Something something ‘real estate’ something something ‘for the black families’. In a Boston accent. Brogues? Of course. Bald? Ditto. White? You got it. At some point at the turn of the century, pushchairs and prams and shopping trolleys morphed. They became one. Boston man is with a clever, solid, well-dressed couple who have one of these things on wheels, complete with sleeping babe (its head resting in the space that once housed a sheep’s arse). They’ve parked it just far enough from their table so as not to disturb their coffee-chat, and just close enough to the next that, when others come in, and glance about for a spare table, they presume both are taken. Which they are. By a politics of spacing. From two tables and six chairs, they eat green leaves soaked in balsamic syrup and drink coffee. The café is large. Two of its four walls are glass: those sort of thick window-doors that now form the kitchen wall (the one that looks out to the garden) of every Victorian home in Dulwich, Hampstead, Hackney, Kilburn, Brixton, etc etc. You get the picture. ‘Funny that they have a lit-up fire exit outdoors,’ remarks J, looking out, admiring the quality of the large garden. ‘See that curtain?’ she replies. J turns, ‘Yes.’ ‘I feel like I’m in a crematorium, about to be served up as ash.’ J looks and thinks. She says, ‘Do you think everyone here works in publishing? Do you think they’ve all written successful books? Do you think they’ve all been published in the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books and that they’ve all been out with someone who works at the Guardian?’ J gets up. He chooses some music from the juke box. ‘Amazing isn’t it,’ he says. ‘They get a juke box, park it in a corner, give it a label and a hashtag, and it becomes a work of art.’ She gets up. She goes to the juke box. She chooses some music. A kid joins her. He stands beside her patiently. He waits in the way that people wait to touch a coffin with an old friend inside. J tells her not to hog the juke box and she moves away, returning to the table, staring at the pushpramtrolley. The boy at the juke box looks happy. Upstairs, three people are watching a film that captures people at a shamanic ceremony in São Tomé and Prîncipe. A parrot is examining a camera. A fish is dying on a plate. Wheels are turning. J says he wants to leave. He’s humming to the juke box. Ain’t gonna play Sun City.
Politely, one might call this a crisis. Background: I’m reading The Golden Notebook and I’m already feeling ashamed that I’ve not read it before. [‘But I thought you were really into African writers?’ ‘Doris Lessing! You mean you aren’t familiar with all her works? Oosh.’ ‘You call yourself a writer?’] I’ve bought The Fourth Estate edition from 2014, which begins with an essay by Lessing — they call it Preface — which she wrote in June 1971. The good bit is this: she explains that she advises students of literature to choose books by browsing, to pick up books that they are attracted to, to drop them when they bore them, to skip the parts that drag on, and — most importantly for me — ‘never, never read anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or a movement’. Phew. So that’s erased the shame.
But then there’s the bad bit. It goes like this:
… the real history of Africa is still in the custody of black storytellers and wise men, black historians, medicine men: it is a verbal history, still kept safe from the white man and his predations. Everywhere, if you keep your mind open, you will find the truth in words not written down.
Maybe not the truth, Lessing, but certainly a truth. (When does one ever find the truth? I’d argue her on that one.) But it’s the previous sentence that sends me running. Inevitably. I’ve spent several years working hard, pushing and struggling, to write down a certain history of a certain African country. I wouldn’t claim it was ‘the real history’, no. It’s an attempt into a history. An attempt to twist through several versions of that history. But it’s
unashamedly written down. (I crossed that out because one of the reasons it took me so long was precisely because of the high levels of anxiety I felt about being a white predator of a black history.) On the page. By me, the white [wo]man whose predations are all hers.
I’ve made so much fuss about the writing of it. About the fact of getting it onto the page. Into a book. A hard, physical thing to be loved, and touched, and covered in glory. I’ve fought hard for it. I’ve defended it all over the bloody place. I’ve even written to a certain bookstore about it, encouraging them to stock it more widely. I’ve delighted when finding it on the main shelves of Daunts. I’ve drooled over emails and Facebook messages from readers, some of whom I know, others complete strangers. I’ve held it and weighed it, smelt it, stroked it, gazed at every square inch of it over and over. The object that is the book — my book — matters hugely to me. It’s proof that the project I set out to do despite the “advice” of so many nay-sayers — ‘Angola? No one will publish that here.’ ‘Get real, girl. They won’t be interested in Angola. They speak Portuguese. It was the 1970s.’ ‘Look, you need to understand that Africa just doesn’t sell.’ ‘My marketing department would laugh me out of the room if I told them I had a book about Angola. You do see that?’ — actually did come off. I pulled it off. I proved them wrong. It’s there now, in black and white, between covers as hard as the trunk of a tree. People can buy it, borrow it, steal it and read it. Reviewers can review it. Judges can judge it.
And then I read this. ‘Never let the printed page be your master.’ Lessing’s advice again, yes. And I’m taking her very seriously. I’ve agreed with a lot of this preface. And then she goes and writes that, and I read it just at the moment when the printed page has become less a master for me than a kind of God. Or a kind of devil. A nightmare. An addiction. Quite a lot like taking ecstasy in the 1990s, including the come-down three days later. I have come to equate the book with the fact of a certain set of momentous and bloody events in Angola. The existence of the book has made concrete the event, if you like. I can see that now. I can grasp the potential damage, the profound danger.
And yet, and yet — for
the writer (fuck, how pompous that sounds) I (I mean *I*) must have a defence for all that work — I went out of my way to undermine the book. The book undermines itself, its sources, its evidence. It is always fuzzy, wobbly, unstable. I didn’t seek to write the *real* history of *Africa*. I sought to undermine the attempt to write it by writing it and undressing that writing all the way. It was a project of destabilisation. Destabilising myself. Destabilising the white [wo]man’s historiography project in *Africa*. Destabilising text. Destabilising history.
I may be kidding myself.
it is not only childish of a writer to want readers to see what [she] sees, to understand the shape and aim of a novel as [she] sees it — [her] wanting this means that [she] has not understood a most fundamental point. Which is that the book is alive and potent and fructifying and able to promote thought and discussion only when its plan and shape and intention are not understood, because that moment of seeing the shape and plan and intention is also the moment when there isn’t anything more to be got out of it.
And when a book’s pattern and the shape of its inner life is as plain to the reader as it is to the author — then perhaps it is time to throw the book aside, as having had its day, and start again on something new.
The grenades from China are cheaper than Coke. The mourners from Zimbabwe want to attend their five year-old granddaughter’s funeral. She was hit and killed by a car. To reassure the British government, the mourners have offered to be electronically tagged for the duration of their stay. A two-and-a-half year-old plays drums with a national orchestra, performing for thousands, and won’t stop. In a television studio in Australia, a nine year-old rips a T-shirt over his head and throws it to the admiring adult audience before sitting down to beat the shit out of some drums. A middle-aged judge holds her hands to her head and screams, hysterical for her idea of the boy-being-man. A teenage cartoonist in France is arrested on charges of inciting terrorism for an intelligent reworking of a cartoon drawn by an adult who was murdered. Asylum seekers from Syria who have made their way to Germany will be held in Nazi barracks. Real Nazi barracks. Merkel says there is no place for extremism in Germany. In Germany, a few days after a Swastika was drawn on the door of the flat where a group of asylum seekers lived, one of those asylum seekers was stabbed to death. At first, the police said his death was not suspicious. In east London, a local council ruled against selling parking tickets in a car park saying it would discriminate against poorer drivers who were able to afford a car but not a parking ticket. In another part of east London, local home-owners campaigned against bicycles because they are dangerous. Across the land, water is more expensive than milk. In Nairobi, a crowd of children are tear-gassed to stop them protesting the closure of their playground. In London, a man is squeezed to death in the back of a plane, but some of the best
paid lawyers in the land can’t work out how he died. A philosopher says there won’t be world war. Another philosopher says there is world war already. Another philosopher moves to the United States. Another philosopher jumps from her balcony. I receive a phone call from a man who says he is Special Branch. Then another. Then another. A popular politician says he wants a US-style health system and his ratings soar. A woman in Australia registers Je Suis Charlie as a fashion trademark. An Oscar-nominated film by one of the world’s greatest directors is banned in a part of Paris because a mayor who hasn’t seen it says it’s an apology for terrorism. He is wrong. In central Europe, homeless dogs are fed in return for plastic bottles while homeless people starve. In southern Africa, employees in the oil industry say their payments have fallen behind because of the drop in oil prices. In England, car owners celebrate because of the drop in oil prices. In private homes across the land, elderly people remember slogans they’ve heard throughout their life-times, like “never again”. But it’s happening again, they mutter. And this time, they’re relieved.
Fact fact fact. Fact. Fact: fact fact fact. Factually fact. In fact. The fact is. Fact. “Fact fact fact.” Fact? “Fact fact fact fact fact fact!” Fact fact fact fact. Fact.
Here is Justice Spencer’s ruling on the exclusion of the racist texts found on the telephones of the G4S guards who were in charge of deporting Jimmy Mubenga on 12 October 2010, the day he died on board a plane at Heathrow airport. All three defendants were acquitted.
Dr P had used a felt-tip pen. She had watched him drawing the lines around her face, over her eyes, under her chin, around her nose. She had felt good. Decisive. Like a woman taking control. What did she want? She wanted to be able to look at herself in the mirror at any time of the day, including first thing in the morning, and to feel good about what she saw. She wanted to catch herself in the reflection of shop windows and see the tight, taut, freshness that she had enjoyed well into her late thirties. She was now 53 and she wanted to see her youth again. She wanted other people to see it. She wanted everyone to have that same pleasure of resting their eyes on her smoothness. She lay in the dark, her face towards the ceiling, and she longed to sleep. She longed to close up, even for twenty minutes. But she could not. Why? Because her eyes no longer closed. The full surgery had cost $35,000. And she was left looking. Forever. Forever and ever and ever at her taut, tight, smooth skin. She had dreamed of drowning in her beauty. She loved her blondness, the way that other women told her she was like a china cup. But as the weeks passed, she began to hate her reflection. She began to feel trapped. She could never escape it. There was no going back. Not even the compensation would be able to reverse the damage. Her reflection would always be there. And she would always have to see it. She could never choose to look away. She was held in the grip of her remaining skin. Always seeing, always staring. Another true story that should have stayed inside the author’s imagination but managed to get loose.
A leaf of ivy that is larger than the span of an adult’s hand with all four fingers stretched, ready to claw. Then another, huge and flat and green and waxy. Middle of winter and the ivy is expanding over the wall, larger and heavier than ever before. Ivy to turn east London into a jungle, and that’s not a word I’m comfortable with. Yesterday, a pink rose as tight as a baby’s fist clung to the top of the skeletal remains of a bush in a front garden which you pass if you walk the back route to Blackhorse Road. In Liverpool, on Christmas Eve, women were shopping in flipflops, and the Elvis Presley busker was so hot he removed his quiff-wig and handed it to his wife on drums. The cats are still sitting on top of the neighbour’s shed after breakfast to absorb the heat of the sun. Still, I haven’t worn the leather gloves. Not once. Only woollen mittens that run half way up the fingers. The fingers. With a turquoise ring purchased on Portobello Road from a man who said he was from Afghanistan and was selling jewellery from Tibet. “It’s all from Tibet. Or Afghanistan. He makes it.” And he pointed to another man, who was standing beside a small card table covered in rings and earrings and bangles, blowing on fingers shaped like a small apple in front of his mouth. Like a cox’s orange pippin — and you don’t see many of them any more. Thoughts of a cocktail dress and a lounge suit before bed.
It wasn’t how either of us expected to end the year, but there we were, two strangers, in a bathroom, one demonstrating to the other the most intimate of necessities. ‘Don’t lose the string, that’s really important.’ Later, we walked up the high street and met M who told us about his Christmas in a hospital bed. ‘Give it a few months and I won’t be able to see any more.’ Still, he laughed and wished me Merry Christmas and ‘a whole lot of luck to hubbie’. His face is as pink as the stain on the bed. That’s what I was thinking as I slipped through the tills at Sainsbury’s. Later still, out running on grass thick with frost and plates of ice, I remembered the photograph of the American soldier who’d had his eyes blown out in Iraq. His prosthetic eye is studded with the six diamonds of his ex-fiancée’s engagement ring. This filled me with certain joy. So did the demonstration in the bathroom. I even felt a sort of glow during the conversation with M. What is it with me? To gain so much pleasure from the awkward, the tragic, the miserable. Another year begins and I look forward to more twitchiness, to more moments of social unease, and to breaking more taboos.