QUOTE : ‘I would know my shadow and my light; so shall I at last be whole’.. from Michael Tippett’s oratorio:’A Child of Our Time‘.
PROJECT : ‘Trust Your Voice’
Written and posted into an envelope to self: I want to accept my Christmas present to myself, and bring about a publishable version of ‘Morning of My Life‘ a Memoir.Before I lose heart, and become daunted by all the other good writers on Project 2017, I’m declaring that I want to complete the long-gestating memoir about my early life growing up on a farm in the Transvaal, South Africa. I am only ‘one more voice out there’, but I’ve given myself permission to trust that voice. I hope to be guided as I strive to find the best format.
JOURNEYS WHICH WERE ODYSSEYS
A staging post in my journey towards compiling a Memoir of my growing – up years was reached on 28 th July when I was able to present another pamphlet to the Bath Writers & Artists group. Sue Boyle had kindly offered the opportunity to do so, with the request that the chosen readings reflected the overall theme of the day, which revolved around ‘journeying’, inspired by Homer’s Odyssey and other works.
It seemed entirely appropriate to have a launch reading on such a day. The cover title ‘A Light in the Distance’ itself arose from a story about a traveller told to me by my father. My life has been characterized by journeying of one kind or another. Very early on I had to learn to leave the farmhouse home on a weekly basis in order to attend school in town, boarding with strangers. This was a ritual conducted several times a year, in order to attend a boarding school forty miles from home. The rhythm of anticipation, packing up, travelling and returning to the welcome of home became a pattern.
As young adult I attended a Teachers’ Training College in Pietermaritzburg, revelling in the learning. And then I was allocated to a teaching post, nearer to the sea, closer to the harbour in Durban from where I eventually sailed up the East Coast of Africa in a big white Italian liner.
The lure of overseas travel had become an urge. I went from the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern. I had already migrated between cultures, a gradual shift from being Afrikaans-speaking to becoming educated in English. My first destination in Europe was Greece, travelling for two weeks on a passenger liner, docking initially at Brindisi, but crossing the Ionian Sea on the same day by ferry. The vivid impressions gained during my first bus journey from the small port of Patras to Athens are still potent. It was a revelation and a celebration, which set me on course for many journeys, notably the Hippie Trail from Europe to India and Kathmandu in the late Sixties.
I could not settle when I returned to South Africa. Having arrived in Durban again, I went to work in Cape Town and then did a stint of teaching at a high school in the Kalahari. My flight back to Europe in the days of charter flights was in a zebra-striped plane with a firm called Trek Airways!
The early years of my marriage resulted in several postings abroad with my economist husband. I was able to live in three independent African countries different from South Africa, ie. Kenya, Angola and Malawi. During my child-rearing years in Hertfordshire I dreamed of further travelling, the footloose nature of backpacking, and discovering the kindness of strangers. This was eventually realised when I had turned sixty! I was interested in the salutary effect a stranger has on those who are visited. That, too, can be explored in later writings.
On Saturday 28 th July I chose two poems for my presentation, one which was about a school trip when I was very young, to visit a Monument to commemorate the Voortrekkers who made such arduous journeys by ox-wagon over many months to reach the Highveld where I was born. In the early Fifties my parents and I crossed the mountains they had traversed, but travelling easily by car through a pass. My father had bought a farm in the foothills of the Drakensberg in the province of Natal ( also a more predominantly English-speaking province). We renamed the farm Panorama for its wonderful views.
My second poem was called Ancestor. My paternal grandmother was a forbear descended from the Dutch Protestants who had gone to the Cape of Good Hope in the seventeenth century. She ended up being a wanderer in her old age after her husband’s death, being shuttled between relatives. Her piteous claim that I heard as an uncomprehending child was that she had nowhere to lay her head, unlike the vultures in the sky who had nests.
My autobiographical writing continues. I hope to write more than the trilogy eventually. I’ve become interested in the maternal ancestors who migrated from Britain in tall ships, enduring weeks at sea in order to claim farm land in the Eastern Cape province. They are known now as the 1820 Settlers. For them the arrival on that Algoa Coast wasn’t journey’s end, but that is another story!
It’s now 18 months since my declared intention to ‘Complete my Memoir!’ The disciplines I entered into are more or less established. For a time during this last winter I was doing yoga on waking, and then going straight to the writing. This was during a stage when I was excited by the emergence of more and more fragments of memory wanting me to express them as poems. At some point the need to write prose changed into re-working earlier pieces as poetry.
The chronology of what I remember has hardly moved on, as I find that those first twelve years are the vital ones. More and more has emerged, and I don’t want to move on too fast and neglect the strongest part of my stimulus. I’ve done more research, ranging from the exact period when Dior designed the New Look to what the Flour Mills were called where our maize was milled. I have checked with relatives to ascertain events or names and whether I could mention them. I finally found out exactly how to spell the African name given me by the Sotho people on our farm. In the end I’m not using it, but thanks to my cousin for her persistence in tracking it down. (It apparently means ‘the one who can run fast and ride a bike’ ) but I’ve decided not to use it in my second pamphlet, as I’ve misspelled it in the first! And I’ve changed the spelling of Selina. In the interests of accuracy I’ve been circumspect.
So this has partly been the learning curve, that I’ve satisfied all sorts of personal queries, and paid attention to detail. But I’ve had to learn that I need to consider the reader because back stories cause confusion. I produced a pamphlet last October 2017 that I titled Morning of My Life, but it is only a Work in Progress. It contains some short prose passages as well as poems. I have decided to eschew this practice in my second pamphlet, due out this summer, but perhaps by the third in the planned trilogy I shall return to some of the pieces being prose poems.
Form in all its ramifications now dominates. Editing has substituted for fresh writing. I’ve really had to accept that less is more, and try to reveal the essence of what I want to say. I’ve had to learn not to be didactic. I don’t need to teach my audience anything. I need to be truthful, and need not shirk putting myself there and saying ‘I’. Sometimes I want to honour people, but in the course of that I’ve tried to be diplomatic, and in doing so a true poem doesn’t emerge. The ones from the heart that flowed out effortlessly seem to work best. One can’t write to order. The second pamphlet will have more short episodes and mood pieces. The lens I use, like those that fascinated me in a telescope, can be used to see up close, but it can also be reversed.
February 26th, 2017
So much stimulus and the sense of support and encouragement after a Meet-Up. Thanks to Sue Boyle for her leadership. And thanks to you all for helping me to Trust My Voice.
One of the most thought-provoking comments of many interesting ones on my submitted poem and prose piece is that it seemed pre-lapsarian ( I had to look it up! ) Yes, maybe for me this backwards glance is that it all appears to be of another time, but into which I have a privileged view because of my memories.
What I found as I got deeper into the memory zone was that I’ve been trying harder to imagine my grandparents’ lives, without the assistance of researchers! I want to pursue that more but I realise now that it would be false to try and incorporate that into my work as I’m conveying the child’s view and experiences. It helps to inform myself but I need to stick to the brief. I didn’t know or care about the Anglo Boer War in the way I do now.
However, one bit of useful research, thanks to the internet, has been finding out about the Illustrated London News. Images of the covers and seeing how much general information it disseminated has told me how worldwide its reach was. I now see that those journals were a further source of literary encounter for me. And I found them first in my maternal grandfather’s home, and later elsewhere.
Further stimuli: Albums compiled on different themes from cigarette cards! In particular I recall that is where I first saw the work of Italian Masters.
The impact of family photograph albums when visual stimuli were few, with no screens around. Occasional trips to the cinema with Pathe News featuring world events before we enjoyed adventure films like Tarzan or a lowbrow comedy.
And does anyone know about Viewmasters?
13th February 2107
I think it is progress when it’s possible to edit a piece many days later and feel that only minor changes are necessary. Enjoying finding where rhythm can be improved or an alternative word found, but the essence of the first version intact. I am glad that I’ve confined myself to a particular era, that is my first ten years of life, as that seems to be what truly interests me. It has to work for me! I am more aware now of possible negative reactions that might arise from mentioning certain things that aren’t PC. But I can’t let it prevent me from talking openly and honestly, for example that animals were killed and that there were guns around, safely stowed , usually!
I think that one should obey the instinct to write as much as seems necessary to explore areas that want to be remembered or examined in greater detail. Perhaps that way the better quality of a more compressed piece will emerge. Also, one must not shirk writing about difficult areas , say relationships. It is helpful in the long run, and it doesn’t all have to be used. Years ago I was given this phrase: ‘The act of writing generates more writing.’ I have found that to be true.
I am on such a roll. Whether it’s to good effect in a literary sense, I’m not sure, except that it’s good for me! I almost don’t want the indoorish weather to stop so I know I can carry on. So far I have written about twenty two poems and counting [which refuse to be anything but poems] and about 6 prose poems , all longer than you recommend. They want to go to about 400 words.
and from a blog admirer….
I have indeed been looking at the Writers’ Project blog – full of fascinating projects. Among many poetic pleasures, please do pass on my enjoyment of Verona’s prose memoir. I thought it a terrific beginning, beautifully and simply written – a challenge, given the complexities of the political and social situation to write so honestly and freshly of the child’s first vision and feelings …
I’ve written almost every day since Christmas. The waking moments are the ones I use to focus on the scenes of my very early childhood that are there to be tapped into. It’s visual and probably emotional too. Because I’ve written the full account before, it’s about finding a new way to come to it. Usually I sit up in bed as the sun is breaking and use this lovely liminal phase to continue writing in longhand with pencil and rubber. Only later do I go to the computer.
What surprises me sometimes is that I think I’m going to one area and find something else pressing for attention instead. As yet I can allow that as I think it’s this instinctive writing that I must trust. This time it is the adult speaking. I had a useful thought given me by a perceptive friend, that ‘it is the child who is standing behind me’. What I’m writing tries to be true to what the child saw and heard, but education, and the sophistication I yearned for, now dominate my expression. At the same time I need to keep it simple. I find that I am able, after all, to try and describe something of the lives of the African people we knew, and maybe I shirked that before. Perhaps it helped that I said I didn’t feel I could do it. I knew so little, really, and I ask myself why. But that isn’t the point of this memoir. It is about the morning of MY LIFE.
FROM THE FIRST MEETUP DAY
My Statement about the Memoir, Morning of My Life.
I’ve often questioned my need for this Memoir to be written. I can neither deny nor justify my place in this particular period of recorded history. I can not duck out of my part in it. This is a sideways look at the blip in time when I grew up in privileged circumstances. It’s a plain speaking account of how things appeared to me. All that I can say is that this was the morning of my life, that when I became aware of my place in the world, I was able to watch the flow of the River Vaal, and to learn to swim in it.
My senses came to full alertness on a sharp sunlit morning when my universe was filled with the calling of doves in the willow trees. Of all the memories that I can vividly recall, this is the most plangent. That continuous liquid warble was the background to my days growing up in South Africa.
We sometimes called across to the trees on the opposite bank to hear the echo returning our names. This is what defined me. This was my time and place.
BACKGROUND TO MY PROJECT
My early life was spent on a rented farm on the banks of the Vaal river, South Africa, and I was born during the WW2 years. My father grew maize, and we had many animals too. There were oxen drawing the plough and the threshing of the crop was done by itinerant men with machines. We had the help of black labourers who lived in huts nearby. My two sisters and I had young black females as nursemaids to help my mother, a busy housewife, seamstress, and someone who also had her own parents, also farmers, and my father’s aged mother to care for from time to time.
My first school was in a one-roomed building with a corrugated iron roof and a single male teacher. He was assisted by his wife who taught the infants in the mornings. Some children came from very poor backgrounds, arriving in donkey carts. There were twenty five of us. In my home we had a family Bible and the Farmer’s Weekly as reading matter. I don’t recall other books, so the school library shelf was important to me.
I have vivid memories of the sounds of the farm, the activities I observed, the tactile sensations. I was unaware of the Apartheid political situation until much later. As children we went along with the world we were born into.
An alternative description of background…
I’ve been inhibited up to now to express my memories of growing up on a South African farm, partly because I’ve felt I need to give an account of the very particular historic context. My early life kept pace with the imposition of apartheid. I knew little of the world of government, apart from being on the fringes of discussions and certain words and names being repeated. We grew up in a time when the social lives of white and black did not overlap. A child observes and accepts. That black and brown people were poor and that we had servants was part of the fabric of my existence.
What I experienced in the Forties and early Fifties were the tactile sensations and the varied sounds of my life on the banks of the Vaal river – a myriad doves calling, guinea fowl stuttering, the rattle of a threshing machine, the burble of Sotho voices, men chanting in unison to lift things, cattle lowing, sheep bleating, frogs, cicadas, the crack of a whip over a dozen oxen inspanned to a wagon, an African maid teaching me to sing N’kosi Sikelele, my father’s concertina.
I watched and walked barefooted, and thrived at school, a one-man, one-roomed affair, (only twenty five pupils all taught together.) I don’t recall reading matter at home being anything other than the Farmer’s Weekly and the Family Bible.