March 8, 2006
JC Memories: How I Became Herbert Spliffington, Esq.
About thirty-seven years ago after I passed the Common Entrance Exams and won a scholarship to Jamaica College (which I tell my children was like attending Hogwart’s, but without the magic), I landed in Murray House with Keith “Doghead” Brown and Eroll “Macky D” McDonald. Both of them decided that I needed a nickname because so many people mispronounced my last name, Philp, by calling me Phillip or Phillips.
They had tried many names, but none ever stuck for long. They’d even tried “Satchmo” because in the grand Jamaica College tradition, all first form boys if asked to sing a song by any boy in a form above them, would have to, upon pain of candle greasing or any other torture that the boys in the upper school could devise, sing a song. I made the process into a joke and sang “Hello, Dolly” by Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. So, for a while, I was known as “Satchmo”. But for Macky D and Doghead this was not enough.
But then, we were given an assignment by our history teacher to write an essay and draw a map of an imaginary island in the Caribbean while using what we had learned about the Arawaks and Caribs. If I remember correctly, I was bored with the assignment, and by then, my fascination with Rastas was already beginning to grow. I drew my island in the shape of a Rastaman in profile (like the back cover of Bob Marley's, Burnin’) and my island had the Arawaks and Caribs fishing in the Herbific Ocean, planting cassava on the Ganja Plains under Splifftiferous Mountains. (I was not smoking the weed. My Seventh day Adventist/Jehovah’s Witness mother would have disowned me.) My history teacher was not amused. At least, not publicly. She gave me a “D."
Doghead and Macky D loved it and dubbed me, Herbert Spliffington, Esq. The name caught on like wildfire, and soon Jimmy Carnegie, Assistant Principal of JC, was calling me “Herbie”. When I began playing football, I began to be known as “Little Herbs,” so I would not be confused with our star forward, Herbie Nelson. Of course, this led to other complications when Rasta became popular in Jamaica and some began calling me, JahGeoff, in true Twelve Tribes of Israel style. The only person who resisted calling me all these names was Alvin “Seeco” Patterson, who insisted that my true-true name was “Brown Man” and never called me anything else when we used to play football down at Island House. Of course, this all became fodder for my novel, Benjamin, My Son and the protagonist's quest for identity.
My football friends, however, remained with the name, “Herbert Spliffington,” and sometimes young ladies called my house and asked to speak with “Herbert Phillips”. My mother hung up the phone on them. She didn’t know any Herbert Phillips, or Herbie. She had named her son, Geoffrey.
She should have heard what my domino playing friends were calling me.