Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Yet another reason to boycott Nestlé

Over the years there have been several calls to boycott Nestlé, the Switzerland-based food firm, which was originally known for producing chocolate, but has since branched out, more controversially, into baby food, bottled water, instant coffee and a few other things.

The latest boycott call, however, arises not from their products, but from their advertising and packaging — Orthodox Leaders Call for Boycott of Lidl, Nestle for Airbrushing Out Christian Symbols on Products:

Leaders of the Greek Orthodox Church are asking worshipers to boycott Lidl and Nestlé, which removed Christian symbols from their food packaging in an attempt to be “religiously neutral.”

Earlier this month, shoppers noticed that the German supermarket chain Lidl had used photo editing software to remove crosses on top of an iconic Greek church on its food packaging. Swiss food giant Nestlé and the local dairy producer Mevgal have also removed religious imagery from their Greek yogurts.

In response, the Orthodox Church in Athens is urging its members through sermons and on the internet to boycott Lidl, Nestlé and Mevgal, according to The Sunday Times, whom a spokesperson of the Church told the issue will be raised at a special synodical meeting next month.

In this, they seem to be trying to go out of their way to be offensive. The cosmetics firm Dove recently stirred up controversy by racially offensive ads. Now these firms, or at least two of them, are being religiously offensive. Perhaps Lidl didn’t intend their packaging to be offensive, but it was only after it had stirred up controversy that Mevgal and Nestlé introduced theirs as well.

No one is compelling these firms to put pictures of churches on their packaging. If they don’t like churches and what they stand for, then they could quite easily show pictures of something else. There are plenty of picturesque sights in Greece other than churches.

Some, especially those in the secular West, might wonder what all the fuss is about. It is easy for such people to forget that in the 20th century just about every country in Europe with a majority (or substantial minority) of Orthodox Christians was under communist rule until the 1990s. For people who remember that, and especially those who lived through it, removing crosses from churches is a bit like putting up a Whites Only sign in post-1994 South Africa. People will get offended, because they recall that the Bolsheviks removed the crosses from churches (and in some cases replaced them with red stars). Removal of the crosses thus has a flavour of arrogant bullying authoritarianism.

For the Bolsheviks in Russia there was a kind of standard procedure. First they would knock the crosses off, then the bells, and then they would urge (sometimes forcibly) the members of the congregation to chop up the ikons for firewood. Then they would convert the buildings to stables, warehouses, flats etc. Of course they themselves didn’t see it as oppression — in their minds they were liberating the peasants from superstition, but the peasants themselves didn’t see it as any kind of liberation, just as oppression worse than the Tsar’s.

When I visited Russia in 1995 many temples had only recently been handed back to the Church by the government, and most of them were in poor condition, needing extensive repairs. But almost invariably the first step in repairing them was the replacement of the cross on the highest dome. There could be cheap paper ikons stuck up with sticky tape; the paint could be peeling and the plaster crumbling; worshippers could be making their way across an unsurfaced floor all over steel reinforcing and electrical conduits, but at the top of the highest dome was a golden cross. Restoring it was a priority. Crosses were the first things the Bolsheviks broke down, and were the first things that the Christians replaced. For Orthodox Christians, removing crosses from temples is not trivial.

Today many countries in Europe are no longer under Bolshevik rule, but in the Middle East many Christians in countries with Islamist governments are not allowed to display crosses on their churches, and when commercial firms start displaying the same oppressive attitude, yes, it is offensive. And in the post-Cold War world it can also look like a bit of in-your-face Clash of Civilizations oneupmanship.

As one Greek bishop said:

Imagine the same thing happening in Russia, with products parcelled and plastered with pictures of Moscow’s gold domes, only without their crosses. They [the companies] would be paying each and every person there millions in damages. But here, they have not only stolen us of our voice … but they know that the cost of damage caused in this small country will be small.

So you can add this to the reasons for boycotting Nestlé. At least one Christian blogger I know displays this logo, and perhaps others should start doing so too. Here is a reminder of some of the other reasons for boycotting: 5 shocking scandals that prove it’s time to boycott Nestlé | The Daily Dot:

The company’s abuse of California’s resources is reason enough to be angry at Nestlé, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg for a firm with decades of controversy behind it. It’s been the target of multiple boycotts and protests, Twitter campaigns against the company, making it an almost irresistible target for ire among Californians angry about water bottling practices in the state.

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A churchy whodunit

The Martyr's ChapelThe Martyr’s Chapel by Dudley J. Delffs
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An American Episcopalian (or Whiskeypalian, as one of the characters puts it) version of Father Brown solves the mystery of a murder in an almost disused chapel in a quiet university town in Tennessee. Father Griffin Reed’s sister Bea is also a would-be Miss Marple, but she doesn’t solve the mystery, so doesn’t actually make it.

It also reminded me a bit of the Merrily Watkins series by Phil Rickman, with its diocesan exorcist-turned-detective protagonist. I wonder if the murder-mystery in a churchy setting is becoming a genre in its own right.

It is not, however, quite up to the standard of G.K. Chesterton or Phil Rickman. For one thing, Dudley J. Delffs doesn’t get the church background and setting quite right. “Divine” seems a very improbable name for an Anglican/Episcopalian cathedral, and the author clearly doesn’t have a clue about the role of deacons and the diaconate in an Anglican setting, which makes it feel rather inauthentic.

The author tends to go into great detail about the characters’ clothing. Perhaps to those familiar with the culture this will send cultural signals that I, having never been to Tennessee, may miss. I was picturing wing tips as a kind of collar, until the author described them as tapping on the floor. There is also an almost Enid Blytonish feel to the descriptions of food and eating.

In spite of these shortcomings, however, it’s quite a readable story, and as a whodunit it kept me wondering who the villain was until almost the last chapter.

I also learned things about American culture that I hadn’t known before. Hallowe’en and Thanksgiving I’d heard of, as important US cultural festivals, but apparently there is a third, at about the same time of the year — Homecoming. I had to Google to look it up — perhaps it isn’t as controversial as the other two, and so seems to be less discussed on the Internet. It also seems that, as the US academic year finishes with Commencement, it commences with Homecoming. I suppose the nearest thing to that in my student days in South Africa was the annual charity Rag, but I don’t know if they have those any more.

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What is terrorism?

Fifty years ago the National Party regime in South Africa passed the Terrorism Act, which basically defined terrorism as opposition to the National Party and its policies, especially the policy of apartheid.

It made me particularly aware of the way words can be misused for political propaganda, and the entire Terrorism Act was an exercise in political propaganda — by defining their opponents as “terrorists” the National Party government hoped to frighten (intimidate, terrorise) doubters into supporting them. The Terrorism Act made nothing illegal that was not already illegal under numerous other laws, though it did increase the powers of the police to suppress opposition without interference by the courts.

So I became aware that “terrorism” and “terrorist” were weasel words, that could have the meanings sucked out of them as weasels were reputed to suck eggs. And since I was already a language pedant, I became yet more pedantic about words like “terrorist”.

I looked up “terrorist” in my Concise Oxford Dictionary:

terrorist, n. One who favours or uses terror-inspiring methods of governing or of coercing government or community.

Note that governments can be terrorist (as the National Party government was back in 1967 when they passed the Terrorism Act). And note too that it is not applied to individuals. An armed robber may inspire terror in his victims by the use of violence or the threat of it — to hand over valuables or reveal the means of access to them, eg by torturing someone to reveal the PIN of a credit card. But the robber is still a robber, not a terrorist.

The recent mass shooting in Las Vegas, USA, has opened up this particular debate again — here’s an example in the graphic on the right, which appeared on Facebook soon after the shooting.

At the time of writing, police investigating the crime said that they had not discovered the killer’s motive, and it is his motive that would determine whether or not it was an act of terrorism. Perhaps further investigation will show that it was an act of terrorism, but for the moment it is too early to say.

For it to have been an act of terrorism, one has to know which community he was trying to coerce into doing what and why.

What his victims had in common was that they were Country Music fans attending a concert. If it can be shown that his aim was to intimidate country music fans into not holding concerts (any concerts? open-air concerts? only concerts in Las Vegas or concerts anywhere?) then yes, he was a terrorist, and his shooting was an act of terrorism.

But not every mass shooting is an act of terrorism, and not every mass murderer is a terrorist. Perhaps in this case the killer was just a misanthropist, and the concert-goers were just a convenient target for his misanthropy.

Before coming to hasty judgments about such things, read this article Six things to know about mass shootings in America | News | World | M&G:

Journalists sometimes describe mass shooting as a form of domestic terrorism. This connection may be misleading.

There is no doubt that mass shootings are “terrifying” and “terrorize” the community where they have happened. However, not all active shooters involved in mass shooting have a political message or cause.

And check here to see if you can pass the terrorism quiz.

A terrorist always has a clear message: this is what will happen to you if you carry on doing this, or if you don’t do that. Often the message is “support us, or else (this will happen to you)”.

If the message the perpetrator is trying to send is unclear and difficult to determine, the chances are he isn’t a terrorist.

 

Mystery tree feller

Every now and again we hear chopping sounds, and our dogs bark. A couple of years ago there used to be security guards across the road from us, near the railway line, and in winter they would chop up fallen branches to make a fire on cold nights.

But they haven’t been there for some time now, and the chopping sounds have come at all times of the year and all times of the day, and not just dead branches, but whole trees began to disappear. It’s one thing to chop dead branches on a cold winter night, quite another to chop living trees on a warm spring morning. So when I heard chopping this morning, I went out and took a couple of photos. Thereafter the chopping stopped.

But I wonder who is chopping down the syringa trees and why. They’ve just been blooming and looked quite nice. Is syringa wood reputed to have unusual properties, like rhino horn?

The mystery tree feller, chopping off a branch.

I’m sure if the railways people were having a purge of exotic vegetation, they would send a whole team of people in with chain saws and do it all in one fell swoop — our very own Kilner Park chainsaw massacre.

Stumps of already-vanished trees

Are syringas exotic?

I just looked them up on Wikipedia, and just discovered that they are the same as lilacs, which I’ve read about. Perhaps they are exotic, but they replenish the oxygen just like other trees. And the mystery feller isn’t replacing them with indigenous trees.

Falling man

Falling ManFalling Man by Don DeLillo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a strange book. The title relates to a performance artist, David Janiak, who emulates those who jumped or fell from the World Trade Center when the two towers caught fire after planes crashed into them. Using a safety harness, he hangs himself from various structures around New York. But he gives no explanation of his behaviour.

The protagonist is Keith Neudecker, whose office was below the fire, and so he was able to escape, and instead of going home, he went to the home of his estranged wife, and is reunited with her, and their son Justin, whose age is not mentioned until much later in the book, and it turns out that he is about 7 when his father comes home.

The book follows Keith and his wife Lianne, and to some extent their son Justin over three years. It purports, in the blurb, to show how the events of 11 Septermber 2001 affected American consciousness, but I must be dim, because I didn’t see it. Several of Keith’s poker buddies are dead, so for a while he doesn’t play poker, but then resumes. Lianne continues her work with Alzheimer’s patients, and is rather distressed by their inevitable deterioration. But the fall of the towers seems to have nothing to do with this.

We are told little about their lives before the fall of the World Trade Center, so it is not really possible to see how their lives have been changed. The story is not clear, and it is often difficult to tell whose experience is being described.

In spite of this, however, I found it compelling reading. I wasn’t bored, and read to the end of the book.

If you want to read a better review, try this one Inner Diablog: Falling Man, which I largely agree with. But I didn’t feel I could say much about the book, but rather about some thoughts it provoked in me. One thing that struck me in the book was Lianne’s work with Alzheimer’s patients. She encourages them to write down their memories while they can, and when one of them can no longer do this, they want to wrote about her. That struck me as very sad, but it would have been sad with or without the fall of the World Trade Center.

Another thing that struck me was that within a couple of days of the events, reporting on them stopped. For two days we were saturated with images of planes flying into buildings, the buildings burning and then collapsing, and then it all suddenly stopped. In other such disasters one often find that within a few months a book is published, with stories of witnesses and survivors, explaining what happened. But in this case there was a strange silence. I believe there is now a TV documentary showing, but 16 years later. Kids like Justin in the book would now be 23.

And so I wonder if this silence is why the book about it is a work of fiction, but really what is needed is for survivors to tell their own stories. Perhaps they did, in New York, so maybe I’m missing something that was there all along, but it it seems to me the kind of topic that doesn’t lend itself to fictional treatment.

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The Midwich cuckoos: dresses and mannequins

We go into Woolworths to buy hummus because tomorrow is Wednesday, and there are two mannequins near the door, with little girls’ dresses. Val says that when she was little girl she would have loved to to have a dress like that. I barely notice the dress, I am struck by the mannequins, which look like something out of a horror movie, the Midwich cuckoos or something.

I stopped to take photos of them. As we leave Val mentions the dresses again, and how she liked them. I said I was so struck by the eyes of the models that I hardly noticed what they were wearing, and she was so struck by the dresses that he did not notice the eyes at all.

We walk down the mall, discussing how people rarely make their own clothes nowadays, and think of our family history research, where the occupation of so many people in 19th-century census records was given as “dressmaker”. Back then it was probably rare to buy clothes off the shelf.

Well, there’s my photo, but the eyes are far less scary in the picture than they were in reality. They look as though they are peacefully sleepwalking, but in the shop the eyes were fiercely glittering. Perhaps I should have turned the flash off.

But it is interesting how people can look at the same things, and yet see something completely different.

Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, where have you been?
I’ve been to London to visit the Queen.
Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, what saw you there?
I saw a little mouse under a chair.

Everything is illuminated

Everything Is IlluminatedEverything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I saw the film, and so I read the book, and then, having finished the book, I watched the film again.

The story is funny and sad by turns. The film, which deals with only one dimension of the book starts by being funny, and ends by being sad. Because I’m interested in family history, at the surface level a young man’s search for his family history interests me. Jonathan Safran Foer knows his grandfather came from a village called Trachimbrod in Ukraine, and was saved from the Nazis by a woman called Augustine. Since this is also the name of the author, it seems that he is one of the characters in his own story.

The film deals mainly with the search, while the book deals more with what he found, or what he imagines he found. His guide and translator is Alex, and they are driven around by Alex’s grandfather (who claims to be blind, and has a seeing-eye bitch called Sammy Davis Junior Junior).

From the film: Alex, Jonathan, and Sammy Davis Junior Junior, the See4ing-Eye Bitch

Alex’s English leaves something to be desired, and he seems to have learnt it mainly from books. Finding too many synonyms in English, he fixes on one word, which he uses on all occasions. He picks words for their imagined denotations, regardless of the connotations. When he is angry with people, he “spleens” them, until Jonathan tries to explain that English doesn’t work like that, so Alex substitutes “wrathful” for spleening. He confesses to Jonathan that he has never been carnal with a girl, and is rather distressed to discover that when Jonathan writes the story he writes that his (Jonathan’s) grandfather has been carnal with many women, mainly widows, from an early age.

The story is told from different viewpoints. Alex writes letters to Jonathan, while Jonathan sends him currency for the research he does. Jonathan tries to reconstruct the story of Trachimbrod and its inhabitants. The village was obliterated by the Nazis during the Second World War, and there were very few survivors, one of whom salvaged what she could, and another was Jonathan’s grandfather.

The name of the village does not appear on any map, because it came from an incident when a wagon overturned in a flooded river. The wagon may or may not have belonged to a man named Trachim, who may or may not have drowned when the wagon overturned. A baby, who may or may not have been Trachim’s daughter survived the accident, and the village decided who should bring her up. She was called Brod, and was Jonathan’s great great great great great grandmother.

The story that Jonathan reconstructs has a kind of dreamlike quality, and though Trachimbrod was very good at keeping records, many of the records were destroyed when the village itself was destroyed by the Nazis. As they discover more, Alex’s grandfather is forced to confront his own past behaviour during the war.

It is a book about many things, and especially memory, and how we remember and interpret the past and the present in the light of the past.

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Nauseating words

I’ve occasionally read articles about words that people hate. Apparently one of the most disliked words in the English language is “moist”.

But this article reminded me of two of my least favourite words — 2 New ‘Harry Potter’ Books Are Coming This October:

Harry Potter fans have yet another reason to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the iconic wizarding franchise: They’re getting two new books this October.

For me two of the most nauseating words are “franchise” and “brands”, but “iconic” comes a pretty close third.

Harry Potter is a fictional character in a series of books. Why call him a “franchise”? Why are so many sports teams called “franchises” nowadays. These words do have proper uses. I have no objection to referring to a fast-food joint like KFC as a “franchise” where it means that they have been licensed to use the KFC brand and logos even though they are independently owned. But call it a franchise when referring to their business model;, not to the stuff they sell (ground up chicken beaks and gizzards called “nuggets”).

But how many authors have been licensed to write Harry Potter books? How many sports teams around the world (or even the UK) have been licensed to call themselves “Manchester United” or “Norwich City”? As far as I know, one and one only in each instance. That doesn’t make them a franchise, or anything remotely like it.

And all this talk about “brands” — are you interested in “brands”? Yes, I’ve seen online questionnaires that ask that. Should I say yes, I’m interested in brands. I really do prefer KFC to Ford, for example. Fried chicken gets me from A to B so much faster than a motor car, Dettol plays much better cricket than the Titans.

But perhaps I’m alone in this. “Brands”, “franchise” and “iconic” don’t seem to have made these lists, no matter how high they are on mine “Moist” And 28 Other Gross-Sounding English Words That Everyone Hates | Thought Catalog, and 11 Gross-Sounding Words Everyone Hates To Hear, According To Science.

The SAfm radio station has a Sunday morning programme on media, and “brands” feature pretty prominently in it.

Samuel Maverick

It all makes me rather sympathetic to Samuel Maverick, whose name entered the English language because he never branded his cattle. Unbranded cattle that did not belong in the herd were called “mavericks”. Later it came to be applied to people who didn’t follow the herd, like politicians who didn’t toe (or nowadays “tow”) the party line. Like Makhosi Khoza. I suppose that’s why I like to read the Daily Maverick. And why I would like to see Makhosi Khoza as our next president.

So the more talk I hear of “brands”, the more I think of Samuel Maverick. No matter what else he did, he made an important and much-needed contribution to the English language.

Writers’ territory

Writers' TerritoryWriters’ Territory by Stephen Gray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Twenty-seven short pieces ranging from the 16th century to the late 1960s, of people who travelled in or wrote about southern Africa. It covers most of the subcontinent, and has a variety of authors, many of them well known, and some not usually associated with southern Africa.

The selections include descriptive articles, short stories, and extracts from larger works, beginning with The Lusiads of Camoens, and ending with an extract from Terra Amata by Jean-Marie le Clezio.

Some of the authors, like Jules Verne, Mark Twain and Anthony Trollope are known mainly for their writings outside the subcontinent, while others have a more indigenous flavour. Some are professional writers, while others, like the German soldier fighting against Hendrik Witbooi’s resistance in the dry Auob valley, are just trying to describe their own experiences. What makes it interesting is that each piece views the landscape and the people from a different point of view.

Among my favourites are those that describe places I have known, like William Plomer’s description of Zululand in the 1920s. We lived there in the 1970s, so it was interesting to see what changes had taken place since then, and it is now almost as long ago that we lived there.

Another such time warp was Etienne Leroux’s description of the south-western Free State, a part of the country I have never visited, but his description could apply to many other places as well. He begins thus:

You can describe a region and its people, you can list colours, objects, sounds, generalize about types and trace its history. Out of such material a place takes on a different character for each of us, and each creates it from his personal, transcendental world which exemplifies yet again the loneliness of each of us — your own ‘true’ image cannot be shared by anyone else. I remember the sunlight through my windows one morning, many years ago, on a farm in the soutjh-west Free State, and I am suddenly filled with a longing for something that might never have existed.

And that is what this book is about, places that may have evoked longing in the writers, but perhaps different places evoke a similar longing for their readers. Sometimes it evokes a longing for youth…

There are no ruins worth talking about; only some stones where a house once stood. A new building is erected by a later generation and the old building crumbles away into a shed, a kraal,. and eventually a gravel heap with pieces of bottle and rusted kettles. What has happened to your youth? Where has it gone? You look around and see that your playgrounds no longer exist. Vanished like the mist on the vlei — which also no longer exists. It all lives on in the memory; the past is not contained in landmarks, but in the stories old people tell — and the old people die one by one.

And my blog is one of the stories that old people tell, for I am now old, old as Leroux was in my youth, when he was writing that, for he goes on to describe a funeral he attended back then:

… the farmer sons buttoned up in tight fitting snuff-grey suits and strangled by snow-white collars; the grandsons and granddaughters from the city in the uniform of the teenager: beehive hairdos and ducktails greying with dust…

Beehive hairdos and ducktails?

That dates it to when I was 17 or 18. “Tomorrow they leave for the city on motor scooters, in Valiants and Kombis, leaving the depopulation of the south-west Free State to be felt again.”

It can be dated even more precisely from internal evidence by those old enough to remember, for he writes of “the garage painted in the glaring colours of either Shell or Atlantic or Total.” That puts it in 1959, the year that Atlantic petrol made way for BP, and after 1957, the year that Total petrol began to be sold in South Africa. And beehive hairdos were no earlier than that, even though ducktails were. And a few years later the Valiants would have had plastic oranges on their aerials.

But each place has its own memories, its own associations for each of us, and in spite of a book like this one, they cannot really be shared. They can only hint at one’s own memory of a longing for something which might never have existed.

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In a relationship

Nearly 60 years ago a friend, Dale White, tried to explain to me how urban society imposes different kinds of relationships on peope. In small towns and villages, there are people you know — friends and family — and people you don’t know. In urban living, you have many more relationships with people you don’t know. How do you describe them? They are not people completely unknown to you, but you usually only interact with them in one context.

Do you call them acquaintances? Not really, because even acquaintances you might meet in other contexts. These relationships are primarily functional, you meet them solely because they perform a particular function. They are impersonal relationships, rather than personal relationships. Family and friends are personal relationships, and even acquaintances. I call acquaintances people I met at a conference once, perhaps chatted to them over a meal, heard them deliver a paper. Such a relationship is personal rather than functional.

But the cashier at the supermarket till?

That is surely a functional relationship?

In a small village you might meet them in other contexts, at church, or at the hairdressers, or at a sports club, in a pub, or even in another shop where they are also customers. But in the big city, chances are the only time you ever meet them is when they tally your purchases, swipe your card, or take your cash. You are unlikely to meet them in any other context. Sometimes they have a label with their name on it, but I have the uncomfortable feeling that that is mainly there so that dissatisfied customers can complain. And usually it is only their first name so that you don’t even know their surname.

But we have recently learned that two of our neighbourhood supermarkets are to close within the next week or so. The Spar is to become a Pick ‘n Pay, and one of the worries is that we may no longer be able to get fresh bread.

But when we moved here at the end of 1984 there was a branch of Checkers at the Queenswood shopping centre. It was later renovated and became Shoprite, but Shoprite and Checkers are owned by the same company, so it just meant a change in the decor. But now the site is to be redeveloped, and it will close. It will reopen as Checkers again, some time. But then we realised that some of the people who worked there had been there ever since we moved here over 30 years ago. What will happen to them in the mean time?

These are people whom we have seen once a month or more often for the last 30 years and more. Can one really speak of an impersonal, purely functional relationship? We have got used to seeing them, but as a a part of the landscape, but in more than 30 years they should surely be more than merely nameless functionaries. Surely we will miss them?

Samuel Mailula, worked at ShopRite/Checkers in Queenswood for 39 years

So when we went shopping this morning I took my camera along, and we asked where they were going when the shop- closes its doors tomorrow. It turns out that they will be moving to other branches. Two will be going to the Silverton branch, and the third to the Mamelodi branch, which is closer to where he lives, but he only has a couple of years to go until retirement. He is Samuel Mailula, and he has been working for Shoprite/Checkers for 39 years, so practically his entire working life.

Another one is Louisa Molobi. Val remembers her being pregnant several times, and now she is grey-haired, and perhaps one of those babies has now made her a grandmother, and that is how long we have known her. Now she no longer mans the till, but rather goes round to the other cashiers, sorting out their problems.

The third was Wendy Sheshabela, still sitting at the till, and somewhat apprehensive about the changes. The last time the shop was renovated, and made the change from Checkers to Shoprite, it did not close completely, they just closed sections of the store while they were working on it. But this time round the shop will close, and they will all be moved.

Wendy Sheshabela and Louisa Molobi, long-time workers at Shoprite/Checkers in Queenswood, Pretoria

There was a time when I was on the other end of such relationships, when I was a bus conductor in Johannesburg. That was about the time when I had the discussion with Dale White about personal and impersonal relationships, and as a new bus conductor I was a casual, so filled in for other conductors on leave or off sick, so rarely worked the same route twice, or at the same time of day. So I took fares and issued tickets, and passengers were just a sea of faces.

After I’d been there a while we could pick a regular shift in order of seniority, and so I had a regular route, four trips from the Joburg business district to the Turffontein Racecourse early in the morning. The first trip carried few passengers out of town, most were coming in to work, and so I remembered some of the regulars. There was an old night watchman, presumably going home after guarding one of the big dark deserted office blocks. He rather incongruously wore a badge proclaiming him a member of the Pepsodent Youth Club. On the next trip there were a couple of pretty Indian school girls. I only worked on that route for about a year, I only saw them in that context, and I never saw them again. But I still remember them.

It was one of those urban functional relationships, but it was not, surely, entirely impersonal. And when, as in the case of the people at our local supermarket, we have been seeing them regularly for more than 30 years, we probably know them better than our next-door neighbours, whom we hardly see at all, except occasionally driving past in a car, darkly waving behind a window reflecting the sun.

I use a genealogy program called Legacy Family Tree. I’ve been using it since 2002, and in entering information about a person one could tick a box labelled “This individual never married and had no children”. This would then appear on certain reports, so that you could, know that there was no point in looking for possible descendants. I so marked my uncle Willie Growdon, who died in a motorbike accident at the age of 25.

But the newer version of Legacy Family Tree that I am now using has changed the wording, so that it now says that Uncle Willie had “no relationships and no children”. And that looks so very sad. Abandoned by his parents at birth, never knew his siblings, had, no friends, never had a girlfriend, had no acquaintances, no human contact at all. So is our language, and our social networking, devalued.

No, Legacy, you got it wrong. We are most of us in all sorts of relationships, personal and impersona, to varying degrees, but it is only when we are about to lose them that we begin to appreciate them, as we do the staff of the local supermarket, and realise that human relationships are important.

 

 

 

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