O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!
He chortled in his joy…
No, I didn’t slay the Jabberwocky but a very special thing happened to me recently. Or perhaps I should say a special thing happened to the world: Raphael Mees Passaportis, my son was born. He arrived shortly before noon on the 12th August at the Radboud General Hospital in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.
These last 10 days or so we’ve spent relatively privately in a nearby suburb courtesy of a friend of ours who was prepared to do a room-for-house exchange. In material terms we definitely came out tops. How nice though to hear our friend describe her first week in our one-room bungalow as luxurious. Well, compared to our previous lodgings at the Vlierhof Community I guess it is. As a shoebox is to a play-pen. We have another 5 days to relax here in relative peace.
Back at the Vlierhof they are gearing up for the annual summer festival. I felt a twinge of jealousy but it was quickly displaced. There will be some good music and some feel-good vibes no doubt, but I don’t practise any of the eastern religions, yoga nor meditation. And if there was a time to start it’s not now with a hungry toddler howling in our midst!
Ok, howling is a little exaggerated. Besides the indignation of nappy changes he abides most things well. As I write though the poor little fella is suffering some ailment – a sore tummy perhaps? – after breast feeding. It’s all we can do to allay his little whimpers by rubbing his tummy and rocking him gently. He sleeps intermittently (I guess that’s the norm?) and can feed voraciously. Nappy changes are a 3 or 4-hourly routine. I surprise myself – I can do it without too much fuss and bother (so far).
But I would be dishonest to say that I’ve been implacable. There are times I feel I desire to impose my authority through force: to punish his midnight wailing with a stern rebuke or to shake him to his senses. I’m told these are also normal responses of weary parents. This makes it marginally easier. I know he’s in no way conscious of the demands he’s placed upon us. How could he be? I must combat my reflex reactions with reason.
It is in those in-between moments when he is neither asleep nor in discomfort that the real magic is realised: a brand new little human being! Perfect in almost every way from his tiny little fingers to his chubby little legs and silky-soft cheeks. He looks at me with large, grey-blue eyes, unblinking. Does he register my face? I think he does. And then his gaze shifts over my shoulder. Now I’m not so sure.
“Raphael, Raphael,” I coo close to his ear. He visibly stops and I sense him sensing me; waiting, listening.
It’s moments like these that elicit a paternal tenderness I didn’t know I possessed. I want to kiss and cuddle him repeatedly. I want to be loved by him I realise, as much as he will soon need the love and attention of us, his parents. I feel a dull pain when I imagine my own father holding me like this in my first days of life. We had so little time together later on and he’s gone now. I realise that I miss him. I thought for a while of calling my boy Raphael Raymond or, conversely, Raymond Raphael. Mirjam wasn’t so sure and neither was I. Perhaps the next one…
He has finally settled down to sleep, punctuated every so often by little grunts and cries. Do babies dream? And if so, of what? The little baby vest he wears reads ‘Dream Big’ and a little further down ‘Little One’. Dream Big Little One. Yes, Dream Big Raphael. Dream, dream, dream.
Life is short, life is brief, but dreams live on…
grief? relief? I’m not sure of that final line. You’ll have to pen it yourself one day my boy.
The week just gone has been a mixed bag. Early in the week I decided, against my better judgement, to prod around my right inner ear with an ear-bud in order to remove some of the copious wax that had build up over the last few months. This happens periodically. On the previous occasion the result was that I compacted the wax against the eardrum and only after the frequent use of ear drops and much probing did the wax eventually budge. This was a painful wait of at least a week and despite being advised against the use of anything “narrower than my elbow” I’ve tried to preempt matters and remove the offending material and gone and landed straight back in the same situation. Basically, it’s all my fault and I shouldn’t be boring you with this stuff!
An aspect of my health that I haven’t had any control over is a cold and cough that’s bugged me all week. Considering that it pretty much overtook my entire respiratory system on Tuesday it could probably be classified as the flu. That said it has not been too severe, more just a hindrance. My sleep patterns have been all over the place and I look forward to reestablishing control over my feeble corporeal being with the help of a few nurofen and alcoholic beverages (vodka, whisky, hot toddies? All advice gratefully received).
I did make it to UP on Wednesday. I arrived at the department a little after the designated time but was received without much fuss (except that I didn’t have the relevant literature to hand) by James and his study group in the staff room. This would have been a privileged experience indeed as an undergraduate or an honours student. However, this was a small group of postgraduates and as anyone in the world of academia knows postgraduates occupy a niche far closer to the teaching and research staff than do the undergrad underlings.
Afterwards James and I went for a couple of beers at one of the campus cafes. I had scurried past it a couple of times in that ‘other life’ of mine but had never had the audacity to stop and indulge in – what! – an alcoholic beverage on campus! Okay, admittedly I’d been corrupted prior to that (I was 24 years old even at that time); I was just a bit insular. Back then the main campus in Pretoria was less heterogeneous: black students mixed by the student union whilst white students fraternised around this cafe and others like it. Many of them were Afrikaans speakers. That was part of the reason I felt a little intimidated I suppose.
What a change a decade can bring. It just seemed that much more relaxed on campus. Students of all colours and creeds chatted and socialized. To see a young white girl and balck guy evidently at ease in each other’s company walking along, books and files in hand, would have been exceptional back in 2003 but today no-one batted an eyelid. Still there’s no doubt there are still huge challenges working towards complete racial and social integration. James told me about the EFF and AfriForum clashes recently and on-going demonstrations country-wide, agitating against fees, Afrikaans language-instruction, employment contracts etc. One can read all about it on News 24.
So I will be looking seriously at acquiring a project at the department this year. The two questions besides what exactly I will be researching (something to do with Karoo-age dykes and their distribution – there are economic implications) relate to a) where I will live and b) which passport I will study on. There are large concessions for local (SADC) students versus international students. Oh, yeah, and the question of £/$/R. As always.
Anyway life goes on and go on we must, as Yoda might say.
To round out this match report some photos from Zoo Lake up the road, a place of interesting provenance vis-a-vie Cecil, Alfred and Julius (explained below).
One criticism I should level at myself is that I don’t do enough thought-blogging, by which I mean transferring current, unrefined thoughts to the blogosphere. Perhaps it’s my background in scientific study which puts great emphasis on critical analysis, accuracy and referencing. Everything must be referenced, although this could be said of academic writing generally. This is good and necessary when it comes to academia, bad when it comes to opinion pieces and artistic originality. Ok, so I’ve identified my achilles heel and I will make an attempt to be more spontaneous!
With regards to the title of the post: I’ve definitely been here before. In a temporal sense rather than a physical one. On the verge of something else, something undefined as of yet. I’ve given notice at work, a place I’ve been employed mostly part-time for since the beginning of Feb. I took 9 days off over Easter to visit friends and family and South Africa, otherwise I’ve been there every other working day to date. I feel a teeny-weeny bit proud of the fact I do. And I’ve covered for Phil for perhaps 2 weeks cumulative leave which involved some level of responsibility I guess. The job: working in warehouse. I dispatch motors and such stuff by packing it into boxes and on palettes. Nothing mind-blowing but with some pros. Firstly I only have to answer directly to Phil. Phil is cool. He listens to Frank Zappa and does mushrooms (not at work I must stress!). He’s actually a conscientious old fart, despite his apparent nonchalance. If he doesn’t have the day’s orders packed and the manifest printed by the time the couriers arrive mid-afternoon he gets a bit cranky. I’ve never seen him lose his cool with anyone but he has a grumble and that’s ok. He’s never taken anything out on me. At best he makes a tactful suggestion when I cock something up. I’m no dummy but I’m liable to be distracted at times and forget details: ticking a box here, submitting a form there. That sort of thing. Phil lives by a simple principle in life: be honest. He always tells his wife when he intends to go on a jolly and if something or someone is bothering him he verbalises it.
So why am I leaving the job? Because I’m bored; because I think I’m selling myself short; because I’m not happy in my personal life; because I don’t have a personal life. It also happens that it’s a family company. My boss (a relative through marriage to a cousin of mine) has his ex, two of his sons, his eldest son’s wife and now my cousin all working in various positions. Another son is at college being lined up for a future role. I don’t have any problem with this in principle (I would be a hypocrite if I did) except that my cousin is soon to take up a rather senior position which I think she’s completely unsuited too (she’s a hairdresser by trade). I suppose it’s a form of nepotism which has been relatively benign until now but is in danger of causing damage, if it hasn’t already done so. the former Ops Manager left because of this apparently, and I’ve just learnt that the accountant is also leaving. I don’t know his reason but it’s just a hunch I have. Anyway enough of that.
You want to know more about my personal life? Like I told you, I don’t have one! Do I have to elaborate? Ok ok. No juicy gossip but a few thoughts. One theme this year has been rejection. It’s not nice as some you may well know. My feelings in this department are directed towards a certain Polish lady who I had an intimate relationship with last year, severed ties, got back together with briefly, became ‘best friends’ with, and then fell out with before becoming the pitiful object of rejection. Truth be told, in that grey area between being with someone and not being with them, it seems there was very little room to manoeuvre. Deep down I know what I want: If I am not going to have the advantage of being the rejector, I would at least like to part on good terms, and by good I suppose I would settle for a definition of ‘without malice’. I think I have run out of opportunities. She is uncompromising. What is the lesson in this? It’s one you have probably heard before i.e. get to know someone before you start having sex. Sex complicates things. In hindsight we were not well matched.
I am glad of a few things this year, however. Apart from the stores job I have also earned about £1500 as an agency worker doing some truly dull jobs at some truly unsociable hours. One involved making compressed polystyrene products in a small factory running antiquated injection-moulding equipment. It was repetitive work but it helped ease me through the initial despondency of the rejection I talked about. That was late last year. I was assured of work in the new year but it never materialised. I never did feel completely safe around those heaving, steaming, temperamental machines anyhow. Rob, who had worked there longest, wasn’t very reassuring. One of them had blown a panel or a hose off with enough force to kill someone a few months earlier. Fortunately no one had been standing close to it at the time.
Another agency job earlier in the year was as a cleaner at a large bakery. It involved waking at 2am and slopping detergents into toilets, floors and other surfaces, mopping, vacuuming and sweeping. I admired anyone who was prepared to do that for more than two weeks. My mainstay of the agency work has however been as a parcel sorter. It’s work I had done a few years before in Bristol as a stopgap. Most of the shifts run from early morning, 0300 until 0700/0800. Once again it’s the monotony of it which gets to me. There are always a few blokes who make it a bit more bearable but who would really want to do that ad infinitum? Ironically the shift pays the minimum wage which is less than the hourly wage I was getting paid for night work in Bristol back in 2010!
But before I lose my audience and my point, I have to admit that there is a value to this: the people who do these jobs – the packing, sorting, cleaning and so forth – are the cogs that make the economic machinery turn. I think it’s important not to lose sight of this. Doing this sort of work from time to time is a good way to stay grounded and if not humble, at least a little more grateful for the day job. But perhaps most importantly it allows one to debate and discuss from the perspective of a participant. Yes I have seen capitalist Britain creaking at the seams, her native workforce disgruntled, and not necessarily without reason. The working conditions are sometimes shoddy and this culture of efficiency without accountability quite frankly sucks. Sadly, as an educated person, I can see how the system is geared towards maintaining a certain status quo. It scared the hell out of me a few years ago when my prospects were not looking good in the skilled sector. I have no excuse now after liquidating my assets in Africa, but I still feel vulnerable. I know I need to train in something that will cushion me against the buffeting winds of uncertainty the future always brings.
Now to temper these deep thoughts with anecdote! The title of the post is pertinent in another respect as well. I came to be where I am now, Bournemouth, via several other UK towns and cities, following the work or the prospect thereof. Well that was the general trend. In this instance I came to look after my nephew who is technically a cousin once-removed, but due to the age difference (35 versus 12), in a personal sense much more of a nephew.
What I like about Bournemouth is ironically the little bit that I actually likes about Luton: its diversity. I was living in Ringwood initially but now I live in the town proper and get to mix with a broad spectrum of nationalities. What I didn’t expect was to bump into Frazer! Rewind 15 years to a smokey pub in Harare, Zimbabwe (there were only three or so). There’s me, Frazer and some English guy who was about to return home (he may or may not have rekindled his relationship with his GF but he was going to give it a bash) sitting round a small table with pint glasses of lager in various stages of consumption strewn across it. Frazer was also of English origins but he’d been at high school (secondary) with me for as long as I could remember. Something about his dad moving over to run a security firm. I liked Frazer because he was gentle and unconventional. Most of the guys I went to school with seemed to feel the need to emulate American mannerisms and machismo and were just generally loud. I don’t remember particularly enjoying St Georges College because I felt like a misfit. Frazer was also something of a misfit so not surprisingly we came to hang in the same small group of geeks and quieter sorts. We used to assemble against an outer side-wall of the school chapel even when I was made a school prefect and could have sat in our exclusive common room with the rest of the feds.
So, as I was saying, Frazer and I were sitting in this bar in Harare a few years AFTER leaving school in ’98. I had finished phase I of university after returning prematurely (family issues) and was working at some audio-hire place in town. Naturally I had hooked up with Frazer when I found he was still there. What were we talking about? Buddhist philosophy and/or new age mumbo was part of it. I don’t lump the two together because I know very little about Buddhism but I think even back then Frazer was gravitating towards Eastern beliefs. I remember the English guy turning to me at some point late in the evening and telling me what he thought about Frazer’s notions on the ‘flower of life’ and that sort of thing. ‘He’s talking like a pot-head’ I remember him saying. The truth is that Frazer was a stoner. Later that evening or a subsequent evening I went back to his place where he had an enormous bag full of dried cannabis leaves. I think he told me that his gardener had grown them out back which was not unheard of. My very first joint (there haven’t been many to be honest) was smoked with Frazer. I got a serious case of ‘the greens’ on that occasion. I remember it well. Do not mix booze and nicotine and/or THC. Why have I never learnt that lesson properly? Not long after that Frazer literally dropped off the planet and I went back t uni. No-one knew what had become of the man and he remained mysteriously absent from all social media sites: Facebook, G+, Skype etc. None of our mutual friends from school were any the wiser either.
So fast forward to the present, or approximately 6 or 7 weeks back. The place: Boots Pharmacy, Bournemouth Town Centre. I was there to collect a prescription for a course of antibiotics prescribed my dentist for some pretty hectic toothache. You know what’s coming next. Yup, that’s right. I bumped into none other than that old dope-head Frazer. Except that he looked at me and just kept walking. There was no reunion then and there but it did prompt me to look him up in the local directory. When we did meet up properly I discovered that it was most definitely Frazer. He had given up the booze, cigarettes and dope but he was still the dreamy-eyed wanderer that I recalled from Zimbabwe. Now he practises yoga and follows a Buddhist lifestyle so far as possible. His life has mirrored mine to some degree. Loss of his mother in the early 2000’s as happened to me and some estrangement from his father (other woman/women, just like mine!). it was apparent that there had been some difficult times, some challenging times. Another development was that his health had also failed him a little. He had been diagnosed with MS which had affected his vision. I had to forgive him for not recognising me in Boots. He doesn’t have a paid job although he does voluntary work and I can only assume he gets some sort of government disability/ill-health benefit. Like me he’s not in a relationship but he seems to be very close to an older English lady, a divorcee he met whilst living in Malta. Like I said earlier, I felt like we’ve been here before…
Mmmmm, I could honestly keep on writing but I don’t want this to turn into a book. No, honestly, I do the memoir thing because I think I have a good memory for recollection. Who else has had a similar experience? Losing touch with someone only to discover them years later somewhere completely unexpected? Please share if you will.
Herewith a picture of Frazer in a very apt location:
If perchance you read my last post, a poetic effort, you would have understood that I was writing on the reality of being in place far removed from that where I grew up: that ‘other place’ of both heart and of ancestral importance, principally because it is where my parents both lived and died. All the same it is a contemplation on the present as much as a reflection on the past.
There was a period of my life in ‘that other place’ that was particularly hard to bear and I am aware that it still permeates my current existence. Living meaningfully in the present necessitates that we put past events and experiences into some sort of philosophical framework that allows us to cope with what was difficult and draw upon those things which gave us happiness and meaning, the foundations upon which our life here and now has been constructed.
In my case a large part of my life, my entire childhood and early adult life in fact, was lived in ‘that other place’ on the African continent. Home was the town of Harare, known as Salisbury to my parents and grandparents generations, and the geographic territory was Zimbabwe. Many seaside holidays were spent in South Africa, our southerly neighbour, and later academic studies were also conducted there. I have spent much time reading other people’s accounts of my homeland, writing about my own experiences, and trying to construct my own meaningful philosophical framework. I self-published a book earlier last year on the topic of being a ‘Jet-Setting Vagrant’ which was met with very little comment from anyone really. This was probably a result of the fact that it was a very open-ended memoir – more of a diary really, interspersed with anecdotes, philosophising and periods of retrospection.
What I’ve hardly mentioned to anyone but a select few is that there was actually an earlier effort at self-publication which I never fulfilled. This was a memoir of my life in Africa. As you’d expect it is a real mix of nostalgia and childhood memories, both happy and bitter-sweet, the conflicts and challenges of adolescence etc, all set within the context of the society and family I grew up in. I think the truth is that some of it is a bit too raw for public the public domain which is why I drew back from publication. However, it’s a shame that it has all been archived on my computer for several years now. There were a number of positive experiences to share and having talked to many others who lived in that society at one point or another, some contemporaries, others not, there is a desire amongst many of them to share those experiences with the world at large. So in a number of subsequent posts (exact number unknown) I am going to try and see what I can dig up.
By the way the heading to this post and a stark reminder of the importance of celebrating one’s life and heritage, from wherever it’s drawn, came to me a few days back. I was buying some fruit and veg from an Asian grocer’s not far from me in Charminster, a particularly multi-ethnic stretch of shops, cafes and restaurants, when I was approached by a curious little man who had evidently fallen on hard times. He was asking for 50p in change which I initially refused on the basis that I thought he was simply gathering enough for a pint at the pub directly across the road. I said as much. Anyway, his accent was curious enough for me to ask where he hailed from. “Rhodesia” was his reply i.e. the former name for Zimbabwe. Once we realised we were from the same neck of the woods we were able to have a more balanced conversation. What came across to me was how bitter he still was towards England and the English, despite having fled what was then wartime Rhodesia in 1976. “They don’t understand me” he said. How sad.
“Why did he leave?” I asked him, assuming he had served in the army at some point and was fleeing the horrors of that particular conflict. No, it turned out he had pre-empted his call-up and fled first to South Africa and then to the UK. He talked variously of how Ian Smith and the Rhodesian cause had been petrayed by Vorster (the South African president of the time) and his determination not to live under a country ruled by the ‘terrorist’ Robert Mugabe. I know that many of his generation share those sentiments. I remained quiet on the issue although I have an uncertain stance somewhere in the grey reaches of the middle-ground.
He spoke of the harsh conditions of conscripts to the Rhodesian forces as related to him through others like his mother, a hospital matron. I know this first hand through my Uncle Paul who served in the Rhodesian army at that time and who now lives a secluded life in Plymouth, Devon. So maybe he was right to get out when he did? I can’t say. He would have had to wrestle with own conscience over many years I suppose. It was just a little sad to see a man still caught up in the past the way he was. A little glimmer of some self-esteem though: relating how he was bullied by an Afrikaaner senior at Guineafowl (a private school of some standing in Rhodesia) he proclaimed “I had the last laugh! I stood up to him”. (Something about not doing a punishment prescribed him.) “I’m Irish and I’m proud of it.” He could build on that I suppose.
This was only ten minutes worth of conversation and only at the end of it did we introduce ourselves. His name was William. Before we parted I asked him again if he wouldn’t mind telling me why he needed the money. “Horses” he said with a wry smile, avoiding my eye. Chance meeting or something more significant I can’t say except that I don’t want my story and that of my people to be lost in the sands of time. After all it’s my belief that we really only tell the tales and glories of our particular tribe in order to try and reach out to a common identity. It’s one that’s in a constant state of evolution and that’s why we need to keep the conversation going.
If any of you have read anything of my self-published writing you will have had a taste of my retrospection and introspection. For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about I am essentially touching on the challenges encountered and observations made when one is uprooted from one society and plonked down in another, forcibly or by choice. I have elaborated on this in a previous post. Here I thought I would give flight to some of these thoughts in verse.
This Other Place
Life is spare in sentiment
now that I have travelled to this other place.
Stripped bare of pride and prejudice
I can look within and contemplate
memory, both the essence and the distillate.
Now thirty-five, man not child,
I have outlived my parents both.
Should I have remained, wed perhaps,
in that other place I once called home
where spirit-memories of them roam?
My mother’s ashes are within two casks:
One with her sister in the south,
the other with my brother Dan,
in that other place I once called home
hills of granite, red soils of loam.
My father’s ashes now far dispersed,
scattered in the mighty lake.
I imagine his cremated bones now blackened
settling in the sediment; or then again,
reincarnate in things too small to name.
I have often pondered
what truths and lessons can be taught,
in the recollection of these things,
which arise from sentimental thought?
Regardless of analysis,
It is a world of changing fortunes.
If my very blood could speak,
it would tell you of such things,
the weak made strong, the strong made weak.
Yet my tribe’s not gone,
only assimilated by another
whom to her bosom takes
her wayward children,
and like a mother
forgives our misplaced aspirations.
To see a thing
One must look.
To see a place
One must look collectively,
as muscle fibres are to the muscle,
each a component on a quantum palette
related in space and time.
Through my dilated pupil each single photon
again and again, in constant repetition
discharges upon my retinal receptors,
creating an illusion of constancy.
The river flows, we see the reed bow;
Yet it nods and returns, nods and returns.
The ripples shimmer and distort the glassy interface
between air and aqua,
but the composition remains essentially the same.
We see collectively and it is enough, for now,
to see it so and not to consider the uniqueness of the moment,
the infinite variability of trajectory and velocity,
each molecule of water a voyager in the quantum lattice
oblivious to the palette of my mortal mind,
forever moving onwards in accordance
with thermodynamics laws.
I marvel at the minds of cleverer men than I
to deduce such things and to rejoice in their deduction.
Empowered to explore, manipulate and dissect
the palette becomes a mirror to our minds.
But if this is our ultimate trajectory where to the collective?
The palette of river, tree, sky and cloud?
Why should I dissect what is enough
to soothe my beating heart,
my yearning soul?
A few months back I received a call from a contact in Zimbabwe. In itself this was not unusual. I have spent the greater part of my life there (until the age of 30). The lady who was contacting me, Adele, was the mother of an old high school mate, although I hadn’t seen him for many years and we had only corresponded sporadically via Facebook. As it happened I had had more contact with his mum through a society I was a member of in Harare. Adele was an active member of the Prehistory Society. As a graduate geologist she had asked me to speak on one occasion regarding gold mineralisation in tandem with another speaker who was engaged in artisanal mining, much like the ‘ancients’ had been doing for many hundreds of years before written records. Maybe I had first gone along to a society meeting because of Rob, my old geography teacher and close friend of my mum’s who now worked as a consultant archaeologist and historian. I can’t really recall the exact reason, besides which this is all peripheral to my story.
I corresponded with Adele every so often via email when she was keen to pick my brain on one matter or another. I gathered that she had enrolled in a Masters or PhD by correspondence, quite an undertaking for anyone in troubled Zimbabwe. If I were to describe her I would recall her as an unassuming, middle-aged, plainly dressed lady who spoke slowly and deliberately, who exuded an aura of patience and whose smile was genuine and reassuring but she had never had reason to phone outright so I was attentive from the outset.
“Have you heard anything from Paul? I haven’t heard anything from him since he left for Thailand in October (2012).” I hadn’t.
Subsequent to that phone call a community Facebook page, Help Find Paul, was set-up. I kept in contact with Adele and tried to do my part in the search by alerting mutual friends from Zimbabwe. I soon realised how much time had elapsed since those distant high school days. What I knew of Paul’s life since then was mostly second-hand or through the medium of social networking. He had lived in several countries, notably the UK, Spain, Uraguay and Switzerland and apparently spoke four languages: English, German, French and Spanish. He liked snowboarding it seemed and he had worked between Barcelona and Zürich before making an abrupt change and joining the French Foreign Legion earlier last year or the year before. I probably wouldn’t have been alone in thinking this an odd thing to do at this stage of his life, but a few FB friends expressed their admiration and support.
It now seems almost certain that Paul is no longer with us. A mutual friend forwarded me a link to a short article a couple of days ago published in the Bangkok Post which referred to the discovery of human remains on the island of Koh Chang off southern Thailand nearby a nylon rope with a noose slung from the branch of a tree and Paul’s passport in an abandoned bag. Indications were that the body had been there for at least seven months. So what are we to make of this? The obvious conclusion is that Paul took his own life. We cannot be entirely sure of this without any witnesses to his death but I will tell you why I strongly believe that he did. Firstly, Paul’s pattern of behaviour is one with which I can identify: a certain restlessness and inability to stay anywhere for any length of time; drifting between different groups of friends and acquaintances; and most notably a marked discrepancy between what he posted on the internet regarding his experiences in the notoriously harsh conditions in the Legion and what he related to his mother (she was kind enough to share with me the last email he sent her after he abandoned the Legion). The sort of things he posted on FB conveyed a kind of ‘guts-and-glory’ embrace of the training and soldierly camaraderie, whilst in the email to his mum he spoke of his true reasons for deserting:
It was prison, basically – a bunch of guys who don’t want to be there, squabbling, bullying and complaining, in lockdown conditions with an opaque system of rights and rules, and an arbitrary system of punishments. Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t fun, but in the end the cons far outweighed the pros…
Taken on its own it doesn’t mean that his was a suicide related to bullying and psychological abuse. In fact it seemed as though he made a fairly clear and definite decision to ‘desert’ as he put it at the beginning but it suggests to me that he was looking desperately for something there, a sense of belonging perhaps, that remained unrequited. It is more telling that he set up an email account with an automated response to the effect that he would get in contact again at the end of his Thailand trip in a year’s time (November this year). I don’t want to speculate endlessly. I don’t know what particular unhappiness Paul was suffering from. I suspect that there are infinite number of possibilities.
I dreamt of Paul a few weeks ago much as I remember him from school: oversized horn-rimmed glasses on his angular-set face; intelligent, sparkling blue-eyes; and most memorably his broad grin which revealed a prominent set of neat white teeth. Like all dreams there was something other-worldly about it and there may have been another long-lost friend present as well. I asked this dream-apparition of Paul where he was and that his mother was concerned as to his whereabouts and well-being. Perhaps he spoke it, perhaps he just conveyed it to me in thought form but he most definitely said that he couldn’t tell me that. I woke up confused. I only ever told two friends of that dream and then with the news of his probable death on the weekend it took on a new significance to me.
First and foremost I am sad that Paul is quite apparently no longer with us, but reflecting on my dream I am also reassured that he is not suffering any physical pain in whatever place he chose to contact me from in my dream. I said that I didn’t wish to speculate and I’m pretty certain that dream revelations have never been taken as prima facie evidence in a modern court of law, but the issue of suicide comes to the fore and is something that I wish to elaborate on. Maybe I could do so ‘in defence of Paul’ or any of the several other friends and family members who have succumbed to this course of action, but that would be presumptuous. What I really do believe is that there are many forms of unhappiness and that some will lead to the ultimate form of self-harm can only be seen as tragic in the context of our human lives. None of us were born wanting to die and the vast majority of us have, whether now or in the past, rejoiced in some of what this life has to offer. What I can only really speak of with any certainty is my own existence and how very unhappy I have been at times as well. I can empathise with Paul but honestly never understand why he may have wanted to discontinue living.
With other cases it’s easier I think: my friend Konrad was a Polish immigrant in South Africa who lost his domineering father, his only family member in the vicinity. After I left the Rhodes University residence and campus we shared reports started to filter back about erratic behaviour, a heavy drinking problem, lewd behaviour and sexual advances towards various women and a spell of internment after an apparent suicide attempt in his car. This was all out of character with the mild-mannered, shy student I had known during my tenure there. But even before I left I could see the cracks opening: the feeling of being beholden to his deceased father who it seemed demanded that he study only mathematics (he was a professor at another university further east) regardless of his feelings on the subject; and feelings of isolation from his Polish homeland and family. Poor Konrad failed more than one course whilst there and I could tell that he was caught between wanting to appease the memory of his father and abandoning mathematics for another subject. He talked of his love for history. Shortly after his release from a sanatorium he hanged himself by his belt on the campus grounds. I was gutted. I had tried to email him and reassure him but I was ensconced further north at the University of Pretoria under uncannily similar conditions. By the time I emailed after God-knows how long it seems as though he had done the deed.
I think we all feel beholden to those we love and care about. When they die we are left with those expectations and if we fail to achieve them – or more likely, fail in our perception of achievement – then we can feel very down indeed. If that is compounded by estrangement, in my case from my father, feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, frustration and insecurity can batter the psyche. It may even culminate in a threshold being reached from which it feels as if a return to any form of happiness is impossible. These are the demons that I have dealt with, still deal with and which I imagine poor Konrad and countless others have had to cope with as well. Therefore I will not condemn him in my own subjective way because I have an insight into how difficult life probably was for him. He isn’t languishing in a pit of fire unless our creator is a complete sadist (I don’t think he/she/it is).
I know far less about Paul’s state of mind and why he may have done what he did but I don’t see reason for condemnation either. We were good friends once even if we later drifted apart at school and after. He wrote well, had a good appetite for books and reading and was sensitive to what others thought of him and in his actions towards others. He smiled and laughed often. How can such a spirit be condemned in the afterlife? It is impossible I tell you. Furthermore, it seems to me that if he did take his life in that remote forest off the Thai mainland, he did it to avoid causing immediate grief to those he cared about. Perhaps a little part of him wanted to be discovered, otherwise why leave his passport in the bag at the scene? What measure of will power it took to plan and execute such a plan I can only imagine. Others may fall into addiction and self-pity or go out on a bottle of pills or a drug-fuelled binge but he chose another path for which only he would be accountable. Many speak of the guilt that remains after a suicide, in feeling as though they should have done more. I think Paul wanted to minimise such ‘collateral damage’.
Every death of a friend is a tragedy to those who knew them because to be a friend we knew and cared for those things that made them human. In death we lost that which we cared for, however lost that soul may have seemed in life. If only because we are loved must we continue to live as long and lovingly as we possibly can. If in the end some fail in this ambition then we must see it as a failing somewhere, somehow, but that life continues. The world is imperfect; there is much work to be done.
So I’ve written a memoir and not, I hasten to add, an autobiography! As a friend of mine remarked, “isn’t it a bit early for that sort of thing?” Well quite. All the same it has been quite an interesting couple of years, primarily in England, but punctuated by two trips back to Africa. This is the main narrative time-frame, although I talk of events further back where they tie into present experience.
What inspired me to write this memoir? Several different strands of thought really. Firstly, I am predisposed towards writing anecdotes and commentary, but that hardly makes me stand out now does it?! Still, it wasn’t a huge extrapolation to start joining the blogs, commentary and photographic record into a coherent whole. I would like to call myself a travel writer. Perhaps not in the conventional understanding of the title, but all the same someone who qualifies by virtue of having traveled beyond their sphere of familiarity. But the essence of it is that I have had a great desire to seek an understanding of the world at large, more for my peace of mind than any other reason.
Like many first time writers I imagine, I suffered from a premature dose of enthusiasm and imagined that to get published was just a matter of finding the right publisher and selling my story to them. With any luck they would take charge of the nitty-gritty bits: proof-reading and editorial stuff, typesetting, marketing etc. I ran the usual gamut of publishers recommended by the Artists and Writers Yearbook, emailing sample chapters, synopses and cover-letters in the main but also printing off a few copies and physically mailing them to literary agents of a more traditional inclination. As the weeks and months dragged out I was to come to realise two things. Firstly, traditional publishing pf the sort I have just outlined is difficult. Secondly, memoirs are not half as enticing to the majority of publishers as other forms of literature, fiction being the biggest seller and crime fiction in particular. Actually, a perusal of the shelves of one of the established bookstores – Waterstones or WH Smith – will suggest that life-stories do sell. The only prerequisite is that one has to be famous in some regard: a man or woman of considerable sporting prowess or a pop-star being two obvious ones. I am neither. Thus I did not find myself a publisher but I did discover the world of self-publishing.
The accessibility of the platforms for self-publishing online through the likes of Lulu.com and Amazon’s KDP have transformed the market by making publishing accessible to everyone. Although this might result in a lowering of editorial standards at least it gives people like me a channel to print and distribute our tales. The print-on-demand facility offered by online publishers like Lulu is a boon, but digital publishing is probably the biggest innovation. Still, one can’t do everything from writing to publishing completely independently and without outside review. I was lucky to have had the editorial input of Judy Brown, a competent proof-reader, who accepted my ridiculously low project tender through the site Freelancer.co.uk. I wasn’t in a position to offer any more than I offered but she did a thorough job all the same. To any aspiring author out there I say this: make it your first and foremost objective to find a good and honest proof-reader to assess your manuscript once you have finished writing it. He or she will do it the world of good not just through correcting grammar and punctuation, but by suggesting where you could say things more concisely, explore a particular idea further or simply to suggest what might be a bias on your part that needs to be reappraised.
That said I will return to the matter of the memoir itself. Once complete, or nearly so, there was the need to decide on a title. After some consideration I decided on one – A Fairly Honest Account of a White African’s Life Abroad. When I first published in July 2012 this was the title of my book. In part I was inspired by the fairly recent TV documentary on the plight of a white Zimbabwean farmer and his family, Mugabe and the White African. Something about the stoic struggles of the White African appealed to my vanity. All the same I was dogged by a sense of doubt. Did something really mark me out as a White African? Did I have a particular identity by virtue of having been brought up in Africa of ethnically European parents? I was after all born in the UK and actually of mixed Western and Mediterranean European ethnicity. I decided that the term was too divisive and ambiguous, with echoes of the past, and I therefore decided to change it several months later. The revised title I decided upon was Between Two Worlds: The Account of a Jet-Setting Vagrant. I won’t elaborate any further without pasting in my synopsis, as I wrote it for my book in the Amazon bookstore. As follows:
This is a personal, insightful and sometimes entertaining recollection of the author’s adventures and nomadic life in the UK as well as two periods in that other world of his upbringing, Southern Africa.
Born in Britain to Rhodesian parents at the end of that country’s tumultuous civil war he was raised in a fairly peaceful and prosperous Zimbabwe. The narrative journey encompasses not only the present but the past. He does his best to make an objective assessment of modern Britain whilst elaborating on just what Zimbabwe (and South Africa) means to him, and the conflicting senses of identity and purpose in the homeland of his heart of which he is no longer a citizen.
In his quest for answers on his travels through the UK he surveys the cultural and political landscape of England today, revisits his birthplace in Ealing, and traverses the southwest of England in search of work. Circumstance draws him to his estranged uncle’s abode in the coastal city of Plymouth where the past and present collide unexpectedly.
I will endeavour to publish my introduction and a sample chapter or two on this blog to give the potential reader a taste of the book. I hasten to add that the book is most likely to appeal to those of a similar background to me: raised in Zimbabwe, although not necessarily white, and living or having lived in the UK and/or South Africa for a period of time. Furthermore, if I have to be honest I would say that the overall tone of the book is reflective rather than jocular or entertaining. I wouldn’t recommend you reading it if you don’t have an interest in history or delving into the human predicament. If this sounds too deep and introspective, fear not. Most of the book is about anecdotal experience and there is some humour too… I think!
A paperback version is also available though Lulu self-publishing (I am currently reviewing a hard copy in order to approve it for affiliate distribution i.e. Apple bookstore, B&N) and another ebook (in EPUB format). See my author spotlight for links to the book: http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/leopassi
Here is preview of the revised cover, as designed by Kamil Pawlik, an independent Polish designer I crowd-sourced:
certiores petere, appetere edoceri (seek to inform; seek to be informed)