chasing memories, fragments

These were drawings in Cresswell Dale: first, the wooded valley floor, probably first carved as a subterranean river then collapsed leaving steep sides and a flat uneven floor, with the waters sunk out of sight.  It is overgrown, gloomy and moist, with shaggy moss covering the dry stone wall and fallen branches.  Light filters in and captures the leaves.

I thought about my mother’s life as elections, starting with the story of the night of the axe.   This must have been the 1966 general election, when Harold Wilson held power for Labour.  We were asleep, my parents listening to the results on the radio.  They were interrupted by loud shouting. Upstairs, two women shared a flat and undertook sex work.  Taking a night off, they had invited friends over to listen to the election, and these lads had casually decided to rape them.  My father stormed upstairs (we held their spare key?) wielding the wood axe, and my mother heard the boys shinning down the drainpipe outside our window.  All was put to rights.  Some hours later, the shouting started again.  Back he went again with the axe, this time cornering the boys.  They had come back for the beers they had left behind and they trooped off sheepishly.  This is not intended as a funny anecdote – but has a feel of time and place.

This drawing is of Peter’s Stone, a local landmark which juts out of the hillside, in the dale near Tideswell where my mother lived.  The lowest image is of the field sketch, in watercolour and conte crayon.  I re-worked this many times, lifting and replacing the crayon and eventually drawing into it in graphite.  Photographing it in different light changes the image.

That was told to me as a story and so comes complete.   Much more recently, my memories are fragmented – made up of conversations at the time, not documented or rehearsed.  My mother was in Malawi in the early 1990s and the first democratic Malawian election was held then in May 1994.  The first South African post-apartheid presidential election was just 3 weeks before.  I think I have this right – she served as an observer for both elections.  This established her as an experienced election observer in difficult places.  So then she was again an observer, this time in post-conflict Balkans.  I thought she served in Serbia and Montenegro, but I cannot track that election.  Was it the Bosnian 1996 election?  What I recall her telling me was that people were returning to vote in areas from which they had been ethnically cleansed and those who had persecuted them stood their ground, armed.  Most observers were British ex-army mid-rank officers, pompous and ineffectual.  She was a short round grandmother and so commanded respect: she stood her ground.  The memory that troubled her was that the people who must surely have committed crimes, more than crimes perhaps, were affable and funny.  As she kept order and gave space for people to exercise their franchise, these men flirted with her and she liked them despite herself.

… seen as the person you would wish to be, not the flawed person you are.


On the train from Johannesburg to East London, I felt physically sick that I had breached the taboo that people of good conscience should not have dealings with the apartheid state.  During that journey, my tiny transgressions of racial segregation went unnoticed by others and left me frightened.

From East London, I hitched up the East Cape highway to reach Butterworth where I would have three months experience in a hospital, a part of my last student year.

My choice of South Africa for my elective training was self consciously political.  The British establishment supported the South African state, characterised resistance  as communism, saw racial segregation as good neighbourliness.  Left-leaning factions exploited opposition to apartheid as an icon of their own ideological purity, likened Labour-led councils to Soweto, linked Conservative budget cuts to the Sharpeville massacre.  I took this opportunity to go and observe, to bear witness, if only to myself.

Past students had written gushingly of their pride in helping out in a small newly independent developing country called Transkei.  But Transkei was a lie, a Bantustan, its independence a sham, its purpose to deny people citizenship within the country as a whole.  This strikingly beautiful place had given South Africa Steve Biko, martyred during a 22 hour interrogation by police in Port Elizabeth in 1977, and Nelson Mandela, lawyer, leader of the African National Congress, then guerrilla leader, by then in prison for 22 years.

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I was woken at midnight and rushed to theatre.  A young man had been stabbed through the heart.  Our anaesthetist was barred from reaching us by the curfew.  Our only surgeon had intubated the patient but needed me to squeeze the bag so he could open the chest, release the trapped blood compressing the cardiac muscle and stitch the breach.  He had never seen, let alone done, this procedure before.  The man survived.  Every night, though, the morgue filled with those who, bored and angry, had occupied themselves with axe fights and had lost.

All equipment  was used and re-used,  lumbar puncture needles blunt and bent so the trochar would not release, suture needles sterilized briefly in disinfectant between one casualty and another.  Each day, in the medical clinic, cachectic old men in their forties, starving, presented only when the progressive malignant blockage in the gullet reached completion: a standard story, instant diagnosis confirmed on X-ray, no treatment, no palliation.  In the midst of abject poverty, there  was obesity and the devastation wrought by poorly controlled diabetes.  There was no privacy: long lines of people in front of multiple consulting stations in a large room.  A hundred waiting ill, convulsed in laughter as I tried to take a history in my comedy Xhosa.

Nurses who were princesses, were outstanding in their professionalism and skills.  There was a rag bag of medical staff, each with a personal story of how they washed up in this strange pariah backwater.  Bizarrely, several were refugees from oppression in other nations.

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I returned convinced that racial segregation was entrenched, that apartheid would be overturned only by bloody revolution, that the white tribe would fight back tooth and claw and to the end.  That was 1986.  This week, watching the archival footage, I was again reminded by how truly remarkable was the peaceful transition to universal suffrage.  Once again, I was moved, profoundly moved, to watch excerpts from the Peace and Reconciliation proceedings: Desmond Tutu, in the chair, breaking down in tears as one after another, individuals recounted their suffering or their crimes.

In the commentary, I heard many times the impression interviewers had of Nelson Mandela.  Here was a man who saw you as the person you would wish to be, not as the flawed person you are.

mangove swamp (2)