~The Cricket Bat and the Porcupine~
A Story in Three Parts
...which began life as a short blog on my book tour to South Africa in Spring 2012 and became a kind of blogelogue of a homecoming...
Day 1. Sunday Morning. Land in Johannesburg.
And I see the light. The density of it, luscious, I bask a moment. My light. And the dry air, waiting, as it did all the winters of my childhood to crack my lips and knees and elbows. High world air. My air. A choking nostalgia reminds me that my natural habitat is 6000 feet higher than the stately roll of the Thames beside which I now live.
My straight-talking, seriously good publicist who I will call J drives me from the airport along Jan Smuts Avenue unaware of my already somewhat skinless state and before I can stop myself I call out, 'Sarah! ' And it is indeed my teenage friend Sarah's house that we pass - the place we learnt to be almost-sexual, completely-political beings, and where we gathered to mourn her premature death. I count the number of my contemporaries who died in the span of those late teenage years - 5 including Lulu. Surely that is a high number?
J settles me in my hotel with a view of the "biggest man made forest in the world" the canopy covering the suburbs of Jo'burg. She takes me to the shopping mall attached to my hotel where I buy a pair of running shoes, (my battered favourites forgotten in the chaos of my leave taking). I know the place well from my youth but since I last saw it, the supermarkets and fish shops and chemists have been replaced by Burberry and Celine, by shops dedicated to fine watches and horse riding attire, it is finer by far than Bond Street and I don't yet understand who sustains it. I suspect, though, that the spoils that provide this sleek comfort for the rich must surely come, at least in part, from government coffers meant to create a public safety net for all.
That net is certainly not there for the stick-thin young woman who walks across the street in front of our car asking for nothing. Her dress raised up in her hands like a ship's sail, revealing her entirely naked body underneath. She is thin as a stick, beyond the sexual. I wonder if she is in the final stages of HIV/AIDS and its ravages? There is grace in her fine neck, antelope legs and her face, when she turns to look at us, has already emptied out. I weep, no surprises there. The soft, skinless person I have become in the cold north prepares me badly for my old city. As I weep, I wonder if I should apologise to J - she saves me the task by discretely averting her eyes.
My first interview is with radio SAFM (the journalist runs a culture and book program from 1-4 on Sundays). She's a beautiful woman with a mission to celebrate books and encourage a culture of reading. She gives her listeners, off the cuff, the best synopsis of my book I've ever heard. The questions that follow are half-blood-half-brain, intellectually challenging but full of feeling. It strikes me then, that RHUMBA, although set in the Congo and London, feels owned by her, a South African. By the end of the interview, she is finishing my sentences and I hers. I am home and she's my companero.
There is a question one always dreads if one is white and well-heeled (though clearly not with Burberry and Celine and certainly not atop a horse) which basically goes something along the lines what gives you the right, white person, to take on the telling of a story about a place and people who are not your people?
I look to Willie Loman, fresh in my mind after seeing Phillip Seymour Hoffman's transcendent performance in Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman'. Willie is a fantasist, alternately vicious and sentimental. When his two sons threaten to reject him their mother upbraids them thus...I don't say he's a great man. Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person. I realize as I say it, that although Willie Loman may have been closer to Miller than my Flambeau is to me, telling this story about a Congolese immigrant boy in London is not a presumption on my part, but an obligation.
We finish the interview and the eye-grit from a sleepless night beside the largest man to ever fold himself into a British Airways seat fills my nose and eyes and mouth. Must sleep.
From my hotel room window I look down on the swifts and the hadedah ibis's flying above the canopy. They shriek as if to say if there is anything you haven't done yet that matters to you, you'd better get on to it before the curtain closes on the day and the nocturnal hunters, human and animal, come out to play.
I wake up to that same screech. I swear if those birds had been around in Shakespeare's day he would not have needed the ravens to herald the dark arrival of Duncan under Macbeth's murderous battlements. After the polite twitter of the robins and jays outside my English window, this raucous sound rips me from my sheets, as yet unready for the day.
For the first time in years, I spend the day meeting my contemporary countrymen in a professional context. The journalist from Sarie magazine (with its childhood associations of old tannies (aunties) baking rusks and giving cleaning tips) is astute. The Sunday Times journalist is too - good conversations all. The photographer who comes with her is a hunter. You know the ones, who look and look and find a way of saying what's going on inside something. They were a good team. The young black TV presenter has, unusually for a busy TV guy, read the book carefully. His producer, still just a girl, cracks the most irreverent of whips to keep him to the six minutes the piece allows.
There is one among the many women journalists I speak to who is authorial in the way a president would be. I have a brief and demented thought that she should go into politics to sort out the corruption that abounds. She is electrifyingly intelligent. But it is clearly more important for her to be the protector of South Africa's writers (make that the writer's of the world) particularly as the Protection of Information Act refuses to go way. More about that later.
By the evening of day 3 as I sit again above the circling hadedah's at my window it seems clear that - although the nation is still ravaged by the rasping shadow of brutalized criminals who spoil what they can - in the peaceful corners of the land, the once half-formed evolutionary fish of our new country, has flapped its way on the bank and is crawling towards a new self. An efficient, equitable, self-actualized, disciplined, self.
And then, just to complicate my certainties, as life is want to do, we arrive for the official Jo'burg launch of RHUMBA at Exclusive books in Hyde Park. I have been looking forward to this for weeks. A great African academic is going to interview me about my small book and I know I am going to emerge enriched in my understanding. Sorbonne trained, Oxford University educated, a spell of teaching at the university of Pennsylvania. He is simply brilliant and I am amazed he has agreed to this small collaboration.
As J and I wait for him to arrive I greet old friends and relatives and we sip our water or wine and I sign books, all very pleasant - but where is our academic?
I see J-the-unflappable begin to panic. Maybe he fell asleep? Maybe he was visited by an old friend and forgot the time? Maybe one of his children has a cold? Maybe he simply didn't care? Or it could be that a wild force of nature, quite beyond his control, swept him away? Even then, surely he would call, just to relieve us of our imaginings? Surely he himself had a first book once and knows the terrors that attend its emergence. Surely?
I feel my small lifeboat begin to fill with water and the longing for my children becomes an ache, as it does whenever hardship strikes. A kind young woman from exclusive books steps in to read out the questions I dig out of my bag from a prior Q&A with an audience in London. And, as we converse, question by question, we scoop the water out of the leaking boat. Finally, we are floating as a boat should, on the surface of the water, even without our brilliant academic to show us the way.
Part 2 to follow next week...