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26th November 2016

I am turning this blog over to Buz Trevor who is meditating on Botswana’s Independence 50 years ago. The film A United Kingdom, released this month, raises issues that will strike home to many people of all groups who lived in pre-Independence Zambia.

Here is the link:

 

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4th August 2016

Professor Elizabeth Colson 1917-2016

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I have been meaning to write about meeting Elizabeth Colson, but I mustn’t put it off any longer – she died on Tuesday evening, sitting quietly on her verandah on Moorings Farm, Monze, bird-watching and I can’t get her out of my mind.

Elizabeth (everyone dropped the “Professor Colson” within minutes) was the last of the great anthropologists.  I first encountered her work when I was a second year undergraduate in 1964, it made an instant impact and when the time came, none of my own students was permitted to remain ignorant of her Gwembe and Plateau Tonga ethnography. Whether we were looking at the trauma of forcible relocation of people in the name of “development” (the Gwembe Tonga and Kariba Dam), how and why matrilineal kinship worked, the politics of stateless societies, why some people are attracted to spirit possession cults, how feuds are resolved, how tellurian (earth) cults work alongside ancestral cults, what joking relations were all about, how cattle keepers spread their risks … the Tonga offered the best examples because Elizabeth Colson’s immaculate fieldwork and limpid style ensured that the dimmest students immediately understood.  Elizabeth may have been a constant presence for me over 53 years, but I met her only last year when, learning that she had returned to Zambia and her beloved Tonga for good (“I hope never to see the inside of another airport”), I wrote to ask if I could come to talk with her for an hour or so. Characteristically, she invited me to come and stay with her for a couple of days, insisting I’d be more comfortable than at Golden Pillow Lodge – and what a couple of days!

Elizabeth had recently fallen and bruised her spine, she was in great pain but that didn’t stop her talking anthropology non-stop. When the pain became too much, I was summoned to her bedside to continue the conversation and, lying flat she talked enthusiastically about anthropology. From the “big names” of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s to the new work being produced by young researchers, she knew everyone and her comments about ethnography, theory and methodology were spliced with gossipy snippets; her reading was up-to-date and her sitting room was littered with new books.  I’d tentatively brought one I’d just had published and she told me she was glad to have it as she’d only been able to borrow a copy – yes, she’d already read it (believe it or not, people sometimes pretend!) and kept asking incisive questions.  Those two days were like the most stimulating seminar I’d ever attended, but she was clearly enjoying herself too because, “You know all the same names as I do,” (My old teacher, Jaap van Velsen, “A brilliant fieldworker, but chronic writer’s block”, Mary Douglas, my terrifying M.Phil supervisor, “Mary had really good ideas, but she didn’t always bother to collect the evidence to go with them”…).

Elizabeth told me that when she was offered a research position at the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute in 1946 there were still post-war problems with international travel and she couldn’t get a passage from the East Coast (she was working at Harvard) in time to take up her appointment in (then) Northern Rhodesia; nothing daunted, she set off to find a passage from San Francisco, rounding the Horn and taking an age over the journey.  “I was met in Cape Town by Max and Clyde” (Gluckman and Mitchell, two of the most important men in the new radical anthropology, Gluckman was stepping down from his post as Director of the R-LI to take the Chair in Anthropology in Manchester, Mitchell was just about to replace him).  The rest is very well documented history, Elizabeth herself was to become the Director of the R-LI within a few years.  This post-war period was the golden age of anthropology in Central Africa but she was well aware of the contradictions that were inherent in the colonial structures that underpinned the research.

Elizabeth was always a hands-on fieldworker, believing implicitly that one couldn’t understand people unless one lived their lives; she must have astonished the European farmers of the Southern Province, living as she did in Tonga villages, but anthropology had accepted pretty early on that women made just as good ethnographers as men. Though it doesn’t often appear in the ethnography, anthropologists often have a friendly place to retreat to occasionally where mail could be picked up and a bath could be had.  Elizabeth was fortunate to be “adopted” by the Savory family who had been farming near Monze since 1917 and Moorings Farm became her base for decades of return visits.  When she decided that retirement in California was getting boring she took up an offer from Tom Savory, had a house built on his farm and continued to monitor change in Tonga society.

It was a lovely house, not conventionally beautiful but built for her own convenience so a comforting place to be. It was simple and environmentally friendly, solar power reflecting her anguish at the suffering caused to Gwembe Tonga people by the Kariba hydro-electric scheme. When I was there last year she was negotiating the installation of a solar water pump (I hadn’t previously known that there were such things).

I’d gone to pay homage to Elizabeth Colson, expecting her to be the husk of the woman she’d once been – I came away feeling younger myself, catching some of her abundant enthusiasm and convinced that 70 is pretty young really.  On the two evenings I was with her a wide range of Monze residents came to visit, bringing snacks and helping to drink up her Scotch (fortunately Marylee Banyard had told me when I asked what was a suitable gift that Famous Grouse never went amiss and Thea Savory suggested bringing exotic cheese). The first first night I’d assumed she’d invited people because I was visiting, not a bit of it, they just dropped in because they were concerned about her back injury but also because it was such fun to sit talking on her verandah as the sun went down, and well beyond.

Elizabeth Colson had a long career doing important work, she continued to fight the cause of displaced people and refugees long after conventional retirement, she had the gift of invoking loyal friendship, she was a great raconteur, irreverent, funny, wonderfully generous … I’m just beginning to scratch the surface.  As I left she called out “Come again next year, we still have lots to talk about”, alas it’s too late. I contacted my former tutor, Axel Sommerfelt, the man who had introduced me to Elizabeth’s work, to tell him I’d met her – he came back with, “Her work will never be obsolete.”  I wish she’d made her century, but I’m glad that she died on her verandah in Zambia’s Southern Province, watching the birds.§
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There’s an academic biography of Elizabeth Colson that was published in 1998 – Elizabeth continued not only to outlive retrospective views of her life’s work but to keep adding to her list of publications, her most recent book being Tonga Religious Life in the 20th Century. (2006) Lusaka. Bookworld (Buy it from Planet Books in Lusaka, rather than Amazon, the royalties go to Malambo Grassroots in Monze).

If you dig around on  the internet, there are many interviews with Elizabeth Colson and recordings of formal lectures  – they give a glimpse of the woman, but only a glimpse:

In an interview conducted in 1984 she refers to the old days when Radcliffe women trying to access joint Harvard courses could be asked to sit outside in the corridor and all had to stand when reading in the library.  The interview starts to look at Elizabeth’s role in Africa about 18 minutes in.  In answer to a question about leaving her field notes for consultation by future generations, she said that, in order to protect people’s privacy, her will required that, “The early notes be not available until the year 2000” – they’ll be there to consult now and I hope someone tackles this enormous task.

In 2006 the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth invited her to give a keynote address on the history of the ASA and the development of Social Anthropology at its annual conference.  This video of the event catches her wry view of the discipline and the arcane rules about admission to this “elite” organisation. At about 25 minutes in she talks about ethnographic fieldwork in the “olden days” but she’s doing this to compare it with present work in the discipline , demonstrating that she was bang up to date – she’s only 89 at the time.

A little more recently there’s an interview with Elizabeth Colson on refugee studies and forced migration, recorded in 2007.  There’s lots of other stuff out there, just search around for it.
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23rd February 2016

Memories and Memoirs

A while back Noel Wright, my old English teacher, sent me the programme for Arms and the Man a school production in 1961. Along with it he sent the review from the Broken Hill Observer – all these years later, a little fist of resentment tightened in my gut.

Arms and the Man.3

Bloody Charlie Stoneman, how dare he? He couldn’t even spell my name right before dismissing me as “diminutive” and “overshadowed”, concluding with a patronising, “but she performed well”. I was Louka, the maid, and maids don’t get a lot of long speeches, they are supposed to be “overshadowed”! I’d chosen the part, not because it was a small one, but because Louka schemes against the out-of-touch aristocracy, delivers some mildly revolutionary lines and quietly seduces her mistress’s fiancé, as well as getting to sing. I’d persuaded Noel it was a suitable choice for that year’s school play, which it wasn’t really as a school play ought to have a much bigger cast. He also liked the idea of doing a play about out-of-touch elites in politically tense times, wondering whether anyone in the audience would get the message. Well, I assumed that was why he agreed – his choice of other productions (see “Found in the Attic”) would bear that out.

As the review said, the Elliott sisters were brilliant. As far as I was concerned we were all brilliant! And Laurie Hall’s set design, which he criticised for the virtually bookless library, was prompted by the script. (The Petkoffs had learned that sophisticated modern aristocrats had a library, but they didn’t know what should be in it. Perhaps Stoneman, the local stationer and book-seller, thought that a bookless library would set a bad example.)

Fifty-five years later, why on earth would these mild insults still have the power to hurt? I assume that Stoneman is long dead, certainly he was long since disgraced. Why would I now care that he described me as “diminutive”, given I am only five foot one and a half, or “overshadowed”, when I had a small part? Why am I still capable of being angry that a middle-aged man thought it amusing to bring his critical skills to a school production?

Over the past few years I have read a great many memoirs written by people who lived in Zambia before Independence, most of these have been published privately and all are valuable to the history of colonial society. Each memoir presents one person’s view of what it was to live in that country at that time, sometimes I’m particularly struck by how little attention men in active roles paid to the concerns of their wives and children when they wrote – “I” being the star of any autobiography. To me memoirs are collectively, rather than individually, fascinating; they present varied subjectivities, so many different “truths” (and lies) reveal a greater truth about a society. They are written “now” about “then” and they depend on memory – old people remembering being young, reduced people revelling in their glory days.

A prominent aspect of many memoirs is the desire to win old lost battles. Rivals who were promoted or got the girl/boy one fancied, unloved teachers, superiors who didn’t recognise one’s talents, can all be written into a memoir, their nefarious deeds avenged as the virtues and suffering of the hero are given their deserved central position. This bias doesn’t devalue memoirs, even if the insistence on always being in the right can be irritating to readers – “bias” is just a word for personal truth. What a society is really like contains the points of view, personal enmities, political and economic ambitions, the competitions, resentments and prejudices of all the people in it – it is an understatement to say that every argument has two sides, every argument is multifaceted.

The review was petulant point-scoring from a man who could indulge himself as the editor of the local newspaper and its virtually sole contributor. Here I am, doing what I criticise memoir writers for, righting old wrongs my own way; what he did as a theatre reviewer was as nothing compared to the right-wing bias of the paper on far more important issues or the power he wielded as a local municipal councillor. As newspaper editor, Charlie Stoneman wrote the record that is stored in the Zambian archives for historians to consult, historians who will be deprived of the “knowledge” of how I dazzled in the subrette role in Arms and the Man in 1961! The tarnishing of my memory is why the review prompted that hard little fist of resentment.

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11th July 2015

Of Begging And Busking

My son is a professional musician and I’ve learned a lot from him about life in the creative industries. He is a song-writer, performer, pundit, radio presenter, band-leader, lecturer, writer, Musicians’ Union official, mentor, label manager, gig organiser, advertising manager … His career is rather different from mine, I’d always assumed after graduating he’d get a job and move up the promotion ladder as I did, but not only does he lay himself on the line at every performance, he has to hustle all the time to make the openings for himself and his team, he creates the demand and then meets it. For him the line between the private and the public self is one that even I find difficult to distinguish at times. (For the record, the name “Louis Barabbas” is not on his birth certificate.)

I was a university lecturer for most of my working life and though there’s an element of creativity in writing decent lectures and teaching is, of course, a performance, there was never the daily risk that artists face. Academics not only have the reassuringly safe career (and pension) that artists are denied, they work in relatively efficient institutions with fairly supportive structures. I’ve been retired for eleven years now and, looking back, I realise that academia affords far better conditions for being creative than artists can expect and that the reliable infrastructure should have made every one of us feel safe enough to fly, but few do.

When you retire I think you are supposed to devote yourself to grandchildren, hobbies or voluntary work, interspersed with some carefully couriered travel. I don’t have any grandchildren or hobbies, never quite managed to get on with “charity ladies” and I hate being herded. What I needed was work but I didn’t have any – for the first time in my life I had to put myself about, or shrivel up with boredom. Though few people who know me now would believe it, I’d always been rather backward in coming forward (as my mother used to say) – suddenly I was telling all my contacts that I was available for temporary work, I was hustling and discovered what huge pleasure came from getting posts at universities in different British cities, then in New Zealand and Singapore as a result.

Then, without the authority of a big institution in the background to lend me credibility, I decided to launch the research project that has culminated in Remnants of Empire; that meant I had to stop being shy about approaching strangers to ask them to write about their lives or see if I could come into their homes to talk to them. To my amazement and joy, I discovered it was easy.

The next step was writing the book. I knew how to do that, it’s a slow slog, but I never doubted I’d get it done, but writing is only half the story when producing a book. My previous books had been commissioned by international academic publishers – I delivered the text to them and they sorted out the production of the physical object; most importantly, they listed the books in their catalogues, made sure the catalogues went to the right people and took samples to conferences and book fairs. I just sat back and hoped the reviews would be kind. This time was different, before I’d even started writing, the publishers I pitched to unanimously told me there was zero interest in Northern Rhodesia/Zambia (not enough blood, I suspect). Even in Zambia Fay Gadsden was dubious that there was a market for a book about the white diaspora; I sat in her office in Lusaka persuading her that if I put up the capital to print the book there would be no financial risk to Gadsden Books – suddenly I’d added entrepreneur to my portfolio of talents.

In March this year 400 copies of Remnants of Empire arrived at my house in 13 boxes and another 100 went to Lusaka. The book needed distributing and I’d never sold anything in my life (apart from trading-in cars and moving house). I’d written the book because I wanted people to read it and, unless I just handed out free copies like an evangelist distributing texts, I knew I had to sell it. I’d been brought up to believe that asking people to buy something from you was a bit shameful (which is daft when I consider how much pleasure I get from buying things), so I found the whole idea very embarrassing and didn’t have a clue where to start.

Back to my son and his lessons for the life of the creative artist – there wasn’t an ivory tower in sight:

“What you need, Mum, is to understand the value of social media!”
“On Facebook?”
“Yes, you need a presence. You also need to get on Twitter. And you need a website.”
“Me? Twittering and blogging???”
“And you need to cultivate your fan base.
“Fan base, what fan base???”

Suddenly I’m reeling in horror – selling a book is quite enough to contemplate, now the boy wants me to sell myself!

He designed this website for me as a birthday present, along with composing and recording the song Broken Hill Hotel. He maintains the site for me (he doesn’t trust me not to mess it up, I suspect), but best of all he showed me that getting the book out into the world is the most immense fun – it’s not just about selling, it is interacting with a whole lot more people. Above all, it’s about finding a new version of myself.

I realise now that my revulsion about asking for money in exchange for my product probably stems from my parents’ fear of the shame attached to destitution, laid down when they were young in the ’30s and unemployed people begged or appealed to charities. My son has taught me that it’s much more like being a busker than a beggar – if people like what you are playing they are happy to pay for it, if they don’t they move on. No charity, no shame involved. (I did get him to move “Buy the Book” from the centre position on the top line – I thought it looked a bit pushy there!)

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10th June 2015

The Next Project

On Saturday I went to a Northern Rhodesia/Zambia reunion lunch at Salisbury Racecourse. It’s strange how you can reunite with someone you’d never met before, but that is what happens when you find yourself in the company of people who know how to pronounce Mporokoso. For good or ill, what is reunited is the colonial community and what is rekindled is youth. It’s like a masked ball where everyday selves are left in the car park and a different normality applies.  For a start, it’s perfectly acceptable to talk to anyone – how unlike England where you need an introduction or a pretty good excuse.

Because I’m now seventy, I’m often condemned to being surrounded by people who are fascinated by their health and the weather; after that their favourite topic of conversation is cruises.  I’ve never been tempted by a cruise, not just because I’m daunted by living in a confined space, but because I hate being “looked after”.  I don’t know whether old Northern Rhodesians go on cruises, but if they do they don’t talk about them at reunions, they don’t talk about their health or the weather either – they talk about Africa.  Africa then, Africa now.  They talk about the time they were stopped on the Congo Pedicle, about being transferred to Mongu… and, crucially, most of the time they are not talking about being any older than 35 or so. When they admit to the passing of the decades, it’s to say they’ve recently been to Zambia and how much they love it or that they wish they could go but are past it – that’s the nearest one gets to talking about getting old. And old we are, if we lived in Northern Rhodesia.  When we talk about our glory days we are remembering – actively and inventively remembering, weaving stories with other people who use the same threads.

This year I especially enjoyed myself because several people told me they’d enjoyed Remnants and others wanted to buy a copy from me.  With the book getting attention, I slipped in my thoughts about the next one – I’m at that point with an imaginary book when I compulsively tell people what it is about.  This is a vital stage, not just because I have more ideas when I’m talking, but also because, on past experience I can guarantee that friends will soon start asking how far I’ve got with it.  Later, they’ll begin to ask me whether it is nearly finished. What they mean is, “Have you actually done anything?”  The answer to that question is usually, “No”, but just as the real question wasn’t articulated, neither is the real answer, so I’ll spin a tissue of near-truth around my project, explaining where I am with it and how I’ll push it forward. There’s no risk involved, as I know they’ll soon glaze over – people really want to talk about themselves, so it doesn’t matter what I say, but I know that fantasising is the best sort of planning and verbalising the first stage of execution.

I’m sneakily enrolling unpaid personal motivators, whose task is to urge me closer to take-off by granting the gift of the fear of humiliation. All my achievements have started with an announcement that I was about to do something that the people around me thought I’d chicken out of (and my being damned if they’d be proved right).

Although I’m always convinced everything is going to be fine, some of my research has involved fieldwork that turned out to be a bit hair-raising (the Ushi men who threatened in the dead of night to burn my hut down because I wouldn’t pay for their beer did make my blood run cold; meeting an internationally notorious terrorist in Delhi was frightening in retrospect; being serially robbed made things difficult when I was trying to study the Chhattisgarh Liberation Front …)  but when it comes to writing, there’s inevitably the fear of not staying the course, not constructing a sensible narrative, simply not being up to it, and that often stops me from starting.  The book coming up is a bit different, I’m having to psych myself up for the research, cultivate the fantasy it’s going to be OK.

So I’m telling everyone, interested or not, about my new project. It grew out of reading accounts of living in Northern Rhodesia that were sent to me for Remnants – memories that made me realise how little of the country I’d experienced first-hand. I didn’t even know the Copperbelt, let alone Abercorn, Kasama, Fort Jameson, Solwezi.  These colonial townships are long gone, so my plan is to write about arriving too late. I’m going to visit as many of the small towns of Zambia as I can, and see what they have become. I want to go to Mbala because everyone who lived in Abercorn raved about it, to Mwinilunga because of Turner’s Schism and Continuity, to Chinsali because of Alice Lenshina, to Luangwa (Feira) because of its terrible  history of Portuguese slaving… I want to think about change from colonial times and what people believe will happen in the future.  I’d like to travel a bit on Tazara and maybe on MV Liemba, then instead of writing something even faintly academic, I want to write a travel book.

It isn’t that I’m planning anything a backpacker would find daunting – it’s just a lot of bus rides to small towns, staying in guesthouses and talking to people along the way.  I want to travel alone, so that I can think quietly about how it would have been if I’d made those journeys long ago, when the places and I were different. It’s not the places that are frightening, it’s the ruin that time has wrought – on me.  Nowadays I take a stick with me when I walk to the Post Office.  I hobble about, and sometimes I wonder whether a month on public transport in Zambia is really something I can manage while waiting for a hip replacement – then I remind myself that it might be totally impossible afterwards.  So it’s now or never.

Publicly failing to make the effort holds more terror for me than the possibility of getting lost, being robbed, suffering loneliness, becoming exhausted or giving a home to another tropical bug, so I’m launching my project right now. As Milton didn’t say, “Shame is the spur”.

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18th May 2015

Friendship

The European population of Northern Rhodesia was very varied, defying any central casting colonial stereotype, but there is one thing that virtually everyone who had lived there told me: it was so easy to make friends there. Regardless of country or profession, the difficulty of forming friendships after moving away crops up again and again and nearly everyone yearns for the lost social warmth as much as they crave the sun’s heat. For some there is an eventual thaw, but for others the chill has lasted half a century.

I’ll never forget the New Year’s Eve party that ushered in 1969, shortly after I started working in Portsmouth. It took place in the home of a married colleague, there were drinks and snacks, but no dancing and, though we sung Auld Lang Syne at midnight, no one kissed anyone else or looked as if they wanted to. I walked back to my flat alone, longing for the days when I danced until dawn and expected to end up at someone’s place for breakfast. I was still only 24 and I wondered whether a few glasses of wine with some dull academics was all I’d ever have by way of a social life in future – mostly it was!

It is the mark of an “old” country that people expect to have made their lifetime’s friends at school, then perhaps top up with a few more at university, work or their children’s school gates. Also family generally takes precedence over friendship. “New” people come along unknown (and perhaps unknowable) and it certainly doesn’t help if these newcomers seem not to know what “everyone” knows but instead hold forth on arcane and exotic matters. Yes, I’m talking about Whenwes.

Why is it that an assumption of friendliness should prevail in some contexts, but not in others? Why, in some places, is it considered “pushy” to talk to people you haven’t been introduced to and to invite people you’ve just met into your home, whilst in others it is polite? Is reserve a mark of respect or a sign of contempt? Is familiarity without deep knowledge impertinent? It all depends on context, and the colonial context was one where there were deep social and political divisions that required the blurring of differences on both sides of the chasm. Friendship (not kinship) was the glue that kept the colonial society together. I wouldn’t want to go too far with this argument, anyone who lived there was aware of the snobbery within the European community but solidarity within one’s community tended to take precedence over hierarchy. People assumed they were friends until they had a reason not to be.

When I was doing the research for Remnants I experienced the openness of the society I grew up in – in fact when I contacted them many people assured me that I could expect typical Northern Rhodesian hospitality. I was not just offered meals, I was frequently invited to stay a night or so with people who had not previously known me. Though I met a lot of very different people, not once did I feel strange or awkward in any of the homes I was invited into and I’d fall into conversation with strangers as if we’d long known each other. I didn’t necessarily like everyone I met and I’d be very surprised if everyone liked me, but there was that “friendliness”, which isn’t necessarily the same thing as “friendship”.

Noel Wright, my old English teacher, wrote to me that although he and his wife had many friends they didn’t find leaving Zambia particularly difficult, because people were always coming and going and one got used to saying goodbye to friends. Perhaps it was because we were a young society made up of people who valued freedom over attachment? Is that a good or a bad thing?

A couple of weeks ago Marion Carlin (neé Moffat) and her husband, Lewis, came to stay with us in Portsmouth for a few days. They’d been on a nostalgic visit to Africa and had returned by sea, taking the Queen Mary 2 from Cape Town to Southampton, before embarking on a long train journey home to Edinburgh. Marion and I had had lunch together a few years ago but, other than that, had not seen each other since the night when I walked for the last time out of Dorm 4, Sherwood House, Jean Rennie (Lusaka) in November 1962. I was not distraught to be saying goodbye to close friends I’d never see again, it didn’t occur to me that that was what was happening – I was just overjoyed to be escaping the school and hoping that my exam results would be good enough to get me into university. Onwards and upwards with the thoughtlessness of the young!

Marion and I are both 70 now – for all our best and most interesting years we have not known each other at all. We didn’t even exchange Christmas cards until we rediscovered each other as a consequence of my research for the book, but it felt that someone very familiar had come to stay with us. We didn’t bother catching up with the past 50 odd years but talked about our recent experiences, particularly their time in Zambia and the cruise home. In a quiet moment I asked Marion, who has not been well recently, whether the exertion of the trip had been worthwhile, “Oh Pam! It’s the only place I really feel at home – I can’t explain why. Are you the same?” We were both blinking back the tears. It may have been “easy come, easy go” but that is the illogic that forms the bond between us.

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26th April 2015

I’ve been conscious that I haven’t written anything to go under this “Blog” tile. Every time I thought about doing it I baulked at the prospect of writing about the way that the book has been received and how I feel about it. A book like Remnants … causes strange things to happen. The three books I’d been responsible for earlier had academic publishers, they’d been reviewed in learned journals, made it onto the course lists of universities globally and had sold well but no one ever wrote directly to me as a consequence of reading them. Readers of Remnants… are quite different, they write to me about their lives, their families and their friends. They tell me about the people they are going to refer the book to, but most of all complete strangers write to me as if we’d known each other when we were young. Obviously, I really enjoy this and it makes me feel that the book was worth the time (and expense) that had gone into it.

But it isn’t all pure unalloyed pleasure, some of the feed-back I get is rather weird. I hadn’t realised that quite so many people think that their own experience is the only authentic one; so some people have complained that there is too much about the Copperbelt and miners whilst others that there is too much about the Provincial Administration (if I were to take both of those away the book would be rather thin). I can only assume that “Too much” means “Too much to interest me” or “Not enough about people exactly like me” – I’d realised that writers could be egocentric, but it hadn’t occurred to me that readers were too. I assumed everyone would be interested in people who were not like themselves but who had been part of the same society – but there we are, that’s just an example of my thinking that everyone is like me!

One man wrote a very lengthy (and public) Facebook review containing these lines:

Being a cynical sort of sod I was a bit suspicious of this strange lady who suddenly popped up wanting to write about the lives of ex Northern Rhodesians. The reference to the University of Singapore didn’t help because it is my experience that a large percentage of educated people are educated idiots. Then I found you attended the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in Salisbury SR. This was known locally as the “Kremlin on the Hill” because of its left wing lecturers. I therefore did not send you much about my story and now seeing what a fine book you have produced I regret it. You have also impressed me with the way that you have written this book that you are not just another liberal educated nincompoop but a brainy erudite person.”

Was I supposed to feel flattered? I’d written a book he liked even though I was a university lecturer, even though my first degree was from a university he didn’t approve of, even though intellectuals are idiots? Was it churlish of me not to be delighted by praise from someone who is opposed to everything I am?

At the risk of revealing that I have read the poststructuralists (sure proof that I am “an educated nincompoop”) I know that once a book has gone to print, that’s it – it belongs from then on to its readers, not to its author. It’s like waving your children off to college – your main work is done and you’ve relinquished control. People will read whatever way they like and you can’t do a thing about it. (But it was irresistible to reply to the man who wrote complaining I should have mentioned Guy Scott and Simon Zukas as European people who stayed in Zambia that both names were on page one!)

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3rd March 2015

MY OLD MAN’S A DC

This song, to the tune of My Old Man’s a Dustman, was popular among the PA in the run up to Independence. Eventually I traced the man who wrote the lyrics, Gavin Barr who was District Commissioner Mbala. He tells me it was first sung in Broken Hill Rural.

Oh, my old man’s a DC, he wears an OBE.
He works down at the boma and he lives in a AK3.
He tours around his district with carriers at his back,
And a cook and clerks and messengers, and a great big Union Jack.

He’s a very important person, one of the elite.
He graces every function and sits in a front row seat.
To live in a state of greatness affords him lots of joy.
But when he unbends, he condescends to speak to the hoi polloi.

He came here straight from Oxbridge, thought he was here to stay,
But there’s no doubt he’ll be thrown out on Independence Day.
He hasn’t saved a penny since he was a Cadet,
And what sort of employment can a surplus DC get?

So if you are in London, and you should chance to meet,
A ladies’ undies salesman who stops you on the street,
Remember please the story of the good Sam-a-ri-tan.
Don’t kick him in the gutter, he might – be – my – old – man!

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