Tempora mutantur, et nos mutamur in illis… (Times change and we change with them)
But a part of everyone stays trapped in their past – a country that no longer exists, outside that. The country of the mind, the country of the heart. A place that is no more, and maybe never really was. A place where writers go mining, and digging their gold. Fool’s gold more often as not, I suppose.
I grew up in coastal city, in those days not a very big city – when my parents built their home, it was mostly bush in that part of what was to become suburbia. Relatively upper-middle class suburbia – which my parents bought into when it wasn’t.
There was a huge (or it seemed that to me, as a kid, it was vast) valley of native bushland going from the ridge (the last place you could see the ocean) to the coast, cut by a couple of roads. So I was lucky enough to grow up in a city, but able to run wild in the coastal subtropical forest. While there were several ‘William and outlaws’ gangs of little kids shooting at each other pellet guns and making tunnels though dense shrubbery, and building forts and hideouts, it was also a good place for a solitary kid to get away from the others.
I could – and did – walk down to what was in those days mostly empty beach without swimmers. People swam behind shark nets and with lifeguards… I learned to swim in among the rocks while my older brother dived for spiny lobster. My dad, who couldn’t swim a stroke, would take us up the coast to the diving places, now swallowed into little more than an extension of the city, but wild back then. I’d play in the rock pools and with a little pair of goggles collect sinkers and lures. I can’t remember not being able to swim, and the idea of swimming where there were lifeguards and nets was… something strange people did.
It took quite a lot of growing up before I figured that we were the strange ones. That my dad who spoke Sotho, Zulu, Xhosa as fluently as if he was born into it (with Sotho, he was. He thought in Sotho and translated in his head) was very different to the other kids’ parents, who worked in offices and did things in the city, and mostly could barely speak, let alone understand Zulu culture. Dad’s ‘second job’ was on a little commercial line-fishing boat… That wasn’t something anyone in that respectable white-collar part of suburbia would do – it was very blue-collar work, and very much a meritocracy – the boat still worked on shares: one for the boat, one for the skipper, one for you. If you weren’t a good fisherman, there was no place for you on the Bess. If you were, they didn’t care if you were green. Races mixed, unlike in the rest of the country. You fished, ate and drank together – unheard of at that time.
I must have been a teenager before I figured that it was us that out of place in that patch of suburbia, that my parents – and their friends, were outliers, the weird ones. By the standards of the time and place my parents were very left-wing. I suppose, given his background my Dad actually knew and was friends with enough black folk to know that the mantras of the Apartheid government were bullshit, and at that time judging a person on merit, not skin color was very left-wing. Times change and we change with them. That’s not ‘left-wing’ now, any more than the Australian Labour Party is the party of the working poor, now. I think my American friends have similar issues in the movements of their various party positions and who their core constituency are. Times change.
And then I got sent off to boarding school. My father’s old school, a night and a day’s train trip (steam, some of it) into the middle of the country. Bleak, flat, a world apart from my beach and bush. The School – a tiny English enclave in an Afrikaans city (where both sides hated each other – and my mother came from one side and my father the other (which is part of the story of who I am too)) was something straight out of Kipling’s Stalky and Co. Basically set up in a garrison town, for the sons of British Officers, destined for careers in the Empire, either as Officers or administrators. Times might have changed but it hadn’t, much. More British than Britain had been for 50 years an enclave in enemy territory.
My parents thought they were doing the best they possibly could for me. Most of the kids in their bit of suburbia would merely go to the nearest Government School. I was out of place in a moderately well-to-do suburb – here, I was even MORE out of place. A blue-collar kid in a toff school, as far as possible from the only things I knew and home in – beach and bush, and the only things I was any good (diving). Where cricket, rugby and having money were important. Man, I was stuffed.
You learn to be a chameleon. And you learn how to fight. I spent a year having at least one fight every day. At first they picked on me, then times changed, and I looked for it. And I become even more of rebel, I guess. Like the Army I think it did change me and teach me a lot. I know how an officer and a gentleman should behave. Some aspects of that were good too. Some were even real. And some taught me I really am not designed to hold down a position in Imperial service…
I hated most of school, and I feel sorry, now, that I was a sore trial to at least some of my teachers, because not all of them deserved a pupil like me. I survived by being a smartarse and trouble, and caning’s were like water off a duck’s back.
I did as little school-work as possible for years (passing well enough wasn’t that hard and math came easy), read every book the vast elderly library (I swear that every Old Boy who died had their collection added to it. Three stories of higgley piggledy shelves with everything from Bulldog Drummond to translations of Das Kapital and Mein Kamph (yes really) half of the books leather-bound) and then, at the end of my school career, although I was fairly sure I would go to the army and die, I gave a thought to my future, and went to speak to my English Master. Now: remember I had given this poor bastard an unrelenting hard time for the last three years, no work, sarcasm, backchat, and I was the class clown. Bluntly, I was smarter than he was, and with the arrogance of youth, enjoyed taking advantage of it. We loved each other… So there I stay after class. Go up to his desk: “Sir. I’ve been thinking about what I should do after school. I’d like to be an author. A novelist.”
I remember his reply with stark clarity 40 years later. He didn’t even look up from the marking pile. “Freer. You can’t spell. And no-one can make a living out of writing novels. Out.”
It was a throw-away to an annoying brat, who made his life a misery. I had paid precious little attention to his teaching. But he was a teacher… so I believed him, and ended up becoming an Ichthyologist instead.
But times change and we change with them. He was right about the spelling.
And I remain a product of that past. My writing tends to be blue-collar – I’ve spent most of my adult working life with them, and largely identify with their interests. Yes I know. I have a couple of postgrad Science degrees and I went to Toffee-nosed Private School… I know that side, well. You learn to observe and imitate and understand, when you have to.