Honouring 43 years of marital bliss…
Ex-British soldier returns to Guyana with wife's ashes
By Dale Andrews
March 18, 2007
In 1963, Ron Winkworth was just 22 years old and had just left his homeland for the first time to come to British Guiana .
He was a part of the British contingent of soldiers who came to the English-speaking colony, and their mission was, as he called it, ‘aid to a civil power'.
A general strike was taking place and there was chaos everywhere; the local law enforcement was overwhelmed.
Winkworth, born in Belfast , Ireland , had joined the British Army two years earlier, and coming to British Guiana was his first overseas assignment.
It would turn out to be the assignment that altered his life forever; for, apart from quelling the unrest, Winkworth had other preoccupations that made this posting one with a difference.
Most soldiers go on overseas postings, and many of them find time to meet the opposite sex of the land in which they operate, but not many of them find their wives.
But for Winkworth, his lifelong partner was to be found on these shores.
In fact, the British soldier arrived in British Guiana on his birth anniversary, July 11, 1963, met, fell in love with, married, and by the time he was ready to return home nine months later, was being accompanied by his wife, Guyanese Norah Rajroop.
Forty-three years later, he is back in what is now the Republic of Guyana , and his circumstances are totally different from his first assignment.
This time around, Winkworth has brought with him the ashes of his wife, Norah, who died last year after a long fight with cancer.
“It's just something I had to do,” Winkworth told this newspaper in an exclusive interview.
There are many stories of females from the British colonies flocking the wharves and barracks of the visiting British soldiers, many of them looking to get hitched to a lifetime partner.
While many were disappointed, others succeeded.
The situation even influenced the famous Mighty Sparrow to pen the calypso ‘Jean and Dinah'.
But for Winkworth, his initial encounter with his bride-to-be was what can be described as love at first sight.
Looking very much the ex-soldier that he is, Winkworth vividly remembers his first visit and how he fell in love with this Guyanese girl whom, according to him, he could not leave behind.
Winkworth had no idea where British Guiana was, when told he was going there.
He admitted that he had mixed up the English-speaking nation in South America with the African country Guinea .
“I was ecstatic, and I told my officer I've always wanted to go to Africa . But he said, ‘Oh no, it's South America '.” Winkworth said.
He explained that, coming from Ireland , he never had problems with different nationalities.
“I met some good guys and some not so good guys,” he told this newspaper.
He arrived in British Guiana at the then Atkinson Base, now the Cheddi Jagan International Airport , Timehri, and his first observation was the intense heat.
“I thought that I was going to die from the heat,” he recalled.
Although the British troops were stationed at the Atkinson Base, they had many opportunities to visit the capital, Georgetown , and it was on one of those many visits that some of their lives, including Winkworth's, were changed.
The famous Guyanese hospitality was, as usual, in abundance despite the turbulence at the time.
But, of course, not every meeting with the locals was honky-dory.
“A friend of mine had met a girl who had invited us to her home in Albouystown. While waiting for a taxi, some guys on bicycles rode up and started calling, ‘You limey bastards, go home' ,” Winkworth remembers.
He freely spoke about his time in Guyana , recalling some of the famous watering holes he and his colleagues frequented in ‘the garden city'.
While puffing away at his self rolled cigarettes, he remembers crashing the wedding reception of one of the world's greatest off-spinners, Lance Gibbs, at what was then the Park Hotel on Main Street .
Even a local football league had sprung up among the British soldiers.
But none of these extra curricula activities could compare with his first meeting with his future life partner.
Norah Rajroop hailed from Bagotstown, on the East Bank of Demerara. She was living with other family members under the care of an older brother, and like many of the young girls in those days, she might have been fascinated by the young British soldiers.
“We had met somewhere for the first time, and I tried to talk to her but she just walked away. I guess maybe I had had too many beers,” Winkworth said.
Although Norah had created a very strong impression in the young soldier's mind, he had actually forgotten her but for another chance meeting.
According to Winkworth, the British had organized an activity, which was held at the Georgetown Football Club, Bourda, and by chance, Winkworth was posted to man the gates.
As fate would have it, Norah and a few friends attended the activity -- that was on November 30, 1963, the beginning of what turned out to be a life partnership for Ron and Norah.
“When she came in, she actually blew me away. I couldn't remember where I had met her. Was it Forgarty's, Bookers or at a brothel? Oh yes, we used to go to some of the brothels. I asked to see her later, but she actually changed her seat so that I could not find her,” Winkworth said, pausing to role another of his cigarettes.
Eventually, he managed to contact her and set up their first date, which occurred on December 1, 1963.
“We had arranged to meet outside of Bookers. She was forty minutes late and I almost gave up. But she eventually showed up, and we went to the Astor Cinema,” Winkworth said.
Being a soldier, Winkworth's movements were severely curtailed, but, as usual, he and his colleagues found a way to escape the restrictions to go and meet their new-found loves.
That first date had a lasting impression on the young soldier, who recalled lying in bed and thinking about this lovely Guyanese girl he had begun dating.
“One night, I said to one of my mates, ‘I don't think I am going back to England '. I had a girlfriend back in England , but I got a ‘Dear John' and so it was easy for me to fall in love with another woman,” he recalled. This was even before he had met Norah's family.
So stricken was Winkworth by the Guyanese beauty that the young soldier even wrote to his mother back in England to inform her of his plans to marry his new-found love.
“I had to tell her that she was not white. In Birmingham in the 60s, race was a big problem. But race never seemed to bother me,” he said.
Eventually, Winkworth had to meet Norah's family. He recalled that although she was living with an older brother, she was fiercely independent.
According to Winkworth, it probably would not have mattered what her family thought about the relationship since, from all appearances, they were destined to spend the rest of their lives together.
On December 26, the young British soldier popped the question, and his proposal was readily accepted.
“I should have proposed two days earlier, but I chickened out,” Winkworth said, with a wry smile.
When his sergeant learnt of his decision, he summoned Winkworth and gave him a strong lecture.
Winkworth was warned that the difference in race could affect his promotion.
However, this did not deter Winkworth, who had already made up his mind to live with whatever consequences that may arise from his marriage to a Guyanese of East Indian ancestry.
The relationship grew, and on March 7, 1964 the couple was married.
Two weeks later, Winkworth's tour of duty was completed, and he was on his way back to London a totally different man. He was heading back home with his new bride.
Although she had never travelled before, Norah, according to Winkworth, was fine throughout the long journey.
“She stayed with my family at first, and the relationship was instantly bonding. The first fight we had, my mom took her side and I knew that I was last,” he recalled.
Finding a home of their own was difficult at first, mainly because of the race difference.
Winkworth recalled that they had enquired about an apartment and was told that it was available, but as soon as the owners saw his wife, they informed him that the place was already taken.
Three months later, the British Government provided the couple with a house, and one year after they had left British Guiana , the couple got their first son.
Eventually, Winkworth left the army and maintained his family by working many jobs, before finally settling down at the post office, where he eventually became an auditor.
The couple travelled expansively throughout Europe , while raising a family. Norah even returned to Guyana , on a couple of occasions, to visit her relatives.
But Norah began experiencing heart problems, and in 2004, her condition took a turn for the worse.
“She was a real battler. She always said she did not want to die in hospital, so I cared for her at home,” Winkworth said, pausing to take a pull on his cigarette.
On October 18 last year, Norah died, dealing Winkworth a devastating blow, although it was cushioned by the fact that she had been ailing for a long time.
“If she had died suddenly, I don't think I could have taken it.”
Winkworth says that his wife had always expressed a desire to be cremated, and her wishes were fulfilled.
The former soldier said that he secured the services of three female directors for her funeral, which he described as a celebration of her life.
Even a request for a special song, ‘Danny Boy,' to be played at her funeral, was fulfilled.
“At the funeral, I even gave a joke. I said that I had to push her around for two years (in a wheelchair) but she was pushing me around all our lives. That was so funny. Norah would have loved her funeral,” he laughed. Norah loved cooking, so it was no small wonder that one of her favourite broccoli recipes was also distributed at her funeral.
But one thing Norah forgot to arrange before she died, and that was where to place her ashes.
Of course, she would have loved for some to be brought to the land of her birth. But since she and her husband travelled extensively throughout Europe , there were places that she loved.
So it was not surprising when Winkworth chose Rome as the first place to sprinkle some of his wife's ashes.
“I took some of her ashes to St. Peter's Basilica in Rome , her favourite city. I took some to Ireland ,” he said.
But not surprisingly, Winkworth has brought 90 percent of his wife ashes to Guyana , and today will place it among her older brother's remains at the Providence cemetery on the East Bank of Demerara.
He recalled that, initially, he and other relatives had a hard time locating Norah's brother's grave, but eventually it was found.
“While coming through Miami , I thought, ‘Oh God, white powder going to Guyana ?' but everything was okay,” he said.
Some of the ashes will also be taken to Canada , where some of Norah's relatives live.
But despite the fact that his Guyanese wife is dead, Winkworth said, Guyana will always remain in his heart as his third home.
“I really like this place. When I first came here, I loved it. I love Guyanese food and I cook it, too, cook-up rice, oh my God,” he said, licking his lips.
“Everything here I like. Guyana hasn't changed much (in terms of its people). Somebody said that it's Third World . I've been to Third World countries, where I've seen children fight for food, that doesn't happen here,” Winkworth said.
With family and friends still around, the former British soldier, now 65 years old, said that should God spare his life for a few more years, this current visit to the country where he found the love of his life will not be the last.
Apart from Winkworth, there were other soldiers who found partners in British Guiana .
He said at least seven of his colleagues had fallen for Guyanese beauties.