A Bishop Bewitched

Since this is a true story I will not name the town where it took place. Suffice it to say that it was in a region of Southern Sudan that was steeped in witchcraft.

It was also a Christian area, though Christianity in this town was skin deep. For some it offered the same kind of post life assurance policy as it did for many in Europe; for others it offered an escape from poverty, an education and a full stomach; for a few it offered influence.

When the bishopric fell vacant the citizens expected a popular local clergyman to be appointed. However he did not get the job. A cleric from a neighbouring tribe was selected. He was not popular. Indeed he was not liked at all.

Now one way of getting rid of people in this area was by witchcraft. An evil eye, or the picture of one, was stuck on to the victim’s back. That way everyone knew that that person was cursed and would die. Invariably it worked.

Imagine the thrill, then, of the hostile congregation when their new bishop, a stocky, vain little man with a shiny, perspiring black face strutted up the aisle to take the service. For, displayed on his back, securely fastened to his purple robe, was the sign of the evil eye.

When he realised what people were staring at, did he denounce their superstition? Did he rise above the witchcraft? Did he proclaim the superior truth of Jesus Christ? Did he heck. He rolled his eyes in terror. He tore the robe off in front of the delighted congregation. He ranted at his staff, foamed at the mouth and died on the spot.

Among the ululation of some women rose a cry of “Allelulia.” The bishop’s rival, the vicar who had been passed over, stepped forward, clasped the dead man’s hand, looked up to the heavens and said sweetly, “Yea verily, it is His will.” Whether or not he had been complicit in the plot, he expressed some well-rehearsed, Christian sentiments at the funeral of the hated bishop. Then he stepped into his shoes.

Oddly enough, about a year later I had another, albeit indirect encounter with this bishop. There were at that time scores of young English men and women working for the Sudanese government in rural schools across the country. They were poorly and irregularly paid, living in much less well supported conditions than the VSO volunteers, for example.

One of these young men was Paul and I would look him up and give him a meal if I was passing through. It was during one such improvised meal that he told me his story.

Paul was a good-looking lad with a pleasant smile and an easy manner. He got on well with his pupils and fellow teachers. Though in no way aggressive he was a big man and perfectly capable of looking after himself. Perhaps it was his very stature that tempted some people in the town to want to pick quarrels with him, though no one went so far as to give him the evil eye.

White men in small towns were a rarity and we became used to the cries of “kawaja” thrown at us from children, curious more than insulting. When a young woman, however, ran up to Paul as he walked home from school and screamed abuse at him, he was quite taken aback. Particularly because unlike most of the townsfolk she spoke English very well.

“You white people,” she screamed, “you murderers! You are all murderers! You drive round in your big cars, you stir up the dust, you knock down our children…”

“I have no car,” interrupted Paul in his lazy manner. “I don’t even have a bicycle.”

This calm rejoinder stopped the woman’s invective but instead of abusing him verbally she hit him on the jaw. To his surprise Paul fell down. “Too much money. You have too much money,” she yelled at him. Paul got carefully to his feet and brushed himself down while trying to keep this mad woman at arm’s length. Her last remark stung. In fact he had no money. Like all government teachers he had not been paid for three months. Unlike many of his Sudanese colleagues who were able to grow some of their own food, Paul had no land and no money to pay for his meals.

“Now listen here,” he said, “I do not hit women, but there has to be a first time.”

Whereupon she got her second blow in before he did, punching him again full on the jaw. This time he got a hold on her and a group of amused on-lookers helped remove her from the scene.

“Is she mad?” he asked one of them.

“Mad? No, she thinks she is important. She is the bishop’s wife.” Then he sucked his teeth African style and added, “some say even she is a witch.”



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In Memory of Typists


I have no idea how a modern office functions but I do know that many people have their own work stations. I retired before the advent of computers and correspondence by email. Office work then was a more collaborative endeavour. There was no email, correspondence was by letter or in emergency by telex. Few of us typed, indeed were able to type, our own letters, reports or minutes. We wrote the first draft long-hand or dictated it to tape. In the larger offices our scribbles were sent to a typing pool, a room the size of a classroom full of young women sitting behind typewriters and presided over by an older woman who distributed the work. Only the bravest of males entered this sanctum.

Thankfully most of my career I spent overseas in smaller offices. Even at a junior grade I had my own secretary. Indeed, before open plan became the norm, we shared a room with our secretary, usually a woman as young or younger than ourselves. If it went well the secretary did more than type, copy and file your work. She would help find reports and files, make appointments, advise you on local customs, locations and personalities and sometimes there was even time to talk about one another’s lives. For you spent almost as many hours cloistered with your secretary as you did at home with your wife. Usually, though, there was a degree of reserve in your relationship and certainly of mutual respect.

My first secretary in Madras (now Chenai) was Brenda, an Anglo-Indian. She was young, neat and pretty. Like all Anglo-Indian staff, but but unlike the other office staff, she wore western dress, usually a tight, knee-length skirt and white blouse. Her husband, who worked on the railways dropped her off and picked her up on his scooter, but she always looked immaculate. I wrote the staff newsletter, I reviewed visiting plays and music performances for HQ as well as doing the more run of the mill office business. Never once did Brenda comment, offer any opinion of her own, dissent or agree. She faithfully copied my work, uncomplaining if drafts had to be retyped three or four times, spelling mistakes tippexed and typed over. For there were no word processors.

In Norway, Rigmor was another kettle of fish. In a land of social and gender equality most of our small team were friends inside and outside the office. We socialized together, knew one another’s family; once I went on a four day hike in the mountains with Rosalind, the boss’s secretary and her son and other friends. Rigmor was a little different. Very reserved at first and from a poor suburb of Oslo, she had strong views. We had a small waiting room with a limited selection of magazines for visitors. One of Rigmor’s first suggestions was to subscribe to Spare Rib. To his credit our boss ordered it right away and I noticed that its most fervent reader was Rigmor. She and I also helped one another with language since to begin with her English was little better than my Norwegian.

Otherwise her job was as much as before, typing letters, fixing appointments and filing and finding. I did often ask her her opinion about our professional contacts and the institutions we worked with. She was not backward in giving it, but she remained reserved. We worked on friendly terms but neither I nor my colleagues gleaned much about her personal life. I do not know whether she had a boy or girl friend or how she spent her leisure. She remained an outsider.

My next move was to the Commission of the European Commission in Brussels and as regards Belgian social attitudes it felt like going back a century in time. The commission, though, was like a chaotic, anarchic and multilingual version of my London HQ. The secretaries were incredibly lazy to the point of taking offence if you asked them to type a letter quickly or to do anything slightly unusual. Correspondence was in many languages. Most secretaries could use the qwerty and the asiop keyboards since we wrote mainly in English or French. Some of them nevertheless had to be cajoled to typing in English. Some reckoned my Anglo-Saxon handwriting was indecipherable whatever language I used. In my time there were no native speaking English typists, except perhaps in the “cabinets” of the top officials.

From Brussels I went to Juba to open an office from scratch. I had no staff to begin with but was offered an empty room at the University of Juba. I had my own portable typewriter and a packing case that I used as a desk. I found a chair in another room of the deserted university and paper was sent down to me from Khartoum. In due course I rented an office, recruited staff but there was no electricity in the town. Typewriters had to be manual and I discovered that the Olympia was still being made in Kenya. Months later I had one of these heavy, solid machines delivered, along with a supply of ribbons. By then I had recruited Vashti as secretary, a confident young woman with a sense of humour. She was rather taken with her own appearance and dressed provocatively, but her English and her typing skills were acceptable. She found my western concern with time keeping a bit alien but she usually got her work done. She stood no nonsense from the other staff, an accountant and ex school teacher, a staid, middle-aged man I had later to sack for fraud, an office manager, a driver and the various expatriate experts reliant on my office who came and went between their various projects.

The problems began when Vashti became pregnant. She had a difficult birth and one morning I got the message that she needed a blood transfusion. She had a rare blood type matched by none of us in the office. There were no doctors in Juba and the hospital was the place you went to die, not to be saved. All of us in the office tried desperately to find a blood donor from the right group. Eventually I found that among a group of French engineers building the new airport there was a driver of one of the earth movers who fell into the same blood group as Vashti. I tracked him down and asked this ruddy faced, fat French workman whether he could spare some of his blood for my secretary.


“Now. It is urgent.”

“Is she English? French?”

“No, she is African.”

The driver hid his feelings. He said he would think about it, but now it was his lunch time. He told me to come back in three hours. I did not need to. Vashti died that afternoon.

By my next posting the British Council was introducing computers. In Ghana we vacated a huge space beneath the office and installed a computer the size of a small car. It had to be permanently air-conditioned. This was more than we had in our own rooms.

Some of the secretaries were given monitors so they could word process their work. This was before Windows came along. Every bit of punctuation, space, line change etc had its own code. I never bothered to learn it. Some of the women got to operate it fairly quickly but it was hardly the time saver we had expected. In fact it provided the common excuse for delay: sorry, the computer is down. Computers as we now know them, along with email and the internet did not appear until well after my retirement. Patricia, my last secretary was in the old tradition. She was efficient and reliable but left suddenly to live with an “uncle” in Sheffield. The beautiful Felicia made great strides through the office and moved on to an administrative job with the United Nations. We remained friends long after we had both left the Council and she came to visit me and my wife in UK on several occasions revealing an unsuspected weakness: she loved chocolate cake.

Typists hardly exist any more. All men and women do their own typing. A few conventional secretaries have become P. As to senior managers. I am glad I retired when I did. Today I should miss the companionship of sharing office space with a secretary and gaining a small insight into another culture and another life.


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Chanson Douce by Leila Slimani

I do not normally succumb to fashion and rarely read best-sellers. However such was the excitement in France when Chanson Douce, by Leila Slimani won the Prix Goncourt that I bought a copy. Since then it has been translated into American as The Perfect Nanny and into English as Lullaby and into scores of other languages as well. The book and the author have been splashed across acres of newsprint and filled the broadcast media.

Is the hype deserved? To some extent, yes. It is an original story told in short, simple sentences and largely in the present tense. It opens with a shock and continues at a fast pace. This makes for a gripping read. Moreover it captures a certain zeitgeist. There is the ambitious career woman who feels guilt at abandoning her children to a full time nanny; she is also, like the author a Moroccan born French woman and a successful lawyer with concerns about her identity. (Slimani of course is also cultural secretary to President Macron) The nanny who is from a poor background is the only white woman among a cohort of other nannies of varying ethnicity.

It is an easy book to race through and the social milieu is well described, but in the end the novel is unsatisfactory. The characters are not drawn in much depth. The parents, happily married and successful, fond of their children though they entrust them full time to the nanny, are too good to be true. Thanks to the nanny they lead the social life of a childless couple and seem very naive not to notice the warning signs of the nanny’s incipient instability.

As for Louise, the nanny, we get a good portrait of her appearance and an account of her actions, but we rarely get beneath the surface. It is not clear why children are attracted to a woman who appears to show no affection, who seems incapable of love. Her own teenage daughter leaves her and she does not pursue her. Her despair and loneliness are understandable but it is less clear why this should lead her to kill the two children who adore her and whom she has brought up very much unaided. True, the reader is party to Louise’s rapid mental deterioration and perhaps should not expect a fuller explanation. Louise remains in a coma until the end, her actions unexplained

I share the disappointment of the female police inspector who after an exhaustive investigation revisits the scene of the crime two months later to try and enter into Louise’s state of mind. She enters the flat and closes the door behind her, thus ending the book.


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It was an extraordinary emotion. Not love exactly, though it was a kind of love at first sight. A coup de foudre. A recognition. Though the young woman was a stranger, as far as I knew. A stranger yet strangely familiar.

I blew gently on the glass and held the wooden framed glass slide to the light again. It was the size of a paper back book but transparent. The colours were still strong, perfect. And the girl in the photograph was beautiful, her expression enigmatic, bewitching. I half expected her to step out of her time capsule flesh and blood and ask not so very coyly, “well then?”

I was in my parents’ attic. My task was to clear it out. There was the usual jumble that collects in people’s lofts: old paraffin stoves, pictures, dusty trunks and chests, folders full of papers, a broken chair and gramophone records all preserved under the cloying miasma of nostalgia.

In the drawer of a discarded chest of drawers I had found this box. An ordinary, slippery sided, cardboard soap box. Inside the box, each wrapped between yellowing tissue paper were six glass slides. There may be a more technical term, for they were transparent photographs, not in negative as in more recent colour photography, but in positive, clear, bright colour. They were thoroughly professional. The composition and the clarity were as good as I have seen in any modern studio. They may have been known as lantern slides.

But it was neither the technical nor the formal qualities that took my breath away. The first portrait I looked at, holding it to the bare attic light bulb, was of the young woman I have begun to describe.

I climbed downstairs clutching the box to my chest and sat down at the table in the conservatory. Here I looked at each slide in turn in the daylight. All the photos were of the same happy, self-confident young woman of about nineteen or twenty. She had evidently enjoyed having her picture taken.

In one pose she holds a parasol, the handle resting on her left shoulder, the lilac membrane of the parasol rising from waist and shoulder like an insect wing against which her head is highlighted. A pink silk ribbon holds the thick pile of dark, centrally parted hair on top of her head. The ribbon is tied on the side in a big bow. She is wearing a moss green silk dress embroidered at the top and fastened above the lace work at the neck with a black velvet choker. There are three large pin cushion-like buttons at her breast. From the pinched waist the dress falls straight to the ground, unadorned except for a series of similar, padded buttons from the knee that repeat the motif of the bodice.

The parasol appears in another photo. The model wears the same hair-do and ribbon but a completely different outfit, this time a navy blue pleated skirt and a long, elegant jacket. On her right hand she wears a gold ring.

Other photos different clothes. In one she is at the wheel of a veteran car, klaxon, spare wheel and canopy clearly visible. She has a similar hairstyle but this time tied in a blue bow. The car, the countryside could be French.

What struck me instantly and still lingers now is not so much the curiosity value of the clothes and accoutrements as the woman herself. Most of all her face and her demeanour. She is pale with large, dark eyes and strong eyebrows. She has a wide mouth with full lips and for those days surprisingly good teeth. Her pose is obedient but playful. She is enjoying herself. Her smile is genuine as though for a lover. Surely the photographer was no stranger. She knows her own power, too. She seems happy, she knows her own mind.

Once I had recovered from the surprise of my discovery I began to ask myself who this person was. From the costume and the car I guessed the photos were taken around 1910. In all the slides she appeared to be eighteen to twenty years old.

The familiarity that had so struck me might indeed have come from a family likeness. Not in an identikit way, but rather gene switching on gene in remote recognition. I was haunted that though not a likeness there was something about her in my own daughter. It seemed a safe assumption that she was family.

Her colouring suggested she was from my mother’s line but she was not my grandmother or my great grandmother as far as I could tell. My mother had been an only child and had no remaining elder relatives. In the depths of my mind I half remembered a story of an exotic relative but could not for the moment fish it up.

There were two things I wanted to know: who was the person and when and where were the photographs taken? As I consulted photographers bits and pieces of my own childhood floated to the surface of my memory at last. Things my mother had spoken about, things she had concealed.

The first expert told me the glass slides must have been hand painted, the next said colour photography on glass was common in the early twentieth century. Many seaside postcards were created in this way. My slides, therefore, had no rarity value. Their interest was only personal. Faced with the lack of professional interest I abandoned this tack. Besides I was beginning to piece together my own recollections.

When I was about ten years old and my grandmother was staying briefly with us, I remember a visit from a larger than life old woman. I am not sure how she got to our house in the country but I remember a big, florid woman in a mink coat standing at the front door. There was a lot of noisy laughter and tears and she and my grandmother, then I suppose only about fifty, flung themselves into one another’s arms.

I do not know how long Great Aunt Betty stayed. Only a few hours, I think, before giving me half a crown and returning to her flat in Brighton. I never saw her again, but my grandmother was to refer to her from time to time in the way that younger sisters talk of their elder siblings. What my grandmother often repeated was that in her youth Betty had had a nineteen inch waist and many admirers.

My grandmother’s own origins were a mystery to her husband and daughter alike. According to my mother, all Nana could remember of her childhood was of being brought up by Betty, her senior by ten years. She spoke of no men in their lives, though there must have been, until she met my grandfather. There was however the trace in the collective memory of a terrible accident. The girls’ father, my great grandfather, was struck down by a runaway horse in the Strand and killed. His wife, distraught or relieved, we shall never know, disappears completely. Betty is left holding the baby.

One day an event occurred which I was not to associate with this story until I had grown up. My grandmother came to stay again and the next day she and my parents, formally dressed, disappeared for the day. They had gone, I gleaned, to see Auntie Betty in Brighton.

I would probably quite have forgotten the existence of my great aunt except for a chance remark of my mother’s forty or fifty years later when I took her to the Theatre Royal in Brighton. My mother realised she had been here before and it brought back memories for her of several happy holidays with her aunt in Brighton. Picturing the fur clad visitor of yore I asked my mother what had become of Aunt Betty.

Surely you remember that dreadful business, she said, forgetting I was a child at a time when children were kept in the dark if not completely ignored. Betty, I now learned, had discovered that she had cancer of the lung. Unable or unwilling to face the pain she had put her head in the gas oven. The police had traced my mother as the only surviving relative. That explained my parents’ sudden departure for Brighton all those summers ago and the secrecy. Both cancer and suicide would have been taboo.

Before the curtain went up my mother sighed and reflected that her aunt had had a sad life really. Her first husband had been killed in the Great War, her second in the next. This did not explain why we never saw her, though I think I vaguely remember remarks, spoken with disapproval about her “colourful” life style. I might be adding my own colour here. I suppose it is more likely that in the 1950s people worked longer weeks and were less mobile.

These memories, pat enough set down on paper, did not return ready-made. They filtered through over the next days and weeks. But fairly quickly I deduced that the slides that I had found were of my Great Aunt Betty. That this self-assured young beauty who smiled so happily was yet to face the social upheaval of two wars, a double personal loss and a brave and terribly lonely death seemed too awful to contemplate. Lingering over her pictures almost a century later there was nothing I could do to save her. Events would unfold with the inevitability of Greek tragedy. Nevertheless, the more I look at the portraits, the more sure I am that she would have made the most of the good times. I hoped so.


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100 Little Pleasures

Since the first edition of this book in 2011 in which I tried to portray the small pleasures that make life worth living, the English speaking world has discovered “hygge”, familiar to me from Norway but hijacked recently by the Danes. There is no English translation though the Germans call it Gemütlichkeit and the concept was already to be found in many of my own essays. It means recognizing the special moment or insight, alone or together with friends, that has a special resonance. It involves a gentle feeling of well-being and contentment that the English word cosiness does not quite capture. It has become something of a cliché in the popular mind concerning candles, slippers and firelight. My book showed and still shows there is more to it than that.

Even more recently the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård, acclaimed for his detailed and addictive books about his intimate life, has in his latest publication “Autumn” begun to see the world anew and has written some delightful vignettes of the simpler pleasures. What a pity he could not have read my 2011 edition of “A Little Book of Pleasures”!

For this book, too, is about the small pleasures of life. I may have experienced the grander passions and have occasionally been swept off course, but what I report here are less the crueller emotions and more the sweeter, life- sustaining delights of daily life. They are there for most of us to seize. This might be fond familiarity with a place or an object, a fleeting feeling or observation, an action or a favourite taste. It might be the tingle of delight I get when even the most ordinary cabbage white butterfly lands on the page of a book I am reading in the garden or the fascination when I look up from my keyboard to watch a spider in the corner of my study window jump on, paralyze and wrap a fly in its web for a future feast.

So what is it all about, this book? Does it have to be about anything? Does life have to have a meaning? The pleasures depicted here may be enduring or short-lived. Let us say, whether you are inclined to take it in the literal or in the figurative sense that these moments are God given.


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Howard’s End

Howard’s End

I am reading the novel during the same month as the TV adaptation is being aired on BBC. I am just about keeping pace and I am impressed by the film.

As a writer there are two rules I try to apply. 1. Show, don’t tell. 2. Reread, cut, reduce, rewrite. T.V. is ideal for the former. Several of the long passages in the novel are covered in less than a minute on screen even though much of the spoken narrative is kept. In Mr. Bast’s nocturnal ramble film and speech are combined. Gaslit Wimbledon and Bast’s recollection of his night out as recounted to the sisters.

Reading the book I wondered how some of the ideological, sociological and political debate would be transferred. The answer is selectively but brilliantly done. The longeurs of the book are lost but the necessary argument gets through.

Forster was ahead of his time. In today’s Britain we are rapidly plunging back before his time e.g. the disparity between the rich and the poor, and have added new gods to the worship of money eg consumer goods and the cult of celebrity. Fewer people, I would suggest aspire to literature and the arts.

In both book and film the plot itself moves on at a rapid pace. Worth reading the book. Worth also watching the film.


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I have always admired the work of our National Theatre though I have not often had the opportunity to attend a live performance. If in London overnight it remains my first choice of venues for play- going, though. Last week I went to see the play Common in the Olivier Theatre. I knew nothing about it and looked forward to seeing a well chosen play with a large cast on the big stage. I should have been forewarned by the welter of poor reviews.

What a disappointment it was! The production was good, the leading actress Ann Marie Duff was confident and competent, but the play itself was plain bad. Incoherent, muddled, unfocussed. It could have been about a number of themes. The trouble was which? Potentially it was about the enclosures of the 17th century but it did not hang together and descended into further opacity in the second half. Worse, the language was contorted and absurd, an invented, faux peasant- speak that reminded me more of Roald Dahl’s BFG than of rural England. Not only that, but although I had a good seat and could hear well, the enunciation was so poor I only followed half of what the actors said. Moreover, like some adolescent freed from parental censure, the author frequently sprays the text with the word fuck as adjective, adverb, verb and noun to little effect, other than to irritate me.

After the interval the play began with a bare arm rising from the grave which caused only sniggers in the audience. When the actress emerged from the ground she spoke to the puppet of a crow. All sense of reality had departed but no feeling of magic replaced it. Throughout the play there was no character I had time or perhaps even inclination to sympathise with, either, so the play had no emotional impact.

Much of the action was dialogue or confrontation between two characters which could have been done on a smaller stage. Admittedly there were some effective crowd scenes but even they verged on cliché.

I do not understand why the NT even chose the play and why the Olivier stage? Oddly, the playwright DC Moore does not even get a mention in their £4 programme. I discovered later that he is a favourite of the theatrical in-crowd, so I suppose they assumed we all knew who their darling was and what he had done. Or were they ashamed of him and had left it too late to withdraw the play? I have not seen his other plays but with this one he has obviously conned the powers that be. His earlier work cannot be worse.


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Mixed Sex Wards

(Since I wrote this hospital (the Kent and Sussex in Tunbridge Wells) has been closed down. However I keep it in tribute to the many nationalities, who before Brexit, kept the NHS afloat)

During the week that the media deplored the continued existence of mixed sex wards I was recovering from an operation in one of them. Fellow women and men in the thirty bed surgical dormitory included victims of assault, accident and disease. Most of us were in too much discomfort or pain to consider whether we were also humiliated by the proximity of the opposite sex. Personally I found the proximity of their all too healthy and voyeuristic visitors the most trying part of the ordeal.
Much that has been written about mixed sex wards is however true. There is no privacy. Even when the nurses draw the curtains to change a catheter, dress a wound or to help an old lady on to the commode, every fart and gurgle and cry of pain is audible. Those patients that are mobile stroll by attached to their bags of bloody urine, or wheel drip sacks like booty from the battle they have just won. The toilets on my ward were also unisex with only a couple of adjacent cubicles, a washbasin and a shower
It is true, too, that all the staff from the nurses to the cleaners and the caterers work under extreme pressure. The only people who have time to chat are the purveyors of sweets and junk food. Why they are tolerated is a mystery. Perhaps their very presence is considered therapeutic, but the sale of confectionery would seem about as healthy as sending each patient a get well card sprinkled with anthrax.
The medical staff hardly have time between the constant and unpredictable demands of patients in distress to carry out the routine chores of monitoring, replenishing drips and saline washes, or seeing to the personal hygiene of their charges. In the mornings when the consultants rush round like princelings each with their coterie of sycophants the ward resembles Piccadilly Circus. Why is it that these doctors alone address the patient in the third person? It is as though they cannot see that just beyond the bed end notes an anxious human being lies craving reassurance.
All this, I suppose, is to be expected in a busy NHS hospital. Revealed for me, however, behind the screen of pain, discomfort and recovery was a richer cultural experience. That first, confused night, I imagined I was in a tropical jungle. All the electronic bleeping and winking I took to be the courtship of nocturnal insects, the red lights the eyes of predators. An irritable old man down the end of the ward kept up an interminable call of “Come on. Come On.” I pictured him as an ugly frog squatting on a rotten log, croaking his refrain. The wool-gathering crone in the bed opposite burbled away to herself all night like the waters of a forest brook. Phones stabbed the night like hunters spears and at one point a radio call was transmitted through the foliage of my conscious, “Trauma. Ten minutes.” This precipitated a stampede in the ward.
Impressions of the exotic were reinforced when I saw that the nurses did indeed come from all corners of the world, but this being Tunbridge Wells, most of the patients were white. It was the reverse of a zoo. We, the common species, were caged while the exotic species much greater in variety came round and looked at us.
Nurses from different cultures interacted in their own ways with the Southern English public. The manner of the warm, no-nonsense British West Indian nurse contrasted with the two young black girls from South African who shuffled up to the patients with foot-dragging shyness, never making eye contact, reluctant to trample on their personal space. They were kind, gentle and quiet but still learning. The almost transparently fair Finn was calm, efficient and reserved, a tiny Japanese who controlled the medicine trolley was meticulous, patient but difficult to understand. When she was trying to say on the telephone, “Hang on a second,” it sounded as though she had gulped something from her own trolley. The unhurried Ghanaian student nurse always had time for a chat, but far and away the most gentle, the most firm and the most confident were nurses from the Far East. I did not identify their countries of origin but their self assurance was contagious.
The only carping I encountered came from a local nurse, but then complaining is in our culture, isn’t it? One particularly loud-mouthed slattern commented that like the foreign nurses, she should have time off to attend English language classes. She had a point. She needed it more than many of them.
Despite all these recruits and agency nurses the hospital was still short staffed and poorly equipped. The one oxygen cylinder for two wards was raced around like a horse drawn pump at the Fire of London. Batteries were always failing in the few machines that did work. The shared commode never cooled off. Urine bottles ran short. “Oh, just use your water jug,” called one exasperated nurse.
But what struck me most as I surfaced to all this chaos was the overriding harmony. All these women, mainly women, from different ethnic and national backgrounds and working together in quite arbitrary teams, co-operated extraordinarily well. They even managed to remain in good humour throughout their shifts. I was there for four days. God knows how they can stick it day after day. Florence Nightingale might well be appalled at the conditions of this 21 century mixed ward, but she would applaud the dedication of the staff.


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Today the UK government commits suicide and sets Europe on the road to disintegration. Here is a memory of some of my European colleagues:

We never really knew what Kuypers did. We all agreed it was not much, but he was a familiar presence. When the ding of the lift announced the rattle of the coffee trolley emerging on to our floor, Kuypers was always at the front of the queue, chatting courteously to anyone who would listen. He was a very nice, elderly Belgian, harmless and perhaps because of that likeable. In our multinational hothouse of intrigue and ambition Kuypers posed no threat.
He received a long service medal on his retirement and gave a farewell lunch in a restaurant to which he invited all of us in the Development Division of the European Commission. It was a pleasant occasion but since we all lunched out so often to fill the void between mid day lunch and the three o’clock reappearance of the coffee trolley, it was not particularly memorable. It was all quite low key and relaxed. There were no speeches.
The Christmas holiday break came soon afterwards and we did not expect to see our colleague again. We probably would not have missed him or thought about him at all. Then to our surprise we found him back in the office in the New Year. He had taken a special contract to work on some unspecified project. Although it was emphasized that this was temporary and short term, he turned up more often and stayed later than in his full time days when he was either on a cure, a mission, leave or had gone to Switzerland to have his pacemaker checked.
On the day his special contract ran out he asked us all home for a meal in his modest third floor apartment off the Avenue Louise. It was done in great style. Those who arrived first drank a sparkling rosé while they waited for everyone else to come up. The shaky old cage lift was capable of hoisting only three people at a time and it occurred to no one to use the stairs. When plump and flighty Nicole stepped in to make up her trio the lift refused to respond. She got upset when Gerhardt joked, if indeed the serious German had meant it as a joke, that Nicole must weigh enough for two. However he immediately made amends by stepping gallantly outside and clicking the folding grill shut behind him. The rackety lift shook and struggled up with Nicole and the petite Madame Malaise who, rummaging in her bag for her homeopathic pills had not even noticed the contretemps.
Nicole had no time to sulk. She had to prepare her face and hair for her entrance to the salon, where upon arrival each guest was invited to draw a ticket from a top hat and keep it safe. The little flat was crammed full of a variety of small tables at which we were urged to take our places. We were waited upon by a butler and a maid in uniform and served with a choice of rich paté with cocktail onions and gherkins. The main dish was cassoulet, this too almost entirely meat and very rich. To refresh our palates a salad followed and we finished with ice cream and champagne. Before the dessert, however, we were given a break to open the parcels which were distributed according to the number on those tickets we had drawn on arrival.
The “presents” were false noses, comic hats, costume jewellery, self adhesive moustaches and beards. A young French colleague nick-named Le Faux-Marginal who had an unkempt beard in keeping with his professed revolutionary tendencies got a little moustache which he stuck to his forehead. Some of our more serious colleagues were very embarrassed, but most embarrassed surprisingly were the office jokers. Suave Lothario refused to wear his beard and moustache, two others could not put on their false noses because the own noses were bigger, Nicole would not try on her pretty paper crown because it might have spoiled her coiffure, but Le Chameau, who always appeared miserable, fixed on his pirate earrings without a second thought and continued to look morose. He needed only a parrot on his shoulder.
I wondered whether Kuypers was laughing at us all but I do not see how he could have manipulated the lottery to this extent. Any embarrassment was soon dissipated by the champagne and we sobered up with strong espresso before making our farewells.
We returned severally and very late to the office having, as I thought, said goodbye to Kuypers and his wife for the last time. But adieu it was not. Back in the gloomy building I bumped into the old man again still stalking the corridor. We were both a little embarrassed. I thanked him again for the lunch. He thanked me for having come. I could think of nothing more to say. Kuypers looked at his watch and by way of apology remarked that his contract still had one hour to run.


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I saw my first head in Yei, a small town in rural Southern Sudan. Leaving a friend’s house I caught a glimpse of the head of an old man. At first I took it to be real though in the shadow I could not make out where his body was. With a second shock of realisation I saw it was a carving or a sculpture. The uncanny liveliness of its expression, the twinkling mocking eyes drew a gasp of astonishment. I took a closer look. The bust was made of terra cotta. I picked up this fragile, heavy masterpiece and felt my eyes prick, my spine tingle with the pleasure of discovery and appreciation.
"Good, isn’t it?" said my friend. "The artist lives in a village near here. He turns out dozens of heads. Studies of different tribes. Sells them for next to nothing. I paid £5 for that."
Clearly few other people in Yei could afford to buy works of art, however cheap. But in Juba, where I was working alongside about sixty other aid workers there must be a market. The idea of setting up an exhibition was forming in my head.
"If ever this fellow comes to Juba," I said," ask him to look me up."
I did not forget the head. I wondered how I could find time to return to Yei and get out to the village. I would buy some heads for myself. There were no shops in the Western sense in Southern Sudan. Even in the markets there were not, as in neighbouring Kenya, stalls selling craft work. Sudan was not a place tourists visited. The Civil War had been smouldering for decades. Shelter and one meal a day were what most people aspired to. Any ornament in their huts beyond a decorated clay water jar and a cooking pot was beyond their dreams. However I did feel I could help the sculptor if I could bring him to the attention of the small expatriate community most of whom could pay ten times the asking price without noticing it and have a worthwhile memento of their stay. But I also felt that these heads should be exhibited for their own sake. They should be seen and admired.
A month later I looked through my kitchen window and saw a thin, shabbily dressed man lingering in the compound. I pretended not to notice, hoping he would go away. I was frequently troubled by people seeking jobs or money. Finally the man came to my door and asked for me by name. Seeing he had something wrapped in a dirty cloth I took him to be a vendor and told him dismissively,
"I don’t want anything today, thank you."
"Wait," he said quietly and undid his bundle out there on the step. I relented, something in his manner and my own natural curiosity getting the better of me. The cloth concealed another head.
You’re the sculptor from Yei," I said. "Why didn’t you say so?"
"I did not know if you would remember."
The head, only the second piece of his work I had seen, was of a Dinka. The circumstances were extremely contrasting- the old Lugbara man I had examined only by lamplight late in the evening. This Dinka head stood among the folds of the soiled cloth in the merciless light of the late morning sun. And yet it was more than a good likeness of a head. It had humour, it had character, it conveyed the confidence of a proud tribe with the gentleness of this particular subject.
"It’s for you," he said.
"Thank you. But I’m not giving you £5 for it. I’m giving you £50"
"It’s a gift."
I could not offend him by refusing such a welcome offering, but I wanted to give him something in return. At that moment what he most wanted was a glass of cold water. We sat on my verandah and discussed his work. His ambition was to study at art school in England. I suggested he was already sufficiently equipped to make a living by selling his work. He maintained the only place he could sell was abroad. I told him about my idea of an exhibition in Juba. It might be a first step to an exhibition elsewhere. It might get him noticed. At the time I did not think he needed to go to art school. Subsequently I discovered that he did have a lot to learn about the technical side of his craft. Being self-taught he fired his heads in the same way the women made their pots. He simply lit a fire round them. This led to uneven coloration which he corrected by blacking the faces or staining the clay with the juice of a sprouting teak leaf. He would have benefitted from contact with other artists, if not from a formal course.
John returned to his village to work on his exhibits and I began making arrangements in Juba. The Regional Ministry of Culture whose policy was to encourage indigenous arts and crafts and to record the cultural heritage, but which had no money to do so, was helpful. They knew of John, liked his work and were prepared to overlook his refugee status. For he was not officially Sudanese. He was a refugee from the war on the other side of the border. In that part of the world the tribes spill across the artificial national frontiers anyway. I was happy with the moral support of the Ministry. Until then I had acted on my own intuition. Later many people who saw the heads for the first time thrilled to them in the same way as I had that night in Yei.
Months passed, the rains came and contact with John was difficult. Eventually the roads became passable again and we got a Landrover through, loaded with heads packed in grass and cotton waste for protection against the jolts; we negotiated all the police checks and unloaded our precious cargo in Juba. None were broken but several were slightly damaged. In Europe, I thought, they could have been cast in bronze. Or at least they could have been fired in a hot kiln. This clay remained so brittle.
John himself was unable to accompany me, but I went ahead with arrangements, hiring and whitewashing the interior of a tukul or straw hut. I had asked John to prepare a CV so that I could produce a catalogue. What he sent me was half way between a letter, a short story and an autobiography.
He told of his childhood in a poor family and of his struggles for an education. When he first got to school he was bullied and left; he tried again but this time his uncle dragged him out to tend the goats forty miles away. After three years of intermittent schooling he became cook for the Verona Fathers and worked as houseboy and cobbler. In the Italianate churches he saw statues or Jesus, Mary and the Saints and was inspired not so much by their religion as by the art form. But he believed then that only white men were capable of such work.
So poorly paid was he by the missionaries that he could not afford secondary school. He moved to the employ of another slightly more generous sect, got to school and made friends with some boys who played the guitar. He obtained a guitar of his own and set his sights on music school in Nairobi. Then his guitar was mysteriously burnt while he was out of the house. His role seemed to be that of the victim- the instinctive bullying by the primary kids, the guitar burning, and later the intimidation by the villagers as he gained success with his modelling. They resented the fact that he was selling "their" clay. But I am jumping ahead.
At the age of 23 he was still trying to get into Junior Secondary School.The priests said he was too old. He was accepted on the plea of his own parish priest. He did well, got to teacher training college and by working in the college garage and as caretaker managed to pay his way to becoming a qualified teacher. During this period, too, he was modelling in clay, perfecting his art. Perhaps it was this spirit of determination and of self reliance which both attracted and set people against him. He struck me as a man who knew his own mind.
His hard won independence in Uganda coincided with the downfall of the brutal Idi Amin and civil war. Along with his fellow tribesmen, wife and six children he fled to the bush and crossed into Sudan in 1979. He worked as a primary teacher and lived at subsistence level, all the time modelling his clay heads. He was accepted by the local community as a teacher, something they understood, but when white men from the nearby development project began visiting him to buy his heads resentment set in and the Sudanese villagers tried to prevent his access to their clay. At the same time he was realising that he must get out into the world if he were to try and make a living from his art. And that is when he got my message.
This I condensed into a CV for the catalogue. We improvised stands from upturned boxes covered with material from the market. When the heads were set upon them we were delighted with the effect in our makeshift gallery.
On the morning of the opening we swept the floor, arranged flowers and pinned a strand of wool across the doorway for the Director-General of the Ministry of Culture to cut. He was due at nine. At 8.55 there were no guests and no officials. At nine some guests arrived but the place seemed unusually quiet. At 9.15 it was uncomfortably hot. I tried to telephone the Ministry as usual without success. Vashti, my colleague and helper was unperturbed. "Our people never come on time," she observed.
We gave the guests cool drinks and sure enough at 9.40 a Toyota pick-up arrived carrying a contingent of ministry officials, photographers and reporters. They joined us for a drink and we trooped into the sun where the DG read a brief, prepared speech and cut the wool. A minor event, but thanks to which there was a full report on radio Juba in English and Arabic. I hope John had heard it. None of my letters had reached him, or if they had, he had failed to reach Juba for the opening.
A few months after the exhibition there was one bizarre event. I was visited by an official from the British Embassy in Khartoum. In itself this was a rare event, but the purpose of the poor fellow’s journey was hard to credit. He had been dispatched to ascertain the truth about rumours circulating in Khartoum concerning a certain Englishman who, it was reported, had been was making a collection of shrunken heads. That Englishman was able to scotch the rumour with a copy of the exhibition catalogue
This beautiful and potentially rich and fertile part of black Africa has now gained its independence but tragically the new leaders have led the country in famine and ruin, genocide and despair.


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