Zambia Fires

I don’t listen to or watch much BBC News anymore; something in the tone or insinuations or missing context inevitably enrages me. Increasingly, it seems determined to warrant the ‘state propaganda organ’ charge I sometimes see lobbed at it. I prefer to work my way through the Drama section of Radio iPlayer, knowing full well that Dickens or the writer of a ‘comic’ mystery series may annoy me. There’s not much at stake over their shortcomings.

Yesterday I made an exception and listened to part of the latest From Our Own Correspondent on Radio 4. I’ve enjoyed this series in the past, mainly because foreign correspondents are let loose to tell some very good and sometimes personal stories that wouldn’t make into another program.

I caught the tail end of a segment on the Chinese opening of “Black Panther” that used it as a lens to examine the relationship between Africa and China. This was followed by an entertaining contribution from Rebecca Henschke in Jakarta, about the three times she has ‘gone viral’ on social media. It’s worth a listen; you may not think of armpits in the same way again. Or edible worms.

The final piece was from Nick Miles in Zambia, and described the travails of firefighters in the capital, Lusaka. This sounded, at the outset, like A Good Thing; on-the-ground reporting from a country we probably don’t hear much about. A corrective, perhaps, to our myopic focus on certain regions, and our current obsession with the self-inflicted wound that is Brexit. But as I listened, I became increasingly disillusioned. Less for what was said, than for what was left out.

The focus of the story was the dangers faced by Lusaka’s firefighters when they attend fires. They are frequently attacked. I think any reasonably aware person knows that this is not a problem limited to Africa. Yet here it was presented in a sort of shocked tone – imagine! Fearing for your life when you go to help people! What are they like, these Zambians? You don’t have to look hard AT ALL to find similar, current  stories in France and Northern Ireland (the first story is in French, and is about an out-of-hours doctor visiting people in their homes who has been attacked multiple times in the city of Val-de-Marne). What exactly is the point of not acknowledging this fact?

Additionally, I could not help but see the many visual details in the story, that ostensibly highlight the deterioration of Lusaka’s fire department in the ‘years since independence’, as a kind of ‘underdevelopment porn’ – a brave firefighter struggles into an ill-fitting, second-hand uniform from the Minnesota Fire Service. The central fire station resembles ‘a slightly run-down primary school’, there are ‘ageing Bakelite knobs.’

I wasn’t born yesterday, so I didn’t expect the BBC to remind us that Zambia was once called ‘Northern Rhodesia’ and was run by a London-appointed administration on the advice of the British South Africa Company. But the whole thing sits even less well when you realise that we’re talking about a region that was part of Cecil Rhodes’ grotesque colonial vision (#TakeDownTheStatue). But not even a nod to the historic reasons behind some of the problems faced by places like Zambia?

This, I think, is how they divide us. Look at these struggles, so different from our own!

Don’t let them do it.

‘This Is the Place to Be’ by Lara Pawson

The pleasingly textured, almost waxy turquoise cover of this volume from CB editions encloses a small literary grenade lobbed by my friend Lara Pawson into a number of arenas, including but not limited to: war reporting of the BBC variety, discourse about racism in Britain and gender politics. Even glimpsed quickly from across a room, the scarlet calligraphy on the front buzzes against the blue, hinting that what’s inside may not be easy to read, or to hear.

These are dispatches from a life so far —there is war, fear, love and loss. Human and animal suffering. Cats and kittens. Childhood. And despite everything, real laugh-out-loud humour. All in Lara’s distinctive voice, with her singular eye for detail, her ear for language and an acute sense of the comic. I can’t decide what I’m more in awe of – the fact that she’s lived this life, or the way she recounts it.

This is a banquet of short bursts of text, unbroken by chapter divisions — some are one sentence long. The work had its genesis in a shorter sound installation called Non Correspondence, performed at Battersea Arts Centre and later in Brussels, directed by Tim Etchells, performed by Cathy Naden and recorded by John Avery. The concept of a disembodied voice addressing anonymous listeners has somehow been preserved in this format — the reader feels in some ways like an eavesdropper.

Lara is a brilliant writer, something that is evident on her blog. I readily admit to being jealous whenever she posts. I actually met Lara because of her writing — when her book In the Name of the People, about events in Angola in 1977, was published, M. John Harrison praised it on twitter, and I bought a copy. I was impressed by this unusual sort of history book, where we see the writer questioning her own task even as she goes about it. Soon after, I attended an event where Mike was reading a story. I saw a tall striking woman among the assembled crowd who resembled a photo I’d seen. I asked Mike, in one of those too-loud stage whispers, ‘IS THAT LARA PAWSON?’ Now, put us together in a room or a train carriage and we mostly never shut up.

Many sentences in the book are a delight in and of themselves, to the point where one thinks of poetry. I won’t quote them here — it seems wrong to spoil the pleasure of encountering them for the first time on the page. For all my insistence that ebooks are a perfectly acceptable option, reading This Is the Place to Be has left me more sympathetic to bibliophiles. This is a satisfying object to hold in your hands.

Where does this book take place? All over, and nowhere. In the writer’s head. It asks more questions than it answers, an antidote if there ever was one to the cocksure certainties of the commentariat, whose questions are often just a teaser for their ill-informed conclusions. ‘I’m just asking whether it’s weird that we hear a lot about transgender people now!’ and similar.

The book opens with an account of two mistaken assumptions. When Lara was seven, a shopkeeper thought she was a boy. Years later, a listener to her BBC radio reporting thought she was Nigerian. Woven throughout is the notion that people are not what they seem:

Years later… I was told that this generous and gentle host was one of the perpetrators.

I like this story especially, because when I first met Lara, I recounted with all the earnestness of the aggrieved the recent (to me) revelation that a highly regarded revolutionary comrade fell far short of the idealised picture many had of him. She told me that when she met him at a party, she immediately considered him suspect as he was wearing an absurdly expensive item of designer clothing. We all make mistakes, certainly, but Lara has a very good bullshit detector.

Reading This Is the Place to Be, I learned things I didn’t know about Lara, and I come away from the book wondering whether we should all write down what we remember of our past, right now, before we forget. I find myself recalling things that I haven’t thought of in years. My father, who had wavy grey hair and a full beard, once put an unconscious cyclist on the bed of our VW Camper to wait for an ambulance. When she came to, she thought he was God. What would it be like to know all these things about each other?

I also come away from the book with a renewed appreciation of Lara’s ability to take action. When we first met, she was campaigning (successfully, it turns out) to stop nearby trains from shaking the houses in her neighbourhood into oblivion. Lara does not stand idly by, and she gets really mad (which is great). She stood up at a press conference in Angola and told a visiting US diplomat that he should apologise for his country’s role in the civil war. While reporting for the BBC. She talks to people in the Post Office queue. She hitchhiked with a chicken.

Do I love everything about the book without reservation? No, and if you follow me on twitter you’ll know that’s unlikely. First, the epigraph is from Baldwin, and I have mixed feelings as I read it now in 2016. I am fine with his questioning of the gender binary; he says it is not real, whether we like that fact or not (and science has borne him out). He talks of the ‘freak’ as someone we fear, precisely because they have characteristics that resonate with something in us:

…they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.

He says that men and women each ‘contain the other’ and we ‘are all androgynous.’ Here I  have qualms; in effect, this either erases or at the very least minimises the specific situation of transgender people, who face challenges orders of magnitude different from those of a cis person expressing a few characteristics of the ‘other’ gender.

I agree with his point that we are wrong to demand rigid standards of behaviour based on the gender binary, and wrong to extract a social price from those who do not conform. For transgender people, and by a higher margin, black transgender women, that price can be violent death, and I think it’s important to keep that fact front and centre. And I’m leery of the word ‘freak’ in such proximity to these conversations.

And I’ll quibble with one word: promiscuous. I really don’t like that word. To me, it always arrives freighted with disapproval and tuts. I don’t hear it used about men. Had I been wielding the red pen, I would have suggested a different word. Recently, I’ve been reading Doris Lessing — The Golden NotebookThe Grass Is Singing and her two-volume autobiography. I can’t help but make some comparisons, all the while aware that I’m a white woman talking about two other white women and their relationship to Africa. I know. We need, somehow, to get the hell out of the way.

When The Golden Notebook was published, there was apparently some disquiet about the detailed description of menstruation. At the time, I suppose that was unusual. Lessing’s autobiography is unsparing with details of childbirth, and she recounts a frightening encounter with an obstetrician. As does Lara in This Is the Place to Be. Lessing is very critical of herself for not protesting and standing up for herself and other women at the time. Lara did protest, and got the hell out of there. But I suspect Lessing wouldn’t have like the word promiscuous either.

Ultimately, I’m gobsmacked by this book. It is unusual and unexpected. And unflinching. I’ve sometimes thought that progress will only be possible if we route around establishment institutions; forget the BBC, the political parties, the publishing behemoths. Increasingly, and more so after reading Lara’s book, I actually believe it.

P.S. I want to see a picture of the chicken.


‘Revision’ at Luna Station Quarterly

lsq-018-ml-150x225Very pleased to say that my story ‘Revision’ is up at the excellent Luna Station Quarterly now. Contains punctuation, proofreading and weirdness. Do let me know what you think if you have a chance to read it.