Sunday, 22 May 2011
I have finally picked up The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief by V S Naipaul. This is prep for going to hear Naipaul 'in conversation' at the Royal Geographical Society next week - my sister's birthday treat. She and I might have become South Africans: in 1947 our father took us with our mother on a trial visit with a view to emigrating. His father's two sisters had gone out and married South Africans, so we had - have - close relations out there. For better or worse, my mother wouldn't take that step so my father commuted for some years between the businesses he had started in the UK and southern Africa (Rhodesia and SA). He used to fly out on the airline then known as BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) via Rome, Alexandria, Salisbury,capital city of the country known then as Rhodesia after its founder Cecil Rhodes, now Zimbabwe, then finally to Johannesburg. If you ever walk west from Victoria rail station to the coach station, you will see a building on the opposite side of the road with the BOAC logo still above the entrance way, which used to be the check-in for BOAC (now BA). My sister flew out to Cape Town last night to finalise arrangements for the publication of her latest collection of photographs, Origins (see www.jennifer-gough-cooper.com). We used to see my father off from Croydon or Blackbushe, when the airline terminal was just a corrugated iron shed in a field. This dislocated life continued until the inevitable happened and my father fell for an air hostess, or more properly the VIP receptionist in Johannesburg and after a messy period of attempting to keep both ends going she gave birth to my half sister, there was a divorce and they married. I remember that 1947 visit quite vividly: there was an apricot tree in one corner of the modest bungalow we rented near the zoo; the ripe apricots fell and got squashed under the tree. We went to the zoo nearly every day with our Scots nanny, Peggy, who hated the sun on her pale freckled face. My mother, then aged 30, also a pale-skinned Scot, was a distant figure, exuding a faint air of disapproval. Christmas that year was memorable for the presents: I (aged 4) got a thrilling round white plastic handbag. There was a fancy dress party at the golf club and Santa Claus (my uncle Joey) gave rides in his little airplane. In those days, the star presents even once we were back in northwest Kent were those from overseas, beautifully packed outfits from our Italian aunt in Canada, preserved fruits from South Africa. More recently, I took issue with the editor of the Royal Scottish Geographic journal for publishing a series of articles which seem to suggest moral, political and cultural equivalency - including, for instance, that treatment based on primitive belief systems are of equal efficacy as those based on scientifically-arrived western medicine - possibly true for some mental ailments but surely not for bacterial or viral diseases such as cholera, malaria or AIDS. My own impulse to go back to university to study for a science degree in 1975 arose from trying to understand the disturbed behaviour of the young children, some of them recent immigrants, who I was teaching in a so-called 'withdrawal class' at a south London primary school. The reviews of The Masque of Africa were hostile, objecting to Naipaul's revulsion at the dark heart of African belief, the cannibalism and the cruelty. The 'conversation' (to be held on May 31) is therefore of personal interest to us both. Alistair Moffat's book on Scottish DNA which will feature at our MBE Oct 15 2011 event recapitulates what is now known: that we all came out of Africa, and I am going to hear him speak later today at the Boswell Book Festival at Auchinleck.