In central London today, girls who are nearly women and women who wish they were still girls are floating around in nighties, which only aren’t because of the high heels or pumps plonked on the end of legs so white I wonder if they’ve been talcum -powdered. One particularly sophisticated and skinny lady, perhaps in her early thirties, wears a silk nightie which looks quite distinctive and very expensive as she approaches but loses all lacquer thereafter because the hem is pinched between her buttocks. Her pants are not pretty. Plumper females in their early twenties flit around Carnaby Street in green T-shirts with barnadosloveskids and other pro-young people slogans in white. Later, I spot three of them getting pissed on Pimms in a pub around the corner.
So this is fund-raising?
Months of visa nightmare at Dorset Street are not over. I discover that the South Africans in Whitehall also want a police-check, health check and x-rays before they let me stay in their country for 12 months. The lady behind the counter puts me swiftly in my place.
‘I know you’re confused, that’s why you’re asking questions which is precisely why I am explaining clearly to you that you must only return here with all these extra pieces of information or we will not allow you to stay in South Africa for 12 months, do you see?’
She needs never to pause for breath, I think. I will do as she says, of course, and repeat to myself, ‘there is no need to get tense about this’ over and over as I wonder north-west. Or is our whole life always going to be played by ear?
Later, on the tube going east to Bethnal Green, a large lady in her early fifties stands up for me on a crowded carriage. ‘Please sit down,’ she says heaving about 16 stone out of a tight tube seat. But I’m not older than you, I say to myself, so what on earth are you doing? Then I catch her gazing down, at my belly. ‘Sit down, please,’ I hear her say. I am tempted to follow her gaze to the same spot, to check if it is really that large but I notice other passengers looking at us both, the whole carriage staring at the pregnant lady with her woolly bag. Perhaps I should just accept it? Lean back a bit, spread the legs, and fall carefully into the chair? Christ almighty. ‘No,’ I splutter eventually, ‘thanks, I’m fine.’ I smile, ‘I’m not pregnant actually.’ Horrified, 16-stoner blushes purple and collapses back into the chair, her eyes now gazing down at her own knees (can she see them?). I hear people giggle, I stand my ground, stare at the lot of them, and turn back to my book.
My book. I’m reading In my father’s house by Kwame Anthony Appiah (which I should have read at least a decade ago, and to my shame did not). I’ve only just started this but I know I’m going to love it from the first 10 pages, which are superb, and it’s going to help me think through some ideas I am currently struggling with in regard to writing about an African country as a white European author (among many other questions I have). It will pull my brain in an altogether different way to what it’s been battling with over the last fortnight. I’ve just finished Nova Swing (by M John Harrison), perhaps one of (if not the most) demanding books I’ve ever read. At all times, the text was in control of me, dominating me, beating and whipping me round the corners as I ran, panting, trying desperately to keep up. I felt as if I failed the book for my failure to grasp chunks of the text, and at times was frustrated beyond belief for my own ignorance. And who was I, all those years ago, to poo-poo SF (or Sci Fi as I then, so ignorantly called it)? It is getting its revenge! MJH doesn’t waste a sentence, or even a word or a comma. Everything is there for a purpose. In fact, it’s so tight that I sometimes wondered if there was space for me. (Must be that bloody belly getting in the way again.) Anyway, I finished NS yesterday as a heavy cold was emerging from my head, nose and ears. I’ve been sweating, sneazing and weeping water for the last 48 hours. Nothing has impacted upon me quite so profoundly for a long time. I will read NS again, but I will need some more life in me, some more years on me, and a little more knowledge of the physical universe in which we attempt to live.
Other smaller observations that I wanted to share with you, briefly:
First, a quick moan about the BBC. I was commissioned, some time back, to do an interview for the World Service. It was in Portuguese, which may have had something to do with the request. Today, I received an email from an extremely intelligent and generous producer (yup, the BBC still has a few of them who have stayed on despite the ailing atmosphere and work conditions) who wanted to let me know that the interview would be running soon: ‘ Everyone likes it, it’s just a question of how little money is allocated to each programme – the criterion appears to be – is it free?’ Is it free? The current philosophy of Auntie. Is it free? Speaking as a freelancer with strictly no pension, the answer is most definitely, No, of course it’s not fucking free. And the Beeb managers wonder why standards are failing. For christ’s sake. Perhaps they’d like to donate to my charity from their annual bonuses.
Thirdly, I’m pondering the latest border deal being struck by Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as reported on the BBC website. This sentence is particularly depressing, in my humble opinion: ‘A team from the former colonial powers, Portugal and Belgium, will demarcate the border, which will be ratified by the African Union.’ I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. I mean, who demarcated and made such a mess of the borders in the first place? It’s their mess, they should sort it out. Except, of course, it’s not their mess. Portuguese and Belgians don’t get bogged down in wars, raids and frontier skirmishes. They don’t get bloodied and messed with. They just sort the bureaucracy out. Do they? Do they? I’m deeply depressed by this.