Eyewitness Report From Tsunami

Read Press release about fund raising gig here

It's not easy to start this. Sitting in a sweaty internet cafe here in Calcutta, I seem to be in a state of limbo, suspended between the events of last week which seem so distant here and the very real news coverage and extraordinary publicity I seem to have had at home!

Before I explain the story, I should first say that I have been completely overwhelmed by the amazing responses from so many people around the place. As you will see, I've really had it remarkably easy, but I was most worried for my parents and friends at home who, after I heard the news report, I knew must be going through hell, and I had no way of contacting anyone other than through the kindness of others passing on messages. So thankyou to everyone who contacted them for support and helped get messages out as they came through. I still have no idea of the extent of this, but even the relatively small amount of feedback that has got back to me as to the kindness of people has been overwhelming!

So here goes the story.

Having finally finished my project on modern Tibetan culture in India (after a couple of all-nighters in Calcutta and a last-minute DHL to Warwick which cost the equivalent of an average annual Indian salary), I headed to the Andaman islands for some much-needed chilling out. I'm not normally a big beach person, but they really are extraordinary; since they're so remote, they're virtually untouched, and I was having the best time diving, snorkelling, reading and eating awesome food.

I'd started an Advanced SCUBA course on Christmas Day and had a fantastically unusual festive day among the reefs and sitting by the beach eating fantastic food. Those of you who know me well will know that I am not a great morning person, and especially not after 'festivities' of any sort, but nevertheless I was up at 6am on Boxing Day since we were going out diving from 7am. I was enjoying a relaxed breakfast and doing my last-minute scuba homework when everything started shaking; I was perhaps still a little unsteady from the previous evening, so initially wrote it off as unfortunate festive after-effects, but when the straight-laced German dive instructor began looking concerned too I realised what was happening. The quake felt pretty strong - far stronger than the only other quake I've been in which was in the less exotic location of Worcester - but being as pretty much everything is made of bamboo or palm leaves, nothing was damaged to begin with. It was certainly a little weird, and was a bit hairy dodging falling coconuts to get to an open space, but we didn't think too much of it; I knew that we were in a sensitive geographical region and assumed that tremors must happen quite a lot. The dive instructor started getting things ready and we were going to go ahead as planned until the water began to rise very suddenly. My hut was very close to the water - less than 5 metres - and when the water rose for the first time, it was the only one that was touched, since the others were set further back.

It's important to stress that where we were it wasn't a tsunami as such, but more of a gradual - but still scarily fast - rising of the water level. It was high tide and the day of the full moon, so the water level was unfortunately at its highest point; if it hadn't been I think we'd have been even luckier, since it can't have risen more than about 3-5 metres in total. I managed to salvage pretty much all my stuff, but by the time I'd finished I was stomach-deep in water and things were getting a little dodgy as large logs began to float around along with all sorts of other debris. Needless to say, we were all a little shaken by this, not least by the fact that the guesthouse owner said he'd never seen anything like this before, but were on the whole pretty relaxed except for a bit more adrenaline pumping than usual. After the first wave had been and gone - probably about half an hour in total - we watched as the tide went far further out than it had ever been before, all within minutes. We realised that this almost certainly meant bad news, and right on cue it began to come in again and the smug people with huts set further back than mine suddenly lost their smirks and began salvaging their stuff before it rose too much more. I should stress that although this sounds like a bad idea in hindsight, people were on the whole very good about not panicking, and only got their vital things if it looked safe, which it did most of the time.

The second wave came up much further than the first, and by this time the mother of the heavily Catholic owner was sitting rocking watching the scene and chanting from a prayer book. We had most religions on our side: a couple of Israeli girls had got their prayer books out too and were chanting in Hebrew, I'd grabbed my Tibetan prayer beads (!) and the local Hindu women, who at sunset each day ululate to the goddess Lakshmi to bring them happiness and prosperity, became something of an early warning siren, as every tremor or event that happened over the week triggered their ululations. This had the unfortunate side-effect of scaring the crap out of everyone every day at sunset, but it was something of a comfort having an organic quake warning system, though of course the electronic one which they're only talking about building now would have been somewhat preferable! This second rising of the water damaged a lot more, and it was an odd sight watching fridges, clothes, chairs and even huts (mine was moved 10ft by the water) floating around where we'd been celebrating Christmas the day before. We felt very bad for the guesthouse owner, who this time we'd got to know pretty well, but otherwise we were all doing fine. No-one really panicked, thank God, and the rest of the day we spent clearing up the site, which was of course strewn with all sorts of debris. Despite what I now realise is the utter horror of the whole tragedy, I think that something somewhere has a sense of humour, as just as we'd all settled down to try and eat something and relax after the clear-up operation, one of the funniest things I've ever seen happened.

A very outgoing (i.e. loud) and lovely Canadian friend was just beginning to relax in his hammock when a large pink face appeared over the top. The huge male pig, who presumably had lost his tether in the flood and was also presumably freaked out by the whole thing, started making threatening noises and the Canadian guy understandably leapt out of his hammock and edged away. He also shouted at us, which given the state of our nerves was not a great idea, but as he did, the pig started chasing him around the site, and eventually made a lunge for his arse, ripping through his trousers and pants with a very impressive bite of his fang-like incisors. Now it sounds awful, but who doesn't enjoy the odd bit of Schadenfreude now and again: we wet ourselves laughing. Strange as it sounds, it was exactly what we needed - with the obvious exception of the Canadian guy, for whom it was the exact opposite - and ever since I've thought about this in moments of depression and it's made me smile without fail (and I normally hate Jeremy Beadle, too).

As I'm sure is obvious, we were at this stage completely oblivious to the scale of the events that day; we presumed (as did most people) that it was a local thing that didn't happen infrequently. It was only when the ashen-faced dive instructor came back from listening to the BBC news that we realised what had happened elsewhere, and in hindsight this was barely the tip of the iceberg. I was very shaken by the news and had to go and sit alone amongst the devastation to try and take in what had happened. As I hope is obvious from the above, we were unbelievably lucky in so many ways. Havelock island is extremely well protected by local islands and reefs, and was spared the wave that wreaked such havoc elsewhere: things were certainly affected - not least the jetty which eerily had no water at all in it when the tide rushed out - but no-one was killed, and to my knowledge no-one was even badly hurt. Not only that, but we were on a site which, although still on the beach, was slightly higher than most others, which suffered far worse as a consequence. Not only that, but I was with a group of extremely friendly, wonderful, laid-back people (which is a bit of a rarity travelling around India, believe it or not), and if I had to choose a group to endure a natural disaster with (which I hope I never have to do again!), then I couldn't have asked for them to be a more balanced one! As should be obvious, I mercifully wasn't witness to the unbearable scenes of bodies floating by which I've since read about and seen on TV, and it really was remarkable how little damage there was around Havelock and Port Blair, given the annihilation of places just a few dozen miles away.

All of which is why things feel so strange now. On the days following the quake, we had a pretty 'normal' time all things considered. It was extremely strange sitting in a relatively nice restaurant drinking a cocktail just 48 hours after it all happened, but this was where we heard the BBC news for the first time and the full enormity of it all began to sink in. It became obvious that everyone at home who knew where we were must have been going through a far worse time than us, since contact on the island is non-existent at the best of times (there are only 4 phones on the whole island, and for some reason it was impossible to call the UK even before the quake). To be honest, things have been far weirder for me since I've managed to speak to people; it's difficult not to feel guilty - or at least implausibly lucky - when I escaped so lightly, especially given the unbelievable response from home. Witnessing the effect of your own apparent death is a bloody weird experience, and although it sounds trite, it really brings home how lucky I am to have such an amazing group of caring people.

So, after a shouting match with the idiots at immigration in Port Blair (I'd overstayed my permit as a result of things, but apparently that wasn't a good excuse), I'm now in Calcutta and treading the fine line between normality and feeling somehow involved in the whole thing. I've sent a few emails and posted on a few websites that I'm available to help anywhere in India for the next few weeks, but I'm very aware that I have no specific skills to offer (JazzAid is the last thing these poor folk need now!), and that well-meaning Westerners are in danger of creating a culture of 'disaster tourism' which actually makes things far worse by putting a strain on already stretched resources to accommodate inexperienced but generous souls. So we'll see what happens. Either way, I'll be home sometime in February, if not before. As I'm sure most of you know, I'm not a very 'homely' person, but recently I've felt that I'm looking forward to getting home for the first time. I've banged on about it enough, but seeing everyone again will somehow be infused with new meaning, and I can't wait!

OK, emotional bit out of the way, here's the important thing:

On the 30th January, the legend that is my mate John Lumley has taken upon himself to organise a benefit gig for the relief effort. It's an all-day affair, from 3pm-1am, and will feature all sorts of bands with whom I've had some connection. Some still aren't confirmed, but at the time of writing, the Pretty Small Band, Warwick Big Band, award-winning punk band the Equal Opportunities Working Group, rock bands The Fire and The Sequins and punk(ish) band Stupid, Stupid, Stupid and Steve are confirmed (I think). There'll also be a fine selection of DJs and who knows what else.

People are going to an extraordinary effort to put this thing on, and I would take it as a personal insult if other people didn't put in the frankly miniscule effort of being there for at least part of the time! I know John's trying to organise transport to and from Warwick for those West-Midlanders amongst you, and as for the rest, come for as long as you can: the bands look set to finish around 8/9pm so there's plenty of time to get back to wherever it is you call home.

This shindig is happening in Bar Lorca in Brixton, which is, frankly, a very groovy place. Entrance is by donation to the cause (the exact NGO is still to be determined, but that's because I want to make sure it goes to one who will use it in the best way possible) and knowing John as I do, there are bound to be all sorts of entertaining happenings throughout the day. Age is no barrier, and he's tried to cater to pretty wide-ranging tastes, so there is no excuse!

Seriously, as I've tried to explain, I am exceptionally lucky to still be here and feel somehow implicated in the whole thing, and anything which can help in however small a way is a hugely important contribution towards the situation. Apart from anything else, the day will be completely awesome, and (trite mode back on) what better way to celebrate how lucky we are while to be able to have a party, whilst raising a little cash for those who aren't so lucky (no more trite now, I promise).

Mr Lumley and his merry band of helpers are hard at work with publicity. If you'd like to help out, or just want more information, drop him a line at

johnlummers@hotmail.com or on 07765 884039

Right, that's it. Apologies for such an epic account, but seeing as I won't see people for a couple of weeks, I wanted to put everyone's mind at rest. I'm not sure I'll be back for the 30th - depends on if I'm needed over here - but please do try and make it. In the meantime, it'd be great to hear from people, so please write to me at stevepretty@bigfoot.com and say hi if you get a minute.

Thanks again for everyone's support: what a bunch of utter legends you all are.

Peace, love and jazz!!

Steve Pretty

P.S. If anyone ever reminds me that that toilet-paper-of-Satan the Daily Mail published my squinting mug, I won't be a happy chappy and retract all the emotional stuff above.


Look here for other things punkas can do to help!