Thursday, 25 March 2021

No 115 - "In loff - wiz a kat!"




A few poems apart, a blog on ‘feline philosophy’, I’ve not written about Siberia. Why not? Not even in private, where I needn’t be reserved about others’ views, of being twee, or misanthropic. When did I care about that, anyway? Yet hers has been one of the most meaningful relationships of my life. She has made the last twelve years immeasurably richer, emotionally layered, companionable. No doubt I would have lived through them without her, as I had the previous twelve years, but how much I would have missed! A couple of years ago on TV I chanced on a clip of the late Karl Lagerfeld, the fashion mogul. However treasured and respected he may have been in the fashion world, he seemed to me rather weird and creepily self-conscious. But apparently he
had acquired a great fluffy white feline who accompanied him everywhere, and of whom he now said, in his thick Germanic accent: ‘I neffer rrealiced zat zo late in life one coult fall in loff – wiz a kat!’ Now that I can wholly understand. I do not merely love this cat: in am in love with her. It is of an order and kind quite different from that with any human. I have been in love with other humans, too, but with an animal the range of emotion has an edge of something else: a subtly different set of responsibilities and freedoms, sensualities and communications. It is also, of course, more limited; a cat makes you realise how phenomenally complex, awkward, deceptive humans can be. This creature, when she’s happy, she purrs; when she purrs, you know she’s happy. Simple as a Buddhist mantra.

              Which is not to say she’s stupid. In fact, for someone with a brain the size of half a golfball, she’s pretty bright. Surprising, perhaps, for one brought up in the gutters behind Clicks. My friend Ann and I spotted her one freezing wet day, a manky scrap scuttering like a tiny rabbit into the stormdrains. She was, it seemed, the last survivor of a litter that had died, the mother moved off, but still tempted by milk put down by the local hairdressers. We just couldn’t leave her there to die, so we arranged to have her trapped, which the Feral Cat Project did in short order. Since both Ann and the Project people had more cats than they could handle, I said, OK, I’ll get her over the spits and clean her up, then we can find her a home. Being busy and peripatetic, I’d long resisted committing to having animals, much as I love them.

              And spitty this one was, boy! She hurled herself at the sides of the trap at one’s approach, every claw and tooth and vocal cord deployed, prepared to do battle with any monster. I enclosed her in my safest room, the bathroom –  a bit bleak, but free of dangers – and ensconced her in a wicker basket in the corner. She spat and slashed, but as she cowered in that haven, I lay down and tickled her ribs with the handle of a wooden spoon, which she found less threatening than a great clutching hand. I fed her, of course, and in between sat on the floor and read aloud reams of the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty. She seemed to like phenomenology. Or at least got very used to the sound of my voice, growing to realise it wasn’t a threat. I shut her in for the night with all she needed, and the next morning continued with the spoon and Merleau-Ponty and other stimulating literature. After a time the stroking of the spoon evoked just the beginnings of a purr, and slowly-slowly I ventured forth with fingertips. There were no claws, just a strengthening purr. Within 36 hours she wanted nothing but to climb onto my lap as I sat on the loo. Without doubt, that moment when she first purred for me – for me – I was a goner.

I gave her her first bath to get rid of the fleas and dirt; she cried and struggled and her hair went all into points. She didn’t consume much water, since she could pretty much fit into a large coffee mug. It was only when she was dried off in the sun that I realised just how pretty she was: a kind of silver tabby, with a stripe down the back and squares on her flanks, dark cross-stripes on the forelegs and ring-tailed as a lemur. I figured I’d better get her to the vet for a check-up and any health necessaries, before taking the next step. But I had to phone Ann and ask, “Listen, if I’ve bought a catbox” –  which sort of spontaneously I had – “does that mean I’m committed?”  The question was, of course, rhetorical.

For a few nights I confined her to the bathroom so she wouldn’t get into trouble in any of the sundry corners of my open-plan cottage. From the outset, she used the sand-tray quite naturally, and never needed any further house-training. Then, once she knew the full layout by day, I gave her the run of the house at night, too. Except my bedroom; I didn’t want her disturbing my already dodgy sleep, or to roll over onto her inadvertently. I’d open my door in the morning, and there she’d be, sitting a metre away staring fixedly at the door handle, then crying out as I emerged and scooped her up. As I said, a goner.


She grew more and more trusting, more and more beautiful. I called her Siberia, because she was the Snow-Tiger-Who-Came-in-from-the-Cold, in the winter of my fiftieth year – a birthday present from the Universe, Ann claimed. By dint of much repetition, she quickly learned her name. I recently read about some of those wonderful scientists who, through multiple field observations and double-blind controlled experiments, ‘discover’ what anyone who lives attentively with animals knows all along – in this case, that cats might actually know their names. Well, this one answers to several: Siberia, Tiger, Skittoon, Skittleberry, Wodwo. And Gorgeous. Of course tone and pitch of voice are crucial, too.

At first her language skills were shaky. She’d curl up next to my chair, and when I’d lean over and say “Siberia!”, she’d look up and go “eck-eck-eck” in the hunter’s yammer. But after a while her instincts somehow told her to reserve that sound for birds at the window and spiders on the wall.  Over time she developed a whole range of sounds, communications that would never be used with another cat, that were human-orientated if not actually attempts at mimicry. There are greetings and queries and Thank-you’s and Yes-pleases. There’s a particular meow that asks for a certain cupboard to be opened, or the ladder to be put up through the trapdoor; she won’t desist until I do it, and performs a weird little circular motion with her head as I obey. (Sucker.) Another meow is just a contact call when we’re out walking, but it changes tone markedly when she’s stopping for a pooh. She knows a number of specific English words, too, including milk, Whiskas, come, up, walk and brush. I know she recognises them as individual words because I can embed them in any variation of surrounding sentence and she’ll pick them out.  Of course, she understands No! as well. I only had to swot her off the kitchen table once with a wet dishcloth and a No! for her to desist forever from trying to steal food. She had to learn not to tear things up with her claws. A certain armchair – which literally fell off the back of a truck and is so badly made you can’t even sit on it – is fine for ripping, which happens en route to bed every night. A temptingly velvet-covered footstool, on the other hand, is not fine for ripping. She started to have a go once, and from my chair I said sternly No! and made a threatening gesture, and she backed off blinking. A day or two later I was sitting in the same chair, and she sauntered up to the footstool, planted both sets of claws on its side, chunk, chunk!, paused and looked meaningfully, challengingly, straight at me, clearly in order to gauge my reaction. No! I said sternly. She withdrew, and has never tried to scratch it again, though she frequently relaxes on top of it. As I said, not stupid.

Another sign of intelligence is a capacity for boredom. Especially on those socked-in days of mist and rain, when we both get a bit cabin-feverish: then she starts to be ‘naughty’ – threatening to climb up a wall-hanging, knocking objects off side-tables, or attacking my ankles. Because I’m her sole companion, she demands that I Do Stuff with her. Partly this is because I’ve inculcated it in her myself, taking her on my walks in the afternoons, for example. She’d happily walk for kilometres through the forest, climbing trees, stalking rustles, meowing, getting particularly excited at entering new territory. She came to expect this, so almost to the hour you can see her glancing at her watch and drumming her fingernails, C’mon, c’mon, let’s Do Stuff. I still find this whole inter-species relationship close to miraculous.

Though I know I ‘rescued’ her, that she ‘imprinted’, in the ethologist’s term, I marvel that she wants to be with me, chooses to follow, to come when called, and not just for food. That she looks desolate when I leave in the car, waits for me at the garage, runs to chirrup in greeting on my return. Not that she doesn’t spend large portions of day and night independent and away, adventuring , controlling the local rodent population, or just lying up who knows where. I worry. There are all sorts of predators out here: adders and eagles and caracals and owls, reckless drivers and other aggressive cats and wandering dogs. Mostly dogs. Once she must have been mauled, coming in wet around the throat and with a wound on her cheek that turned nasty –  and a broken upper incisor, so now sometimes her top lip gets hitched up on the lower incisor and gives her a raffish, supercilious sort of smirk. But mostly she transforms herself into something resembling a puffer fish and sends the dogs yelping off in all directions. I secretly call her my caniphage: Dog-Eater. Only once, when she was still quite small but fully at liberty, did she go truly missing. One Friday night she went out the window, wasn’t back by morning, nor by the following night. I circled and searched and combed the bushes and called until I was hoarse. I was beside myself. Desperate and already going cold with grief, convinced she’d been taken by something, I could scarcely eat or sleep. On the Sunday night, well after midnight, I finally collapsed into bed and turned out the light – and a minute later a little meow of greeting asked me where the supper had got to. I crushed her to my chest and wet her cheeks and mine with relief, and asked her where the hell she’d been. She never did say. As I said: in love.


She has of course re-centred and recalibrated my whole life. I spend a lot of mental time and emotional energy wondering either where she’s got to, or how I can love her more. We have collaboratively developed a steady routine. At breakfast it’s a slick of milk. (Not that she won’t beg at other visits to the fridge: you’ve never seen such a wide-eyed expression of innocent expectation on a cat’s allegedly expressionless face). Around mid-morning it’s brush time; at the word she’ll come literally galloping to the little carpet on the porch; her total favourite. Bedtime also has its almost invariable sequence. I get into bed and lie on my back, covers pulled up to my chest. She saunters in, gives the bad armchair a good ripping, then bounces up to the bed and plumps on my chest, settling down with forepaws tucked in and her nose an inch or two from mine. With both hands I then give her a thorough head-massage, working over the skin and the skull sutures. The nictitating eyelids glaze over in bliss. I probe deep into the waxy pits of her ears, almost as far as her golf-ball brain, and in the ears’ folds where ticks might hide, over the little knots of her jaw muscles and down her upstretched chin and throat. After a bit she starts to turn her glance sideways, a signal that I must now let her in under the covers. I make a tent of my knees, and under them she washes while I read. Sometimes the way she bounces onto my chest seems so self-consciously comedic that I dissolve into uncontrollable giggles, at which she starts to twitch her head back and sideways oddly, in a gesture, if not of embarrassment, at least of some bafflement or un-ease. Then she stares deep into my face, as if querying What’s the matter with you? She doesn’t need to read Levinas or Derrida to understand that the face is the primary locus of communication, even as she understands that other useful extremities are part of the whole.

Body language complements voice exchanges. Touch, posture, movement are all integrated communication systems. We learn to read each other. If she’s lazily lying at a distance and I contact-call her, she acknowledges just with a particular twitch of the last inch or two of her tail. It seems marvellous to me that when I crouch and extend claw-like hands and mince-creep towards her, she can instantly interpret this as an invitation to play. Does she translate it as mimicry of her own mock-postures? As all cats will, she’ll make of the hunt-and-crouch sequence an occasion for play, leaping out at my feet from hiding and then breaking off to bounce  away with tail flung high. It’s hard not to think that there’s a certain self-consciousness involved, some recognition that she knows she looks funny from behind; at the very least she’s able to read my laughter as a positive reaction. These kinds of responses can probably be explained drily by behaviourists as mere extensions of instinct; but other more innovative behaviours seem way in excess of that.

She not only makes considered choices –  warm sun, or milk; to walk, or not this time – she invents. She early divined that my wrist-watch was important to me, and that running off with it was a good way of getting me out of bed. She clearly has a conceptual map of forest paths in her head, because she has on occasion taken a wholly unprecedented short-cut in order to ambush me further along. She found that I wanted to towel her dry after she’d been out in the rain (being a gutter-snipe originally, she is undaunted by downpours, thunder or lightning); that felt nice, so she made a game out of going out, getting towelled, going out, getting towelled, going out ...

She trusts me completely. Completely. When I lift her she is like putty in my hands, utterly relaxed. There is nothing more comforting to me than to bury my face in the satiny muffling fragrant fur of her belly. This trust is entrancing, but also very useful: she resists mildly, but doesn’t fight when I need to dose her, or treat a wound, or get her to the vet, or even pull a tick off her eyelid with tweezers. She forgives instantly whatever pain I inadvertently or necessarily inflict on her. I don’t think it even begins to feature in the animal-rights literature, but fundamental to any animal’s existence ought to be the right to be able to trust. Not that many humans seem able to live up to that – but the resultant enrichment of experience is boundless.

All that apart, Siberia is exquisite. Any number of visitors have said, “That’s the most beautiful cat I’ve ever seen!” “I know that,” I say nonchalantly.

 ******


Wednesday, 10 March 2021

No 114 - "The Cannons" - a true story


 

 It is when a lanky soldier in crisp camouflage and black beret lopes up behind me that I know I’m in trouble.

            ‘Did you just take some photographs?’ he asks politely.

            ‘Oh, I took a couple of photos of those little cannons on the street,’ I say, blithe as wind.

            ‘What about our building?’ he asks. He is tall, smooth-faced, faintly embarrassed.

            ‘Your building?’ I am not wholly innocent: the building behind the two little cannons was labelled ‘1898’; it is tattered, streaked with neglect, the curls of the Victorian plaster embellishments blackened with mould.  Some ragged fencing and barbed wire offers a paltry defence; some low cabling, which might once have been supported by wooden posts, show here and there through long grass: signs that this is an ‘official’ building – and I know well enough that a police station occupies the far side of this block.  But hey, it’s a public holiday, there was not a soul in sight, there were no signs or guards, and the two little possibly only ornamental cannons tilted sadly on the street side of all barriers...

            ‘You are taking photographs of a military cantonment,’ the soldier says.

            ‘Oh.  Look, I’ll just delete them if you like, it’s no problem.’

            ‘No. no, you can’t delete them, they are now evidence.’

            Evidence?’

            ‘Please, you must come and speak to my boss,’

            We walk back down the main street –  Robert Mugabe Way – to where another soldier, a sergeant, waits.  ‘This is my boss,’ says the soldier.  We greet cordially, shake hands.  I am maximally cheerful.  We turn into the side street and walk back past the cannons.

            ‘You were photographing these?’ The cannons are less than a metre long each, no embossed marks.  They are probably of little importance, even for an aficionado.  Which I am not.  ‘Let me see the photographs.’

            I bring them up on the viewer.  ‘You see, this is the problem,’ says the sergeant. ‘In this one, you are taking the building.’

            ‘I am not interested in the building,’ I shrug.

            ‘Please come with us.’

            We walk around the corner, past the hulk of some rusted water-tank of some kind. ‘You see, we put this here to show that this is military.’  I suppose there are the faintest traces camouflage patterning still visible.  We go in through a farm gate hanging off its hinges.  The buildings inside the cantonment look like the beginnings of a shanty town, the gravel entrance deeply rutted, a wrecked pick-up without tyres shoved to one side, a decrepit water-bowser, black doorways without doors.  A couple of men in civvies standing about.

            The corporal fetches a school-type chair and invites me to sit, under a jacaranda tree just inside the gate.  The corporal takes possession of my camera.  ‘We just need to find the commander.  He needs to make a decision about this.’

            I begin to remonstrate mildly, surely there’s no need, I’ll just delete the photos and be on my way, I meant no offence...  But the sergeant, it seems, cannot make this decision.  He leaves me with the tall young corporal, taking the camera with him.  We fall a little hesitantly into conversation.  I explain to him why I was taking the photos. I have this friend, you see, at my university, who is interested in old weapons, I just thought they would interest him.  But the corporal is not the one who can make the decision.  We exchange some inanities, and really, he seems a very pleasant young man, but I don’t ask him too many questions: I might be accused of spying.

            ‘Are you married?’ he asks.  No, I reply.  He looks puzzled.  Is he?  No, but he is still young.

            ‘Are you a Christian?’ he asks.

            ‘No,” I confess, ‘but I respect Christians.  Are you?’

            ‘Oh, yes!’  His face crumples a bit.  ‘But I don’t go to church often enough.’

            The sergeant reappears.  A couple of other men emerge from doorways or wander in from the street, and together they pore over my camera.  I think most of the photos are of tiny plants sprouting from cracks, or of my cat: I wonder what they will make of them.  I hope their hefty military thumbs won’t break anything.

            Some time passes.  They have apparently contacted the base commander, and we just have to wait.  There is a lot of cellphone activity – everyone has a cellphone – but I can’t tell if any of it concerns me.  After twenty years living outside the country my Shona is rusted almost to nothing.  It is threatening to drizzle.  I hang my head in my hands, thinking, Stupid, stupid, stupid.

The sergeant wanders over.  ‘Don’t worry, Mister Man.  We must just follow our procedures, you understand.’   But he still wants to know why I took the photographs.  My explanation of historical curiosity doesn’t impress him much.

‘How do we know you are not taking photographs from each side so you can then make a map of our base so you can attack it?’  I don’t say, haven’t you heard of  Google Earth?  I don’t say, I’d be a lousy spy to do it so openly.  I don’t say, can you think of a single government encampment that has been attacked since 1980?

I reiterate that I couldn’t tell what place this was: it looked abandoned, the northern direction I’d approached it from, the fences rusted into the grass, no guards, no signs whatsoever.  I explain how I actually spent my childhood here, how I’m just up to visit my mother, how I taught in a bush school near Cashel, how I came to be a professor of English.  All of which I hope will paint me in a wholly innocent light.

The sergeant seems happy enough, he doesn’t seem to think there will be a problem, but we must still speak to the commander.  The commander has been called. The sergeant starts without much prompting to talk of himself.  He has been in the army five years, he tells me.  Before that he was a teenager grubbing in the infamous Chiadza diamond fields; he explains how they used to dig down into the red clayey deposits, ‘just like digging a grave’, then sideways into the earth.  Diggers got buried; often, they found nothing.  The luckiest made fortunes.  They had to run from the army; they bribed the police.  The sergeant was not so lucky in finding the little grey stones; he joined the army instead.  I do not ask him about the role of the army most recently, slaughtering seventy diggers from helicopter gunships, now themselves paying smugglers a pittance to get diamonds across the Mozambique border for personal benefit. 

He shrugs at various points in his narration; it is clear that even now he is not entirely happy; that he still struggles to make ends meet.

Some passing soldiers just glance curiously at this white man on his lonely chair. Others wander over to talk.  One, his lower lip blotched with pink from some childhood burn accident, is particularly talkative.  He asks me a lot of questions about life in South Africa.  When I mention that food prices have been rising, he presses me to supply my theories about why this should be so.

‘Hey, I’m a literature professor, I don’t really know.’

‘But you are a well-read person, you must have some ideas.’

‘Well,  I suppose a lot of imported components have been going up, fuel and so on...’

‘Isn’t it maybe just a matter of supply and demand?  Or maybe because of the strong rand retailers are losing in some ways so they hold back supplies so they can push up the prices...’

Or some such argument which I can’t quite follow, but clearly he has a better grasp of economics than I do; it turns out he recently did Economics for A Level, but couldn’t pay to go on to university, so here he is.  I get the sense he thinks he deserves better.  He is cheerful and curious, and offers to buy me a Coke.  Optimistically, trusting I’ll be out of here shortly, and feeling incipient pressures on the old bladder already, I decline.

            The sergeant ambles back and says the commander is on his way, he is just ‘juicing up.  He is putting some juice in his vehicle.’  He takes evident pleasure in playing with metaphor, this one.

            After some more waiting, a battered dark green pick-up rattles in through the gates.  Three men in front, two in the back, all in civvies.  I imagine them furious that their public holiday has been disrupted by this miscreant white interloper.  They are affable enough as they are introduced and shake my hand in turn.  The base commander is a short, paunchy but powerful-looking man with a black leather cap perched on a bald dome.  His second-in-command is a slighter man in a dark-blue shirt and a jaunty attitude.  They, a third, heftier man, and a fierce-looking fellow with bulging eyes and massive biceps shown off by a tight black vest, take command of the camera.  They pore, converse in Shona, laugh, deliberate.  I explain again who I am, what I do, why I was taking them, how sorry I am I’ve wasted everybody’s time.  They find a scrap of paper and I write my details down.

            ‘Weelie?’

            ‘Wylie.’

            ‘Wally, oh.’

‘Where is your ID?’  Of course, wandering round town in my shorts ands slops, I am not carrying it with me.  ‘So how do we know you are who you say?’  The muscle-man takes the piece of paper away.  They tell me to take my seat on the rickety chair again.

The sergeant and the corporal sit with me.  The jaunty second-in-command comes over, too.  He asks me once again about my background. 

‘You are not married!  But why not?’

I supposed it had just never worked out.

            ‘But what about the Weelie line?  You have no brothers?  The Weelie line will just die out!  But this is tragic!’

            Maybe there are too many people in the world already.

            ‘But you are clever.  The world needs more clever people.  What about children outside?’

            Outside marriage? I laugh.  Not as far as I know.

            ‘You should.  You must take a Zimbabwean woman with you and make many Weelies.’

I figure I’m too old now for fatherhood.

Horror all round.  ‘No no no!  Never mind, the woman must look after them.’  He waves across the potholed street, where two young women are emerging from a small block of discoloured flats.  They swagger in ridiculously short skirts and gaudy unstable shoes. ‘You like black women?  You can take one of those, they will give you strong children.’  Hilarity all round.

Mr Jaunty spontaneously unpacks some of his own life.  He has been in the army twelve years.  One of his first assignments was in the Congo.  How was that?  He does not want to divulge details, clearly, and I don’t probe: it had to have been on one of Mugabe’s misbegotten mineral-plundering ventures.

‘The main thing is that the army should be non-political.  We are just here to protect the people of this country.  This is why we must protect our bases.’  He sounds apologetic.  ‘I’m sure everything is fine, we must just follow our procedures, you understand?  We have to protect our country.’

Protecting the country now involves Mr Biceps and another fellow with a patchy moustache taking me into a gloomy side-room for proper questioning.  They sit behind a wooden table while I have to squat on an empty jerry-can: a calculated diminution of stature, no doubt.  The camera sits accusingly on the table between us.  They take down the same details I gave them before, now on a more official-looking form, and there are some official-sounding questions.

What is your address?  What is your District?  Makana Municipality, I suppose.  Who is your chief?  (This is delivered with utter seriousness. I have to bite my tongue not to say something facetious.)  No chief as such, I reply.  What is your tribe?  (Was this form concocted in the 1950s, or do people still live by these categories, so long disparaged by the anthropologists?)  I can confess to no tribe – and suffer a keen pang of displacement, of hanging detached in space.

Why did you take these photographs?

I explain myself again; really, I was taking them for a friend of mine, Professor Irwin, he is interested in old cannons.

‘Professor Owen?’

‘Yes.’

“Why did you not take photographs of the cannons in the Museum?’

‘Well I did actually, last year.’

‘Where are those photographs?’

‘I gave them to him and deleted them, I didn’t want them myself.’

‘So you can’t show us those photographs?  Hm.  Did you ask permission at the Museum for those photographs?’

‘Yes, of course.’

‘So why did you not ask permission to take photographs this time?’

‘These are on the street.  They are broken.  I didn’t think it necessary.’

‘But this is a military cantonment.’  And once again I explain why I could not possibly have known this.

‘But you say you lived here.’

‘Many years ago, as a child, I haven’t lived here for twenty years or more.’

‘But you must known this town very well, you lived here many years, so how can you say you don’t know this?’

‘Things have changed in twenty years.’

‘Have you had military training?’

This time I feel obliged to lie outright, looking straight back into Mr Biceps’ bulbous staring eyes – knowing that all they have to do is a quick Google search to uncover me.  They do not pursue this, but are clearly unconvinced by anything I have had to say.  I can see why, and I can feel myself sweat a little.

We go outside again, and there is further animated discussion.  My avowed lack of knowledge of what I was doing is a particular sticking-point.  Meanwhile the burnt-lipped economist appears to be having a complex discussion about the date of the building itself, whether or not this makes it a national monument, and therefore whether it falls under the jurisdiction of National Museums, or of the Army.  It is getting hot, and Mr Jaunty offers to buy me a Coke; this time I accept.  There is no sign I am about to be released soon, despite all my apologies and shrugs and protestations.  Quite the contrary.

The bald commander says, ‘We have to hand this over to the CID to decide.’  I groan; surely this is not necessary, I’m hardly a criminal needing investigation...

‘Get in the truck, please, Mister.’

I climb into the open back of the battered green pick-up, along with Mr Jaunty and Mr Biceps (still holding the camera) and Mr Patchy-tache, and we rattle around the block to the main police-station.  In the CID wing the explanations fly back and forth, until we – myself and the four army men – are crammed into a small office, along with a black bicycle, to await an authoritative individual.  This inspector, I am told, is very pissed off because he is involved in another job.

We wait.  After some time I begin to get really concerned that my poor mother, back at her retirement village, will be wondering what has happened to me and my casual morning stroll.  Mr Jaunty has been chatting on his cellphone, and I ask him if I can call her.  He hands it over willingly: ‘You have thirty-eight seconds of airtime!’  I persuade my mother that it is not necessary to come racing to the rescue, I just took some silly photos, I’ll be back in no time.  Then we wait some more.

‘Silly photos, eh?’ says the bald commander, and chuckles.

The CID authority turns out to be a thin, smooth-skinned man who watches me with one eyebrow arched as if in determined cynicism, but there is just a hint of possible playfulness or humour hovering around his upper lip.  I cling to that possibility like a lifeline.

I go through the whole story again.  I apologise for wasting everybody’s time.  His eyebrow does not come down.  I repeat my offer to delete the offending pictures and get out of their lives.  But they need me to verify that I am who I say I am: they will accompany me back to my mother’s cottage to see my passport. And one other thing: they want prints of these photographs.

‘Can you help us?’ asks the bald commander.  ‘We need prints, but we have no money to pay for them, we would like you to help us in this matter.’

This seems to me grossly unfair and exploitative, but I don’t feel in much of a position to refuse.  Nor can I refuse to take them back to my mother’s, though I am now seriously worried that she is the one who could be in trouble: she will be staying here, whereas I will be leaving the country again soon to go back to work.  I hope.

So we rattle around to the town’s public square, seeking out amongst the patchwork crowd and the stalls selling mostly vividly cheap Chinese goods, a photographer who can do the prints for a few US dollars.  We leave the camera’s memory card with him and rattle over the severely rutted side-streets, a few blocks further to the retirement village which is sandwiched, like an Edenic dream, an almost all-white haven between a military hospital, a petrol-station, a brothel, and an unkempt park.  None of the soldiers had ever even suspected its existence.

My mother, at 81, is fabulous; she jokes, looks honest and respectful, and charms them all as they peruse my documents.  My passport is British, and this is not likely to count in my favour either.  They poke desultorily in my travelling-bag and beneath the camp-bed I sleep on whenever I visit.  She gives them apples (I feel there is something a little colonialist and patronising about this, but they seem pleased).  I tell her I’ll be back after getting the photo prints handed over, half an hour max.  I hope.

We rattle and shake back around to the market-place, find the photographer, pay him and collect the prints, two copies of each of the two photos.

‘These are good photos,’ exclaims Mr Jaunty.  ‘You are an expert.  Very good camera.’

‘So I can go now,’ I say.  ‘This is all over, right?’

‘No,’ says the thin CID man.  ‘We must make copies of your passport at the police station.’  I try to breathe away my frustration.  We all get back on the truck.

As we lurch through the potholes on the way round the block, Mr Biceps is busy with my camera.  He leans over suddenly (he has become quite open and cheerful since the scowling interrogation), ‘Is this your photograph?’

On the camera viewer appears a shiny black man in a suit beside a resplendent bride in flowing white wedding-dress and trousseau.  ‘No, I never took that!’

‘Ah, komana, wrong memory card!’  He leans back and yells at the driver, and we do yet another circuit of the market block, shudder to a halt, find the photographer, exchange memory cards, make sure we now have the correct one, and set off again, my escort chattering and laughing uproariously all the while.

Back at the police station, my army contingent finally hands me over to the CID.  They seem regretful that it has come to this; they assure me that everything will be all right, but there is an undertone of concern that almost for the first time has me more seriously worried. They drive off, wishing me well, and I feel genuinely bereft, as if of the staunchest friends, who have been almost all along polite and friendly and conversational, and have now been obliged by their own ‘procedures’ to hand me over to the devil himself.  This may be an illusion, I tell myself, as I follow the thin CID man back down the yellowing corridor to his pokey office and the bicycle.  Here he asks me a few more questions, but it seems that not even he can make the decision about what to do with me.  I have to wait for someone else.  He leaves to attend to the case I have presumably distracted him from for the last two hours or so; and I wait in the office with a tall, moustached junior colleague.  People come and go, borrow a chair, discuss something or other, look at me curiously, greet me gaily, ‘Hello, Mister Man!’  A woman, braided and made up to the nines, comes in with a shy little girl, extracts a glossy handbag from the single cupboard, talks to Mr Tall, leaves.  He looks at me gloomily.

‘My daughter.  How many children have you?  You are not married?  No?  Why not?’

About this I am now genuinely wishing I had lied; some bullshit story about a divorced wife and three kids would have satisfied everyone immediately.  But my singleness, at the age of fifty, baffles my questioners entirely; it seems to them philosophically and ethically beyond belief.  It is probably not aiding my case in their eyes; it is too strange.  Perhaps it goes along with being a spy.  Perhaps they even suspect me of impotence, or of homosexuality, and have imbibed the hatred of their President.  I stress whenever I can the fact that I do have a girlfriend of several years’ standing.

Mr Tall and I talk about literature.  He enjoyed it at school, he says.  Macbeth. The Mayor of Casterbridge.  Then he says, ‘Do you read the Bible?’

‘I have read it.  Right through, a couple of times.’

‘No, but do you read it?’

‘If you mean, regularly, no.  I’m not a churchgoer.  Are you?’

‘Of course,’ he says mildly.  He opens the cupboard behind him, and from a cardboard box at the bottom extracts a tiny Gideon New Testament in untouched blue covers.  ‘I think maybe you should read it,’ he says.  ‘Take it.’  I have no idea whether he is concerned for the state of my soul, or whether this portends a lot of time stuck in police custody.

The thin CID man eventually returns and summons me forth.  I tuck the little Bible in my shorts pocket and follow.  In another office he talks earnestly to a big man who does not deign to look at me as he sets his desktop computer to playing some local pop music.  He shrugs off the thin man’s explanations.  I try to explain myself, that this is insignificant, that the Army didn’t really seem to have a problem.

‘If the Army didn’t have a problem they wouldn’t have brought you here.  We are going to charge you with disturbing the peace.’  I protest I didn’t disturb anyone, the streets were completely empty.  ‘You think you have not disturbed the peace of the Army?  You are disturbing my peace.  What will you photograph next?  You will be coming to my gate and photographing my house.  Then you will be disturbing my peace.  I can deduce that you will be doing that.’

This reasoning leaves me almost speechless, but I manage to say something about not being charged for something I hadn’t done yet.  But he waves his hand dismissively in the direction of the next floor up.  Evidently he can’t or won’t make the decision either, and I am to be passed still further up the chain of command.  On the way up the stairs, the thin CID man seems to hesitate, as if wants to find a way out of this as much as I do.  I remark that the situation is now ridiculous, surely we can make an arrangement to call an end to it; I have deleted the photos, and I can stop bothering him.  But he decides nevertheless to proceed upstairs.

At the top of the stairs a youngish muscular man in a green T-shirt sits at a desk behind a barred booth.  The thin man vanishes, and this feels like another severe loss.  I must write down my details on yet another piece of anonymous paper, then wait on a bench beside the booth.  Occasionally someone passes and greets me – ‘Hello, Mister Man!’ – or the young Mr Greenshirt wants to ask me something.  To him I explain my situation yet again; and groaningly, because I can no longer contradict anything I’ve said before, endeavour to explain and defend my awkward marital status.

Finally Mr Greenshirt takes me through to another office.  The desk here is occupied by a portly, bespectacled man with a certain gravitas whose English seems better, his demeanour more reasonable and calm.  Mr Greenshirt launches into an animated speech in Shona, as far as I can tell arguing for the inoffensiveness of my actions; but the officer cuts him off sharply; he is the one who will make the decision.  He peruses the photographs, asks me a few brief questions, in between adjusting the music on his desktop.  He smiles a little, and says he doesn’t think there’s a problem, but wants someone else, the ‘weapons people’, to just check.

The lithe Mr Greenshirt escorts me back downstairs; it turns out that the ‘someone else’ is the dismissive tall man we’ve already confronted;  he is now standing outside in the parking lot, talking to other policemen.  He does not deign to look at or speak to me; orders a policewoman peremptorily away to get him a Fanta; shares an uproarious jest with Mr Greenshirt.  I wonder if it is at my expense.  Another policewoman sitting on a Coke box at the nearby entrance-gate and cradling an FN rifle is staring unblinkingly at me with what I can only interpret as unreserved loathing.  The sun is warm on my shoulders, but I am not comforted.

Finally, at a shouted order, a constable in the customary pale blue-grey uniform of the ordinary police saunters up; the dismissive man dismisses me, ‘Go with him.’

‘I am going to take you to a very nice place,’ says the constable, languid and lanky and with a broad smile, but I do not believe him.  Being handed over to the regular police is not a good sign, and asking whether I am being charged, or what, elicits no more than a shrug and a wave forward into the hectic charge office.  This section is being run by a massive-breasted woman in her pork-pie uniform hat whom everyone, bizarrely, addresses as ‘Medem’ in old colonial style; she directs me behind the long counter and I am ordered to sit on the dusty floor against the grimy rear wall.  At this point I begin to wonder when meekness needs to cease, some resistance and assertion of rights needs to happen, but I have no idea what my rights are, am grimly conscious of my status as a solitary white man in an ex-colonial state in which, all the government’s racist hype notwithstanding, to the vast majority of the people I am utterly insignificant.  Nothing could have brought home to me more firmly than the peremptory order to squat in the dust, the reversal of power dynamics in the country that was once so comfortably, delusionally, ‘mine’. 

I decide there is nothing here to fight against, so breathe myself into accepting calmness, and distract myself from my bursting bladder by taking out the Gideon Bible.  I open it up randomly at Jude, a book I am not especially familiar with, but it says little to me.  I flick over to the Psalms, and happen to light on Psalm 10:

 

Why do you stand afar off, O Lord?  Why do you hide in times of trouble?

2. The wicked in his pride persecutes the poor; let them be caught in the plots that they have devised.

3  For the wicked boasts of his heart’s desire; he blesses the greedy and renounces the Lord.

4  The wicked in his proud countenance does not seek God.  God is in none of his thoughts.

5  His ways are always prospering.  Your judgements are far above, out of his sight; as for all his enemies he sneers at them. ...

7  His mouth is full of cursing and deceit and oppression; under his tongue is trouble and iniquity.

8  He sits in the lurking places of the villages; in the secret places he murders the innocent; his eyes are secretly fixed on the helpless. ...

11  He has said in his heart, ‘God has forgotten.  He hides his face.  He will never see.’

 

Christ, I think, this is the last kind of thing I need to read right now.  The afternoon is creeping on; constables, in the dark khaki with navy trim of a uniform not much changed from pre-independence days, glance idly down at me as they stride past, but no one seems that interested in what must in fact be a singular aberration in their lives, a captive grey-haired white in shorts and slops reading a little blue Gideon Bible.

            I flick on through the Psalms; verse after verse the whining of this lost and hapless writer continues, desperately placing his faith in a god who clearly is not going to turn up.  Psalm 69:

 

            2  I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing; I have come into deep waters, where the floods overwhelm me.

            3  I am weary with my crying; my throat is dry; my eyes fail while I wait for my God.

 

In some corner of his miserable being the psalmist must have known he was on his own. As I am.  No god is going to relieve the cold pressure of my bladder; and, as the psalmist so obviously realised, being virtuous might only make things worse for him.  Nevertheless, there seems little alternative to remaining virtuous; one might as well wear one’s sackcloth with whatever dignity one can muster.  The psalmist might almost have been heroic were it not for the unremitting whinging at his abandonment.  I determine not to whinge, to exude a polite and unruffled calm.  If the flesh will allow.

            A plain-clothed bulky man with an exceptionally heavy, shiny jowl enters the charge office, shouting, waving his arms, exuding seniority but exaggeratedly aggressive, sweating with arrogance.  One of the constables shows him the prints of my photos, and I get up and approach, greet him politely, but he yells at me, ‘Sit down there!’  I make a gesture of conciliation, of offering to explain myself; after all, as far as I can tell I am not officially under arrest, though what is official or not is entirely moot here.

            But Senior Arrogance is turning away from me and a string of people is being shepherded in, evidently miscreants of various kinds, some dusty and tattered, their shoes falling off their feet.  I retreat against the wall; we are all told to sit and take our shoes off.  To prevent easy escape, I suppose.  I wonder again how far humiliation needs to go, can go, how far I should permit it to go.  Were Europe’s Jews not like this: passive in the face of uniformed authority and weapons, stubbornly themselves, hoping that somehow it would turn out all right?  This is different, of course: my companions on the grubby concrete floor are, it appears, petty thieves, border-jumpers, traffic offenders.  The companions of Christ, it might be said, but precisely the people the police ought to be prosecuting.

            Now Pompous Pilate, Senior Arrogance, turns and begins to question me fiercely in Shona.  It is too fast and complex for me to follow, I have to plead ignorance, though I suspect he is asking me why I am there.  The prisoner next to me, who should have enough of his own affairs to worry about, finds my bemusement funny.  Senior Arrogance throws out more Shona; I shrug and apologise; he throws his hand up in the air and snarls, ‘If you won’t speak to me in Shona we cannot help you.’

            And he moves on to rail at the others lined up.  One individual, evidently a Portuguese-speaking Mozambican, gets similar treatment, Senior Arrogance being obliged to shift to English: ‘How do you come to my country and not speak my language?  Who do you think I am?  You come here and you disobey my law and you cannot speak my language?  Do you think you are so important?  Do I look like someone you can just walk on?  What makes you think I will just let you disobey my law?’  And more in this vein before he devolves back upon me.

            ‘I am indigenous!’ he shouts.  ‘I am not English, I am not American.  My country wants nothing to do with you people.  I am the indigenous one here.’  I make an expression which I hope conveys that I do not dispute his indigeneity but also that it is not entirely relevant.  He stamps out.  The rest of the miscreants are herded together and out the back, presumably to cells for the night; I refrain from joining them.  I am uncomfortably aware of the many stories of police brutality, of how they tie your hands and feet together over a pole, hoist you to shoulder level and beat the soles of your feet until you can’t walk, your back until you can’t lean against a wall.  And it’s getting to the time of day when everyone is liable to knock off work and just lock up the unfinished business of the day to languish unnoticed and unfed until the morning. 

After a few minutes Senior Arrogance blusters back in and rants at the constables at the counter, waving his arms furiously, and I hope that I am correctly picking up the gist that he can’t believe his beloved police force is wasting its time on a non-offence like mine.  Then he is off, and a short while later, on the heels of a security guard in green uniform who is brought in handcuffed, interviewed in a side-booth, and sent away looking chastened, I am called up.  I sit at the desk, and yet another policeman hears out my story, which I have now honed to a fine and economical narrative of easy self-exculpation.  He writes down my essential details on yet another scrap of torn-off paper which one can’t imagine, thankfully, ever finding its way into any coherent file.

            ‘You realise we will have to keep these photos,’ he says.

            ‘Fine. I don’t need them, honestly.’

            ‘They are good photos.’

            ‘Thanks.’

            ‘Next time you want to take photos, ask permission.’

            That’s it?  It has taken all day to get to this?  I walk out into the parking-lot and the slanting, dusty, anticlimactic afternoon sun.  I wave cheerfully to the guard full-of-loathing.  A total stranger who is locking a gate on the other side of the street greets me, ‘Hello, Mister Man, how are you?’ 

‘Fine,’ I say.

 I still have the pressing need to pee, but feel like I could hold it in forever.

 

*****

PS. When I went back to Mutare a year or so later, I walked with nonchalant insouciance past the army base gates. They had rescued the little cannons from obscurity and mounted them rather smartly on stone plinths either side of the entrance. So some good came of it!

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

No 113: Woolf and Wylie: two ecofeminists?

 

I’ve been working through two sets of letters: those of the great modernist writer Virginia Woolf, and those of my mother, Jill Wylie. This happenstance has generated some interesting points of comparison.

 In 1929, when Jill was born in Bexhill-on-Sea, not far from London, Virginia was 47, running her Bloomsbury circle of friends, relatives, artists and writers in the heart of that teeming city. Two years earlier she had published her best-known novel, To the Lighthouse (my personal favourite). I don’t suppose they ever passed one another in Oxford Street, though they could have; but in a few years Jill was off to Kenya to be raised on the family farm, eventually to marry an Ulster sailor and settle in the eastern highlands of then Southern Rhodesia, subsequently Zimbabwe. Five thousand miles between them, and two more different milieux you can hardly conceive.

 So what’s the connection?

 I’ve been returning to Woolf via an invitation to explore the notion that she was what’s known nowadays as an “ecofeminist”. I’m doing so in parallel with yet another assiduous letter-writer, South Africa’s ur-novelist Olive Schreiner; Woolf praised Schreiner’s Story of an African Farm in a 1924 review, when the first edition of Schreiner’s letters appeared. The term “ecofeminist” was coined only in 1974, so it’s a bit anachronistic to try to apply it to Woolf or Schreiner, but I do think there’s some evidence that they could both be termed proto-ecofeminists. Certainly both were early feminists of a kind, as evidenced by Woolf’s book Three Guineas, and Schreiner’s book Women and Labour. And both certainly evinced certain sensitivities to the natural world. Whether the links they make between the two aspects, nature and feminism, are as strong as some scholars have suggested, is the question I’m exploring.

 What is ecofeminism, anyway? There are various emphases, but the central assertion is that Nature and Woman have through history and in many societies been oppressed together, damaged in tandem, by patriarchal structures, attitudes and actions. When parts of the natural environment are demeaned, invaded and commercialised, for example, it is often the women living in that environment who most heavily suffer the consequences. Liberating one thus necessitates liberating the other. Now some ecofeminist scholars have asserted a quasi-spiritual, even mystical link between women and Nature; others have worried that that compounds the problem of essentialising what women supposedly are, and take a more materialist or social-constructionist view of the links. Big argument.

 My still rather superficial exploration of these two sets of letters piques my interest in this problematic.

 There are at least some intriguing parallels between Virginia and Jill (“Jill” is more succinct than “my mother”).

             Both women were self-identifying “tomboys” as youngsters, in Cornwall and Kenya respectively.

            Both were habitual walkers, preferring the natural and the offbeat to the highway, and on their walks experienced remarkably similar moments of near-ecstatic revelation or what Woolf called “moments of being”.

Both became obsessive writers from an early age; both published a handful of books, as well as a vast number of essays, diaries, letters and other writings. Woolf  does outnumber Wylie probably by a factor of ten: she left some 4000 letters and 400 essays (which leaves me only a few hundred of Jill’s to go through, and a pile of diaries a mere metre high). But then Woolf wasn’t spending the bulk of her time searching for lost dogs and feeding bushbuck fawns. Both, nevertheless, suffered from excessive modesty or self-doubt.

            Both certainly felt their position as designated women within dynamics largely designed by and for men, both domestically and politically, being obliged to conform in some ways, while finding other ways of resisting, ignoring and evading the strictures.

            Both had to weather man-made wars – Woolf two World Wars, Jill the Rhodesian bush war, the latter rather more up-close-and-personal.

            Both were what we now called “activists”, taking up the “verbal cudgels”, as Jill put it: in her case, mostly for animals’ rights and welfare, in Woolf’s case, mostly for those of women.

            They both were coolly fascinated by human social behaviour, but simultaneously nursed a certain streak of misanthropy. They found rather different ways of expressing it.

            Neither gave much credit to organised religion, and looked for other modes of transcendence or belonging.

            Both had to struggle through varieties of illness, though in Woolf’s case it was largely mental (driving her to suicide), in Jill’s case largely physical.

            And, importantly, both their (married) surnames begin with W.

 Of course, there are also profound differences.

 Woolf became most famous for her fiction. Though Jill wrote some neat stories in her time, she reads little fiction and wrote less; fact is always quite weird and fascinating enough for her, she’s always said. Where Woolf, as befitted her intellectual circle, wrote a lot of book reviews, Jill wrote a lot of SPCA reports and essays on animal behaviour. And I’m not saying that Jill’s writing – lucid, beautiful and emotive as it is – is anything like as finely literary as Woolf’s!

             Woolf was elusive, and virtually made elusiveness her methodology; scholars have pointed out the differences between the Woolf one might divine from the novels, and that which one gleans from the letters – and that neither gives us a complete impression. Jill, on the other hand, is lucid and direct. What you see is what you get: not because she is simple or unsubtle, but because she can cut to what she regards as the heart of the matter and express it with the honesty of a bloodhound. I’ve now read several concise pieces which have me exclaiming: But that’s just her, that’s the whole of Jill, transparent as a forest pool. No deceptive Woolfian gauzes and halos there!

             Woolf adopted an almost Victorian veneer of elegant salon mannerliness and effete urbanised decorum, whilst waspishly undermining it in numerous ways; her letters are models of scintillating viciousness. Jill’s letters, while almost as detailed on domestic affairs and meetings and relationships as Woolf’s, are more often gently humorous and brimming with empathy, more for animals than people. She could be critical or disgusted, but was very seldom if ever nasty, and her public letters were unfailingly measured, even when she was conveying controlled fury.

             Environment inevitably played a huge role. City-dwelling Woolf’s nature was experienced on sedate country walks or within the tamed purviews of Kew Gardens; Jill’s environment, in contrast, though not quite the stereotyped savannahs of “Africa”, was wild enough that on any given day she might be spat in the eyes by a cobra, charged by a bushpig, or confronted by an armed poacher. Jill herself was wild, and unlike Virginia would never be seen dead in a dress, let alone make-up.

             Jill’s life-world was almost entirely devoted to the well-being of animals, domestic and wild, so naturally her letters are mostly about them. (She would, however, still make space for comments on politics, comets, a film or a wedding, the crime rate or the saga of selling a fridge.) Contrastively, in the several hundred letters of Woolf’s I’ve read (in Banks’ selection, Congenial Spirits), the dogs and cats they evidently lived with are scarcely mentioned. Even ornaments get more description. Animals appear only in the form of sardonic symbols or metaphors by which to describe people. This is despite her having written a novel, Flush, ostensibly from the point of view of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel; though sweetly done, the work is, in the end, really about Browning rather than the dog, the whole thing “by way of a joke”, Woolf said.

 Ideally, I suppose, ecofeminism ought on the one hand to incorporate the sense of a coherent ecology or functional ecosystem, based on the interdependence of humans, geologies, vegetations, weather and non-human creatures; and, on the other hand, a vision which expresses a recognisably feminist (i.e. more than merely ‘female’) perspective. Perhaps neither writer fully fits in. Woolf’s grip on ecology, despite her numerous close observations of flowers and trees, moths and snails, was slender; she had not, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, even read Charles Darwin, or much of any other naturalists. Such moments of union or communion with the natural environment as she describes (most famously that of Septimus in Mrs Dalloway), she ascribed to a rather woolly “transcendental philosophy”, as she herself called it. At the same time she vigorously researched and pursued ideas of feminism that we would now characterise as “activist”.

 Jill was not similarly engaged in ‘feminism’, though she wrote about masculinity at certain points. If there was a nascent feminism in her, it was by way of simply living her life with robust independence, no matter what, and by insisting on the primacy of emotional engagement (not cheap sentimentality) – love, trust, imaginative empathy, grief – in ways habitually disparaged by men. However, unlike Woolf, she is ecological as no one else I know: a researcher, observer, environmental and animal activist in every fibre of her being and action of her life-long practice. Though she has always been open to the idea of spirituality as a kind of life-force – she once described herself as “sort of pagan” – there was nothing transcendental about it. Often joyful, yes, but also hard-eyed and material. Her compassionate side warred constantly with deploring the natural system of everybody-eats-somebody-else, but she accepted it: she knew that the little duiker she had spent months rearing and rehabilitating might end up in the jaws of a leopard the very night she was released. The concomitant was endlessly repeated grief – and the capacity to shoulder those griefs and keep on going is for me the very definition of courage. Virginia Woolf, it strikes me, was equally gimlet-eyed, brave in her own way, but ultimately a rather more fragile creature.

 All that said, both women are tributes to the great art of letter-writing – an art that has largely died in the age of the telephone and the email, the Twitters and the TikToks.

           ******

For more of Jill Wylie's writings, go to Jill Wylie's Animal Wisdoms, www.jillwylie.blogspot.co.za