuda Style, by David R. Raine, issued by Pompano Publications.
Divers, Hikers & Shipwrecks -- Daniel Berg has written the finest book on the shipwrecks of Bermuda -- a great choice for a diver to read before actually going under the water. It's called Bermuda Shipwrecks: A Vacationing Diver's Guide to Bermuda's Shipwrecks (Aqua Explorers).
Divers might also like to pick up a copy of Marine Fauna and Flora of Bermuda (Wiley Publishing, Inc.), edited by Wolfgang Sterrer. Another good book for divers is Diving Bermuda (Aqua Quest Publications), part of the Aqua Quest Diving Series, this one authored by Jesse Concelmo and Michael Strohofer. Its second edition is the most up-to-date of all the sports guides to Bermuda.
History -- In Bermuda's bookstores, you can find several books devoted to the colorful history of the island. Making for the best reads are the following titles: The Rich Papers -- Letters from Bermuda by Vernon A. Ives (Bermuda National Trust and the University of Toronto Press); Biography of a Colonial Town by Jean de Chantal Kennedy (Bermuda Bookstores Publisher); A Life on Old St. David's by Ernest A. McCallan (Bermuda Historical Society); Chained on the Rock: Slavery in Bermuda by Cyril O. Packwood (Baxters); and Bermuda's Story by Terry Tucker (Bermuda Bookstores Publisher).
Flora & Fauna -- If you're a devotee of Mother Nature, seek out Bermuda Houses and Gardens by Ann B. Brown and Jean Outerbridge (Garden Club of Bermuda); Bermuda: Her Plants and Gardens 1609-1850 by Jill Collett (Macmillan Caribbean); and A Guide to the Reef, Shore, and Game Fish of Bermuda (self-published) by Louis S. Mowbray.
Fiction -- One of the most sensitive portraits, capturing Bermuda of long ago, is The Back Yard by Ann Z. Williams (Macmillan), an account of growing up in Bermuda in the 1930s and '40s.
Film buffs may be surprised to discover that Bermuda has an indirect link to the movie The Wizard of Oz -- Denslow's Island.
The privately owned island is named after W. W. Denslow, who created the original illustrations for the book on which the movie is based, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) by L. Frank Baum, and thus with his pen gave form to many of the characters depicted on the screen. Denslow lived in Bermuda at the turn of the 20th century. The island, however, despite its famous association, is off limits to visitors.
Several films were shot in and around Bermuda. The most famous is The Deep (1977), starring Jacqueline Bisset, Nick Nolte, Robert Shaw, and Louis Gossett, Jr., a visually arresting movie about a lost treasure and drugs and, of course, scuba diving off the island's coast. For one of the scenes, a lighthouse near the Grotto Bay Beach Hotel and Tennis Club was blown up.
A movie that was filmed partly in Bermuda is Chapter Two (1979), with James Caan and Marsha Mason. Based on the successful Broadway play by Neil Simon, it is the story of a playwright's bumpy romance soon after the death of his wife. The Bermuda scenes were shot at Marley Beach Cottages.
Several television shows have been filmed on the island. Most watched was the ABC reality show The Bachelorette in 2012 and two live episodes of NBC’s Kathie Lee & Hoda filmed in 2017. Bermuda was also featured in a 12-part documentary-style PBS series called Ocean Vet, which followed the late veterinarian Dr. Neil Burnie as he explored the island’s marine creatures in 2014.
Modern Bermudian music, which you can hear occasionally in hotel lounges, is a blend of traditional folk tunes with sounds from Jamaica, Trinidad, and Puerto Rico, as well as the United States and Britain. However, these aren’t the sounds you’ll predominantly hear: As elsewhere, American and British rock, modified by local rhythms, has proved the strongest and most lasting influence.
Despite new pop forms, Bermuda is proud of its original musical idioms. Gombey dancing is the island’s premier folk art. Gombey (commonly pronounced goom-bee or gom-bay) combines West Africa’s tribal heritage with the Native American and British colonial influences of the New World. African Caribbeans brought to Bermuda as slaves or convicts introduced the tradition, and its rhythms are similar to Brazilian street samba. Gombey dancers are almost always male; in accordance with tradition, men pass on the rhythms and dance techniques from generation to generation in their family. Dancers outfit themselves in masquerade costumes, whose outlandish lines and glittering colors evoke the brilliant plumage of tropical birds.
Gombey (spelled “goombay” in some other places, such as The Bahamas) signifies a specific type of African drum, as well as the Bantu word for “rhythm.” These rhythms escalate into an ever faster and more hypnotic beat as the movements of the dancers become increasingly uninhibited, and the response of the spectators grows ever more fervent. The most strenuous dances are usually performed during the Christmas season.
Although gombey dancing, with its local rituals and ceremonies, can be seen as one of Bermuda’s major cultural contributions, it’s not unique to the island. Variations are found elsewhere in the western Atlantic, as well as in the Caribbean. Indeed, during its development, Bermuda’s gombey dancing was significantly influenced by some of these other versions. In colonial times, for example, when African Caribbeans were brought to Bermuda as slaves or convicts to help build the British military installations on the island, they carried with them their own gombey traditions, which eventually combined with those that had already taken root in Bermuda. What’s unique about the Bermudian version of gombey, however, is its use of the British snare drum, played with wooden sticks, as an accompaniment to the dancing.
A handful of gombey recordings are available, enabling you to hear this African-based music, with its rhythmic chanting and rapid drumbeat. Among the recordings, the album Strictly Gombey Music, performed by four members of the Pickles Spencer Gombey Group, offers a good selection of gombey dances.
Aficionados of this art form, however, will argue that gombey’s allure lies not so much in the music as in the feverish—almost trancelike—dancing that accompanies it, as well as in the colorful costumes of the dancers. For that reason, they say, audio recordings can’t convey the full mesmerizing power of a gombey dance the way a visual recording can. So, while you’re in Bermuda, consider filming a gombey dance to show when you get back home.
THE BALLADEER TRADITION
Bermuda also has a strong balladeer tradition. Although its exponents are fewer than they used to be, local balladeers continue to enjoy considerable popularity among islanders and visitors alike. A wry, self-deprecating humor has always distinguished their compositions, and balladeers can strum a song for any occasion on their guitars. Today, many of their songs have to do with Bermuda’s changing way of life.
By virtually everyone’s estimate, the musical patriarch of Bermuda was Hubert Smith, who was the island’s official greeter in song. A balladeer of formidable talent and originality, Smith composed and performed songs for the visits of nearly all the foreign heads of state who graced Bermuda’s shores in recent memory. His performances for members of the British royal family included one of the most famous songs ever written about the island: Bermuda Is Another World. The song is now the island’s unofficial national anthem; it’s included in the best-selling album Bermuda Is Another World.
In the 1970s and 1980s, calypso was king in Bermuda, which is why you can still find CDs featuring beloved local artists like The Bermuda Strollers, Jay Fox, Stan Seymour, and The Talbot Brothers for sale in the Music Box on Reid Street (58 Reid St.; tel. 441/295-4839). These days, its best to tune into music streaming services like Spotify if you’d rather listen to some of the island’s most well-known artists. The biggest of the bunch is dance hall reggae singer Collie Buddz, whose top hits Come Around and Blind to You have been streamed nearly 60 million times combined. Mishka is another acclaimed reggae singer from Bermuda. His style is decidedly more mellow and his following smaller, but Above the Bones and Give Them Love are still well worth a listen. His sister, a singer-songwriter named Heather Nova, is another Bermudian artist whose music can be heard on Spotify.
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