Author Archives: Robert Ryan

About Robert Ryan

Author and Journalist

Hero, smuggler, mercenary, adventurer: the real Zumbach

 

Almost five years ago now I was asked to appraise a movie script that told the story of the Polish pilots who had fought in the RAF during the Battle of Britain and beyond. I knew the vague outline of the story: the Polish flyers were overwhelmed by the better equipped Luftwaffe on home turf, escaped to France to continue the fight and, when France capitulated, made their way to England, where, despite their abilities, they were left to cool their heels. Only in the darkest hour of the Battle of Britain were they finally unleashed on the Germans, and proved themselves formidable opponents. In fact, 303 Squadron, the first of the “foreign” RAF units, became the highest scoring squadron in the Battle of Britain, although the British public, who in 1940 feted and idolised the Poles, and the government turned out to have very short memories once peace came.

The script told the story well enough, although I had one significant reservation. The squadron featured never existed and characters were amalgams of real people. Now that might have worked with a story like 633 Squadron, where everything apart from the Mosquitoes is fictitious, but this was a slice of history important to both the British and the Poles. My instinct was that there must be enough real stories around the actual 303 Squadron and the individuals in it to carry a movie. That’s when I discovered Jan Zumbach.

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Of wealthy Swiss-Polish heritage, Zumbach’s life story was enough to fill several movies. The version of the script that eventually got made only tells the story of Zumbach – played in the new film Hurricane by Game of Thrones actor Iwan Rheon – when he and his fellow Poles were fighting in the skies over England. But there is so much more.

Born not far from Warsaw in 1915, Zumbach’s love for flying was ignited at the age of thirteen when the Polish Air Force put on an acrobatic display close to his sleepy hometown. His mother disapproved of his subsequent ambition to fly, so he enlisted in the army and then requested a transfer to the Air Force. At the age of 23 he was flying (antiquated) PZL fighters in the 111th Squadron and war was coming.

Infuriatingly for him, on the eve on the German invasion in September 1939, Zumbach broke a leg when his plane somersaulted during a night landing after clipping a truck parked across the runway. Hors de combat as Poland crumbled, he made his way to Romania and then to France, where he saw some action, before finally making his way to England, specifically a glum Blackpool.

There, weeks passed in a fug of boredom before, in July 1940, it was announced that a Polish squadron (albeit with British and Canadian commanding officers) was to be formed at RAF Northolt. There was more frustration, however, as the Poles had to endure English lessons and get used to RAF jargon (such as “Angels” for height) as well as conversion to thinking in miles per hour, feet and gallons, before they were allowed to fire a shot in their simmering anger at what was happening to their homeland.

Flying Hurricanes, rather than the more glamorous Spitfires, the Poles nevertheless proved to be tenacious fighters and were often considered positively reckless by their RAF counterparts. In No Greater Ally: The Untold Story of Poland’s Forces in WWII, author Kenneth K. Kosdan states: “Faced with spent ammunition or malfunctioning guns, Polish pilots [in the Battle of Britain] were known to ram enemy bombers, chew off wing tips or tails with their propellers, or maneuver their planes on top of the Germans and physically force them into the ground or English Channel.”

Zumbach himself was awarded eight kills and one probable between August 2 (when 303 became operational) and Oct 31, 1940 (the accepted end of the Battle of Britain). Like many of the Poles, who were often older and more mature than their RAF counterparts, he also found he scored highly with British women, as he revealed in his rather unreliable memoir On Wings of War (credited to “Jean Zumbach”).

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“There was a thick notebook by the bed… it was X’s private diary, a detailed account, with critical commentary, of her love affairs. Even my limited English vocabulary was equal to this kind of subject matter, especially with the clues provided by the names of several members of my squadron. X had awarded them high marks, in contrast to her rather disparaging assessment of her fellow countrymen. By my rapid reckoning, her survey was based on a sample of approximately thirty. Sample thirty-one was delighted when she demonstrated how much her studies had taught here.”

Zumbach, later a Wing Commander, went on to lead 303 Squadron, but it was his post-war activities that set him apart. He, like other Poles who had served the Allies, had reasons to be disappointed in his treatment after VE Day. Thanks to the British government’s desire to appease Stalin, the Polish armed forces were not allowed to march in the Victory Parade in 1948 (some pilots were invited, but refused in solidarity with their banned comrades). And because he wouldn’t take part in any of the resettlement schemes for Poles, Zumbach claims in his memoirs that he was given three days to leave the country he had risked his life for. He reasserted his Swiss identity, gained a passport, and moved to Paris, his sense of justice tainted by the ungrateful attitude of the British authorities.

In the immediate post-war years an enterprising and amoral Zumbach used his newly-formed Flyaway charter company to smuggle diamonds, cigarettes, Swiss watches, gold and people (the latter to Israel) and even, in shades of The Third Man, penicillin (although at least the stuff he transported was genuine). By the late 1950s, however, he had gone more or less legit, running a restaurant and a nightclub in Paris and, as he put it, “getting fat”. Then, in 1962, war came calling again.

The offer was from President Moïse Tshombe of Katanga, which had ceded from the Congo, to put together the fledging country’s airforce, under the cover of an airline known as Air Katanga. It turned out to be a murky, messy and brutal conflict, with Zumbach’s rag-tag of an airforce providing ground support as Katanga battled Congolese and UN troops. Zumbach carried out more than sixty raids, but, outgunned by the UN, which eventually deployed SAAB jets, and out of pocket because of Tshombe’s bounced cheques, he returned to France, where he dealt in second-hand planes. But Africa wasn’t quite finished with him.

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Iwan Rheon as Zumbach

It was another secessionist state that brought him back. In 1967 the Republic of Biafra broke away from Nigeria. War broke out between the Federal Government and the new state in July of that year. One of Biafra’s representative contacted Zumbach and asked if he could find them a bomber. He paid $25,000 for a mothballed Douglas B-26, which he sold on for $80,000 – only later did he find out the middleman charged Biafra £320,000. Zumbach was persuaded to deliver the plane in person and, eventually, to oversee it re-conversion to a bomber, complete with shark’s teeth on the nose like the famous Flying Tiger’s Kittyhawks.

Going by the name “John Brown”, he flew bombing missions for the new Biafran airforce (basically Zumbach and some trainees), destroying several aircraft and a helicopter on the ground, as well as killing a senior Nigerian army commander. This even though most of the “bombs” he used were improvised exploding cooking pots. The Sunday Times picked up the story:

“The first round in the soggy, bogged down civil war of Nigeria has gone to the secessionists of Biafra [thanks to] their judicious or lucky use of their one B-26 bomber.”

But again, Zumbach was on the wrong side and Biafra lost the war and tipped into a horrendous famine. He returned to France and wrote his memoirs and, rumour had it, his dealings in planes and sometimes weapons. His explanation for his colourful life? “Trouble comes naturally to some men, while soft living feels like a hair shirt.”

Jan Zumbach died in 3 January 1986, aged 70, in somewhat mysterious circumstances. The investigation into his death was closed by order of the French authorities without explanation. Maybe “trouble” had finally caught up with him. He was buried at Powązki Military Cemetery in Warsaw, Poland, a hero of 303 Squadron, home at last.

 

Hurricane, co-written by Robert Ryan and directed by BAFTA award winner David Blair, is released on September 7th. Some scenes in the film were shot at the splendidly atmospheric Battle of Britain Bunker (battleofbritainbunker.co.uk) in Uxbridge, which is open to visitors seven days a week and where a Hurricane in Polish RAF colours guards the entrance.

That’s Not A Tiger Tank!

I have heard or read a few things lately questioning the accuracy of war movies. On Radio 4’s Infinite Monkey Cage a member of GCHQ claimed that The Imitation Game (the Benedict Cumberbatch film about Bletchley Park and Enigma) got two things absolutely right: there was a Second World War and Turing’s first name was Alan. In The Times today bestselling historian Antony Beevor, discussing the Arnhem movie A Bridge Too Far, said: “All those war movies are dodgy in some way.”

This is of interest to me because, as the co-writer of the new WW2 film Hurricane, about the Polish pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain and beyond, I am well aware of the compromises with history that have to be made. Let me start by saying the broad brushstrokes of the narrative are absolutely true to life, that in summer 1940 the RAF did reluctantly allow a Polish squadron, 303, to be formed which, flying Mk 1 Hurricanes and not the pin-up Spitfire, managed to chalk up more victories than any other squadron in the Battle of Britain. And that they – in fact all the Polish armed forces – were treated very badly after the war.

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However, some of the details do play a little fast and loose with the facts. There is a scene with gun cameras on 303 Squadron’s planes, when I am fairly sure they weren’t fitted until after the BoB. But gun camera footage always seems very real and visceral on screen, so in they went. The party at the Dorchester celebrating the Poles and their achievements, similarly, did not happen until after the main air battles of 1940 were done, but it was a decent shorthand to show how the Poles were feted by British society at the start of war. The hostess for that party was actually American, but I felt the introduction of a US character without explanation would be confusing.

Although the main players such as Jan Zumbach (Iwan Rheon), Witold “Cobra” Urbanowicz (Marcin Dorociński), Czech flyer Josef Frantisek (Krystof Hádek) and Canadian Johnny Kent (Milo Gibson) were historical figures, some of the supporting characters are fictitious.

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The real 303 (Jan Zumbach, far right) with squadron mascot

One is designed to show the strain of constant air combat suffered by the over-worked pilots (including relying on Benzedrine to stay awake) and he is an amalgam of several individuals (not all of them Polish). Another is a Jewish character (who actually had a larger role in the original script). Although there were no Jewish pilots in 303, there were in some of the RAF’s other Polish squadrons. It seemed OK to move one across.

As in the movie, Josef Frantisek was a lone wolf who went off hunting solo, much to the annoyance of his colleagues. He died when, for reasons unknown, he flew into a hillside – not, having run out of fuel, the White Cliffs of Dover as in the film. But it does look a lot more dramatic.

The two main WAAF women, led by Stefanie Martini, are actually a fusion of four real individuals, with stories based on their memories as young girls thrust into the highly regimented, repressive world of the RAF. The plotting scenes, by the way, were filmed at the Battle of Britain Bunker in Uxbridge, which is a remarkable time capsule. It is open to the public and well worth a visit.

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You might think the Poles’ success with the British women is exaggerated, but there is a persistent story that some RAF pilots sewed “Poland” patches on their tunics and spoke cod-Polish in clubs and bars to try and get some of the attention the foreigners were enjoying. (Sadly, those scenes got cut from the film.)

There are other instances of artistic licence. Appalled by the rag-tag appearance of his new recruits, Squadron Leader Kellett orders uniforms from his tailor, Gieves & Co (as actually happened). When the van turns up, Gieves’ address on the side is given as No 1 Savile Row. In fact, it was Hawkes that were at that address during WW2. Gieves & Hawkes didn’t shack up together at No. 1 until 1974. But the address on the van serves to show how much money Kellett had laid out of his own pocket. Appearances mattered as much to the RAF as the ability to shoot down Germans.

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There is a scene when Zumbach uses his wing to play snooker with an ME-109, ramming the side and sending it crashing to earth. Unlikely? Maybe. Originally I had Zumbach lowering his plane on top of the stricken ME-109, forcing it lower and lower until it clipped the trees. But there is historical basis for these close encounters. In No Greater Ally: The Untold Story of Poland’s Forces in WWII, author Kenneth K. Kosdan states: “Faced with spent ammunition or malfunctioning guns, Polish pilots [in the Battle of Britain] were known to ram enemy bombers, chew off wing tips or tails with their propellers, or maneuver their planes on top of the Germans and physically force them into the ground or English Channel.”

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Marcin Dorociński as “Cobra”

Having been one of those who shout things like “That’s not a Tiger tank!” at the screen for most of my life, I fully expect and probably deserve  lots of flak about the above and more. But, after my experience with Hurricane, I now agree with Antony Beevor, who said in The Times: “You can nitpick your way through them for all the historical inaccuracies, but the trouble is that the needs of the movie industry and the needs of history are totally incompatible.”

And there rests the defence.

 

 * Hurricane is released on September 7th in cinemas and on digital platforms

Double Exposure

 

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Music, particularly jazz music, and photography have long enjoyed a healthy symbiotic relationship. Think of the evocative photographs of Herman Leonard, the bassist and snapper Milt Hinton or William Caxton, images of clubs, patrons and players so powerful you can almost smell the cigarette smoke, hear the splash of a cymbal, the tinkle of highball glasses.

The two art forms have something else in common – a powerful sense of their own history. Everyone who is serious about jazz studies the masters, be it the fiendishly mathematical complexity of Charlie Parker’s be-bop or the lyricism of Bill Evans’ piano. Photographers, too, are drawn back to the great practitioners of the art, the Robert Capas, Lee Millers and Bert Hardys, analyzing and sometimes imitating, until, like musicians, they find their own style.

I recently spoke to drum legend Billy Cobham, whose CV should just say “played with everyone who is anyone in jazz and beyond”, about his lifelong love of the photograph.

“I started shooting seriously in the army, back in ’64. That was my secondary military occupation, after drumming instructor. Then, when I left the army I never really stopped. I did my first album cover for Blue Note, for Horace’s Serenade to a Soul Sister in 1968.” Which meant he was following in the f-stops of Francis Wolff, another legend who shot many of the iconic Blue Note covers. “Absolutely I was. Big shoes to fill. I also did work with Count Basie and Gil Evans.”

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For many years Billy shot with a classic Leica M3, especially while on the road. “With the Mahavishnu Orchestra,” says Billy, “we were touring for two years solid. I’d always get up early the day of a show and I’d walk round town with my camera and I’d be alone. When you are in band doing that many gigs, you are with the guys 24/7 and you need some space. Going out with my Leica helped me gather my wits, my feelings, about how I felt about me that day.’ Not everyone in the band shared his commitment. “John McLaughlin, I think he just used a compact camera for snapshots, while I was there with my Leica with a 150-280mm zoom with all the bells and whistles and he’d look at me like I was out to lunch.”

I first saw Billy Cobham with that band, at an open-air concert at Crystal Palace Bowl. I had never heard or seen anything like it. The guy in white with the twin-necked guitar, he was good, but the drummer was something else. Finding out about him led me to Larry Coryell and then back to Miles Davis and beyond. Billy Cobham sparked my interest in jazz. “So it’s my fault?” he laughs when I tell him this. I also followed his post-Mahavishnu work, including the seminal Spectrum album and his later bands, which sometimes included a young trumpeter from the UK called Guy Barker.

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Billy still takes plenty of photographs, but these days he has embraced pixels. “I made the switch four or five years ago. I’ve retired my M3 and shoot with an M8 or, especially for documentaries like my recent Art of the Rhythm Section Retreat in Arizona, an S Typ 007. Everything I used to do in the darkroom, I can do in the camera now. And I don’t feel like I’ve been sniffing airplane glue for five hours.”

He thinks that photography has a way of enhancing his music . “For me, taking a photograph is like capturing an instant in my life, like a single “cel” in an animation, a frozen moment of my time of this earth. What it also does, it takes my primary mind away from what I am always thinking musically, and gives that part of my brain a rest for a minute while I do something visual. I’m still being creative, but in a different way. Then, when I come back to the music, it has more meaning.”

Billy wouldn’t be drawn on a favourite image, not even given a this-is-the-one-I’d-save-from-a-burning-house challenge. “I’m still exploring,” he insists. Which is true of his music, as you can experience when Billy plays Ronnie Scott’s with the Guy Barker Big Band  from June 25-30th (www.ronniescotts.co.uk).

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From last time at the club… but much the same killer band

I have worked with Guy on the narrative of some of his large-scale compositions and Billy and the Big Band will probably play Guy’s brilliant arrangement of Stratus from the Spectrum album. You’ll recognise the dynamite drum motif, because it was sampled for Massive Attack’s Safe From Harm, which became the title of a novel I co-wrote (as R J Bailey). How many degrees of separation is that?

 

 

First Look

The first “teaser” trailer for the Hurricane, the film about Polish pilots in the Battle of Britain, which I co-write, is out on You Tube. If you wonder why there is an “American” voice all over it, it is because one of the senior officers in 303 Squadron was Johnny Kent, a Canadian, and he is played in the film by Milo Gibson, Mel’s son, below.

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Also in the movie is the famous Polish actor Marcin Dorociński, as Witold “Cobra” Urbanowicz.

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The film is due out before the end of the year.

COMING SOON…

The next Sam Wylde thriller, Nobody Gets Hurt, is out in January. Her nemesis in it has a particularly complex backstory, involving the IRA, ETA and MI5. So, as a companion piece, there is this, available as a free download on the rjbaileybooks.com blog and here sometime in the New Year. Sam isn’t actually in it, apart from a few asides, but it details just how the baddie in NGH got quite so bad.

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Hurricane: Jan Zumbach

This photograph shows actor Iwan Rheon of Marvel’s Inhumans, Misfits, Riviera and another world-conquering mega-series whose name has slipped my mind. As the shoulder flash suggests, he is in character as a pilot in the RAF’s 303 Squadron, formed during the Battle of Britain. He plays Jan Zumbach, who flew in the mostly all-Polish 303 (he was actually of Swiss descent, but wrote that he was “Polish by upbringing and a Pole at heart”). To begin with the senior officers were British or Canadian, but later in the war Zumbach would become squadron leader of 303.

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The film this still is taken from, Hurricane, tells the story of the Polish involvement in the Battle of Britain, how, as the highest scoring squadron in the RAF, with the most enemy kills, they were celebrated and feted, before, at war’s end, being abandoned and vilified. There was a shocking survey in 1946 that suggested the majority of the British public thought the Poles should go home. Once there, the returnees who had helped the Allies to victory  were shunned, imprisoned and in some cases executed because the Stalinist puppet government thought they had been tainted by their time in the West. In his autobiography On Wings of War (subtitled My Life as a Pilot Adventurer) Zumbach claimed he was given just three days to pack up and leave this country after serving it for six years, even though he was technically a Swiss citizen. As he wrote: “Some of my comrades went back [to Poland].. at first they were given a hero’s welcome. Within a year they were in prison on charges of spying for the British.”

Jan Zumbach didn’t make that mistake. He became a diamond smuggler, running gems by air, out of Paris and Geneva and into Antwerp, feeding the dealers whose stocks had been depleted by war. He also traded in sterling bank notes, most of which were excellent forgeries by the Nazis. Eventually he went on to fly for rebel air forces (often he was the air force, operating a single plane) in Congo and Biafra, before dying mysteriously in Paris in 1986, aged 70. There are discrepancies in some of his accounts in On Wings of War, but even if half of it is true, his was a remarkable life. Sadly, although I tried with earlier drafts of the screenplay, there simply wasn’t enough room in the movie Hurricane to tell the full story of Jan Zumbach. Maybe next time.

  • Hurricane is filming at the moment. It is scheduled for release in the latter half of 2018.

 

NO WORRIES

“Don’t you dare spit in my masks!”

Arrendell Antoine’s stern command cracked out over the water like a verbal whip. There was a short pause before there came the collective gulp of five people swallowing their own saliva.

We were bobbing in Arrendell’s small boat, ready to slip into the soupy-warm sea just off the west coast of Grenada. When I had hired Arrendell at the small cove just around the headland, I had anticipated the usual Caribbean laissez-faire attitude to the whole business of snorkelling. Instead, it appeared I had rented the local Health & Safety Officer.

“Every mask and snorkel has been carefully disinfected,” he went on. “I don’t need you spitting in them.”

I smiled at my son. He didn’t smile back. “I’m not sure I can do this,” he said quietly.

“Do what?”

“Go in the water.”

Oh, great. Another hundred bucks up the spout.

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Another busy day on Grand Anse beach, Grenada

I don’t know when phobias became fashionable among young people, but they seem to be having a moment. My three children (now young adults I guess – well, all old enough to drink) pitched up earlier this year for the family holiday sporting one each. The middle child had developed a fear of flying; the eldest daughter had packed her kabourophobia – fear of crabs – which stemmed from being surrounded by snappy claws one night on a beach in Jamaica, and the lad had acquired a new-found thalassophobia, fear of the ocean, caused by an unspecified trauma while on holiday in Croatia.

So what better holiday to choose for those neuroses than Grenada, which involves a) a ten hour-plus flight that includes a double drop – i.e. an extra take off and landing as you call at another island; b) a beach where the crabs line the road, like some crustacean version of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and c) a must-see attraction that involves snorkelling from a boat in open water. Something, I think you’ll agree, for everyone.

In fairness, this holiday was not meant to be an exercise in confronting fears, but one in democracy, as, in the annual family vote of where to go, a return trip to the Caribbean won hands down. And, adding a personal note to the verdict, Grenada was the only one of the region’s large islands I hadn’t visited, possibly because its chief selling point – the Spice Island – left me underwhelmed. I know where spices come from – the Continental Stores in NW5. And a little nutmeg, I find, goes a long way. I had no desire to succumb to endless plantation tours. But Grenada certainly had its advocates among my more well-travelled friends and as it was bound to have by default my favourite triple whammy – warm seas, white beaches and dark rum – I was sure there would be compensations, even if I did end up learning more about mace that I have ever wanted.

So, despite everything stacked against it, how did Grenada, by journey’s end, become the family’s favourite-ever Caribbean destination?

Well, it had a lot to do with the driving. Having braved the highways of St Lucia in the aftermath of a hurricane and crossed Jamaica’s mountains at night, if I have a Caribbean phobia, it’s the roads. But those on Grenada are in good nick, even if the signposting beyond the vicinity of the cute capital St George’s leaves something to be desired (at one point I was convinced the River Antoine rum distillery was the Grenadian equivalent of Brigadoon, although we found it eventually). And the standard of driving is good, apart from the local buses, which execute emergency stops to pick up/drop off passengers without warning – on roundabouts a speciality. And I am certain that without a car I wouldn’t have made it to La Sagesse Bay.

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La Sagesse

This spot on the south coast is home to a single secluded hotel, which has a giant wooden verandah overlooking a perfect horseshoe of a bay, fringed with palms. True, the sand is not as white as Grand Anse, the most famous, and most touristed, beach of the island – La Sagesse’s sand is more demerara than caster – but it has the magical feel of a secret spot, albeit one with lunch and beers – and a shower – on tap. It is the sort of place you can while away the best part of a day doing very little.

The other reason to have a car is the island’s waterfalls. There seems to sort of primal urge among we tourists to hike to waterfalls and swim in their pools and there are plenty of opportunities to do so on Grenada, with Annandale Falls near St George’s being the most popular. But on days when a cruise ship or two is in town, both it and Concord Falls (actually three separate falls, the second, a 45-minute hike, worth the effort) do get overwhelmed and waterfalls are one of the few places you’ll get hustled, normally by a young man offering to dive into the pool from the cliff top for a few dollars. A car enables you to pick your time for a pool dip, outside peak cruise ship hours (either early or later in the day), although I can’t guarantee there won’t be some would-be daredevil skulking around.

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Concord Falls

For something less favoured by the cruisers, try Seven Sisters/St Margaret’s off the twisty roads in the heavily forested centre of the island. This series of cascades is a thirty-minute hike from the road, through bush, banana and bamboo (and, yes, nutmeg), across sometime slippery terrain, and you might want to hire a guide (we paid a local just under a fiver, which I thought a bargain for taking five not always sure-footed people, but apparently was over-the-odds). They might not be the most spectacular falls you’ll see in terms of height, but they are very pretty, rarely as crowded as the others and the pools are large and satisfyingly, buttock-clenchingly cold when you take a dip.

Talking of money, there is no escaping the fact that our jittery pound has meant prices, with the East Caribbean Dollar tied to the US Dollar, can seem somewhat punitive when you have five people in tow (“That’s an expensive crew you haul around with you,” one restaurant manager said to me, far from helpfully). We were staying in a villa at the smart, Mediterranean-like Mount Cinnamon on Grand Anse Bay that came with cooking facilities, which proved a budgeting boon. There is a half-decent supermarket a short walk down a crab-hole-lined road and cooking one meal most days helped keep the final bill down. That and avoiding the high-end restaurants such as La Luna and the Beach House, which are best suited to couples anyway.

Mount Cinnamon also features Savvy’s, one of the best beach bars on the island, on an uncrowded section of sand, with good and reasonably priced lunchtime food, as well as kayaks, paddleboards and Hobie Cats for guests. One of the mysteries of Grenada, however, is why so many places retreat from the water’s edge come sundown – Savvy’s, the Aquarium restaurant and The Calabash all wind down their excellent beach bars at twilight and shift the action to more formal areas. Mount Cinnamon only really utilises Savvy’s after dark once a week, on Fridays, when there is a beach barbecue and bonfire.

Which is why this family often found itself walking home along Grand Anse after dark from Coconuts or Umbrellas bar/restaurants (which is, unlike some other Caribbean beaches I could name, a perfectly safe thing to do). Umbrellas in particular is a great place to people watch, catering to a rich mix of locals, holidaymakers and expats and serving the most lethal triple-rum cocktails: more a karate chop than a mere punch. Those midnight walks, incidentally, finally helped cure my oldest daughter’s kabourophobia. A couple of Umbrella’s drink specials and crabs hold no fear: you wouldn’t feel the pinch anyway.

That still left the challenge of open water and us bobbing about in Arrendell’s boat over the island’s premier aquatic attraction: the Underwater Sculpture Park.

The swish way to reach this collection of sunken statues is by using Savvy’s Sailing Adventures (sailingsavvy.com), which utilises a sleek, traditional sloop to take you from St George’s, round the headland to Mollinaire Bay where the seafloor sculptures are located. The drawback is that there is a six-person minimum charge at sixty-five US dollars a pop for a half day, which made a bill of £300 (that does include juices, beers, snacks and rum) for five.

So the car came in handy again. We drove to Dragon Bay, a few miles north of St George’s, and negotiated a deal with Arrendell Antoine for an hour-long trip/snorkel to the site, which is in the next bay south. We settled on a hundred US (about £77) for the five of us, including masks and snorkel hire. Not the cheapest of options, perhaps, but Arrendell turned out to be highly professional – not only did he assiduously disinfect his masks, he had third party insurance and gave a rigourous safety briefing. He is also chairman of the association that looks after those displaced from the Marine Protected Area – he used to be a spear-fisherman before it was banned.

Sensing my son’s nervousness, Arrendell slipped into the water first and helped him in, making sure the mask was fitted correctly and that he was relaxed before allowing him to look down. It is fair to say once you see the Anthony Gormley-like figures with their sparkling encrustation of coral and attendant fish, any anxiety is replaced by wonder. In truth they are in fairly shallow water and you don’t have to be brave to kick down and swim among these artificial reefs.

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The most famous of the sculptures is Vicissitudes, a ring of youthful figures (all cast from local children) holding hands that manages to be both charming and creepy at the same time, although perhaps not as much as People Lying In The Sand, sixteen female forms on the seabed, all cast from the same Grenadian woman, looking freshly poleaxed. I was drawn to The Lost Correspondent, a lone figure working at his typewriter, studiously oblivious to the colourful shoals trying to distract him from his work. I can’t imagine why.

All the above, and many others, are by British artist Jason deCaires Taylor, who originated the park in 2006, but it is still being added to (and, where need be, repaired), with works such as The Ameridindian Petroglyphs, fourteen concrete sculptures based on carvings on the island, and the arms-raised-to-heaven Christ Of The Deep, both by local Troy Lewis.

The Sculpture Park was, without doubt, a highlight of the trip, although we found ourselves wondering on the flight home quite why we had enjoyed Grenada so much. I decided that our competition between the major Caribbean islands was a little like a heptathlon, with Grenada the athlete that might not win gold at every event, but will score consistently enough to take the medal overall. So St Lucia might have more rugged topography, Jamaica the gold-medal nightlife, Barbados better top-end dining, Antigua a larger tally of classic beaches, but Grenada does more than well enough in every category to stand on top of the podium. It is the best all-rounder of the Caribbean. And I still don’t know how they grow all that nutmeg.

 

DETAILS

Just Grenada (01373 814214, justgrenada.co.uk) has seven nights in one of the new Mount Cinnamon Suites from £1,395 per person, including flights, transfers and full breakfast each day. These new suites don’t have cooking facilities: a week in a Hacienda suite with kitchen is from £1,695pp. It also has a week at the tucked-away La Sagesse is from £995pp, including flights and transfers. Car hire and excursions through Caribbean Horizons (001 473 444 1550, caribbeanhorizons.com).