Monthly Archives: September 2008

dabbling in identity

Initial desires to riff on m john harrison’s post about nostalgia have been temporarily overwritten by an even greater desire to comment on this picture of Perry Anderson. Gazing at this just now, as the sun breaks through cloud over Johannesburg (more on that soon), I have been overcome by a longing to go back to the night when I dressed myself up as one of Britain’s most famous serial killers, the late Harold Shipman. It was remarkably easy. I trotted down to the Oxfam charity superstore on Kingsland Road and rummaged about in boxes alongside many others, some of whom looked similar to Shipman in stranger ways. I pulled out what I would call a hacking jacket, but I mean by that the type of greeny-browny-creamy chequered wool jacket that male academics in their 50s often wear in provincial English towns. I bought a brown tie, a pair of pale brown corduroys, some brown shoes and, most important I think, a pair of perfectly Shipmanesque spectacles. It was close to Christmas Day and Kingsland Road being what it is was stuffed with stick-on Father Christmas faces. So I bought one of these and dismantled the red and white hat, leaving intact the perfect beard and moustache with elastics to curl around my ears. I powdered my hair, and J printed up an identity card: Dr H Shipman, General Practioner, with a passport photo scooped from a BBC online story. My father, still a practising doctor in those days, lent me a stethoscope. The most important touch was J, who we dressed up as an old woman, complete with thick caramel-coloured stockings around his ankles, fluffy slippers, a kitchen-coat, curlers and hat. Such attention to detail, we even wrote out a will with J’s pensions and savings and small Hackney flat all signed over to me, the Doctor.

We took a taxi to the party, someone’s 40th fancy dress, a few kilometres away in Finsbury Park. The theme was ‘famous doctors’, hence our inspired choice. We paid the cabbie and lurched nervously to the door. It was answered by a tall white man dressed up as the stereotyped African witch-doctor (the sort depicted in Tarzan 40 years ago), though I’ve always wondered which particularly famous one he was wishing to be. He kissed us politely but didn’t seem to recognise who was behind the beard and the curlers. He led us to a room filled with adults largely dressed in normal attire, apart from three real doctors who had come in their green surgery gear and rubber white clogs. People gazed at J and I unable to work out what or who we were until we gleefully announced: ‘Dr Shipman, of course, and one of his victims! You wanted famous doctors after all!’ We were met with largely uncomfortable stares and a sense of disbelief. Perhaps someone smiled, but I remember only a lively Italian man laughing enthusiastically, and coming to congratulate and kiss the doctor and his patient.

Come midnight, I was tiring of people struggling to converse with me, backing away and always finding an excuse to move on; I was irritated by their shock and oh-so-moral glares, which seemed to ignore their own deep failure – to dress up when you come to a fancy dress party. My anger with their inability to step beyond the falsity and hypocrisy of middle class life intensified with remarkable aggression, such that I started to become aware of how easy it was to imagine myself as a real life serial killer. The inner Dr Shipman had migrated from the mini photo, through the wool jacket and spectacles, deep into my skin.

I tapped J on the shoulder and begged him to swap outfits, and we disappeared upstairs into a tiny toilet and pulled off our clothes. Our transformation was quite quick – J becoming the doctor; I, the victim – although I could still feel the dirt of the doctor all over me. We rolled back downstairs, into the main room. Madonna was still screaming her heart out and a line of drunk men and women, arms linked, was making its diagonal way back and forth across the floor, an old routine played out each year for many years. We attempted to join in, to dance away our unpopular selves. I struggled to enjoy myself, and felt sickened by the sight of Dr Shipman spinning and swaying infront of me. And even more sickened to discover that most of the un-dressed-up adults were only just beginning to realise that I was not only not a doctor, but also not a man.

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hiding

“At least they have hope.”

What is that supposed to mean? Hope for what? Usually it is about hoping for something better: a better home (from shack to brick house), a better job (from cleaner to self-employed businessman), a better marriage (he’ll stop drinking eventually), and so on. I hate hope. I never hope anything other than that the bus won’t be too late today. I never hope I’ll become a better writer or a better wife etc. The only way I’ll become better is if I work hard and address all my many flaws. The only way someone will move from their shack to a solid brick home is if they work hard, or the government changes its policies and provides free housing, or if they are lucky (someone kind builds them a home or gives them lots of money). And even then – let’s face it, in this deeply unequal world – there are no guarantees. You don’t get a house by hoping (and often, not even by working); and I won’t write a book by hoping. So when I hear people say, But they still have hope, I feel an overwhelming and slightly inexplicable desire to do violence. I felt this on Monday night as I read the words of Charles Skinner in the back of a book of photographs Terreno Ocupado, by Jo Ractliffe. The pictures are, mainly, of an informal settlement Boa Vista in Angola’s capital, Luanda, and of the famous Luanda market, Roque Santeiro. And at the end of the book, Skinner writes about how the city is changing so fast and how Angola has become a petro-capitalist state (notably, he doesn’t mention the diamonds that he is very much involved in as an employee of De Beers, but anyway), and he also writes about the never-ending hope of the Angolan people. This is odd, I think. Is it possible to see or hear or feel hope in someone else? Is it possible to state that someone else ‘has hope’? Diplomats and politicians would say: Yes, it is. When they’ve completed a tour of some country in Africa or Asia, they often say something like: What struck and inspired me most was the hope of the people; or, At least they still have hope. Can you have hope? Is hope perhaps another way of saying ‘faith’? At least they still believe in God. God will help me become a better writer, a better lover, and God will build my big house that I dream about each night when the rain drips through my corrugated iron roofing, and God will take away the idiots running North America and replace them with gentle souls who’ll make everyone happier. Barack Obama represents hope. He is a modern expression of hope, a symbol of the desire by many people to believe in what you might call blind faith. Tautology, surely. Hope, for me, represents an inability to face the truth because reality is too unbearably dreadful. Hope is thus about fear and a failure to confront life as it is. Hope is where people hide. And when powerful people pat the powerless on the head for having hope it’s out of a great huge sigh of relief. Thank God they haven’t woken up quite yet. It’s, yes, paternalistic for sure, but it’s more than that. The powerful are hoping too, desperately praying, that the powerless won’t wake up and start getting angry. For as long as there is hope there is passivity, there is acceptance, there is a failure to act.

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so much fantasy

I remember, perhaps six years ago, a growing awareness of the probability that people with whom I shared a clear political position might one day become, if not enemies, memories. I started to see that my very definite dislike of super-consumerism and super-materialism was, in fact, what they were seeking. Or if they weren’t seeking it, they had little choice but to accept it. So we are no longer common allies in a time of peace. The friendships start to strain. The commonality shows gaps. A friend wrote: And now that Angola is wealthy, you see an interesting strain of jingoism. It feels like a crisis. A crisis I shouldn’t claim to belong to. But I do, in a very personal way. This is a side of globalisation that I feel I carry with me, that hurts in my heart, that should not be written about publicly. It’s an ache. Understandings slipping away. Roars of partnership, of shared battles, echo so far away, I no longer remember how they felt. Someone said: This is democracy. But it feels like hell. I don’t want to go window shopping for different takes on the world, I want comrades and real fights. I don’t want to blush because I can’t afford to fly somewhere, or eat somewhere, or buy clothes somewhere. Strange clashes of class and consumerism distort somewhere over the Atlantic. The battle I thought I had joined, I was never more than an observer. A desiring observer. And the fighters I thought were my fellows, stride away into a world I don’t ever wish to be part of. There’s perhaps a handful of us left.

But not only. Others with whom I thought I shared nothing, have come out of the shadows and I can see them very clearly. I’m reluctant, this time, to allow optimism incase I discover again it was another misunderstanding. But patience is a hard thing to hold on to these days. Danke ouma. Time is running out. I wish I’d learned Afrikaans. That’s the one thing I regret about my 11 months in South Africa. I wish I’d learned Afrikaans.

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a living fossil

More and more material is emerging on the Angolan elections. I’ve got some of my own thoughts published here with Open Democracy, where editor, David Hayes, makes contributing to the site a real pleasure. If you want to read more, you can also take a look at this report by Paula Roque who works at the ISS here in Johannesburg. Paula was in Angola during the elections on September 5 and 6. I was not.

And for those of you who are interested, I was told by a South African plant expert I met recently (at a very good party) that there have been sightings of 3000-year-old welwitchia, although he was only confident to confirm that this extraordinary plant only seen in Angola and Namibia does regularly live for up to 1000 years. The one pictured here is 1500 years old, or was when the photograph was taken. If you’re confused, read my piece in Open Democracy. It explains everything…

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taxi II

“We’ve always been in the middle. First we weren’t white enough, now we’re not black enough. And that Zuma! Ugck! He’s really dirrible. Only wants to help his own people, the Zulus. What about us? What about us? You know what we’re called don’t you? The coloureds. I’m coloured. I’ve been waiting for a house for eight years. Eight years. But I’m not black enough.”

“So where do you live?”

“Oh, out there! Over there! You can’t even see it from here. I rent, lady. I rent. It’s not so bad, you know, but I want my own house and the government won’t give me one because I’m not black enough. But it’s all about the little ones isn’t it, in the end, about the little ones. We do what we do for the little ones, for the future, not for ourselves. If my kids will have a house one day, of their own, I’ll be satisfied. Then all this driving driving driving will have been worth it. But this country! Akgh! It will niver change. Niver. The whites still the same whites they always were. The only difference is the blacks have power. And then they go and put Zuma in.”

“So which party do you support?”

“Well I can’t support the ANC. No ways, lady. And I won’t support the DA. So I’m left with our little party. It’s like a little muslim party for coloureds and muslims. At least they are interested in my interests. That’s all we can hope for. But you know this country will niver change. It was better under apartheid. People say you shouldn’t say that but I say it. It was better. More jobs. Better schools. Better transport. And less of this corruption all the time. And look at these shacks. Look at these. This is the Joe Slovo settlement. When it rains these people are living in water. In lakes. They’ve got nowhere to go. Why doesn’t the government build new towns? We’ve got so much land. Why don’t they build new towns in those spaces? And put in new courts of law, and new malls, big shopping malls, and new hospitals? Then the people wouldn’t mind moving further away? And I’ve forgotten now. Where did you say you were going? Yah, we’re nearly there. Almost there. Is it like this then in Angola?”

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taxi I

‘What a lot of outsiders don’t realise is that we had a really bad time too. It wasn’t just the blacks. I also couldn’t sit where I wanted in a bus; I also couldn’t go to the beach I liked; I also couldn’t choose which toilet I wanted to enter. It was tirrible. Tirrible… Anyway, I’m leaving now. I’m going to do my house up and go. Zuma is too much. I’ve always said it, I know this isn’t right, but I’ve always said it.”

“What?”

“Blacks don’t know how to govern. They just don’t. They’re so corrupt. They are always fighting. Tribalism and all that.”

“But the Nats were also very corrupt. And you can hardly say the whites were good at governing here can you? And in those days they didn’t even allow the media to say so. The ANC allow a very critical media to write about everything. That’s a major difference.”

“The Nats were corrupt, yes. But they kept the country going… the economy.”

“But the South African economy is doing pretty well?”

“People still living in shacks! You think so? This country’s falling apart. I’m going. I’m getting out of here. I’ve tried to believe in them. I’ve tried to have faith. I’ve tried not to see that blacks can’t govern, but I can’t pretend any more. I just can’t. Every day I wake up thinking about Zuma. I think about Zuma all day, all night. I worry about Zuma. And now he’s coming. He’s coming and there’s nothing we can do about it. This is Africa. We’re going to end up like the rest of Africa.”

“So where are you going?”

“Mozambique. Possibly Malawi.”

“To another African country then?”

“Oh yes. I can’t possibly live without the bush, and the animals. I can’t leave the continent. I came here when I was four.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. From Portugal. We went to Angola. My father was the same. Said he’d never leave Angola. He always believed in the blacks, he always said, The blacks here will do it. And he was wrong. Look at Angola! I’ve lived through war. We lost everything. So we came here, when I was seven, and now I’m going to lose everything to Zuma. Well, he’s not having it. He’s not having it. And I know blacks – I’ve got black friends – and they feel the same.”

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a haven called home

“I get very angry that these greedy bastards in the City [of London] and elsewhere are able to drag us all down. Dante had the right idea, tip them head down in shit 23 hours a day.” Someone great said that.

Someone much less great, Marshall Langer, said this: “The most important tax haven in the world is an island. They are surprised, however, when I tell them the name of the island is Manhattan. Moreover, the second most important tax haven in the world is located on an island. It is a city called London in the UK.”

I live about a mile north of that second most important tax haven. And I often think it’s strange that people who live on that rainy island called Britain don’t realise just how responsible are British accountants, bankers and lawyers – often educated at our ‘best’ schools like Eton et al, and taken through our ‘best’ universities like Oxford et al – and just how rich they get by operating in and maintaining what is probably the most fundamental corruption in the world.

People point fingers at the elites of that country I like so much, Angola, as well as other places like Nigeria, and say They’re so corrupt, it must be awful… All those poor people… Their rulers are so corrupt… What can be done? Why is Africa so corrupt?  I too curse the level of corruption among the Angolan elite. But there is one thing that I really don’t do: I don’t think that my own British elite is not just as dirty and guilty and corrupt. The men in suits in the City of London are in many ways the makers of corruption, the partners and engineers of corruption, they are the very rich people who help make corruption possible and help make other very rich people even richer; they are the people who oil the system that allows it to work, that allows money to be hidden and hurried away, and they are the people who benefit from it too. They are also supremely rich. Some of them are the kind of people I went to school with, or the kind of people who the girls I went to school with have married. Some of them, anyway.

And all these people – the rich and corrupt of the City of London, the city of Luanda, the city of Manhattan, Delhi, Sydney, Malabo, Lisbon, Paris, Caracas, São Paolo et cetera et cetera – are operating in a world far above the rest of us, in a community of money and corruption. Which is why I get annoyed at those who condemn the rich of, say, Angola, as somehow being worse than the rich of, say, New York. Sometimes people come back at me, arguing, But Lara, the rich in Angola are worse… They are richer… They care less about their own poor… And I know then that there’s no point arguing. These people have a problem of vision, a psychosis of perception, which enables them to be blind to the extreme wealth of the wealthy world, whilst they are blinded by the wealth in the developing world. It’s more than hypocrisy: it’s psychological and bound up, too, with racism. Rich black people somehow being more shocking than rich white people. I’ve never quite understood this. I hate rich people, full stop. So when members of the Angolan elite get cross with me, and accuse me of being nasty about their beloved nation, I try to explain that they are missing the point: I’m just as nasty about their peers in London, the only difference is that they themselves aren’t interested in that. A double psychosis of perception, if you like.

I’ve never wanted my blog to become a ramble. This morning it has. Perhaps to cover up the shame of the crush… who knows? But can I encourage you all to take a look at the Tax Justice Network. I know it has the unsexiest name on the planet, and it does have a mild tendency to be a wee bit too knowing and a wee bit too I told you so, and seems to be run by largely (only?) men… but if I can get over all that – with all my chips, anger and general unsavoury behaviour – then it shouldn’t stop you from benefitting from the research they do and the important matters they are trying to tackle also. I sound like I’m lecturing you now, don’t I? Sorry.

I’d make it 23 days, Dante, not 23 hours. I’d leave them there, perhaps, for 23 weeks. Or years, why not…

P.S. I confess, I went to a school called The Lady Eleanor Holles School for Young Ladies. There you are. And it’s not a made-up name either, it’s true.

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