26 April 2010
From 7 February, with the book done, life began opening up.
The arm tied behind my back swung out – flexing away the pins and needles – and long-stagnant to-do lists were assessed, prioritised then stripped down. Starting with the basics: visit the doctor, the dentist and the hospital (it’s official: I’m healthy). Next, life logistics: fill forms, make calls, write letters, divert an income stream into a pension, set up an investment account, attack the massive unsecured loan I took out to spend a year living in a shed.
Onwards: visit the web guru/neuromancer, prepare the website, fertilize the ground for product launch, start untangling a menagerie of family-related entanglements. Individuals long-deserving of attention start drifting towards my crosshairs. Meanwhile, the day job blossoms with spring: money starts flowing in my direction and I’m the golden boy at work, like the old days. Evenings of human interaction follow: nights on the town, candle lit dinners, hanging with girls. Yum.
Two tales from the trans-cultural metropolis…
On 24 March I was returning from a scintillating dinner with an old friend I’m trying to re-establish a relationship with. It was raining hard. The taxi driver was called Martin. I did a standard “My name’s Pete, how’re you,” then sat back and listened to his radio.
They were playing an interview with David Cameron, leader of the opposition. He’d made an on-air booboo over a tricky topic.
“When did this happen?” I asked, looking through a windscreen spangled with orange light.
“Earlier in the week. He fluffed his lines. He made himself look very stupid.”
“How unfortunate for him. Who will you vote for?”
“My instinct is the Conservatives, but I am not sure.”
“OK, what’re the issues?”
He didn’t stop talking for 20 minutes after I asked him that question. There followed one of the most electrifying speeches I’ve ever heard.
Martin had grown up in a part of Africa where people had “real problems”. The election issues, as he saw them, were state-based social programmes breeding misplaced senses of entitlement, young men who wallowed in nihilistic rebellion and individuals that couldn’t see what they had because they could only see their own backsides.
The journey back to Manor Park wasn’t enough time for Martin to finish making all his points. We ended up parked outside my flat for 10 minutes, while he rolled on.
“I picked this boy up from prison and he said to me,” cue impression “‘yeah, like, it’s cos of who I am like, init.’” Martin gesticulated to express his exasperation. “Who you are? Who you are? This is a country where they give you money to go to school. What are you? What do you deserve? Generations have lain down their lives to create all this. Look at it. Look at what we have.” He gestured towards the highly developed housing and transportation infrastructure clearly visible through the taxi’s windscreen. “You are born naked. Everything you have has been a gift.”
One just never knows when the next big human encounter will come along. I left the taxi in awe. I want to vote for that guy.
Three days later, I was at the printers packing 1,000 sheets of 100 gsm-thickness, letterhead-quality A4 (Rymans darling). Vijay, my new printing dude, was operating the hardware – preparing sales documentation for the literary agencies.
Vijay runs an open shop-style outfit. People swing through. There was another Martin there (let’s call him Martin no. 2): a rotund gentleman with a tweed jacket and a Cheshire Cat grin. There was tension in the air. Naturally, I introduced myself.
“And where do you come from?” he asked.
“Essex. And you sir?”
“Oo. How’re things in Zimbabwe?”
“Better now is it?”
“Things were always good. Don’t believe what’s written in newspapers.” Controversial? I immediately began firing questions at him.
In summary, Martin no. 2 explained to me that Zimbabwe was at peace with itself, food hadn’t been a problem, Robert Mugabe was a model of public sector efficiency and any problems in the region were the unavoidable legacy of British rule. I took it upon myself to politely offer examples from the real world which contradicted this view. Martin no. 2 wasn’t used to being contradicted. He insisted that I listen to some information about “history.” So I listened.
A rambling monologue on the Zimbabwe War of Liberation of the 1970s ensued while I (still only on item three of my crowded daily to-do list) itched to get back to my printing and waited for him to say something pertinent. Vijay finally intervened.
“But what’s your point?” he insisted on my behalf.
“I mean that there are black people and white people! That’s the way the world was made.” If he’d known what I was printing he might have appreciated the cosmic irony. Then came the punch line. “Anyway, what has this place got going for it?” Martin no. 2 sneered. There are times to be polite and times to unleash. That was one of the latter.
“Well, it’s probably the most cosmopolitan place ever to have existed. It’s a place where seven million wildly diverse people get to live in an environment where the chances of being murdered are about as low as they’ve ever been anywhere or anytime in history; there’s a robust judicial system which basically works; a waste disposal system; an emerging recycling system; one of the most effective medical infrastructures ever put together; there’s enough food for everyone; hardly any organised violence; almost every kind of discrimination is illegal; you can say what you want, when you want, to whom you want, and your choice of people to say it to consists of about the most literate, varied, well-educated and well-informed groups of humans ever assembled.
What’s more, it’s also a global hub for music, food, literature, theatre, dance, media, culture and cool. And, with respect, and it’s been very nice talking to you, but if you don’t mind me saying, for someone who claims to be a man of the world, you’re remarkably ignorant about a lot of really basic stuff.”
To be fair, Martin no. 2 knew when to shut his mouth. We gave him a beer and I squeezed his shoulder to show there were no hard feelings. After that he sat quietly. Vijay couldn’t stop grinning.
www.thejollypilgrim.org stats for March 2010
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‘The sun blazed on sparse patches where irrigation gave way to desert, dancing through the swirling wine – a product of its beneficence – flashing liquid light in irregular orbits in the shadow of the Andes.’ – John Devlin