Sunday 1 November 2015

square mile

‘Everyone remembers things which never happened. And it is common knowledge that people often forget things which did. Either we are all fantasists and liars or the past has nothing definite in it. I have heard people say we are shaped by our childhood. But which one?’ (Jeanette Winterson, Sexing The Cherry, 1989)

A conjunction of a disparate things in recent weeks has set me thinking about the place of my childhood, the first place I remember. Firstly, the twinning of Los Angeles with Lusaka, Zambia, where I grew up (see ‘Let it shine’, 10 October 2008), and imagining possible connections, as though the twinning absolutely requires strong topographic/cultural similarities (which it clearly doesn't). Secondly, re-finding a Google Earth image of my family home and surrounding area in a suburb of Lusaka, an image that H had sent me a while ago. And thirdly, the writing of a citation for a Dartington honorary fellowship for Mike Pearson, to be awarded in a few weeks. In the book he co-wrote with Michael Shanks, Theatre/Archaeology (Routledge 2001), Mike writes about Welsh notions of place and cognitive maps of location/belonging, in particular the temporal palimpsest of embodied memories that is ‘the square mile’ (Y filltir sqwar):

‘The intimate landscape of one’s childhood, that patch of ground we know in a detail we will know anywhere again. Site of discovery and putting names to things, people and places. Working with difference and similitude. Favourite places, places to avoid. Neighbours and their stories. Textures, smells. Also of play, imagination, experiment. Finding the best location for doing things. Creating worlds under our own control, fantasy landscapes. A place of exaggeration and irrelevance. Of making rules and breaking rules, of learning to distinguish between “do” and “don’t do”. A place of improvised responses, rules of thumb – where, as Ned Thomas said, “the child first learns everything which is of real importance, history and geography”. And of which D.J. Williams noted, “when the many things I remember actually happened, I haven’t much of an idea. But I can locate most of them with a degree of certainty – where such and such a thing happened and where I was standing when I heard what I heard”’ (138-9).

When I look at the Google Earth photograph, and zoom in on the house on Fountains Road where I lived throughout the 1960s (the ‘shack’ as we called it), I am transported, awash with narrative fragments and sensations. I can move freely into each room in turn; each one has a flavour, a feel, particular objects, events that linger. The lipstick graffiti on my brother’s bedroom wall. Bolts of cloth in my mother’s cupboard, some of which I had chopped up to make a pair of roughly sewn trousers, blue and gold. Familiar sounds from inside my bedroom at night: dogs scratching, dogs’ claws on the floors, barks in the distance, heavy rain on the roof, the television, the sound of the bed as I turn over. The insistent flutter and tap of moths and beetles on the window. I see the dressing-gown on the back of the door, a hooded brooding figure that haunted my nocturnal imagination for years. The huntsman spider on the wall, a hairy hand the size of a bowl: my astonishment and fascination whenever it scuttled a few inches then stopped again. Always there. Spider and dressing gown creature were somehow connected. The texture of the mosquito netting, the shapes the light traced on its milky surface as it moved. The space under my bed, both intimately known and mysterious, a portal. The warmth of my parents’ bed in the early morning.

Smells: wet earth after rain drifting in through the windows; rissoles or bacon in the kitchen; a doggy mustiness on the rugs; my mother’s perfume, my dad’s aftershave; insecticide for mosquitos. Door handles. Window latches. Insect screens. Fly swats. I remember repeatedly sleepwalking through every room that contained books, obsessively counting them in my sleep – thousands of them; if I lost the number, I had to start again at the beginning, or the ‘grey blobby thing’ (an amorphous slate-coloured cloud hovering in the dream air) would ‘get me’. My dad’s collection of Plays and Players, a source of endless interest: actors’ heightened expressions, spaces, bodies, Danny La Rue in drag, the occasional breast. Watching my brother piss blood after he contracted bilharzia from snails in Kariba Lake near the dam. The weird creature that fell out of my mother’s dress as she leapt to her feet and shrieked during The Avengers: a kind of horned turd that pulsed its way across the floor as we shouted from the sofa, the dogs barking hysterically, Emma Peel now consigned to the background.

Moving into the garden, again I can go directly to the scene of all sorts of incidents and habitual activities. The patch of earth where Michael dug out a black mamba, then beheaded it with his spade. The scrubby patch where I found a scorpion. The ants nest: I was a connoisseur of ants and their different flavours – some bitter, some sweet as honey. The badminton court on the lawn. The tiny inflatable plastic pool filled from the hose. Still visible in the photograph, the grove of mulberry trees, their leaves plucked to feed the silk worms I was breeding in a shoe box. The banana tree I hacked at with a machete for no particular reason, the fibrous trunk soft and sticky on the inside, its goo white before drying brown. The tree where caterpillars congregated and were harvested in paper bags by local kids – brilliant climbers - for their evening meal (squeezed of their innards like toothpaste tubes, then boiled). Michael’s house behind the garage: a single smokey room in which he lived with his wife and two kids, my friends and partners-in-crime Berry & Freddy.

Slightly further afield, but still within the parameters of the bird’s eye photograph, there’s the path where my brother shot up another white kid with his air rifle: ‘dance’ he said with a comedy sneer, like a 10-year-old Lee Van Cleef, then shot him in the calf. When he ran off, little Lee peppered the boy’s abandoned bike, then destroyed one of his flip-flops patiently, shooting it at close range over and over again. And that’s where I started a fire with Philip; when it took hold in the scrub, we panicked, I tried to stamp out the flames with my feet, and my sock caught fire; I remember running along the street with my foot on fire. That’s where I wore the ceremonial police officer’s hat I’d ‘borrowed’ from Graham’s house (his father was a bigshot in the police), and got into all sorts of trouble. That’s where Chutney the dachsund was digging a hole in a pothole in the middle of the road when a truck went over her; she emerged unscathed in its wake, oblivious to its passage, still scrabbling away. That’s where Graham and I took naked photos of each other with his mother’s (empty) camera.

That’s where my parents’ friend the Scottish vet lived; in pens at the back of the house, we met baby elephants, hippos, even a tiny white rhinoceros. That’s where I climbed into a hollow tree and was stung around the mouth by swarming bees: my father gave me my first taste of beer to distract me from the pain. In that house, they had a cured elephant’s foot in the hallway, hollowed out to hold umbrellas and walking sticks. That’s where Berry told me the poisoner lived, that he was an evil man, and that I must never go there. Although it looks flat in the photo, that’s the hill where my bike-riding brother free-wheeled with me on the crossbar; he told me to put my foot in the front wheel to act as a brake, so I did – and we both fell off at high speed, skinning our knees and arms; my right foot was mangled and bloodied, but I never blamed him, it seemed fair enough at the time. That’s where we dug a complex series of tunnels in the ground and played elaborate games combining war, westerns and Bond (‘Jamesy Bondy, nickety-nickety-seven’).

That’s where my father picked up a stick to throw for one of the dogs, only to discover that the stick was a writhing snake – which he threw. That’s where Barney the beagle used to knock over bins and gorge himself on rotting food in the trash. That’s where Berry and Freddy and the other black kids – so much stronger and more worldly than me – used to swing me by my arms and legs and throw me to the top of the wall to get inside the football ground without paying; other kids caught me at the top and pulled me up to safety. Ginger, the Lusaka City winger, could run with the ball on his head; the only way to stop him was to knock him to the ground. Williams, the white goalkeeper (no relation).

That’s where Berry fired his catapult at a bird on the phone wires, and killed it instantly with a stone that ricocheted off its head. That’s where King Size jumped right over the long jump pit and landed on the grass at the other end; with the physique and sidies of a man 10 years older, and infinite smiling pleasure, he won everything at the sports day. That’s where I once hit plastic golf balls with my school friend Masuzyo Kaunda (the son of President Kenneth Kaunda, ‘KK’, a benevolent dictator in the one-party state that was newly independent Zambia); at the age of 6, we used to play hide and seek in the grounds around State House, about 3 miles up the road, and once drank milk with his father as he pounded a piano and sang hymns. My mum, who was a physiotherapist, treated Kaunda Snr for a bad back; she used to have to help him out of & back into his bullet-proof vest for treatment.

That house is where my brother got drunk on a pint-mug cocktail of liqueurs at a party, then slid down the wall making farting noises with his lips. That’s where the drunk man shouted, and then chased me. That’s where my mother witnessed the mob lynching of a man who had been accused of rape: the look in her eyes and her tears. That’s where the nuns lived, the Sisters of Mercy, old and young and shinily scrubbed and twinkley eyed under their wing-like hats. And that whole area had no houses then; it was all scrubby bush land and, Berry said, full of snakes; in the evenings after school, we cycled through there at high speed, thrillingly afraid as our bare legs brushed the grass.

According to a recent UN Human Development Report, life expectancy in Zambia, a country ravaged by AIDS and poverty, is just 37. 16.5% of the urban population is HIV positive; the country is far too poor to buy anti-retroviral drugs, and almost half of all Zambian children under 15 have lost at least one parent. Meanwhile, international corporations and banks continue to reap the profits from the country’s massive copper and cobalt deposits.

Freddy died when I was about 14; my father said that he was poisoned.

Masuzyo Kaunda died of AIDS just before Christmas in 1986 at the age of 30 – he was a year older than me. Now in his mid-80s, his father ex-president Kenneth is an active AIDS campaigner.

If he’s still alive, Berry would now be 51.