Notes From the Edge: Africa 3

The sodium arc sparks up at around 9.40 these nights. It glows baby pink for a while before the pumpkin orange kicks in. We’re only a couple of weeks from midsummer and I don’t want to wish the season away, but it’s on the turn. It won’t be long before the plastic flaps of the circle are drawn in and tightened up. It gets more difficult to push out of the bubble when it’s colder, when the weather pushes back.  

But it’s never a clear line that divides the seasons here. There’s a lot of grey between the slim cracks of blue. In Metz someone at the bar would pass comment that tomorrow was spring and hey presto! Next day the sun was out and the daffodils pushing. Or someone else would mention that the next day was the start of winter and on cue, first thing next morning, there’d be snow in the air. I loved France for that. The French shrugged it away because they didn’t know any difference. In Africa it was even more extreme, except that no-one seemed even to notice. We noticed as we shivered at night beneath the canvas. The dark fell swiftly and once that big ball began to turn orange it was a scamper to get to where you were going: it was a heavy cloak that descended and with the light went the heat. The kids at the village school turned up before the 7.30 sunrise dressed in second-hand parkas and scarves; layers that were shed as the day wore on and the temperature nudged thirty.

But we’re not quite in Mwandi yet, in fact I don’t think we’ve left the airport…  

Africa Notes 3 – Johannesburg – Lusaka 

It would be quite easy to think of Africans as lazy.

I did. It’s one of those stereotypes that people on my island tend to hold and when you’re born into that sort of attitude it sticks and becomes fact. There are so many examples of it. I could talk about my grandparents’ and parents’ attitudes to homosexuality; to gender fluidity; to immigration and even the role of women. Ideas are set and fixed and handed down from generation to generation and rarely questioned. This is a problem generally because when stereotypes are not held up for scrutiny – when they are regarded as fact, they become rooted and as substantial as the concrete we stand on. 

I suppose that stereotypes are born of nervous insecurity and the unwillingness to step outside of what’s accepted and see things from a different angle. It is easy to see why people see Africans as lazy – but that is when they are being judged by standards of a different world. It is like comparing apples with pears or the present day to Victorian times.  

It is very different here. There are lots of people and it’s the first time that I have been in a country where the white man is in the minority. I was the outsider and in our circles that’s quite a rare thing. I must expand on what I mean when I say that there are lots of people. It is not as simple as I have made it sound; I mean, it’s an airport; it’s going to be busy and it was in that sense: very busy. But it was busy with staff, too. Often there were more staff than customers and for the most part there was not nearly enough work for them all to do. On the apron were hundreds of men in hi-vis jackets, just hanging around and seemingly waiting to be told what to do or quite happy to be doing nothing. It made a lot of the people that I would pass on the streets of Africa look lazy, and bored.  

But what I would later find out is that I was making the mistake of judging this place by the standards that I was used to. I was in O.Tambo airport in Johannesburg and had been in the country for less that hour: already I had made up my mind about its people. What I was to later find out was that Africa cannot be compared to the western world, just in the same way that French and Mandarin are not simply other ways to speak English. Labour here is so cheap that ten men can be employed for what it would cost a single employee in the UK. There is no welfare state that can be compared to back home and employment is rudimentary and very basic. Two weeks into the trip, in Livingstone centre, I would walk into a phone shop to buy credit and a door would be held open for me as I entered. Another staff member would be at the door greeting me and five smiling faces peered from behind the counter. There were no customers apart from me. As I picked out the nearest cashier and made towards it I was politely ushered towards a queuing system where yet another smiling face pushed a button and handed me a ticket. I took the ticket and stood in line (there were no other customers) and waited awkwardly for my number to come up while all eight members of staff watched the crazy white man and smiled. My Vodaphone shop in the UK has one member of staff on duty, maybe two on a Saturday and I can sail through Asda, do my weekly shop and never speak to or interact with another soul. We might think we’re clever in doing it our way but I think that by pointing everything towards saving money and saving time, we’re missing out. I realised that we were the fools.

The flight crew on the two hour hop from Johannesburg to Zambia’s capital Lusaka was manned by an all-female crew. It was another stereotype broken in what I thought was a patriarchal system. I would come to know that that it was the women in these countries the ruled the roost and the men who were put in their place. I would come to fall in love with every one of the women that I met here.

If Johannesburg’s O.Tambo had been an eye-opener, Lusaka was on a different level. The international airport has the air of a 1970s school gymnasium that has been repurposed for the role. Stud-wall partitions separate booths into separate shops and all of them are hawking either cloth or phone credit. The arrivals gate is a desk with a laptop and a set of French doors that are meant to be automatic but are constantly juddered open and shut by a guard in military uniform, rifle slung over his shoulder. As he puts his weight to open the door the rifle invariably slips and I wonder vaguely whether the safety is on like it would have to be at home – and then I realise that I’m doing it again…. 

I could make it through those barriers, I think to myself. I could make it through security and into the country without anyone being able to stop me. The security is lax, the walls are paper-thin and there’s no passport check. If I wanted to … and then I realised that there had probably never been the issue of people trying to force their way into this country. It made me a little sad, this thought, and I wondered what we were in for in a country that didn’t lock its doors. 

Notes From the Edge: Africa 2

The season seems to have remembered itself and pushed aside the Octobery clouds that clung to last week. It has been beautiful today: a warm, innocent kind of summer’s day; the kind of day made for pruning hedges and cutting lawns and flexing in the garden.  

A walked along the left side of the open-book field this morning. The wheat is higher with all the rain and sunshine and on the opposite side of the field the top half of my stag, distinct but brief against the luminescent green. It didn’t hang around – there for one second and gone the next – more important business than to stand and stare. It is a burgeoning and building up to the fat season. A gift before the autumn sends us scuttling to our centrally heated homes. He must love this time of year; this abundance of cover.

On Sundays I take it a little slower and pause from time to time to time to take it in. Maybe my stag is always there but I rarely take the time to see it. Like the clouds – today, Cirrus: streaks of ice crystals falling from the upper atmosphere; clawed hands scraping the blue. And the contrails – the return of the contrails and the airborne traffic that has for so long being absent.

There was no concept of what was coming this time a year ago; no idea that such a catastrophic pandemic would sweep in and change the way that we saw our lives. This time last year I was in the air and on the way very south… 

Africa Notes2 – Equator

It was, by some distance, the smoothest thing that I had ever heard a pilot say. I mean, they’re cool folk as standard anyway, and when you’re seven miles above the earth you cling to anyone who sounds calm and in control. He spoke with that tidy South African accent that pinches at the end and rumbles in the middle. As we passed over France and the eastern tip of Spain I could see in the fading light the outline of the Balearics and beyond this, the dark looming coast of a brand new continent. The weather in Jo’burg was fine and cresp (it was the middle of the southern winter) and the flight time was looking good “though,” and this was the bit, “there might be some turbulence over the equatorial region as we pass Cintral Africa.” 

I mused on this for a long time as they served plastic-packed dinner and Tony, our companion on the trip, told me the tale of his flight to New York in 2001, as it happened, on September 11th. His plane was rerouted to some Canadian hinterland for five days. I could tell that he enjoyed telling the story; that he was delighted to have a new audience and me, I was happy to be amazed by anything. I’d entered a new world and accepted that I’d need to leave behind some of the aloofness. I wasn’t scared of flying. I’ve flown a bit over the years and each time, as the cabin crew have bolted shut that door, I have made my peace with the world and accepted death. I find this helps because when death doesn’t come, everything is a bonus. The smiles that emanate from the departure lounges all over the world are not simply smiles of delight at the new destination; there’s a sense of rebirth that lasts along the moving walkways of the birthing canal and beyond passport control. 

When the plane lurched I felt sweat on the palms of my heads and wondered how far we were from the equator. When we dropped like a stone for what must have been thirty feet, I guessed that we were pretty close. I carried on smiling and nodding to Tony’s anecdotes as hostesses fussed over spilled drinks and peeled cordon-bleu from the ceiling. 

Tony was in his seventies and was there to provide the independent expertise that Helen and me didn’t have. He had travelled well and knew the ropes, though he had never been to Zambia before and I wondered vaguely how he, with his left-wing northern tendencies that I had picked up already, would fare with our group of kids. He had talked a lot and I had built up a fairly detailed profile of a man who was used to being alone; who as a little set in his ways and who liked to give the impression that he wouldn’t stand for any nonsense. I knew very well how long it took to get these kids on board. It had taken me years. 

*** 

Tiny things as we are, and coming from a little island as we do, it is utterly impossible to grasp the size of Africa. Even from the middle of England it’s only a matter of minutes before the land gives way to sea. It is immense, utterly massive and the only way that I can conceive of the scale is, as the scientists do, to measure it in time and speed rather than distance. After the pilot’s smooth announcement as we reached the northern tip of Africa, and travelling at 500mph, it still took nine hours to reach the other end. From time to time, in between restless snoozes, I would wonder what was below us far down in the dark. And it was dark. Unlike the western world where there’s always some illuminated conglomeration to give a sense of perspective, for hour upon hour there was nothing. Nothing but blackness for mile after mile. 

It is always worth a look out of the window when descending into a new city. It affords a unique perspective of the beast that’s about to gobble you up. Johannesburg is an immense sprawl of shanty suburbs and walled mansions. In England these would be housing estates and tower blocks and the scars of industry poked at by myriad roads. Here it seemed that the population lived either in a green lawned luxury, or tin roofed poverty crammed into dust road districts for as far as the eye can see. Chunks of the city from the aeroplane window that were the entire world for the people that lived there. 

Notes From the Edge #1

Plastic Circles

All things come to an end. Even global pandemics. 

Now that the pubs are open again and the streets are vibrating with the return of the traffic it’ll start to seem like nothing ever happened. On the surface, at least. Nature abhors a vacuum, a friend of mine once said. Physical or emotional or whatever, the gaps get filled pretty quickly. Draw your spoon through the mush at the bottom of your bowl of Weetabix until you can see the ceramic of the bowl underneath. Then watch as the space you made is filled until there’s no trace, no memory of it. 

But it did happen. 

In that time, all that time of week after week after week after week the circle shrunk back into itself a little. From the edge here I felt it. Each walk felt further from the rim of the circle as though the whole idea of it had contracted into itself for protection. The plastic pulled back and through the gaps in the exposed concrete grew new flowers at such a speed that the lanes were transformed in a day and walk along the edge was a walk back in time.  

It was still. There was no subconscious tremble of the earth as traffic thundered on roads kept smooth by ceaseless rubber. Discarded rubbish flattened and consumed into its surface in a matter of days and unnatural winds confusing the birds and branches- these were gone and it was all still. Eerily still to the point where the tiny sounds of tiny feet skittering along dry leaves were no longer silent and the murderous cries of the buzzard were heard in back gardens all across town. The cars the did venture through the wilderness went quickly from one plastic circle to the next, all twitch and nervous and masked up – as though that would help. 

For a short while the edge of the circle; the fringe, if you like: the marches – they were broad and we were brave. We stretched or legs and walked – in the middle of the day, mind – in the middle of the road. We walked the line and watched the flowers grow between the cats-eyes. We saw the patterns of heavy tyres in the tarmac and the scuffed our shoes on the smooth surface of a forbidden place that is always right under our noses. 

In the edges, in between the plastic circles; that’s where the magic is. 

If you look carefully at the image above you can see the circle. If you squint you’ll see the plastic covering. The spike in the centre, that’s where they draw out from. In some cities it’s huge chunks of steel and glass that they measure from. They take their string and they draw a circle from the centre and that’s the bubble. That’s the plastic cover that we’re all meant to hide under. Most of the time they’re getting steadily bigger. Heaving and pulsing and growing like some flabby pregnant monster, but lately they’ve shrunk a little back on themselves.  

Arteries shoot out in all directions and connect bubble with bubble: you have to be careful with these, but the gaps in between. Well that’s where the magic is. That’s where these notes will be from for a while now. Coronanotes reached a healthy number but all things come to an end and that little bit of unity that we got from the shared crisis was worth spending the words on. It’s shifted now and the bubbles gobbling up the fringes again like it was before, so I’ll report from there while I still can. I’ll report from the edge and push back.   

Coronanotes6

c.2000/71 

I walked past a little less traffic this morning and the Tuesday market on the high street was a sorry state of affairs with only the Jesus tent and the fishmonger bothering to turn up. 71 dead of the virus in this country in a matter of mere days and no real idea how long it will last. When the kids – my own and the ones that I teach – ask me what about this and what if that I tell them that I don’t know. I simply don’t because it has never happened before and we have no past mistakes to try and avoid or the wisdom of hindsight to rely on. 

Brownies is cancelled until further notice and the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth has shut its doors. The major concern at the moment is the economy and the effect on people’s livelihoods. The potential life-changing few months that we have ahead of us are what looms the biggest on the horizon at the moment and shades out the bigger beast that lurks behind it. Lots of people will die. If it follows the estimate then that number could be as high as half a million in this country alone. We can only hope that the predictions are being made by the same people who predicted that Trump would never get in and the Brexit campaign would fail… 

So where’s Jesus in all this? Isn’t he due back sometime soon? I was told that story at Sunday school all that time ago. What? Is that offensive? I haven’t got started yet – and I did say some weeks back that this isn’t about you and it’s not for you? If you had the chance I bet you’d be spouting your Jesus love. This is my platform. 

I’ve heard the zealots and their idea that God is warning us. What does that even mean? – Is he the creator or the coy voyeur with a knowing smile and a sad shake of the head? You put your kids in the snake pit and then tut and nod as they get crushed. Really?  

The pope’s been all brave with his televised sermons. Is anyone there that can explain this? He’s in a room up on his golden throne in a palace paid for by fools and taxpayers and he sits in front of the camera and rattles off some tired old promise which is then screened to an audience gathered outside. So presumably he doesn’t want to be too close – is that it? At the end of the speech he waddles up to the window, his fancy robes dragging along with him, and he gives the audience a wave. What? So it could be that the pope’s actually dead – there was a rumour that he had the virus. Or that he’s severely ill with it and these messages are pre-recorded (it’s the sort of thing they’s do) so it could be anyone’s arm sticking out of the window. Of course, wouldn’t be right for them to see the pope struck down by a disease that’s sent from the old man up on high. Would force them to have a think about a few things (well, some of them at least). 

I wonder if maybe this actually isn’t sent from anywhere and if this virus is just a bit like us – trying to make its way in the world while it can regardless of what stands in its way. Sounds a bit familiar, don’t it? You have to admire it. Nothing ever has this impact on such a wide scale. 

It is one ten-thousandth of a millimetre across and yet it has brought us to our knees. Fair play.    

Coronanotes5

c.1300/35 

This time last week things were very different. I wonder what things will be like in a week, a month. And if we believe what they say, it’s not even started yet and won’t really kick off until the start of summer. 

It has been the weekend so tomorrow will bring updates from the workplace. Every day seems to have brought something new; when I thought it would wane it has done the opposite. The number of infected has double and seems to be doing so each day. The percentage of those who have died is significant and, if you think about the amount of people predicted to get the virus, will be very significant. 

Trump has shut the borders to the UK now and Johnson is waiting a little longer until we Brits know exactly the extent to which we will be affected – not by the disease but by the social measures put in place. It is a difficult one and one which the Prime Minister can’t win; it has predictably become a great opportunity for the opposition to take a cheap swing at the decisions that are being taken. Scotland, as they do, have gone against government advice, simply because it’s government advice; Ireland purposely gave no warning of its decisions so that we looked flat-footed and Corbyn, still desperate to claw back some dignity after his crushing defeat in the election (how far away that seems now) is picking at everything that is said. 

It makes me despair at the very nature of humanity and the chance that we have of dealing with things like this when flailing opposition parties use every little strain on the government to score cheap points. If Corby had got in; if Scotland was independent; I would still simply want the authorities to come together; the people on the fringes to put the people first and everyone pull in the same direction for the good of the country. Grannies and granddads are dying; our kids are getting ill and we ourselves face the threat of this disease and the wider effects that it will have on our country, our society, our economy and our fundamental identity as a nation. It is bigger that all of their politics. 

Most other countries have shut schools so the predictable attack on Johnson is that he is delaying in Britain and that this will cost lives. It is a tricky one with so many factors to take into consideration: 

  • If the peak isn’t going to be until June then do we really need to knee-jerk lock-down like so many other countries have? A lock-down will need to stay in place until the crisis is over. You can’t turn it on and then off again. 
  • This period of anticipation will help the citizens of this country slowly get used to the idea: the Italians, French, Irish and all the rest, they had hours to prepare mentally. I think we’ll be ready for it when it comes. 
  • So we shut down schools – are the kids going to stay in their houses for 16 weeks? Nope: they’ll gather surreptitiously and spread the virus and put themselves at risk as they seek illicit places to meet up.  
  • They’ll get bored and boredom is the root of most evil in the teenage brain. 
  • And what about the parents who will have to stay off? They will be nurses, firefighters, toilet-paper manufacturers…who will do those jobs? 
  • And you get granny and granddad to look after the kids and…see paragraph 4.    

Toilet roll, dried pasta and handwash have been the strange topic of conversation over the past few days as though all of a sudden we’re shitting ourselves more than even and haven’t been washing our hands enough in the past. 

The shelves will refill and calm will return to that area as people’s cupboards fill up and can take no more. It will be something else. What will the next issue be? 

I predict looting. I hope I’m wrong. 

Is it interesting or even significant that two B-2 Stealth bombers from America landed in Gloucestershire this weekend?  

Coronanotes3

Cases c.500 

The numbers are climbing impressively and I must admit that I’m a bit surprised that we’re all still talking about it. It was days like this that the word exponentially was made for. One of those beautiful words that languishes in the back of our minds and waits for its day. 

The numbers are rising and my old man in wales thinks that he has the disease. In truth he’s been through most of the others in his mind and now that he knows how to access google, can self-diagnose in an instant. I’ve told him to use the web for what it was meant for but he says he’s too old for porn. I don’t believe him. 

Some of my overseas students have jumped ship and gone home for a couple of months to see out whatever it is that we get hit with. The Chinese have gone back there since it seems to have peaked. In Europe they say we have weeks – months even before it peaks. We’ll have to see about that. I’m still not sure. 

What I am pretty sure about, though, is where it’s all come from – and that’s great as I plan to start on the next book. 

There are some countries that can get away with this sort of thing. They’re the ones with brutal but effective regimes; the countries that put the national interest before the interest of the individual. Communism helps in this regard, but it doesn’t need that sort of emotive tag. Simply a country that can put the squeeze on without too much of a fuss; that can expect almost total obedience from its citizens. These nations are vilified by us western liberal states, but they do work.  

Sometimes they work too well. Look at China. Home to a quarter of the world’s population and yet still with a boot firmly on the throat of the lot of them. So when that power needs a boost or looks like it might slip, measures need to be taken to regain the grip. In the past wars have helped to shake things up – and you think those natural disasters are all, well, natural?  

But this time it’s something new. Something new cooked up by the boffins unfettered by developing actual weapons for actual wars. A new weapon: a way to do a number of things: 

  1. Control a population 
  1. Target that control at the useless aged 
  1. Deplete small renegade businesses and mop up the margins 
  1. Remind the population who the boss is. 

Gee nee us. 

A place as vast and dense as China can spread an artificial virus in a flash – and then lock it down. The people that need to die: tens of thousands of ill and elderly, briefly mourned and then gone. Billions saved in health, social care etc etc. The authority reaffirmed. Job done. Six months. 

That’s all good. China takes strides towards world superpower through means that not many other nations could because of their inability to exert the same pressures upon their people as the Chinese more than any moral dilemma. There’s little doubt that they all know about what’s going. No doubt that they with they could do the same. It’s become pretty clear that the Western Way is in serious regression as it spends more time on fringe issues than things that matter (though that’s a different thing). 

But what if one of those western nations suddenly has crazy ideas of recreating its former grandeur with an growing economy run my fresh-faced youngsters while the rest of its neighbours age and fade away.  

Somehow Italy managed to get hold of China’s virus and had a go at its own little purge. The oldest population in Europe would soon be the youngest; its health care system, only having to deal with a fraction of the usual cases would be the envy of the world; cash spend on the elderly would go into manufacturing and innovation. Rome would once again rule. 

Trouble is that the European authorities, like the Americans, can’t put their big boots anywhere near the throats of their citizens without major revolt. Recent and more distant conflicts resonate loudly still and previous wars have not faded. People move where they want; they do what they want; they know their rights. And so the virus runs out of control and we all get a piece of it. 

In the long run we’ll all benefit, of course. And in close circles the Italians will be lauded as the world breathes a sigh of relief.