If not for a catch-up on Facebook last week I might have been oblivious to Cape Town’s unfolding environmental catastrophe. A casual browse of my timeline revealed that most of my South African friends have been posting about little else for weeks. The water reserves are running dry and the day Capetonians turn on their taps and nothing comes out — Day Zero, currently pegged for 19 April — is now less than a couple of months away. Learning this is a complete disconnect for me; this is not the Cape Town of my youth, when we were lashed by winter rains yearly. It pains me how out of touch I am with my hometown. My mother and I have a FaceTime chat every Sunday, but she’s never mentioned Day Zero. Is it actually happening?
Then today I have a couple of text conversations on WhatsApp that are like despatches from a post-apocalyptic future. My step-brother, R, is travelling from his home in New Zealand to Cape Town for his first visit in years. R, and his sister, V, are the children of my step-father from his first marriage. My mother isn’t their mother, their father isn’t my father, but somehow we are a family. We call our parents ‘the folks’. R has flown for a day and reached Dubai, where he will pause for a couple of days before flying on. A picture arrives in WhatsApp that may or may not show his hotel. I’m hazy on the details.
When I get to the folks’ place, his message reads, I’m installing some water tanks and a generator. Don’t they already have a plan? I ask. They do not, he replies. I’ll set up a couple of water tanks and filter the swimming pool water. Pump the water into the tanks. With the right treatment it can be drinkable — five thousand litres should get them through two months at eighty litres per day. When it rains (if it rains) they’ll catch the rainwater. I tell him he’s a hero and a saint. All the same, I picture him in a sun lounger at his hotel pool, typing these messages with one hand, sipping a Mai Tai with the other. There is, of course, the unspoken guilt: he’s flying out there to actually do something about a drought while I huddle in damp Kent, complaining about the storms and the rain. On my commute to London I walk over the river Eden which looks closer by the day to bursting its banks.
I have a photograph of myself in that pool taken more than twenty years ago. I’m holding my arms in front of my face while my mother sprays water on me from the garden hose. The sun is shining, we’re both laughing. It’s an image from a past that already seems like it never happened, a past that should have never happened. The white South African dream is crumbling. The only surprise is that it’s taking this long.
Next, a message comes in from Port Elizabeth, from one of my oldest friends, T. He has some time on his hands as he’s just fumigated his house and he’s sitting in the garden waiting for the poisonous air to clear. I mention Cape Town’s impending Day Zero and R’s plans for the water tanks. Yes, he says, they’re in deep shit down there. We’re not doing so great up here, either. I’ve got a water tank myself. Why were you fumigating? I ask. Fleas, he says. A plague of fleas. Not locusts, not yet.
I wake early and shower in the dark. It’s relaxing, a rare period of silence as everyone else sleeps. At 6.15am, even in February, there is enough light coming in the bathroom window to see the outline of the tub as I climb in. The large sash window is to my right, the shower head behind me. I put my hand on the single-glazed pane. The glass is soul-shatteringly cold; the water on my back as hot as I can bear. Steam rises around me.
The train is crowded, and I’m standing cheek-by-jowl in the aisle with fellow commuters. Then, quite close by, I hear Afrikaans being spoken. This happens so seldom it takes me a few moments to recognise it. I realise I’m having trouble understanding some of the words; even so, just the sound of it is thick with memory and nostalgia. Suddenly I realise what they’re talking about. Hierdie mense … die swartes … They’re talking about a couple of black passengers nearby, and how their behaviour is ‘typical’ of something. I’ve missed the details, but what does it matter? I can feel the blood rising in my cheeks, I’m burning with shame and anger. It’s common knee-jerk racism, banal racism. They don’t whisper, they speak loudly, confident there will be nobody within earshot to understand them. I want to expose them, to tell them I understand every word and shout out a translation of their conversation for the whole carriage to hear. But I do nothing. They alight at the next station and disappear into the crowd. I’ve missed my chance. And there you have it: Apartheid-era white South Africa in a nutshell. What did Hannah Arendt say? We are the ‘non-wicked everybody’ who, through our unthinking, plodding acceptance and inaction, are ‘capable of infinite evil’.
I work for a small magazine, one of those curious blends of humour, news and waffling opinions pieces that seems so much of a bygone era that you’re shocked when you still see it, every so often, on the newsagent’s shelf, shoved in between Private Eye and New Statesman. How we’re still hanging in there is as much a mystery to us as to anyone. In fact how I came to be working here is equally mysterious, as is my job title, which is pending revision and has been for several years. Just over twenty years ago I was newly arrived in London and working as a freelance graphic designer through a specialist temp agency. These were the early Blair years and the economy, and the country, were buoyant. Freelance work was plentiful, everyone was hiring, and I hopped around from studio to studio. I arrived at the magazine for a one-week booking to do basic page layout work. The week was extended to two months, then a couple more. Then a kind of rolling arrangement which continued for several years before I eventually bullied the publisher into taking me on full-time.
Within a few weeks, I was laying out the publication pretty much single-handedly. It wasn’t difficult work. The design was stamped out of a mould, very text-heavy. The bulk of the pages could be thrown together in a couple of days. A couple more days to drop in the few satirical cartoons, the small, boxed-off photographs and the occasional advert. Enough time left over, in fact, that I became restless. The publisher (I’ll call him Peter) discovered I had a journalism degree, and soon I was proofreading, editing and even writing a few snippets of copy. It would have been impossible to foresee when I started, but now it’s all too obvious how my time at the magazine has coincided perfectly with the collapse and near ruin of traditional publishing and journalism, the upheaval brought by the internet and digital publishing. It was exactly the wrong time to get into the industry. Yet here we still are, and much of our unlikely survival is thanks to me — I learned to build a website, develop a magazine app, leverage social media. Digital disruption has at once nearly destroyed us and simultaneously given us the slender means to our survival. It’s a tenuous survival, though, that no-one at the magazine understands, least of all Peter the publisher, and we all just muddle along from month to month doing what we can, trusting that if we’re not quite bankrupt yet, we’re hopefully doing the right thing. Everything’s up for grabs, nothing is a given.
The magazine offices are a couple of rooms above a pub in Bermondsey. Once we were in the West End, just a few blocks from the Private Eye offices in Soho, but West End rents are beyond us now. Still, trendy Bermondsey is nothing to sneeze at. Our front door is shared with the pub and the foot of the stairs is next to the kitchen, the bottom steps always slick with grease. The offices are clearly a converted flat, and Peter’s office was once the front room. I stick my head in and wave good morning, hoping to get away cleanly and flop at my desk for the rest of the morning, but Peter, face covered in flakes of croissant pastry, hooks an arm at me. Got something for you, he says through a full mouth. Jill is off sick, so you’ll have to do her Procol Harum piece. I point out that I didn’t actually go to the gig. He hands me a few sheets of paper. Her notes, he says. It’s a mini review, couple of hundred words. What you can’t get out of there, just make up. Piece of piss. Peter has visibly aged in the two decades I’ve known him. He must be, what, sixty-five? His skin is weathered and ruddy, presumably with the booze. His hair is greying and, despite being closely cropped, noticeably wavy. His sideburns look like oil paint worked into a canvas with a comb. He looks at me amiably enough, but clearly is wondering, as he wipes crumbs on his chinos, why the hell I’m still standing there.
I could talk about their long and steady recording career, but I know little about that, and it’s almost beside the point. Like most people, what I do know of Procol Harum is Whiter Shade of Pale. The few hundred people surrounding me in London’s Royal Festival Hall might be the only people in Britain who are more knowledgeable, the hard-core fans, devotees of both the back catalogue and the mediocre recent releases. All the same, there is a muted atmosphere in the hall. Polite clapping follows each song. The truth is, even this audience could dispense with the new stuff, indeed with much of the old, they’re just hanging on for that moment they know is coming. And after nearly two hours of patient foot-tapping, finally it arrives. The hall goes black, and, for a very long time, there is almost unbearable silence. Then the Hammond organ sounds, just the first mournful note, and the crowd erupts with such a howl, it’s as if they’ve suddenly changed their minds, as if, now that the terrible beauty of the moment is here, they’ve realised they can’t bear it. The lights come up blazing white across the auditorium and I see acres of men and women in their sixties and seventies, arms aloft, bellowing. Tears stream down their faces and they don’t care who sees it. They have been waiting hours, or perhaps most of their lives, for the promise of this impossible moment. Can it be done? Can one song prop up a lifetime of memories, or erase a lifetime’s regrets?
In the opening entry of this blog, I quoted a few paragraphs from an exhibition at Tate Modern which I visited in March last year, a while before publishing that first post. At that time, the passage made an impression on me, and I photographed it, not knowing what I might do with it. Months later, after I’d begun making notes for this (still unnamed) blog, I came across the snapshot and immediately recognised in the last line the title I wanted.
The problem was the passage was uncredited, and this bothered me. In part, I wanted to give due credit, but mainly I just wanted to know. Was it a page from an existing book, or had it been written for the exhibition and mocked-up to look like a printed page? At the time, I emailed the Tate, but have never had a response. No better title suggested itself, so I decided to push ahead and use the quote anyway, and there it is now, at the top of this page.
I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me at the time to simply paste the complete text into an internet search engine and see what turned up. A few weeks ago, I tried doing exactly this, first putting in the entire passage, with which the search engine understandably struggled, and then shorter and shorter segments. At first, nothing much surfaced, but after some persistence, I found this passage from a novel by Céline, Journey to the End of Night: The quartermaster was the guardian of the regiment’s hatreds. He, until further notice, was master of the world. Anybody who talks about the future is a bastard, it’s the present that counts. Invoking posterity is like making speeches to worms.
It was not the same passage I’d seen at the Tate, but the last two sentences were identical, which doesn’t happen by accident. If it had just been the phrase ‘speeches to worms’ I could imagine easily enough that the curator had gotten this stuck in his mind, that it might simply have been passed on to him idiomatically without his ever having known its origin. But to quote whole sentences verbatim was obviously deliberate, and surely implied knowledge of the original Céline novel. Was the exhibition text, then, some kind of literary mash-up?
There was only one way to find out. The Tate website’s exhibition page led me to the website of the publisher of the exhibition catalogue who I emailed to ask if they could put me in touch with the curator or simply pass on a note on my behalf. A few days later I got a reply: the curator was currently travelling, but they’d sent him my message and he’d get back to me. Weeks passed. In the meantime, I read up on Céline; I didn’t know much about him, and couldn’t remember where or when I’d last seen his name, or if I’d read any of his writing. Nonetheless, something was lurking in my memory, something half-remembered that I hoped I was wrong about.
Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches was born in 1896 in Courbevoie, a suburb on the outskirts of Paris. Later in life, he described his childhood as difficult and his parents as quarrelsome, but biographers mostly agree that this was an exaggeration and fairly typical of how the adult Destouches would embellish the facts. Other accounts maintain that his parents were loving, had a tranquil marriage, and had ambitions for their son beyond his lower-middle-class upbringing, sending him to live in Germany and England to learn the local languages. To defy his parents, he joined the army in 1912 and two years later found himself fighting on the North African front after the outbreak of the First World War, an experience that was to inform his writing, and a trauma which might account for the schism he apparently inflicted on himself in the years after the war. In 1919 he married Édith Follet, had a daughter and settled into an ostensibly idyllic life as a country doctor until abruptly abandoning his family to write Journey to the End of Night under the pen name Louis-Ferdinand Céline. The text was an instant literary sensation, receiving approbation and derision in equal measure, and has gone on to be a seminal work of modernism, influencing contemporaries such as Beckett, de Beauvoir and Sartre, as well as the American beat writers of the 1950s and 60s, through to Irvine Welsh today. It made Céline a darling of the literary left.
I’ve not yet read the book — I think it scares me a little — but, as I read up on Céline, a picture of both the man and the novel emerged. It follows the life of Ferdinand Bardamu, beginning with his experiences in the Great War (the extract above is taken from the War chapters), then moving to America where he takes a job for the Ford Motor Company and rails at the dehumanising effects of industry, before finally settling in Paris to become a medical doctor. Curiously, Bardamu’s journey shadows that of another man, Léon Robinson, who he frequently meets by chance throughout the book, a kind of hapless alter ego to Bardamu, who is, of course, a biographical stand-in for Céline, which is, in turn, the nom de plume of Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches. Céline, or Destouches, or Bardamu, fills the book with a constant stream of invective, cynical and misanthropic ranting at the nature of human beings and society, in a style that would become typical of his writing throughout his life, reaching its hysterical apogee in the now notorious pamphlets.
Céline’s pamphlets. How even to approach these? Again, I’ve not read them — they have been, understandably, out of print for decades — but the accounts that remain describe passages of antisemitic diatribe that turn the stomach. They were written before and during the Second World War, when Céline sided with collaborationists and, by some accounts, kept company with Nazis, one of whom was said to remark that Céline’s antisemitic ideas were too extreme even for the Third Reich. For a flavour of the style and content of the pamphlets, we can turn to Patrick Modiano who opens his first novel, La Place de l’Étoile, with a parody of their ranting prose. Modiano’s Jewish protagonist is the victim of a tirade of hatred delivered by a character called Doctor Bardamu: Ah, the foul-smelling mould of the ghettos! … that shithouse lothario! … runt of a foreskin! … Lebano-ganaque scumbag! … rat-a-tat … wham! … Consider this the Yiddish gigolo … this rampant arsefucker of Aryan girls! … this brazenly Negroid abortion! … And so on.
As I read all of this, it came back to me that I’d encountered Céline’s work probably thirty years ago as a student, but I’d steered well clear of him the moment I heard of his reputation. I was also reminded of something from Teju Cole’s Open City, which I read a few months ago. After thumbing through my paperback edition of Cole’s book for some time, I found the passage. Cole’s narrator wanders the streets of Brussels, a city made monumental by the rape of the Congo and stops before a bust celebrating the poet Paul Claudel. Claudel came to fame in the 1930s when he was a noted supporter of the collaborators during the Second World War, and, despite his right-wing political stance, was looked on kindly by many on the left including WH Auden who was an admirer of his poetry. I wondered, says Cole’s narrator, if indeed it was that simple, if time was so free with memory, so generous with pardons, that writing well could come to stand in the place of an ethical life?
Today, finally, I received a reply from the curator. Dear Roger, it reads, you’re quite right, these quotes are a mash-up, and indeed the last two sentences come from Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night. You are the only person who realised. Thanks for taking the time. I suppose that the exhibition was trying to examine some of the different ways people misremember history and so one of the underlying themes is amnesia in relation to the remembering and reconstruction of past events in wars, and the mash-up approach was part of this. I think we have to be very careful about believing photos and captions because they’re just another kind of fiction.
Which brings me back to my title. I could change it, I suppose, but ultimately that would be a whitewash, it would break connections, it would deny complicity and a kind of shared guilt. Better that I let it stand — as a reminder, or, if you like, a monument.
In the weeks following my daughter’s birth, I find a snapshot on my phone: a zip-lock clear plastic bag with our maternity ward room number on it, room nine. I can’t remember what the bag contained. There are ephemera like this, I suppose, left over from this event and now obscure in purpose. There are memories and mental snapshots I have that are the same, drifting and unknowable now, splinters from a timeline, shattered by the intensity of the event.
Some notes in a notebook, times (8.42 — 8.57) connected with arrows. (I have the notebook still, in a kitchen drawer, and I have a photograph of the page in the notebook.) These were our early attempts, during labour, to time the contractions. We were looking for a certain frequency, a certain number of contractions lasting a certain time, so many times in an hour. But now, I puzzle over the scribblings, the arrows, the patterns of numbers. At the time it meant so much.
I remember the dinginess of the lounge at home. I think we purposefully kept the lighting low, can’t remember why. Nevertheless, the TV was on. (Was it?) Z’s low moaning. Bending over the sofa, hands on the cushions. The page in the notebook suggests we didn’t get far timing the contractions. They seemed to ramp up in frequency pretty quickly. I was alarmed at the pain Z was in. The drive to the hospital, over Sydenham Hill, down Lordship Lane, dark and quiet. It seemed very late at night, although it was only around 9.00 pm. Me driving as cautiously as possible; Z would groan in agony every time we went over a bump in the road.
More fragments. A series of rooms we were made to wait in, ante-chambers. A reception corridor with a disinterested receptionist. An examination room with a pleasant but harried nurse who drifted away at one point and didn’t return for almost an hour. Z had been given gas and air for pain relief and this combined with the searing contractions carried her off into a semi-catatonic state, barely aware of me or anything else.
I remember I went in search of the nurse. The ward was strangely deserted. Then, down the far end of a corridor, a huddle of midwives and nurses looking agitated. One of them was in tears. I returned to the room. After a while the nurse returned, looking rattled, and apologised for the delay. There had been, she said, an emergency. No more was said about it.
Another room, a bit more comfortable, but still an interregnum before the main event. Shared with another mother in labour who seemed to be having a much easier time of it. Z was still in a spaced-out funk, struggling, sucking in gas and air from the grey tube that looked like a washing machine outlet pipe and may as well have been for the good it was doing. At this point, I felt particularly helpless, of no use. Z is struggling so much, and there’s nothing I can do. Hours pass, long periods of moaning, coming up in waves, growing louder and more desperate as the contraction tightens, then tapering off as it eases. The other woman in the room is walking around, chatting with nurses and her partner, apparently unfazed. She is further along in her labour, but unbothered by pain. Z, on the other hand, is in another universe of pain and desperation, and I can’t reach her.
Eventually, we are moved to another room, the final room, room nine. Z takes epidural pain relief, and things calm right down. So much so that, bizarrely, boredom sets in. The early hours of the morning blur into dawn, noon passes by, and, in a haze of exhaustion, evening arrives. The baby is in no hurry to be born. Another photograph on my phone: a roll of paper curling out of a machine showing heart rate, blood pressure, all scratched out in endless line graphs. There is an effort to stimulate the contractions, a minor procedure which goes badly. The baby’s heart rate drops, which clearly scares the hell out of the medical staff, and, in turn, out of us. Out of the chaos, a surgeon appears and utters the words: emergency caesarian section.
We had about an hour to prepare. I remember concentrating intently on holding Z’s hand and comforting her while being determined not to let my own fear or shock show. My god, that was a rough one hour, plastered over roughly with what I thought must surely be a pretty flimsy attempt at a cheerful, brave face. I remember pacing and fidgeting, then telling myself to stop, then a minute later I was doing it again. I had to put on a set of blue surgical scrubs to accompany Z into theatre. We made light of it, took some pics of me looking awkward in the outfit. I am briefed on what I need to do, which is to hold Z’s hand and comfort her, no more. That’s my entire job, yet it’s still completely terrifying.
I am alongside the gurney, Z looking up at me. We weave down corridors and quite quickly come into the theatre. They are still clearing up from the last c-section, resetting the instruments, laying down dozens of metres of cloth and paper towel from immense rolls, all of it that cobalt blue they seem to like so much. An anaesthetist appears alongside us. He is friendly and chatty, and while setting up talks us through the procedure. He takes on the task of providing a running commentary and keeping us calm, even though that can’t be his job. Other people pop over. Our midwife, the surgeon. Everyone is amazingly calm, professional. There’s an incredible feeling that we’re in safe hands, and I’m so grateful for that. The curtain goes up. I’m installed on a stool next to the table, holding Z’s hand. The fear at this point is difficult to describe. It’s there, it’s making me light-headed, but at the same time, I must be pumped full of some special kind of adrenaline, as I’m able to cruise through it in a haze without falling to bits or panicking. And this must surely be the most extraordinary part of the whole thing, this build-up to our daughter’s first appearance, but really it passes so quickly. Partly because it is quick — around fifteen minutes or so — but also because of the floating unreality of it all.
And then, there she is. Some hands are holding her above the curtain, the umbilical cord dangling. I remember her being so clean. None of the gore of a natural birth. And she has not been squashed through the cervix, her colour is good, she is pink and perfect. She’s not yet making any noise, just wriggling, like a specimen. There is something token about the display, a concession to the parents who are at this point largely redundant; but at the same time it is one of the most beautiful moments of my life.
I think back to that moment often. We’re all aware of points of extreme significance in our lives. Or, to be more accurate, moments which logic or convention suggest should be significant: watershed moments, life-changing moments, moments of shock, awe, tragedy, wonder. This snapshot of the arrival of new life contrasts sharply with the snapshot I have in my mind of my mother telling me about my father’s death. But they are similar in that I’m never quite sure if I’m layering on the significance in retrospect. For years I think I was in shock after my father’s death, and to some degree guilty that I didn’t react strongly when told the news. I was numbed by it. I was compelled to go back and look for clues to how I felt, as if examining that one moment could unlock all the mystery and sorrow of loss. Likewise, in this snapshot of new life, this incredible moment — am I expecting it to mean too much? To some degree, yes, I’m asking too much: it’s not one moment but a collection of moments that mean something, it’s everything taken together. I’ve always struggled under pressure from family and peers to make symbolic meaning from occasions, anniversaries, gestures, talismans, broad strokes. I sometimes feel guilt over it, but I shouldn’t. It’s not really in me, to do these things. At the same time, there are ways I can’t avoid the emotional pull and resonances in these milestones, the connections between them, and the contrasts. Death, life. Pain, joy. An end, a beginning. Here, then, is the first life to arrive in decades, for me, for my family, since that appalling, senseless, premature death.
They clean her up and bring her over to me, and I hold her for the first time. I am floating. Z is wheeled off to post-op and for a few moments we’re standing there alone in the middle of the theatre, just me and the baby. How strange. I have only ever held other people’s babies before, and with other people’s babies you’re always about to hand them back. But this is my daughter and I must hold her forever. Perhaps this should terrify me, but it doesn’t.
Remember how, when we were children, adults would just abandon us in cars? My cousins and I in the back seat of the car, entertaining ourselves with the radio. Talking, fighting, getting bored. The adults — my father, my uncle — would have parked us outside a shop or the house of a friend or wherever. And then they would just go in and not come back for what felt like ages. What the hell were they doing? We were never told.
It was in the exhibition Conflict, Time, Photography at Tate Modern that I first saw the following quote, presented as if enlarged from a page in a book, although no credit was given.
The degree and extent of the retrograde amnesia has been determined in many cases through the administration of electroshock convulsions. In thousands of instances it is found that the patient has amnesia for the preparations. He may merely forget the application of the electrodes or he may even forget the entrance of the therapist with his entourage which occurs five minutes before the shock is given.
When he recovers consciousness it is by degrees. He first looks about stupidly, he makes faulty observations, perhaps grasps the bed or the pillow, perception is weak and he is later shown to have no recollection of events immediately following the seizure.
The cumulative effects of repeated seizures given every other day consist of gradual loss of alertness, paucity of interest in the environment and regression. As treatments continue, amnesia becomes marked. The patient first forgets his telephone number, then his address, then affairs outside his family and finally such intimate information as whether he is married. Anybody who talks about the future is a bastard, it’s the present that counts. Invoking posterity is like making speeches to worms.
On another wall in the same exhibition was a collection of images documenting the remains of a Soviet nuclear weapons testing site in Kazakhstan. These desolate scenes reminded me of a passage in Sebald describing a visit to Orford Ness, an abandoned military installation in Norfolk, which in turn took me back to my own military service in the desert near De Aar in 1980s South Africa. A few years ago I made a kind of pilgrimage to the army base where I was stationed — a once-secret ammunition depot, itself rumoured to have held a nuclear weapon — and found the place forlorn and neglected. The stringent Apartheid security paranoia had crumbled entirely, and the few remaining guards (one of whom had been there, he said, since the time I served my term twenty-two years previously) had no hesitation in taking me on a tour of my old barracks, the mess hall, the parade grounds. Standing in the dust, looking across the plains at the encroaching thorn trees, I had to think of Shelley’s Ozymandias.
Who makes these connections? Me, and, in reading this, hopefully, you. But when we are gone there will be no connections. These words and images will be no more than legs of stone in a desert.
This journal is part fact, part fiction.