Night Terrors

Oh, to be in Noordhoek
Now that’s August’s there,
And whoever wakes in Noordhoek
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the arum lilies along the brook
Around the common are back, come look,
A forest of fairy vuvuzelas, wow!
In Noordhoek – now.

And after August, September comes,
And the sunbird shimmers and the bee hums.
Kyk, where the sheets of wild daisies billow
Across the dunes right down to the beach –
Lie calm on the gleaming white-satin petall’d pillow
Or jump and glimpse the tail of a whale in full breach.
Down the mountain a streaming waterfall rushes
Through the warm yellow and hot pink fynbos bushes
And round the lanes velvet orange nasturtiums glow
As all the pretty horses trot to and fro.
The scarlet vygie by the stoep lifts my spirits up
– Far sturdier than the pale buttercup!

(with apologies to Robert Browning)

1st September. Sigh. Such an evocative date. In South Africa, it’s officially the first day of spring with the expansive delight of warmer days and carpets of wild flowers stretching to the horizon, promising blissful months of summer to come. In England, it’s back to school and it’s raining. And cold. And foggy.

Not only did Sampson bring the rain back with him from Monrovia, he brought the school books too, so today was the day we got our noses back to the grindstone – six full weeks later to start term three than our peers in Cape Town. But we are not disheartened! Ruby made up the same gap in term one; we can do it again. We are all agreed that spending precious time with Nana and Duke on their 70th birthdays – and especially with H before he died – more than makes up for the prospect of working hard straight through till Christmas.

However, as a result I’ll be writing blogs less often for the next couple of months. Sitting in Cornwall catching up with schoolwork and waiting for the Ebola pandemic to peak hardly counts as travelling Africa Clockwise, so I’ll only be posting when I’ve got something pertinent to say. Sampson is adamant we won’t stay here beyond the end of October: even if the situation in Liberia doesn’t improve dramatically, he would rather get back to the truck and drive it out than stay here late into the winter and risk getting stuck on the wrong side of the Sahara when summer comes round again. We just need to be sure roadblocks won’t be stopping us getting out or food getting in.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf imposed a curfew and quarantined West Point the day after Sampson arrived back in UK from Monrovia. A week later, we filmed an insert for the BBC South West’s Spotlight programme in Plymouth on the day the first case of a Briton with Ebola was confirmed in Sierra Leone http://youtu.be/HFNZBQJSry8. Nurse William Pooley was flown out to the UK to be given the very best treatment – the elusive ZMapp – at the Royal Free Hospital. How privileged the British are to have these options, to be treated like royalty indeed, and, under the NHS, all for free.

Meanwhile I was more appalled than amused to read that South Africa is suffering a huge loss in tourism bookings due to the rest of the globe’s woeful ignorance about the geography of the continent. It was reported that 80% of Asian bookings over the next 3 months had been cancelled due to fear of contracting the Ebola virus, despite Johannesburg being half a world away from the centre of the outbreak. http://www.itv.com/news/update/2014-08-20/thousands-of-tourists-put-off-africa-due-to-ebola Many thanks to Annelie at the Air Maroc London office, who is sympathetic to our situation and is kindly keeping our return flight dates flexible.

Going up to the Midlands for my grandfather’s funeral turned out to be a very typically English experience: we drove up the motorway on an August Bank Holiday Monday in a three lane traffic jam for eight hours in the pouring rain. Luckily Sampson and I had a lot of catching up to do, so we made good use of the time.

But we were shocked at the motorway services. I think we were the only people who didn’t spend a single penny – or rather, spending a penny was all we did. After going to the loo, we wandered round in a daze, completely overwhelmed at the scale and range of the indulgences for sale. It seems that, in the last 20 years, British people have completely lost the ability to make a packed lunch.

Why would you, when you apparently have so much disposable income and so much to squander it on? The basic price of a takeaway coffee is £3 (R54), yet there wasn’t anyone with a thermos in sight. For the edification of my African readers, I took note of all the flavours of chocolate slabs you could buy at this shop in the middle of the motorway. In my youth, I remember there was milk or dark chocolate, with the possible extra option of orange or mint flavour.

These days, you can choose lavender; tangerine; raspberry and vanilla; strawberry and pepper; cherry and ginger; sweet Thai chilli; and even pumpkin seeds and hemp oil – whaat? Now chocolate is being described as ‘artisan’ it seems to be marketed like expensive coffee. It’s not enough to be organic, it has to cite its ‘bean of origin’: Venezuelan, Peruvian, Javan. Sampson was wondering if they had Columbian and did it come in crack flavour?

More is more it seems. Even bog standard bars such as Mars and Snickers have been supersized with ‘Duo’ options, and Bounty, which always was a duo, has gone to three! The buy-one-get-one-free mentality is so terribly seductive. Everything conspires to tempt you to spend just a bit more and consume double the amount.

Toffees are no longer toffees; at the very least they have to be ‘sea-salted caramels’. You could buy ‘toffee apple’ or ‘raspberry and chocolate’ jam. There was a ‘lemon and vanilla vodka’ marmalade. You could choose from ‘potted rabbit with cider and English mustard’ or ‘quail with Somerset cider brandy’ patés. Don’t get me started on the chutneys, honeys, teas, coffees, cheeses, yoghurts, beers and whiskies. It was exhausting just to read all the labels, never mind the long hours you’d need to work to afford to buy them on a regular basis and then to work off all those extraneous calories.

This is a selection of soap on offer at the services. Yes, SOAP.

This is a selection of soap on offer at the services. Yes, SOAP.

At the wake there was only traditional family fare – which in my family means lashings of curry, perfect basmati rice, a dozen naughty desserts and a dollop of karaoke to round it off. It was a classic send off for the legend that was and will ever be H.

I couldn’t resist making another list of delicious words: the idiosyncratic names of English villages and hamlets we passed on our journey from the heart of Warwickshire back to Cornwall. They all sound made up but I swear every one of them exists: Bishop’s Tachbrook, Moreton Paddox, Idlicote, Ampney Crucis, Crudwell, Hullavington, Gastard, Compton Pauncefoot, West Camel, Luppitt, Ottery St Mary, Budleigh Salterton, Ugborough, Bake, Catchfrench, Merrymeet, Doddycross, Mutley, Bolventor, Dobwalls, Indian Queens. If you’re like me, you’ll be rolling them in your mouth like bon-bons.

As I sit here in jeans, a jersey, a fleece and socks, it seems scarcely credible that just over a month ago we were sweating as we bounced our way over the border into Liberia.

Most obvious differences between our life in UK and West Africa:

Climate: Now our initial delight about how quickly towels dry here has passed into the merely humdrum, I miss the warmth and moistness of Liberia. I hadn’t realized how happy my hair and skin was in the humid climate of West Africa. It’s taken awhile for my nose to adjust to the much drier atmosphere here, and Zola and I both need to slap on moisturiser again.

Food: There is so much choice, but so much waste! Packaging is outrageously excessive. The range of gluten-free goods on offer in even the most humble supermarket is awesome. I cannot believe how much progress has been made for coeliacs in the 20 years since I left. But why is there still so much sugar in everything?

Water: How quickly we have got used to having infinite amounts on tap again. We have all been luxuriating in long showers. Ruby loves being “properly” clean, especially having spotless toenails. But I feel saddened by how quickly we have returned to using more for washing up, swilling rinses, throwing away the remnants of glasses of water after lunch. Now there’s no way to see what we’re using, we no longer have a sense of its preciousness.

TV: In front of Uncle Paul’s plasma screens in Plymouth, I felt the very real threat of zombiedom descending. In the face of satellite TV, I lose my children; their very souls get sucked out of them as they disappear under the spell of screechy voiced teen harpies on the Disney channel and lose the will to live actively. So in this house in Cornwall, we continue to watch movies only on the laptop, at weekends like in the truck. The front room’s sacred family space is calm and undefiled. And the kids are going Out To Play…

Community: The desertedness of UK streets compared to African roads is strange for us. Perhaps many people are still on holiday but we seem to be among the few who walk the pavements. The relative tentativeness of the British to push themselves forward is marked, even amongst our friendly neighbours in this Cornish village. If we’d turned up and ensconced ourselves in a village in Africa, there would be no such pretence; there would be a crowd of nosey parkers at the door from dawn till dusk until we explained ourselves.

Security: Like most locals, my brother-in-law leaves his doors unlocked most of the time. Yet ironically, in arguably the safest place we’ve yet stayed in, Zola has suddenly become too scared to sleep at night. At first I couldn’t understand why the West of England made Zola more frightened than West Africa. Then I realised he was just unused to sleeping alone. After a year of sleeping in the truck followed by 10 different berths in the last month here, mostly on the floor, I thought he’d be thrilled to get his own bedroom. But the joy has been overridden by his nebulous fear of “burglars” or, when pushed for specifics, the man in the balaclava with a long knife seen on the front of a tabloid newspaper…

I miss the truck. Like Zola, I miss the closeness and the peace and the safety of us all tucked up together. I miss everything you need being within grabbing distance; inside Big Reg, I can put my hand on a sewing kit or a pair of scissors or aloe vera gel for a scald within seconds. Here it’s a mission to find, beg, borrow or steal what we need.

When the kids and I left Liberia, we thought we were coming for a couple of weeks, not a couple of months. To supplement my one pair of linen trousers and sandals, I bought some jeans in a sale and a pair of hi-tops and I’ve worn them every day for two weeks. We can’t afford to buy more, so thank goodness for the stash of donated fleeces and ski jackets (another ‘Fransend’), we’re now prepared for the worst autumn can throw at us.

The profound joy I felt on arrival of having unlimited access to BBC Radio 4 is slowly but surely being replaced by dismay at the tone of UK news reporting. Was it always thus or have I just grown older and wiser or less Euro-orientated? Terms such as “extremism”, “terrorism” and “radicalism” are being bandied about without any attempt at definition. When we first arrived, the selective reporting of atrocities being perpetrated against the hitherto obscure Yazidi sect in Iraq seemed a deliberate and egregious whipping up of anti-Muslim feeling in user-friendly soundbites. When this culminated in the release of the video of the beheading of a US journalist by British member of Islamic State, it seemed almost scripted to provide the ultimate excuse for armed aggression.

The Home Secretary’s announcement that the “terror threat level” had been upgraded from “substantial” to “severe” seemed completely irresponsible and, to me, inappropriate behaviour for a government. Are these decisions taken by the same quality security experts who judged the parents of a 5 year old boy a risk to his health, and launched an international police search that ended up arresting them for attempting to seek better medical care than NHS was prepared to offer, leaving the sick child alone in a foreign hospital? Forgive me my scepticism, but overreaction seems to be the norm here. When the nanny state meets “clear and present danger” my alarm bells start ringing. Why do I get the feeling that news reporters are revelling in acronyms such as “ISIS” because they make these swaggering hoodies sound more like a suave villainous international crime organisation in a James Bond film?

Why, like Zola, are we making such a massive problem out of something statistically unlikely to directly affect us? I understand why a 10 year old boy might create a bogeyman to cover up his insecurities, but not why successive British governments inflate them (Saddam, Osama, Abu Hamza et al) to frighten the public into an unnecessary degree of paranoia.

The great irony is that, despite the London accent of the “barbaric monster”, there is never any connection made with the Blair/Bush project that fertilised this jihad with its mountains of BS. With the Tories scrambling to catch up with UKIP, neither is there any attempt to rein in the hate speech of incendiary columnists such as Leo McKinstry casting pearls such as these in the Daily Express of 22nd August:

“The fact is that extremism has flourished in a climate formed by the twin strategies of mass immigration and multiculturalism. Open borders have led to a phenomenal expansion in Britain’s Muslim population to almost three million, many of the new arrivals hailing from parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia where Islamic sectarianism is rife (sic)… by its emphasis on cultural differences and its loathing for traditional British values, the doctrine of diversity has been a catastrophe for Britain… We are a land increasingly without a mutual sense of belonging or shared national identity. It is little wonder that, according to one recent survey, 26 per cent of Muslims here said they feel no loyalty to Britain.”

No, the wonder is, with this kind of poison spewing from the tabloids daily, that 74 per cent of British Muslims feel any loyalty at all. (Seems this is hardly a new stance for McKinstry, see http://tabloid-watch.blogspot.co.uk/2010/02/vile-rhetoric-of-leo-mckinstry.html)

The mass availability of information technology here doesn’t seem to have led to a greater understanding about world events. The general ignorance and lack of interest from the great British public about any detail beyond the 30 second soundbite is deeply depressing. They may be unsure about what’s happening in Iraq/Syria or Russia/Ukraine, but are undoubtedly more incensed about hospital parking fees.

Why so much discussion about possible British intervention in Iraq but not in Liberia? Ebola is a very real threat that is accelerating rapidly from “substantial” to “severe” and beyond, but there are no parliamentary debates or NATO summits about combating that.

On 1st Sept, President Johnson Sirleaf extended the stay-at-home order to civil servants for another month. The next day, lucky William Pooley was released from hospital, completely cured.

On 2nd September, I woke to hear the headline about a second beheading of a journalist by “Jihadi John” and felt as sick as I had cradling 7 week old Ruby watching the second Twin Tower come down, knowing her whole life would be darkened by its shadow. The lens through which the British public views their news has the grotesque quality of a freak show hall of mirrors populated by the leering bogeymen of the ghost train. Will the assassination of one man be allowed to seal the fate of millions, like World War I all over again?

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8 Responses to Night Terrors

  1. stephanie martine says:

    brilliant writing! i live in wales..uk.from s.africa over 30 years ago..no time to write more now as off to work just wanted to say how very much i agree and empathise with your article.

  2. spencerjude says:

    WOW Sam this is amazing. Totally in awe of your writing. Sharp, precise and utterly mesmerising.xxx

  3. julie Wright says:

    Yeh, amazing piece Sam…..why not keep writing?
    Your observations match mine when I occasionally return to GB……but I don’t have your
    clarity of expression ……when asked why I don’t want to be in G.B. I usually say: climate, aggression and consumerism…..all of which you touch on here. I also like the minimum amount of ‘stuff’ around me and refuse to be tempted by what I merely WANT rather than NEED. In fact I rarely even WANT anymore.

    Good luck with the home schooling and the TV…….whatever, kids learn from YOUR example….even if they don’t show it right away.

    Still hope you make Spain…….especially that you get back to the truck…but meanwhile do give us more of your UK reflections,

  4. SunFire says:

    Brilliant Poetic writing – prescient, I fear – I too just passed through the UK and its sad that a place where people remained above the hysteria and media forces of the US seem to be completely succumbed to fear mongering sold as news – why are people not demanding that the real issues, pollution, sickness in wealth accumulation and the suffering and poverty of half of earths people be addressed for the sake of convenience – Beautiful writing keep spreading the gospel -in RSA as you know we cant look away – we need more of the “civilized” world to speak up instead of slumbering in a nightmare media bath…

  5. Hazel Nason says:

    Extremely talented writer…I always look forward to your blog. Gorgeous day here today in Noordhoek. Xx good luck.

  6. The news is dismaying. I can’t begin to untangle it but I do love your thoughts. The danger of turning off the 74% seems real, and the ability of the Nanny State to keep things in proportion seems questionable.

    On something I feel more competent to speak about: I’m sure the dizzying array of chocolates seemed over the top (and the excessive packaging is always a problem) but I’m rather in favour of this “artisanal” trend in food products. From a wastage/consumption perspective I think it’s a good thing we’d choose to spend more getting less, perhaps in the process valuing labour and environmental sensitivity more than cheap access to everything for everyone, even those who can afford better.

    You can argue that really we should spend our money delivering good health care to Liberia, but in a world where people walk around with their heads in the clouds forgetting to value clean water after the first five minutes of having it on tap (guilty here) it seems more realistic to work with where the money’s being spent anyway. Artisanal chocolates, fair trade and organic, at inflated prices and perhaps with a small share of the profits going to charity. Why not? The milk-or-dark days were less privileged, but I’m not convinced they were more magnanimous.

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