Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

The time of my life

Up at 5:25. I borrowed my son Jethro’s bakkie and went out to get a new battery for the Subaru, and had to pay R900.00 for it, though they said they would give me R114.00 back if I brought in the old one. When I were a lad you could buy a whole car for that. My first “real” car was an 8-year-old Peugeot 403 station wagon, which I bought in Durban in 1969 and paid R300 for it. I sold it 3 years later to a witchdoctor for R60, and in the mean time it had taken me to Namibia and back a few times.

Then I went to Brooklyn Mall, to the Exclusive Books sale, where they have reduced the prices still further. I had hoped to get a copy of and the hippos were boiled in their tanks by Jack Kerouac and William Burroughes, but they seemed to have been all sold out, which quite surprised me, as the last time we were there they had about 8-10 copies and I wondered who in Pretoria might buy them. But I found a book on the peace movement, to commemorate 50 years of the peace sign. So in the end the books I bought were:

  • Leland, John. 2007. Why Kerouac matters: the lessons of On the Road.
  • Matthiessen, Peter. 2003. End of the earth: voyages to Antarctica.
  • Miles, Barry. 2008. Peace: 50 years of protest 1958-2008.

And they cost R70.00, but if they had not been on sale they would probably have cost almost as much as the battery.

I got home and looked at the books. I blogged about the peace symbol on the anniversary, at Peace symbol – 50 years on | Khanya, and the book, though a bit coffee-tableish, was a good reminder of a history that coincided with my own life. In 1958, the year the peace symbol was first used to protest nuclear disarmament, I was still at school. The “peace symbol” was then primarily used in protests against nuclear weapons, and it was only some years later, with growing American involvement in Vietnam, that it became a general peace sign. In 1961 I joined the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, and I’m now associated with the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, so the book is in a way the story of my life and times.

One of the other books, the one on Kerouac’s On the road was also in a way a symbol of my life and times, though On the road was never my favourite book by Kerouac — I much preferred his The Dharma bums. Kerouac, however, was the same age as my father-in-law, so he was a different generation. But Leland’s book seems to be trying to turn On the road into a self-help book. I must be really out of touch with pop culture, because I have no interest in self-help books, nor books about misunderstood sexy teenage vegetarian vampires. I prefer my vampires evil and bloodthirsty and they are coming to kill you and steal your soul.

Then, while I was pondering these books, which provoked a lot of reminiscences, the TV started reporting on Jimmy Reid’s funeral. I’d never heard of Jimmy Reid, or if I had heard of him, I couldn’t remember him. He was a trade union leader in the shipbuilding industry in Scotland, and was apparently famous for leading a work-in when Edward Heath’s Conservative government wanted to close down the British shipbuilding industry. They recalled two speeches he made, one on the occasion of the work-in, and another when he was made Rector of Glasgow University and said, “A rat race is for rats. We’re not rats. We’re human beings.” It was hailed by the New York Times as the greatest speech since Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

I found it strangely moving, and also linked to my life and times in a way. I went to the UK in January 1966 to study at St Chad’s College, Durham. I left in a hurry, because a Detective Sergeant van den Heever phoned me at 4 pm and said he wanted come and see me. I was about to leave for work, and said I’d have to see him in the morning. But then I consulted friends and decided it would be wiser to leave for the UK right away, so left at 10:00 pm and drove through the night to Beit Bridge. My mother told me that her cousin Willie Hannan was a Scottish MP, and might be able to help me get advice on finding a job and getting residence permits and the like.

I drove to Bulawayo, and got a plane to Salisbury (now Harare) and from the airport phoned more cousins. It was just after UDI in Rhodesia, and the Rhodesian cousins did not have a good word for cousin Willie, and portrayed him as a wild-eyed socialist revolutionary, betraying his own kith and kin in Rhodesia and all the rest of the Rhodesian rhetoric.

When I got to London I made contact with cousin Willie, who was MP for Girvan, in Glasgow. He was terribly respectable, and anything less like a wild-eyed revolutionary I could not imagine. My mother had also told me that Willie’s father had been jailed as a conscientious objector during the First World War, not because he was a pacifist, but because he was a socialist and regarded it as an imperialist-capitalist war. I regarded any conscientious objector as something of a hero, and so I asked cousin Willie about it, but he was clearly embarrassed, and said that at the time the police came for his father he was just a child, and they didn’t understand it, and that things were different in those days. He was, in my view, what we then called a “square”, altogether respectable. But he was a very nice bloke, and kind hearted, and was all in favour of peace, though he believed peace could be achieved by international cooperation and friendship, primarily in things like the European Union. He had no opinion about Rhodesia at all, other than being mildly unhappy about all the unpleasantness over it, and wanted to know what I thought of it, though I had spent less than 24 hours there on my way to the UK.

But he probably knew Jimmy Reid, and probably thought of him as a wild-eyed socialist revolutionary.

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