Friday, 26 February 2016

No.18 – Compassion for elephants: What is it, and why?

Good readers, help!  Help me think through a few things here.  My central project over several years now has been to explore how people have expressed attitudes towards elephants in various genres of southern African literature: indigenous forms, early European travelogues, hunting accounts, novels, poems, game ranger memoirs and so on.  I’m focusing it all through the idea of compassion: Who expresses compassion towards elephants, who doesn’t, and why?

Elephants are in dire straits again.  They were virtually obliterated from most of Africa by European hunters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and resurged for a while in the heyday of late-colonial conservation efforts in the twentieth.  Today, slaughter of elephants for ivory throughout Africa is once again proceeding at a terrifying pace; in one estimate, an elephant is being killed every fifteen minutes.  At that rate, in just a few short years they will be extinct north of the Zambezi – and the ivory-merchants’ attentions will be turned ever more forcibly towards the still relatively-abundant herds of southern Africa.

On the one hand, a network of profiteers that has no compassion whatsoever for elephants; on the other, an embattled coterie of conservationists, local and international, who literally weep at the fate of our most charismatic mammal.  But all the literature, art, sentimentality, scientific research and fencing in the world seems next to powerless to resist the fatal snares, bullets and poisons deployed by Mammon, the God of Greed.

How might one increase the quotient of compassion in the world?  What is “compassion” anyway?

To give an example of the definitional difficulty here, take this passage from Edward and Cathelijne Eastwood’s fascinating book Capturing the Spoor, which surveys ‘Bushman’ rock art (including examples of elephants) and tries to divine the attitudes that inform it:

The San have not only an intimate knowledge of animal behaviour but empathy with the animals themselves, sensing through their mythology and folktales and through experience that all creatures are kindred beings.  Hunters, for example, might feel a strong bond of sympathy with the animals they hunt, experiencing sensations in their bodies that correspond with salient characteristics of the animal, such as the bearing of horns or bodily markings.
            This attitude of respect and sympathy is best illustrated by the respectful way in which the San will talk about ‘meat’, meaning large prey animals.  When a story demands that large prey animals are listed and mentioned, they are called by special respect names.  The storyteller will say the names in a hushed tone, full of awe, and enumerates the animals as though entranced.

This passage raises as many questions as it answers.  It fudges the differences between ‘empathy’ and ‘sympathy’, between ‘respect’ and ‘reverence’, and perhaps between imaginative story-telling and reality.  At any rate, there is no sign, in either the artwork or the interpretation, that the reverence and awe which these paintings seem to express might be combined with anything resembling compassion.

The dictionaries don’t help much, tending to allow sympathy, empathy, compassion, to overlap or be vaguely equivalent.   They derive the word compassion from the Latin pati, passus, to suffer (hence ‘passive’), and therefore align it with pity.  But pity implies an inequality of conditions, an hierarchy of privilege over deprivation: as William Blake wrote, ‘Pity would be no more/ If we did not make somebody poor.’ 

I want rather to place ‘compassion’ in an echo-chamber of communal meanings, to relate it (with no etymological justification, mind) to the Latin passus meaning ‘step’, so that to be compassionate also brings up the idea of being companionably in step with, being alongside.  I want to snuggle it up with the words ‘compass’ and ‘encompass’, so that to be compassionate also means finding direction together with the other, and within some encompassing envelope, an ecosystem, if you like.  Compassion says to the other, whether human or elephant: Hey, we’re on this journey together.

So... if we can find little or no compassion in either indigenous art-forms or European encounters up to the nineteenth century, can we say that compassion towards animals is a pretty modern invention?  Is it an innate emotion, or a social construct?  Does it change form and direction?  If so, why?  Does it arise in some way along with domestication and control?  We can see plenty of evidence of people being compassionate towards cats and dogs over the last two centuries, but is this necessarily different from compassion towards something as wild, unreachable and different from us as an elephant? 

It’s often said that what makes the elephant a suitable ‘target’ for compassion is its near-human features: intelligence, memory, maternal tenderness, an evidently rich emotional life, and so on.  So what makes some people from within the same culture feel so differently?  I grieve with every elephant death and abuse I hear about; a school contemporary of mine, who had pretty much the same upbringing as me, has no compunction whatever in shooting them.  And attitudes can change even within one person, in the course of a life: I know a state vet who for years calmly justified culling elephants in the service of the ‘bigger picture’ – the economics of it, ecological balance – but finally found it “distasteful”, as he put it – and I could see that the thought of killing another elephant deeply pained him.

The literature I’ve read so far hasn’t helped much.  The philosophy of compassion is mostly related to political relations between the state and its citizens, or psychological relations between people.  These can be extended to human-animal relations in some ways – but probably only by radically re-defining what a ‘community’ is, and what it can include.  It’s hard to do that with a five-ton elephant intent on gobbling up your whole year’s mealie crop and flattening you, too, given half a provocation.

The comparative psychologist Marc Hauser includes a section on “ Compassionate Cooperation” in his book Moral Minds, which talks exclusively about envy and competition, with a dash of game theory, and hardly mentions the word compassion again.  (He does discuss forms of empathy, and distinguishes it from ‘sympathy’, but doesn’t work with ‘compassion’ especially.  Is it different?)  The French philosopher Luce Irigaray’s essay “Animal Compassion” is all about how helpful and therapeutic animals companions can be, not about how or why we might be compassionate towards them.  Ralph Acampora comes closer in Corporal Compassion, a book in which he argues with great finesse for compassion as the product of dynamic bodily contact.  But there aren’t many of us who can actually get to cuddle an elephant, or look closely into a lustrous, thoughtful elephant eye. 

Is it possible then to have “imaginative compassion”?   Is it possible to be compassionate at a distance?  Is this blog compassionate, or something else?  Or should compassion be defined to involve action, in a way that pity doesn’t, and even empathy might not?  “Are you an elefriend?” one IUCN campaign for funds asks.  Is it true compassion to pop a few spare bucks in their account?

Is compassion towards elephants paradoxically a matter of leaving them alone as much as possible?

Lauren Berleant, in the introduction to her volume of essays, Compassion: The culture and politics of an emotion, has this to say:

When the response to suffering’s scene is compassion – as opposed to, say, pleasure, fascination, hopelessness, or resentment – compassion measures one’s values (or one’s government’s values) in terms of the demonstrated capacity not to turn one’s head away but to embrace a sense of obligation to remember what one has seen and, in response to that haunting, to become involved in a story of rescue or amelioration: to take a sad song and make it better.

That’s rather lovely – and challenging.  Goodness knows the elephant desperately needs us – a caring majority – to actively do something against the depredations of what is, after all, a relatively small if elusive number of poachers, middlemen, gang bosses, and consumers of ivory.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

No.17 - "The Effort": Recovering Daddy Bernard

Bernard Hobson Matthews and Sopwith Snipe "V", France 1919

Are the minutiae of one’s family really of interest to anyone else?  I’m often asked about it, so maybe.  Anyway, for some reason, my own little search for my maternal grandfather has been swirling unstoppably around in my head, so here goes.

The salient fact about “Daddy Bernard”, as we called him to distinguish him from my step-grandfather, is that he died before my mother was born.  So neither she nor I ever knew him.  What we have left of him resembles an aircraft crash – literally, as I have the joystick of his Sopwith Snipe, a well-worn airspeed-indicator, and a brass model of a Snipe which he must have had made at some point.

Among the photographs he left us, mostly from his Royal Flying Corps days, are several of crashed biplane fighters.  Such crashes were known as “efforts”.

This is a life as an “effort.” 

Bernard Hobson Matthews was born in Cardiff, Wales, on 20 August 1899.  Brief newspaper obituaries indicate his family moved to Ealing, London, when he was a child, and he was educated there. At the age of 18 , in 1917, he signed up with the RFC.  We have a photograph of him, aged four, dressed in a frumpy frock; another at seven or so, with a range of family members around him, only a few who are identifiable; his parents, his sister and brother.  Otherwise, his youth is like empty sky.

 After he left the RFC in 1919, he sailed around the world a bit, and took up a job as farm manager on a farm near Kitale, on the border of Kenya with Uganda.  In Nairobi he met my grandmother, Mary Pitt, married her, and in 1927 gave her my aunt, Anne.  A year later, he impregnated Mary again.  Three months later, he was dead of blackwater fever.  He was 29.  These bare facts aside, most of that period is also a blank, apart from a batch of love-letters to Mary, kept all these years by Mary and then my mother in a lovely rosewood writing-box.  They are not informative of much apart from a certain self-torturing religiosity.

The only period for which we have any texture are his flying days.  They were, clearly, the most exciting of his life.

We have: A Character Certificate, no.86198, issued on 7 November 1917, gives his date of enlistment as 4 July 1917; his employment previous as Clerk; his height as 5’6”.  At that point, he was appointed to a temporary commission as 2nd Lieutenant.

We have: a “Royal Air Force Training Transfer Card”, a slender blue-grey covered booklet, which tracks his movements between December 1917 and June 1918.   The first page lists a period of training under one Capt P W S Bulman, first on dual-control Caudrons (7:59 hours) and Avro (15:21 hours); then solo on each aircraft (2:10 and 17 hours respectively); then the newest fighters, the Sopwith Pup (6:35 hours) and Camel (0:40 hrs).  The skills included sustained turns, figures of eight, sideslip, stalling, spin half-roll and loop, and forced landings in bad weather. 

His first, 15-minute solo was performed on 29 January 1918, and is adorned, under the column for ‘Remarks’, by the cryptic word: “Crash”. 

Bernard graduated on 13 July 1918, with a total of 49:45 hours of flying.  He then did a further 16:30 hours in the Camel, including aerial fighting (he had to take close-up photos of his ‘quarry’) and firing drills.  “A steady pilot”, Bulman concludes. 

Then he went to war.

We have: his floppy, battered log book, which lists all his flights, with an occasional quirky comment.  At 6.45 pm on 10 August 1918, he made his first flight in France.  On the 19th he flew formation from Doullens to Arras; on the 21st, he flew Doullens-Amiens-Etaples, and crashed on landing.  ‘Exit “Pixie”’ is the remark, this being presumably Camel D6426 which he had been flying regularly.  Crashes were the main hazard, it seems.  On the last day of August he was flying around Arras, and notes “Exit Beelzebub”  – presumably Camel F2135 – “Shot to Hell, R.I.P.”.  I don’t know if this means he saw action at this point, or there was mechanical failure.  On 16 September he was on “Balloon Line Patrol”: “Bus written off by Archie”.  On 17 October he flew from Avesnes-le-Comte on a few days’ “Offensive Patrol”, including one in “Hell of a fog”  He continued flying OP’s, dropping bombs, until the last possible day, 10 November 1918, including  a “straffe” of an aerodrome and a railway – “Last show of War”.

According to one obituary, he once came down behind enemy lines and effected his escape; but there is no indication of this in his logs – it seems unlikely.

He was insulated, in short, from the horrors of the trenches.  He did not lose a boyish sense of humour; he was still a boy.  He captured the whole experience in a piece of doggerel, one of several such lightly competent literary squibs we have – “A Flight of Fancy”:

- 'Burgundy's "effort" -
------- All the R.A.F.’s a farce,
And all the pilots in it, silly asses.
They have mechanics, and an aeroplane,
And one man in his time flies many types,
In something like this order – First the Caudron,
Steady, and slow, and certain, then the Avro,
With 100 Mono, of an 80 Gnome,
Creeping like snail at 80 miles an hours.
Then comes the Priceless Pup – swift, light, ideal –
Zooming the tress, and holding up the traffic,
Before the pilot’s posted overseas.
And then the ever-dreaded Sopwith Camel,
Full of strange tricks, and spinning like the Deuce –
accounting for more military funerals,
Than all the other buses put together.
Then comes the Snipe, more powerful than any;
Too late, alas!, to do more glorious work
Than put the wind up civvies on the Rhine.
Last type of all that need herein be mentioned,
To make the pilot’s history complete,
maybe a bus that isn’t yet invented –
May be a bus that’s long been obsolete;
And though he fly it but two lonely minutes –
To him it’s more important than the rest –
For ‘tis the bus he happens to be flying
The time the silly idiot Goes West! 

Daddy Bernard continued flying in France and Germany – the occupation – for another year, with little to do but annoy civilians with mock strafes, and survive another crash or two.  He got 20 minutes flying a captured German Fokker, which was also written off in due course.  On 23 January, “Exit Buglanton – with full military honours! Burnt ” – perhaps Camel H794, which he flew on that sortie; on 31 July, “Axle snapped. Lucky escape from crashing.”; and on 11 August, “Pulsator glass burst – Exit my slacks.”    On 20 August he noted, “escorting Winston Churchill & Co over the Rhine”.  Over 29 August, he flew his Snipe Y back across the English Channel to Waddon. 

We have: A slip from the Aircraft Salvage Depot in Waddon, Croydon: “‘Received by Air’ from 208 Squadron, Cologne, Snipe no E7848”, presumably flown in by Bernard.  “Left Y”, his log notes.  There was a wealth of affection for his “bus” in that brief annotation.

And there it ends. 

The grandfather whom I never met survived the worst war the planet had ever known – survived just another decade before the Kenyan mosquitoes got him.  Leaving us a few sepia images of a cocky-looking fellow who loved animals and whose chin – my mother always said – looks like mine.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

No.16 – My education in armchair aviation

As I do what I can to educate those who pass through our literary doors, I find myself increasingly mystified by what drives and preoccupies many of our youngsters.  So I’m led to speculate on how I became “educated” myself.  And I use the word led deliberately – the word educate derives from the Latin e/ex (out of) and ducere (to lead).  To educate, then, is to lead, or to be led, out of or beyond where you began.

There are, of course, multiple strands to anyone’s education: in my case, these include my parents’ own insatiable curiosity, their willingness to expose me to books without restriction from the earliest age, and my luck in having a number of excellent and inspirational teachers, from junior school through to university.

But the other day, as I woke up to the familiar sight of the dozens of books in my bedroom, I was for some reason struck anew by the number of volumes dealing with aircraft – books I had collected as a teenager.  Although my interests have moved comprehensively into other areas, I still can't bring myself to get rid of them.  For years, in fact, while I read widely, I was primarily preoccupied with aviation.  I spent most of my pocket-money on aircraft books, built models of them, painted pictures of them, made scrapbooks and typed out mini-projects on them.  I attribute this entirely to my father.  A mechanical engineer evacuated from Belfast during the war, he was a life-long scholar of all things mechanical, especially military – and especially airborne.  It was, perhaps, the one thing we really shared.

Dad happily paid, then, for years of subscriptions to a magazine called Air Enthusiast, which we also began to collect as bound hardback volumes.  I have kept a good dozen of them, dust-jackets carefully embalmed in clear plastic.  Now I pull Volume 2 off the shelf.  It’s dated January-June 1972; these are mags I would have first read at the age of twelve or thirteen.  Leafing through, I realise afresh what I must always have known: that this stuff was instrumental in my developing a whole slew of knowledges, skills, and preoccupations that have ramified way beyond the narrow realm of aviation.

First, I suppose, I learned that there were “enthusiasts” – less professionals than just people, “amateurs” in the best sense of the word - who were nevertheless clearly experts in their field, and wrote about it because they loved it.  All were evidently obsessed with researching their subjects down to the tiniest – to the outsider, numbing – detail:

Of wooden construction, the AL-12P had accommodation for two crew members and could carry 10 fully-equipped troops or up to 3,970 lb (1800 kg) of freight, the nose section being hinged to swing to starboard for the direct loading of bulky items.  Only one prototype had been completed prior to the Armistice, this having a span of 69 ft 10 ½ in (21,30 m)...

And so on and on.  And if any such detail were mistaken or missing, there would always be another aficionado ready to post a respectful correction in the “Talkback” pages.  Moreover, there were those who obviously delighted in finding the most obscure, experimental or neglected subjects to explore.

These were not magazines aimed at kids, then, which shows not only in the intense technical detail but also in the vocabulary of the articles.  Here’s a representative sample:

[The Fairey] Firefly was to prove itself more than appropriately named, for, while lacking the ability to emit the phosphorescence from which is derived the popular name for the lampyrid or elaterid insect bestowed on this fighter-reconnaissance aircraft, it was to become a luminary among Fleet Air Arm aeroplanes because of its supreme amenability to adaptation for roles and outstanding tractability in accepting weapons loads unforeseen at the time of its creation.

I now find this style overblown, even rather pretentious, but there’s no doubt it expanded my vocabulary.  Educationists these days seem fixated on supplying kids with materials of the “right”, pre-determined level, and would probably say that Air Enthusiast was “way beyond” a twelve-year-old.  But neither my parents nor I cared a jot about such boundaries; instead I constantly consulted my father or our weighty Cassells Dictionary for the meanings of big new juicy words.  Serendipity I feel quite sure I first encountered in the pages of Air Enthusiast.  I was stretched, and loved being stretched this way, just as much as I loved testing the fitness of my quads on the steep mountain behind our house.

In a related vein, these aviation writers weren’t all humourless: they enjoyed punning, sometimes outrageously, and loved the alliterative headline: “The Diggers’ Delight”, “Astute Assemblage”.  I looked avidly for these sparks of fun amidst the seriousness.

My vocabulary also expanded into other languages, for Air Enthusiast was nothing if not international.  I discovered the Fuerza Aérea Colombiana and Haganah Le Israel and General-Luftzeugmeisteramt.  Just in this volume I find articles on gliders in Italy, on Russian fighters in the Indo-Pakistan war, and British RAF operations in Guinea-Bissau. And I adored the international flavour of such (in themselves quite meaningless) nuggets such as that American-designed Sabre fighters built in Canada were bought by the German Luftwaffe and were later transferred to Pakistan.... So my general sense of both the history and the geography of the globe was enhanced immeasurably, hugely useful in so many areas of subsequent endeavour – a sense I find deplorably lacking in so many of our students.  They have often, it seems, been afforded no framework on which to hang anything new, so the very newness of the new is lost on them.

While various articles picked out the randomly weird and fascinating, other regular features of the magazine were more encyclopaedic in nature.  Some pages were devoted to latest industry developments, so there was always a contemporaneous feel to balance the historical; and there was a series called “Fighter A-Z”, which listed and compactly described, over the years, an astonishing number of the world’s fighter aircraft, all in alphabetical order and minutely discriminated.  Hence, perhaps, a certain split or tension in my enduring approach to research, between aiming for an encyclopaedic expertise and being serially distracted by the marginal and arcane.  I love the comprehensive order of the index – and love even more dilettante-ishly ambling around in subjects I know little about!

Finally, much of my teenage artwork was pursued in imitation of Air Enthusiast.  The cover of each issue sported an aviation painting, in oils or acrylics maybe, in a style I found robust and exciting.  These early volumes never acknowledge the artist, but occasionally a discreet signature would become visible – HARDY.  I responded to the undisguised vigour of his brushstrokes, the vividness of colour, the way he could capture the blur of speed, the whirr of a prop-blade, the gleam of light on surfaces of metal, vertiginous depth and implied narratives of action.  Working (weirdly) in enamel paints, I tried to follow. It was a matter of keen regret that, in time, the magazine succumbed to “advances” in format: Air Enthusiast became the blander Air International, and the paintings yielded to infinitely less distinctive photographs.  Maybe Hardy passed on; I hail his wonderful work.

The magazine included on its inside pages other kinds of artwork I obsessively, stumblingly, mimicked – the technical paintings and "general arrangement" drawings in both colour and black-and-white.  With my paints and dip-ink nibs, rulers and plastic French-curves, I couldn’t hope to match the airbrushed precision of the originals, but the point is I tried – and tried, and tried. 

Then life moved on, and somehow the years of assiduous attention to aircraft shifted into other interests. But the hundreds of hours I must have spent buried in the pages of aircraft magazines and books enriched beyond calculation my awareness of language and aesthetics, of colour and line, of history and research. 

Above all, it was something ineffably nerdy about which a teenage boy could still (in the words of a guide for teenagers I once read) dare to enthuse.  I did not then, and do not now, subscribe to the mind-numbing notion that refusing to enthuse about your subject is somehow cool.

Monday, 1 February 2016

No 15: Zimbabwe Despatches: A poetical evening with John Eppel

John Eppel’s garden in Bulawayo is looking devastated.  This evening is the first time in months that even a sniff of rain has clouded the sky; even in winter I don’t remember being able to see through his usually riotous shrubbery into neighbours’ properties.  The russet dust and siftings of yellow grass don’t deter Bismarck, the Border collie, who as always immediately presents a tooth-marked ball for throwing, as if I’ve been doing it for him all my life.  Ivan the unridged Ridgeback-Dachshund cross bounces about, apparently in a constant state of irrepressible confusion.

John is his usual, welcoming, tall, slightly grizzled, humorous self.  “Make this your home,” and he gives me a key to the cottage, newly ceilinged with some glittery Chinese pseudo-tiles, oddly out of character with the dishevelled rural-farm feel of the rest of the place.  He reminds me that that the lock of the house door is upside-down – that he has never tried to fix this anomaly is perhaps indicative of his slightly contrarian character and writing.

He offers me fruit-juice, cracks open another can of beer for himself.  “I’ve already started,” he says, half apologetic, half boastful; “I’m a functional alky!  I’ll cut back when school starts – which is tomorrow”.  He does carry an air of slightly fuzzy, introverted loneliness; his post-marital solitude, at least, gives him quite a bit of time to write.  And he has been turning it out, all right: Textures, a volume of poems shared with Togara Muzenanhamo (published by Bulawayo’s AmaBooks, one of the few in the country still publishing so-called ‘creative’ work); the novella Absent: The English Teacher, both drawing on and satirising his real-life job and place); and most recently another novella, Traffickings (published by adventurous new outfit, InkSword in Kimberley, who will soon be bringing out yet another, The Boy who Loved Camping).

I’ve just finished Traffickings, which John thinks his best, or at least most uninhibited novella yet.  Where his earlier works, from D G G Berry’s Great North Road to The Curse of the Ripe Tomato, focussed on satirising his own postneocolonial white Rhodimbabwean society, in Traffickings “everyone gets it,” he chuckles – Marxist neoliberal whites, government officials, conservationists, NGOs, poets, the lot.  A brave, perhaps reckless little book.  I have to say John’s peculiar sense of humour, laced with schoolboyish ribaldry and obvious gross puns, doesn’t appeal to my taste particularly, for all that I admire the lancing accuracy with which he probes the nation’s many societal boils.  Perhaps because he’d primed me last year to expect a prison story, I found the book a bit unbalanced – much diversionary humour about the collapse of the protagonist’s hotel, Nehanda Hollows, in the first part, and then rather too short a section on how Khami prison becomes a tourist resort, potentially the more interesting venue, in the second.  It’s all just a little too self-consciously satirical, almost allegorical, doesn’t quite play along the edge of compassion as, say, Jane Smiley does in Moo (see my Blog.11).  Not that one necessarily expects a satirist to be compassionate, I suppose.  And now he says to me, “Did you pick up the allusions to The Great Gatsby?  It’s full of them.”  I hadn’t, shamefully, though there are plenty of other allusions: John’s work is always something of a literary education; he can’t keep the teacher in him quiet.

I have always preferred his poetry, which I count as amongst the finest Zimbabwe has produced: varied in mood, rich in references, often touching, always supremely crafted.  He talks about people saying he is “reactionary” because he writes in Euro-derived “forms” – sonnets, villanelles, Keatsian stanzas and the like – “But I say to them it’s fucking hard to write sonnets, it’s hard.  And I say you find the greatest freedom working within the set format.  Form is content – something that’s missing from so much so-called free verse these days.  You might as well write prose.  I can’t really write free verse, it just starts to sprawl, it’s harder for the poem to find itself.” 

We discuss Togara Muzanenhamo, Carcanet-published whizz-kid, and his cerebral, shape-on-the-page formats – but that’s not really “form”, in John’s view, because it’s not organically tied to content.  Thomas Hardy is one of his poetic models here, as Dickens and Rabelais are for his fiction – though in my head I align John as much with the scatological side of Swift, or the raunchy, teeming cartoons of Gillray.  Most recently, John has found a way of reaching a different audience, accompanying wonderful landscape photographs by André van Rooyen on a Matopos calendar – unlike most poetry, whose production involves the poet in financial loss, sales from the first calendar earned John enough to buy himself a new car!

Over supper – his characteristic one-pot stew, as rich and tasty as one of his poems – John  regales me with stories of institutional backbiting and rejection.  Here a certain poet made overtures, then spurned him because he (the poet) was ‘left-wing’ and John had just been published by a ‘right-wing’ press; there an editor encouraged submissions then rejected them; here a publisher failed to have John’s book ready for a launch and launched his own instead.  These are his “enemies” now – he ticks them off on his fingers –  and he seems to me to take a certain pleasure in delineating these antagonisms; it confirms his marginal, maverick status.  He claims to be neglected, but he can tell plenty of stories of being invited to this or that festival or interview – more than many of us, I’d say.  And he took deep umbrage when David McDermott Hughes accused him, in his book Whiteness in Zimbabwe, of “fetishising crocuses”, apparently immune to John’s sharply self-aware ironies. 

“But I don’t hold grudges,” he says.  “They haven’t left your mind, either,” I chide, laughing.  “Oh, but that doesn’t count, they’ve got to be down on paper!”  He claims to be hated also by the nationalist-orientated establishment at the University of Zimbabwe, with some justice – though he got a glowing recommendation from older stalwart Kizito Muchemwa for Traffickings.  And some younger black academics, less trapped in outmoded racialistic rhetorics and inhibitions, are paying him more attention (I’ve had more than one Zimbabwean PhD student approach me for input on John’s work).  He’s pleased about that, even as he grumbles about their occasional misreadings.             

After pecan-nut pies and coffee, it’s to bed with us.  I am weary after a long day’s drive, he will have to be up at the crack of dawn to get to school, accompanied by the dry ratchet sounds of the Crested barbets – a drought bird if ever there was one.  Appropriately, the poem the January 2016 page, closing last year’s Matopos calendar, is entitled “Our Last Hot Spell”:

                                    ... Memories turn
            like falling leaves, to smoulder and burn.
            This is our last hot spell for, let me see,
            a moment, three seasons, and eternity.