Buckle Up

Part 6 — Bladesover

My sister Helen’s memories of New Dell are clearer, more certain and more plentiful than mine. And she seems to be able to access them at will, as if they’re files in a folder.

The memories of New Dell that I can play back on demand are fragmentary and ominous, like bits of old VHS with eerie circus soundtracks. When they occasionally come back to me unprompted in concrete form, complete with sound and smell and light and touch, they feel like regurgitating lumps of indigestible solids.

When Helen describes her memories they sound translucent, like holograms, as if she’s observing them simultaneously not only from several different vantage points in space, but also from several very different points on a scale of time unmeasurable by ordinary clocks; as if they are present and preterite at once; and as if she’s seeing them surrounded by something luminous and incandescent that she can’t tell me about because she knows it will freak me out.

In Earth Time, Helen is three years my junior.

There is one memory we have in common that speaks to my immediate concern. She reminded me of it just a few days ago, a small thing, almost certainly a well-worn white African childhood trope, nothing that would have turned a hair or raised an eyebrow at the time, but emblematic now of the peculiar accommodation that had been settled between white masters and black servants by the end of the 1950’s, that fragile symbiosis, “the living together of unlike organisms”, that could last only as long as it wasn’t legislated for.

In the tradition of Downtown Abbey, each of us children was assigned a nanny to bath us, dress us and feed us until the age of five or six. Mine was the lovely Gertrude.

Helen remembers her nanny taking her, and I remember Gertrude taking me, alone and at separate times, up the hill and through the wattle forest behind the old farmhouse to the kayas where the labourers lived; and we remember sitting in the warmth and darkness of a thatched rondavel, and being fed soft sweet putu from the pot over the fire in the middle of the beaten-dung floor, and being enveloped in wood-smoke and warm skins, and between more bodies than could be accounted for, and voices young and old singing and murmuring in a language both familiar and impenetrable, and in rhythms strange and primal.

Helen admits that her four-year-old self felt frightened, but I suspect that was only because she hadn’t yet learned to discriminate, as she does so effortlessly these days, between the evidently living and the incorporeal entities that watch over them.

I remember, for once, feeling oddly comforted.

It’s difficult to write about the relations that prevailed then between black and white without descending into Dickensian sentiment, as I’ve just done, or rising to shrill polemic, which I fully intend to do as soon as I get the chance.

As children we accept the world as we see it; and the world as we see it seems to us to be the world as it was meant to be; and our acceptance of it is an acceptance of a natural order of things, divinely ordained; so that to my young eyes, black people gave white people their labour in the same way that cows gave milk and sheep gave wool and dogs were boys and cats were girls.

The world of the Natal Midlands in the early 1960’s wasn’t very different from the world of the Kentish Downs in the 1870’s that H.G. Wells describes in his semi-autobiographical novel Tono-Bungay. Actually, you can pick up any novel set in rural England between the publication of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa in 1748 and the outbreak of the First World War and find described in it the social and political milieu of my childhood years.

In George Eliot’s Middlemarch, for example, the issue foremost in the minds of the landed gentry of the early 1830’s, when they’re not thinking about how to marry off their daughters, is whether to extend the franchise to people not quite as landed as they are. One hundred and twenty years later, the gentry of the Natal midlands were preoccupied with exactly the same political issue. It’s a striking parallel:

In England in the early 1930’s it was the Whigs, the great-grandfathers of today’s Lib-Dems, who were campaigning to grant the right to vote to men who could prove by their social status, as measured in pounds or property, that they were worthy of having their voices heard and their wishes counted.

In Natal in the 1950’s it was the liberal left of Jan Smuts’ United Party, the disenchanted few who would break away to form the Progressive Party in 1959, who advocated what they called a “qualified franchise”, that is, the right to vote of black men and women who could prove by their social status, as measured in pounds or property, they were worthy of having their voices heard and their wishes counted.

For completeness’ sake, I should probably add that standing in the way of the Whigs were the Tories championed by Prime Minister Arthur Wellesley, the erstwhile Duke of Wellington, who believed, “that the legislature and system of representation possessed the full and entire confidence of the country”, even though less than five percent of adult males were entitled to vote.

And standing in the way of the United Party and its liberal left was the National Party championed by Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, who warned parliament in 1959 that, “One Bantustan for the whole of South Africa is the inevitable consequence of the policy of the United Party.”

Eliot’s subtitle for Middlemarch was, “A Study of Provincial Life”, which the critic Wynne-Davies saw as significant for fusing both senses of “provincial”, that is: “all parts of the country except the capital”, and “unsophisticated or narrow-minded”.

I could fill half a book with other examples of similarities between English provincial manners and the provincialism, in both of Wynne-Davies’ senses, of my Natal. There are strong flavours of it in Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Thackeray, Dickens, Trollope, Hardy and Oscar Wilde, and residual hints of it lingering on in Evelyn Waugh, Agatha Christie and contemporary BBC soaps. And I came across this wonderful observation by Henry James, whose view of provincial England is sharper for seeing it through a telescope on the other side of the bracing Atlantic:

“Of all the great things that the English have invented and made part of the credit of the national character, the most perfect, the most characteristic, the only one they have mastered completely in all its details, so that it becomes a compendious illustration of their social genius and their manners, is the well-appointed, well-administered, well-filled country house.”

Which brings me back to “the well-filled country house” of New Dell; and to H.G. Wells.

I got to H.G. Wells because he seemed to me to be the logical chronological successor to Samuel Butler, and you may remember why I was reading Samuel Butler.

I’m not sure what I was hoping to find in The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898). They were just as vivid and inventive as I remembered them, maybe more so because the film versions dramatize only the central conceits, and Wells’s words and his tone of voice are so much more revealing than that.

But the disappointing thing, I thought when I’d finished them, was that I’d reached 1898 and I still hadn’t found what I was looking for.

Tono-Bungay (1908) came up next on my Kindle. I’d never heard of it, but I started to read it, less out of hope or expectation than desperation, casually and quickly at first, but suddenly much more attentively when Wells’ semi-autobiographical self, George Ponderevo, reflecting on his boyhood impressions “in the shadow of Bladesover House”, recognises that the great country estate of Bladesover, where his mother appears to have been a version of my Gertrude, became for him, “…a little working-model — and not so very little either — of the whole world.”

The great house, the church, the village, and the labourers and the servants in their stations and degrees, seemed to me, I say, to be a closed and complete social system. About us were other villages and great estates, and from house to house, interlacing, correlated, the Gentry, the fine Olympians, came and went. The country towns seemed mere collections of ships, marketing places for the tenantry, centres for such education as they needed, as entirely dependent on the gentry as the village and scarcely less directly so. I thought this was the order of the whole world. I thought London was only a greater country town where the gentle-folk kept town-houses and did their greater shopping under the magnificent shadow of the greatest of all fine gentlewomen, the Queen. It seemed to be in the divine order.

Our great house was New Dell of the twin white gables, framed behind by ancient oaks and tulip trees, the red veranda stepping down in front to wide and gracious lawns. Our fine Olympians were the wealthy stud owners who played, and still play, polo at the Mooi River Country Club; the country towns and villages all the way from Hilton to Estcourt were dependent on the patronage of the gentry. Replace London and Queen Victoria with Pietermaritzburg and its statue of Queen Victoria, and the Kentish Downs of the young George Ponderevo become the Natal Midlands of my youth. And all of this, for us, “…seemed to be in the divine order.”

I don’t know if we ever get to abandon completely the model of the-world-as-it-should-be that is shaped by childhood experience. I think it merges with a part of us much deeper than the darkest parts of our unconsciousness; that it burrows its way down into the limbic system, colonising the amygdala, the hypothalamus and the thalamus, feeding on dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and the other neurotransmitters that threaten to make us feel hopeful, human and happy.

And there it waits and watches with little reptilian eyes.

Then we grow older and we discover, very gradually and sometimes very painfully, that the world-as-it-is is absurd and unfair, and it occurs to us that it could be improved with the help of a little logic and a bit of compassion, and we set out to adapt it, but tentatively at first because these two virtues are still wobbly on their feet.

And it’s precisely then, at the moment of the conception of that first tender impulse, that the world-as-it-should-be wakes from its limbic sleep like a kraken disturbed, and it roars its adrenal displeasure, and with the fires of scorn that blaze from its saurian nostrils it scorches that nascent impulse to ashes.

This is the conservative in all of us. This is the reflex of the right. This is the little Tory in the back of my brain gnawing away at the bars of its cage with nasty tiny teeth.

I hear it a lot on the radio these days, more and more it seems, in public school accents, plummy and patronising, straining to disguise the contempt scratching in their kraken throats; or in other voices, less adept at dissimulation, scarcely managing to translate reptilian rage into comprehensible English.

Because the-world-as-it-should-be sticks firm to its class, as fierce in its defence of its entitlement as it is fearful of being raised above its station.

I warned you the polemic was coming.

The journey from the-world-as-it-should-be to a conception of the-world-as-it-could-be in the event of a global epidemic of common sense and fellowship, is a recapitulation of the evolutionary journey of the brain from newt to neocortex. Not everyone undertakes it. Not everyone wants to undertake it. But if you were born into apartheid and you lived to see the end of it, you wouldn’t have had a choice. You would have undertaken it: willingly, reluctantly, or kicking and screaming all the way. But in one way or another you would have been changed.

Our journeys began at different ages and in different places. None of us can point to a single epiphanous moment. All of us share a dimly recollected sense of dissonance between the world we saw before us and the values of fairness and kindness so close to the hearts of our mother and father.

It was seven years before I could frame the shock of my experience on the bridge in the language of political discourse, and more years still before the ideological petulance of my intellect would be mellowed by my parents’ forbearance and humility.

Helen tells me her journey began with the small army of Zulus that came to take away the abandoned tracks of the railway line that once ran through New Dell farm. She can still see them, stripped to waist, with nothing but the combined strength of their glistening black brawn to help them, lifting the 66ft lengths of solid steel from their beds in the grey ballast to shoulder height, staggering with them to the waiting trucks, and dropping them with thunderous crashes of metal on metal. And in the electrifying chant that synchronised every measured beat of that effort and industry, the lone cry of the leader alternating with the roar of the massed response, she heard echoes of five centuries of hurt.

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