Inside the Bubble

At every opportunity a creep out to the little alleyway a few houses down

Life inside the bubble is the life that we’re all groomed to and it’s a stealthy grooming that creeps up on us until we can do nothing about it. I’m not talking about the silly conspiracy theories that are banded about and which tempt us into that old anarchic polarisation again; I’m not in the camp that believes in a grand masterplan and an elite class pulling the strings. I’m not going there. I actually think that there’s a general earnestness in the minds of those in power and that a logical argument can be laid out across the wide range of beliefs and biases that heave and ho around us. Whether we agree or not with this or that idea, quite frankly, is neither here nor there.  

There’s a sense of inevitability hanging over things at the moment that maybe is different to what it used to be. Popular opinion has replaced common good and popular opinion these days is measured by social media presence. This means that the squeaky wheel will get the grease. The squeaky wheel is the one that has the time, has the loudest voice and the USB port. It’s not to be confused with the voice of the people. 

All this inside the bubble. 

The pedestrian lights in my town have all been upgraded and they look very nice. There’s the knobbly pavement for the visually impaired and the turning wheel underneath for the hearing impaired. The stretch of road on the approach is red tarmac (a little gruesome) and the new posts that hold up the lights are cool grey. The paradox is, though, that these crossings are there to serve the motorist and not the pedestrian. You rock up to the crossing, press the button and, while there’s traffic are left waiting. When there’s a break in traffic (ie: when you could have crossed anyway) the lights change and the little tune plays and there’s no one there to cross because they’ve either withered away with time or diced with death and crossed anyway. I remember a time when the pedestrian crossings were there to serve the pedestrian, but maybe I’m being old-fashioned. 

I was entertained by the return of the first commercial space trip this week as the return pod splashed into the sea. It was, for me, another example of the silly things that we accept and put up with. It reminded me of a time when I was younger. Mum never rode a bike when she was a kid so we bought her one, dad and me. We dressed it up all beautiful with sparkly rainbow decals and a little basket, we taught her the theory of gears and bought her special gloves to wear. On the day of the launch we made a picnic and set out to the park where she was to take her maiden flight. She rode it beautifully across the grass, ribbons flowed and spokes flashed in the sun and she smiled. Mum actually smiled as she sailed across the grass. It seemed like the whole park had stopped to watch our triumph. The she remembered that in all the excitement getting her to go, we had never showed her how to stop. As the edge of the park neared and the traffic on the road grew bigger, she abandoned the bike, smashed into the bushes and brought herself to a wholly undignified stop. We should have thought the mission through a little more. Billions of dollars are spent on these space missions – the price of a couple of hospitals each time – and they end with a metal capsule smashing into the sea and being rescued by a fishing boat. I mean, come on. Is this the best that we can do? 

I try not to watch the news so much any more. At every opportunity a creep out to the little alleyway a few houses down and make my way across the road. There’s a little tear in the fabric of the bubble and if I prise it up with my fingernails I can squeeze out. You should try it.   

The Edge

I was out looking again today. I was out on The Edge looking round. 

It’s still only just August but my breath floated on the air in front of me today, caught in the early sun at the top of the wheat field. The boots were sodden with the dewy damp before I’d been out more than five minutes and I know that it won’t be long before I’ll need layers again. I expect that the shorts will stay for most of the winter. A leaf fell in front of me as I walked along the lane. The trees form a tunnel and the sunlight that filters through catches leaves like coins. One fell, still green and too keen for autumn. Not ready for it yet but I’m preparing. 

I’m going to have to think what I’ll do when the mornings hold onto the dark until the day’s well in swing; when the night falls before I’m done with the day. It’s easy to get to The Edge on summer days like this and the lockdown has allowed better access than ever. It’s just there: I see it shimmering from the back windows and the tall poplars at the top of the field are waving all of the time. Waving to me and calling me out. But what about when it’s dark, wet, icy? Will I still lift up the plastic wrapping and venture out onto the ledge, the ledge at the edge of things?  

It’s time we talked about this place a little more. People have been asking and I’ve been thinking about it. I can let you in some more I think. I mean, we’ve come this far and it’s possible that you’ve started to understand that The Edge isn’t so much a place as an acceptance. Call it a bubble, a saran wrap or clingfilm or whatever you will, it’s the invisible barrier that lets us see the clouds but not breathe the fresh air. It’s the cocoon that shields us from our part in the great web of things and encourages us to deny our memento mori. In here we’re braver and tougher and invincible and even when it rains we can scamper home or jump in our cars. 

Reading this, the chances are that you’re a bit like me. You know that we need all this; you know that there’s a lot to be said for the world we’ve made and we could spend as much time praising it as trying to bring it down. But let’s leave that to the politicians and the mainstream media. Let them justify themselves and their constructs with the material accumulations that have become the measure of all things. Reading this, you’re probably sensible enough to know that all this circus is an inevitable by-product of the whole progress thing, but you probably don’t buy into the importance of it like they want you to. 

Some want to bring it down – they see the bubble that we all swelter under and they want to pull it down. It’s the means to an end and there’s no real consensus about what comes after they’ve toppled the towers and burst the banks. It’s the ones with little to lose that follow this train of thought; who simply want change at any cost. And then there’s those who think that it’s all about the money. That it’s about the next promotion or the next new car. I’d guess that reading this, you’re quite a distance from both of those and that’s good. I have no business with either, either. 

There’s never going to be consensus on either side for very simple reasons on either side of the fence: 7 billion sentient minds will never form a common idea for the eutopia that one side thinks is possible and by its very definition, the capitalist argument will always be a competition. 

But we need the bubble, people like you and me. We need it there where it is and we need the vast majority of people to be lulled by it; hypnotised by the promises and dazzled by the lights. The last thing we want is for it to all come tumbling down. Love it or hate it, the bubble of the towns and the cities and the motorways and all the rest of it, they do  well the job that they have evolved to do, and most importantly: they keep people in a place where we can see them and know where they are. Imagine a great dismantling of the bubble – where would they all go? The whole world would be edge. And The Edge, well that’s for me and you. That’s where we go when we’re no longer willing to play along.  That’s where the magic is.

It’s best to think of The Edge as a state of mind as much as any geography. There’s no need to drive to the mountains or move to the sea; it’s not even necessary to live next to open countryside or a thick forest. You just need to be able to take a step away from the telly, put the phone on mute and strap on a pair of decent shoes. There’s an Edge in every town and city and I’m pretty sure that you’ve found yours already. The Edge is on the outside and it can be rocky underfoot. It’s a ledge that skirts the bubble; sometimes wide and sometimes the width of a footstep.  

And beyond The Edge? Well that’s something else. We’ll have to deal with what happens when the land drops away some other time. And it does drop away to place where there’s no foothold and no rules; where there’s no boundary and no limit.  

It’s over The Edge that the real magic happens.

Notes from The Edge 15 – Lock-down

It will be banging hot today – that’s what they say. I can feel it already in the air; warm air came it little gusts like from a hair-dryer. It is likely that we will pay for a hot day like this with a week of rain. It is the way that things tend to go here. The lockdown three-month spell brought the best spring weather we have ever seen, then July started. 

Nothing’s as simple as we never realised it was, any more. The little things that we took for granted are now consigned to a past that we have already started to call pre-Corona. We will talk about those hazy happy days with the same silly nostalgia that we use when we talk about the way the world was before the war. The conditions are like this: 

I have a cotton bandana wrapped around my wrist like a decoration, though it’s really there because I won’t be allowed into any shops unless I wrap it round my face before I enter. I’m noticing eyes more. I’ve never seen so many. Queues for shops stretch out through carparks and twist along the street with gaps between the waiting suggesting some national falling out. On the footpaths people have begun to fling themselves into the bushes as we pass and one could get paranoid. Shops are in one way and out another. The cashiers swim behind plastic screens and mime conversation, but with contactless payment there’s no need for any interaction whatsoever. 

The pubs are empty and the pub gardens are full; pergolas and gazebos defy the weather and British pub staff learn how to wait on tables. It’s in one way, try not to breathe on the way through, and then out the other way when you’re done. 

The canal tow-path will need a rethink after a couple of centuries of loyal service: it simply is not conducive to a socially-distanced walk and will probably need to adopt a one-way system or be emptied so that we can all keep our distance – just in the same way that the theatres remain closed and beauticians wait for a return to work – all the time watching hordes of holiday-makers cram into aeroplanes or pack onto beaches. But of course the decision-makers need their holidays too… 

I didn’t want to return to these socially-commentary posts. I had my fill in the spring and made the decision to step out to the edge and let them get on with it; let the fools reel giddy in their own little dance. I’m staying here, right on the edge, so that I can duck under it and gulp in the air. Remind myself what it’s all about. 

Will you come with me? When the seasons start to turn; will you come? Not too many, of course – we don’t want to spaces crammed, but there’s enough space for all of you who get it; who understand the importance of the space. A little wave is enough – no need to get too close. No need to form an association or found a club. A nod, that’ll do. 

I found the canal the other night. The Cut, we call it around here, and it once typified the growing links between the growing throbbing cities when the Industrial Revolution kicked off just up the road. These busy highways linked the towns and cities and, far from the tranquil, tucked-away havens we see today, were busy, dirty, noisy highways populated by grubby foul-mouthed townies and muddy with the detritus of the unenlightened. 

Now these canals are largely forgotten and cut little lines across the countryside and provide surprising exit routes from city-centres and out of towns. The land here drops 67 metres between the edge of the city and the start of the Worcestershire plains and, such was the desire to link up the conurbations that a massive Victorian engineering project lifted the water through thirty locks and blasted hundreds of metres of tunnel through the hillsides. It was an early indication of the inevitable pushing and probing of the tendrils of the beast.  

The craft on the water are scarce in comparison these days and move at walking pace. They’re an impractical attempt to cling on to a time that is lost and a way to surrender to time for a while: it takes a day to travel the two miles from one end of the flight of locks to the other – and that’s without traffic. Now these canals are largely forgotten and cut little lines across the countryside and provide surprising exit routes from city-centres and out of towns. The craft on the water are rare these days and move at walking pace.

From time to time a footpath will spring off to the side and a whole new adventure will beckon with a gnarled and twisted finger. 

Don’t ignore that finger.  

Notes from The Edge 14 – Riverside

Funny how it works out like that. I woke this morning for the Early Walk Along The Edge and there at the bottom of the lane, congested like a blocked nose, alien craft had landed and stood poised on the tarmac, ready to scrape and scratch and relay. It is a very old road, the road that runs up through the foothills at the back of the house, it was about to become newer than my haircut. A smooth new blacktop will make it a calliope of a ride from the top once they’re out of the way, I just wonder how it will affect the winter traffic: there will be no potholes to slow them down as they approach the junction.  

Back to the river at the other end of the county and an illustration of the paucity of bridges along our greatest stretch of water. A walk along the banks of the Severn in summer is unrivalled and a spot of rain from time to time is a blessing as it sends the fair-weather ramblers scuttling in their clean boots for the plastic bubbles of their cars. (It’s not like they actually intended to use those £200 waterproofs.) Even when it rains in the Worcestershire summer it’s never chilly and the shower soon dries off. This is the story that I tell to the girls before we set off – the two little ones and the older one; their mother. I tell them to put on their shorts because legs dry quicker than trousers. We visit the outdoor shop and my desire to hike with them costs me a fortune, but is worth it all when I see us all kitted, kaboodled and ready to roll along the riverbank. 

When walking with the wife and kids, in my experience, it’s always a good idea to keep information to a minimum. Like a long journey in the car it’s always worth offering little encouragements of, let’s say, twenty minutes. Kids can compute that amount of time and it gives them a time-scale to take ownership of. For the wife it’s an episode of Neighbours, she can cope with that. Keep it simple:  

How long’s left, daddy? 

Twenty minutes, princess. 

Of course this wears thin after a while so there’s some improv needed and I suggest supplementary titbits, such as: 

But daddy, how long now? 

Twenty minutes, princess. Ooh look – did you see that heron/fish/boat/squirrel/plane…? 

It requires some strategy. You don’t want to be pulling out the Haribo’s or Dairy Milk too soon, and before you know it you’re passing the Victoria Bridge and someone’s waving from the other side. That’s the picnic spot and the footbridge over the water is just ahead. From that point it’s all walk home. Well, that’s what you tell them: the relief of a sit-down has its limits. It’s soon time to be back on the route. 

Just as they were flagging, the river had disappeared behind fields for a while and we still had a mile or so to go; just as I thought we might not actually make it back before a mutiny, (the girls had grouped together and were plotting my destruction, I felt it). Long after the sweets had run out and no one wanted to hold my hand any more, a rustle and burst from the woods to the side as a family of fallow deer trotted onto the track, paused to regard us a while, then sprinted off into the trees. Suddenly all pain, all hunger, all desire to be on a sofa in front of the telly were gone. Right on cue she had turned up again. 

Notes from The Edge 13 – Riverside

The river, they say, holds no memories.

We always talk of rivers as old. We personify them as immortal princesses or indomitable kings; we make songs about them which become legends of a misty past; we let them meander through stories and folktales. The rivers are always simply there. And very old. 

I have watched the sun rise above the Zambezi as the river plummets over Victoria Falls and been soaked on the Maid of the Mist at Niagara; I’ve cruised on the Seine and paddled in the Thames; I’ve straddled the Severn up by its source and canoed in the Wye at Symmond’s Yat. These are truly majestic beasts of the natural world. For Inlanders like us it’s the same as being at the seaside. 

I’m sitting next to the Severn now. It’s breath-taking in the summer twilight and swelled a little by yesterday’s rain in foreign mountains. Six months ago I was here to witness for myself the swell that had burst the banks again and broken new records and I heard the locals talk about the river as neither a princess or a king, but a grumpy old man. For some, as they piled ruined furniture on the wheelie bins out front and stowed sodden picture frames on the landing, it was worse than grumpy: it was plain evil. Another example of the indifferent mercilessness of nature. Today it’s so shallow that I can see the gravel bed through the running water and it seems impossibly far below our trailing feet; improbable that so much space could be filled by so much water could come rushing through the valley and cause such mayhem. To illustrate my point a heron has waded out almost to the middle of the river in search of a meal – he’s only up to his knees. 

People live on the edge here. Increasingly so, though you wouldn’t know it to be standing here right now. The kids toss in twigs to race and if the sun’s up tomorrow I’ll let them dip their toes a little. We’re not far from home – same county, actually, but there’s an edge here that that maybe only Inlanders can feel about a river. It’s what the rest of them think about the sea: a frontier; the closing off of one world and the opening of another. 

We’re on the far side of the river and if something happens to the little bridge in the town we’re twenty miles either way from the nearest village. Over our shoulder the forest breathes like a single entity and I know that the darkness of its depths stretches as far as the Welsh border. After that no one can really be sure. 

I’m thinking about how old the river is. How old any river really is. 

What is the river? Think about it. If it’s the water then the vast majority of this water was rained out only a few hours ago. It’s fresher that the milk I’ll put in my latte in a few minutes. It’s not old: this river is the newest thing this town has ever seen, and it sees it all day long. So what’s old, then? The gravel and rocks at the bottom? Maybe, but they’re always on the move, too – and most of the time we don’t see them. So the trees that line the banks of the river from the Hafren forest to the Bristol Channel? Maybe. But then we’re not talking about the river any more… 

We wouldn’t insist on legions of Roman soldiers before a road can be called Roman and we don’t wait for horse-drawn carriages before a route is known as old. All of these roads get their resurface: layer over layer of time and history and the river goes one further with a complete rehaul every few minutes. The river, they say, holds no memories. So how are they old? 

It’s the something that’s always been there that we call old. For good or evil it just has been there. A route, a barrier, a threat, a ride. But it’s not old, this old river. Like an old hurt. The hurt’s aren’t old if we hold onto them today: only the reasons for holding on to them are old. 

Notes From the Edge 13 – Africa 8

It will be the first time in a while that we haven’t been abroad for a summer holiday in the sun. This would usually be the time for shopping, checking suitcases, thinking about suncream and what to do with the dog. A busy time, not unlike the stresses of Christmas. I won’t miss it for a year. I won’t miss the airport and the midnight transfer at the other end.    

We’ll take a drive up to Wales, stop by at Cracker Ridge on the way to the sea and land ourselves softly in a cottage that’s a world removed from the all inclusive by the pool, but will in itself provide the adventures that a break from the routine of work needs to provide. 

I, for one, am immensely looking forward to being back in that part of the world. There’s some weird sort of calling that I get which pulls me back there regularly and it shows no sign of diminishing. Wherever I am in the world, it is always to here that I am drawn first in my mind. The fields of home; the familiar streets of the town are secondary to the big sky and craggy walls of mountain. Even the clouds that loom like a frown over the peaks are inspiring in their ominousness and I breathe in the bigger power when I’m there. 

My Autumn notes will cover the details of the early years down at the bay and in the mountains. It is worth looking out for as the nights draw in because it tells a story from a different side of the life that a youth of the city is meant to lead. The coin tipped up and I slip off. Found myself groping for a foothold and somehow ended up here. It’s about the journey, of course: it’s always about the journey. 

Today, as I prepare for a trip to the edges, I return to Africa and this day a twelvemonth back: I was in Livingstone, Zambia. 

Livingstone

From time to time there were thick, full branches laid on the side of the road at intervals of a hundred or so yards. They served as the warning triangles that we had back home and there was, invariably, further up the road a broken-down antique of a truck or a spillage of some sort. These roads didn’t have the polished fancy signs and flashing lights of back home, but they had their signs and codes. They weren’t written in any book or sanctioned by government departments but were as important to know as the functions of the pedals and the gear stick. 

Rush hour in Lusaka a couple of days before was little more than a battle of wills and a war of attrition: a masterclass in avoiding eye-contact and leaning on the horn. It was nothing personal and no-one was angry, but for twenty or thirty minutes we were in the centre of an improbable tangle of cars and pickups and lorries and minibus taxis at a junction that had no lines or lights or right of way. Millimetre by millimetre we nudged forward in the stinking heat of the city, each of us scraping through the melee somehow without touching, most of the vehicles crammed with people, most of the people leaning out of the windows and offering advice. At one point two men appeared and commenced directing the traffic, as though had grown bored watching the mess, but they were largely ignored and merely oversaw the inevitable unknotting of the tangle. 

It was what we were heading back to. Four days on safari; four sunsets from the deck over the river at Croc Valley; four days without the noise and smoke of the city. Another eleven hours on the bus lay ahead of us; another night on the edge of the city and then eight hours west to Livingstone. 

I looked less at the road on the journey from Kakumbi to Lusaka. I let my eyes wander further, across the little villages and the herds of goats that might have been wild but were probably just very free-range, and to the wild plains and brush that lay beyond. There are no decent maps of Zambia and life gathers around the roads. Areas the size of England were left wild and only the imagination could tell what might have lurked there, what went on, how I would fare if I was dropped there. From time to time black hills rose out of the brush and were crowned with white cloud, and sometimes the hills looked perfectly formed, like pyramids from a forgotten civilisation. 

At Lusaka the kids sated their craving for tiled floors and neon lights. We ate Pizza and drank lemonade and at the campsite played pool in a thatched club house and camped in a field of elk. 

And then a different road. This was the road to Livingstone and the Zimbabwe border. It was a well-used road but no better serviced for that. Trucks loaded with Zambian copper headed to the border, heavy with the precious metal that never stayed long in the country but was bound, apparently, for China. Zambia was rich in natural resources, I was told. I wondered if the people on George Compound knew this. 

We were heading for Livingstone, the country’s second city named after the British explorer made famous for his discovery of Victoria Falls and his rejection of the attitudes of his time towards the African people. He lived with and loved these people and many times depended upon them for his very survival. I wonder how many of the white supremacists did actually come out to places like this and meet the people; speak to them and hear their stories. It is so much easier to dismiss and dehumanise a people that is nothing more than a commodity or obstacle. 

I was much more of a fan of Livingtone that I was of Lusaka. This town (its population was a little less than Hereford) was geared to the outside world and, unlike Lusaka offered a whole different welcome to the visitor – like pavements and hanging baskets and little piazzas with coffee shops and bookstalls. A white woman walked alone along the main road into the city and and no one crowded the bus when we paused in traffic. An armed policeman patrolled the toilets and hawkers were banned from the shopping centre carpark. 

As the group piled into Shoprite for supplies I was drawn to the edge of the carpark by a man about my age who, like they all do, wanted to be my best friend, wanted to know my name and where I was from.  

“I have some magic” he said, looking round furtively for the guard. “I have magic for you, but we have to step out of the mall.” It was the sort of scenario we had been warned about and lectured the kids on endlessly. I would be lured down the road, stabbed in the chest in the middle of the day and robbed of by dollars and Stirling. And yet I followed. We all like to be beckoned, don’t we? Just like we like magic… Drugs? I thought. Some special mushroom? Phone credit? 

At the edge of the carpark, just outside the gates and opposite the Fawlty Towers bunk house he opened his jacket and took out a fistful of pendants: shaped and polished stones on leather cord. The same sort of trinket that we had seen on every street corner of every town that we had passed through. I had walked this far so asked him what it was. If I was going to give him some of my money I wanted him to work for it. 

Nyami Nyami,” he said. “Spirit of the river.” The story was of a giant snake-like creature that lived in the Zambezi river and from time to time dragged people into the depths and devoured them. The Nyami Nyami was a river spirit that protected the wearer from this creature and (though I doubted this) everybody wears one. “Ten dollars. Good price.” I took two for $5 and slipped one over my neck, just in case. The river was only a mile away… 

The ground didn’t feel so hard beneath our sleeping bags here in Livingstone and the dust a little more under control. On the outside the town gave off a sense of its own identity and a feeling of control. The shops had windows and the café had wi-fi and lattes. But on the edge of the town the roads returned to dust and the markets huddled together in between the single-storey houses. Here, unlike in the town centre, where the locals didn’t drink in the café or shop in the jeweller’s, the people stared, no doubt wondering why we had chosen to visit this part of town. 

We were on our way to the town’s orphanage, to see where kids were taken off the streets and given a chance of an education and a future. It was simple opportunity and a little bit of love – that’s all they needed and my heart broke as we peered into their bedrooms and saw the Disney bedsheets and the little Pixar backpacks: the same dreams… We played football and I donned the Zambia shirt that I had bought at the market. The home team won and the children laughed. I smiled and I don’t think I have really stopped smiling since.  

Notes From the Edge 12 – Cracker Ridge

It is a place of broken ambition and broken toys but when the trip is a short one there’s no need for ambition and even broken toys keep the kids busy for a while. Mostly it is a place where time has broken and flaps along like a broken wing. It takes a gear shift coming here and this is what long journeys are for. They extract us from the plastic tightness of the city and with every mile pull from us the bits that still cling stubborn and elastic and try to drag us back. 

Cracker Ridge wears the forest like a hairpiece when viewed from a distance. You can’t see it from the cottage but at night you hear it breathing and in the day the direction of travel in the air is that way. It is still a fair walk to reach the outer edges of the trees and we don’t always go that way; sometimes we’re pulled with gravity down to the village and the Red Lion then rue the walk back up. On days that we trudge to the top of the ridge there’s the reward of an easy walk home. 

It is not an old forest so there’s some great sadness that hangs in the air with each foot of summer growth; a sense of inevitability and impending doom. But isn’t it better to see things like this rather than pretending we’re surprised? It is a generational forest. I have made that up because it fits the best to describe how the growth lasts around thirty years, just to the point where the forest has become permanent and the shadows cast across the neighbouring fields a constant thing; time enough for a folklore to grow and a hundred generations of smaller creatures to live and die and forget the great devastation. 

When I was fifteen I watched it fall and I cried with every dragging truck and biting saw at the great injustice. I watched creatures leap and bound in panic and the little pools I had known shaped by giant tyre tracks and slick with oil. And then the great silence when the men had taken what they wanted and left. It felt like some terrible crime had been committed The men laughed as they leaned on their trucks and smoked cigarettes, flicking butts into the puddles they had made. 

A heavy silence like the stunned silence after a great battle, for days and weeks nothing daring to move; nothing able to move. A forgotten oak, left like a joke; an island in the carnage and crammed with refugees; a kite floating on the breeze looking to profit, the crunch of dead branches and discarded chunks of timber uselessly sliced and left. 

But the path, though we had never noticed it before, raised from the rest of the forest, suddenly afforded new views across the space that had been created. Views that I had never seen before and that stretched impossibly far to the dark peaks that dipped their toes in the sea. Where the forest had been the land undulated and dropped sharply to a valley that I didn’t know was there and undiscovered streams threaded like veins. Forlorn stumps of trees, their open wound still sticky with sap and smelling sweetly of Christmas, would soon be overtaken by new life that seized its chance to breathe the free air and soak up the rays of the sun. For this underlife it is the trees who are the oppressors because there’s always another angle. The villain in the tale has his own dreams, too and doesn’t consider himself in the wrong. 

But that was then. A lot has happened in the gulf between and walks in the woods on Cracker Ridge belie all of that memory. It is how memory is meant to work; we fill the vacuum with the things we want to remember the way that the milk-sodden Weetabix fills the void left by the spoon. As a man I walked in the shadows of the trees that had returned and enjoyed nervous love in little glades; as a husband I walked and made improbable plans that I knew would work out. And later still, little faces poking from pouches or perched on shoulders, little voices singing in the echoes of the trees along with mine and then walking beside me and holding my hand. 

And to now. I tell them that when I was their age or thereabouts I watched as they pulled all of this down and Cracker Ridge was shorn of its hairpiece. I told them of the silence that descended for a while and how I walked with a feeling of emptiness. But they didn’t believe me, of course. It is all too permanent. It is the beauty of youth: that great belief in the permanence of all things. 

Notes From the Edge: Africa 6

I am at the point in the Africa Notes where we take the long drive across the country to the nature reserve. Twelve hours on an old bus might have been test of will but for me the front windscreen was a cinema and through the side windows were manipulated the other senses. The smells of the roasted mice that they shoved through the windows each time we slowed down the chattering monkeys in the trees and the shrill cry of playing children. On the old bus, just like in our tents at night, we felt the hard, unrelenting African earth through our very bones.  

When we travel, when we really travel, we’re at the mercy of someone else every step of the way and it can be frustrating at times waiting for trains or border control or bus drivers. It’s part of the adventure, if we’ve got our mindset right, and these waiting times are often when we get to see the little bits of a place that in our rush we might miss. At the station we might catch the conversation between the conductor and the guard, or we might see the fat man stumble or the cat catch a bird. These are not moments to be idle; just to let the world think that we are. I use this time to make pages. At every opportunity where there’s a flatish surface that doesn’t move too much and a little bit of light, I’ll be making pages. It is a lovely irony that most of the action happens to the traveller when he’s not moving. We get less time when we’re back home than when we’re out and about. I’ll walk the fields and pop to the coast and catch a mountain or two, but the itinerary is always tight and there’s always demands. Give me a delayed flight in Livingstone or a traffic jam in Lusaka or a twelve-hour drive across the African bushland any day. 

I jumped in my car just now and drove to pick the kids up from school. I’d been making pages at my desk and had immersed myself deeply in the dusty roads of South Luangwa so that as I drove the safe smooth roads of my Worcestershire town I thought of how the displacement of a few thousand miles could land one in an entirely different world. As I rolled along here in England there was a cart laden with firewood, pulled by a pair of donkeys along some desolate road in the heart of Africa and flanked by a man about my age with a job to do. Whose life is the more valid? Whose dreams the more important? 

Africa6 – The Long Road to Kakumbi

Three days ago we were on a luxury air-conditioned coach gliding over flawless tarmac. The 200km drive from school to the airport took a little over two hours. Today we were to take the Great East Road out of Lusaka and towards the border with Malawi before heading north to Kakumbi, deep in the South Luangwa national park. The journey is 340km and was to take every single drop of the twelve hours of daylight. In fact, we left Casa Munji in the pre-dawn chill and were on the outskirts of the city before the sun made its swift ascent into the day and caught us up. 

It was a day that started on the same old bus that had brought us from the airport – a thirty-seater with our backpacks piled at the rear and ourselves slung across the remaining seats to catch missed sleep. 

I did not want to sleep. Not for a minute. The best way to know a place, just like a new acquaintance, is in the pre-dawn, as it wakes. With the sleep still in its eyes and preoccupied with the thoughts of the day a city is vulnerable and offers a true picture of its character. People were everywhere and I wondered where on earth they might have been going. There was no real sense of purpose and certainly no urgency like you might see in a London rush hour, but people were milling about, staring at the white folk on the bus, smiling amiably and chatting. Another day. 

Always people; the whole route of the long drive: people. This single carriageway was the main artery cutting through the country from the capital to the east and linking villages along the way. It was the M1 of Zambia but it was also a major pedestrian route, cycle path and marketplace. Again I was struck by a fundamental difference between how I saw roads and how there were seen here. At home we keep away from the roads where we can – indeed, it’s against to law to walk along the motorway – but here the road was the lifeblood of many, many communities. There were few, if any, safety features on the road other than a single and endless line down the centre: no illuminated cats-eyes or reflective signs; no rumble strips or speed cameras. In fact the only measure in place to control the speed of traffic on this road were the speed-humps that we encountered every few miles. Quite literally a strip of concrete, sometimes six inches high, had been set across the road with no warning of its arrival, nor any real consistency in its placement. Drivers had to be alert and it was on more than one occasion that we were either ground to a virtual stop to surmount a more obvious one, or peeling ourselves from the ceiling after one had not been spotted.  

I am tempted to think, though, that rather than being a safety measure, these speed humps were actually a crude business tactic. Each time we slowed for one of these things, figures would appear from the trees at the side of the road and thrust bananas through the windows of the bus or flustered chickens or, quite often, what I took to be decorative twig arrangements but were actually roasted field mice skewered on sticks. Small villages clustered round these points and in the shade languished the men while the women and children did the work. 

The houses all along the route were rudimentary single-room huts, circular and made of slender branches, roofed with elephant grass. It is the cliched image of Africa that I had not expected to see, but this is how people live. They emerge from beneath the thatch in their Barcelonaor Liverpool shirts and hawk goods to the passing traffic as they have done for centuries. In the centre of each village might be some source of electricity to charge their mobile phones. In one village we visited the local witch doctor had set up solar panels and could watch the football on a black and white Panasonic at the same time as charging his Nokia. The clay figure of a local god watched over his yard and he knew that his gadgetry was safe. 

Always people, people walking this way and walking that way along the side of the road. Even when it seemed that we had driven for hours without seeing any signs of a village or a town, people would be walking along the road. Children in school uniforms, women in bright colours and men on bikes. How far were they going? I wondered. How far had they already been? It was bumpy on the bus but we were getting somewhere at what must have seemed like an incredible pace to these people that we passed. What was it like to be them, to be there? I wondered if they wondered what it was like to be me; to be on this bus heading away and away from them. 

Every soul that I saw I thought of the thoughts that might have been passing through that mind. I liked to think that it was a calm place; a mind that wondered about today’s problems and not trying to reshape the world to fit a tomorrow that might never come. I wondered if they walked this road at night and if they did, what dangers lurked out of view of the road. When we rose and a view opened up it was harsh brush for as far as the eye could see with barren orange hills rising from time to time in the distance. On one bend a troop of baboons sauntered menacingly along the shoulder of the road like bored teenagers looking for trouble. How would a single man fare if he faced this lot one dusky night on the road? Or a small child? Were baboons wont to attack? I shivered in the heat of the bus at the thought and wondered what I would do in that situation. Even with a phone signal, who would come? How long would they take? 

And bikes. Push bikes that laboured along these stretches of road outnumbered by far the motorised vehicles that we had seen. They were classic old sit-up-and-beg models with a single speed and a wire rack at front and back. The rider was often obscured by the things that he carried and reduced to mere engine. I could never work out whether he was loaded on his way to market or on his way home but I saw whole pigs slung across the back, piles of bricks and bags of charcoal, ten gallon water butts and, on one occasion, a telegraph pole. It was testament to the strength of spirit of these people that they simply got on and did what they had to do. I admired it as I stretched out on my sea and eyed the baboons warily. 

Near the border with Mozambique we crossed the Luangwa river and thus out of Lusaka province and into Eastern province. In an instant the condition of the roads improved and the hold ups were less frequent. Still the people walked and rode and from time to time we passed small clusters of circular huts surrounded by great patches of black earth: the remnants of charcoal making. Next to these the ntembe; a market stall surrounded by sacks of charcoal, intentionally long and thin for carrying on bikes or heads. In the shade a single child flicking at flies.   

At Chipata, a few miles from the Malawian border, we stopped for meat. We were about to leave the main road, the driver told us, and this was the last place we would be able to buy food. A Spar supermarket stood at the edge of a strip-mall looking for all the world like it had been plucked from some remote Welsh village, except that here the shelves were mostly empty and within minutes our bus was surrounded by Chipatans. A boy of about fifteen sauntered over. He had a tray balanced on his head in which were small parcels of peanuts and he wore the sombre look that I was getting used to of someone who was about to ask for something. He told me that he was hungry, then swept his arm in a semi-circle: “we all are” he said and I noticed a dozen other boys in his wake. We gave them the bread that we had left and they gobbled it swiftly. I marvelled that he could walk all day with hunger grumbling in his gut and a tray of food on his head. We had been briefed not to give to beggars. We were told that it encourages them and reinforces the white-man supremacy idea. I thought that kids who were desperately hungry would not care less if it was a white man, a dairy cow or a man from mars who offered them food. They begged yesterday and would beg for every day to come while they were still hungry. I found the decree insulting and patronising – as though my refusing them food might cleanse the mentality of these boys.

An albino man that I took to be in his sixties but might just have easily been in his mid-twenties, his skin fairer than any of ours on the bus, muscled the boys out of the way and stood at the open doorway of the bus with his hands out. I had heard of the beggars in India and how mutilations and deformities were rewarded with higher begging stakes. I wondered if it was the same here – the man had a definite swagger in his approach and the boys parted willingly. He wasn’t deformed but he was odd. The one tooth that remained jutted horizontally between cracked lips and whatever was wrong with his skin had begun to eat away and his eyelids and ears. I could see why the others boys had parted and could not push from my mind the memory of trying to aim my wads of bread at the smaller ducks and not the bullying swan. In this case it was the small packets of Haribos that we had left, and this man was no swan. He wanted cash, he said, not bread. I gave him an apple and as we drove away wondered how he would eat it. 

We were on a dust road heading deep into the nature reserve. A sign read Kakumbi 60km and we knew that we were in for another couple of hours of sliding and rocking and slowing and stopping. The rudimentary Great Eastern Road that we had just left now seemed like a superhighway in comparison. But this was Africa and so far it had been so much more African than I had really expected it to be. Thick lines of trees now bordered the road and there were fewer and fewer people along its flanks. Were were heading into the North Luangwa National Park, an area that, since Zambia had realised that there was more to be gained in preserving the animals than shooting them, had become famous for its big game safaris and a tad more dangerous for the locals, most of whom had moved up to Chipata. 

With each rise of the road we caught glimpses of the land that was rolled out beneath us. It was so beautiful as to be unearthly; like a scene from a dream. Full of colours and textures that I had never seen before. The sun was on its descent and threw a softer light which picked out the wrinkles of the land and made long shadows of the trees and bushes. Vultures circled in the air while marauding monkeys chattered in the trees and played chicken with the bus. Croc Valley, our camp on the edge of the Luangwa river, would not be reached before nightfall and that would mean negotiating tents in the dark, but I don’t think that I was alone in enjoying the day bleed out of the sky.  

The road had become sand and I wondered how much further we would be able to go as the engine laboured after a hard day and the light dwindled. From the bushes to one side a commotion and the god-like bulk of a bull elephant. It did not care that we were there and its flank brushed the side of the bush as it pushed past. A zebra flicked its ears a little further on and impala drank from the stream. 

It was a day that had begun in the morning dark of a crammed city and was ending a million or so miles away. A million or so miles from anywhere. In my tent that night I wondered if the spaces we had left would be enough for when the elephants passed through to get to the water. I wondered if the bank that dropped down to the river was high and steep enough to keep the crocodiles down there. I wondered if the dozen or so hippos that lay farting and belching on the sandbanks would remain there for the night.  

I was too scared to dream that night, but I did sleep.  

Notes From the Edge: Africa 5

There’s no definition to the cloud. Nothing to get a fix on or to find hope in. No gap in which to poke a nail and peel back the grey. It has been like this for a while and a fine invisible drizzle that is cold on the skin seems out of place in July. This is Welsh rain. It’s like walking through mountain fog. Even the hills here are picked at with fingers of mist that blur the tops of the trees. 

Sixty miles across the county, Wales is dry. Our father tells me so. (He used to art in Devon but moved to the mountains, which is better because the M5 grates). I will take the girls to see him and nain in a few days – the first time that we will have crossed the border and seen the mountains since the start of the lockdown. In fact it will be the furthest that we have travelled since the new year. 

It is only a hundred miles but it doesn’t take much more than twenty to leave behind the plastic circles and enter a world where there is more nature than humanity and the circles are easily avoided. It is easier to breathe and the sky is bigger. The ground doesn’t tremble with traffic or the air taste like motorway. 

The front of the old house looks east towards England and there is a line of hills, the Long Mynd, that I can see from my early morning walks. There’s some sort of symmetry in that which I would explain to our father but I don’t think he’d get it. 

What I want to do with these Notes From the Edge pieces is to track the adventure of summer and show that fifty yards, twenty miles, a hundred miles, or 5,650 miles are all far enough from home to get out of the bubble and find the magic. It’s all about who you take with you in your head. 

I have a final few words on Lusaka… 

Lusaka

In front of each of the little houses the ntembe. On the table piles of potatoes or three or four bananas. In the shade, behind the table, a person. A dusty city full of people. A world full of sentience; of thinking and hoping. Do they dream, these people? I wondered what a reasonable dream would be in a place like this. What was even possible to achieve? I had worked my way out of my own poverty and developed an idea about how well I had done to sit in my book-lined study in my detached house with two cars on the drive. But I was humbled by this and with each turn of a corner wondered how much more I could take in and process. I wanted to see it all; I wanted to gobble it up and know these people. These beautiful people at the very origins of all of us. 

At George Compound we paused to watch a football game on a bare patch of land on the edge of the slum. There were at least fifty players and not one of them was wearing shoes. The ball, when we could see it, was crafted of plastic bags tightly woven and regularly in need of quick repair. There was no referee but also no arguing. 

Plastic was everywhere. It was a blight on the countryside and clogged the streams, caught in the fences and gathered in corners. It is another sign of how far apart nations can be in the hierarchy of need. It would be a national talking point back home – prominent figures would head campaigns to control the litter: dropping litter back home can incur a fine that is equivalent to three months’ wages here. There are more pressing things to worry about. We bought a brisket that had just been hammered out of shiny tin from the front of one of the huts. It was 15Kw – about 20p. I gave the man 100Kw because I felt guilty about the football. I felt guilty about it all. 

And yet I am in love with the place. There is something about the spirit of the people that I love; about the women that draws me towards them with something deeper than I have felt at the passing glimpse of a girl on the street in England. It would be a while until I would work out what it was but the tug in my chest would linger with me for all of the time that we were here.  

It was more than the smile, but these people knew how to smile, and more than this: they knew how to use their smiles. Each checkpoint we were stopped at, each shop that we entered, each interaction we had with the locals, I felt that we were instantly put in our place by the surly dark stare of someone immensely more savvy and confident than ourselves. It was a look of setting things in place and we all of us wilted at it and knew our place instantly. And then, with the speed of an African sunrise, the melting of the ebony and a smile like none I had ever known would light up the day. He greeting: “how’a’you” was one that resonated throughout our trip. It was a happy greeting – a polite greeting and one that expected a response. “I’m fine” was the usual return along with the same question back. It was a beautiful thing. 

A Lusaka market clung to the edges of the buildings and unfurled tarpaulin made a tunnel of the stalls and kept out the sun. A woman selling fish and nuts and plastic combs demanded money when we took her photograph. She also sold chitenge – rectangular sheets of colourful cloth that were used everywhere – wrapped around the slender figures of the women, wadded in between their heads and the loads that they carried, as shade above this market. I had decided that they would be easy to pack into my rucksack and carry home as gifts. I bought six at about $2 each. A crowd gathered as the transaction gathered steam and I pulled down her original $20 asking price. It’s tricky at the start to argue with these people, such is their need for as much as they can make. But they also know that in our belts we carry more than a year’s takings, so it is easily forgivable. As I took out my wallet and counted through my notes a $10 bill dropped onto the floor and was blown along in the dust. In a flash a hundred children’s writhing black bodies had pounced on it and I gave it up for gone and paid the lady. A tug on my shirt made me turn and look down into the smiling face of a small boy. He held out my $10 dollar bill for me to take. I let him have it and smiled myself as he took off down the alley pursued by the mob. I wasn’t sure if I had done him a good turn at all. 

Notes From the Edge: Africa 4

I heard it said recently that nature abhors a vacuum. It’s a phrase that sounds clever. Like one of those things smart people say because they sound smart and because few people can be bothered to argue with them. They’ll have clever come-backs and tricks to put you off your thread of thought if you try because they think about this sort of thing all the time. You know the people I mean. They run the Western World and they’re proof that you don’t have to be clever to be in charge – you simply need to impress. 

On this little island; in this dollar-driven society that sweeps us away, there’s resonance in the idea. The green spaces in between the towns don’t stay green for long before they’re concreted over and the towns swell and the circles bump against each other and then merge and new cities are born and the spaces in between get slowly filled. When this island was deep in forest, it was said that a squirrel could travel from the tip of Scotland to the south coast of England without ever touching the ground. Last week I travelled on the train and tube from my home in Worcestershire to Elephant and Castle in the middle of London without ever once putting my head outside. I don’t think that’s a good thing. 

I spend my life seeking out the dark spaces in between the plastic bubbles and even as I watch I see it change; I see it squeezed. Who would have thought that my visit to Zambia last year would give me a sense of how we should live our lives? It is astonishing how upside down it all is. The circles are few and far between in the places that we passed through. Even the cities of Johannesburg and Lusaka didn’t hold onto the bubble for long; the suburban townships belonged to nature because the people that lived in them hadn’t forsaken it. They strutted the dust roads with mobile phones clasped to their heads and wore football shirts from a different continent, but their bare feet were on the earth and their meals were cooked on open flames. They would know the turning of the seasons and the patterns of the mood.

You’ll tell me that they don’t wear shoes or enjoy fancy kitchens because they can’t afford to; that the level of poverty and corruption in places like this are so high that there’s no choice for the people and no way out. This is true to an extent, but to simply accept this is to miss a quite astonishing fact about this part of the world that took me entirely by surprise. I saw a lot of investment in the infrastructure of the country with the phone masts and the bridges and the roads. In some places we passed newly-laid tarmac that stretched for miles. Then there were the older roads that bumped and jostled us about and forced the driver to slow to a crawl to negotiate the craters. The thing was that these bits of the road had also been newly laid once, too. The culverts were in good condition and the barriers on the sides of the bridges were of a standard I’d expect back home. The roads had been left to deteriorate and were being returned to the state that they had once been. The fancy buildings that had been erected by some foreign power or another were being used to house cattle or store grain. What I’m getting at is that these people had a way of living that no outside culture could think to try and tame and civilise. We saw the impact of that through the years of colonialism and who are we, as the new kids on the block, to try and change these old ways? It’s like when you buy the wife a new dress that she doesn’t really like. She’ll wear it once, maybe twice and she’ll thank you for it time and again. But then it’ll end up at the back of the wardrobe and never be seen again. Did you buy it to stake a claim? To improve her..? Let them buy their own dresses.

Africa Notes 4 – Lusaka 

At Casa Munji, on the outskirts of Lusaka we set up camp and dropped our bags. Kelvin was keen to tell us how he had turned these 15 acres of yellow scrubland and elephant grass into an oasis of green lawns and neatly-trimmed hedges. The drive through the city had taken us through some of the worst slums and most choked roads that Zambia has to offer. We were taken via the city dump – a huge wasteland of dunes made from the tons of rubbish that were deposited here each day. It stank and steamed in the African sun and silhouetted in the shimmer of the heat haze, women and children in bare feet and rags picked through the leavings of a people that had nothing in the first place. Across the track was the cemetery. It was just as large as the dump and there was no sense of order. Graves were homemade markers of wood and plastic. Weeds covered most. Plastic drifted over from the dump on the breeze with the smell and caught in the spindle branches of trees and on the little crosses.

At the turning to Casa Munji is an abandoned single-storey building with no roof, no windows. A tree grows through the middle and tall grass reaches over the sides. There are lots of these buildings along the roadsides in Zambia and they give the place a forlorn and abandoned look, like a country in decline after decades of conflict. Kelvin looked at me in surprise when I raised this with him. He smiled and leaned back in his lounger while beaded dreadlocks fell from his shoulders and rattled together behind his back.

“These buildings you see,” he said “they mean hope: it is the opposite to what you think.”

Far from being abandoned, these shells were buildings in the process of construction and a sign, Kelvin told me, of a nation on its feet and striving to build. His was going to be a general store on the main road into the city – maybe one day a gas station. Money, of course, was the issue. Bricks were pulled out of the earth, the walls were easy to put up. The tin for the roof, the wood for the window frames and the shutters, the doors and all that – they cost money. With the funds from our visit Kelvin hoped to get the concrete mix for the floor. Then, maybe six months or so later, he’d put the roof on… It was another adjustment that I had to make, but I was delighted to.

***

In the heat of the day, despite this being the middle of the African winter, temperatures reached 30°. This is manageable – it was 38° in Mallorca last year – but what we all seemed to struggle with at the start was just how bright is was. It might have been that we’d been in artificial light or struggling to sleep for the past thirty hours, but we came out of that Lusaka airport like miners from deep underground. There was not a cloud for respite and we sought the thin band of shade from the airport terminal as we waited for the in-country guide and the bus that was to take us to Casa-Munji campsite. 

A dozen smiling locals swarmed us, forcefully took control of our luggage trolleys and moved through the airport at such speed that it was difficult not to think that we were being robbed. It wasn’t benevolence, though, it was unashamed service and payment was expected. Bags were delivered to our bus, passed through the window and stacked on the back seats before a dozen hands were held out in supplication. Though it wasn’t begging, of course: they had rendered us service and, as we were come to learn over the next few weeks, payment was expected. 

It was often this way, we found, and for me it was admirable. Back in my suburb as a boy there was poverty of a more dangerous type because it was shameful to ask for help, to admit need, to barter or bargain or to push a point. I wonder often at this; at the pride of the poor and the needless suffering that I saw people going through all of their lives, simply for refusing to accept help or submit to humility. I have always found it an immensely frustrating trait of my own people, so here I was in awe of the openness of the locals. Their poverty was on a different level to what I had known in England, but it was on the surface and it was a strength of character that I saw, rather than a weakness. There was dignity in it that surprised me and immediately endeared me to these people. 

Lusaka is a busy city that seems to lack any sense of organisation and our bus ride to the campsite took us along wide roads that were dust even when they were tarmac. It had the usual out-of-town commercial zones with flood-lit carparks out front and glass-fronted take-away burger joints and mobile phone shops, but these were never populated by locals: they were there for us and groups of young men were paid to patrol the carparks and keep their brothers and cousins away: a micro-step up the ladder.  

I have always been convinced that the piles of paperwork and forms and meetings and checks and tracker-beacons and emergency phones on trips like these are more to fight potential litigation than to keep the group safe. It’s as though the repetitive strain of going through the process was in itself enough to ward of misadventure, or remove any excuses… We learnt this on day one as we were loaded into two pick-up trucks: three in the front and three in the flatbed. It was how they did it here; it we how we did it. With the best will in the world we had sat and sipped coffee in the assured confidence that the old school back home provided and we nodded as we agreed with the safety briefings. We would, of course, uphold the standards of the school wherever we happened to be in the world and most definitely would not travel through a city centre on the back of a pick-up truck… but it is the only way to travel through the heart of an African city. 

*** 

I like to get a sense of the shape of a new town or city or resort when I first arrive. I like to know where north is and how far it is to south. I build a rudimentary map in my mind and take pains to track my place in it while I’m there. I found this impossible in Lusaka. There seemed, at least to me, to be no logic to the layout of the city. Private compounds, like the one we were staying in, sprung out of the ground along the more rural roads and the city centre, such as it was, seemed surrounded by slums. The suburbs and villages composed of open-fronted homes, each with a small table of wares out front, ntembe – often no more than five or six bananas or a single sack of charcoal – these were the lucky ones – the affluent Zambians. Their homes were single-storey and built with the hands of the occupants, literally out of the earth on which they stood. Few had running water but stand-pipes were dotted at regular intervals and all of the homes had roofs and the obligatory old lady sweeping at the dust with a broom of twigs. I wondered at the effectiveness of this operation when the house was made of dust. Dust was everywhere. We had only been in Zambia for a day but dust had found its way into every crevice. It is symbolic to sweep a house and I was minded of the old man over the road from me who will sweep the snow from his drive in the middle of a blizzard. People feel a sense of ownership when they clean, even if they’re only moving the dust around. Our guide told us that this was a good place to live. 

On our way out of the city he drove us through George compound, the largest of Zambia’s slums and home to over 70,000 people. Drooping webs of electric cables that fanned out across the low tin roofs suggested mains power, but this, we were told, was a bit misleading: the power comes on for two hours a day and even then dips in and out. It is a national disgrace, we were told. And the contrast between here and some of the places we had passed in the city centre was stark. The courthouse, an English redbrick structure that would not have been out of place in our school grounds, stood back from a high metal fence and in the middle of thick green lawns. It was a symbol of empire in its day and I cringed as we passed it. 

Every First-World nation, it seems, has a stake in this place: the British had erected the courthouse when the country was part of the empire and known as Northern Rhodesia; in more modern times the Americans had pumped in money and huge billboards announced the contribution of “THE AMERICAN PEOPLE” to this traffic island or that lamppost. The Chinese have built a lot of the roads and subtle industrial estates dot the outskirts of the city. The Chinese, they say, don’t mix with the locals. They’ve put in the mobile network, too and great white towers of steel punctuate the landscape – it is a largely flat country and the network coverage spreads far and wide. The remotest villages, seven hours’ drive into the brush, had a better signal than a lot of the hills that I walk back home. Few Zambians have running water in their homes or stable electric; there’s no mains gas and the idea of a landline is laudable in such remote country – but most of them have mobile phones. For this reason, among the dusty homes of the compounds and the straw-roofed huts of the villages, have appeared plastic booths advertising and selling phone credit. 

As we neared the centre of Lusaka the roads were as busy with people on foot as much as they were with cars. Back home it would seem like some sort of demonstration or civil unrest. Suddenly, our prime spot on the flatbed of the pickup seemed a lot more exposed and vulnerable as the locals leaned in and sold their wares: fruit, beads and… phone credit.