Chapter 9 — A Cliff Edge
“It is the last achievement of the intelligence to get all of one’s life into one coherent scheme, and Kipps was only in a measure more aware of himself as a whole than is a tree.”
Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul, H.G. Wells, 1905.
In those days in the white English-speaking regions of Natal, but especially in the Midlands, there were other farmers and townsfolk who believed themselves to be as English as my mother believed us to be. Or so I assumed from the bumper stickers on their Land Rovers that had the words “Last Outpost of the British Empire” emblazoned across the Union Jack.
There are die-hards who continue to display them even now, “bittereinders” as they’re called more descriptively in Afrikaans, determined to cling on to their national aspirations to the bitter end. But when once that slogan appeared to me to speak in bold defiance of Afrikaner domination and the iniquities of the apartheid state, it comes across today in tones of jingoistic conceit or, at best, of sentimental whimsy.
A handful of them, in fairness, were actually English, expatriates from Blighty fleeing the horrors of Wilsonian socialism. They could be distinguished from the locals with English pretensions by their authentic uniform of hound’s-tooth Barbour shooting jackets and tweed deerstalker hats from the House of Bruar.
I had mixed feelings about living in the last outpost of the British Empire. I spoke English, I thought in English, and all the books I loved were English books by English authors about English life and English mores. But feeling English somehow didn’t translate into feeling British.
My mother never called herself British. Sir Francis Drake was clearly English, not British. I wasn’t at all sure that I would ever want to be counted as British unless another war broke out and I was obliged to choose a side, in which case I would do what my father had done and sign up with the British on the unexamined assumption that they were the good guys.
Egypt, Italy and the Eastern Cape explained my father’s very British moustache.
Because I had acquired the idea from the following anecdote that the Eastern Cape, where my father grew up, veered in the direction of being British, while Natal, where my mother grew up, veered very definitely in the direction of being English.
The story went, in my mother’s telling of it, that when my father came back from the war he took his fiancée to meet his parents, driving her all the way from Durban to his family farm of Ossa in the wild region of ridges and valleys a hundred miles inland from Port Elizabeth. It was a long and gruelling journey through the barren tracts of the Transkei where sheep and goats wandered at leisure across hazardous dirt roads that led eventually to tortuous and precipitous passes through the mountain ranges that separated Ossa from civilisation as my mother knew it.
When they arrived at last and the obligatory niceties were done, my mother enquired politely if she could have a nice warm bath before dinner. Her future mother-in-law gave her a look of imperious pity and said, “Water for the bath is heated only on Thursdays.”
My father never tired of hearing it told. He would listen and beam with a bashful sort of pride, as though he saw in it the measure of how far she had raised him in the world.
But there was no doubting the severity of her disapproval, and it was from this that I took it the people who bathed only on Thursdays were well beyond the English pale, and by extension then, because it struck me that to bathe in cold water or not at all on other days of the week was a peculiarly British thing to do, that she had nothing but mute contempt for the habits of the British at large.
From this, and from various hints and dark looks and unexpected turns of conversation at the dinner table and over the evening ritual of pre-prandial cane and cokes, I deduced that my father’s upbringing had given him dangerously British tendencies, but he’d given them up readily and unconditionally at the chance of marrying my mother — all except the moustache.
Fourteen year old boys have enough identity issues to worry about without having to concern themselves with the perplexities of their cultural heritage. Mine, in the South African autumn of 1968, had nothing to do with being white or English or South African, and everything to do with rugby, a distressing plague of spots in the mirror, and Wendy Charlton-Perkins, not always in that order. And as I summon what little intelligence I have left make a coherent scheme of my life, it’s clear that, like Kipps, I was no more aware of myself “as a whole than is a tree”.
Miss Cheeseman’s arrival at Estcourt High School coincides in my recollection of that time with a dim sense of something stirring in the world beyond the limits of my experience and understanding. It was as faint and fluctuating as the shortwave signal that broadcast the Hit Parade from Lourenço Marques on Sunday nights. It came in the scraps and fragments of thoughts and sounds and images that escaped the attention of the government censors, and in the books and records that escaped the attentions of South African customs, smuggled in by older siblings and cousins, or open-minded aunts and uncles, returning from trips “overseas”. It came in their stories, distributed downwards in ever more prurient Chinese whispers, suggesting an unprecedented loosening of manners and morals sweeping the world from Sweden to San Francisco; and in their intimations of a strange new politics of peace and love flooding the streets of Paris and Amsterdam and West Berlin. It came in the liner notes of their exotic LPs; in the playground exchange of a grubby copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the cover art of Electric Ladyland; in wildly imaginative interpretations of the lyrics of the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel as they modulated from pleasant pop to something altogether more suggestive, subversive or sinister; in Mother’s Little Helper, in The Times They Are a-Changin’, in Mrs Robinson, in My Generation and I Can’t Explain, in Break On Through (To the Other Side).
They couldn’t stop it because they didn’t understand it. They banned Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da from the radio because they thought it was an insidious invitation to unwholesome sexual experiment.
I didn’t understand it either, but it spoke to me the way rain speaks to a desert.
So when I gathered from Miss Cheeseman that A.N. Boyce’s version of South African history was neither comprehensive nor definitive, and that the events of the past were as much a matter of fact as of opinion, and that Vietnam might not, after all, be a righteous war, and that the Rolling Stones weren’t de facto puppets of the Soviet Union, and that God was officially presumed dead on the 8th of April, 1966, after having gone AWOL for four centuries, it felt as if the earth had come loose from its foundations, and it was rocking gently to the tune of Hey Jude.
Which poignant image of universal brotherhood would last as long as All You Need Is Love, that is, about three and a half minutes.
I am conscious that the real Miss Cheeseman, were she to stumble across these pages, might wish to deny that she was directly responsible for any of these revelations. For any suggestion of a slight on her integrity, professionalism or personal dignity, I apologise unreservedly in advance. But whether she likes it or not, she stands alone in my memory as the adult who gave legitimacy to a suspicion that had first begun to trouble me in 1961, and which by 1968 had developed into a disturbance of pathologically paranoid proportions, viz., that I was the only person in the world stupid enough to believe anything anyone said.
The course of my life from 1968 to the present was determined then and there. Words began to obsess me. The words from the mouth of one person seemed to say something different when those same words came from the mouth of another. The words used to make something clear in one context could be used to obfuscate the same thing in a different context. The dictionary was no longer a reliable guide to meaning. A word that meant one thing yesterday meant another thing today. In a certain order, a few words could sound like a poem; in a different order, the same few words could sound like someone describing the symptoms of bowel cancer.
Suddenly, amazingly, alarmingly and quite unexpectedly, words didn’t say what they meant.
I found myself listening for the meaning behind words; for the secret messages that hovered over them or beneath them; for the things they weren’t saying; for the thoughts they were displacing; for the meaning they didn’t want me to take from their meaning. The lines became less interesting than the blanks between them.
But when the meaning of the meaning of the meaning of all things written and spoken continued to elude and frustrate me, I decided that if I was ever going to understand propaganda I would have to learn to write it myself.
If a life spent in the making of it has qualified me for anything at all it’s in being able to tell the difference between sanctimonious humbug and the intention behind it. And there’s a lot of it going around these days.
The difference between Englishness and Britishness, long forgotten in a glass jar on the kitchen windowsill in the back of brain, began to bubble and foment some eight or nine months ago when the matter of this country’s identity became the subject of a cantankerous public debate. But yesterday I thought I heard the voice of Cliff Saunders on Radio Four, and it crawled out of its jar and began to flap around the house like a radar-less bat.
South Africans of my generation will remember Cliff Saunders as the vile, rancorous, mean-spirited, small-minded, vituperative and bigoted voice we heard every weekday night between 6:55 and 7:00 pm on the SABC between the early seventies and the late eighties. An Orwellian creature straight out of the pages of 1984, he was master of the art of doublespeak, and apartheid’s most articulate apologist.
We weren’t on first name terms, but I knew him as the natty-dresser, handsome and charming, who flitted about the SABC newsroom in the early seventies like a stylish shadow, stopping now and then to whisper in the ears of the News Editors, one English, one Afrikaans, who sat at the far end of the long desk where lowly sub-editors like me bashed out government-approved paeans to the splendour of the Namaqualand daises.
In the absence of television, the internet and foreign newspapers with a contrary point of view, Cliff was able to persuade even the most polite, tolerant, mild-mannered, even-handed, good-natured, fair-minded English-speaking white South Africans that for civilisation to survive and endure it had to be rooted in the strict separation of nations, tribes and races. Just as nature ordained that different species grew to maturity in the habitats most congenial to their needs and their individual rates of development, so too, according to Cliff, should the affairs of nations be arranged to the advantage of all races, separately but equally, each according to its stage of development, and each according to its unique cultural aspirations. The bee and the butterfly coexisted peacefully to the mutual benefit of each, but the bee did not lie down with the butterfly, nor the butterfly with the bee.
Long before Farage, Trump and Le Pen, Cliff was making the identity politics of apartheid sound reasonable, logical and perfectly fair. It’s a shame that the collected texts of his five minute diatribes aren’t a matter of public record. Champions of “Nation First” and aspirant dictators everywhere could do worse than take an instructive leaf or two out of them.
Like those of most of the characters who once bestrode the narrow world of apartheid like colossuses, the verifiable details of Cliff’s biography have disappeared in the digital ether.
He pops up in the Guardian in February, 2000, in an article that appears to be hiding more than it’s allowed to reveal. The essence of it is that Cliff had submitted a demand for £10,000 in unpaid expenses to the post-apartheid minister of intelligence, a gob-smacked Joe Nhlanhla, for work done “in London and South Africa” on behalf of the apartheid ministry of intelligence.
If that isn’t bizarre enough, he pops up again— after sixteen years of radio silence — in an article in The Citizen where we find him weighing in on the side of the teachers at Pretoria Girls High who apparently called some pupils “monkeys” and “k****rs” for wearing their hair in afros. But by this time Cliff’s razor-like rhetorical skills appear to have gotten a little rusty from disuse because his sharpest contribution to the debate is to suggest that the girls with afros might want to comb their hair with rakes.
It’s almost impossible to write these stories without punctuating them with processions of astonished exclamation marks underlined in bold italics, or putting “only in South Africa” in the place of them.
Just one sample of Cliff at his Orwellian best turns up extant, but it’s beautifully representative of his contribution to the history of patriotic cant. Defending himself from the 2000 accusations made in the Guardian and elsewhere, Cliff is reported by the Afrikaans newspaper Rapport as saying: “My work, whoever it was done for, was meant to promote the welfare, stability and safety of the country.”
The first thing that strikes me about this is that Cliff was too smart not to have known Albert Camus’ maxim: “The welfare of the people in particular has always been the alibi of tyrants.”
The second is the echo of it I heard in yesterday’s speech by Prime Minister Teresa May in which she pronounced that the undiluted support of the British people was “…the only way to guarantee certainty and stability for the years ahead.”
Which was when the radar-less bat got out of its bottle and occasioned last night’s dream which led me into a David Foster Wallace-like maze of doubt through the bat-infested sewers of London where the Cliff Saunders who disappeared in the digital ether had reanimated as a nattily dressed Bond villain to glide invisibly through the streets of Whitehall and whisper in the ears of the Prime Minister’s speechwriters until I found myself questioning whether I was being paranoid enough.
If it hadn’t been for Miss Cheeseman, I too might have swallowed hook, line and sinker Cliff’s version of the-world-as-it-should-be. If it hadn’t been for Miss Cheeseman, I wouldn’t have been alive to the nuances of history that got me thinking about the difference between Englishness and Britishness. But if I had paid more attention to Miss Cheeseman than I did at the time, I would have been better prepared for the disappointment I felt on the morning of the 24th of June forty-eight years later, and I might not have taken it so personally or felt it so bitterly.
I’ve been listening long and I’ve been listening hard. And I know now what that bumper sticker was saying, and why English politicians are so careful to refer to themselves and their audiences as British, and why they dance so gingerly around the distinction between Great Britain and the United Kingdom, and why they will do everything they can to avoid been perceived as speaking on behalf of the English.
“The Last Outpost of the British Empire” was never a protest against the hegemony of Afrikaner nationalism. It was a sigh of nostalgia for a time when the servitude of the indigenous peoples was enforced, not by the inhuman laws of apartheid, but by polite, decent, mild-mannered, well-meaning, fair-minded, good-natured men with old-fashioned British values.
To speak on behalf of the English is to conjure up an image of St George crosses fluttering on the aerials of unwashed white vans; of disaffected Scottish men and women bristling on the northern border against centuries of cultural and political vassalage; and of the poor orphaned Welsh with grubby faces and begging bowls on the streets outside Number Ten.
To speak on behalf of Great Britain is to evoke the spectre of Bloody Sunday, and to raise the ghosts of Michael Collins and Bobby Sands.
To speak on behalf of the United Kingdom is to rub the noses of the non-English dominions in the fealty they to owe to a foreign crown.
The word British isn’t a designation of culture or geography. It’s a call to arms.
A Briton is an Englishman on a high horse, or an Englishwoman in high dudgeon. The British are the English wearing hobnails boots and brandishing bayonets at the Welsh and the Scots until they join them.
When the English are content to be English they’re the most thoroughly decent, polite, tolerant, charming, mild-mannered, even-handed, good-natured, fair-minded people in the world. When the English start calling themselves British, it’s time to grab your most precious possessions and run and hide.
But don’t blame the British on the English. They’re an island race, and prone to bouts of mass hysteria.