THE TEA PARTY by Robert Gurney
We Were Walimu Once and Young: Snapshots of Teaching in East Africa, Adventure and Discovery in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, Editor E. Brooks Goddard, Jugum Press, Seattle, 2017. ISBN: 978-1939423856. 456 pages.
Something is telling me not to write this. My parents brought me up to be nice to people. “What do I do if people are horrible to me?” I asked. “Kill them with kindness”, came the reply from both my mother and my father. And so I did.
The years go by and you see people around you who are not behaving like that at all. Some launch attacks as soon as they sense a slight. Not me. I let it flow over my head. “Water off a duck’s back” I would say with a smile when a friend would ask me why I hadn’t retaliated to a provocation.
“Turn the other cheek,” my local vicar said, when I asked him. It felt like good advice. It still does. And yet, on some days, particularly of late, I have been questioning this philosophy.
What happened? A book came through the post. I had been waiting for it with keen anticipation. Often books ordered from Amazon can arrive the following day. This one had taken three. I sat in my car while the postman went round the close. My house is the last, number eighteen. Normally one particular postman will dig out my mail from his sack and give it to me without my having to wait. This one, although friendly, is more systematic. You have to wait your turn. Fair enough.
He handed me the parcel. It was heavy. This is a huge book, I thought. I had something, a family duty, to attend to before I could open it. I came back to it later.
Where was I going to read it, in my house or elsewhere? If I go indoors, there will be distractions. It was a Tuesday. My local would be open and empty. I could have dinner there and find a quiet corner.
I opened the packet with trepidation. Had I even been included? The editor had gone very quiet when I sent him my forty stories. No, I was there, six stories, reduced to two headings: ‘The Hills of Uganda in Three Acts’ and ‘Things That Fly, Three Versions’. Those stories about my life on top of the central hill in Kampala had been included so it seems I hadn’t annoyed the editor as much as I thought I had.
My “Kill them with kindness” philosophy had been breaking down over recent years. I had noted that a number of my friends were becoming almost, what can I say, almost uncivilised in their approach to others. Should I follow them down that hill? Nine tenths of me was saying no.
Anyway, I ordered a London Pride, asked for the menu and set up a tab. The book lay on the table in front of me, its magnificent picture of Kilimanjaro radiating light.
Then it happened. My parents’ erstwhile neighbours in Luton, who were from Uganda, came in. They often drive across. Their eyes went straight to Kilimanjaro. There was an awkward moment. Next to the book was another, the print proof of my next Africa book, Bat Valley. I could feel five sets of eyes moving rapidly from one book cover to the other. Bat Valley has sinister-looking bats coming out of a valley lined with a row of stylised eucalyptus trees.
I don’t know what had gone wrong. I have often tried to analyse it. Was it because I had used Swahili with them from time to time? They had not been comfortable with that. Perhaps it reminded them of old relationships, long buried in the past.
Sometimes I think my sense of the absurd has come between us. I remember sitting with them in the garden of the pub. The place was full. We were having a great conversation when I noticed that two young women, both beautiful, were craning their necks this way and that, apparently in an attempt to get a good look at me. I wasn’t sure how to respond. Should I feel embarrassed or flattered? But why would they want to ogle me? It didn’t make sense. I am nearly eighty!
Were they young local journalists who made Vince Cable, who would like to be our next Prime Minister, look so foolish on film, as they flattered and, suggestively massaged his ageing ego? The puzzling words my mother often uttered, seemingly hors de contexte, when I was growing up in Luton, “There’s no fool like an old fool”, suddenly made sense.
This curious behaviour carried on for a while. In the end I had to say something. I said to my African companions with a smile, “I don’t like to say anything but there are two very pretty young ladies behind you who keep staring at me.”
“It’s the TV screen behind you,” she said drily. “They are trying to watch the Olympics. You are in the way.”
I hadn’t noticed that the publican had placed a large screen TV behind me. It was on low and the chatter in the garden had drowned out the sound. Anyway, there was something in her tone that suggested that she was not amused.
“Mungu wangu! My God!” I cried, turning round. My use of Swahili caused a slight scowl to pass over her lips.
“Does she think it is kitchen dialect,” I asked myself, “or something worse, the language of ‘loose women’?”
Where was I? Yes, I was sitting there with the splendid tome on the table top in front of me, sent from America and literally glowing in the sunlight coming through the window.
Incidentally, that corner of the pub is said to be haunted, possibly by a poltergeist. Strange things have happened in my presence in that very spot. I saw a Guinness rise up in the air and throw itself against the window when someone, my elder son, scoffed at the idea of the ghost’s existence.
The family from Luton began to move away.
“A nice hobby, I suppose,” the husband said, nodding at the books. “I mean, it’s good that you, er….”, he cut the sentence short, not wanting to dig the hole any deeper. I smiled automatically, still responding to the ‘good’ ideas instilled in me in my upbringing.
They went to another table. The two daughters smiled amicably. They were talking about opening up jewellery shops in Dubai. Their mother made a point of avoiding my eyes. I sighed with relief and opened the book again. I was astonished to realise that I knew hardly any of the contributors. How was that possible? I had always prided myself on getting to know everyone in Africa. But no, many of the names were unfamiliar. There was my friend Niall Herriott. His stories always make me smile. I particularly love his stories about the eccentrics who taught at his school near Kampala, Namilyango College: the old Englishman cutting holes in the walls so that his toy train could move around freely on its track, the Dutch priest who was oblivious to a riot going on as he tried to mend a window lock. I had lived there too for a while, in Namilyango. I noted that there was no reference to the title of the book Niall had written that had African stories in it. Bad omission, I thought. His books Strings and Rindabytes, A Magic Little Virus and a Guide to Longline Mussel Cultivation deserve a mention.
Clarence Hunter was there, agonising over things as usual. Ah, Clarence, I enjoyed working with you! Brooks’s story about the leopard’s eye had me grinning.
They waved at me from the other section of the pub. Their voices were loud. It was the same old same old: how much their son was earning. He was a banker in New York. He seemed be commuting lately between there and London. Each time it was more: £500,000 a year, £600,000, £700,000. Now it was a million. I almost called out “And whose money is it?” but I didn’t. “Materialism,” I grumbled, quietly.
“How is your son doing?” They had asked me on a previous occasion.
“He has the best job in St Albans,” I replied. He is Head of Art at Saint Columba’s College.” Their faces fell. I wasn’t sure why. It hadn’t gone down well.
Some time later my other son argued that it was that comment that had doomed my friendship with my Ugandan friends. My younger son and theirs, Adeep, had been friends when growing up. My wife and I had often taken our sons over to Luton to see my parents. The children had played cricket together on Pope’s Meadow. My sons had always been welcome in Adeep’s parents’ million pound mansion in Old Bedford Road near my old school. (The father runs a luxury Spanish holiday villas company.) The children had even gone AWOL together. The police were called to look for them. They had hidden in a World War Two underground bomb shelter that they had managed to break into in Wardown Park.
I let my thoughts drift back to the job in hand, to We Were Walimu Once and Young. It’s an immense tome, I reflected. How I am ever going to read it all? I am a slow reader.
I looked up more names in the Index. It is so professionally presented, I thought. Henry Hamburger is there. I read his story with interest. Ted Essebagger’s account of a trip to Manyara catches my eye. I see Paul Theroux’s name. I knew him from the bar in Makerere and his wife had been a good friend of mine, before they got married. “They are now divorced”, I thought sadly, and took a sip of my beer. I hadn’t yet studied the menu.
“What has come between us, between my Ugandan friends and me?” I muttered silently. I put the book down and sat back. A fat Cheshire cat called Harry pressed himself against my leg. He always greets me like that.
An idea crossed my mind. As I am in this book it would not be appropriate to award it stars. It could be considered self-congratulatory if I gave it five stars, or even four. I felt some relief at this thought.
“There’s Larry Thomas,” I noted. I decided I would start by ticking all of the names I knew with a pencil. I would get into the book that way.
Across the room of the pub my son’s best Luton friend’s father shot a pained look at me. He was as mystified as I was about why his wife was so uptight. There was something in his sad look that suddenly reminded me of an awkward moment that had occurred on this very spot several years earlier. He had told me that he was a leading light in the freemasons of Bedfordshire. My sons had always cautioned me that whenever this topic came up I should remain shtum. “Bear in mind that there are Masonic symbols on American banknotes,” I was told mysteriously. Curiously, probably because I had read an article about how masonic generals had stopped British and American troops from killing each other in a past struggle that took place in America, I didn’t have the negative view of them they thought I had, given that I am a product of the sixties. My response, though, had been crass.
“Oh, I thought Tony Blair was going to sort all that business out. He said he was going to.”
THAT is when things had gone wrong. I looked down the pub only to be greeted by a friendly smile. “No, it can’t be that,” I muttered to myself inaudibly.
I returned to the book. Ed Schmidt is there. Good old Ed, good egg. And yes, Larry Thomas, good old Larry. He had published my work in his magazine Third Wednesday and, as a result, I had warm feelings towards him, although I also remembered, fondly, conversations I had had with him in Uganda fifty years earlier. But there are so many names that I don’t recognise!
There’s Eugene Marschall, whom I have never met but who intrigues me. His story, ‘The Mpemba Effect’, tells how a pupil in a very ordinary school in upcountry Tanzania made a scientific discovery known worldwide as the “Mpemba Effect”. Readers are urged to look this up in Wikipedia.
And Bill Jones! Bill and I had a great lunch together in the Museum Tavern in London not that long ago. Bill is an African-American poet. He told me that all of his teachers had been white.
Moses Howard! His name has loomed large in conversations I have had over many years. I had him down as a fearless writer. Did we play rugby together in Africa? I couldn’t remember. I think so. I am not sure.
Don Knies has included a piece! Don was always there as a benign presence behind the scenes, oiling the wheels, in Africa. Charles Good is there. Excellent. I am glad about that. He was one of the first of us, out there, and taught inside the Kabaka’s Palace grounds. Paul Cant is included. I am glad. His novel African Aftermath is excellent. He is still living and working in Africa.
Wait, Clive is here! Clive Mann. Mein Gott! He’s got pages of stories! How did that happen? Did he slip something to the editor, like he did with those border guards when he slipped in and out of the Congo, all those years ago? I looked up some of the stories. They are good, very good. I chastise myself for my mean thought.
“I can’t stay here. I am hungry. I need a meal,” I mutter. The conversation down the aisle about money was getting too much for me.
“Good job you did Economics, Business Studies and Accountancy at Luton Sixth Form College.” I heard the words quite clearly. They were addressing their noisy son. Was I meant to hear them? I had encouraged my two sons to take Art and Design.
I gathered my things together, paid my bill, which was small, and left for The King Harry. They do good fish and chips there. The fish is not injected with water. It doesn’t shrink to next to nothing as it is being fried. I greeted the publican from the pub I had just left who was reading his paper by himself and was obviously ‘escaping’ like me. I found a spare side room and opened We Were Walimu Once and Young. I had decided to work my way through individual authors starting with my good friend Clive Mann. I ordered a pot of tea to accompany my meal and picked up my pencil.
‘The Joys of Ajon’. Ajon is an alcoholic beverage brewed in the Teso part of Uganda. The story came as a revelation. I had no idea that Margaret, Roger’s wife, a nurse, had been dubbed “The Ajon Queen” throughout Teso. She had made the best. I loved Clive’s description of the drink: “a mixture of warm vinegar and Weetabix”. Roger and I had sat near each other in lectures at Makerere. He always wore a suit.
‘Pets in Uganda’ tells the astonishing tale of a disappearing nestling Barn Owl, plus the story of the touching adoption of a baby Patas Monkey.
‘Wild Animal Tales from Kapsabet’ relates how a rumour spread that Clive, the author, had been killed by a leopard. It made me smile, as did ‘The Driving Test’. I must ask Clive the name of the pub in Hemel Hempstead where he eventually acquired not inconsiderable Dutch courage before passing his UK driving test careering round the Magic Roundabout there, having driven for years in Africa.
‘BaHima and BaTutsi in Uganda’ contains interesting reflections on the origins of those peoples. Clive’s first degree included Anthropology and this side of him is newly revealed here.
As I read on, the thought occurred to me that Clive has been hiding his light under a bushel. There is ample dark humour. ‘Soviet Doctors in Uganda’ describes a great encounter with a friendly but murderous Karamajong.
Some of the stories I have heard before, possibly at TEA (Teachers for East Africa) reunions. The problem with reunions is that everybody wants to talk at once, or several conversations can occur at the same time around the same table. You can miss so much. It was good, though, to hear the story again about the almost naked Belgian who didn’t pay his hotel bill in The Travellers’ Rest hotel in the south of Uganda but who left a huge stash of arms under the bed, presumably by way of payment.
‘Total Eclipse of the Sun 30 June 1973’: I loved the way the Europeans were desperate to glimpse this phenomenon in a remote party of Kenya whilst a local who was passing through was indifferent.
‘The Snake in the Toilet’ had me howling. The snake turned out to be a broody chicken sitting on its nest in an abandoned lavatory. Clive heavily disguises the identity of the gentleman with the hen-pecked derrière but those “in the know” will guess who he was. He was always impeccably dressed, as if for the City of London.
The near NDE, the near-Near Death Experience undergone on the Elgeyo-Marakwet Escarpment in ‘The Kerio Valley’ will have the reader sitting on the edge of his or her seat.
The thing that strikes one about Clive’s prose is its limpidity. He writes with great lucidity, with a crystalline clarity, product, perhaps, of his scientific background. It is not dry though. It is infused with his special brand of humour. His PhD was on the classification of birds. I remember him telling me that he almost went in the direction of the Arts rather than Sciences. I have a note here: “Ask Clive what a mistnet is. Why ‘mist’? Are they nets you hang out to catch birds when it is misty? Is there a fog rope or a cloud cloth?” Perhaps I should delete that!*
I have touched on just some of the hundreds of stories in this huge book. It has 456 pages! A great deal of hard work has gone into it. Anyone going to teach in East Africa would do well to read it. I shall dip into it when I have spare moments. I know I’ll gain a great deal of inspiration from it.
*Since I wrote this Clive has replied: “Mistnets are so fine they can hardly be seen, originally made in Japan from human hair, now nylon or somesuch.”
Robert Gurney, London
Text of this story/review can be found on:
Bower, J., African Aftermath, The Carraig Press, Ireland, 2014. ISBN 978-1-78222-266-8. 195 pages. £6.99. Jonathan Bower is the nom de plume of Paul Cant.
This, for me, is an astonishing book. I picked it up, began reading it and I could not believe the effect it was having on me.
This year has seen three of my own books published. A fourth is under way. In other words, this year I am writing, not reading. I have not got the time to read at the moment. This is not an affected pose but a fact. I am too busy writing and, as a consequence, the pile of books that people have sent me has been steadily growing.
Having said that, I could not resist opening African Aftermath. Having just finished writing a book of approaching two hundred stories focussing on Uganda in the sixties, I could see that this book covered the same period. I was not prepared for the shock I had when I started reading it. It was as if I was back there then, right in the middle of that whirlpool of events and characters.
Jonathan Bower (a nom de plume) has brought the period back to life with a vengeance. As the two main characters struggle in a Lawrentian way to establish a balanced relationship – an effort that is doomed – the author creates an interplay of a love affair disintegrating against the backcloth of a disintegrating society, that of Uganda as it descends from post-independence calm into chaos. The chaos, though, is at a distance, for much of the action lies outside Buganda in the relative calm of Tanzania. Strangely, this does not spoil the book. It is like a tragedy in which the violence is happening in the wings, off-stage.
I must explain, I had just published this text in my book A Night in Buganda. Tales from Post-Colonial Africa.:
I had a soft spot for Kay. I don’t know why. There was something appealing about her seriousness, her earnestness. She was one of the young women on the boat out. She could be terribly intense, off-puttingly so, at times. The last time I recall having seen her was when we bumped into each other in the street in Kampala. Red-faced and agitated, she was groaning, “Expired, expired!” She seemed to be involved in a dramatic monologue and was waving an object in the air. The unselfconscious performance was reminiscent of the best of Shakespeare, Harold Pinter or Eugen Ionescu.
“Who has expired?” I asked.
“Not who, what,” she gasped, as if struggling to breathe. “My passport has expired.”
I have often wondered what happened to Kay. I had expected at any moment to hear that she had flown back to England. She was a bit like many of us, a fish out of water. Was it that that drew me to her? There was something attractive about her, something sensual. Her facial bone structure was eye-catching, if only she hadn’t worn those off-putting horn-rimmed glasses. I suppose they were a form of defence. I often asked myself why I didn’t become a close friend. I felt she wouldn’t have said no. She seemed quite lonely. She had more substance than the women I was drawn to then. She disappeared into the outback of East Africa and no one ever saw her again. I have often wondered if she got married.
It was one of those “What if” stories. I had genuinely wondered what had happened to Kay. The truth is that I, too, felt like a fish out of water in East Africa. Many of us were like that but few would admit it. I felt that Kay, in my text, was like that but, on reading Bower’s novel, I realise that I may be mistaken. Is the Claire in the novel a composite character? Is she part Kay and part someone else, Diana, for example, the daughter of a Kampala lawyer? We may never know.
It is not really this that took my breath away when I opened this book. Bower had made the decision to get into the skin of a woman. The story of the failed love affair that fills the pages of this book is told from the point of a view of a woman, not a man and it has to be said that Bower succeeds in this incredibly difficult task, so much so that if, in the male character there is an aotobiographical element, which one suspects there is, then he doesn’t come out of it very well! He dissects the relationship so well from a feminine and, indeed, from a feminist point of view, that, if ‘Michael’ does share characteristics with the author, then he, the author, is being hard on himself or at least hard on the English-style public school boarding education type, who, in the words of the novelist, come to hate their mothers for sending them away from home at such an early age.
On reflection, having read the book and put it down, I can see now that it much more than a personal confession, if, indeed, it is that at all. It goes right to the heart of quite a common relationship of that time and of this. The British class system is the ever-present rack on which the characters torture themselves and eachother. Michael is public (or private school), Claire is state educated. Both were educated in schools that were still preparing youngsters to ‘go out’ into the Empire, an empire that was melting before their very eyes like a snowball in the sun. Michael was to be the natural leader in the imperial venture. Claire, born in Tanganyika, but educated in a grammar school, had learned to question the Empire at school in England. Michael learns as he goes along, confident, the book tells us, that whatever he is thinking must be right. Both are subject to the ‘winds of change’ and both deal with change the best they can.
Claire comes across, it has to be said, as viewing the world from a standpoint of moral superiority. In her case it is a superiority born of her feminism, her state education (based on merit not money) and her absorption of DH Lawrence, particularly, one suspects, Women in Love, although, strangely, the novel does not refer to that novel. Michael has the self-confident superiorit of an ascendant class, although, noticeably, the novel does not dwell on his origins. He is described as Scottish but as having been moulded by the English public school system. The author himself is a scion of the Protesant Ascendancy in Ireland, a doomed group. He transfers,I suspect, his socially superior status to Claire in whom it comes out as moral superiority. She is sure she is right even when questioned by an old fashioned Christian missionary type about what to him, seems to be her free and easy attitude towards sex before or outside marriage. There is a suggestion, however, that the ‘missionary type’, who is almost killed by Obote’s soldiers as he defends the lepers he has befriended in a leper colony near Kampala – they are slaughtered – is using his Christianity to separate Claire from Michael, in a bid to win her for himself. The author seems to be ambivalent about ‘missionaries’. As can bee seen, the book wrestles with some very substantial issues. There is a little bit too much of the’safari Africa ‘for me, with its purple mountains in the sunsets and the dramatic clouds, but then I am essentially a “townie’.
All in all, African Aftermath is a successful (second) novel. The author pulls off the balancing act involved in describing a relationship from two sides. The male, Michael is seen through Claire’s eyes, of course, but she is fairly understanding of his pyschology although, in reality, and in the final analysis, she fails to read him – his selfishness- correctly. The author makes it clear towards the end of the book that Michael is using Claire for his own gratification and perhaps, to work out some deep-seated mysogyny within him. Hewalks the tightrope well between the two characters , only occasionally faltering . At times, very rarely, the reader, if not paying one hundred per cent attention, will ask ‘Who is speaking now?’ Is it Michael, Claire or, indeed, the author himself who is beating himself over the male protagonist’s behaviour. He, Michael, finds Claire, ‘hard work’., ‘high maintenance’. She is constantly questioning his statements and behaviour. The truth is that East Africa in the sixties was, on the Overseas Aid side of things, staffed mainly by male expatriates. Claire finds it hard to find a way into the male society. She is often the only woman on safari, ampngst several men,. She seems attracted to male society , while at the same time being repelled by some of the male antics. She is constantly trying to find a way into male-dominated conversations, often without much success. She seeems to be often in floods of tears. Does Michael enjoy seeing the tears? Is Claire masochistic.? Is Michael sadistic? Is this a sado-masochistic novel?
The book includes African characters who seem to find it difficult to gain a foothold in the world Claire is trying to re-inhabit. They seem to slip away into the wings, having made a token appearance. In fact, the Africa described here seems to be a sparsely populated space where people are often seen in the distance. The climax of the book where Claire helps her English friend Jane to give birth ‘African-style’ in Mulago Hospital (Kampala), where the doctors and nurses are being ordered at gunpoint to attend only to wounded northern pro-Obote soldiers, is one point in the book where there is a strong African presence but Makerere University, which provides a focal point, is peopled, in the book, mainly by expatriate students, who were, in reality, only a small percentage of the student body. The novel deals almost exclusively with relationships between two Europeans locked in a power struggle. Historical facts are introduced well and appositely but, at times, slightly artificially, perhaps.
As I said at the beginning of this article, I picked this book and found it immediately astonising, so much so that I found myself putting it down. I was completing the text of a second book on Dylan Thomas and felt that I would be swallowed up by Bower’s novel and that I would lose lose the thread of the book I was writing. Then, today, a week later, on a perfect, sunny English ‘Indian summer day, not too hot, not too cold, not at all windy, when I could sit outside with my wife and read in comfort, I picked it up again and read it right through. I found myself reading fast and constantly anxious to find out what lay on the next page. I did not look at the last page to see what finally happens next in this stormy struggle between feminism and still unreconstructed male chauvinism. Is that unfair? Is Michael struggling to maintain a certain core of masculinity? Claire finds that she is losing some of her identiy in this relationship. He feels he is danger of losing some of his. In the event, they both go their separate ways. They fail to achieve DH Lawrence’s ideal ‘balance’. Claire’s Lawrentian ‘blood consciousness’ is not enough. The experiment fails. As it says on the back cover, this is ‘a love story with the complexity of the real’. It is tragic. Efforts to bring in a villain in the form of ‘Reg’ (a barely concealed ‘character’ from Uganda in the sixties) scarcely let Michael off the hook. Michael exploits Claire. He is selfish and she is well rid of him. The author/narrator’s act of giving Claire ‘a bit of history’ in her early, rather sordid coupling with Reg, feels like an effort to give Michael some free ammunition for his future struggles with Claire. But then, is this an autobiographical novel? Are the events ‘real’?
The relationship at the core of this novel is fascinating, troubling, complex and intriguing. Although it is an English or ‘British’ novel, in that it centres on two essentially English characters – Michael (according to the author) is an anglicised Scot -, the novel was written by an Irishman of English heritage, and it reads more like a modern American novel. Sensitively done, it would make a powerful film.
Robert Gurney, London, 8 September 2014.
Isegawa, M., Snakepit, 999, Netherlands, published originally in Dutch as Slangenkuil; now New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004, in English)
Snakepit by Moses Isegawa is a courageous novel. By this I mean that the author – Moses Isegawa is not his real name – has tackled a subject that, to some extent, is, for some in the West, a taboo area in the modern history of Africa, the society that existed under Idi Amin’s brutal dictatorship. He is brave, too, in tackling the nature of evil, for that is what it is like opening this book: entering a pool of evil. He refers to it, in the title, as a snakepit. Those who control the levers of power are like a nest of vipers. Bob Ashes (guess who he), the Englishman who becomes Amin’s confidant, is described as the white snake. The General just under Amin, who hates Ashes and Bat, is absolutely hideous. The hero, Bat, is flawed. He is needed by his country to run vital ministries, but he succumbs instantly to temptation in Saudi Arabia, when he is offered a bribe as part of a deal his country is making with a prince over some islands. This renders him vulnerable and leads to a chain of disastrous events from which he is only saved by a friend of his from Cambridge, a fellow graduate and MP in the UK Parliament. The evil in the book is palpable. I cannot say it is a book that I could not put down, although that is in a way true. I HAD to put it down on several occasions. I simply could not take the onslaught. We all know that things were very bad under Amin. Moses tells how bad they were and in a way that is almost too painful to endure. The book is very well researched and although fiction, has the powerful ring of truth about it. I strongly recommend this novel to anybody who wants to understand in greater depth Uganda’s “missing years”, the 1970s. Robert Edward Gurney, London, 2017.
GELU VLAŞIN: A Modern Mystic?
by Robert Edward Gurney
English version of the Prologue to Gelu Vlașin, El último aliento, Amargord Ediciones, Madrid, 2017.
These are poems that tug at the very strings of the soul. In a few words they cover a huge area of human experience, of what it is like to be human. They are the words of a soul in torment, a soul that finds itself alone, unable to connect with the object of its desire. They are about unrequited or lost love. The poet kneels in prayer, exchanges looks, searches for the loved one, but their two existences rarely overlap. He wants to be in harmony, in a positive relationship but is unable to achieve it. The metaphorical pain in his left knee – he uses the human body as a metaphor for the soul – comes from so much traveling over rough terrain to reach, or fail to reach union or re-union. He wants to link up with the lost source that will nourish him. He does not despise his need. It appears that he once practically had the love that is now lacking. The tú, the thou and thee of his poems, once used to curl up on his soul after an act of love but, even then, that love felt like cold lava. His soul pours out a cascade of words as a lament for a lost love, in the vain hope that the loved one will return to him and give him the attention he used to enjoy, albeit qualified. The book mourns the impossibility of love. It describes in detail the hopeful journey of a lover towards an idea of love fulfilled. However, the vine leaf is no more than a green stain in his wandering, searching head. The words of the loved one no longer reach his ear. As the book unfolds, we learn that the object of the poet’s desire, of his intense spiritual thirst, is almost deified. She can no longer reach him. The hunter finds only a dried-up stream where once the Jordan ran. There is no longer any spiritual sustenance to be found. The grass is dead and it kills. The book is a lament for a lost faith in love. He wants to reconstruct his soul, a soul that would reach out unhindered towards the loved one but it is all in vain. He is left feeling that his existence is a product of mere chance. Perhaps his words will survive him, only to be devoured by the crows. Perhaps he will achieve vision of love after death, spiritual eyes, but they will only to weep at his bodily disappearance. Yet he retains the certainty that the loved one is there in the future with her arms crossed, waiting. He sees that figure, standing out clearly in his mind against the deathly mould of nothingness. These thoughts assail his hemmed-in soul at night-time but, lightening his dark condition, he feels, for a moment, the refreshing intimation of eternal sleep. Perhaps the idea of that restoring sleep is enough to calm his metaphysical anguish. Perhaps it is more. If only it could be true that the sick body will grow wings at the time of physical death. His words are, nevertheless, impotent, he feels. The hand [with which he writes] is crippled. Ideas teem in his mind at the scorched landscape he beholds. Can suffering lead to the saving of a soul? Is there any way that his terrible longing, these tears, can lead to his overcoming the looming darkness? At his Beloved’s side, he begs her to feel his suffering, or just to recognise him. He addresses the Beloved close up. He attempts to restore the relationship, to try to re-establish it in the space that lies between them. Look at my deceiving lips, he begs – blaming himself for the separation. He begs the loved one to take him back knowing that his words, his thoughts are doing damage as he does so. Images of the hunter, the hunted and the prey recur, suggesting that only death lies at the end of this search: a murdered destiny. He brings in images of violence, of lightning claws scratching at day’s belly, the day through which the nothingness of his being flows into the beyond. Poem after poem begs the loved one to come closer. But all he sees is the dying of the light in the Other’s eyes and his reflected crucified face disappearing is those dying eyes. He feels he is drowning in the glass of his own words. He cannot stop writing about the object of his desire. He considers drastic measures: he will destroy his former ways of thinking. Perhaps then his loved one will reappear. The figure of a mother appears late in the book. He has sewn her face into his soul, he tells us. He writes of a brother whose faith sustains him (the poet) and enables him somehow to carry on. His father, we learn, had not wanted to enter into these realms of thought but his mother showed him how to rise above the mundane. He finds some consolation for his inner darkness in the pallid light of the moon. He says that marijuana is a Toledo sword that cuts your mind off. He refers to the ears cut off at the end of a bullfight as a brace of dead partridges – man’s cruel and absurd reaction to the human condition, his taunting of mortality, his debased hunt. He reprimands Thomas for not recognising how things are, how humanity needs to escape from the muddy waters of doubt in which it finds itself drowning. Like the bullfighter he takes on a death that is sharpening its teeth on his mind. Memories, like the lead soldiers of childhood, threaten to deprive him of his mind, his sanity, but he remains determined to assassinate death, to overcome it somehow in his mind. Yet he keeps coming back to the fact that he is filled with a blinding darkness. The loved one’s cherished eyes and lips could, he feels, destroy the dry, arid road he is on. But then he feels he is losing the power of speech, that his words are getting him nowhere. He feels like a lover who has lost his loved one. The only word he hears is loneliness. His lover’s words no longer enter his ears, only birds of prey enter that tear out his power to hear. He is ageing. Only painful sounds fill his head now, like old women’s gossip. He is becoming the prey, the prey of and to chaos. The lover’s hair becomes like a cross to bear. He feels he is being crucified by his memories of lost love. His thoughts are moribund. Retreating from his quest, it is as if madness descends from the sky and he feels only death beckoning. He feels as he has been trampled underfoot by a black horse – the bullfight theme returning. His bones begin to fall away and to utter words. He feels that death is almost on him. Life begins to feel like a bullfight in which he is losing. His life is all a game, a game that he is losing. The book approaches it conclusion with meditations on the end of things: the sand of the infinite, the last breath.
Again and again, when reading these astonishing poems, one is reminded of Juan Larrea’s poetry and that of the Spanish mystics San Juan de la Cruz and Fray Luís de León and the Song of Songs.
Denis Hills, The Last Days of White Rhodesia, Chatto and Windus, London, 1981. 196 pages
Imagine entering somebody else’s nightmare, one in which in one way everything is normal, tennis and bowls in the evening, rugby and football at the weekends. People are going about their daily business in a conscientious way. Except that some things are not normal. A group of Elim missionaries is lined up and shot. Some say it is the “terrorists” who did it. Others say it was the Selous Scouts. In Parliament in London a firebrand MP, Andrew Faulds, is claiming that the Rhodesian government organised it. Nobody seems to know. Men, women and children were lined up and beaten to death with lumps of wood, one by one. A Viscount airliner carrying tourists is shot down near Victoria Falls. Young men from every part of society are being killed on a daily basis. Small children have nightmares about men coming in to kill them in the night. Hotels are blasted by shells. We all have strange nightmares but this one actually happened. Denis Hills in his book The Last Days of White Rhodesia describes it as it was, as he saw it and experienced it, often camping out at night in dangerous places to capture the pulse of the country. He describes literally a nightmare situation in which everybody suffered. Reading this book is like entering an Alice in Wonderland world where violence holds sway. (Posted on Amazon)
Denis Hills, Rebel People, Allen & Unwin, 1st Edition edition (24 Aug. 1978). ISBN-10: 0049200569 and ISBN-13: 978-0049200562. 240 pages.
How did they get here? That gentle ex-millionaire former printing works owner selling Rhodesian coins to make ends meet in a car boot sale in the local hospital car park; the kind gentleman who owns the private post office I use and sends my books on Africa to Africa; the close Welsh friend who repaired the telegraph wires in Rhodesia and thought that the sounds bullets made hitting his car were from a nearby firework display; the friendly Rhodesian who was often, mysteriously, in the Congo; the shy, caring nurses who look after our elderly – how did they get here, to Britain? I picked up Denis Hills’s Book Rebel People hoping to find some answers. I couldn’t put it down. And, yes, I found many of the answers. Five stars. Posted on Amazon.
Robert Edward Gurney, London.
Afterthought: Denis Hills, it seems to me, was a frustrated poet:
“Towards dusk, quarrelling and screaming, bats rise from the dung-stained eucalyptus trees at Wandegeya and set off, like whirling leaves, on divergent courses across the red glow of the sun. In long, lurching trains they fly across the city, countless thousands of them, to feed in gardens and fig trees till dawn.” Rebel People, pp. 6-7.