Notes From the Edge: Africa 7

Leaving Lusaka

There is a lot of focus at the moment on the state of relations between black and white in the western world. I won’t get bogged in the debate because I’m too cowardly to risk articulating my ideas and having them skewed. It’s not what this blog is for and I’m glad to be able to step outside of that debate.  

It is, of course, an argument that my status as a white man allows me to do that and I accept that argument. I am sad that it even has to be an argument. But I will say this to the people who tear down the statues: I think it is the wrong approach and I think it lessens the cause.  

Stay with me.  

Erasing the figures of oppression does not change history: an old Jamaican saying is “whatever don’t kill you make you stronger.” It is the defeat of prejudices and slavery and racism and segregation that makes the black community such a strong one. It is important to remember what was fought against to get where things are today. Progress has been made and continues to be made.  

The statues of the patron saint always show George defeating the dragon. We don’t remove the dragon. To do so would be to ignore what a battle it was and what a victory was won. Erect statues of worthy characters, black and white; man and woman, that cast a shadow on the former slave-owners and show the journey towards the world that we want to see.  

None of us is simply here; we’ve all had our battles and they are battles and adversaries that we should remember overcoming. 

Africa 7 – Croc Valley

I slept but my dreams were filled with floating hippos and grunting crocs. At one point I dreamt that a herd of elephants stomped through our campsite and brushed the sides of our tents as we slept. It must have been a deep sleep for me not to decamp and huddle on a bench beneath a pagoda. But then I would have the baboons and spiders to deal with. 

The sun had risen already and there was movement in camp, the tent was already feeling stuffy and I dressed quickly, rammed a hat on my head to hide the mess of my hair and scrambled for the zip. It smelled different here on the other side of the country. It was not the acrid smell of humanity but the softer, sweeter smell of the wilderness, I thought. Then I lifted the tent flap and was faced with a pile of elephant leavings as big as my rucksack. It still steamed in the morning air; two of my guy lines had been popped. 

The elephants had passed in the night on their way to the river. Towards the end of our trip we were on the bus back to the campsite in Livingstone after the Zambezi sunset cruise when huge dark shadows loomed out of the dark, forcing the driver to slam on the breaks. Black silhouettes, a dozen or so, lumbered across the road without breaking stride. 

“The elephants,” the driver said “they do what they want. They go where they want.” I loved that. We were utterly insignificant and the elephant was king. 

It was what the other guests were here for, of course. To see the game in the reserve across the river. A swiss couple nearby had driven from Bern, all the way through two continents and still had a thousand miles to go. The odometer on the Defender had reached 380,000 and the Land Rover was still running as smoothly as when they bought it. A pair of French brothers bickered in another corner of the campsite and a family of large Americans sat on the stoop of a chalet and watched the monkeys. 

It wasn’t why I had wanted to come to Africa, but it had to be done. It seemed a shame to come all this way and not load into the open back of a jeep and bump across the plains and through the forests to spot in the wild what most people would only ever see in zoos or on the television. And in fairness it was spectacular, if a little contrived. We saw the family of lions flicking their tails in the shade of the sacred baobab tree. Vultures perched on the white skeleton branches of a dead fig tree and watched us lazily. 

We stopped for a stretch of the legs after a while and I braved a few steps away from the group to relieve myself behind a bush, all the while wondering what might be out there watching my skinny white behind and sizing me up as I willed myself to pee, despite the pressure. It reminded me of a time on the way to the cup final in Cardiff. I was desperate and pulled over at a service station that was milling with supporters from both sides but so twitchy and filled with anticipation that I could not go. It was the same here, though maybe the African wildlife was a little more civilised… 

“How far are we from the campsite?” I said, meaning the relative safety of the other side of the river. 

“Twenty miles.” The ranger said. He was a man of few words, like many that we were to meet in this country not yet fully woken to the lucrative tourist industry. 

“And if I wanted to walk back…” 

He laughed – and that Zambian smile finally cracked into life. He wasn’t laughing with me, of course – he caught the eye of his partner and they both laughed. 

Mazungu want to walk!?” 

“No,” I said, “I just wondered what would happen if I tried.” 

The pair of them laughed again and the kids in the back of the truck were enjoying the show. 

“You would die.” He said. 

It was what I was after. I was probing for juicy quotes and details that I could take back home and finally he got on board. 

So what would get me first? Lion? Cheetah?” 

He shook his head. Serious now. “Most dangerous animal here” he paused for effect and the kids leaned forward in their seats. “Buffalo. Mean animal. If you get away from the buffalo, the elephants will have you. The cats, they run away.” I was impressed. We all were. He wasn’t finished though. “And if you do make it to the river and get past the hippos, which you wouldn’t, crocs. Crocs eat anything.” 

I got back into my seat and fastened my seatbelt. The sun was falling and we parked up by the side of the river to watch it set over the water and to see the countless colours fade to shades of mist and grey. A long line of elephants, their shapes unmistakeable in the fading light, trooped past and the tremble of the ground sent me back to the road at the back of my house when the trucks roar past. 

The next morning I sat on the decking which overhung the water and watched giraffes stoop and drink on the far side of the river. It had become unusually quiet; the monkeys had returned to the higher branches and I saw their eyes peering out while babies clung to the backs of mothers. A monitor lizard the length of a man skittered over dry leaves and through campsite. 

I loved all of that but I was here to see the people. I wanted to learn from them and breathe in that spirit that I had seen in them all. In Kakumbi village I watched a boy pour water onto the ground and stab at with a stick, creating a muddy puddle. After a while he knelt down and scooped up fist fulls of the wet mud and smoothed it onto moulds. These he would leave for a while to harden before upturning the moulds and letting the blocks of mud fall onto the ground. He was making bricks. He was seventeen and spending his evenings and weekends making bricks so that he could pay his way through school. 

We weren’t long in the village before a crowd of young children had gathered around us like a cliché. Each of us had half a dozen children clinging off our clothes and our fingers and all of them wanted to talk to us, to show us their houses and shoes. It was a beautiful village, if a little contrived like the safari, but these people did live in these houses and cook over these open fires – they just knew that they were also exactly what people like us wanted to see and were happy to put on the show that we expected. Maybe that is cynical. Maybe it downplays their sincerity. I don’t mean to do that. I don’t think I have ever met a more earnest people. Maybe, like the landscapes we had seen and the beasts we had got so close to, it was all too dream-like to be believed. My packet of Haribos was devoured within seconds, the way a bag of chips will be decimated by a flock of seagulls. 

One thing that I had wanted to do above all things was to kick a football on African soil and as we drove through the village it just happened to be three o’clock on Saturday and on the outskirts a huge crowd had gathered to watch the local team play against a nearby rival. Supporters hung from the trees and all around the edge of the pitch. A penalty shoot-out was in progress but our arrival took the attention from the game and we were soon surrounded – an occurrence that we had become used to. It was the audience that I had craved and now I had no clue what to do: I had walking boots and every time I tried to kick the ball it flew away at all the wrong angles. I was quite useful with the old kick-ups but knew that this wasn’t going to happen. I had to think of something else so in the heat of the moment, with the ball in my hands and a crowd of hundreds around me, pledged to take the ball from one shoulder, over my head to the other shoulder and then drop it neatly on my head. I had never tried such a move and didn’t know if it was even possible, but it worked like a charm. I expect the Zambian national team to adopt the move and the legend of a white man in some remote village bringing it to the nation the way that John Miller had taken the beautiful game to Brazil. 

3pm Saturday – Kick-off

Back at the camp we watched the sun sink over the river from the deck. The French brothers were still bickering like teenagers until the girl that was with them shouted for them to shut up and grow up. They both looked at her like scorned children and stormed off back to their tent while the girls strolled by the river and smoked a cigarette. In the meantime a family turned up; I recognised the man from the resort and it was clear that he had brought his family to see where he worked. The children were dressed up and the wife wore a necklace that twinkled against her black skin. It was clear the way that they sat stiffly and looked up at the lights and the rest of us lounging around and talking loudly, that they were not used to outings like this. I had not been here long but I also realised that there was a strangeness to it: these places were serviced and stocked and watered by the locals but it was rare to see a black family sitting at a table and enjoying the evening like the rest of us. They sat in the seats that the French had vacated and I chatted to the children and told them how beautiful their country was; how lucky they were to see this every day and what it was like in England in the winter. I showed them pictures of my girls in the snow and in front of the gates at Buckingham Palace and they told me about their school day and the things that they were learning. 

And then the French returned. At first I thought that they had simply come back to collect the cigarettes that they had left on the table until they remained looming over the family and demanding, without words, the table back. It was the worst incident of white arrogant racism that I had seen and I was furious. The father began to apologise and beckon his family to another table but I would not let it happen. It was absurd that these petulant and childish fools would destroy the evening of this beautiful little family. 

“Que faites-vous?” I said. The men both whirled round, as shocked at the challenge in their own language as they were in the challenge itself. “Ils ne vont pas bougerIls sont avec moi.” It was like that moment when the monitor lizard came through the camp. The chatter had stopped and once again, all eyes were on what I would next. “Il y a une autre table la-bas” I said, pointing. Staring. Not flinching, but at the same time, not wanting to get into a scuffle with the kids looking over my shoulder. The brothers huffed a little and puffed then grabbed their cigarettes and stormed back to their tent. 

It is a disgusting thing, to see this sort of treatment of people and I did not want to become hardened to it. I did not want to see it as ‘just the way it is here’. This was a beautiful family and the father was proud to be here with his wife and children and had they as much right as anyone to. Their smiles at a trip down the road from their own village showed an appreciation of life and each other so much more than the two privileged young men who had the means to travel half-way across the world to see this culture but could not muster the humility to shrug off the old diseases and prejudices of back home.               

… a response

IN RESPONSE: 

Dear ——–, 

Great to hear from you – lovely surprise. And of course I remember who you are! We are a rare breed us long-suffering supporters of that accursed team. But I do remember you as quite a keen student, too. You’re going to scare me when you tell me how long ago it was that you were in —- but it feels like a year or two ago. Are you well? Where has life taken you since ————–? 

 It is indeed strange times. Difficult to grasp that a couple of months ago we were in our old routines and habits and totally oblivious to what was on its way. The total shut-down of the things we’ve become used to was shocking and swift, but I’m equally shocked by the way that we have all adapted and got used to it. We stand outside on the pavement now until we’re invited in to the shops so that to anyone driving past it looks like the zombie apocalypse with clueless and directionless people gently swaying in their 2 metre exclusion zone and avoiding eye-contact with anyone – as though this is a sure-fire way to catch the virus..! 

 I’ve got to be honest, ————: I’m loving it. I love the slower pace and the elimination of all the little bits of wasted time, like travel and chapel and duties. Now I can take my 6am walk over the fields, read the newspaper, have breakfast and walk to my study ready to teach online lessons before I’d normally be in school. It’s great. I also get to read and write a lot. I’m on book 16 for the year and write about 12 pages of the journal each day. 

 You’re right that reading needs to be enjoyable – otherwise it’s just school again. If you don’t get into a book after 50 pages or so then gently mark your page, close the book with a whispered apology and promise that you’ll be back and put it on the shelf for another time. The enjoyment of any particular book is dependent on a number of things, and the most important of those is your mood. I must have thirty books in my study that are waiting for me to return to them – and I will, but in my time.  

 The secret to effective reading is recognising that it’s a relationship between writer and reader. There’s an unwritten agreement that the writer will do the hard work to start with but that this is not the end of it: the reader has a job to do, too. And this is the magic of it because there is not a single meaning that is locked inside every book. Every reader will read something different based on their mood, experience, gender, race and all that. It is a very liberating thing to realise this because it means that we’re not searching for an elusive truth but building our own. 

 Most of all, though, you’ve got to enjoy it. Read books that you’re going to feel comfortable reading and that you have on the go all the time and gradually dip into more complex texts as and when you feel like it, knowing that there’s the trashy popular fiction to fall back on. For example – I’m teaching three Shakespeare texts, Virginia Woolf, Harper Lee and Thomas Hardy at the moment – all quite heavy texts. But open on my desk for when I want to drop back into a story is Stephen King’s Bag of Bones.  Trashy but story and an easy escape into literature. I also find that there are words I don’t get from time and I see this as a bit of an adventure – it’s always good to learn (and then use) new words: a kindle is great for this because it gives instant definitions. New concept are also part of the learning experience. I taught a book of short stories about the Vietnam War a couple of years ago and realised that I knew virtually nothing about the conflict. That led me to reading another 5 books about Vietnam. I have done the same with Africa and slavery; Australia; Prehistoric man; Sailing…simply because I want to know about them. That’s the beauty of it. 

 And as for journaling (hate that word), well this is one of my favourite topics that no one ever asks me about. It is absolutely fundamental to my days now and has been for years. I literally have hundreds of books that I have filled over the years. For what? I have no idea, although they have taken on a slightly different role in recent years, which I will come to later. The physical book is important. I use moleskin or similar (hardcover and with a pocket at the back) and I always write in black (fountain pen) ink. These details are very important. Usually they’re A5 but in these days I’ve been writing in A4 books. I tend to fill a book each month.  

 The date goes at the top of entry, so does the time – and at the moment I’m noting the Cd (Corona day). I usually start with the weather because I’m a proper Brit and then there are no real rules. Sometimes it’s close reflection as I try to unknot a particular issue or something that’s on my mind. Sometimes I’ll talk about a book I’m reading or a big issues that I’m chewing on, like the legitimacy of democracy or the possibility that 5G causes Corona. It’s all my own private conversation and I’m not putting it out in public, so I can say what the heck I want. 

 And then it steps up a level and my writing can become the day’s blog post or even the basis for a lesson at school. This is then shaped and tempered to suit the audience. More often, though, and here’s where I might return to a completed journal from the past, I will write first drafts of stories of chapters of longer fiction that I’m writing. These will always be written in blue (fountain pen) ink so that I can find it easier and I’ll usually pop a post-it note in there to make it even easier. This will then be typed up and edited in a second draft. 

 It sounds weird but I have found my journals to be the most trustworthy companion through some tough times. I have written from outside my tent in the African plains and next to the Zambezi river while crocs have splashed and hippos farted outside. I have written on the plane over America and in the woods of Ontario; from the mountains in Wales and on the floor at Gare Du Nord in Paris; ———————— library and ———————— School and my desk at home, the table outside, my bed. If I don’t have my current journal with me I’m lost. If I don’t have my pens and spare ink I’m like a smoker without a spare pack of fags. Might seem obsessive but it’s my thing and a lot cheaper and safer than drugs and drink. 

 It’s what you want it to be and you’ll get used to your own style and your own voice. The times that you don’t want to write are the times that you need to most. Start with a page a day – I call my first session the Morning Pages – and you’ll get into the groove before you know it. Keep it somewhere secret and safe so that you know you can write whatever you want. 

 I’ve probably written too much already. See what I mean – it carries you off. Maybe that has been of some help. I’d love to know how you get on with it. Get started right now and keep right on with it. It’s a long, long road and the journey is a story waiting to be told. 

 All the best, I look forward to hearing from you 

FB 

 Ps: I was never going to give you a detention. It was all bluff! 

A Question, sir…

Advice on Journal Writing 

(LETTER FROM A FORMER STUDENT THIS WEEK:) 

Dear Sir,  

 I hope this correspondence finds you and your family well during these unprecedented times! 

 I very much enjoyed our chat at commemoration day last year and the chance to catch up. At the risk of sounding soppy between two men, I very much valued your teaching during my time in your English classes at school. Most of all your life teaching and passion for literature not necessarily associated to the curriculum. Two things which have always stuck with me. I shall always be mortified at the position I put you in during our weekly read of ‘Journey’s End’ when I had forgotten my book, when only the lesson before you mentioned that if anyone did it again they would receive a detention. As this was my first time, at the risk of your loosing face, you rather graciously let it slide. I doubt that this episode keeps you up at night as much as me, if at all! 

 I realise that the life of a teacher involves many passing faces and that you will most likely not remember me. In the hopes of at least slightly jogging your memory so that this e-mail doesn’t seem as random as I am sure it will, I am in the unfortunate category of being like yourself a ———- City fan. 

 There are two reasons for my e-mail as I would very much like your advice.  

 Firstly, as a man who I gather has read many books, how do you retain the information you read? I am only on my second book this year after having to read and re-read both in order to learn all the words I don’t understand and research all the events I know nothing about. I feel I am taking it too seriously. The trouble is I want to know and understand everything, and feel I am missing out on the experience of enjoyment that I always gathered you got when reading. 

 Secondly, I also remember you explaining how you kept diaries and how you felt this was a good and important thing to do. I have been reading many autobiographies of giants of old and coming across lots of excerpts from their own diaries which allow them to recant many good tails. On the small chance that I too may one day become someone others find interesting enough to read about, I have just started to write a journal and I shan’t lie it feels a little bit awkward. How is it done? Or rather, if this is like reaching success where there is no one path, perhaps you could enlighten me as to how you do it? 

 In short, thank you for your teaching during my ———- years. I would welcome your help once more! 

 Kind regards, 

———– 

Good & Evil

Remember that I’m not writing this for you. It’s for me. I’m not trying to help you – there’s plenty of others that can do that if they’ve got the time when they should be writing – or doing something else that might get them somewhere. We all need to help ourselves, and that’s what I’m doing: I’m doing this to help myself because at the moment things don’t seem to be rolling all that well. 

I need some oil on the crankshaft and a bit of a squirt in the pistons. It’s seizing up and I hate that. 

I was thinking about good and evil, those two stalwart and go-to labels that we use as an explanation for all the things we don’t understand.  

Good, ok. We want this one. We can be friends here because we could all do with a little more of this in the world. But don’t be fooled. This is over-used and an excuse. In my family of fools the term good is used all the time to justify stupid mistakes and general obtuseness; you know like the sort of mistake that could easily be avoided with a little bit of reflection or, god forbid, a bit of advice. 

They don’t do advice all that well in my family. It’s a weakness, see. So when they get shafted by the nice man at the door who looks like he’s so nice and so good but actually all he’s doing is making them think that he likes them. And that’s all they really want in this over-baked and shit-smelling world, is for someone to tell them that they’re liked.  

Oh he was a lovely man. He had good in his eyes. 

I tell them; I tell them time and time and time again that they shouldn’t be suckered into by people who want you to think that they like you because they’re preying. The trouble is that, because I don’t make as much effort to make them that think that I like them, (generally because I don’t), they take more notice of the smiling stranger at the door. It’s an opinion and where I come from there’s an awful lot of weight put into those. Often it’s all people have that they have some sort of a control on. Even more often, it’s a fixed thing. Immovable because to change an opinion is like taking advice: it’s weak.  

When he scams them they get defensive first of all and they shout me down because I knew all along and why didn’t I do something to stop him. And then this good man is suddenly evil. An evil man. 

Now I hate this idea more than I hate the idea of the good man. I hate the use of the term evil because what it does is passes on the responsibility to somewhere else. It puts the situation into a box that doesn’t need any sort of analysis of explanation because to call something evil is enough. It alludes to all the things that are evil. It puts them in that box so that when we say 

Oh he was an evil man. I see it now in his eyes. 

It takes away the responsibility and removes the idiot to the status merely of victim. Poor victim. Has the man changed? Nope. 

I hate that. I hate it because it fails to face up to the reality and it means that people never get to move on. The religious connotations remove the responsibility of actually facing the truth that this man was and is a human being and that he, as a human being, has done something bad to me, as a human being. It would be so much easier to dehumanise this challenge and deal with it as a separate entity that has no place here on this world and that I am simply unlucky. 

But that is simply not good enough. It’s the sort of shit that the Bible still spouts after all this time and the sort of shit that people who lack the intelligence or courage to face up to the truth come up with. Remove the unfortunate event from the daily level of things – it has no place there – and make it a beast. An anomaly that can be put safely in its box and forgotten about. Until next time. 

The thing spirals and it works on the macro as well as the micro. Hitler. We call him evil and nobody argues with that (we’re not allowed to argue with that sort of thing); people look at ancient cultures that killed off the elderly when they get old or ate dogs and horses; the vegans call the rest of us evil and there are few politicians or businessmen or pop stars who haven’t been called evil at some stage or another.  

Truth is, it comes down to opinion. Hitler thought he was doing the world a favour. I’d like to have thought that someone could have taken him aside and explained to him that 

Mate, what you’re doing, it’s fucking terrible. It’s misguided and most of the world thinks you’re wrong. The people who follow you, they’re doing it because they’re scared and they need their jobs. Adolf, you might like it but the world’s diverse. It’s full of people of all sorts of colours and beliefs and each of them, just like you, has a view. An opinion of the way things should be. What you’re doing: it ain’t going to work. It just ain’t. And also – get over yourself.  

Instead they called him evil and that missed out the whole dialogue and meant that no one was actually questioning how a human being was capable of doing what he was doing. It dehumanised him, made him a monster and therefore gave him justification to carry on. 

Look at the current president. Many people don’t like him or the things that he does. Often they call him evil even though they know that he’s actually a person with different views to their own. If enough people band together and say that his opinions are different to their own then it becomes accepted that he is wrong and they are write. 

It’s just opinion. There’s over 7 billion of the fucking things on the planet. Deal with it and make yours count. Don’t make monsters of people because that’s easier than challenging the human being.   

Beauty

How do we write about beauty? How do we describe what beauty is? 

I am nervous about the next chapter because it involves meeting the girl that has been on my mind since I knew her twenty years ago. She was very beautiful then but over time and the scourging effect that comes with time, she is now polished to beyond perfect. It is ironic that I now have to rough her up a bit to make her more human; more convincing. 

A conundrum is the concern about what I see as beauty and where or not this connects with the reader. I suppose the biggest fault would be to read what everyone else has done from Shakespeare to Laurence and Nabakov to Atwood and whoever else seems to make a success of it. 

But that is a fault and it’s not the way to go. If it goes that way then it becomes the beauty through someone else’s eyes and I lose my character. Beauty is not the same thing for different eyes or minds. It is a sandcastle made of a million pieces for a million reasons. 

My Lolly does not dress beautifully and there is no make-up. She is a young girl at the very threshold of womanly beauty at an age where these things tend to matter. But they don’t matter to her. She wears no fancy jewels on her ears or heels beneath her feet and her hair, darker than the mountain night, is often tied in a rough plait or ponytail so that it doesn’t get in the way as she does the things she needs to do about the house and in the garden. She wears a plain silver chain from which hangs a strange serpentine symbol and on her wrist is a simple copper band. 

She smells of soap. Of clean. And her skin, maybe thanks to the fresh and caressing air up there, is smooth and the colour of autumn straw. Darker than the pale faces of the other inhabitants of this wild place and hinting at some ancestral mystery somewhere down the line. Hey eyebrows are dark as her hair and shadow eyes that are wide and alert and hazel with the slightest hint of emerald, though the interested observer would not that this has the tendency to change with her mood. The nose is small and delicate and the lips carry their own cherry hue that requires no artificial enhancement.  

She is more accustomed to scowling than smiling but when she does smile her teeth show white and sharp and the countenance is surprised at the strange emotion evoked, so it barely lasts long. The beholder of Lolly’s smile is lucky indeed.  

Making Hay

The heavy, debilitating cold that I thought was going to strike me down for the next week has departed as quickly as it surfaced and I am glad. Not so much that I feel better and can breathe properly, but more that the rhythm and momentum that I’ve built up hasn’t come grinding to a halt. I hate that. Everything stops, all the good stuff goes out the window and then the slow process has to start all up again when I’m better. And it’s never the same as what it was maybe going to be before. 

I’m making progress with the latest project and this is a breakthrough. I have berated myself for years at how unproductive I am during term-time. It’s like my job is one massive procrastination and I can justify my existence simply through working my arse off in my classroom.  

Has been that I wait in anticipation for the end of term to come and then spend the little slice of time where my girls are still at school to write furiously throughout the days that I steal back. It is wildly productive and virtually all of my writing to date has come from those brief snatches of time. What I’ve always known, though, is that these periods are not enough.  

My waking life is full of the desire to shape the old ideas that float about in my mind and the new ones that are thrown at me by the world. Until recently it was enough to journal it all out of my system for some unseen descendant to pick up and maybe bother to appreciate. It takes the edge off but it’s nowhere near enough. 

So I steal time now – I journal when I can between lessons and I sketch out ideas for the latest post. I let my days happen and I enjoy my work. I know the most wonderful young people and I’m fortunate to have them listen to me. When the day ends I pick up my own wonderful girls and we do the things that need to be done in the evenings through the week: clubs and duties and visits and whatever: the bits and pieces that life is made of.  

We eat and laugh and read and play together and when they’re gone to bed and the house breathes its tired and contented sigh I sit at my desk in the room off to the left of the hallway; the room that looks out over the front and away to the church tower, and I settle into my writing. I post my blog if there’s one to go and then I get serious with whatever project I’m on. At the moment it’s Lolly.  

I write until 11 every night and in compensation I allow myself a little lie-in until 6.10, rather than the 5.40 that i had been used to. 

I sleep like a baby and my dreams are fed by the ideas that I have stirred up. I wake with purpose knowing that my day has a rhythm and that I am writing during term time. 

Breathe

All I did today was breathe and remember to breathe again after. I did that and it worked. I got through the day and now it’s night and I don’t feel too bad. 

The head is still muzzy and there’s some new blockage behind my nose, but I think I’ll pull through. If could think straight I would write straight. But maybe this is the chance to catch up on a couple of ideas that I never got down over the past few days. One of the points of this blog was that I’d tell my truth as it sauntered along, but also that I would capture the world a little bit as it is as I write. 

Brxt. I hate the real world so I say it vowellessly through gritted teeth and everyone knows what I mean. In decades it will be talked about the way that we still talk about the wars and the Titanic. We will explain it when we’re old with wonder that the youngsters can’t grasp what it was like, just as I switch off when the old folks talk about Kennedy or the ‘66 world cup. 

I voted for it. I did. And I’m glad that it’s happened, even though the process was the biggest fuckaroo that I have ever know and made my country a bit of a laughing stock. But I’ll explain if you’ll let me because I’m not one of those obtuse and ill-informed voices that bleat about too many Bulgarians or the influx of immigrants. I’d like to control the borders a bit more, sure, but human migration and the changing demography of the planet is a part of the natural process of the world. We won’t change it. Spain is full of Brits and ask India what it was like there during the Raj. I respect people who want to work for their pay. Who want to earn respect and build a life. I don’t care where they’re from or what colour their skin is. I tell my girls that they should judge people on their actions and not the things that they have no control over. 

At the same time, though, I am tired of the floppy liberal/left approach to the latest global events and the seeping assumption that a popular social-media voice is the voice of the people. I’m no great fan of Trump, but I hate the assumption that the right thing to do is to hate him. I abhor the assumption that everyone who voted for Brxt is a racist homophobe. I hate that assumption and I hate that assumptions like this are even allowed the time of day. I guess people need the comfort of following something.  

In my profession it’s not easy to step outside of the majority socialist voice. The newspapers they spread around the staffroom; the vitriol that is preached to the kids in assembly. I’m not always in disagreement with the principle of a lot of it but it’s the assumption of my support and comradeship that I can’t stand. But hear their sharp intakes of breath when I mention it… 

I speak a couple of languages. I have straight forward under-educated untravelled white parents, now divorced. I was taken on holiday to Spain twice and France twice as a child. My granddads fought in the war and worked in factories. At least one of them was a staunch labour supporter and my parents never had anything useful to say about politics. 

I paid my way through college and am still, fifteen years later, paying for my university education. Some of it I spent in France to add to the two years that I lived in that beautiful country and served in a city-centre bar. I was a citizen there; I paid my taxes there; I ate the food, drank the wine and loved the women. I know La Marseillaise off by heart and I sing it whenever I hear it. 

La France est en moi. La France sera toujours en moi. 

I am married to an Italian woman. I each in an international school; this summer I taught in Africa and I am smitten by the foreign literature of Russia and India. I love these places because of their difference; because of the uniqueness of the culture as it has evolved in ways different to mine; the ways that the people think, pour their beer, make love. It is the differences that unite us because we must make efforts to understand rather than replicate and compete. 

For me the European project was the assimilation of nations that are each and all so rich in their own ancient cultures; the brutal dilution of traditions that have taken aeons to evolve. For me the European project is like collecting together the most beautiful clocks. Grandfather clocks and Napoleon clocks and carriage clocks and cuckoo clocks – all the sorts of beautifully crafted clocks that you can imagine, all hand-made and hand wound and ticking their own near-perfect time and then deciding, declaring, that these clocks are all too different from one another. Declaring that the old machinery must be pulled out and electric clocks installed and synchronised instead. 

It would keep a better universal time and the maintenance would be easier. People would be kept to the same perfect rhythm and I see why that might appeal to some people. But it’s not for me. I embrace difference and I think that maybe it borders of racist to suggest that nations must ditch their currency; must adopt rules that contravene their own standards and must bow to a new flag. 

Nah. Sorry.    

These are the times

These are the times. It feels like someone large and immobile is sitting on my chest; like fat hands are restricting by breathing and that wads of cotton have been stuffed behind my nose. It feels like my eyes are weighted and there’s a constant battle to keep them open. When they’re closed they sting. I can’t think straight; I could sleep right now until Wednesday; the suggestion of work tomorrow, the nine o’clock sixteen year-olds on Romantic poetry seem so absurd that I want to laugh out loud. Like as if that’s going to happen..! 

But it will because this is the real bits of life that gets squeezed into the cracks as we look busy about other things. These are the times that the truth comes out and the times where I really need to write. Writing can’t just be when the energy levels say it’s ok; when there’s the perfectly proportioned slot of time; when the mind has space. Writing, if it’s anything at all, does its best to capture life from all angles. It has to if it wants to be believed and trusted. Writing, they say, is not something that you do – it is something that you live and if you are afflicted with it then it must happen, whatever. 

I could be in front of the fire now; it is Sunday evening and there’s plenty of crap on the television I could be watching. There’s a comfy sofa across the hall and a selection of blankets that I could be curled up into. But I’m here in the study at the desk and only the faint murmur of the television drifts in. From time to time the lights of a car float past the window. The girls are asleep in bed. 

The clock ticks and that is my rhythm. I have no time to waste curled up on the sofa. I would not be happy with myself tomorrow if I did that. 

I have work to do. I am trying to get a grip on Lolly, though I know that such is she that I’m not really meant to. I don’t want her summed up and that ambiguity is not easy to capture. It is a paradox. I want the words that I write to capture this feisty, naughty, sensuous little minx but the picture that I want I want to paint of her is a character that can’t be captured or pinned down. 

The picture that I bought from the Mallorca market this summer survived the trip and has been on top of one of the bookshelves ever since. I pulled it down and put it in a frame yesterday and now it’s on the desk in front of me. It is Lolly. It is my muse. In the crowded marked at Sa Coma in the heat of the night and dizzy with food and wine she caught my eye. The girls were having Henna tattoos and I wandered alone. It is a favourite pass time of mine to wander aimless and alone. I think you can’t get lost when you’re on your own. (I actually don’t think that, but rather you can find your way out of it without anyone knowing when you’re on your own. Or you can stay lost and pretend to the world that you know where you’re going just by holding up your head)  

Lolly was there on a stand selling prints. The most rudimentary of stalls: steel bars pinned with cardboard; prints gripped with clothes pegs. The smell of leather from the handbag stall next-door. Lolly looking down the floor as she pinned back her hair; a lock falling above her eyes and her shirt open enough to see the suggestion of a woman. She is dark; I know that the eyes would be dark if she looked up at me and if that shirt would move just a little more I would be satisfied. But she is frozen and as yet has not looked me in the eye. 

It is February and I have to keep the momentum going. I feel like shit after all that’s been going on and generally not feeling well…I’m not telling you this for sympathy but to make a point …that these are the times to get up and writing. Who knows what the fuck might come out. 

January was productive. I’m a couple of chapters in and I posted 25 times. It is small beer but still a good start. Maybe one day someone will get in touch.

Africa Reflections 2

It hadn’t rained for two years when we arrived in Zambia. From the aeroplane we got a sense of the bigness; the flatness; the unending wildness of the country and on the runway as we waited for another plane a mini tornado kicked up red dust and moved it somewhere else. The dust, we were soon to discover, found its way in to every crevice and cranny and most of us are still finding traces of it half a year later. It is a red dust and unmistakably African; it turns up in the most unlikely of places: a pencil case or a pair of socks; in the folds of clothes that we haven’t worn since the summer. And with each grain of dust comes a tiny memory of the adventure that we had. 

I could stand here and talk about the Africa that you might already know about; that some of you might even have even experienced, because we saw all of that. We were driven through wild bushland while impala grazed and warthogs nuzzled at the ground; we sat in nervous silence while a family of lions yawned and pawed at each other and we ate breakfast as monkeys swung in the branches above us and giraffes contorted their improbable frames to drink on the far side of the river. While we slept in our tents we were serenaded by the belching of hippos and felt the ground tremble as elephants sauntered by. I could tell about the sunsets we saw over the Zambezi or how we felt the mist of Victoria Falls on our faces while the locals sold us ironwood figures and made us their friends. 

But all of that, wonderful as it was, you could buy. You could go and see it tomorrow, if you wanted to. 

What I want to tell you about is the things that we hadn’t expected; the things that no money could buy and the things that changed us all a little bit. I’m talking about the people and the indomitable spirit of each individual that we met. Even in George Compound, an immense sprawl of shanty dwellings on the outskirts of Zambia’s capital city Lusaka which is home to fifty thousand people: all of whom live well below the bread line. At one point we paused to watch a game of football. It was about fifty-a-side, though no one seemed to worry about that, just as not a single one of them was wearing shoes. They played with a ball made of tightly packed plastic bags that would unravel from time, pausing the game.  

On the other side of the country after a day’s bus ride along unmaintained roads we walked through a village that consisted of houses made from the earth on which they stood and were roofed with the grasses that grew nearby. There was no running water or mains electricity here but the whole place was positively opulent compared to George Compound. Within minutes we were joined by children who wanted simply to talk to us; to hold our hands; to show us their dances. One of them pushed a toy train made from empty water bottles while another moulded bricks from a muddy puddle and baked them in the sun. He was seventeen and worked for five hours each afternoon so that he could pay his school fees.  

A little way down the road was Moyo Lunga community school: a first school that welcomed the local children as the sun rose each day. It was cold in the mornings and the children turned up in scarves and jackets that were gradually shed as the day warmed up. They were learning about the natural environment; learning to spell, to read, to line up and to be responsible citizens. They sang us songs and welcomed us like old friends. When an aeroplane flew high above the yard surrounding the little school house they ran and pointed deliriously shouting “Faluy”, “Faluy”. Not one of them had ever been closer than this to an aeroplane, nor ever would.  

Those that had brought some ate lunch from plastic boxes with faded Disney characters and shared the contents with those that hadn’t any. From time to time a parent would drop by with a gift of bread for the children or would wait for the recess so that they could sweep the floor or refill the water bucket that stood in the corner of the room; it was their contribution to the upkeep of the school and the only contribution that they could make. Many of the children didn’t have parents; they were orphans supported by the charity that we stayed with. 

The children wrote studiously with nubs of pencils; they coloured and recoloured the pictures in books sent from overseas and when it was time for a test they shared test papers until there was enough money to take a trip into town to photocopy more. The teacher himself was an orphan – his parents victims of the AIDS epidemic of the eighties and nineties. Peter, his name was: a success story after a ravaged childhood. 

In the school yard stood the shell of a building that I took to be the old school room but was in fact in the process of being built in the hope that these children would have somewhere to graduate to come the next school year. From time to time a volunteer would come and scrape more soil into the brick moulds or bring scraps of wood to be turned into desks and chairs. There were no windows and no roof yet: these were things that could not be pulled out of the ground and would need outside help. And money. 

I asked how much it was going to cost to finish off the new building and realised that the phone I was carrying in my pocket had cost more.  

Blog

I’m just tapping away. Every day I get a bit of free time I squeeze out a few words, string together an sentence or two and then when there’s enough paragraphs to make up a 500 word piece, I put it on here.

It’s not for you, you know.

But I do like the thought that you’re there. You – yes. Don’t look away or keep on scrolling. I’m talking to you because you’ve taken the time to read this far.

It’s not for you but I’m really glad that you’re reading because it means that you’re curious and you’re still looking and the day we stop looking and trying and caring is the day that we may as well throw up our hands and chuck it all in.

We’re pushing back; that’s what we’re doing. Well it’s what I’m trying to do, at least. I have my views and I’m sure you do too. We’re all full of views. We’re drip-fed a constant stream of someone else’s views on an endless cycle these so that we forget they’re just views and settle into the idea that they’re the mainstream thought that we’re an outsider not to think.

I won’t waste my time fighting that. I look constantly to step outside of the circle. I teach my kids that, too: both my own kids and the ones that I teach. I encourage them to look outside of the here and now and the wall to opinions, ready-made for us, and to find the fringes of the circle: the bits that don’t tesselate. They’re very close.

Chances are that you can look outside your window right now and you’ll see a bit of it in the poking fingers of a tree or the tiniest glimpse of a distant hill or field.

So I’m taking the time out to write this to you because I think it’s simple and think you’re benefit from it. If you’ve come this far then I owe you that much at least.

Maybe drop me a line, tell me how you got on: what you saw. If you like.