For more on this story – the sadistic video made by four racist young men, all Afrikaner I think – go here. Someone said the story reminded them of the incident I reported in Mali a couple of years ago involving a North American diplomat among others. Both involve humiliation and exploitation, and force us to ask not simply why did the perpetrators do it but why did the perpetrated participate apparently so willingly? That does not mean to deny that clearly the guilty here are the perpetrators. And from what I understand, the video is symptomatic of institutionalised racism in Bloemfontein university. But I am interested in the relationship between attacker and attacked, persecutor and victim, violator and violated. Frantz Fanon is to whom I, for one, will return (as I always do).
I could be wrong, but from what I have gathered, the ability to write well requires watching everything all the time, including yourself and your thoughts and imaginings as well as everyone else’s. It’s like spying on yourself. I wonder if the Stasi and the KGB produced good writers, people trained to spy and watch each other all the time, trained to spy on each other’s farts even. Spying on a fart. That level of observation must have produced a few decent writers. Writing a fart. But perhaps their weakness was the inability to observe themselves after all those years observing others. Except that observing others is of course also about observing yourself. That’s the whole point perhaps. Maybe that’s why those spying regimes finally crumble because people can’t cope with the spying on themselves. That is of course what happens eventually. You don’t need to train the spies because people teach themselves, willingly, how to spy and how to watch and how to tell the authorities who is who. The subtleties of deviant behaviour. There is a level of madness required to spy on others and to spy on yourself, to watch continually for interesting behaviour and then note it and write it. It must be a form of madness. Which may sound pretentious but I’m absolutely sure I’m onto something her
I could be wrong but from what I have gathered, the ability to write well requires watching everything all the time including yourself and your thoughts and imaginings as well as everyone else’s. It’s like spying on yourself. I wonder if the Stasi and the KGB produced good writers, people trained to spy and watch each other all the time, trained to spy on each other’s farts even. Spying on a fart. That level of observation must have produced a few decent writers. Writing a fart. But perhaps their weakness was the inability to observe themselves after all those years observing others. Except that observing others is of course also about observing yourself. That’s the whole point perhaps. Maybe that’s why those spying regimes finally crumble because people can’t cope with the spying on themselves. That is of course what happens eventually. You don’t need to train the spies because people teach themselves, willingly, how to spy and how to watch and how to tell the authorities who is who. The subtleties of deviant behaviour. There is a level of madness required to spy on others and to spy on yourself, to watch continually for interesting behaviour and then note it and write it. It must be a form of madness. Which may sound pretentious but I’m absolutely sure I’m onto something here.
It just occurred to me (thirty minutes later) that it could be the other way around: the best writers become the spies precisely because they’re so good at observing. Think about it…
P.S. The book Flat Earth News by Nick Davies would, by the sounds of this review, finish me off entirely. I would not be able to read it without talking to it, shouting out in agreement with it, and then slowly softening into depressed silence about the state of the British and much of the world’s media. It’s not just the printing crowd who regurgitate unverified facts as shock and awe news reports, it’s the broadcasters too. Yes, of course, the BBC has a long history of regurgitating the wires. One of the ways I found I could sell stories easily to the BBC was to first write them for one of the wires I, unhappily, worked for during brief periods of my reporting career. Until the producers had seen the story on Reuters, Associated Press, Agence France Presse or a.n.other, they wouldn’t believe it. It’s still the case. And another odd thing was that the BBC’s ‘two source’ rule often applied to two agency wires. But in some countries of the world, the wires get their information from the same people. And certainly, I have known many BBC stringers who – due to meagre salaries – also worked for the wires. I could go on and on and on…
The truth is, there’s a lot of self-censorship going on. Perhaps that is what is feeding the imagination. Gazing from bus windows and car windows and office windows wondering whether he has ever raped anyone, or how many times she’s been raped and how old she was the first time. Wondering whether he has got a gun at home, or a knife in his pocket, or whether he’s looking over his shoulder because he’s anxious about the man walking ten feet behind him or whether he’s actually wondering whether he can get to the woman in front without the man behind quite noticing. The truth is, the high walls and sloping electric fences no longer seem ugly like they did at first. They have become unremarkable. But they are there. And the walls and the fences and the rolls of razor wire and the barbed wire and the patterned metal security fencing keep pushing out, pushing out from the boundary into the mind, the memory, the spirit. When the clouds come down over Johannesburg, so low that the fading crimson I LOVE JOZI disappears behind the thick grey curtain, the fences expand and surge beyond the plot perimeter and the grey tarmac roads narrow and swallow and it seems that we are living under the authorisation of the barrier. There is more empty space than space with people because so much space has been walled off. There may be no way in and no way out. On the outside, zombies stroll the streets not knowing who else is a zombie and who else might be an alien. No familiarity in faces, no familiarity at all. The old grey-skinned lady, rolled stockings hanging from her ankles and a stained pale pinafore hanging from her shoulders, opens her garden gate and throws broken bread crusts for the pigeons whilst sucking on a thin cigarette. Will she die naturally, or be murdered? How many people are transferring their wealth abroad as the pigeons peck around her slippered feet? How many people are readjusting their furniture and carefully placing buckets under holes in the roofs of their shacks? How long will she stand out in the rain? Where are her children? Have they left her here, for opportunities in Dubai or Putney or Brisbane? How much of their day do they spend worrying about their mother? Not very much as it turns out. She was what was called a terrorist, devoted to the cause not the kids. Her only son hasn’t spoken to her for 11 years despite his wife’s pressuring, which increased dramatically after she’d had a fright one day, looking out of her window through the rain to the pool. The washed eiderdown she’d left drying between two white plastic chairs was stretched over the lip of the shallow end of the pool. It was bulging at the fold with a large weight that was hanging like a dead body inside.
It is less what does happen than what does not, what does change than what does not. If you keep looking hard, listening hard, thinking hard, you will notice that the large adjustments are in fact only very miniscule alterations of the overall illusion of the bigger picture. The participating peoples of the planet are only really partaking in the image that is (re)presented with the help of a presenter presenting what we are promised is the present. But what is really happening is what is happening inside the body. All else is an illusion. The great changes result in no change, which is not controversial when you speak to the individuals who represent the majority. There are no great changes, they will say. They will show you this with examples in their day to day lives and it becomes harder and harder to refute, so one must return to the presenter. Without the mediation there would not be chaos but there would be crisis and more depression. More people would break down. Less people would marry. Fewer people would work. Which is why the mall is so important. The mall provides us with a reason to live: to reach the mall. Forever treading and turning to reach the mall. Everything else is part of oblivion. This is what the media should be reporting. The oblivion. Not the figures and the comings and goings and the crashes. The oblivion. That is where lies the truth. This is where, what and who we are. Of course if the media mediated on the oblivion it wouldn’t be oblivion any more. So best leave oblivion oblivious. Isn’t that what we are doing anyway?
‘I remember standing on a street corner with the black painter Beauford Delaney down in the Village, waiting for the light to change, and he pointed down and said, Look. I looked and all I saw was water. And he said, Look again, which I did, and I saw oil on the water and the city reflected in the puddle. It was a great revelation to me. I can’t explain it. He taught me how to see, and how to trust what I saw. Painters have often taught writers how to see. And once you’ve had that experience, you see differently.’
Like when J taught me to look at the cracks in the pavement in Hackney.
How interesting. A website showing you just how widespread the BBC network of journalists is. Take note of the African continent. Look hard at the map. You don’t see a triangle in Algeria do you? But there is a ‘stringer’ there, who has risked his life for years for Auntie. What about Libya? Yes, there’s another brave stringer there. Namibia? Yes, well, less brave, but there is one there, too. And then screw your eyes up for the tiny bunch of West African countries – like Gambia, Guinea Bissau and Senegal – you can see nothing. But there are – or in some cases were – stringers there, too. Some still exist. Some have been fired (or dropped) for no good reason at all other than fast-vanishing BBC World Service budgets (which noone at the Foreign Office – which funds Bush House, though few know it – wants to talk about very much). Some have had to flee their base (and their home) because of leaders like Yaya Jammeh – and the BBC has said or done absolutely nothing at all. Some just live in places that the BBC no longer deems particularly important. Some have died (and some from curable diseases, but with no health insurance to cover them they have simply passed away).
Funny that my name is on the list of stringers. But I haven’t been a BBC stringer for nearly a year. The BBC does not have a stringer in Angola now. The country is ‘covered’ (up) by one of the bigger bureaux – just like a whole lot of other countries which don’t really matter unless another war breaks out or a drought leading to famine occurs or some other reportable disaster easily-enough digestible for the minds of BBC ‘news managers’.
I would like to see, not a map of bureaux, correspondents & stringers, but a corresponding map of how the BBC values those people. You see, one of the things the BBC does supremely well is boasting to the world about how many reporters and journalists it has across the planet, all scurrying away like ants, digging for information to bring you – dear valued public – news from across the globe. What the BBC does even better is paying people very little who live and work in some of the most testing and dangerous places in the world, forgetting about them when they get into trouble with the local dictator, and firing them when the government says it isn’t interested in having some trouble-making reporter in a country of interest to British businessmen. And you don’t even really need to fire stringers because their contracts, as my legal minded brother once pointed out, aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.
Yes. I’d like to see a map of which BBC journalists are valued so much that they are given a nice car, a nice house, a nice pension, health insurance and paid holidays; and which BBC stringers are valued so little, they are bought a return-ticket if they’re lucky, a BBC laptop if they’re even luckier, and a coffin when they die from malaria – or the like. I’d also like to see the nationality of those people. I’d like to see how many ‘local’ stringers – as they are known so patronisingly – are in the latter group, and how many self-important British ‘correspondents’ are in the former group. That would really tell you, the audience, where the BBC’s real shared values are; and just how much the BBC values the values it promotes on its programmes (about democracy and Bob’s love for Africa and transparency and equality); and exactly what it is that the BBC directors mean when they tell their staff ‘We’re One BBC’.
I believe in angels
Something good in ev’rything I see
I beliiiiiiiiiieve in angels
Cos I know the time is right for me
I cross the stream
I have a dream
It was Lara who first found a copy of Vibrations, in an internet cafe that offers advanced maths tuition alongside spiritual awakening and the fastest beige connection in Melville, but it is me that has been hunting down the full set. Perhaps it’s because I can laugh at the privileged white people by and for whom it is produced without feeling guilty – and believe me, you’ve never seen so much nonsense in one slim, glossy pamphlet.
You’ll have a hard time, too, finding a black face, whether among the contributors, the advertising, or even the stock-library photos they use to illustrate their ‘newz’ section (white woman on mobile phone, white couple walking down the street). Without giving anyone the benefit of any doubt, this is about rich white people who feel unhappy and think there is something wrong with their lives and are looking for a solution and finding it in either the supernatural or in sorting out their own psychological tangles. They are not considering that what is wrong with their lives is that their lives are pointless, concerned only with money and comfort and privilege. They keep their eyes steadfastly averted from politics, from the inequalities and injustices that surround them. They’re too busy looking out for angels, wondering what bottle of oil with a few drops of food dye in it would be best to spray their rooms with today. It hasn’t occurred to them that they might make their ‘community’ a bit happier if they could be bothered to attend the world around them – tip the car guard, talk to the waitress like another human being, or even get to know their white neighbour behind the 8-foot high wall – as opposed to trying to open up a mystical channel to Gaia or reach an ever more subtle communion with their own moods.
Of course you find this wherever there are over-privileged, morally vacuous, culturally ignorant people. But it has a particular resonance in South Africa, doesn’t it? The contrasts are all a bit more in your face here, aren’t they? And this has nothing to do with black African spirituality or religion (as far as I am aware). It’s about people who want religion but are frightened to be seen in church. Or maybe are troubled by all that annoying moral stuff Jesus kept on going on about, all that giving your possessions to the poor. In the New Age, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. If you don’t want to do it, the Universe probably doesn’t want you to do it. If you’ve got a Porsche 4×4, then that must be what the Earth has ordained. It’s OK. The most important thing is that you feel good about yourself.