Deep Time and Notions of God

As a classically educated geologist I am absolutely, 100% convinced by the empirical investigations of generations of committed scientists from many different fields, that we live on an ancient planet (somewhere of the of order of 4.5 Ga, shorthand for billions of yrs) in an even older universe (circa 14 Ga or so).

As a classically educated geologist I am absolutely, 100% convinced by the empirical investigations of generations of committed scientists from many different fields, that we live on an ancient planet

Acceptance of these empirical ‘facts’ – if you want to know more there are plenty of good accounts in various textbooks, internet sites like New Scientist and Scientific American and other sources – brings me into conflict with a fair number of decent people, some of whom are actually quite central to my existence, my partner being one of them. It is not that she disagrees outright with the notion of deep time, but she finds it too uncomfortable to dwell on seriously. It is the cases like hers which I think are most prevalent in so-called progressive, Western societies (she is from a Dutch family background).

Mirjam, and I say this with much affection and concomitant resignation, is from a conservative, religious family who espouse Biblical literalism and observation of the Old Testament Law most especially. Actually, I’m very fond of them as a family, because they are warm people and willing to entertain a complete non-conformist like myself, living in a non-matrimonial union with their daughter. It is only that we disagree on some points of fact. Principally, that the creation did not occur in the literal sense as outlined in Genesis. I do not believe in the 7 day Creation story, lumping it with other creation myths put forth by various religions across the world through the ages.

Apart from the comfort and reassurance that comes with an explanatory tale like the creation story in Genesis, which frames events in a progressive series of steps with man (and woman) as the apex of the creative process, what other factors contribute to this non-scientific mindset I’ve often pondered? There are a few possibilities, no doubt elucidated by others – I’d be most pleased to be pointed in their direction – which I will touch on, at the risk of repeating them imperfectly, or at least, less concisely.

The first and foremost of these is the fear of a God who is incomprehensible to us and thus inaccessible.

The first and foremost of these is the fear of a God who is incomprehensible to us and thus inaccessible. Taking the scientific viewpoint that the Earth is 4.5 Ga, any attempt to get a feel for this passage of time, its duration and enormous periods of apparent inactivity or very gradual change, comes to nought. We just can’t contemplate a mind which could endure this preposterous length of time without going quite mad. And since most religious notions of a God figure presuppose that he/she/it created us and comprehends us, most religious followers assume that he/she/it reflects some human qualities – love, mercy, wrath, benevolence, anger and jealousy, being some of the many human qualities attributed to the Judeo-Christian God portrayed in the Bible.

If indeed God does manifest one or more human emotions or characteristics, it is impossible to imagine he/she/it harbouring them for all those billions of years prior to our existence without being an entity quite fundamentally alien to us. If there is anyone else out there who, like me, has experienced the sort of formless pain and sense of detachment derived from periods of social isolation – then you will have little trouble in conceptualising my point. I feel this way by virtue of my brief experience of 42 years of life, how impossible to extrapolate that to 4.5 Ga!

If indeed God does manifest one or more human emotions or characteristics, it is impossible to imagine he/she/it harbouring them for all those billions of years prior to our existence without being an entity quite fundamentally alien to us.

Actually, this point is THE point I wish to make here. I’m not going to go any further in this post except to follow my own train of thought relating to this idea. From a scientific perspective, there is not much to say here, because scientific investigation has failed to prove the existence of a God, or God-attributed manifestations of creation. Any speculation from the science-community in these regards is mostly relegated to untestable, unfalsifiable, faith-based argumentation.

That said, I find the logic of Thomas Aquinas and his notion of a Prime Mover a powerful concept. When things we can perceive come into being or action – babies, storm-clouds, a rolling billiard ball – it is only a matter of empirical investigation to determine the origins of the phenomenon. The accuracy may vary but the idea is sound. By extension the earth and indeed the entire universe itself are the manifestation of forces of creation by a Prime Mover, God.

I haven’t studied Aquinas, other than having been the recipient of his ideas in Catholic Confirmation class, but his idea impressed me. Nor have I read any scholarly criticisms or counter-arguments to the idea in the 3/4 of a millennium since he died. One that seems to jump out at me is the assumption of the concept of linear time in framing this philosophical argument. What if time is circular? No beginning and no end and therefore no need for a Prime Mover? This notion also helps to deal with the very disquieting idea (outside of the God framework) of an infinite universe on the linear scale, one in which there is no beginning. Just a thought.

What if time is circular? No beginning and no end and therefore no need for a Prime Mover?

The idea of circular time also presupposes that it exists in a framework that wholly satisfies all other physical possibilities, and I’m not sure that holds water so to speak. The idea that there is something rather than nothing forces us to contemplate the idea of creation regardless of one’s view of time as being linear rather than circular. Hence I have just provided a counterargument to my previous assertion!

Another thought: If there is a creator of our universe – a possibility which we should at least consider – then he/she/it may ‘think’ and perceive the passage of time in a way quite different to us. After all our perception of time is coloured by a combination of elements i.e. the speed of neurochemical reactions and signal transmission times in our brains within a framework of physical experience, memory formation and anticipation of subsequent physical experience. Remove any of those elements from the framework part and you have an entity which is less-than-human. Assuming that a God entity displays these qualities, possibly amongst others, then how could we reconcile he/she/its experience of Deep Time with our own scientific conjectures?

I would say that the sense of anticipation is the most obvious candidate for ‘tweaking’.

I would say that the sense of anticipation is the most obvious candidate for ‘tweaking’. As a Creator of some description, putting something as vast, diverse and weird as the universe we appear to inhabit into physical existence, requires enormous powers of conceptualisation. Just take a moment to ponder the detail of the atom, the fundamental forces of nature, the precise wavelength of light emitted by an electron orbiting the nucleus of a hydrogen atom whether here or at the edge of the observable universe, and it is conceivable that this was indeed all preconceived. A statement of faith. Unproven. Yet, as an exercise in logic it would seem to me that the sense of anticipation of such a super-sentient God entity in the position of Prime Mover would be endowed with an equally God-like quality of anticipation – an ability to wait things out over the course of billions of years. Our rapid evolution and exponential technological and scientific development destabilises us, gives us a kind of vertigo. We reel and try to take stock.

For many it is easier to lose ourselves in the distraction of the sensory world of the present, whilst for others religion gives a sense of comfort and guidance. I would say that it takes a fool or a madman to contemplate the nature of a God who was here since the dawn of time and was anything like us at all.

Did watching TV make you any wiser? YouTube? I just watched Universe on BBC iPlayer and I loved it.

Do you have access to the BBC iPlayer? Without incriminating myself due to licensing issues, I’ll just say that I have. It was a real boon in the weeks before Christmas when I was on my own and at a loose end some evenings. I browsed the film recommendations firstly but nothing stood out as a Must See, but when I cast an eye over some recommended documentaries the boldness of the title Universe stood out (Watch the series here). I mean the word Universe brings to mind a sense of the infinite; everything out there both seen and unseen. That is a pretty audacious title for a series, whatever angle on reality it might take.

Our host for the series is well known to the British public: the genial and no-nonsense Professor Brian Cox, medium height and slight in stature but looming large over all things physical and galactic on the public broadcaster.

As it transpired this 5 part documentary series attempted to throw a rather large net over the Cosmos, past and present. It begins with the current state of knowledge as regards our own star, the Sun (subtitled God Star) before zooming out to look at the search for exoplanets, firmly in the public eye after the staggering success of the Kepler Mission in the earlier part of the last decade. A broad look at the Milky Way, our home galaxy, is followed by an episode on those mysterious beasts known as Black Holes, and is rounded out by one entitled The Big Bang: Before the Dawn, in my view the most tantalising of the series.

Our host for the series is well known to the British public: the genial and no-nonsense Professor Brian Cox, medium height and slight in stature but looming large over all things physical and galactic on the public broadcaster. The last time I saw him on British telly was back in 2014 when I was last resident in the UK. A bit like his visage in Madam Tussaud’s in London, he remains enviably youthful despite being near on 54 years of age. To be fair a few extra grey hairs grace his healthy mop, but he is otherwise unchanged.

Professor Brian Cox, Host of the BBC series, Universe. Credit Motorpoint Arena Cardiff, Universal show advertisement.

Okay, so what did I learn? I did not after all intend this to be a synopsis or critique of the series. For one thing I have been around long enough, and interested in the subject long enough, to see that the state of observational astronomy and the science behind it, has gathered pace since my childhood days digesting National Geographic magazine articles on these topics. Each episode incorporates actual footage of various probes and satellites blasting into space from various launch platforms around the world, mostly NASA and ESA missions, spliced with CGI animations of rockets zooming beyond the confines of our planet’s mottled envelope of air and cloud, accompanied by a suitably dramatic soundtrack.

Amazingly, conventional thinking amongst today’s cosmologists is that the Big Bang was in all likelihood NOT the beginning of time, but simply the beginning of the observational universe.

To be honest the pace of delivery of the current state of the science takes a back seat to the CGI animations of the probes deploying and unfurling solar panels and lengthy sequences of stars imploding, black holes enveloping stars and planets and even other black holes, galaxies swirling and primordial nebulae bursting into life as nuclear fusion first commenced billions of years in the past. The CGI stuff is cleverly interwoven with the real world Professor Cox moving sedately through various landscapes delivering his spiel on the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy, exoplanets orbiting fiery stars in our cosmic neighbourhood, and the nature of the short-lived, massive blue stars which first populated the gaseous clouds of the early universe.

From a philosophical perspective, never mind a scientific one, there is much to chew over. Take for instance the beginning of time as we know it. I’ve read this elsewhere, for instance on Ethen Siegel’s excellent Starts with a Bang blog (Forbes online) where he tackles the debate from various angles. Cox discusses the latest thinking on the Big Bang and events around it in the final episode. Amazingly, conventional thinking amongst today’s cosmologists is that the Big Bang was in all likelihood NOT the beginning of time, but simply the beginning of the observational universe. Yeah, get your head around that.

At the heart of it is the idea of an early inflationary universe, around since the 1970s or 80s but the implications of which have, it seems, taken time to permeate through to the wider community of researchers and thinkers in the field. I want to explore the philosophical implications of this idea in a subsequent post, but for now do go and watch that final episode or read Ethan’s piece on how Physics erases the evidence of the beginning of our universe.

Till then, adios space farers!

The Allure of the Simulation Hypothesis

In my last post I touched on a view, one which has gained much traction in recent years, that we could be living in a simulated reality i.e. a sceptical epistemological view. Epistemology is a major branch of philosophy that deals with the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope, and the distinction between justified belief and opinion (Oxford Languages,

The essential point being that subscribers to Simulation Theory (or rather, the hypothesis thereof – abbreviated to SRH) believe that the observable universe, from what you are seeing in front of you right now, to the furthest investigated objects billions of light years from our planet, have been engineered by an unspecified superintelligence, using an unfathomably powerful computer. It should be obvious why this is only a hypothesis, and begets various questions, such as –

  • What sort of computer is this?
  • Where is the CPU located?
  • What are the bits and bytes being computed?
  • And, most critically for me, what is the temporal and spatial relationship between the Creator (read, Superintelligence) and us, the created?

The basis of the SR view is a logical argument, one which is firmly anthropocentric in its fundaments. It goes like this: at current rates of technological advancement the execution of computer programs which aim to simulate some part of our lived and experienced reality (think The Sims franchise, Grand Theft Auto etc) will become indistinguishable from our ACTUAL reality. Conceivably, entities living within these simulations, humans included, will become sophisticated enough to develop consciousness and self-awareness. These entities will not know that they are in a simulation unless we choose to inform them, ergo we ourselves are most likely living in a simulation generated by superintelligent beings (relatively speaking) one rung higher in the hierarchy of realities. Because such simulations may be recursive, there could be an infinite number of hierarchies following some kind of exponential or geometric function. (see links at the end for further reading).

The SRH rests on the premise that computer simulations will become more and more realistic, will develop the ability to simulate matter at an incredibly high fidelity (think quantum level particle physics and phenomena like entanglement) and that human level consciousness will itself be simulated. I don’t believe in the argument/hypothesis for reasons that I will come to, but I can see the allure of it. From a logical perspective, its main strength is the observation that we humans are developing increasingly lifelike simulations of the world we observe, empirically speaking. In an age where conventional and traditional religious beliefs are in decline in most parts of the world it also gives adherents a sense of place and purpose. Whilst we might not live in Base Reality, as Elon Musk and others think incredibly unlikely, we are just as likely to be able to one day figure out who the simulators are and ‘break out of the Matrix.’

To my mind the SRH compliments the human ego, much as the Victorian view of the world did in the 19th century, whereby the belief that mankind was ordained by God to manipulate nature to his advantage, was ascendant. This is expressed in an emotive scene in the film The Heart of the Sea where the captain of a 19th century whaling ship, The Essex, proclaims:

“We are supreme creatures made in God’s own likeness. Earthly kings, whose business it is to circumnavigate the planet bestowed to us. To bend nature to our will.”

BENJAMIN WALKER as Captain George Pollard

I argue that conflating the exponential growth in human knowledge and understanding of our universe and the basic laws which govern it DOES NOT inevitably translate into the ability to fully and comprehensively re-create the lived experience of one human being, let alone the entire collective species. Let me break that down:

  1. As I understand it the heart of a classical computer is the CPU or Central Processing Unit. It contains a semi-conductor chip imprinted with millions of logic gates which can be switched on and off connected by channels along which electrons whizz at incredible speeds (close to or at a significant fraction of the speed of light). The digital output of the chip is then translated via a user interface, through our speakers or our screens, using light or sound as an output. Based on the nature of the output the user can then interact accordingly using various devices (keyboard, mouse, touchpad, joystick etc) creating a responsive system capable of manipulation within certain limits as determined by the hardware.

My question to the SR believers is this: ‘How do you manipulate the smallest levels of our observed reality – the subatomic particles and forces like bosons and gluons, quarks and antiquarks? What is the architecture of the CPU which can do this?

For this reason I will stick with the empirical universe, the one that is measurable. After all it yields the simplest and, to me, the most logical explanation, one that has compelling mathematical and theoretical rigour. I refer of course to the theory of the Big Bang whereby our universe emerged from a singularity, a infinitely tiny, infinitely dense, region of spacetime which detonated some 14+ billion years ago. Cosmologists have pushed the mathematics of of this creative event back to within a miniscule fraction of time since the Big Bang singularity. Something of the order of the Planck constant (10−43 s).

Without further evidence of an external superintelligence manipulating our observed reality we must conclude that we are living in a universe that came into being at a finite time in the past. The computer (or going a step further, the CPU) that the SR believers hypothesize IS nothing more or less than the universe itself and the bits and bytes with which it computes are the fundamental particles and forces as described by the Standard Model of particle physics.

Thus, to summarise, Simulated Reality is an interesting philosophical conjecture and metaphysical question but not one that can be assessed scientifically. It is both stimulating and exciting to take such hypotheses seriously but at the same time to see them for what they are – hypotheses. It seems to me from the buzz around the whole idea of SR in recent decades that it has also been conflated with worries over the existential threats perceived to emanate from advanced AI. Hence the self-proclaimed Technoking of Tesla, Elon Musk, has allegedly been spending millions on contingencies should a post-AI apocalypse come to pass.

Anyway, I digress. Serious science will be dealing with the search for a unifying theory of physics whilst serious philosophy won’t. But the latter could provide fertile ground for the next generation of cosmologists, physicists and mathematicians to develop robust models and experiments to further our scientific knowledge and understanding of the universe and our place in it.

The YouTube presentation by Sabine Hossenfelder below which I watched only AFTER writing up this post, gives an excellent and more detailed critique of SRH, reiterating my core argument and expanding on it an eloquent and accessible way. It’s definitely worth watching! Links to further reading below.

In my next post I will return to the philosophical realm with a riff on the anthropic principle and some of the many possibilities which it throws up regarding the nature of us and the universe we inhabit, both now, and FOREVER 😎


God versus Science versus Philosophy. Who, if Any, will have the Last Say?

Click here to read the first post: Deep Time and Notions of God

I concluded my previous post, a lead-in to this one if you will, concluding “I would say that it takes a fool or a madman to contemplate the nature of a God who was here since the dawn of time and was anything like us at all.”

This is a philosophical position I take here which I’ve arrived at via the use of empirical observation and scientific reasoning. Specifically, the earth appears to be ancient (geochronological, cosmological and biological inferences), ergo the creator of (this) universe must be ancient, ergo the nature of the creator must be quite different to our own.

This conjecture can be obviously be rebuffed by religious dogma or faith-based reasoning. From personal experience I tend to dismiss the former out of hand, whilst I am open to the latter, when taken in the context of personal revelation, known otherwise as a spiritual experience. I want to make clear that by personal revelation I do not specifically refer to the type often often invoked by Christians proclaiming to be born again in the spirit or revelation of the divinity of Jesus Christ as saviour of the world or revelation of God’s word via the Holy Scriptures, because these sorts of revelations are usually conflated with some type of religious dogma i.e. the Bible IS the word of God, or Jesus Christ WAS God-made-flesh.

I am quite comfortable saying that because what we have direct access to is the material world around us and not, at least collectively, a direct line of communication with a creator or general superintelligence of some kind or other. Those who claim to have such powers of communication have not provided compelling evidence on a general level which would constitute an empirical truth, only on the level of personal faith.

However, for the sake of argument, let me consider the case of the believer, of whatever religious persuasion, who is convinced of a personal God figure who can be communed with through prayer. If such a God does exist, one who is accessible and willing to intervene/intercede in Earthly matters, then this God contradicts the deductions I arrived at in the first post (summarised in paragraph 1).

There are only two ways that I can think to reconcile the two ideas:

  1. God is an emergent entity: he/she/it has evolved alongside us and by extension is neither omnipotent (all knowing) or timeless. This is the sort of God figure espoused by one of the figures in author John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, a set book for my GCE O-Levels 25 years ago. Here is the quotation I had in mind.

They haven’t God’s word like they thought: God doesn’t have any last word. If He did He’d be dead. But He isn’t dead; and He changes and grows, like everything else that’s alive

― John Wyndham, The Chrysalids
  1. God aka The Creator, is a universal superintelligence, but not of the type who sat out several billions of years waiting for observers like ourselves to emerge. He/she/it is running some kind of universe-scale simulation whereby we are given the impression that we are living in an ancient universe, but in actual fact, it was all initiated at a time Tx, which by scientific deduction, is T0 (the Big Bang) + x years.

This is one interpretation of a theory of simulated reality that has been around since at least the time of French philosopher and scientist René Descartes but which was most recently updated and extended by the Swedish-born philosopher Nick Bostrom in a much debated paper entitled “Are you Living in a Computer Simulation?” A good summary of simulated reality can be found on Wikipedia. The question of whether or not this universal superintelligence was emergent or pre-existing I do not find meaningful nor important in this context.

Until we have any evidence of us living in a simulated reality (or realities) then it would be prudent to declare the scientific deductions regarding the age of the world and the universe as being quite real i.e. the earth is c4.5 Ga (billion years old) and our universe some 10 Ga older again. Rather than a simulated reality, I find it more plausible to think about an actual reality nested within in an infinite number of possible ‘evolutions’ of a universe with our particular set of physical laws. The anthropic principle states that

The Universe (and hence the fundamental parameters on which it depends) must be as to admit the creation of observers within it at some stage.

Physicist, Brandon Carter
The graphic above gives an overview of the evolution of the cosmos based on observations of the cosmos using instruments like the Hubble Space Telescope and deductions from experimental and theoretical physics. The text is taken from an article debating the idea of panspermia, that life may well have originated from beyond our planet and even significantly pre-date it.

So, following my train of thought, the question of the origins of God, as someone open to the possibility of a creative force/superintelligence, is less important in a philosophical sense than the question, what is the nature of reality and can it accommodate a God figure?

It should be obvious from history that science can inform religion and religious dogma has indeed been refuted on the basis of scientific discovery (think Galileo and his refutation of the Earth as the centre of the universe based on observation of the motion of the planets). By contrast religious dogma cannot inform science because its methods are incompatible with the scientific method. Thus science must surely be the foremost tool to answer the grand questions about our universe and our place in it. Or is it?

Not if you’re a philosopher, it isn’t. Just Googling the string what is philosophy? returns about 666 million results. Yes, 666, the number of the beast (cue ironic chuckle).

What is philosophy? [Google/Wiki definitions]

In case the image text is too small for your eyes to resolve, the Wiki definition above reads

Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental questions, such as those about reason, existence, knowledge, values, mind, and language. Such questions are often posed as problems to be studied or resolved. 

Wikipedia –

If I could go back to university (and no one’s saying I couldn’t, but I won’t), I would seriously consider doing a philosophy module. While science gives us the tools to investigate reality in an empirical sense, philosophy surely gives all systems of belief, including the scientific method, religion and spirituality, a container in which they can be lived out and evaluated.

So to recap: the universe (and planet Earth) are observed to be inconceivably old by human reckoning, ergo God aka the Creator, should they exist, must be of an age equal or greater to this observed age. My personal belief is that there is a creative force behind the existence of our universe, a philosophical belief AND not a religious one.

I return to the conclusion of my previous post, that this Superintelligence/God/Creator is of a nature that we cannot currently conceive of in out present state of being, whether individually or collectively, in the cosmos.

I return to the conclusion of my previous post, that this Superintelligence/God/Creator is of a nature that we cannot currently conceive of in out present state of being, whether individually or collectively, in the cosmos.

So naturally, drawing from this conclusion, any inspiration or insight I might make regarding the purpose of my life or the interaction of it with my Creator/God is a matter of personal faith and philosophy. I will do my best to state them plainly below:

  • Everything written and debated about in the Existentialist school of thought should be considered, explored and expanded upon from one generation to the next.

The way that I see it, authenticity appears to be an inherent part of the fabric of existence. Modes of living which conflict with one’s inherent sense of authenticity either amplify or intensity feelings of misery and despair AND lead to a instigation of opposing corrective forces. These corrective forces or ‘forces of opposition’ can act both at the level of the individual and at the level of society, on a regional or even global scale. I would like to elaborate on this concept in another post.

  • Life appears to be absurd (see Absurdism) but I do not believe it is. My logic leads me to believe that the apparent absurdism of the human condition is simply a result of our lack of scientific knowledge. I have some measure of confidence that greater understanding of quantum physics will assist in unifying such seemingly unrelated fields as the nature of human consciousness, general level consciousness, understanding gravity at the quantum level and number theory (and specifically the nature of primacy).
  • There can be no purpose or meaning to our lives if it is not lived and shared with other people. Social isolation will inevitably lead to despair, in the worst cases self-annihilation, and at best to a mode of living that is less-than-authentic. We proceed together or not at all.
  • As a statement of faith I believe that our individual consciousnesses will be subsumed by greater, collective intelligence upon our deaths. I do not know whether I will be reborn as another human being after my death, as another living entity, or even something inanimate, but I find it a more plausible idea than that of the human soul in Christian dogma which persists into eternity. That I find completely absurd. Any rational philosophical mind must surely dismiss it on the grounds that 1) there are no plausible indications that this is the case and 2) there is no ‘justice’ nor balance of forces (of the type mentioned in the first point) in this scenario.

I always think of the end points of existence in trying to answer these sorts of questions. The life blighted by abuse, poverty, war and other misfortune cannot have repercussions for all eternity. Conversely, a life of material privilege, good education and loving support cannot be ‘rewarded’ by life everlasting in a heavenly dimension.

In Conclusion:

I have touched on a whole range of topics here from statements of personal belief, to schools of philosophy to branches of scientific investigation. I’ve glossed over many things that are worth examining in more detail. My hope is to give the casual reader encouragement to do their own questioning and further research on one or other of these ideas. If I can engage just one person through writing these words then I will consider it time well spent, even if it was at the expense of other things (read family!). Quite simply, May you find purpose in being.

Expression of Solidarity with Italian Friends and Citizens

It is with a heavy heart that I read about the havoc that the new coronavirus is wrecking in Italy, especially in the north of the country. Having traveled through northern Italy only between 4 and 5 months ago I feel the temporal proximity of the unfolding drama.

Most likely I didn’t meet anyone who has been made critically ill but I can imagine how severe it could be for some of them if they were to contract the deadly pathogen. I think especially of several elderly members of the free-living community Avalon-Elfi in the province of Toscana (Tuscany) who I wrote about on my sister blog.

Italy (Part I): Soggy Socks and Good Samaritans, the journey to Avalon

Feb 12, 2020 12:40 PM

Italy (Part II): The People of Avalon

Feb 19, 2020 12:46 PM

” I think especially of several elderly members of the free-living community Avalon-Elfi in Tuscany “

My thoughts too lie with Pius Leutenegger and his team of staff at the Centro d’Ompio on Lago d’Orta in the foothlls of the Alps in the province of Novara in the Lombardy region, the worst affected by the Covid19 outbreak.

I’d love to include a few photos of our trip to this region to remind people what a beautiful region it is. Please also check out my two posts from the Avalon community above. Consider a visit there when this is all over. They need your support!

Amazing Art and Sculpture

I live alongside some amazing artists and musicians. Their creations decorate the spaces we inhabit. This is a handcrafted sculpture made by Paul from scrap metal he scavenged from the River Rhine and then ingeniously worked into a representation of Wild Woman can you sense her feral beauty, her independent spirit?


Chapter 3 of my Book: a Life Lost and Questions Unanswered (an excerpt)

Chapter Excerpt from Between Two Worlds: The Account of a Jet-Setting Vagrant

Actually, this bit of coastline has other significance to me. As a family we had holidayed in Durban and on the South Coast from as far back as my memory stretched. Besides the obvious attraction of having had my aunt Liz, her family and my grandparents in Durban, we had visited and stayed in various places up and down the coastline: Scottburgh and Uvongo spring first to mind. These were happy memories filled with endless sunshine, beaches, family and friends, including many co-vacationers from back home in Zimbabwe.

In later years we tended to stick to the environs of Durban and visited the north coast instead, aligning our holidays with those of our Harare cousins and shared family in Richard’s Bay and nearby Empangeni. These trips in my late teens and early twenties were of a different sort, bittersweet and nostalgic. In effect the South Coast mapped out many of the memories of my younger, more spontaneous and less complicated self. However, there is a caveat to this retrospection. Almost bang between the holiday towns of Scottburgh and Uvongo is another sleepy little coastal town called Hibberdene.

In 2003, whilst I was studying towards an Honours degree in geology at the University of Pretoria, otherwise known as Tukkies, we had visited Kwazulu-Natal and its environs during our mid-year field excursion with the second and third year undergraduates. Being well inland of the coast, just north of its larger and better known twin, Johannesburg, many of the students who hailed from Pretoria had never ventured to this part of the South African coast. To me it was terra familiare rather than terra incognito. We had entered the province to the north and journeyed south down through Richard’s Bay where we visited the RBM heavy-sands and dune mining operations. We had by-passed metropolitan Durban and arrived in Hibberdene via the N2 coastal motorway on a windy, grey afternoon sometime in June of that year. Arriving quite late in the day we were granted leave to venture out along the beach and do as we please.

I have included this recollection almost as an afterthought. I find it difficult to objectively recall the series of events that follow, let alone that year as a whole. I was one of six or seven Honours students that year, greatly outnumbered by the second and third year classes. As such we the de facto senior students on the trip. Broadly speaking the Honours group fell into two groups: the Afrikaans lads who had studied at Tukkies since first year and were bound not only by the bonds of friendship but to some degree by their language and origin. Me and Kelly, the only female member of the class at that point, had come from other universities and were not native Afrikaans speakers, although Kelly seemed to understand the language well enough.

I recall Kelly as a shy girl who kept to herself much of the time, but shared in the laughter of the others whilst I, for the most part, didn’t understand. I didn’t begrudge the other lads speaking their native language and on the other occasions there had been open discussion and presentations in English during class-time I had been able to participate. These moments were often supplemented by Guan Greyling, a highly intelligent and amusing young man, slight of build with thin sandy-blonde hair and sparkling grey-blue eyes.

My introduction to Guan had been memorable: whilst I had been nervously reaching for a canned beer at the departmental introductory party on the campus I had been splashed with icy water as someone had deliberately lobbed another can of beer into the tub. I had recoiled in shock, but when I looked up it wasn’t obvious who the perpetrator was. Guan and some mates were laughing about something amongst themselves but I couldn’t be sure who it was. I cautiously stepped forwards again and in the moment I took me eyes off the bystanders and reached for another can, ‘plop’ went another with the same result. This time round Guan laughed loudly and unashamedly.

“Man, how did you fall for the same trick twice?” he asked rhetorically with a broad grin and a twinkle in his eye. Thereafter Guan had proven to be the unabashed clown of the class. Not only did he elicit all the answers with apparent ease but he exhibited a great sense of humour. During one Powerpoint video projector presentation, for which he had evidently not prepared, he inserted some unconventional slides after the title page. “So what can I say about this topic?” he began suggestively, giving us, his audience, a meaningful pause. With our respective attentions captive he flicked to the subsequent slide of some flowers or some cuddly kids; then to one shaded blue; and finally a blank, white page, announcing each with a singular word so that together they spelt out: “sweet-blue-nothing”. Needless to say his audacity was met by hoots of laughter from our end and a stony silence by our German lecturer, Dr. Wolf Maier.

The truth of the matter was that Guan was a sensitive soul who was experiencing some deep insecurities. His girlfriend, a pretty Spanish girl called Jennifer, had recently broken up with him and it was common knowledge that he was struggling to come to terms with it. Sometime, not long before our mid-year fieldtrip, I had managed to talk with Guan one-on-one. We found a surprising amount of common ground – estranged fathers, shared interests and a yearning desire to find fulfilment in what we were doing. Was he as lonely as I’d found myself being? I can’t say, nor can I say how much the break-up with Jennifer had affected him.

We had tentatively arranged to meet up for a drink sometime in the near future. Going forward to the mid-year excursion, Guan had maintained his position as the clown, most likely enjoying the attention as he sought to plug the hole opened up by the break-up. One evening in camp he had discreetly climbed a tree to some ungodly height before making monkey noises and startling those of us below. “Come down Guan before you break your neck” someone had shouted up to him. Eventually he had and I recall a little later he, myself and a couple of English-speaking second year girls had crouched in the eve of a dome tent and laughed about it as we sipped wine from plastic cups. He was very gregarious, moving between the various groups, talking with one and all. In contrast the other lads in my year, Pieter, Chris and Johan, stuck mostly to themselves.

What happened on the beach that fateful day was this: we had all gone walking up the beach, spread out in little pockets of friends, ostensibly to find a safe place to swim. Pieter and the others took up the front whilst the rest of us followed. Guan had walked alongside me for a while, chatting about nothing in particular. I remember him wavering for a second before sprinting off to catch up with the other three lads up ahead. I had with me a green towel with my name embroidered on it and a picture of a tiger. It had been a Christmas present from my father, although I had never thanked him for it. We were barely on speaking terms back then, and writing now I can feel the dull ache of that fracture return. I also had a black Frisbee disc which I lent to two second years.

I lost both items that day, although their loss is immaterial in the face of a greater tragedy. A few of the second years, growing tired of walking had stripped down to their shorts and leapt into an opening between the rocks where the sea encroached upon the shoreline. It was choppy and it’s greyness mirrored that of the unsettled sky above. I remember Anton de Beer swimming out effortlessly for perhaps twenty metres or more, then treading water and looking back to the beach. Emboldened, others pulled off their shirts and waded into the waters. I remember feeling uneasy and glancing up the beach to where the others from my class had disappeared around a bend.

Maybe I said something, maybe I didn’t, but unwilling to be shown up I too entered the water alongside Conrad, a friendly second year student. I remember the strength of the backwash, relentlessly pulling on one’s legs as we both struggled to keep our heads above water. After a few minutes we struggled ashore, a quick glance from Conrad acknowledging what had been left unsaid: this was a dangerous sea. Only a strong, experienced swimmer like Anton could negotiate the riptide and swim as far as he had. On my last trip out to South Africa in 2010 I’d stayed with a friend in Johannesburg. One day whilst walking through Rosebank Mall I passed Conrad walking in the opposite direction. We made eye contact and I saw a flicker of recognition. It was only a little while later that I realised that it had been him by which time he had disappeared amongst the crowds of shoppers.

Harking back to that time at the beach in Hibberdene seven years before, I recall that after re-dressing I started walking further up the beach, meeting my four classmates as they returned from whence they had been. “What’s it like PW?” I had asked Pieter, whose full name was Pieter-Willem, abbreviated to PW.

“It’s all the same,” he had replied, or words to that effect. I’m not sure if I explicitly asked if there was a swimming beach round the bend, but I assumed that if there was he would have mentioned it. Nonetheless I can hardly take the moral high-ground when I myself chose to swim in an unregulated area. I’m not sure if all of them entered the water where Anton, myself and the others had done so because I moved off to explore the adjacent rocks where my friend Izak was sitting, staring out to sea in quiet contemplation. It was at some moment whilst I was on those rocks that Guan’s life had slipped away from him, drowning in the treacherous waters.

As I arrived back on the beach, Anton, Pieter and one or two others were struggling to get him to shore. When they finally did his body was limp and lifeless, his body white and pale and his face a blueish-grey. Pieter had dashed off up the beach, returning a few precious minutes later with a young, white lifeguard. He had given him CPR for what seemed like an age and I remember the copious amounts of foamy water that he elicited from Guan’s flooded lungs. I remember too the moment he looked up into my eyes whilst I stood a short distance away and shook his head.

I asked PW about the occasion many years later, after having moved over to the UK. “It was all a blur,” he wrote. “I guess I must have known there was a bathing beach around the corner but it’s all a blur in my memory.” The anger I felt dissipated as I realised that the tragedy was unforeseen and the responsibility of swimming where we had ultimately rested with each of us as individuals. If Pieter had seen the bathing beach then so had Guan.

My pain lay in feeling inadequate and unneeded. Pieter had later given a eulogy to Guan back at the university. It was entirely in Afrikaans so I had understood very little. Afterwards Pieter showed slides from the rest of the fieldtrip and a daytrip we had made a few weeks earlier to a local site of interest. Although I had submitted a few photographs of my own which had been scanned to CD these weren’t included.

There was a picture of me talking to a chap called Francois, brother to a second year student in the department. He was a bit of an awkward chap who battled to express himself. He had approached me with some short lines of childish verse, written in English. I recognised in him the desire to write poetically, but an inability to translate that into meaningful prose. After chatting with him for a short while I discovered that, like me, he possessed a love of nature and concern for the well-being of the landscapes, animals and people that we felt so deeply about. It wasn’t difficult to connect.

I noticed that he was shunned by many of the others and his sister, Lizelle, would look slightly embarrassed when his eccentric behaviour came up in conversation. When the picture of us appeared unexpectedly in the slide show Pieter looked across at me and commented with regards to Francois: “Leo se nuwe vriend [Leo’s new friend]”. I squirmed as some of the audience chuckled at my expense.

I am tempted to write about how much I despised PW and his haughtiness, but the simple truth is that I don’t. I may have my failings and eccentricities but I do possess a fairly keen awareness of other people’s moods and states of mind. From what little he subsequently said via correspondence and what I observed directly back then, a picture of a young man wrestling with his conscience emerges. That he was proud of his people and his language was obvious, but beneath this I dare to venture were doubts, serious doubts.

He was a natural leader, and had assumed that position amongst the undergraduates in the department. Under different circumstances I think we could have cemented a friendship once we had come to respect each other’s differences. What he later told me was that it was a terrible year for him and I can only take his word for it. For me it ebbed and flowed, but mostly I remember the loneliness. It was there before but in foreign surroundings it was acute.

So much I didn’t and still don’t really understand. In my mind those memories still have the power to bring me down, a source of negative energy. The trick for me is to remember that they are just memories of a transient situation. Despite the pain they can elicit, they are part of my story, and as valid and instructive as any other chapter of my life.

It is doubtful that the Pretoria I remember then is the same city that it is now. It was a time in which the changes initiated by independence barely a decade before (1994) were only beginning to take hold. Relict overtones of racism still lingered, evident in the student council elections that year: “Why vote for a dark one when you really want a milky one” was the slogan from one banner I recall being translated to me from Afrikaans, a questionable attempt to link the colour of chocolate to racial affiliation.

I like to think that these remnants of the old order have been dispelled and dispersed. To some degree they probably have. There’s no going back to the previous system of apartheid in the world as we know it today and despite what I may have felt about some people and some things, I remember most of my compatriots well. Both Chris and JC were kind and intelligent, and Izak is a remarkably perceptive and thoughtful individual with whom I still correspond. They all still reside in South Africa to the best of my knowledge.

Pieter did a further year’s MSc before emigrating with his new wife to Australia. He tells me that his parents emigrated to the UK not long afterwards and that, from time to time, he still visits his hometown Pretoria, and on those trips back he visits Guan’s grave to sit and talk to him and recall their friendship. And so it was with me this time around, on the trip to Ifafa with my uncle Derek. Although I didn’t think about it right then and there, the sea around Ifafa beach on that day was as full of life as Guan was whilst he was alive. Whales breaching, dolphins riding the shore break chasing the shad: Guan would have been smiling on a day such as that.

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An August Wedding and a Quick 5-Day, Up-Down and Out again visit to England: What I learnt.

Every so often in life you get the chance to retrace the steps of a younger self, feeling both the proximity of place and the distance of time. Something of a paradox. Almost 10 years ago to the month I left my country, Zimbabwe, to venture to the land of my birth, England. I had no recollection of the place whatsoever bar a brief one week visit 5 years earlier (an aborted attempt!).

Thinking back it does seem a long way off. Some memories are quite vivid, others dim like an aged negative, the contrast fading and the detail losing its sharp edges. Catching the National Express in from Stansted brought the suburbs of north London into focus. A glimpse of a clear stream and a sign pointing in the direction of the Lee Valley reminded me that I wasn’t all that far away from Bedfordshire and the environs of Luton, where I spent a few fairly indifferent years of my life. The connections were tenuous but they were there. I’d made friends with a couple through a local church towards the end of my time. They had relocated to Germany where Marieke was from and they’d visited us in our community near the Dutch border with their 4 kids not long before.

There is something in the character of England and its people that exudes a confidence, sometimes verging on pomposity, sometimes crudeness, depending on circumstance and place. During the process of checking-in, boarding and the flight over I’d lazily observed my fellow passengers and attempted to mentally categorised them on the basis of nationality. Waiting on the tarmac I was in line with a British couple who bemoaned the price of the cab to the airport. They’d been visiting friends in Goch. She was very chipper, verging on flirtatious while he was more of the staid, happiest-when-mildly-cynical sort of a Brit. Did I know how much the British government had sold off the former army base that was now Weeze Airport (used mainly by low cost carriers like Ryan Air)? I professed not to but on being pressed guessed £100, 000. That pleased him. Nope, £1! he announced with disdain. Can you actually believe it? That’s our government for you.

On the flight over I found myself in an aisle seat next to 2 young ladies of apparent Middle-Eastern complexion. They prattled away in German, giggling and flicking through pictures on their phones. Later in the flight one of them attempted to buy duty-free cigarettes from the air hostess but was politely declined. On the adjacent row a young British teen watched a film on her phone. Later when she stood up to disembark I got a glimpse of her Whatsapp. Her user profile appeared to be ‘Little C**t’. How charming…

Back in the coach to London we moved deeper into the environs of the city. Shoreditch High Street hove into view and the driver stopped to let some people disembark. I looked across the road at a stupendously perfect advertisement for Swatch, not on a billboard, but applied in paint to the brickwork on the side of a building. With some admiration I wondered by what state-of-the-art technique it had been applied. Glancing upward I noticed a familiar looking, purple-flowering, shrub, emerging from between the whitewashed bricks. A Buddleia.

A little further on, or was it further back, a glimpse at a sign on a building at street level read Tower Hamlets Labour (the political party). Beneath it was scrawled some Asian-language script. I’m out of my depth here. Next to the Labour branch was a bar, its name boldly spelt out in neon: Satan’s Whiskers. Yip, I was definitely in one of the ‘mixed’ boroughs, the sort that I felt more attracted to if I was to be honest. Give me Tower Hamlets over Kensington most any day of the week.

The approach to Liverpool Street Station brought some memories flooding back: being disgorged from the tube late afternoon-evening and scurrying along to one assignment or another in the catering/hospitality industry. I’d initially worked in events as a champagne waiter and soon after signing up for the more regular pay provided through relief catering to offices, banquets and special events. With a wry smile I recalled the frigid occasion on which I’d hawked men’s suits for Marks and Spencers on these very same streets. It had reportedly been a hugely successful campaign for M&S, but less so for me. I worked my ass off but was paid by the hour (£10 or £12) just like the other slackers on my shift.

The London Underground had lost none of its charm: the urgency of the turnstiles (can I really use my contactless card now? What if it’s rejected and people behind me get annoyed?), the disorientation of the inclined escalators, the massed advertising whenever you were stationary for a brief moment. I spent that evening catching up with an old friend and it was good. He and his wife, both professionals and without kids, lived in an apartment overlooking one of the canals. They had renovated it tastefully. His father had been an acclaimed architect back in Africa, so perhaps some of it was transferred. After the wedding I’d return for another night’s stay.

On the train down to Winchester the following morning I noticed an abundance of Buddleia growing along the rail sidings. Funny that. Now that I knew what the plant looked like, courtesy of a lady in my community back in the community who’d donated one, it seemed to be popping up everywhere. It was certainly locally abundant but was it as widespread as my random sightings suggested?

The High Street, Winchester.

I have to say that Winchester has some charm. The sort that tourists hanker for when seeking out history, and by that I mean cobbled streets, medieval churches and higgledy-piggledy streets which defy even the most adept of map-readers (I’m not amongst them). I had a few hours before my rendezvous with the wedding party at Brasserie Blanc, a restaurant neatly situated besides a small public car park and a Theatre-Library (couldn’t tell which) during which I checked into my accommodation and strolled through the city centre.

When the time came I was a few minutes later than the appointed hour. No matter. Champagne was being given out to the new arrivals and the other guests were chatting amiably on the upper level of the establishment. The groom guided me to the balcony below which was locked the pedal bike I’d hired for the weekend. I’m pretty sure I was the only guest traveling by that particular mode of transport but more of that later.

Weddings are strange affairs. They bring together people from all walks of life and, as in the case of JP and Menna, from at least two distinct English-speaking cultural backgrounds. Behold the smattering of individuals from the year group of ’97, St Georges College, Zimbabwe – Dan, Sean, Simon and Tom – none of whom I could consider close friends but with most of whom I was on amicable terms. Likewise most were as I remembered them, a few pounds heavier in some cases, a few grey hairs more in others. In the seating arrangements I landed up next to a varsity mate of the groom’s, Craig.

Attentive and unpretentious he had come down from Scotland where he worked in a family business. He had gone to one of the rival schools in Harare so there was fertile ground in which to sow the seeds of conversation: Rector’s Day rivalry, corporal punishment, waterpolo and the like. Craig was also the unofficial wedding photographer. He had been gifted a digital SLR but professed he was very much an amateur. It wasn’t as if JP couldn’t afford a wedding photographer considering his occupation but, being similarly unpretentious in such areas of life, a mate with a decent lens would do just fine.

Listening to the speeches during the wedding lunch at Brasserie Blanc

Opposite me was the beautiful and elegant Sarah, wearing a pink floral dress of satin or silk. It certainly marked her out. Tall and slim, she possessed chiselled features – good bone structure they’d probably have said in Victorian times – and flawless olive skin. Whom I guessed to be her mum and sister were sat at an adjacent table and I could see the dark complexion, facial features and height were common traits. I imagined her perfectly in the role of a Latino-heroine in some Isabel Allende novel. A contemporary Daughter-of-Fortune.

Sitting directly to my left was the French wife of another contemporary of mine. Both she and he worked for a very large French company. They had an infant girl with them, Lena or Lana, an obvious source of happiness and many sleepless nights. Being closest to me and given the ambient noise it was easiest to talk to either her or Craig. For the first part of the evening I spoke with her. We could connect around the subject of parenthood but after talking for some time about her position in the company, her career aspirations and her demands for better pay and more recognition I found my attention drifting back to Craig.

The Groom gives a heartfelt speech

The speeches were heartfelt and sincere. Firstly the Father-in-Law, Hugh, and then Menna, JP and Best Man, Scott, in turn. Scott had always had the good fortune of looking the fresh-faced youth but his face was filling out and lo-behold, a few lines had appeared. A decent slab of salmon, dessert and several glasses of red wine later and we were on to the next venue. By now it was early evening. Together we crossed the town, walking close by the historic Norman cathedral. Being the culture vulture that I am I would usually never pass up an opportunity to go inside a place like this. Today I did. It pained me a little but Hugh at least enlightened us with some trivia about the heroic deeds of Diver Bill in stabilising the foundations of the cathedral a century or more before.

The party was getting going when we arrived at the St George Tea Rooms. A young man with a guitar and silky voice crooned into a microphone. It was lost on most of the audience who were imbibing the next round of alcoholic beverages. Old college compatriot Terry was looking a little jaded and tales of the bachelor’s party two nights earlier explained it. Perhaps it served our relationship well on this occasion. At school I felt somehow beneath him, never quite matching his easy manner and charm on my own terms. Today it felt as though any pretensions were absent. After 20 years or so in the British Army he was now on Civvy Street and married with 2 boys. The kids weren’t there but his wife was.

Old Boys Reunion. That’s me, bottom left putting on a mock serious expression. Seems only Sean was with me!

At first glance I had written her off as attractive but waggish – sorry! However, appearances can be deceptive. Belying her waifish figure, immaculate blonde hair and make-up was a surprisingly engaging and shrewd lady. She talked freely and outspokenly of motherhood, kids and her love of Zimbabwe which she’d visited with Terry. She was a Brit by upbringing but outward looking in sentiment.

Once the tea rooms had closed around midnight we drifted to first the pub across the road and from there to a club proper where the usual array of nightlife availed itself. Two girls in their mid to late twenties I’m guessing insisted on buying Dan and myself a shooter and following it up with a Gin and Tonic, a popular evening beverage with Zimbabweans of a certain demographic. The shorter of the two was so inebriated that she kept repeating the same questions: how old are you? how old do you think I am? and where are you from? It was like conversing with someone with chronic amnesia.

At some point she sobered a little and became a little teary. Something about her father dying from asbestosis or mesothelioma. I’m not sure I know the difference but both sound ghastly. She asked me to spare a thought for her mum, bereft as she was of her husband. It had been 3 or 4 years but obviously the trauma was still alive. At some point she stopped snivelling and looked up at me with round, hopeful eyes. I thought of a Basset hound and had to resist the urge to pat her on the head.

It seemed she had a decent job in the tobacco industry (no, she wasn’t proud of it) and a boyfriend. Did she want kids? I asked. She did. At 30 years of age what was stopping her? Not wanting to miss out was her reply. I told her to just get on with it but honestly, is there any right answer on this question?

The evening was brought to a close after we traipsed to a late night joint where the rest of the town awake at that hour appeared to converge. They were serving hot food. I settled for a houmous burger and another G&T. A few minutes later and it was only Craig, me and Dan remaining. I always enjoyed conversation with Dan although we met very infrequently down the years. He’d been in the travel agency business for some time but had dabbled in a few other things from time to time. He wore his heart on his sleeve, earnestly speaking of his highs and lows and what would be best for the world at that moment in time. I really missed these sorts of conversations with and about the people and places where I grew up.

Craig was going through a lacklustre period it appeared. He was part of  family-run business in the Scottish lowlands and he lamented the appalling lack of eligible women in the area. He broke it down for me statistically and it really did seem quite dire. Another down to earth sort like Dan he asked me as an aside if I could recommend any particular course of action. He had heard about my backpacking exploits, probably from JP, and wanted to know if I had found some enlightenment along the way. After chewing it over for a few minutes I had to confess that, in itself, it hadn’t. It presented new opportunities for sure but he would have to figure out the puzzle himself. He had nodded resignedly and said that was what he had expected to hear. Sorry mate!

A little while later I said my farewells and headed back in the direction of the Brasserie to collect my bike and cycle to my lodgings. On the walk across two young ladies, also in their 20s, giggled and teetered on heels. One of them asked me something inane. On making a similarly inane reply she perked up.

I know that accent. South Africa?

Nope I replied. A little further north.

Australia? she responded a little less certain this time. They knew nothing of Zimbabwe it appeared even when I explained its precise geographic location. Not for the first time did I come to the realisation that the bonds of Commonwealth were increasingly immaterial to this generation and the ones that would succeed it.

To be continued…

Note: Several names have been changed to conceal the identity of individuals. All observations and opinions are mine and are not meant to cause offence or to discredit the name or reputation of any person named or portrayed herein.







Harare, Oct 2017

This is a repost of poem by a Zimbabwean friend of mine who wrote this a year ago. It is no less valid or less meaningful than it was then. It not just a poem but a fable. When you read it you’ll understand and hopefully pause for a moment to let it sink in.

Credit to Jess Drury of the Jessaster Chronicles. Originally posted here.

You are gorgeous -
Replete with blossom:
Purple, yellow, red.
Bougainvillea tangles in
Careless clusters
And jasmine perfume hangs in the air
as night falls.
Skies are hazy blue
And soporific sun lulls us
Into feeling
Everything is OK.

Sounds of the city rise:
Chatter and laughter and
Business as usual
And a red-gold light-snake
Weaves its way through
Jacaranda-ed streets.

Your beauty is a curse
Permitting men,
Believing that they own you,
To exploit and abandon and
Numb themselves to
The ragged child begging cents
Under the purple rain
And the thousand thousand
Stomachs sleeping hungry.

We patch our pockmarked roads
Like we patch our integrity
And our pockets
And our make-a-plan spirit:
Plastic surgery disguising
Ugly Truth.


Forgiveness and Karma: My Quest for Reconciliation

I wrote an open letter to my former landlady about 5 years ago. It referenced the time I rented a room from her 10 years previously. Another 5 years have elapsed and I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on what I want from life and how I choose to deal with past events. I have traveled far and wide between 3 continents – Africa, Asia and Europe – seen my youngest brother marry and become a father, indeed become a father myself… but beneath it all there is still a deep wound from the past. I am in absolutely no doubt that it relates to my connection with my late parents, particularly my father, and I want that to change. But in order to change I must be courageous and go back to the times when the connections were broken.

Firstly, I must give some perspective. I have forgiven my father for his misdemeanors. Entirely. But 20 years ago, in the eyes of my mother, and probably to many in the fairly conservative community in which I was raised he was a pariah, a man without scruples. He cheated on his wife and family with a woman he worked with and had children by her in secret. On paper it looks pretty damning but if you knew the man, the person that he was, you might well think differently.

He had a kindness and gentleness to him when it came to young children, he laughed easily and in these moments his eyes shone with mirth. That’s how I remember him as a boy when he was still married to my mother. And it’s also true that I remember his other side as well: working late and missing dinner with the family, bringing work files and the hated Dictaphone home on weekends, and feeling as though my ambitions and studies were of little interest to him. The double life had begun to take its toll as my teenage years rolled on.

By the time I left for my first year of uni it seemed as though the marriage was on the rocks. Mum had confided in me that she might divorce you if things didn’t change. That upset me a lot. Not enough in itself to make me drop out perhaps, but it contributed to my struggles down at Rhodes Uni in Grahamstown, a long way from home. I ran away that first year or better put, cycled out of town, such was my shame at deserting. It was a crazy stunt but I somehow made it to Port Elizabeth the next afternoon after cycling through the night.

From there I flew home on a return fare and after ten days or so mum put me on a bus straight back to Grahamstown. 6 or 8 months later she plucked up the courage to go and out my father one evening at the house of his mistress back in Harare. She did it with the help of her dad, my grandpa. They just parked nearby and watched my father playing affectionately with the two young boys. That was all the evidence she needed. The rest came out pretty quickly. 3 or 4 months later the divorce papers were on the counter-top. I dropped out of Rhodes early on in my 3rd year and went home.

I couldn’t see it at the time, but having the affair was my father’s choice many years before and one that probably satisfied some very basic need of his, to have children with this woman and share a part of himself with her and their boys, for reasons of his own. For my mum’s part it was all shame and public humiliation and the way she saw it, completely undeserved.

I spoke of my own feelings of rejection to her and she spoke of hers. She didn’t seem to hear me and that annoyed me. I started seeking out a life away from her heaviness – her Catholicism, her guilt, her sense of keeping up with the Jones’s. It worked for a while. I got a job, a salary and a decent social life. But then she got a relapse of her cancer and it was all thrown back at me – why was I so selfish, so secretive? Why didn’t I ever do anything for her anymore? she wailed. I capitulated and it was back to university, this time the University of Zimbabwe or UZ for short.

Later I would look back and see that she was simply forcing me along the same road she had taken years before after some personal traumas at the University of Natal brought her back to Harare (then Salisbury). She did a 4th year at the University of Rhodesia (now the UZ) majoring in Sociology. Soon after she went into government-sponsored social work and met my father, a fledgling lawyer, and married.

It was with some difficulty that I managed to register at the UZ in September 2000 and get accredited for the 2 years I’d spent at Rhodes. All the same I had to repeat some 2nd year courses before I could start my 3rd year in September 2001. My mum wasn’t so happy about that but there was nothing she could do.

At some point we had driven down to Rhodes – my mum, myself and my youngest brother Ivan – to get my stuff. We stopped off in Bloemfontein for the night and I was surprised at how big it was. I recall a young woman with the most beautiful blue eyes working in a department store. My mother stopped inside to ask directions. I was transfixed. The next day we stopped over at her brother’s place, my uncle, near Pretoria. I remember on the drive back thinking how unfair life was and how much I wanted my dad punished for what he’d done. I knew my mum would die of her cancer – she knew it too – but it was my father I really wanted dead. I couldn’t believe in a god who condoned such behavior without meting out justice.

Mum passed away in November 2001, not long after the events of 9/11. Despite everything, I loved my mother – we’d been close – and I cried genuine tears of grief at her bedside and her funeral. She had asked for a requiem mass at our family parish church: St Gerard’s. There were many people there from around town – perhaps as many as 200 – and it was obvious that she was well known in the community.

It was a bitter-sweet moment. I had loved her but I also felt that with her death things could be easier for my brothers and I. We wouldn’t have to shoulder any of her expectations, the one’s I just mentioned. I didn’t say that when I spoke in front of everyone there but I said it in my heart. My father was seated somewhere at the back of the church. He would have listened to my eulogy but I never noticed him and he slipped away early.

I chose not to speak to my father for another year. It hurt a lot but I wanted to punish him for his deceptions. It felt somehow justified. A friend of mine, Matt, who I cycled with and who was a close confidant, told me he could never do what I was doing. It would just be too painful, especially after losing his own mother to illness. The funny thing is that I knew what I was doing was not doing me any good. Even my mother before she died had implored me to forgive him. Just be happy, it’s a conscious choice. I told her I would be happy, just not right then. It would have to wait a bit

Meanwhile I continued with the degree, all the while feeling a growing loneliness there in Harare. There had been a large exodus of families and friends from the country after the government had started taking land from white farmers and in the process collapsing the formal economy and the currency. Not surprisingly I was the only white student in my department, not that it was a problem in itself, but I felt the weight of privilege. Most of the students were from working class families and would have seen my upbringing as just that, privileged. The academics were fleeing as well.

When I finished the degree at the UZ I picked up the transcript and left the place. I didn’t care to go the graduation especially since my father wasn’t much present. At the end of that year, ’02, he called me aside and with tears in eyes, implored me to talk with him again. We used to be friends he reminded me. We talked again a little while later and we both shed some tears I think as we remembered mum. He spoke of his guilt and pain through the tears (she never forgave me!) for the first time and I recalled the pain of being so far from home before and after they separated in an equally emotional way.

I look back now and think that could have been a watershed moment. If we had both been strong enough to make peace with her memory and not feel so beholden to it. The guilt had been killing him and I felt like I was living some pre-scripted existence. I didn’t know how to get out of it except to keep going in the same direction.

A few months later I was back in the bakkie, the one my mum had gotten from my father in the divorce settlement and which later came down to me, and driving back down south to Pretoria University where I would enroll in an Honours degree in Geology just as mum had wanted. Once I had my honours I was free to do as I wished. Just get your degree she had said, and as an aside, to get a 4-year degree was much better than 3 for future prospects.

For a week or two I stayed on the East Rand before I was able to find lodgings in the city. I was almost driven to despair trying to find a place that fitted my needs – close enough to cycle in to uni, not too noisy (certainly not a house share) and where I had a good deal of privacy. Basically somewhere just like home. What transpired over the next 8 or 9 months was uncanny. My life there unfolded almost as a mirror-image of my former life in Zimbabwe. If you believe in the laws of attraction, in a metaphysical sense, then I was attracting both positive and negative entities. I soon realised that I wasn’t really interested in being ordained a geologist. I just wanted to get through it and try and find a special someone on the way to help me make sense of it all.

My father called through a couple of times but I was still pretty angry and wrote him a letter to tell him as much. I kept his response closed for at least a week before I opened it. I was hoping for an I’m sorry sort of a reply but instead I perceived excuses and explanations. I kept my distance from other men especially the alphas – and there were a fair share of them around – and became very reclusive.

I guess somehow the life-energy that was so vital in him started to ebb and around late August/early September he phoned through to say that he had a been diagnosed with something in his brain – cancer? – and that he was coming down to be examined and get a prognosis. He came and borrowed the bakkie for a couple of weeks and drove it up and down the motorway to a place in Jo’burg where he was staying with Cheryl while being treated. I wasn’t happy with the inconvenience but what could I do. It was pretty obvious that I still owed him something on account of him paying my tuition, even if I didn’t look up to him anymore…

The prognosis wasn’t good – he had something called a Grade IV Astrocytoma. Apparently it could only be treated surgically in a limited way without causing serious damage to the surrounding brain tissue. The most serious symptom he suffered was an inability to speak but steroid medication reduced the brain swelling and it quickly returned. I returned home after quickly writing my finals in a dreadful depression and spent the next few years helping my father from time to time cope with his illness.

The corticosteroids he was medicated with caused him more suffering than the tumour itself but they did give him back his faculty of speech for long stretches of time. But for the last weeks speech deserted him and he could only listen to those around him. I didn’t know what to say except that I was so sorry for holding a grudge against him for so long. His grey eyes glistened for some moments and I knew he had heard me. He died shortly afterwards in early 2006.

Probably my biggest trauma from back then – a sense of abandonment – was mirrored in the sudden departure of the Els family from Sussex Rd during the time I was visiting my brother Dan in Cape Town for his end of year graduation.

They had been looking to sell the place but it came as a shock nonetheless to arrive back and find the house sold with my things still inside and builders already making modifications to the exterior. My housemate appeared shortly after, enraged that all her stuff was covered in plastering dust. It was a shock after everything that had happened in recent months.

It is important for me to write this because it is my truth.  There are many images and memories that I can call upon. In one I can picture my landlady’s hubbie walking slowly around the perimeter of the house, lighting a cigarette and contemplating life. What exactly I’ll never know. I felt your aloneness intuitively. I hope you figured it out whatever it was that you needed back then.

Do you remember the evening I found the big old white cat outside my window playing with a baby sparrow? I knocked on your door intending to give it over to your stepson but he was asleep. You took the bird from my grasp quite suddenly and tossed the bird in the air. Lo and behold it flew across to the top of the roof and to safety. It was a metaphorical moment. I’ve thought back on it often.

Maybe we’ll cross paths again someday, maybe we won’t. If we did I’d love to fill you in on my life after Sussex Rd. If not I hope you get to read these words. Maybe you’ll also see something in them that went unsaid…